Monday, January 12, 2009
An Interview with Cynthia Pittmann by the Novelist, Elizabeth Wix
On a Sunday afternoon, with the TV blaring "We Were Soldiers" in the background, Elizabeth Wix, author of "The Three Graces" and presiding head of About New York blog had a blogger's conversation with Cynthia...
Elizabeth: While you are in Puerto Rico, what things do you miss about the US mainland? - and vice versa.
Cynthia: The first thought that springs to my mind is freedom to walk. I love Puerto Rico but because it is a Latin society, though influenced by the United States, some gender traditions are hard to break. Why does it communicate that I'm "available" if I walk alone on the streets? When I lived in town, I counted all of the "incidents" I suffered through because of walking alone. On average, one harsh event a month for thirteen months in a row. I decided to be more careful, to change my walking habit if you will. I decided to make myself walk in protected/controlled areas. Don't you miss so many things when you leave some place? I miss Michigan for the soil and earth, and the extroverted straightforward people. I miss California because of the space, freedom to explore and general acceptance of difference. I miss Tennessee because of the way people value books and the "craft of making" out of anything that's handy. When I live in the country in Puerto Rico instead of the city, I miss the coffee house feel of local bakeries, the accessibility to art galleries, historical locations, the beach, and the theatre/music scene. With every positive choice, I have to accept that it is also a turning away from other possible choices. Living in the country now, I have freedom to have animals, garden, and lots of space but I also have to drive into the city every work day and take care of many things. It's like I live a double life; there's the 'country me' and the 'city me'. I'm on vacation now so the 'country me' is showing, I think my posts will change when I return to the chaos.
Elizabeth: What three books do you think have influenced you most as a writer and as a person?
Cynthia: I'm not going to choose the best books, or my favorite books or even books that I enjoyed, necessarily. I don't think a book has to fulfill these requirements to be personally influential. I'm looking at myself up-close after having read these three books a long time ago and my focus on life-impact brings my attention to these books. Another selection consideration is that a book does not have to be well written to make an impact because sometimes it's a matter of perfect timing. Consequently, the books that present themselves to my mind at this moment are: The Communication of Innovation; A Cross-Cultural Approach (Everett Rogers and F. Floyd Shoemaker), and At the Bottom of the River (Jamaica Kincaid) and Writing Down the Bones (Natalie Goldberg).
The first book is a communication research study on how people change, e.g what makes someone from another country go against custom and accept a water treatment method if they don't believe in the findings of health study research? I read this book from cover to cover. I memorized the research data, and understood two important terms "change agent" and "opinion leader." (A "change agent" is the person who tries to introduce positive change and an "opinion leader" is someone who is from your own community that you trust to judge in situations where you lack expertise. Change agents must rely on opinion leaders in order to help communities.) It was practical research for someone who ponders how to make a difference in the world and it inspired me to continue on to graduate school where I majored in communication. The Jamaica Kincaid book of prose poetry made me decide that my own poetry and prose might be okay even though it didn't always follow traditional models, and helped me to decide that I wanted to continue my English literary education in something that focused on "minority" literature. I discovered that the only way for me to study literature was comparatively, i.e. there is no need to avoid traditional literature. Natalie Goldberg provided me with a private writing technique, which combined meditation practice with writing practice. I needed to learn to write without being concerned about results. This book is organized in short chapters that are built around an autobiographically based story, which often ends up suggesting a writing activity. I use this casual but intense approach to writing because it pushes me on to the next page or the next writing project.
Elizabeth: If you could magically acquire a new skill/characteristic or talent what would it be?
Cynthia: I would love to trust life. I know many people feel a normal confidence in life but I'm talking about a particular kind of trust, more like a complete letting go combined with secure action. Years ago, I had a near-death experience where I felt completely at ease, peaceful and so utterly well (words don't describe the feeling). Since that time, I know that I have a great distance to go before I feel that in ordinary everyday life. I'm not talking about a religious experience, but maybe a spiritual experience. I just knew that all was well. Briefly, I had a car accident. When the car started rolling, I tried to control its spin, but I couldn't because the steering wheel would have broken my arms if I grabbed hold of it. I felt complete terror, more than I'd ever known before or since. Suddenly, I had the thought, "It's out of my hands." (literally and figuratively!) With this realization an incredible peace flooded me. As I watched the rest of the accident unfold, I knew that whatever happened, I would be fine with the outcome. Now that I know complete freedom from anxiety, I yearn for that peace every day of my life.
Elizabeth:You have an afternoon all to yourself -no chores or obligations -How would you spend it?
Cynthia: I think I'll bore others by answering this question. I could invent something but it wouldn't be true. Okay, I would listen to music, do some hatha yoga, light a candle and write. Which is what I do anyway, even if there is no time. I might vary the activities a little because I read so much that I even forgot to mention it. Maybe I should paint, take up photography, or enroll in singing lessons? My blogger friends are starting to inspire me...
Elizabeth: You have $1000 to give away. To whom would you give it?
Cynthia: Another tough question...one thousand dollars is not a lot of money and it's a one time give away, right? When we first moved to Puerto Rico, I was painfully distressed about the homeless people. I tried to do what I could. I got to know one such man, Hector, who was living on the streets near my apartment by the beach. He would ask me for money sometimes, or clothes, or batteries. He started coming to my window and calling "Misse, Misse" at all hours. I told him to wait until I was outside before he made requests. He wanted earphones for a CD player but the player was broken. He couldn't understand that earphones wouldn't make him be able to hear sound. While out for a walk, I saw that he was sitting near the dumpster by the Orchid Palace drinking orange juice and gin/vodka/whisky(?); he hid it from me. He started calling me "jefa" (boss lady) and it started to feel like an overly dependant relationship. I was helping to make his life worse. I felt troubled. Now, I'm trying to help with the stray dog problem here in Puerto Rico. But the animals need so much care, and our environment can only handle so many dogs. Between the injections, neutering, medication for health conditions, it cost so much more than a thousand dollars. And then there is the problem of violence expressed in hate crimes and war...and what about the world hunger problem?
I assign my students research projects on the homeless, animal abuse, violence and poverty and they come up with the most insightful ideas. Plus, they have the added advantage of youthful hope and willpower to accomplish difficult tasks so I feel I'm helping in some way to inspire positive change through these assignments. Consequently, I think if I had a thousand dollars, I would give it in a scholarship to a student who has the will to study but not the means. Maybe I would call it the "Practice Peace" or the "Pondering Paradox" or the "Will to Change" scholarship. (Okay, I'm free associating with the title but you get the idea.) It won't pay for much but the gesture would let that student know that someone cares if she/he finishes and would notice her/his contributions to our world.
Cynthia: Elizabeth, thank you for your excellent and provocative questions.
Getting to Know You; An Invitation
Elizabeth was interviewed by willow, if you would like to be interviewed by me please leave a comment here. I'll write the questions and email them to you. You post a link to my name and Elizabeth, and then invite others to be interviewed. I enjoyed thinking about these questions and I will try to come up with good questions for you as well!
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