Seven Questions with Jnana Hodson

I began this blog without really knowing what I was doing, which is the only way you can start some things. The blogosphere is a diverse and often perplexing place, but you can meet some interesting, creative, and kind souls. It’s sort of like the “real” world that way.

Promise

One such person I bumped into is Jnana Hodson, who blogs at Jnana’s Red Barn — a Quaker, novelist, poet, and as it turns out, a retired newspaper editor. (His novel, Hometown News, captures the small Midwestern newspaper experience so well it’s a little scary.) At right is his novel, Promise, described as a romance that leaps from the Midwest to the desert country of the Pacific Northwest.

After graduating from Indiana University-Bloomington in 1970, Jnana’s four-decade journalism career took him to newspapers in Ohio, Indiana, upstate New York, Washington state, and New Hampshire, which is where he lives now. He was kind enough to be my first Seven Questions interview.

1. I read that your first name came from your time in a yoga ashram. What was it about that experience that prompted you to rename yourself?

The name was given by my teacher at a breakthrough in my training. It recognizes my underlying approach to the universe, that is, through the mind more than, say, the heart or devotion. A year or so ago, I was told Jnana is the root word of gnosis, which then leads to know in English. In a bigger sense, it’s not just knowledge itself but the way it fits into compassion and wisdom, if I’m faithful.

2. You’re the second Quaker poet I’ve bumped into in the digital universe recently. What is it about this particular faith tradition that fosters this creativity?

In the past, Quakers avoided fiction and many of the other arts, but poetry remained closer to “true things.” John Greenleaf Whittier is perhaps the best known, although Walt Whitman also ran in Quaker circles and, as far as some are concerned, can be considered one of us.

The key, I think, has to do with silence, which is a crucial element in a poem. Just think of line breaks or the need for reflection. Quakers (or Friends, in our more formal name, the Society of Friends) worship in what’s called “expectant waiting,” which can be an hour of silent meditation when no one is moved to rise to give a pithy message, hopefully from the heart.

Sometimes I measure a poem by how closely it fits this kind of utterance.

3. How do your 40 years as a newspaper professional inform your work as a poet and novelist?

First and foremost, the facts have to be right. A poem or sentence with factual errors will lose me. I want work that springs from deep observation rather than sloppy thinking.

Second, I have a low tolerance for wordiness. Every line counts, even every word. Space is at a premium in the news business.

Third, though, is a countercurrent that appears in a resistance to news style. I love being set free to explore ambiguity, multiple meanings, a richer vocabulary and sentence structure — even a jaggedness and sense of leaping between “finished” work and its more open reaches. Now that I’m retired, maybe I’ll set a more balanced course?

4. Of all the kinds of writing you’ve done, which is the most challenging, and why?

Oh, my! My wife suggests being flippant and saying a love letter. And, to my remorse, she’s probably right.

The biggest challenge — poetry or prose — is aiming straight for the heart and its emotions and staying true, regardless of outcome. My mind wants to wander everyplace else! Maybe that’s why revision is so important to me.

5. What do you miss about Indiana, especially Bloomington?

I grew up in Ohio not far from the Indiana border, and we spent many of our family vacations camping in its state parks. Later, I transferred to Indiana University in Bloomington, where I returned a few years after graduation (and the ashram) to work for Vincent and Elinor Ostrom in their Workshop in Political Theory and Analysis as a social sciences editor. Elinor, remember, later shared the Nobel Prize in Economics, so you get an idea of the scene I was in.

Much of that initial encounter forms the foundation for my novel, Daffodil Sunrise, set in the political turbulence of the late ’60s. But Bloomington was also magical for me in the richness of its classical music scene — opera productions every Saturday night and free recitals by faculty artists who would be presenting the same program two nights later in Carnegie Hall in Manhattan. And I was deeply in love for the first time and working for the daily student newspaper as a critic and later columnist. You get the picture. It was a frothy time at the outset of the hippie movement.

Indiana itself — in spite of its current political and economic conditions — is a remarkable crossroads of America. I could wax long on the influx of North Carolina Quaker stock (including, it turns out, members of my extended family) or the German Baptist Brethren from Ohio and their influence — but by the early 1900s, the state had an incredible radical energy. You can turn to Kenneth Rexroth’s autobiography of his youth for an understanding of some of that, with Emma Goldman as a family visitor and Eugene V. Debs out of Terre Haute. Some of that energy was still in the air.

On the other hand, there was also a kind of — I was about to call it cultural lethargy but maybe that’s not quite right — so let’s say a lack of derring-do or verve, something that I see instead as a well-worn upholstered reading chair, in its place.

What I noticed later was how different the vibe was from Upstate New York, which felt rather jittery on its progressive edge.

From what I observe at a distance, I’m cheered to see Bloomington has grown more into a Bohemian mecca than it was when I first arrived — more balanced, perhaps.

6. What are you working on now?

My big project is a novel springing from the last chapter of my Subway Hitchhikers novel, where the protagonist lands in a Greek-American family. Whatever reasons intuitively prompted me at the time to envision them this way have since expanded. How do our identities shape our actions? How much do we chose to embrace family — or turn away from it? How does faith — whether chosen or inherited — focus our lives? It’s been a fascinating project, especially as it opens my awareness to a vibrant part of the community where I now live. I might add, we Quakers could use something akin to Greek dancing, where I feel ever so more welcome in taking part.

7. Where do you see the writing world heading, especially as digital publishing grows?

When I look at the Internet, I keep remembering the time when hitchhiking opened new horizons. You could go about anywhere on your thumb. And then it all came crashing down.

I’m left wondering how long this open road will last and who’s paying for all our free rides. That’s the downside.

On the other hand, as the commercial publishing world’s contracted, we finally have an opportunity to let loose wave after wave of otherwise stifled voices. That’s incredibly exciting. The biggest challenge is in connecting these voices with a supportive audience or readership.

I don’t have a crystal ball but at least my work’s getting out there, to be discovered, if I’m lucky.

* * *

BLUE ROCK LXIX

When it rains gold hoop earrings, I keep
returning to adolescence, to seek you
in a sock hop I never attended. When it

rains calculations the wild geese know,
I reach into nettles. My fingers and wrists
sting. When it rains upon my parents’

denominational traditions, we sleep as we do,
alive with points of departure. When it rains
on a muddy reservoir, you, slender lover,

remain a cipher, a case of perhaps, maybe,
what if. When it rains glances during outdoor
concerts, the past holds our future. When it

rains the skills to negotiate social intricacies,
this is not the first time you have been here.

From the Blue Rock collection by Jnana Hodson, available as a free ebook.

What was, and what’s left

Indianapolis Star photo by Greg Griffo

Indianapolis Star photo by Greg Griffo

This is the Indianapolis Star building, which until a few weeks ago stood at 307 N. Pennsylvania St. The newspaper called it home for some 100 years before moving to what used to be a department store at Circle Centre mall downtown. For a relative snippet of time, I called it home, too.

My dad, Tom Crowe, worked there from 1960 to 1990, as an ad salesman, advertising director, and finally as vice president and general manager. Long before Take Our Daughters to Work Day was a thing, Dad was taking me with him to “the plant” with the rich, sharp smell of newsprint and ink and the inky footprints in the first-floor hallway. I peered over the desks of God knows how many poor souls trying to get their work done as I followed Dad around the building. He almost always whistled. The place reminded me of a Chutes and Ladders game, with ramps, steps, and corridors going off every which way. That’s what happens when you morph two or three old buildings into one.

The mailroom was the best, because you could watch and hear the presses running. The stories the people on the second floor had written — wrapped around the ads the people on the third floor had sold — were all coming out on those big sheets of paper rattling through the machinery. The finished, folded papers that came out on the conveyor belt would then go into homes all over the city. People read the paper. They talked about what was in it. Printed words mattered.

Many drawings and homework assignments were completed at the small conference table in the office Dad moved into after being promoted to general manager. It was off the New York Street entrance — just out of the frame in this photo. There were no windows, and while the daylight addict in me hated that, I never felt anxious or claustrophobic in there. Decades later, during an energy healing session, I was asked to picture myself in a place where I felt absolutely safe and at home. I went not to a beach, shady grove, or cozy fireside, but to Dad’s office, puzzling through social studies or perhaps just reading the comics in that day’s paper while he worked.

We were a large, often dysfunctional extended family. Charlie Simmons, one of Dad’s coworkers in the advertising department, sat with Mom and me through several of Dad’s heart surgeries. Other employees confided in Dad about their battles with depression or alcoholism, or their confusion over decisions their own children had made. We went to one another’s weddings and funerals, watched the fireworks together at the Fourth Estate employee park every Fourth of July, and knew at least something about what was going on in one another’s lives.

When I went to work in the business office during the summer as a college student, Don Bates in personnel — a sideline photographer who had taken my baby pictures — took the photo for my ID badge. “No bearskin rug this time,” he said, grinning as he clicked the shutter.

I could not have asked for a more educational, and fun, introduction to the working world. Wednesdays in the cashiers’ office were hectic, as all the circulation district managers brought in their checks, cash, and money orders. Frazzled after totaling everything up and balancing on one such day, we got into a rubber band fight. Without even trying, I managed to loop one over a sprinkler head. About 15 years later, when I stopped by for a visit, I happened to look up and that same rubber band still hung there.

At the News during another break, I got to practice the copyediting and headline writing skills that would become a large part of my career. Bo Connor at the Star helped me get my first full-time journalism job at The Republic in Columbus, Ind.

Dad passed away in 1994, just four years after retiring. The first phone calls I received that day — after Mom, telling me the news — came from 307 N. Penn.

A few years later, the News closed down. Then the Star was sold to Gannett. Then came the move to Circle Centre and the sale of the building. Then came the demolition.

Nothing stays the same, and really, nothing should. Not all change is for the better, and often more change is needed because of it. If we are smart, we learn. Dad, who kept a brick from the old Detroit Times building in his office, would be the first to tell me it’s OK to let go of what was and make room for what will be.

What can we pull from the past and retrofit to work for us now? That’s a question we in print media are going to have to figure out. Most days, I think it comes down to caring about what we do and why, and caring for one another in the process. That’s probably a gross oversimplification, but it’s a place to start.

In the meantime, after we make our next deadline, I just may fire off another rubber band.

Leaning unto a new understanding

TrustintheLord

No arguments here; trusting in the Lord is a good idea. Challenging at times, yes, but still a good idea. It’s the “lean not unto thine own understanding” part of this passage that, until recently, left me puzzled.

Our own understanding, I reasoned, is how we get through life — understanding the need to steer clear of a hot stove, our neighbor’s need not to hear our stereo, and the relative insignificance of the things we worried about last month or five years ago. We are put on earth to learn, grow, and understand in order to be better earthen vessels of God’s love, right? So why would we not lean on that while we trust in the Lord? Are the two mutually exclusive, as the verse seems to suggest?

The passage above is the King James Version. The New Revised Standard Version, which was our regulation study Bible in seminary, is not much help, wording it: “Do not rely on your own insight.” The Living Bible even kicks it up a notch: “Trust the Lord completely; don’t ever trust yourself.” Yikes.

Not trusting ourselves, our intuition, and what we have learned hobbles us in life and decreases our ability to trust and serve God. If we trust that God put us here — gifts and flaws and all — for a reason, and we do not trust ourselves, are we really trusting God?

More doubts creep in: “What if I’m not doing it right? Look at all my mistakes . . . sure, God forgives, but I can’t forgive myself. Of course I can’t trust my own understanding.”

So we look to someone or something else — a parent, therapist, partner, our work, our politics — to measure and determine our worthiness. Talk about slippery slopes and shifting sands.

Clarity on this Proverbs passage eluded me for years until a friend and I were talking about prayer — not the talking, requesting, praising, or thanking part, but the listening part of prayer. We talked about the importance and challenge of letting Spirit reach through the clutter of our minds, especially the mental chatter that cuts us down, and speak to our hearts. That’s when she mentioned the “trust in the Lord with your whole heart” verse, her new favorite.

And that’s when it all clicked. That still, small voice that lifts us up — not the one that tells us we’re not good enough, nothing we do makes a difference, and that some other human being always knows better — is what we can trust. It comes directly from God to us . . . but how do we know which is which?

Doreen Virtue explores this in her book “Divine Guidance: How to Have a Dialogue with God and Your Guardian Angels.” Divine guidance comes from God and God’s creations, including our higher self, angels/ascended masters, and our loved ones on the other side, Virtue says. False guidance comes from our or others’ lower self (or ego). Our higher self is set at the factory, so to speak; it is perfect, whole, and complete, just as God created. The ego is created not by God but by ourselves as we and those around us operate under the dark illusion that we are separate from God.

Virtue includes charts that break down the distinctions between the higher and lower self, and between true and false guidance. True guidance, for example, is gentle, loving, empowering, says the same thing repeatedly, and most often emerges in response to prayer. Even if we are being warned about something, that information is given calmly, constructively, and in a way that encourages us to respond rather than react. False guidance is anxious or angry, critical, disempowering, switches topics and perspectives impulsively, and comes in response to worry.

This all fits with what I have learned and experienced about intuition, our God-given communication and navigation tool. The ego is easy to hear; it’s loud, in your face, and always has a fire to put out or someone to please. Clearing that clutter to tap into our intuition can require more conscious effort, such as prayer, meditation, or exercise (or all of these), though some intuitive insights seem to come out of the blue. In either case, intuitive or God-given information is delivered in an uplifting way. Human beings may reprimand, condescend, or rebuke; God is greater.

“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart” — not just with thine brain. If we can hear God with our hearts and put these overloaded brains of ours to use following through on that guidance, our paths may not be smooth or straight — but they will be our paths, and God’s.