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CELEBRATING A JOURNEY OF WRITING AND LIFE (so far)

This week, my life partner and sweetheart, Martha Halda, and I will be returning to my alma mater, Carlsbad (Calif.) High School, where I will be inducted into the CHS Hall of Fame. The news of my nomination and induction came as a big surprise, but in receiving this award — along with five other CHS grads, two of whom I attended high school with — I’ve thought deeply about what this honor means.

First of all, the honor isn’t given lightly. With our induction group, CHS will have 25 members in its Hall of Fame (out of approximately 50,000 different students who have attended since CHS opened its doors in 1957). These include highly successful and influential people like Robert Stromberg, who won the Academy Award for production design on Avatar and is directing the upcoming adventure movie, Safari; Greg Nelson, my old Boys Club coach and inventor of the Don-Joy knee brace; Dr. Sally Melgren, one of the top ophthalmologists in the country; and Sal Masekela, a familiar face for more than a decade to millions of action sports fans who have tuned into the Winter and Summer X Games on ESPN.

Among those being inducted along with me is Patti Regan, who recently was featured as one of L.A.’s top 50 businesswomen. Our families grew up together on Basswood Ave. in Carlsbad, so that makes the day a little more special. Meanwhile, Martha and I went through all 12 years of grade and high school together, so having her there completes what will be a very sweet day.

High school is a where we’re supposed to study intently and zero in on our career aspirations. What I realized while thinking about the Hall of Fame is that I’m still doing the same things I was doing in high school — writing, distance running, listening to music, and mentoring. I began my professional journalism career while a junior at CHS in 1976, ran on highly successful cross-country and track teams, and tutored other students in Latin, writing and social studies. In a day and age when so many high school students feel aimless and are not necessarily getting good life/career direction from their overwhelmed teachers, this above all else feels very gratifying.

I was one of the lucky ones. The early and mid-70s were watershed years for diverse education and teachers who tried anything to get through to their students. Testing was a once-a-year inconvenience. The man who will introduce and induct us, Tom Robertson (known to countless thousands of thankful students as TR), was one such teacher. In 1973, while futilely trying to teach our freshman English class the romantic poets (Wordsworth, Longfellow, Keats, Shelley, Byron, etc.), he realized we were, well, clueless freshmen. He switched gears, and brought in a stack of records along with printed lyrics. These weren’t just any records or lyrics; they contained the music of Cream, David Bowie, The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Fleetwood Mac (pre-Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham), Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan and others.

For the next six weeks, we listened to music and studied the relationship between the lyrics, their meanings, and the feelings and thoughts evoked by the musicians as they sang them. When we returned to the romantic poets, we suddenly understood what they were conveying.

Almost 40 years have passed, but on the few occasions I’ve seen TR since high school, I remind him of this brilliant move and thank him for it. During those six weeks, my love of poetry, writing, music and innovative teaching crystallized. I knew I wanted to write publicly like these musicians, I loved the beauty of language and imagery conveyed by poetry, and I knew music would always be central to my life. By the age of 17, I was writing poetry, writing professionally, and writing regular concert reviews for The Blade Tribune (now North County Times), where I worked as a sportswriter. I was also the sports editor for Excalibur, the high school paper, and won the San Diego Union staffer of the year award for high school students in San Diego County. The paper’s advisor? TR.

Talk about the impact one teacher can make! Talk about the value of a single teacher in unlocking the doors of one’s potential!

I never forgot this. Many years later, my teaching opportunities came, first through writers conferences and workshops, later as a high school track and cross-country coach, and more recently, as a writing professor at Ananda College. I always looked for the opportunity to bring out the very best in my audiences, athletes and students — even if they could not yet see their higher potential. I also employed this approach with many of the more than 100 authors whose books I have edited or ghostwritten. The experiences with my professional writing and college students, along with the authors with whom I have worked, have built the measure of much of my life to date. When I think of my Ananda College students, for instance, I am filled with love for them as people, and admiration for their wonderful writing talents. Our class sessions resonated with mutual love, respect, and a deep desire to become the best writers, editors and people we could be. They pushed me as hard as I pushed them.

Meantime, my career has been quite an adventure aboard my pen, whether through newspaper writing, magazine writing and editing, book writing, scripting videos, or website writing and blogging. I have worked with the Apollo astronauts, great sports champions, Olympic gold medalists, iconic filmmakers like George Lucas, top business leaders, the men who planted the flag on Iwo Jima, surfing’s ASP World Tour during its formative years, great artists and artisans, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame musicians like Jefferson Airplane’s/Jefferson Starship’s Marty Balin (he wrote the mid-1970s megahit Miracles, among many other great songs), American Idol-launched stars like Carrie Underwood and Chris Daughtry, marathon superstars like Bill Rodgers (four time Boston Marathon champion), innovative healers and spiritual leaders of many different faiths, and medicine men in both South America and Native American traditions. I’ve also run three Boston Marathons after renewing my love of running at age 40. This included a number of training runs with Bill Rodgers, with whom I formed a friendship about five years ago.

The book I just co-wrote with Dr. Steve Victorson, The Champion’s Way, sums up what my drive has always been: to take the measure of someone’s greatness, find out how they got there, and tell the world about it. And, hopefully, integrate a trait or two within myself along the way.

Now, 36 years and quite a few books into my writing career, here is what I have learned: Nothing is more gratifying than knowing you made a difference in someone’s life through giving of yourself without consideration of reward. The happiest people are those who give selflessly to others. This has been my goal with every client, author, student or fellow runner with whom I have worked. When you ask me how many books I’ve worked on, I’m just as likely to say, “I’ve edited more than 130 books” as to give you my own book count. Giving to others is what makes us great human beings.

So on Friday, when I walk onto the stage at a packed assembly at Carlsbad High School, I will do something long overdue: I will give TR a handshake and a hug, and thank him for unleashing the writer within me. While I have had other great teacher/friends over the years (Steve Scholfield, Dr. Bev Bosak, Dr. Don Eulert, Dr. Madeleine Randall and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder top the list), TR started a ball rolling that has defined my life.

When it comes to greatness, what can top that?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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100th Word Journeys Blog: Involvement With an International Book Award Winner

I’ve been wondering what to write for the 100th Word Journeys Blog. I will still write an anthology blog that highlights this wonderful writing journey, with links to the better blog experiences. However, this morning, an ideal topic fell on my doorstep — rather, my email queue. It combines everything I care about: writing, books, education, my spiritual life … and a lifetime achievement by a man I deeply admire.

This morning, I learned that Paramhansa Yogananda: A Biography, by Swami Kriyananda, won the International Book Award for New Spirituality Books. Since I am in the middle of promoting this book for three major events directly ahead — the Yuga Cycles Conference at The Expanding Light Retreat, at which Kriyananda is speaking Saturday as one of 10 esteemed presenters; Book Expo America, which is June 5-7 in New York; and Kriyananda’s book appearance at the Ford Theater in L.A. on June 24 — my first response was, “Perfect timing!” Let’s face it: you can’t pay the New York Times Review of Books for a year of full-page ads and receive more serendipitous timing.

Then I sat back and thought about what this book has meant in my life: as an author; an educator at Ananda College who utilizes the Education for Life method (which Kriyananda initiated); as someone who first welcomed Yogananda’s teachings (that merge essential Christianity and essential Vedic truths) into his life more than 30 years ago; and as one who counts among his dearest friends many deep and wise souls who live and work at Ananda Village in Northern California (which Kriyananda founded). Never mind my admiration for Kriyananda’s prolific nature; Paramhansa Yogananda: A Biography is his 130th book (give or take). All of these books extend the yoga master’s teachings into the 21st century, and into every corner of our lives, societies, and communities. So for starters, the International Book Award serves as sort of a Lifetime Achievement Award for an incredible 86-year-old man who has given his entire adult life in service to God – and touched countless thousands of souls in the process (or millions, if you count the 4 million books he has sold).

When I contemplated how Yogananda’s teachings, Kriyananda’s books, and the many ways in which I have worked with Ananda over the past 23 years (including two stints at Crystal Clarity Publishers, 20 years apart), have helped define my life, I asked myself a question: Where would I be without it? I can come up with all sorts of answers, but few – if any – will add up to anything close to the mixture of God, joy, creativity, nature, happiness and serviceful spirit that is part and parcel of my daily life.

Then there is the book itself. Many of you have probably read or heard about Autobiography of a Yogi, the book Yogananda wrote in 1947 that remains the best-selling spiritual autobiography of all time. It has changed countless lives; Kriyananda read it in 1948, dropped his life as he knew it, and took a bus to L.A., where Yogananda received him at his headquarters in L.A. In one sense, Paramhansa Yogananda: A Biography tells the rest of the story, one that, for whatever reason, only Kriyananda has been willing to share. For starters, there are more than 60 stories that have not appeared in Autobiography, Yogananda’s other works that he wrote in his lifetime, or in compilations that have appeared since. Secondarily, Kriyananda offers a bird’s eye view of Yogananda’s approaches to many different spiritual and everyday life situations, creating a glowing narrative of this God-realized man’s enormous compassion and strength that Yogananda was too humble to write himself. That’s what good biographers do.

But then Kriyananda reached out and touched everyone: he shared what Yogananda did the past few years of his life. Yogananda ended his public speaking engagements, which drew up to 7,000 people during the 1920s and 1930s, and wrote books and instructed his closest disciples to carry his mission forward. As one of his editors, and the leader of the monks, young Kriyananda belonged to that inner circle — and was tasked to get the word out. Yogananda had a mission and a vision for bringing souls and society into a future age where energy would accelerate, communication would become faster and more global, and spiritual magnetism would grow to become the law of the land. In the Vedic cycles of time, this is known as Dwapara Yuga. Yogananda envisioned and spoke of communities of like-minded souls (like Ananda), education that emphasized the inner as well as outer development of the student (like Education for Life), and lives lived simply, with complete devotion to God.

Here we are. Here, in my opinion, is why this book bears such significance that it claimed the International Book Award. It is also why I, as a multiple book author dedicated to focusing on the highest ideals and potentials of my students, clients, friends and others, feel so honored to be working on the promotion of Paramhansa Yogananda: A Biography.

Finally, to Swami Kriyananda: Congratulations on a wonderful achievement. You have written 130+ books in your life and helped provide deeper purpose and meaning to the lives of countless people … and now, the book world salutes you. To put it in one of your favorite languages, “Bravissimo!”

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Living the Writing Teacher’s Dream

One of the many advantages of teaching at a small college concerns the amount of one-on-one time we enjoy with our students. There is no amount of book study, assignments, online tutelage, lecturing or study groups that can equal the interaction between a caring teacher and a willing student.

With the creative writing program I’m helping to develop at Ananda College of Living Wisdom, we’ve ramped it up a step further  — individual courses for individual students.

It didn’t start out this way. The plan was to have group classroom study, followed by independent study sessions. However, when the roster came together for the 2011-12 school year, Dean of Academics Celia Alvarez realized that the students varied greatly in their writing experience, topical and genre interests, grade levels and approaches to learning. So she popped the question in an email the week before I returned to campus: “Can you create a separate course for each student?”

What a challenge — but what a joy. Two weeks into this rather maverick approach, I sit here buzzing over the spiritual and intellectual stimulation this has created. Not only does my versatility as a writing instructor receive the ultimate test, but it also brings into play all the books I’ve read, the different genres in which I’ve written, and the various skills I’ve learned to inspire, motivate and help students (both scholastic and professional writers) gather their thoughts, find the structure that suits them best, trust their instincts and voices, and lay one word out in front of another. For instance, in this term alone, assigned books include all-time favorites like Annie Dillard’s masterful Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Portable Beat Reader anthology, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road,  Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild, Coleman Barks’ The Illustrated Rumi, and new favorites like Susan Casey’s The Wave and Barbara Kingsolver’s Small Wonder, poignant essays she wrote right after 9/11.

The courses this fall are certainly varied. One is a study of the fabled Beat writers — all of whom had distinctly different styles, voices and works. We’re studying them as writers, not as readers — a far different approach that requires tapping into the Beat writers’ motivations, structures and voices as well as their words. Another is a freshman course that combines creative writing with instruction on developing and composing academic research papers. So that’s two courses in one.

Thanks to another student’s wishes, my poetic senses are being filled by teaching a poetry writing class with an emphasis on spiritually infused poets like Gibran, Hafiz, Rumi, Snyder, Yogananda, Khayyam, Sun-Tzu, Li-Po, Basho, Waldman and Tagore, along with Mary Oliver, David Whyte, Denise Levertov and a few other modern-day bards. The beauty of that course is that I finally get to utilize the book-length website I wrote in 2008,  Poetry Through the Ages, as a teaching tool (thousands of teachers and students throughout the country have sourced the website for its content and plethora of teaching suggestions, assignments and projects).

Enough already? Not so. My fourth writing course, an essay and narrative non-fiction class, involves the interweaving of personal story and experience into informational pieces (those who have worked with me at writers’ conferences and workshops know this course by different titles). And finally, I’ve brought a web content writing component into the social media class that I teach, with an emphasis on something every writer who builds a website should know up front: web and social media content writing is not a creative writing exercise. It is all about marketing and knowing what to write, how to use keywords, how to write posts and messages, and where to place them.

Put it all together, and it’s resulted in two weeks of gathering materials, writing syllabi, meeting with students, and already sharing some magical moments that can only be experienced with one-on-one learning. For example, my freshman student and I talked all about the way an ocean wave looks from the inside — when you’re being covered up in a tube ride while surfing, bodyboarding or bodysurfing.  Then he went off, wrote for 90 minutes about it and painted a beautiful wave (he’s also an artist). The next day, I sat with a senior — the young man who burns to write as much as Jack Kerouac did — and read him perhaps the longest sentence in modern literature, Kerouac’s 1,200-word riff in The Subterraneans that has the staccato pace and rip-roaring rhythm of a Charlie Parker be-bop jazz solo. The point? To demonstrate what stream-of-consciousness writing sounds like, which gives the budding writer of what it feels like to write so freely and openly.

How does it feel to be part of this very far-forward exercise (which, truth be told, has a lot of the simple charm of the one-room schoolhouse setting to it)? I feel like the most fortunate and privileged person on earth. I feel like the hundreds of workshops and classes I’ve given online, at retreats, conferences, workshops and libraries all feed this opportunity to help change and inform lives. I also feel like the 45 years since I started writing stories, and all the writing assignments, books, poems, essays, articles I’ve written and books I’ve read and edited come into play, right here, right now. It is the best mindset for teaching that I can think of: fully present, required to be fully present, with every skill or bit of knowledge that preceded this moment ready and available to be used as needed.

There’s so much more. Because of the uniqueness of what we’re doing with the creative writing program at Ananda College, I’ve decided to keep a journal log of the classes, what we discuss, reading materials, feelings, assignments and experiences, and post the highlights on my Scribd.com account every week. That will also include highlights of the students’ writing. It’s just something I want to throw out there as one person’s contribution to a greater educational process.

Bell’s ringing. Time to get back to class.

 

 

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Nature’s Half Acre: The Experience

The Sierra foothills lit up with sunshine and the warm scent of pine needles as one of my Ananda College of Living Wisdom creative writing students, Kevin Davis, and I walked down a grass, kitkitdizze and manzanita-covered hill to practice one of my favorite writing sessions — “Nature’s Half Acre.”

When I first gave this exercise in 2002 at Riverstone Ranch in New Mexico’s Hondo Valley, all I could think about was the award-winning Disney documentary I watched in elementary school, Nature’s Half Acre, which celebrated the volume of life in a small space. I joined the retreatants for the exercise, which for me became a trip down history lane, as we were sitting on the very place where Billy the Kid took refuge as his pursuers tracked him. This resulted in the poem suite, “Riverstone Runes,” which was published in my book Shades of Green.

Fast-forward almost nine years. I asked Kevin to pick any place in these prodigious pine, manzanita and oak woods, draw a visual circle 30 feet in diameter around him, and shut off everything beyond that point. Then tune into the place, listen to it, enter its world — in which, according to scientists, thousands of different living beings and organisms dwell. For the next 50 minutes, his world would consist entirely of what he observed, perceived, felt, thought, heard and sensed inside the circle — and the poetic or storytelling voages on which those observations and perceptions took him.

I moved to a place of my own, amidst a circle of old pines and oaks that were felled by a vicious snow and windstorm that laid siege to the Sierra late last November. Beyond my circle, I could see the cords of neatly stacked firewood outside the house of my friend and huge literary influence, the poet Gary Snyder.  But the session pertained to what stood within my 30-foot circle.

I saw old fallen pines and oaks. Ten of them. Moss started to grow on some; others truly looked like bodies that had given up the ghost. Butterflies, gopher holes and bobcat tracks occupied space, as did a small colony of busy ants, while the old denizens of Inimin Forest ground cover, kitkitdizze, poison oak and wild meadow grass, flourished around me. Some of the old tree bark, rough and knuckled, peeled back to reveal a soft, tender interior, made to nurture — an apt metaphor for the way we build shells around our hearts.

Next, I imagined the stories these trees could tell; some had been around since the Maidu Indians lived on this ground, which, like all of Mother Earth, they considered sacred. I thought of the countless storms, fires, intrusions by Gold Rushers and timber cutters, the saving grace of naturalist John Muir and, more recently, Gary Snyder, and the people atop the hill, whose meditations on divine love and peace cast a deeper serenity on an already serene land. What stories! What wisdom! I came up with a name for the poems I furiously wrote: “Council of Fallen Trees.”

Then I noticed the seedlings, none more than three feet tall. I counted them: ten.  Eight pines, two oaks. Exactly the same count as the fallen trees. Once again, nature saw fit to replenish herself, to restart her particular Shiva cycle — creator, preserver, destroyer. The trees rise. They live for centuries. The weakest then fall, usually in a deep snowstorm or harsh windstorm.

When I looked down, I’d written eight pages of poems and vignettes. In 50 minutes. Where did the time go? I walked over to Kevin, who not only wrote out the atmosphere of his 30-foot circle, but also created a wonderful tale that tapped into the age-old promise of the pioneer — just one more hill, just one more hill…

To me, this is the essence of writing — to go to a quiet place, draw an imaginary circle of any diameter, shut off the entire world beyond that circle, and commune with pen, paper, the senses, mind, heart and soul.

And now, I will polish up “Council of Fallen Trees.” It will appear in Backroad Melodies, my next poetry and essay collection.

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Nature’s Best Friend: A Tribute to Gary Snyder

(This is a long blog, so I am dividing it into three parts — to run today, Monday and Wednesday. Enjoy)

(Talk delivered to the Ananda College of Living Wisdom, near Nevada City, CA on Monday, May 17, 2010)

I have been asked to talk with you tonight about Gary Snyder, who will be giving a reading here next week. This is both a privilege and honor, because in my nearly 35 years as a journalist, poet, author and, most recently, editor of the literary anthology The Hummingbird Review, no one has made a greater impact on my writing – or the causes, subjects, concerns and themes that have informed and populated my journalism, poetry, essays, narratives, the way I teach writing, and my present and future books.

Gary Snyder is one of the world’s pre-eminent poets and essayists. He belongs in the pantheon of the top 15 poets in U.S. history, his face on a prosaic Mt. Rushmore with, say, figures like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Anne Waldman, Allen Ginsberg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, e.e. cummings, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Denise Levertov, and the foremost Native American poet, Joy Harjo. More than that, though, he is one of the most important literary figures, a man whose writings and activities bring out his brilliance, deep soul, compassion and childlike reverence for life itself. He’s a man of the wild, in both heart and place, who lives in integrity and full commitment to that which he cherishes – our backyard. He protects the Inimin Forest that surrounds us and the San Juan Ridge on which you have lived and studied with the love of a child and the ferocity of the mythical Nalagiri – half-tiger, half-elephant. Can you imagine angering such a creature?

But we’re not talking about anger, or confrontation – although the U.S. Forestry Service, Bureau of Land Management, State of California and numerous regional and local groups would beg to differ when they’ve had to deal with Gary as he fought to protect this area. If I were the Sierra Nevada, he’d be the first guy on my team. Actually, in a sense, the mountains have chosen him. Since he and his family moved here in 1970, a few years after joining Swami Kriyananda, Allen Ginsberg and Richard Roshi Baker to purchase 100 acres – the eastern side of which became Ananda’s first community, later the Ananda Meditation Retreat – Gary has sounded the proverbial conch for the ecological well-being of the northern Sierra like no other. When he blew a conch shell to call the fabled Human Be-In to order in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in January 1967, then recited poems and chants with Allen Ginsberg to the thousands gathered on this special day that also included music by Jefferson Airplane, Quiksilver Messenger Service and the Grateful Dead, he essentially previewed things to come. That day heralded what we baby boomers know as the “back to the land” movement… intrinsically connected to Ananda’s history. Ananda turned out to be the most enduring of hundreds of intentional communities that sprouted nationwide from that movement – and certainly the most yoga-centered.

I first came into contact with Gary’s work when I was your age, a college freshman in San Diego. My creative writing professor, Dr. Don Eulert, was the founding editor of American Haiku magazine back in the ’60s. He and Gary were two of maybe five Americans who truly understood haiku at its deepest levels at that time, and they knew each other because of their mutual affinity for Zen Buddhism and love of traditional Japanese poetry. I’d already logged three years as a newspaper reporter, but I wanted to write books, poetry. Dr. Eulert deconstructed my inverted pyramid writing style – most important facts up top – and taught me to write subjectively, the way of the memoirist, novelist and New Journalism – inserting yourself into articles and essays as a participant, the rage of the day, the predecessor of today’s popular narrative non-fiction genre. Or, as Gary later put it: “Imagination–Direct Experience–the Ineluctable Present Moment.”

That’s my style now, to a T.

Dr. Eulert gave me some great books to read and told me to come back in two weeks, then we’d begin: they included White Album by Joan Didion; Giles Goat-Boy by John Barth; Sunflower Splendor, an anthology of 5,000 years of Chinese poetry; the then just-published The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe; On the Road and The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac; and one of his collections, Outposts: Letters from Buffalo Bill to Annie Oakley. He also gave me Turtle Island, Gary’s most famous collection, fresh off receiving the 1975 Pulitzer Prize. Immediately, I fell in love with the places about which Gary wrote, especially the ground on which we sit tonight. (Ten years later, my spiritual quest led me to Ananda, right next door to his place, Kitkitdizze. What great fortune to find both my spiritual and literary polestars in the same neighborhood!) Every poem and essay resonated –life on the Ridge, treasures from his years in Japan, mountains and rivers, the forests, beautiful interpretations of Native American myths, the creatures with which he co-existed as steward and equal, not exploiter and dominator. He showed the back-to-nature movement exactly what ahimsa, non-violence, looked like in practice.

(To be continued)

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