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Christchurch, New Zealand December 7, 2011

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Have you ever walked into a city and found all silent? Last Sunday night Linda and I arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand. We walked downtown and aside from a few Japanese tourists there was not a soul. There was a fence around much of the downtown area, which is called the Red Zone. It was a tall wire fence you could look through. The restaurants were closed, as were the shoe shops and clothing stores and offices. No one was serving soup, pizza or coffee or buying newspapers. We could not see a single human being. No doubt there was a cat or two and mice, but we didn’t see even those. There had been a great earthquake in February that had shaken the downtown and miles and miles beyond. We turned to go back to our bed and breakfast and the sun was setting so there was a lovely yellow glow over all this eerie silence. Six hundred buildings had been taken down and we heard another six hundred had to be taken down, and thousands and thousands of homes were destroyed. It was like a war zone. Sad.

The next day we went back and found a small shopping area. A single store like the old Jordan Marsh or Filenes had reopened. The windows were filled with story scenes like Peter Pan. They were like the Christmas windows of years gone by at Jordan Marsh. And in this little area there were coffee shops, clothing stores and appliance stores that were open. They all looked bright. We finally realized the stores were the great steel containers used on ships. Part of the steel was cut away and glass was put in and the containers were painted orange, red, green, blue and black. Some of them were stacked one on top of the other. People flocked to these and to the kind of Jordan Marsh store. It was heartening to see these people coming back after such a devastating earthquake. There was a great sense of life and hope.

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Moments in Africa November 1, 2011

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Elephant in Kruger Park

A breeze that frees us as we ride in an open-air van through the Kruger National Park in Africa. I sit feeling the warm breeze and have no responsibilities other than to feel the breeze and I must repeat this to myself over and over and over, since it is my tendency to carry invisible worries. I often carry the past as if it were great rocks in a sack on my back. But in the breeze I let go of the sack. I imagine being as empty as I was before I was born. Empty and free. I am empty and let go of all of the past and the present and the future.
What was I before I was born? I was not. I was not even free for I was not, though perhaps I was in the mind of God. Sitting here in the breeze as we move along in the van looking for elephants and lions, I am free in the breeze. Now we pull over to watch a giraffe only a few feet away. The giraffe is the most elegant of creatures; the giraffe walks with an ease, a grace, a fluidity in which there is no haste. It is a royal creature. We move along now in the breeze again, and the grasses are blond and a couple of feet high and I’m drawn to the grasses. They remind me of the high grasses in Wyoming just two weeks before. Imagine coming home and people saying, “What did you like?” I liked the grasses. I liked the breeze and the grasses. They were the best.

Safari Van

On another day in Johannesburg we go into a cathedral. It has a high ceiling and it’s crowded with people who are beautifully dressed. We have stumbled on a birthday celebration and mass for Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu. Years ago I was briefly in South Africa and it was a time full of fear and danger for all blacks. But now there is freedom. There is trouble, there is danger, but there is freedom. The atmosphere in the cathedral is electric. It’s a mixture of blacks and whites. You can feel their joy in what’s happened, and they focus their joy on Desmond Tutu. There are times when the African dancers get up and sing and dance and Desmond Tutu himself dances. Tutu speaks and he laughs and giggles and we all sing Happy Birthday.

In the pew to Linda’s left there are two very beautiful young black African women. At the end of the ceremony Linda exchanges a few words. The African women each hug her. We feel like dear friends although we don’t even know one another.

Dinner on the Train

Dinner on the Train

Africa. We are on a night train in Africa. We sit in our compartment and Africa seems endless. There are endless mountains and vineyards. It gets to be night and there is a full moon. We sleep and we tumble on into the night in Africa. We wake and say to ourselves, Africa, we’re in Africa.

We might just as well be in a movie for all is done so well. Linda and I are escorted to table number three in the dining car. Millie is the name of the man in charge of the dining car. He has a great broad front. He is blustery but courteous. He says he has been in this job twenty years. Africa. Africa. One night in Africa the moon is sufficiently low that suddenly there is blackness and stars above us, the African night sky. Two things I had wanted to do was to see the stars against the black sky in Africa, and to stand at the edge of the Cape of Good Hope and watch the swirly, wild seas and imagine those sailors the last many hundreds of years who have braved the seas. And imagine also the ships that have been torn apart and gone down and all those sailors who we will never know crying out and gone, they’re gone on the wild Cape of Good Hope. Africa, free, we are in Africa. We are in Africa.

Launch of Atlantis May 20, 2010

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I was telling Forged in the Stars, at a NASA Master’s Forum in Melbourne, Florida last Wednesday, May 12.  The Forum is a chance for NASA scientists and engineers to pass on knowledge to younger NASA personnel.  It was an international gathering and they were a wonderful audience for my story.

On Friday Forum members were bussed to Kennedy Space Center to watch the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis. It will be nice to see, interesting if not particularly exciting. On the two-hour trip I talked to a thirty-six year old aeronautical engineer, Ruediger Suess from Germany. Ruediger is fascinated with the dream of going into space. “I asked a man once,” Ruediger says, “to tell me who influenced his life most. The man thought a while then said, ‘myself when I was seven’.”

“Ah,” I say, Picasso said his task was to get back to imagining the way he did at five. The mind of the dreamer.

The traffic was very heavy because the shuttle missions are down to three today and two in the fall. Before leaving the bus we were told if the countdown gets to nine minutes it’s a go.

There’s a big crowd on the Indian River where we’re going to watch the launch. The sky is pale blue and high above while birds are circling. Effortlessly circling. It’s hot but a good breeze stirs the Indian River. There are hundreds and hundreds of people; some filling the stands, some in long lines for pretzels or hot dogs, some milling others picnicking. They are colorfully dressed. Pink hats, baseball caps, straw hats and white hats. Two hours drive by. The wind is strong. Is the wind so strong they won’t lift off?

Nine minutes to launch. The hot dog lines vanish. The stands are full. The grass area in front of the Indian River is crowded. That’s where I stand. Doubtless the astronauts’ families are worried now. At a time like this they’d remember the Challenger exploding after seventy-three seconds after launch.

Three minutes to go. Over the loud speaker: “Ladies and Gentlemen, would you please stand for The Star Spangled Banner.” We all stand and turn to the flag, which is blowing in the stiff wind. A woman sings the national anthem over the loud speaker, “Oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave?” Star Spangled Banner. Is this not about reaching for the stars? I’m suddenly very glad to be here.

Sixty seconds to go on the big countdown clock. We are all looking across the river towards the launch tower, which seems close but is probably six miles away.

Countdown!

Ten seconds to go. Spontaneously we all count down aloud, “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.” White smoke billows on the right and left of the launch tower, and then there is an intense white light shaped like a candle. Now a streak of white light and I am so moved I cry out. The white is the most brilliant I’ve ever seen. The white fire sends the Atlantis shuttle up extremely fast. The thunderous sound grows so loud I cover my ears.

I am astonished at how deeply I’m moved. Shaken. Overcome. It is as if the light of the launch had gone through me, through all of us. As if that light has gone through time. Perhaps the molecules in our bodies remember when they were part of the fire of stars.

The white smoke curves. The shuttle is out of view. A final cheer. The astronauts are headed safely to the International Space Station. We in the crowd turn and

Space Shuttle Endeavour

hurry to our buses and cars. We are no longer one. Ordinary life is back. It’s disorienting. For a moment we were welded into one.

On the ride back on the bus I talk to a young NASA employee named Katherine. She has a very responsible job but she tells me she’s leaving it in July.

“Why?” I ask.

“I’ve always dreamed of going to places I know nothing about. I’m going to teach science to seventh grade students in Korea. It’s time to act on my dream.”

I tell her of some of my dreams and say, “Do me a favor, Katherine. Some time write me a poem about the stars in Korea. Send it on a postcard. I’ll send a postcard back with a poem about the stars in Marshfield.”

Katherine gets out her notebook and writes down my name and address. “I want to go everywhere,” she says.

I laugh and say, “You want to go everywhere?”

She smiles and nods.

Everywhere includes the stars. Katherine wants to go to the stars but isn’t that what this is all about?

Van Gogh April 14, 2010

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There are some artists who follow you through life. Van Gogh is one of those artists for me. When I was in college Van Gogh’s letters opened up a world. I loved his intensity, his love of color, literature and life. He inspired me. I wanted to create but that seemed a dream, an impossibility. In time I broke away from my job and began to write assuming I’d be a novelist. I spent the next seven years as a caretaker on a beautiful salt-water marsh and was telling my children hundreds and hundreds of stories.  I’d found my path, a path that has allowed me to explore the beauty and the pain of life.

Ten years ago I led a workshop in Provence with my friend Doug Lipman. Van Gogh’s letters drew us there.

Last Friday, April 9, my wife, Linda and I took the train from Paris to Auvers-sur-Oise, the last place Van Gogh lived and painted. We get off the train and see trees are just blooming and the tulips are out. Van Gogh arrived in Auvers-sur-Oise on 20 May 1890. I imagine the trees would have been fully green when he arrived and the forsythia and tulips would have passed. Linda and I find much in the village unchanged from Van Gogh’s time. There are flowers everywhere. We have a café crème at a tabac and the young man who brings us the coffee would have delighted Van Gogh. “Americans,” the server laughs, “I love Americans.” He is joyful as a clown and bounces with life.

Staircase to Van Gogh's room

At the visitor’s center we see a short video showing some photos of Auvers in the1890’s and paintings Van Gogh did at Auvers as well as short phrases from his letters. He wrote of the beauty of the country and his love of art and life. “It is so difficult to be simple,” Van Gogh, wrote which is poignant because he was living in a dark bedroom on the third floor of the Ravoux Inn. The bedroom was just big enough for a bed and chair; the walls were unpainted and cracked. The stairway to his room was very dark and we could almost hear Van Gogh’s footsteps as he left to paint each morning and return at night. He wrote that he hoped any portraits he did would look like apparitions in a hundred years. “Painting,” Van Gogh wrote, “is becoming more like music and less like sculpture.” This is the voice of a vibrant artist. But then he writes of the threat of being uprooted and says, “I did not need to go out of my way to experience sadness and extreme loneliness.”

This man who gave the world such beauty shot himself in Auvers on 27 July. His brother Theo was at Vincent’s side in that dark bedroom at the Ravoux Inn when Vincent died at one-thirty in the morning on July 29, 1890.

Church at Auvers by Van Gogh

After the visitors’ center, Linda and I walk up the curving road to the village graveyard. Vincent and Theo are buried side by side in very simple graves. The fields surrounding the graveyard are as they probably were in Van Gogh’s time.  The green wheat is a foot high; there is the smell of tilled earth. Spinach is growing. The sky is blue and the silence is broken by small birds.

After a picnic of cheese, tomato, baguette and a flan for dessert we walk down the hill and stop by the church, L’Eglsie D’Auvers, which Van Gogh painted. There is a funeral going on inside and we wait until it is over. Mourners leave wiping tears away. They’re sad and so am I.  Sad Vincent Van Gogh’s life was so lonely and so hard. I’m also deeply indebted to him for his letters, his inspiration, his paintings and his life.

Paris April 8, 2010

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Paris is alive.  Parisians dress with style.  There’s an elegance about them as you pass them on the street. And you can hear them because a great many of the women and some men wear boots with hard heels that make a sharp clicking sound on the stone sidewalks. It’s an expensive city.  A cup of coffee can cost five dollars. But it’s vibrant.

Every day we’ve taken the Batobus, a passenger boat, down the Seine.  Standing on the stern of the boat we revel in the cool air and look at the grand buildings of Paris while an occasional gull glides above us.  We see Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower.  We go into Musee D’Orsay and are taken with Degas’s color.  His nudes are sensual and warm but mostly they are beautiful.  He catches an intimacy that is true.  Then on to Van Gogh and this year I spent nearly an hour looking at a single paining, Chaumes de Cordveille a Auvers-sur-Oise. It’s a painting of a thatched cottage with a garden in back and a hillside above.  His trees bend and curve and the white clouds in his blue sky seemed to be in motion.  It’s as if Van Gogh could see the energy and beauty inside trees, sky, hay and even a thatched roof.

The sun seems happy to be in Paris reminding me of Baudelaire’s lines in his poem, The Sun.  “He (the sun) enters like royalty, unaccompanied by officials.”

All the palatial hotels and all the hospitals. So many writers, painters, sculptors and thinkers have wandered the streets of Paris. Baudelaire, Van Gogh, Monet, Hemmingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Simone de Beauvoir and Simone Weil.  It is Simone Weil who speaks to me most deeply now.  She was as one writer put it, one of history’s clearest witnesses to light and grace and to a genuine compassion for others. Weil writes with a lightening clarity and urges us to learn to pay attention.  As I looked at Degas and Van Gogh this morning it was clear they paid attention with heart and soul.

Paris awakens in me the desire to tell the truth in my stories.  As I sit on the Batobus in the Seine I know the main image in my next story will be the Nolachucky River. May the story have truth and beauty.  There are both in Paris.

Weekend in Vermont January 27, 2010

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Winter in Vermont

I’m just back from giving a four day workshop to the “Creative Monsters” at a beautiful farmhouse overlooking a valley in snow covered Vermont. Our storytelling group has met for seventeen years and this year the theme was the circus. What costumes! Clown, tigers, lions, lion tamers, fortune tellers and a beautiful trapeze artist. We had circus music and danced and laughed on Saturday night.

We work hard on stories through the weekend. It’s a great pleasure to see how everyone’s storytelling has grown over the years and their work is superb. The trust is deep and we have fun together.

Circus Night

Peacemaking Trip to Israel December 30, 2009

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In December I went to Israel to meet Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers. I went with an extraordinary woman, Claire Shaeffer-Duffy, a long time peace activist. Claire is also a mother of four, a reporter and along with her husband Scott, she has run a Catholic Worker Hospitality house in Worcester, Massachusetts for a quarter century. At the Hospitality house they welcome the poor, refugees and people who are struggling with life, into their home.

Our trip was extraordinary but I’ll tell you only two of our many adventures. One was going to the Jenin Refugee Camp to the Freedom Theatre. The Freedom Theatre was started after the first intifada (1987-1993) by an Israeli Jew, Arna Mer-Khamis. Arna was concerned that the Palestinian children in Jenin had suffered so badly that their imaginations would be overcome by violence. She taught them to play, to express themselves and to act and she began the theatre. In the second intifada (beginning in September 2000) the actors took up arms when the army invaded and all but two were killed. Arna’s son, Juliano Mer-Khami, made an award winning documentary called Arna’s Children.

Juliano is now directing the Freedom Theatre. There are twelve students, three of them women, in a three year program. They’ve put on two plays so far, Animal Farm and Images which they took to Germany.  Juliano asked me to tell a story to the acting students: I told a bit of The Herring Shed. Then I made up a hand story. I took the hand of a young woman and using some of the lines in her palm to spark my imagination made a little story. I answered questions about my creative process. It was a joy to see these young actors in their twenties, discovering they are artists.

Our second adventure took us to Be’er Sheva to The Hagar School, a bilingual kindergarten where the  children learn both Hebrew and Arabic. Half of the students are Jews and half are Arabs. Lauren Joseph, the daughter of Rabbi Joseph of Hingham, Massachusetts, greeted us with great warmth. Lauren is teaching there, working on her Arabic and she introduced us to the director Shaul (Uli) Kornberg, Executive Director and principal Suha Ibrahim.

The school was bright and warm and it was great fun to see the children playing in the sand out back. Mira plays on the slide. Yassan prefers building blocks. Annabel eats chicken schnitzel, which she notices is shaped like a heart. Ariel draws a treasure map. The children sing lyrics while moving their hands to the words “Yadaim l’malah” (Hebrew, Hands up) “Al al-ras” (Arabic, On the head) “On the Shoulders” (in English). They learn that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and that there is more to the human ear than we can see. Their smiles are contagious; so, too, should be their belief in a peaceful future.

We also met Neve Gordon, Senior Lecturer and head of the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Neve’s son is at The Hagar School. Neve was one of the parents who worked extremely hard to create the school. Neve said that there are 250,000 Jews in Be’er Sheva, but to get just fifteen Jewish children was extremely hard. Making peace is not easy. Lauren Joseph is trying to raise $300,000 for the school. She believes deeply that this is one of the ways to make peace. Neve Gordon considers the school a miracle and feels there are lots of miracles going on everyday that will contribute to making peace. You can help out by donating money through The Hagar School website http://hajar.org.il/. And if you know of a foundation, let Lauren Joseph know. Her email is: lauren@hajar.org.il.

I returned inspired by Claire Shaeffer-Duffy, Juliano, Lauren and the many, many Palestinians and Israelis we met who are working for peace.

Happy New Year,

Jay