Saturday, June 9, 2012

A Jet Plane

The River Poem
by Eric Vithalani*

it is always the story, in the river, the moon

destroyed by falling leaves and then reborn.

our canoe, black, is the waters, and i see through

the spanish moss a purple martin’s script

derived and diving and ducks under a concrete

bridge where the words mi corazón se detiene

por ti, alondra are painted. what does it mean?

she asked. detiene is stops. corazón is heart,

i say. this morning we sat at the kitchen table:

she copied a recipe and i finished a crossword.

the black pens, uncapped, on top of the notepad,

left alone for the cat to knock to the floor. we

tear the seams of the water and i remember

my grandfather’s story of the snakes falling

from cypress branches into flat-bottom boats.

*First published in Sliver of Stone
Photo courtesy of Harmon Conrad.  Courage courtesy of Heron.

Today, I read an article called How to Know When You've Made It As a Freelance Writer on this site.  I don't currently have freelance ambitions, but I do have a zeal for keeping in shape as a writer.  (Could you tell?!?)  I liked the article because it talks about something I've been experiencing lately - that the only one who can legitimize you, and truly let you into the clubs of Arrival, Good Enough, and Big Hot Stuff, is yourself. 

My husband used to joke, when we first started dating, that I legitimized him.  He is a quiet person, a little shy, and somewhat mischievous-looking.  (Returning a library book one morning years ago, he was once famously mistaken by the homeless men waiting out front as one of their own.)  When we started dating, my cheerleader-notch friendliness apparently complemented his shyness.  People who previously skirted around him now sought him out. On my end, Tim brought a little mystery to my life.  When I started dating him - a man five years younger than I, who felt no need to impress others, and did not compulsively shake hands with people or bend over backwards to make friends, as I did - my life got a little more interesting.  The slender shoot of poise rose in me, and I calmed down a bit.

That's sort of neither here nor there, except that I do believe Tim and I do legitimize each other in certain ways.  More importantly, our love for each other legitimizes us, because in order to show up for each other, and care sincerely and listen and be present fully, we have to first show up for ourselves. 

I used to love a line that the character Lester Bangs' says in the movie Almost Famous: "The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we're uncool."  I quoted it in a letter to a friend once, and she latched onto it, and wrote it back to me years later.  I had completely forgotten about the line when I re-read it, and was delighted that I had once offered it up.  Being in her company at my friend's wedding recently brought this quote flooding back to me.  I had the realization that I wasn't as clueless as I usually recall, that my younger self had had inspiring heat, and had taken care of her friends well.  These are good things to realize.  

But I still feel like I have to learn the maxim behind the Lester Bangs quote almost every day - that who I am is someone I have to stand by, no matter how cheesy or uncool I feel, no matter how eager beaver or sentimental I may appear to others.  It's taken me a long time to realize that just because I'm not everyone's cup of tea doesn't mean I can't be my cup of tea every single day. 

Today, a friend asked how she could take steps to develop deeper intuition.  This friend is a young woman who reminds me a lot of myself, and all the good qualities I used to carry around on my sleeve when I was first making my way in the world.  I could only tell her the way that my own intuition has developed - by taking my heart's hand, over and over, and tuning in, listening to what I find there, and taking action based on the information I've received. 

Whether we are artists, architects, or business analysts, this is our job every day, as human beings.  It is our calling, and our right.  And yes, it isn't the easiest job in the world, but without stepping up to the challenge of it, we can miss out on what we are here to do.

It is late and boiling in our little bungalow tonight.  Tomorrow morning, we fly to see my family at the beach in South Carolina.  In addition to some free A/C, I'm hoping for pelican sightings and sleep-filled mornings. But I will settle for anything the ocean gives me.  I just want to be in the company of her shells and scavenged loves.  And to hug my mother.  It is a craving so palpable, it's an ache. 
I have one more quote before I dash, though, and it comes from Gay Hendricks' The Big Leap.  I have recommended this book repeatedly, I do realize (so shut up about that book already, Kara!).  But seriously....maybe you should read it? 

In honor of leaning in to your deepest dream, that whispers away all day beneath the clamor of other messages:

"The universe will teach us our lessons with the tickle of a feather or the whomp of a sledge-hammer, depending on how open we are to learning the particular lesson."

That seems a little harsh, now that I look at it again, as if our tragedies are our fault.  But I do believe that our tragedies are invitations to deeper awakening.  This quote makes a lot of sense to me, because I have learned - through many years and many walloping mistakes - to keep a constant eye on the weeds that grow along the path to my heart.  It is easier to correct overgrowth in passing-by snatches, than to clear a whole month just to get a grip. 
So off I am to bed.  Here is to the titles you choose for yourself - Writer, Chef, Best Friend in the World - and to believing in them (because they are true).

With love,

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Swinging the Hammer

For Tony

When you ask for a sip 
of the holy water I carry 
in my backpack like an offering 
to a minor god, tucked 
beneath the bird bones, 
gray and splintered, that rattle 
when I walk – 
sweet broken flight – 
I look at you, 
cat at the window, 
a coming-home sister 
who can’t arrive too soon. 

You were the rust 
on the side of the house, 
pink-washed blood 
on my spring-lace blouse.  
Now here you are, 
second birth. 

This roundness of family 
is wilderness itself. 
Our lungs billow 
with what surrounds us: 
alpine wind, teeth 
sharpening in the woods at night. 
We fear what others think: 
that what surrounds us 
has lost its holy pulse. 
But home stretches out before us, 
cord after cord of forgotten wood. 
We draw our lot in prayer. 

Tonight, in so many winds, 
the songs we sing 
tumble down the mountain. 
We peer to the well below, 
giddy with the sudden volume.

Some time ago, when I was at a loss with how to make the leap from at-home writer, miserably not producing, to full-time happy person, I had a nice long chat with my friend.  He followed up on our conversation by emailing me a list of viable professions.  If I remember correctly, one suggestion on the list was becoming a tennis instructor. 

I have to say, both my forehand and backhand are pretty awful.  I can whack the ball over the net - and more often over the fence - but my tennis game survives not because of skill or practice but more  out of sheer love for running around.  I would make a lousy instructor.

When I recently came across a summary of Gary Paulsen's pre-writing work career, it reminded me of my friend Lukis, and all my friends working day jobs that sometimes make us want to scream.  And it made me think of that list my friend emailed me, and how right he was in some respects, shooting from the hip to nail a career path.  Ultimately most of his proposals were pitiful matches for me, but his spirit was right on: it doesn't much matter. 

Happiness is an inner game, one to pursue recklessly.  It can be tempting to not allow yourself to play this game.  It’s easy to look foolish, and for some reason, it’s really easy to doubt yourself, and to give up on the big goals before you reach them. 
But, as long as I am active and actively learning, I don't care what I am doing: I am on the right path. 

At one time, I thought I had to be a Serious Writer.  But that thought – and practice - was making me miserable.  I am quite happy scooting around my office job now, and this morning read the advice that perhaps, instead of asking your art to support you, it’s more fruitful to support your art.

I have been taking a step back from all the pressures I have put on myself in the past few years to produce artistically.  I realized recently that I was acting as though I had something to prove – to others, ostensibly, but I think, more honestly, to myself.  I’d rather have something to explore than something to prove. Besides, I was producing a violent environment internally, one that was impossible to thrive in, and therefore impossible to productively create in.

I told my girlfriend, who is an artist, a musician, and an accomplished new doctor (who just got married in a radiant, Fitzgerald-worthy wedding this past weekend), that I bought a sewing machine recently.  Maybe she was just distracted (it was her wedding day, after all), but I found her understandably lukewarm reaction to this information reminding me of how, at one time, I would have thought that spending my free time on anything but writing was a complete and profligate waste of it. 

Now I feel deeply that the quality of my writing comes from my experience as a woman, and that, as a woman, my interests are varied, strange, and sacred. 

So, whatever your intuitive whisperings are, I hope you are listening to them, and taking sweet seconds (or whole weeks) to dance with them.  Let their messages wind themselves in your hair, take their arms hastily about your waist.  Let their secrets lead you through the barrenness of ego's caution, to the comforting thicket of your own wild and beating heart. 

And, if you are swinging a hammer, or learning to retrieve your sanity during your child's nap hour, or going crazy writing your second book, know that we are all in this life together, and that we are all doing more than all right.  And that I'm right here with you - knitting a blanket that stretches on like time itself, stumbling to my yoga mat and following my breath like the song of my old sleeping dog, gazing out of windows, lighting candles, holding out hope that there will be enough time, enough courage, enough connection, for us to make our way toward one another, and to share what we have found along the path. 

In study of beauty, and darkness, and the magic of untangling the deep, stirring dream,
With love,

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Poem, Wind, Slippers, Light

Loving the Flesh
by Todd Davis

Last night I lay beside you, unable to sleep,
and read the stories written on the cells by one
who long ago breathed into dust, shaped flesh
from earth and deemed it good, who set me
in the boat of my mother's womb rocking.
How could I imagine a heaven without
these legs, these arms, this heart that beats
inside the cage of my chest, blood pumping
outward like the first days when sap rises
to meet the warmth of some late winter sun?

Tonight after dinner as we spoke to one another
in that careless, sleepy way we do when the children
have left us with nothing more than our love
and its weariness, you told me that the things
of this world were far too heavy for you to carry
into the next, that you hoped one day death
would be a move toward something better, like leaving
an old house with no more than a backward glance.

But what of the pear, I said, whose perfect skin shines
in the basket by the window, and what of Christ
who could not leave this earth without his love
for the woman who drew water from the well,
without first cooking fish for those he knew
could never hold fast: Cool breeze of morning
coming onto shore, bread warming hands
that still ached from holes not yet healed, fire
burnt down to a circle of coal and ash.

Now going up the stairs to our room I think
about how tomorrow morning the rabbit will leave
his den, how the early light will move against the far wall
and we will wake to each other's body, how you will allow
me to kiss the top of your head, line of scar near the corner
of your mouth, the narrow bone of your shoulder blade
that peeks out from under your gown, your breasts
that tip away from your chest, like our minds when we forget
that we would not know a soul if it were not draped by skin
and muscle, by tendon upon bone, by artery and vein entwined.

I've been thinking about vulnerability again (always) and I started to write this to confront my driving desire to hide, to disappear into the surroundings around me most days.  But as soon as I write the word, invisibility, I think of writing's ability to make the invisible visible - to hold up to the light that which wants to hide, to bring the intangible to form.  Ah, language, you old goat.  I have loved you for so long.

My father gave me a beautiful journal when I was in college.  (It was actually an elaborate day calendar, a business accoutrement some associate had given him.  My father, being my father, had no use for such a heavy thing and passed it onto me.)  I remember writing little poems into it, propped on the top shelf of my dorm room bunk.  The leather, the wide pages, and the poems I tried to chase, come back to me now.  I was writing in snippets for a lot of my life, but college pulled my obsession with language straight through my veins.  I was hooked.

Over the years, I have learned that many famous writers started first in ministry, or wanting to be priests, shaman, healers, and - to quote a Ritter lyric - other 'portals of prayer.'  I was ecstatic to see this information, confirming as it did my own experience.  I once considered applying to seminary schools, drawn to the idea of devoting my life to religion. 

Now I know that art, and life itself, is my playground for religious exploration.  Someday I may find that a church once again supports this mission, too.  For now, the candle at my desk holds my flame for love, as do my friends who write with me, each of us seeking the deep river that flows beneath us all.    

Okay.  I digress.  As much as I love the practice and secret power of writing, there is also the next stage where the foundational writing is finished, where the monkish hours of formulating identity, love, and words, turn to stagnation if the inner chamber doors are not opened.  And this, I believe, is where visibility comes in. 

Two months ago, I checked Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People out of the library and, as I do with such books, left it sitting untouched on my shelf. Finally accepting that I was not up to the charts located inside (there are diagrams, people! lots of quadrants and triangles with arrows pointing around them.  It's intimidating, like a stock's annual report.  On the other hand, a lot of it could have been ripped straight out of a book about the chakras.) I started to return the book.

When I started to return it, however, a passage presented itself to me.  It said:

Well, shoot.  I can't find it now.  Let's just say it said something like: 'Recognition is one of the biggest needs we have as human beings.' 

I read a similar sentiment in a book called The Healing Wisdom of Africa, this time written about in the context of the societal need for elders and mentors.  It was put this way:

'No matter what culture you belong to, certain personal situations and social relationships are inescapable For example, common to everyone is the recurrent feeling of needing to expand and to grow. Similarly, you cannot help at certain points in your life feeling the need for the emotional, psychological, and social support of others. Everyone needs to come into some kind of visibility, and some sort of recognition...Where a mentor invites the genius of a youth to come out of its hiding, an elder blesses that genius, thereby allowing it to serve efficiently the greater good.'

Ooh, I really love that line: 'an elder blesses that genius, thereby allowing it to serve efficiently the greater good.'  Yum, yum. 

And while this isn't exactly why I am drawn to old people like a moth to the light, I love this idea of being initiated, and of using one's genius for the greater good.  I try to do this every day.  And though I fall short some days, it is this greater good which calls the monk into her cell - so that she may return and share what she has heard, what she found whispering faithfully, generously, in the quiet and the dark.  We must go in - metaphorically, physically, or merely psychically - to find our truths.  But once we find them, the power - and responsibility - then shifts to bringing them out, in whatever way is appropriate: a letter to a friend, a phone call to a beloved, a difficult conversation, a work of art. 

Every step we take is a work of art, when we bring this sort of understanding to it.

Finally, here is Josh Ritter singing about this very idea in his song, Lantern.  It's what I aim to do here, for you, and for me as well.  Because this kind of light-work may very well be what we were invited to these bodies to perform.

With love, and hope for our collecting wisdom,

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Inventory (Getting a Handle On Not Having A Handle)

Well, I found it - the picture of me among my old books, pondering what the h to do. What to keep, what to toss, what to let go to welcoming friends. And behind me all the while, my beloved old red bookcase (back when it was purple) which currently lives in my parents garage, a couple thousand miles away.

I went hunting for the picture this week, when I found myself in front of a shelf of what I have come to think of as my "spiritual" books. There sometimes seems to be no other way to think of these sorts of books. But most books are spiritual, really, and I guess that's why I'm ready to pare down this shelf.

I was a little shocked at the urge I had, though, when standing in front of the awkward shelf, wondering how to organize it better. I honestly thought it was the shelf's fault that things were bothering me so much.  It's the books, a voice inside said. They have to go.

Really? I thought, panicking.

These books nurtured me through graduate school, and helped me stay sane for most of the past seven years of my life.  I have piled them next to my pillow at night, their presence like a childhood blanky.

But for the last six months or more, they have been annoying the crap out of me, leering like angry hangnails from the corner of our living room. It is time to say goodbye.

This week, I also dug up an article I printed out a while ago, when I first started at the company I work for. The article is titled (hilariously?) Handling Your Perfectionism, and I don't remember now how I happened upon it. But I have been stressing out lately, for some good reasons, for some illegitimate, and I pulled out the article to - what else? Get a handle on my obsession with getting a handle on things.

It is my experience that what lurks behind the perfectionist urge is actually terror.  Certainly, some components are aesthetics, and a desire to perform well. But I believe that perfectionism is really an expression of fear - fear of failure, fear of being wrong, and most importantly, fear of being seen.

This fear of being seen is really a fear of being vulnerable. But, the skill of becoming vulnerable is one of the most powerful ones we can cultivate as sentient beings.  Because, as Robin Williams says in Good Will Hunting, that's where the good stuff is. And it's true.  It isn't easy to do - to stand fully within yourself and let yourself be seen as your whole, flawed, perfectly imperfect being.  But that's what courage is.  And radiance and authenticity.

It is a sleepy Sunday night over here, and my eyes are getting droopy. I wish I had a story to illustrate my point, but I thought it more important to simply write and say hello, and try my darnedest to write an imperfect post.

Lastly, I want to post these pictures of my old office during graduate school, when I felt like the worst writer on the planet.  I felt like the office was claustrophobic, and dumpy, and lame.  It looks so beautiful to me now.  And the books look so perfectly selected, clear and muscular on the shelves. 

I prefer to work with dead dogs nearby.

Eternally listening to the Avett Brothers.

The red bookshelf.  Now in red.

At the same time, the lack of confidence I had then took me deeper into myself, to find out where grace and comfort live, because the alternative - of living within the critical voices that stormed my mind and gave me migraines - was unbearable.  Pain and hope for its utter alleviation led me to the yoga studio, and to my meditation practice, and to the play of handstands and back bends, and twisting philosophy books.  It is tempting to feel shame for the mistakes we make, but what if they truly are invitations to grace?

I have heard that compassion's root is a broken heart.  This I believe - it is our healing that births our strength.

As I go, I want to say - let us all learn to be truly good to ourselves, for we teach others how to treat us when we know how to treat ourselves.  And in those teachings are the light of our hearts.  May we hold them high for one another.

With tenderness,


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Crow's Song

by Mary Oliver

    a black bear
      has just risen from sleep
         and is staring

down the mountain.
    All night
      in the brisk and shallow restlessness
         of early spring

I think of her,
    her four black fists
      flicking the gravel,
         her tongue

like a red fire
    touching the grass,
      the cold water.
         There is only one question:

how to love this world.
    I think of her
         like a black and leafy ledge

to sharpen her claws against
    the silence
      of the trees.
         Whatever else

my life is
    with its poems
      and its music
         and its glass cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness
      down the mountain,
         breathing and tasting;

all day I think of her—
    her white teeth,
      her wordlessness,
         her perfect love.

Why hello there robin, and flicker, and talkative crows.  Actually, crows are always pretty talkative, are they not?  But they are especially present these days, as are the sweet little birds hopping around the lawn.  We had a wonderful spell of warm weather here in Colorado recently, and while it has snapped back to colder temperatures, that dose of roasting sunshine was like a taste of the apple.  There is no going back to the confines of winter.  We have tasted the fruit and now know what is out there.

I will miss chilly mornings the most perhaps, and running through them, my insides coffee-hot, the air outside waking me like a bucket of cold water.  I have lately been leaving the dog at home to go running, because he is old and - believe it or not - tires before I do.  When I told my friend this, she could not believe there was ever a dog who tired of running.  But there is, and mine tires of kind attention and doting, too.  He's a little grouch sometimes, and if you are tall and male and reach to his ears too late at night after he has settled into his bed, he will remind you of this quickly.  This is all to say, it is nice to go out of the house and into the waking world alone some mornings.  Doing so feels like breaking into wilderness, like snowshoeing through trees near a sleeping bear's home, though I run through a city street lined with homes, Suburus asleep in their garage.  

I almost titled this post Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Treadmill, but that would have been misleading. I would love to buy a treadmill - love nothing more than home treadmills, in fact.  But I wanted, for some reason, to nod to Wendell Berry (who wrote this beautiful poem my friend sent me). I wanted to mimic an essay Berry wrote called Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer, but then I realized, I didn't care much about the essay. In fact, I remember it most for the professor who assigned it to my Sociology class in college. This man had a terrific mane of frizzy Bob Ross hair and played squash in 70s gym shorts, the hair pinned back by a white sweatband.  I mean, who could argue with a man like that? I tell you, I could not. (I got an A.)

I had treadmills on the brain because I've been thinking about the one in my parent's basement - the one I ran on when I was growing up in a Northern climate and sometimes needed more exercise when it was too cold and dark to be outside. The treadmill was stashed on the other side of the basement's divide, among towering boxes of tax papers and my parents college correspondence.  I used to run before bed on winter nights, playing mix tapes of horrible country songs made by my boyfriend who grew up to be a priest. 

I sort of love the memory of those nights, and it is an admittedly modest dream of mine to one day buy my own treadmill, to install it in a safe corner of my home, some place secret where I can cocoon myself away, and run and dream early, before bed.

When I visited my parents in North Carolina in January, I ran an old route that I hadn't taken in some time - across the golf course, down the easy-to-get-a-speeding-ticket-on hill, around the high school and gigantic church, past our cousin's house, past the park where my mom and I once got honked at and where she waved to a carload of men in an El Camino, thinking we must know someone inside. 

It is not a long route, but it is full of hellos, and rich in long breaths.

When I got back, my dad asked how it went and I replied, "I made it!" because we both knew that this is the best part of striking out every morning: making it home alive.

I am not a fast runner.  I am not really fast at anything I do.  But I run to find the rhythm inside, to clear my lungs and let my core gather its heat.  I run because it helps me listen and hear all my thoughts, and this kind of attention is where confidence comes from, I believe.  I wish I had the particular quote right now, but I once read a monk's definition of confidence, which he or she said comes from authenticity.  Not from accomplishment.  And a bell went off inside.

I often joke with my husband that I never win anything.  Growing up, my friends won the awards, were the valedictorians, are the lawyers and doctors now.  I've always been a little on the outskirts - perhaps because I hold myself there, afraid of the fall from the top.  My husband won awards for his work in graduate school, while I extended my degree and tried like hell just to finish it.  I am becoming aware of this tendency of mine to draw out accomplishment and dissipate it, but I think it is more a lesson I've been trying to learn - to be happy where I am, in the middle of things, feeling my way along, defining accomplishment for myself.  And this is why I run - to say hello to my however-fast-they-are legs, hello to my jangling or ecstatic or reflective thoughts, hello to the world outside - and all it offers.  I run to explore.

And so, I write today to salute your own way of exploring, and to greet all the bears waking, stirring, stretching - inside and out.
With love,

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Saturday Morning

That Little Something
for Li-Young Lee
by Charles Simic

The likelihood of ever finding it is small.
It's like being accosted by a woman
And asked to help her look for a pearl
She lost right here in the street.

She could be making it all up,
Even her tears, you say to yourself,
As you search under your feet,
Thinking, Not in a million years...

It's one of those summer afternoons
When one needs a good excuse
To step out of a cool shade.
In the meantime, what ever became of her?

And why, years later, do you still,
Off and on, cast your eyes to the ground
As you hurry to some appointment
Where you are now certain to arrive late?

Hi!  It is Saturday morning and I am listening to the super dramatic music of the soundtrack to The Assassination of Jesse James.  I haven't seen the movie but I am reminded of my high school years when I used to lock myself in my parent's beautiful living room (sinky leather couches, deep red walls, shelves lined with old classics untouched for years, and cupboards stuffed with rotating family trinkets - an old gavel, pewter steins, someone's old corduroy bunny) and watch broody movies like Legends of the Fall or The Ice Storm, my limbs lifeless under a heavy blanket, icy Connecticut snow outside, and whole afternoons left to my moody, melancholic disposition. 

On the subject of melancholy, I really want to talk about The Enneagram here!  But I won't because I have other things to say.  My friend Amelia thinks the Enneagram is a comically made-up word.  So is the word psychobiography, I think.  I discovered this word on Wednesday when I started reading An Emergency In Slow Motion, by William Todd Schultz, about the work and psychology of Diane Arbus.

Any word that forces one to pronounce the long o in psycho is just scary, no?  At least the word psychology lets that sound slip into a soft o, and ellipses the frightening term, psycho.  Somehow the long o in the word psychobiography sounds just awful to me, and makes me think of a murderer's tool chest.

This not what Emergency in Slow Motion is about, thank goodness.  I won't go into the author's definition of the phrase psychobiography, but I have been curious about Diane Arbus and her work ever since Tim's brother bought us a cast-off copy of the movie Fur, starring Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey, Jr., from the Blockbuster sale bin one time that he visited us in grad school.  My friend Corinne found the movie comically gratuitous, in terms of its portrait of desire.  I sort of loved it for this factor, and still feel a little guilty that I like the movie, but I will honestly watch Robert Downey, Jr. in just about anything - perhaps because of the fact that Zadie Smith declares in her collection of essays, Changing My Mind.  Smith declares RDJ one of the biggest screen hogs of our generation. 

I have been thinking about Diane Arbus, in general however, because of conversations with Amelia about artistic figures who commit suicide.  When I was younger and somewhat confused about what I wanted out of life, I could not read the literary work of people who had eventually killed themselves.  It seemed too dangerous, like I could catch their thoughts through the page and one day find myself more lost than I already felt. 

Lynda Barry says this in a much funnier way on her awesomely goofy cd, The Lynda Barry Experience, which pretty much sounds like a seventh grader in a closet recording skits on the B-side of a mix tape.  In "Naked Ladies" (Track 3 for those of you following along at home) she says: "Around then, you had to be very careful about looking at Playboys, because, you just might be a lesbo by accident!  It was like, when you sit by a high window, and you’re scared you just might throw yourself out."

I once confessed my squeamishness about getting too close to the material of people who commit suicide to another friend who responded, "But they weren't sick when they made their art." This may or may not be true, but it worked for me, and I can now appreciate what an artist is trying to say, regardless of how sordid their personal life may or may not be.  In short, I don't know if personal lives say anything about a person's work or not, and I now find myself able to mourn someone like Arbus' suffering, and learn about it, without judging or fearing it. 

Emergency In Slow Motion makes the great point that art is not "intrinsically therapeutic."  Instead, Schultz says, "it can be an immersion in products of self-expression that mirror our troubles back at us so that we see them metaphorically, but still glaringly. Then it's a matter of what we do with this information, what we make of it. We can turn away again, re-repress what we've inadvertently discovered, or try some means of assimilation." 

I wanted to write about this, because I felt profound sadness reading an email Amelia sent, responding to my question, "Did Virginia Woolfe kill herself?" (Obviously, I have not seen or read The Hours, and I doodled through too many lectures in high school and college.)  Upon my learning that Woolfe did, indeed, drown herself, Amelia wrote, "It's a difficult thing to accept: she seems so NORMAL in her letters. But she never really wrote during her spells of mental illness. That seems weird to type, but that's kind of how they describe it in the the book I'm reading."

At a conference panel, the writer Richard Bausch once said, "I don't always love writing, but I love
having written.  To write is to be healthy."  This is true for me.  Sometimes I think of writing as floss for my brain.  Without that sort of artistic hygiene, darkness can build.  I don't mean to suggest that not creating art will lead to bad things, or that not creating is a sign of bad things already happening.  I just mean, these things are mysterious, and complex, and I hope that we all pass through them in tact, or as in tact as we are meant to be.

I have posted before what I love about writing - how it returns the world to me in new light.  It helps me to see things more purely, un-fogged by the screens of my own psycho-spiritual judgements.  At the same time, it helps me to accept more mystery, to fall in love with people, and events, and places in deepening recognition that what I thought was, may not be.  This is a gift to me - a great humbling of my mind and expansion of my heart's eye in the face of everyday, unstoppable miracles.

A New York Times article about Lynda Barry says, "Narrative, Barry believes, is so hard-wired into human beings that creativity can come as naturally to adults as it does to children. They need only to access the deep part of the brain that controls that storytelling instinct. Barry calls that state of mind 'the image world' and feels it’s as central to a person’s well-being as the immune system."  

I leapt out of my chair when I read this articulation of "the image world," because I am always looking for different ways to talk about this fact of healing, a fact that feels as clear as day to me. 

Several years ago, when my friend Dhara introduced me to her guru, Neem Karoli Baba, I latched on to his loving message quickly, because his big thing was feeding people.  He said, "God comes to hungry people in the form of food.  Feed people, love people, remember God." 

Sweet, huh? 

Last night, I skipped Kirtan to go out with my husband's Fed Ex friends, and eat at a silly, beach-themed restaurant in the middle of town.  This choice makes me think of my friend Rachael Crawford-Goolsby's definition of freedom, a combination of her own philosophy and that of Douglas Brooks:  "Freedom is choosing to bind to what is meaningful."

I love this so much, because what is meaningful to us personally is so diverse, and only we can define it for ourselves.  It is empowering to think of life in this way, and this is one of yoga's - or any practice's - gifts: a return to the sanctum of the heart, and the riches there which can never be disturbed, which can only be distracted from or covered over.  The definition also paints freedom so accessibly - in the present life - instead of the
idea of freedom; a dusty, high-way traveling way of being.

I do love highways, though.  Don't you? 

Finally, I want to share a fantastic interview that my friend's boyfriend did a while ago with the musician Jesse Sykes.  In it Sykes says, "I am an artist and music is my medium."  I guess I believe that we are all artists, in our own way, and we all just need the courage, excuse, or self-granted permission to find our medium.  This is my prayer, anyway.  That everyone finds the medium to bridge their confusion to clarity, their suffering to peace, and their heart's natural hopes for brilliance to the fulfillment of those hopes.

My stereo has switched from the sonic ocean of Nick Drake's soundtrack to the upbeat tempo of Justin Townes Earle's boot slapping on the floor.  Tim and I saw this formidable artist in January, on a local stage, turning and sliding around the little oriental rug with his guitar, his slinky back-up singers flanking his intense concentration.  It positively looked like a man dancing with his woman in the privacy of their living room, like the audience was an after-thought, a privileged set of onlookers witnessing this man's intense ballad to, and dance with, his love.  I held my breath through a lot of the performance, afraid that he would suddenly remember he was not alone and stop his awe-striking activity.

We all have the capacity for this devotion to our gifts, I believe.  People like Earle who bring it out of themselves so ferociously take my breath away, and this, I believe, is the gift that artists bestow upon the world.

With this, I say Happy Saturday, beloveds.  Go forth and bestow!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Wheel

"Simon explained truth to me," Thomas said. "If there's a tree in the distance and you run to get there, run across the grass with all your heart, and you make it and touch the tree, press your face against the bark, then it is all true. But if you stumble and fall, lose your way, move to the city and buy a VCR and watch cowboy movies all the time, then nothing is true."     
- from Sherman Alexie's "Special Delivery," in The Business of Fancy Dancing

Me looking serious, with my laptop and Tim's unexplained collection of air fresheners.
In lieu of a passage from my journal (wink!), I give you something from a book called Material Culture, by Henry Glassie.  It is from a chapter titled - beautifully, I find - The Potter's Art:

"...Fevziye will not pursue the potter's trade when she marries and moves to Germany, but she will not lose the strength she gained in her apprenticeship. She will become a woman of the modern world, but she will remain free of the debilitating anxieties that bedevil people who have never known creation in their own hands.

That is one purpose of art. It brings confidence to its creators. Those who make things know who they are. They have been tested and found able..."

I stumbled on this passage as I lounged in a luxurious blue reading chair at Christmas.  My brother-in-law (TMTA) was reading the book, and I picked it up because my eye kept reading its title as Maternal Culture, clearly a sign of where my heart was on those long, cozy vacationing days.

When I opened the book, however, I found some of its contents not far from what I might find in a book on maternal cultures.  Trent and I launched into a discussion of what makes art valuable, i.e. what to pass on to students, what makes art good, etc etc.  Lots of coffee may have been consumed by that point in the day, you see. On my part. All on my part.  I was arguing that there is no way to define what makes a work of art good, except by the individual, and Trent, bless him, was listening. 

When I first started grad school, and read Lorrie Moore's Birds of America, I latched onto one of the lines therein, something glib and brilliant, something like, "But she did too much yoga and nobody listened to her anymore." After that, at school, I always worried I was The Yoga Person in the room, which was otherwise full of True Intellectuals.  Keep the fluff to a minimum! I warned myself, half-joking, half-serious, and 100% conflicted. 

I don't know what to make of that conflict anymore.  The Henry Glassie passage above moves me so greatly because I know now what it means to find my own rhythm, a secret knock that no one else knows, the tattoo by which I find myself again, and this is the gift of art, I believe.  At least, that is how I found it - by leaning into the voices of creation inside, and bundling this sacred flame again and again as I visited my computer and colored pencils, which often reveal more to me than hours on my meditation cushion. In my experience, the act of creating something takes me inside, and it is there I find joy.  Sharing what I find there is light-giving - to the communicator, and to the listener.  And this is all I need to know when I see or read or touch a creative piece: Where is its light - for me?  Where am I traveling to, in the hands of this work?

Over Christmas, Trent and I talked about what happens when he doesn't make it into his studio.  In short, problems loom larger than normal.  In my own life, it is the same.  Those who are called to create (which we all are, in our own way) find
themselves when they create.  In yoga, there is a lot of talk about co-creation.  This is in the Bible too, by the way, in the concept of free will.  However you look at it, without participating in the act of creation - with creative forces that are bigger and wilder than our own possible invention - we lose our way.  The path grows over itself.  Shit gets stale. 

The only way to clear the way is to bring to it the attention required by creation.  This is what we practice in meditation - bringing the attention back.  But with art - or writing, or cooking, or learning the guitar - it is a more extended meditation.  And it is one, I believe, that can heal us all.

And so, onward beloveds!  To whatever craft, scrapbook, and poem calls your name.  Or calls Her name - wanting you to bring it into form. 

Here is a video about the art and bliss of balanced containment, courtesy of my friend Amelia, whom I once shied away from because I find her gorgeous.  What a reaction!  I grew shy in the face of something I admired, which is maybe a little weird.  But Tim said this week, when I couldn't believe that an old friend missed me and loved me as much as I love her, that it's only natural. When we love fully, we are vulnerable.  And that vulnerability makes us act a little weird and squishy sometimes. 

Perhaps fittingly, the video briefly describes the happiness that comes from finding and protecting your own inner sanctum, and it features a woman with curly hair.  I approve of curly hair, and I also like the underlying follow your bliss message at which the video hints. 

Speaking of bliss, tomorrow I travel to my beloved North Carolina to visit friends, kiss the ocean, and retrace some of the paths I've walked.  For the rest of this week, and cherished, cherub-filled February, may you clear the way for bliss - however she makes her way to you. Or more importantly, however you make your way to her.

All love, all bliss,