All posts by Nina Adel

On Community

“Well, what if you just don’t want to be a part of a community?” asked my student, an 18-year-old in an intentional orange denim jacket, slouched in the corner of my crowded Freshman Comp class. It was remarkable that she spoke up at all, as I hadn’t heard a peep out of her all semester except in my office, where her general upset and anger flowed more freely. “Who wouldn’t want that?” snickered one of the front-row students. “That doesn’t make any sense.” And so began an animated conversation about communities of choice and communities of undesired circumstance.

As the list of possibilities for each of these grew, a wind began to build outside after two days of an odd calm. The sudden wind has always brought extraordinary change to my life. I finished recording my second album in the wind. My daughter refused to be born on a windy day and would only emerge after the gusting had passed (and even then, only with the help of a knife). Her brother, on the other hand, used the wind to announce his intended arrival. My decision to return to school blew in through an open window and my father…well, my father honored my request, whispered in his ruddy ear as it pressed into a hospice pillow, to wait till after the birthday weekend I shared with a sister to leave us. He summoned a tornado and left when it came for him.

This time I was carried off in memory above the university and away to an empty stretch of Nashville sidewalk, a broken slab outside of Vanderbilt Hospital. In those days, I told my newly-attentive students, my son had just finished several years of occupational therapy and I had gone to the pediatric rehab department to get a copy of the records for his school. It felt wonderful to know he had finished the mild therapy and could now move on, perhaps joining in sports or art classes with his peers. I was nearly skipping to the parking lot when a gust of wind tried to snatch the envelope from my hands, and as I grabbed it back, I turned and found myself face to face with Butch Baldassari, a friend from my Nashville community of musicians, a guy with a well-known warmth, a man known here for his authenticity. A good guy.

Hospital grounds are not necessarily the place where you’d want to run into a fellow musician or anyone from your circle of friends, but I was on a happy errand and so thought nothing of it for a moment. Butch was standing under a large awning near another hospital doorway, leaning against a pole, waiting.

“Hey there, Butch!” I said.

“Hi, Nina….” he responded, a strange wistfulness at the edge of his mouth. “Are you…?” he began and gestured up towards the hospital sign.

I looked up then, and saw that the awning was for the cancer center.

The air in that quick, terrible moment filled me with unconscious confusion. Instinctively I drew it into my body, then realized I did not want to breathe it in; did not want it to circulate. It was cancer air.

Yet it was just air, and I needed air to live; more urgently, as the realization had knocked me breathless, I needed it in order to respond, which I did after the tense pause. I shook my head, and said, “I came out of that other door…pediatric rehab. Just…getting records…for my son….He’s fine, “ I said, awkwardly. I didn’t know how or what to ask, but I blurted, “I’m..not….Are…?” and before I could say “you?”, Butch was already nodding. “A brain tumor,” he said.

I knew Butch didn’t wish for me to be a colleague on what turned out to be a terrible journey for him. Butch didn’t wish a brain tumor or any cancer on me, yet in the first second, when he saw me, when he greeted me and asked, “Are you..?” what he no doubt needed was community. He had been thrown involuntarily into a community of people coming and going through those doors over indefinite periods of time; a community of sufferers, of family members and grievers; of those who would eventually succumb, and those who would survive and move on to another, better (if still painful) community of survivors. And the loved ones and attendants of survivors. But Butch was in a community of unfortunate circumstance, and surely did not want me, specifically, to join that community; but just as surely, Butch and all who suffer terminal or chronic illnesses need community and support; as do displaced persons; widows; divorcees; abused and recovering teens and adults; and all manner of people thrust into communities of misfortune.

But I did not want to join him there. Though I had my own small communities of unfortunate circumstance of which I was a member, I couldn’t join Butch, and didn’t want to. And it was that knowledge – that my friend needed community in his newfound circumstances, people who could really understand, and for one split second had reached out to me in anticipated camaraderie; and that I wanted to run like hell from such an invitation – that filled the moment.

Butch and I hugged each other tightly, and I promised him support and any help I could offer, which did not turn out to be much. I held tight to my envelope and went off to enter a community of choice: the community of parents of soon-to-be schoolchildren. Of children healthy and rehabbed enough to be schoolchildren.

***   *****   ***

“But…whatever happened to your friend?” asked the unison voices of my freshmen.

“Oh, Butch didn’t survive. He passed on after many struggles. He left behind a wife and son. And I know it was hard, but Butch had been well-loved, and a lot of people pitched in both while he was sick and afterwards, to give support to the family.”

My students were quiet for what may have been several minutes, listening to the intensity of the wind. “Well,’ offered the girl in the orange denim jacket, finally, “that’s what I’d call a community of choice. That’s what I need.” She sat still, then hunched back down. I didn’t know what she was talking about, or what story lay behind her words. The day’s windstorm had brought something to our classroom and my student had taken it, somehow, as an opening. She hung back and remained behind as the rest of the class filed out a little more quietly than usual. Then, suddenly, she bolted.

I’ve just arrived to my after-class office hours, and she is here, waiting for me.

 

First Thoughts of January, 2016

The hardest thing in life is desire for the truth; the need for truth. What is false, or what is pretense, doesn’t serve you and has an unknown, finite life expectancy. When it comes to the quality of endurance, you can only count on the truth.

The reason this is hard is that along with the desire for truth often comes the desire for beauty. That is, you desire the truth, but also that the truth be beautiful.

Yet you have no control over this. In reality, truth is often uglier, dirtier or more painful than you hope or wish it to be. Your wish that it possess beauty can never have any effect on the nature of truth.; and you possess, in equal measure, desire for disparate things.

If truth and beauty were analogous, without a strong tendency towards disparity, then truth would be easy.

You know that you cannot walk on the thin ice of what is fake and dishonest, but to walk on the muddy shore is unappealing. It takes a certain strength to commit to the potential of that mud and mess. Yet however unappealing, its foundation is solid. And it’s not always muddy, either. It has its season. Walk away from the thin ice of the lie. You can never feel truly secure there, because even while you enjoy the beautiful skating feeling, the pleasure of that moment, that extended moment, you know what is beneath. You know it can crack and fall away at any moment, and all you thought you had, or knew, will be gone.

Apply this to your relationships. Let go of those built on lies and complicity and dirty secrets. Connect where there is truth, vision, authenticity. Stand where you don’t have to pretend. It’s not easy…but it is solid, enduring and, even in its most challenging, painful moments, it is where hope thrives. You may not see it, but its door is always open to the potential for something beautiful.

Driving Hillsboro

On weekday mornings, I drive my son to school. Driving south on Hillsboro Road from the central, residential neighborhood that has been our home, the landscape changes. After awhile, we are surrounded by fields and treelined driveways. We pass mansions and farms in equal measure. Not long before arriving at our destination, there is a field on the left side of the road, and in that field live two stunning longhorns, brown and white and speckled.

A local Nashville artist who shares my interest in meditative reflection,known for her whimsical paintings of cows, is joining me in 2016 in the project Driving Hillsboro: Sheryl Crow’s Longhorns, documenting a year in the lives of these majestic animals; rather, it is a school year in the lives of the passing humans. Stay tuned for updates and a blend of text and images.

 October 21st:

Sheryl Crow’s longhorns are leaning up into the new autumn light.

                                                 October 28th:

Sheryl Crow’s longhorns rest back-to-back in the wet grass at the far end of the pasture, oblivious to our human dreams.

                                                   October 30th:

Sheryl Crow’s longhorns are not in unison. While one stares elegantly across the road, the other participates in the harvest.

                                                      November 10th:

Sheryl Crow’s longhorns face away from the center, a different purpose for each. The larger plants his hoofs, challenging anyone or no one to cross the pasture; the smaller nuzzles the one, sweet remaining pumpkin of autumn.

                                                       November 11th:
Sheryl Crow’s longhorns realize there is a sunline between them. They don’t perceive this as separateness, as detachment. It is only light and shadow.

                                                   November 18th:
Sheryl Crow’s longhorns huddle under the tree at the center of the universe. Today’s downpour will steal the last of the leaves and leave them open to a winter sky.

                                                    November 22nd:
The cars stream past Sheryl Crow’s longhorns in the morning, the people inside on their way to strict Christian churches, to freewheeling chapels for the semibelievers. Yet the longhorns see it their way: their church is a choir of green and blue and brown, a transparency enveloping the senses.

 

Louisiana Studies: An Excavation in Prose and Poetry

On September 12th, I’ll be giving a reading on a panel at the 7th Annual Lousiana Studies Conference in Natchitoches, Lousiana. Here, have a look. I’ll return later to share a bit….

What To Bury, Where To Bury It is a hybrid creative nonfiction piece in prose, poetry, and essay. Working within themes of both the underneath and liminality, this presentation is an excerpt from a full-length work. A reflection on the correlation between what we as a human community bury of and within ourSelves and what we bury of our common history, this piece makes an argument for fearless illumination.

The slave history of the southern United States, while well-elaborated in discussion, remains a place, rich in metaphor, of hidden and buried tangible manifestation of that past. This piece draws from fairly recent endeavors in Louisiana (The Whitney Plantation) and Tennessee (The Hermitage) to engage in a public  “unburying” of the slave history that resides under the well-preserved Big House opulence. It addresses as well the question of the individual standing before the troubling realities of history and drawing from them a sense of being situated, for better or worse, within the broader human community.

Banana Trees

The end of May returns to my mind a poem about a strangely magical summer place I once visited. And, well, about magic, I consider what it might be, what it means to some, and then to others. Is it a fiction in someone’s mind? Is it in the forces of nature we’ll never understand, and never need to understand? When a place, or a taste, or a feeling is magical, it is transformative. Is that what magic really is? But then, science, too, is transformative, as is art. Maybe it is all a kind of magic. Maybe, in the end, I don’t care what it is. Or isn’t. As long as it is not for harm, but rather, for wonder.

 

Banana Trees

when you cross the road

and climb a tree

to catch a signal

to retrieve a text

from a lady on a committee

who has a question

which needs an answer

before the committee reconvenes next Wednesday

you can see the new, docile bees

learning their way in and out

of the small white hive

with the sugar water feeder on the side

 

though the tree is high

and the hive is small

and the bees even smaller

and one could question with good reason

how much of that world of bees

you can really perceive from such a vantage point

it is also true

that you have seen that little, growing universe

through the lens of your camera

and once there

(and later, in your eye itself)

your forever telescope can see

whatever it needs

or wants

or hopes

 

or maybe

while you wait for the signal

what you see

from the bark-covered branch

across the road

from the house you share

with the okra seed pods

grown in the field on the opposite side

of the signal tree

is the tiniest pear

beginning to expand and ripen

 

or the mist on the field

just before the round earth house

which some might say

through the side of their teeth

was a failure to gather

heat

and others,

through the straight, round opening of their mouths,

a magical interpretation

of a river snail

or a gathering of earth

and the pulse of your bare hands

remaining

though so long left alone there

at the edge of woods beyond the unmowed grasses

 

maybe what you see

once the text message has been retrieved

from the urgent world away from you

and absorbed and acknowledged

is the groundhog in the garden

or the muddy puppy

bearing yet another turtle

to leave for you

on the porch

just beyond the banana trees

that could tip off

the rest of the people in the world

that here there is a kind of magic

which makes bananas seem to grow

thousands of miles away

from the tropics,

thousands of miles away

from their native soil

a kind of magic

soaked permanently

into your very earth,

the same earth which holds

everything buried

by the new puppy

everything buried

long before you came.

April Thoughts on Writing with Chaos and Intentionality

 

It’s pretty hard for me to turn off my thoughts. I am always processing, always noticing; thinking half the time in metaphor; connecting elusive dots, filing things away for later. Like a cartoon, I see in my mind a book and a pen, writing everything down by itself, no hand attached; just as in earlier times, when I was more active in music than Creative Writing, what I saw was a piano, the keys moving and song singing itself in the air, unattached to a body, or voice, or human anchor. It has always been like that. A lifetime of artistic extra-sensitivity and perception can be a little traumatic. There are people who think it’s some kind of whimsical,  frivolous thing, but in reality, there is a definite traumatic element.

I find that mindfulness practice and meditation help corral those rather helpless aspects of relentless creative impulse. Journaling, when I set aside the time for it, is a restful place of intentionality, of connecting to the routines that ground a life. When I think of the influence of some of my recent reading in hybrid poetics, hybrid texts, it is the ones with a kind of order, presented in small and deliberate bites, that give me the sense of grounding and intentionality toward which this moment of my life is oriented. Sometimes it is or has been the chaos of texts that calls me (chaos like in The Book of Jon, like Bluets, but not now; especially after reading Kazim Ali’s book Fasting for Ramadan, (and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, replete with intentionality, while also an exercise in outrage). Sometimes I focus on the freedom, the whimsy, the unexpected, but presently it is the small, controlled steps and the intentionality that form the place where I want to spend my writing time.

When I step back from the writing I am doing these days – I’ve been working a lot in hybrid based in creative nonfiction  – I would like it to have a sense of process and deliberate small steps, advancing in the smallness of moments to connect them to each other.

There is a mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park called Mt. LeConte. At the top of the mountain is the highest lodge in the eastern United States. I have never been able to go there because I am afraid of several passages on the trail to the top which involve walking plastered against the mountainside while gripping a rope to stay steady. The trail is terribly narrow. If you fall, you will surely plummet to your death far below. As dramatic as this sounds, thousands of families with small children hike up to the lodge every year to stay overnight and enjoy the experience. I guess in the physical realm of life I am not a daredevil. Yet sometimes when I write to take up the tasks of carrying on, I climb a little bit of Mt. LeConte. It requires the smallest and most deliberate steps when I reach those narrow passages.

I haven’t approached that kind of work in my current undertakings, but I strive to move intentionally like that. What I have loved about several of the insiring booksof these last months is that while they are somehow methodical, while strategy or intentionality or routine can be felt in their pages, they are still surprising and new.

What I wish for myself and for all those who visit me here is precisely that: that our intentionality brings us what we seek, but also springs a few surprises upon us.

Stir Crazy

Mini-bits from Winter at Home

Today my dog Finnegan and I struck a deal. He did not want to waltz to Elliott Smith‘s Waltz #2 with me and I did not want to play yet another round of tug-o-war with him. We compromised. He waltzed to half of Waltz #2 and I played tug-o-war with him for the other half. Now we’re going out in the rain, a thing about which we are both half-ambivalent and half-enthused.

Snippets on Reading and Writing, #1

As both a reader and a writer, it is what lies beneath that calls me. The sub of subtext, you might say. But I don’t like to think about it. I like to discover it by feel, again, both as reader and writer. As a reader, when a writer’s consciousness of his or her own subtext is clear to me, I am disappointed. As a writer, an initial or early awareness of my own subtext (through the first draft or two, that is) can easily kill my desire to write what I’m working on. As a human being, what I seek is understanding, discovery, dawning, pulling together the preternatural/psychic/beyond-my-grasp puzzle, so a too-soon or too-obvious or too-deliberate or too-self-conscious display of subtext, a large insinuation seems to rob me of what I most desire in a work, either as one who partakes of or one who creates that work, which is to feel it, little by little, creeping along until it is finally here in my hands, though still threatening elusiveness.

Second or third time through, though, it’s a whole different story. Hit me over the head with the second time, if you must.

New Year. Newness. Everywhere.

A New Year’s visit with Suprima from Nepal reminded me that  New Year’s celebrations on our planet mark the start of the year in different seasons for some cultural groups. It is not always, in every corner of the world, the January 1st of the Gregorian calendar that we follow in the U.S. As Suprima said, it is not even 2015 in some nations, but a year number far from that.

When does a new year actually begin?

When I was a child, I imagined the year like the chain of a bicycle, All of the months from September (which was, for me, the beginning of the year) to May were on the upper length of the chain, with late May through August taking up an equal length on the bottom. Thus the summers, though shorter in months, were just as long as the rest of the year, or, as it seems, the “school year”. I imagined the year spinning around as I pedaled through, like that bicycle chain when a cyclist is riding along. I wonder if my younger self needed to see the summer as longer-lasting than it really is. The summer was a time of relative freedom, relief from structure. I am always in need of a change, either from too much or too little structure. It is a difficult thing to balance.

Our U.S. New Year celebration is over now, for 2015, but around the planet, some New Year’s celebrations and the start of the  calendar years of calendars conceptualized quite unlike ours here are coming up in the months just ahead. While it wouldn’t be right to appropriate the calendar of some other culture, just because we think it’s interesting or cool or different – things we seem to value or claim to value in American culture – it is a good thing to celebrate newness in ourselves; to celebrate the ability to open  up to the lives ahead of us. My song “You Won’t See A Thing”, on the album “WildLife”, suggested this feeling, these hopes. I keep my feet planted right here, right now, and all the while I look forward. To what I haven’t yet started:

“I lean against a damp tree,

and I can’t remember Me,

but there’s always someone new inside

…that I just might find.”