Monday, January 31, 2005


I took up boxing in the middle of December. I think it was because Mars was crossing my Neptune, the planet of illusion and dreams. It had to be that, or something like that, because otherwise it made no sense. I am not at all--and never have been--a fan of boxing, karate, Tae Kwon Do, wrestling, fencing, jousting, polo—basically anything that involves two or more people at odds with each other. I like situations where one person is wrestling with inner demons. Or where big groups of people are having a really great time, saving the earth or playing in a rock band. (OK, I like tennis, or I did when I was a kid.) But fighting has always repulsed me. Boxing in particular. I never saw the Rocky movies, never watched Raging Bull, even though it won the Oscar in 1980. So for me to be studying boxing is the height of incongruousness. My family was utterly amused, confused and bemused. Mostly amused. So I have to believe I was getting caught up in the romance of the moment; and perhaps, the romance of the Warrior Planet coming face to face with the God of Dreams.

It happened when I was watching When We Were Kings, that wonderful documentary which won the Oscar in 1998, about Muhammad Ali fighting George Foreman in Zaire in October, 1974, in the shadow of Watergate and the last gasps of the Vietnam War. He had come back from a four year hiatus during which he had been banned from boxing for refusing to go fight in the war, and he was hungry to regain the title. But he was also thirty-two and past his prime. He’d lost to Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. He was looking to regain his title as heavyweight champion of the world.

Having just handed The Big Idea in to my agent, I had started writing a new novel; a book called Effelia about a 12 year old girl named Sage who had recently had a growth spurt and gone from being the littlest kid in her class to the tallest. Even so, she still got picked on and lived in fear of being beaten up by Sandy and the Boys. It occurred to me that Sage must have watched When We Were Kings and developed an instant fascination with Muhammad Ali: a crush akin to my little sister, Abigail’s high school crush on Malcolm X (along with Bruce Springsteen, Abigail’s walls were covered with posters of the handsome civil rights leader.)

I took my job as writer a step further: just as Mars and Neptune were doing their neat tango in the sky, I reached for my best friend, the Internet, and Googled “boxing Northampton MA.” Up came the name of a coach who taught 2.1 miles from me. His specialty was teaching women.

“Hi,” I wrote breathlessly in my email, if emails can be breathless. “I am a thirty seven year old woman, and I just watched When We Were Kings and I fell in love with Muhammad Ali! I am writing a book about a 12 year old who wants to be a boxer. I want to learn to box! Will you teach me?”

The next morning I met with him and had my first boxing lesson. He offered me a deal: 10 lessons for $250-$50 off the original package.

Things went well, that first day. Tom said he was fine with me boxing as long as no one wrecked my face. I liked the adrenal rush I got from punching. I am notoriously weak in the upper body, though my legs are strong, and it felt good to think about working on that neglected part of me. And I was thinking, in the back of my head, as I was putting together the syllabus for Journal For Peace, that this might somehow apply. How, I wasn’t sure.

I had to go on vacation for the next two weeks, I explained to my coach, whom I will hitherto refer to as “Coach, ” as that is what he liked to call himself. He was fine with that. He wanted me to come in three times a week, but I said I couldn’t do that with my schedule. I wanted to come in once a week, and we compromised at two, although there were a few weeks when I couldn’t even manage that.

At the fourth lesson, Coach taught me street fighting, which is bare fisted, and basically a lesson in how to kill someone who tries to mess with you in a dark alley. I left that lesson physically ill--with a migraine and on the verge of throwing up. I had to wash all the clothes I was wearing to get the smell of the studio out of my olfactory memory.

I liked Coach a lot. He was strong, articulate, full of dignity and respect for boxing. He had a picture of an African woman on the wall with this quotation: “Mutual respect is the basis of any community. If there is no mutual respect among people who are living together, they will not last long as a community. As the proverb says, to live together is to have a common fate.” I pumped him with questions about boxing, Muhammad Ali, and anything else I could think of. I'm a curious sort.

I loved wrapping and taping my hands. I loved the idea of jumping rope, even though I did not like the actuality of it. I loved punching. I loved the torque. I could feel myself "get it."

But there were some not so great thing about Coach. He interrupted lessons to answer the phone, and on one occasion actually did some suspicious looking business with a fellow in the back room of the studio, leaving me on the mat. He wore sandals, as if it were not worth his time to put on athletic shoes to spar with me. He would time me skipping rope or punching Sam the Dummy while he checked his e-mail. I continued to ask him a lot of questions, and I think he found that tedious rather than chariming or endearing, which had been my hope. I pointed at all the black and white photos he had on the walls:
“Who’s that?” I’d say.
“Jack Johnson?” he’d reply in disbelief. “You don’t know who Jack Johnson is?”
And he rolled his eyes at me, which I wasn't too crazy about. Did he get that I wasn’t a nineteen year old boy who wanted to learn to fight? Did he get that I didn’t know anything about sports? He treated me with derision and frustration. Mostly, I didn’t care. I had a mission, and as a writer, everything—including the way he was treating me—was grist for the mill. I would use it as information about Sage and her world.

But after the infamous street fighting class began the drumbeat of Sign Up For More Classes. He offered me a new deal: 20 classes for $300, but only if I signed up RIGHT NOW! He said, “I usually wait till after the street fighting class to see if a student has what it takes to be a fighter before offering them more classes. You have what it takes.”

I knew this was a line, but again, I didn’t care about that. However, with all this time devoted to boxing, I wasn’t able to actually write my story. So I said I would make up my mind later and pay full price if I needed to. I said I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a fighter. This made him angry. He told me my book would be nonsense if I didn’t really learn to fight. I let all this roll off me, knowing in the peaceful part of me, that he was just trying to make a living like anyone. I saw it as a game he was playing, and I could let it go. I didn’t need to play that particular game with him. He struck me, over time, as a bitter man in his late fifties who had a small fiefdom for which he had staked his life, and he was willing to fight for the death to protect the honor and hegemony of his fiefdom.

It became increasingly harder for my enthusiastic Do Anything For Your Characters writer part of me to demand my adolescent Really I’d Rather Stay Home And Play My iPod side of me to be dragged the 2.1 miles away two mornings a week. Last Friday, I e-mailed Coach and explained that I had a show in Boston that night and felt I needed to conserve energy and not box.

“That’s fine,” he wrote in an email. “But Nerissa. I must caution you that if you do not sign up for further lessons, your book is just going to be the same kind of boxing trash like Million Dollar Baby and Rocky that’s out there. You will not be able to do justice to the sport if you don’t sign up for more classes.”

For some reason, that was the last straw. He had attacked my Peacemaking (or Peace-maintaining) Achilles heel: my artistic vision. NO ONE messes with my artist vision.

Dear Coach, I wrote. “My book is not about the sport of boxing. It’s about a 12 year old girl on a spiritual journey of sorts. I am not going to represent it as a book on boxing.”

I went on to enumerate the ways in which I am too busy to study boxing three times a week. “I am not a fighter,” I wrote. “I needed to work with you to learn that for sure, but I am clear on that now. I have no interest in hitting someone or getting hit. “ As for future classes, I declined the offer but said I wanted to leave the door open in case the spirit or muse called me to continue.

Coach responded by saying I was insulting him by saying boxing was about hitting and not getting hit. “But I have already given you too much of my wisdom,” he wrote. “You should have been done with your ten classes weeks ago. I will honor your last two classes next week, but I will not divulge any more information about boxing. I will perform my duties as coach, only.”

He told me he felt used. He told me there was a game Liberals in the Valley played, and he was not about to play it. “A Liberal, as Robert Frost said, is someone who won’t even take his own side in a fight.”

At this point, I wrote him and told him I would not come in for the last two classes I’d paid for, because I felt uncomfortable about the “disagreeable” feelings between us. I thanked him for his coaching and I apologized for “using” him and said I didn’t like it that he had pidgeonholed me as a liberal. I have not heard back from him. I got a new boxing coach/source that day and will start with him next week.

I recognized as I was writing back and forth with Coach that I might not be modeling good mediatory or peacemaking behaviors. I thought, “If I were really a warrior for peace, I would stay and work things out with Coach.” But I was angry and tired and wanted out.

But I felt really rotten about it all weekend. I felt like a quitter, for one thing, and I hate feeling like a quitter. (I love to quit; hate the aftereffects.) I felt sad that someone in the world might not love me anymore. Also, I felt angry and self-righteous. So I decided to do an exercise I know called Boomerang.

Here’s how a boomerang works. When you are in a conflicted relationship with someone, take it the analogy of the Buddhist Hindrances for both parties. The Buddhists say all human suffering can be attributed to one of three main conditions (from which all illness/evil springs). They are:
-Wanting (includes craving, selfishness, desires of all kinds, greed, miserliness)
-Aversion (includes hatred, prejudice, fear)
-Delusion (includes ignorance, sloth, torpor, dishonesty)

The work of the boomerang is to first see where you acted in these ways. When you have written down your part, then move on to see (with compassion!) where the other person acted through these illnesses. The end result should be greater understanding, even more compassion and forgiveness. A recognition of how difficult it is to be a human being.

Looking back on my interactions with Coach, I was greedy: I did want to use Coach for my own purposes. True, I felt I’d paid him what he’d asked for, but that’s not the point. I wanted to use him to write my own story. I was fearful of getting hit and didn’t really want to move on to that part of boxing, which was one of the reasons I didn’t want to continue. I didn’t need to enumerate the ways in which I am a busy person. That’s insulting (aversion). I also attempted to appear dominant when I said, “If and when the muse strikes, I will pay you and be back.” That is, I was making it clear that this is an economic relationship and I was assuming that as the purchaser, I had the upper hand. This isn’t actually true: he doesn’t have to take me on as a client. Just because I’m paying doesn’t mean I have the power. And we were in a kind of power struggle. Finally, I am certainly ignorant about Coach as a person, about his background, about the moccasins he’s been walking in for fifty odd years. I am certainly ignorant about what it takes to be an athlete. And I was pretty slothful about practicing: as in: I never did.

He was greedy in that he wanted me to write the story of boxing that he wants the world to hear and know. Also, he wanted money (which I can understand.) He was prejudiced against me because I am what he sees as a “Valley Liberal”. He learned prejudice first hand, so I can understand that. He is ignorant about me and my experience, just as I am ignorant about him and his.

Looking back on our correspondence, I am struck by the way we were “boxing” with each other on the page. I guess there’s a fighter in me after all. Perhaps that is a part of what I was running away from.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Can A Would Be Bodhitsattva Justify A Cell Phone?

I officially hate cell phones. Not my cell phone. Your cell phone. My cell phone, I love and adore. And I spend way too much money on it. I have one of those unlimited plans where I can talk for two hundred and fifty thousand minutes per month, anywhere in the solar system and be charged a reasonable flat fee of a hundred and fifty dollars. My cell phone is also a camera, a word processor, a modem, a complete address book, a video game aficionado, an mp3 Player and most amusingly (I’m not kidding) a meditation timer, complete with yin yang symbol. I think it does the dishes too, but having destroyed one cell phone by accidentally flushing it down the toilet, I haven’t checked that last feature out yet. I have a charger to keep it juiced up on the road, and on several occasions I have refused to rent a car because the cigarette lighter AKA the input for my phone charger was non functional.

To keep from being arrested in New York, I have a hands free headset —many, actually since they break every month, and I factor that into the yearly costs. I assure my mother, who doesn’t like the combination of cell phones and automobiles on principle, that I always have a least one at a time that works. I have a little belt pack for my cell phone so I can go jogging and not have to have a pocket to put the phone in. God forbid I actually HOLD the phone. I go everywhere with the cell phone attached to my waistband and the hands free headset implanted in my ear. People think I’ve escaped from a mental institution because I will be walking through the park or down the streets of Northampton, the cell phone hidden beneath my coat, the headset hidden beneath my hat, chatting away to no one. Probably too loudly, since people who talk on cell phones always talk too loudly. And I really may be talking to no one. If no one answers, I leave long messages on the person’s voice mail. (Sometimes I listen to my own voice mail, but on those occasions I am not talking, just listening.)

Did I mention my cell phone is occasionally a novel? Or a self help book. I can download novels or any books and read them on the tiny screen, scrolling with my thumbs. I can also download audio books and be read to, which I vastly prefer. Right now I am listening to Anna Karenina. It’s a good book, but sometimes I get confused about what’s going on because I forget to reset the feature on the mp3 player from Shuffle (which works nicely when you’re listening to a mix of your favorite songs, but not so nicely when you’re dealing with two hundred and forty different chapters.)

One day right before Christmas, I went to Whole Foods to listen to Anna Karenina and do some last minute holiday shopping. I wore my coat and hat and tied my scarf over my face and hoped no one would recognize me so I could enjoy my bubble-like nineteenth century Russian escape in peace. Even though I love having a cell phone so I can stay in touch with all my friends, I don’t always like to actually see them. I prefer to keep them all safely within my address book. I am very committed to my address book. I have the name, birthday, address and at least three phone numbers for seven hundred of my nearest and dearest. But at Whole Foods two days before Christmas, I had to keep pressing pause on my cell phone—no small feat since the tiny pause button doubles as the 6 key and is hidden not only under my coat and attached to my waistband but also underneath the sheath of belt pack. I ran into three different people I knew, all of whom thought I was either rude or deaf for not hearing them when they said my name loudly.

“People shouldn’t say hi to you,” said my friend Annie, way too kindly. “They should know if they see you wearing enough layers in Whole Foods to keep you from freezing in the next ice age that maybe you don’t like to be bothered.”

But the thing is, I do like to be bothered. I must. Why else would I have the cell phone attached at the hip?

As I said before, what I don’t like is other people’s cell phones. Like, for instance, my fiance Tom’s cell phone. Now that I’m home more than I am on the road, the pleasures of having his virtual presence just a couple of buttons away wanes with the ugly reality that all of his other friends now have that same facility, while I, the woman in the kitchen with him, am rendered obsolete by my very presence. So when I came into the house with bags of groceries from Whole Foods to find him talking on the phone to some horrible person who was making him laugh and murmur sympathetic sounds, I put the groceries away as noisily and resentfully as I could and stood in the kitchen with my hands on my hips. When he didn’t respond, continuing his dreadful conversation, I whipped out my cell phone.
“Hold on a sec,” he said to the hateful person he was conversing with and pressed a button. “Hello?”
“Hi,” I said. “Um, I just wanted you to know, they were out of the kind of yogurt you like.”

I am watching a movie called Siddhartha, based on the Hermann Hesse book. In it, young Siddhartha has journeyed a long way by foot and stops to sleep in a convenient hut that has appeared next to a river. In the morning, a kind ferryman comes to wake him and says, “You have been asleep a long time. Here is a drink of water.” Sid drinks the water, and the ferryman proceeds to take him across the river.
“I have no home,” says Sid. “I cannot pay you.”
“Ehn,” says the Ferryman. “Don’t worry. I’ll catch you later. Pay me when you can.” Or something to that effect.

That’s when I stopped watching the film, because I had a group of writers come to my house at that point and I had to heat up the plum/cherry pie. But I kept thinking about how different life was then. First of all, that you could wander around (without a cell phone) and just kind of fall asleep in a strange place and not fear for your life. Second, that you could generally count on people to be friendly. Third, that people would share their water, which was often hard to come by. Fourth, (and now we’re deviating quite a distance from the film) that if you lived somewhere other than India where it was cold, just how much of your time you would have to spend keeping warm through the winter. You’d have to constantly chop wood to keep the fire burning to stay warm all day and all of the night (to quote the Kinks). Chop wood carry water. Walk long distances to connect with others, and because of this, people would be happy to see you when you showed up at their house instead of bothered; happy because they were lonely and you provided an interruption to their loneliness. So when you said, “I can’t pay you for your favors,” people said, “well, that’s ok. You’ve given me a purpose to the day, and I know it’ll all work itself out eventually. You’ve done me a favor just by showing up.”

Cell phones aim to minimize the distance. If I’m thinking of you, and I have my cell phone attached to my waistband (as I always do), I can call you right away and let you know that I love you. But does that mean that I do? No. Because first of all, maybe you’re like me and sometimes don’t want to be bothered. Or maybe I’m like me and sometimes want to live in my mp3 world where I control the shuffle of Anna Karenina and my fifteen hundred favorite songs.

When I’m driving in the car with Katryna, and she’s on the phone with her husband, Dave, and I’m on my phone with Tom, Katryna and I are continents apart. When one of us is on the phone and the other one isn’t, the other one gets testy (ok, Katryna doesn’t so much, but I do.) As a childless person, I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve called a friend who has a baby, and while we’re talking, the baby won’t stop crying. The friend inevitably says, “I don’t know why the baby is crying like this! He never cries like this!”
I know why. That baby is smart. That baby knows perfectly well that his mother’s attention is diverted to that strange contraption wedged between her head and her shoulder. He knows she’s miles away.

I am definitely not calling for a ban on cell phones. After all I’ve invested in my own? And I have had countless precious conversations on that phone—conversations that would not have occurred otherwise. Moreover, back in the Dark Ages of 1987, when cell phones weighed as much as two phone books, I was rescued from a horrible car accident on the Connecticut Turnpike by a swanky business woman who was riding the wave of the future. But the conundrum reminds me of a New Yorker-esque cartoon that I would draw if I had the talent, of a couple in bed. The woman is reading a book called How To Save Your Marriage and the man is nuzzling her. The woman’s speech bubble says, “As soon as I finish this chapter, dear.”

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Brains With Feet

Tom and I went to the Catholic Church yesterday to say good-bye to Father Gene who is taking a sabbatical after forty years. He hasn’t said so, but we all think he’s not coming back. He’s a sixties priest, in the mold of Thomas Merton or Father Nouwan; a peace-loving, thoughtful man who sure knows how to spin a homily. I imagine it would be hard to fit that round world view into the current square box of the Vatican’s demands on parish priests.

On our way out, a lovely young woman I know was saying that it was hard for her to pray ever since the tsunami. I nodded, but I didn’t agree. Sometimes I do that: nod and don’t say what I really think, because I know what I really think is unacceptable. What I was thinking was, “What does praying have to do with the tsunami?”

Tom said something similar over dinner. “I don’t get people who say they blame God for natural disasters. I mean, if we all accept that we’re gong to die someday, then what’s the big deal?”

“I know,” I said, loving that we agreed. “I feel the same way. It’s not God’s fault! It’s not anybody’s fault! It just is.”

But after that, we didn’t have much to say to each other. In fact, both of us got grumpy. I went off to drown my sorrows on line, which is what I do now that I don’t drink or eat ice cream. I go on line and poke around and try to learn things. When that started to make me feel sick and disconnected, I tried to work on the new young adult book I’m writing. But I couldn’t concentrate. I kept thinking about Larry. Larry Jennings died on Christmas Day, which meant he just missed the tsunami. Larry was a music fan who happened into my life sometime in the late nineties. I first became aware of him at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival one July—I don’t remember which year. I liked the look of him: he had scraggly brown hair, very long. He had bad teeth, but he sure knew how to smile. His friend, our mutual friend, Cone Head, told me later that he was dying of cancer of the liver. I didn’t ask a lot of questions. I did take his photograph. Some people you just want to remember.

I got up from my novel and practiced my left jab, my right hook, my footwork (I’m studying boxing, but that’s the topic for a whole other blog). I went downstairs, put on the Rolling Stones, Who’s Next and Prince’s 1999 and danced like a maniac around my living room, but I couldn’t shake the angry feeling I had inside me. I went back upstairs and sat with Tom in our meditation room and we practiced Tonglen on the people who had died in Asia. Tonglen is a practice we learned from Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun. It’s an ancient Tibetan kind of meditation where you breathe in all that you would normally push away, like anger, fear, sadness, Tsunamis, death, ambivalence about God, loss, repercussions from eating too many donuts, etc. Then you breathe out all the things you would like to have for yourself, and you direct that to the people who most need it: joy, compassion, love, peace, a breeze in the desert, a view from the top of Mount Colvin. We sat like that for fifteen minutes, which is a lot for me, though Tom’s got more patience. During that time, I felt the anger boiling in my blood, roiling in my stomach. I felt a lump come up to my throat when I pictured Larry. I thought about standing on a beach, watching the ocean and having the water rise and rise until it fell over me like a curtain and took me away. I imagined saying goodbye to my child, kissing him on the top of the head and thinking I’d see him later, and then hearing about the earthquake, knowing he was lost forever.

Afterwards, Tom said, “I don’t know what I was talking about earlier. I read about a guy who lost seven of his ten children. If it were me, I’d be consumed with rage.”

I nodded. If someone were to take Tom away from me, or Katryna, or Dave or William or Amelia, or Abigail, Mark or the twins--would I ever speak to God again, even though I say I don’t believe in the kind of God who makes tsunamis happen? I don’t know. How dare I even guess at what another person would feel?

I said, “It used to be that people would tell me how sad they were about something that happened in their lives, and I’d want to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a trick to help you with that. It’s called Not Feeling.’”

I was an expert at not feeling. I’d get really hard and I could take anything. Like Superman. Like a snowman. And secretly, I’d feel sorry for all the poor sops who had to go through life feeling pain. I knew I was immune.

I don’t want to do that anymore, and anyway, I’m not sure I even can. It’s a high price to have to feel your feelings, because part of what that entails is connecting with other people. If you’re going to feel sad and angry, you probably will need to talk to some other people. As Audrey Hepburn said in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, “Quelle drag.” But I’ve lived the alternative: I’ve been a Brain With Feet, someone who races around with a tiny little body and a great big head, accomplishing things and staying above the waters of the emotions. It looks good, it’s neat and tidy, but it means the only pleasure you get to feel is at the level of Disney World or a hot fudge sundae. Nothing that lasts.

Tom and I took Cody out to the park across the street. We breathed in the oddly warm January air. We’d spent Christmas in Florida with my glorious parents, and were grateful to be back in our home state. My parents are truly glorious, but they are my parents, and spending a prolonged period of time on their turf is like being Superman and living in a large house with a tiny amount of kryptonite hidden somewhere. You feel your strength slowly leach out of you, and you begin to open drawers, searching frantically for the whereabouts of the kryptonite, though you know even if you find it you won’t be able to touch it to get rid of it. Yet another instance where I find I need the help of others. “Hey, friends: could you kindly come by and remove the kryptonite?”

Cody chased sticks and got muddy. When we circled around and came back to our house, I noticed tiny lamb’s ears growing in the garden. They think it’s spring on January 4.

In today's Boston Globe, James Carroll writes, "In the Book of Job, the answer comes 'from the heart of the tempest.' And the answer is--that there is no answer. The tsunami wrack line is as much of mystery as of misery. But, as the world's response nevertheless makes clear, we needn't understand to care, nor find meaning in this suffering to denounce its injustice. Having the hurt ones in mind and finding ways to help them are what matter now."

Here’s what praying has to do with the tsunami. Praying reminds us that we are connected to everyone on the planet. Praying reminds us that we are soft human bodies, and that our brains are only two percent of our body mass. Parying reminds us that we are not Superman, but one among billions of others, and that everyone has his or her own peculiar brand of kryptonite. Praying reminds us that we are only here for a short time, and we don’t know for how long. It doesn’t matter how much God loves us or how diligent we are about worshiping God; God doesn’t promise us a long life no matter how much God loves us. What God does is be with us when we are present, when we are with ourselves. God is with us when we are with God. When I stop being a Brain With Feet and start being a whole person, when I can be with my anger, my grief at losing Larry, losing people I don’t know in Asia, my fear about disasters that come out of nowhere, I can also be with my great joy at having the life I do have, these instants of awareness, the pleasure and pain in my body. One more day free from the tsunami.

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