Yesterday morning I was making French toast, and thinking about my upcoming Fearless Writing workshop, which will be in Little Rock this coming January: two seemingly unrelated tributaries of thought and action joining together.
First, the French toast. Here in Vermont, there are lots of good artisanal bakeries. When I'm short on
time, or don't feel like mucking up the kitchen counter in that singularly messy flour-and-sticky-dough-bits
post-kneading way (inevitable when baking bread
at home), the choice of good local breads is abundant. When I purchase, rather than make, bread, our current household favorite is the crisp-crusted, texture-y "Mad River Grain" loaf from Red Hen Baking Company,
in Waitsfield, Vermont. How can you not like a company that describes this particular loaf on their site as "A
veritable orchestra of grains and seeds! (Or maybe a 70's funk band is
more your style?). " The Red Hen breads are made with levain,
a natural, moist slightly soured leavening which helps them keep very well, for at least two
days, right in their nice brown paper bags.
What was on hand yesterday was a part of a loaf of Mad River Grain that was four or five days old. We are talking hard. Not spoiled, not moldy, way too good to waste. But hard. Seriously hard.
French toast was in order, if I could saw through the loaf.
Now, the day before, I had done sawing of a different kind. I had --- I think --- solved a consistent problem about set-up on a workshop I teach, Fearless Writing (which will also be a book, to be published by Ten Speed Press in 2011).
See, I just love teaching this workshop and I have infinite confidence in it. It substantively transforms the way people write and think about writing. It makes sense of and utilizes the feelings of anxiety that inevitably arise in creative endeavors. It works for writers, would-be writers, and even people who don't identify themselves as writers at all. Many people take it for the fearlessness, using the writing practices as a tool for personal development (though they, too, often find themselves better writers by the end of the workshop). There are always breakthrough moments (and pieces of writing done in session) that take my breath away: surprising, moving, strange, fascinating, funny, unpredictable.
And I get to witness all this! I even, as the teacher, get to "facilitate" it (quotes because the word "facilitate" is too manager-speak for me). The process energizes us both: me and the students.
But even though I am the teacher, and a good one, I am also, at the same time, forever and always a student of that process.
Fearless is, after all the same map I follow when I write (48 published books and counting, though the unpublished work is equally important to the process of growth as a writer). It's the map I use when I take on almost any challenging life-endeavor. And each time I teach it I get a refresher course, for, as psychologist Richard Price once said, "You always teach what you most need to learn. You are your own worst student."
But when I was also the one who was responsible for organizing the workshop --- registrations, confirmations, promotion, and so on --- the experience was not energizing, but frustrating.
Naturally, I want registering for the class to be impeccable and simplified. But this isn't easy when an individual, rather than a sponsoring institution, does it, and in a wildly varied number of locales. And when that individual is me, whose real work is teaching and writing, well, handling this aspect is like speaking in a second language, one which I can understand and function well in, but only with effort, only if I pay attention to every word. Since each possible venue had
different physical arrangements, parameters, expenses, directions, add-ons, and options, there seemed to be no way to make it systematic: each time I did a workshop independently, the registration-wheel had to be reinvented.
Besides being time-consuming for me, it wasn't simple and easy for students. I wasn't set up; I didn't take credit cards. Poor old Fearless Writing students had to go through low-tech high-bother shenanigans: printing out a registration form, filling it out by hand, writing a check, putting it in an envelope, sealing, stamping, and addressing that envelope, getting it to the post office, etc: things that once might not have been a big deal but are now dinosaurish ways of communicating and transacting. For sure, though, my students, being willing to go through all that, were always a very committed bunch.
Doing this type of administrative organization was, for me, possible ... but as hard as the five-day-old loaf through which, yesterday morning, I was trying to saw. Which is why in the past few years I've mostly taught Fearless only when there was a sponsoring organization or institution (like Rowe Conference Center or The Studios at Key West, to name two of my favorite recent hosts).
I did finally succeeded in getting through the very hard loaf, using a serrated knife and much determination. Thin, even slices were out of the question, but yes --- there would be French toast. And this was the point at which it and Fearless Writing began merging in my thoughts.
Because the day before I had finally solved the organization/registration problem, this, and problem-solving in general, were on my mind as I began the next step of the French toast: whisking together eggs, milk, dash of salt, and a good healthy pour of Tahitian vanilla (first opening the small brown bottle and sniffing it, an automatic small kitchen reflex, simply for extra sensual pleasure).
Because how did I solve the registration? The same way, at least at the start, that I had just sawed through that boulder-hard bread: with frustration and determination. First, I'd gotten annoyed enough to think "Oh, for crying out loud! There has to be a better way to do this!" (I wonder how many good discoveries, small and large, have begun this way. Probably about as many as books written by former non-writers, who, reading something they were partially engaged with and partially irritated by, said to themselves, "Hey! I could write better than this!" And then did.).
The Red Hen folks kindly offer a page they call "our favorite uses for day-old bread". French toast is not on it, presumably because everyone knows how to make it. But in case you happen not to know, basically what you do is beat everything listed above (except the bread) together. Then you put the dry bread in this mixture, allowing it to soak it up and soften. And then, after awhile, you brown the soaked bread in a hot buttery pan.
About softening: bear with me for a second here.
when I used to live in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, I'd go to a remarkable
physical therapist / healer, a sweet,
smart funny guy named Michael
Avenoso (pictured, unflatteringly blurrily, left) who eventually became, and still is, a friend, as is his wife, Jae. (I've mentioned Michael before, in the post Blue-Ribbon Silliness. ) Back then, Michael did a kind of bodywork called myofascial
(He'd still be doing it today, were he not himself --- so unjustly! --- nearly crippled by advanced Lyme Disease, which he got when quite young, and which went undiagnosed for many years. Why this should happen, to someone who gave so much, and still had so much left to give, is one of those mysteries that stick in my craw big-time whenever I hear people say things like, "Everything happens for a reason." But now I am digressing).
Michael examined, with eye and hands, my left trapezius (upper back). There, for years, I'd had intermittent, sometimes debilitating spasms which could last days, even weeks, and for which I had tried every type of mainstream and alternative therapy I knew of, with no success. Michael was going to be my last last attempt at treating a pain I'd come to view as inconstant but chronic. "Hmmm," he said, "I think we can get it healed in ten, maybe twelve sessions." And we --- he --- did.
Now myofascial therapy hurts. Fascia, in case you don't know, is a type of connective tissue. If you've ever cut up raw meat --- how weird is this for a vegetarian to say? --- you've seen it. The red part of the meat is the animal's muscle fiber; the white, its fat. Now think of those very thin, translucent stretchy strands of connective tissue, called, by chefs and cutters-up of meat, "silver-skin," for it is a sort of bluish-silver. Silver-skin is fascia. And what Michael did was somehow, without actually breaking the skin, was to somehow reach beneath it and manipulate the fascia, ripping up the adhesions that presumably kept the dysfunctional muscles in place.
And I mean ripping.
It all hurt, but there were certain especially painful manipulations. When Michael was about to do one, he warned me. We
had to work together, he explained: for him to get in there and do his thing, I had to
unclench, relax. This --- in the face of pain I knew was about to be inflicted on me --- was about the most active, willful, focused relaxation I've ever been called on to do.
And here's what Micheal would say.
"Soften. Soften to my fingers. Soften."
Somehow, I did. He was able to heal that injury, which has thankfully not been part of my life for more than a decade now.
Over the years, when I find myself tightening into resistance --- resisting getting down to work (or resisting finishing work for the day. even though it's one in the morning and time to go to bed), resisting listening to something I consider asinine, ill-informed, unfair or downright loony, resisting hearing news that I know I won't want to hear --- over the years, as I feel the quills rising and the tightening shell of anticipatory defense, I say to myself, "Soften."
I say to myself, "What does it hurt to listen?"
I say to myself, "Just start, set the timer for 15 minutes, do it, and then see how you feel."
I say to myself, "Listen, Dragon, strong people can stay open to anything. They stand on their own two feet, they know where there integrity is and they don't need anyone else to validate it. They know they're not going to fall over if someone disagrees with them, so they're not reactive, just open. They can just quietly take in whatever is being said to them, and then decide what, if anything, they want to do with it. They can afford to listen. Don't you want to be strong that way, CD? "
I say to myself, "Soften."
(Above right: a recent picture of me, taken by Walter Fogg, of the Brattleboro Food Co-Op. I'm the December cover girl for the Co-Op's monthly magazine, Food for Thought. They've named me Producer of the Month, though what I produce is not honey or wine or vegetables but books, though many are about food. When I looked at Walter's photograph, in comparison to earlier photos of me, I thought, yeah, I have softened. And no, I don't mean just around the jaw line. )
As I put that good but extremely hard bread, in its big chunky ungainly slices, into the egg-milk-vanilla mixture, I thought about the process of softening.
About how it had taken frustration to saw me open, and "There has to be a better way" to make me consider the possibility of finding some kind of new, workable approach to the registration problem.
Of course, I'd have to find the ingredients in which it would make sense to soften. Something which would be worth absorbing. ("Solution": both the answer to a problem and a liquid into which something has been dissolved.)
That's where research came in (and where the analogy falls apart; obviously the Mad River Grain bread slices didn't decide to soften and then go out and research milk and eggs). But so what? Though the bread was still so hard it really didn't want to absorb, it was sliced and in the liquid and I I had it in my sights now, just like I had, the day before, the conviction that a potential Fearless admin solution existed.
Research is an incredibly easy, even fun, adventure, thanks to the Internet (I am of an age to have researched in libraries using card-catalogs; you still had the thrill of the chase, but it was clunky, slow, and full of dead ends). As I turned the bread pieces so both sides could bathe in the eggy vanilla liquid, piling the dipped slices on top of one another, and repeating the process, I reflected that at the research point, you could say that although I was still hard, I had been sliced, literally opened, to possibility.
And it turned out there was a solution.
With a little persistence, Internet research is remarkable. It's one whoa! There are options! A lot of them out there! experience after another. And as I'd done it, the previous day, I began, like the bread, to soften in earnest. There were conference registration services! This service does this? And this? You mean I wouldn't have to... And I'd be able to find out if... Research moved into analysis, comparison... I was absorbing, in short.
Gloating, and still in some wonderment at what I'd been able to do the day before, I left the bread in its egg-milk bath alone for a few minutes, while I began slicing some good Vermont
apples of several varieties (Black Oxford, Macoun, Cox's Orange
Pippin) to saute with brown sugar and cinnamon for the topping.
After the slicing, I visited the bread again. It was at last starting to absorb, sufficiently softened so that I could poke each piece, gently, with the tines of a fork, allowing it to soak up more.
On the previous day, I finally choose an online company called, logically enough, regonline. It does only conference and workshop registrations, hence A) has a system, B) it has it down.
By now, back in breakfast world, I had a little butter sizzling in two skillets. Into one, the
apples. Into the other, the finally tender slices of egg-soaked bread,
fragrant with vanilla.
Heat is the magical alchemist in cooking, changing one thing to another, in countless tiny increments. The apple slices soften, then brown; their juice, sweet and autumnal, cooks down and concentrates, its water turning into fragrant steam on the way. And because heat solidifies protein --- the eggs in the milk in this case --- the soaked bread, now sizzling in the buttery skillet, becomes firm and golden brown and a little crisp on its exterior, and moistly tender inside. Quietly, but automatically, given the right set of ingredients, techniques, elements, and just a little knowledge, transformation happens. Hard bread becomes French toast.
The heat of finally focusing and taking action yesterday had firmed and changed me. My action, once I'd decided on the site, was the flame, the dynamic change element. Inputting the data, writing the descriptions,
learning the program, spending some time on the phone with the
amazingly helpful and available tech support folks. And then wow! No more reinventing the registration wheel for Ms. Dragonwagon!
So now I can teach, and Regonline can do registrations (you can see what I did here if you haven't already). I am happy to pay Regonline a percentage of workshop fees for this service, which is not just registration, but full details, payment, location (Little Rock, January 11-14, 2009). Everything is now there, even directions to the Historic Arkansas Museum, where it's being held. There's even the ability to take credit cards (but without my having to mess with them. for which, hallelujah --- it was a prospect that filled me with horror).
But suddenly, it was figured out! Suddenly it was easier for everyone! As the Staples people say, "That was easy."
I flipped the French toast in the pan. I stirred the apples, which were ready for a small handful of brown sugar now, and a bit of Saigon cinnamon. I called out to David and asked him to set the table. He did, and made tea.
Then we sat down to eat, in the dining room of our house (the short end of its L shape pictured left, about two months ago). By now the trees are leafless, and the ground dusted with snow, beauty still present, but subtler and chillier. But the dining room still faces out the two downstairs windows visible in the picture, and though it was a winter day, there were a few patches of blue in the sky and just a bit of sun shone in. And the French toast pieces, which at last had softened properly and browned nicely, lay overlapped and golden on the blue plates. The fragrant apple slices, translucent and shiny with their glaze of brown sugar, barely holding their shape, were in a pile beside the French toast. The whole was topped with a dab of exquisite honey-flavored cream-colored Greek yogurt, and a sprinkle of chopped pecans. Veggie soysage, too, and half a pink grapefruit for each of us. Ah.
"I'm really impressed by what you did yesterday with Regonline," David told me. "It's really good." I smiled. "Thank you," I said. "I'm pleased too." And of course, I was.
Later that afternoon he and I would go for a walk, way up into our neighbor's maple-sugaring lot. For awhile we walked rhythmically, enjoying the crunch of the icy snow and the way it sometimes alternated with the shh-shhh of the leaves underfoot. "One-two-cha-cha-cha," called David, and we cha-cha'd our steps noisily through the woods. We agreed, panting, that dance-walking was not only much more musical but considerably more aerobic than just walking.
But that was later. After we finished breakfast, David did the dishes and I went upstairs to my office (the two windows on the right, second floor) and went online.
And discovered that my first Fearless student had registered.
Eleven places left now. Maybe one of them is yours!
P.S. on December 24: only eight places are left now. Maybe one of them is yours!