Sunday, June 29, 2008

the magic of this place

this is the last of the photos from our trip to dodgeville and related areas this last weekend

(see the rest at

becky has been one of my best friends now for a few years. we met about six years ago, through pgi,
and had one of those "hey, i'm in the market for a good, close, intimate friend, are you?" conversations, and it stuck. we found buddhism together, sat through numerous writing workshops, sitting workshops and have cried together more than I have with any other person in my life.

she is brilliant, and she is leaving - leaving this land she loves so much, and me and the city that has hosted her since she left home. she'll be back one day, but for now she must go.

the best part about the trip for me was sitting on this ridge with her, and her telling me about how she has longed her whole life to share "the magic of this place" with someone. and there i was, right there with her.

The Anguish of Joy

This last week in class a student prefaced her work with a somewhat standard inadequacy statement: “I don’t like how this turned out, it’s trite, not powerful or as meaningful as I wanted it to be (this is the last class of the session so she mentioned wanting to write something significant).”

When a student manages to get this in before my “don’t give yourself feedback” monitor engine kicks in, it’s always a sign that they have written something powerful, usually very powerful, and often the kind of thing they don’t write, so powerful in a secret way. We recognize strengths and weaknesses in similarity, but as soon as we’ve reached unknown territory, we squander any chance at hope and insert rejection in before the world or anyone else can do it for us. Bonnie Friedman, in her excellent book Writing Past Dark, has a great quote about the joy of the unknown, the powerful potential of it, which happened to be the quote this week as the student shared her work:

“Australia quote” . Redrawing the map is something we are constantly doing, seeing as how we are never the same person from moment to moment, much less from class to class, week to week, lifetime to lifetime.

The students’ work was brilliant, of course, joyful and bounding, in love and open. Afterwards we all mused on why she shut herself down before even reading, and besides the usual resistances to the unusual, we also noticed a particular resistant to JOY, how we cannot seem to stand to read to others about things that bring us pleasure. “I suspect this is because a part of us can’t stand to experience the pleasure to begin with,” and the class solemnly nodded.

When I first began taking classes with Paula Novotnak (hers were called “Writing from Center” and she often quoted Natalie Goldberg and Pema Chodron), I was terrified of the other women, stuck in a small room with them, smiles pasted on all of their faces, platitudes plugging their mouths so nothing sincere could come out. Well, this is what I thought the class was about, because at the time, I thought, like a lot of us do, that compliments, support and insight which recognizes the goodness in others is far less valuable, not to mention often fake, in comparison with criticism. Fitted to years and years of writing workshops, critique take downs and elimination games, I had no idea what to do with the space she and these women provided. I rebelled and cried, faced off each of my co-students as if they were my hidden mother back from the dead, and secretly derided the class for the first few weeks for “not doing enough” for me. Yet, it is undeniable, and was then, that my writing changed the second I walked through Paula’s door, and has never gone back. Honest, clear writing, always precise, even if the precision is describing confusion. And, in fact, by the second class I was asking her to let me also become a teacher, to intern with her, in no matter how informal a way. I continued to think of compliments as the signature of the weak, dopey, bad. I even, in the same time period, took on a writing gig with the fantastic but short-lived magazine LIP, writing book reviews. Only none of them ever went to print, because the editors had to tell me that while my observations were astute, I was so negative about the books I was reviewing that it sounded as if I had totally unattainable expectations for the writers – that I wished they had written different books – which just isn’t acceptable for a review. I realized, just barely, at that time, that I had somehow learned – many different ways – that criticism is smart, and support is stupid. It was too heart breaking and profound for me at the time, without enough containers for care in my life yet, but now it is clear as a bell what my assumptions were and how they shaped my life, work, politics and even love.

I revealed this to my students tonight, and some were shocked – those who, by the grace of those who raised them, or by some surviving nature of positivity from deep inside themselves have never found negativity more valuable; some understood right away, shaking their heads in a shocking despondency to hear someone else admit that they have always sought something worse for themselves, always sacrificing, always denying, because it was believed to be the right thing, to be better, to actually be of more value.

Why is it so easy to see this now? Despite several strong personal habits which still maintain a strong minority view (my tendency to fill time rather than savor it as space, my workaholic habits which clutch me in long hours of dissociation, and my tendency not to call those whom I love the most just to allow myself to hear their voices for five minutes when needed), I know now, and with more than my head, with my heart, trained after years and years of receiving and giving positive feedback, that we cannot, simply cannot, get enough support. A teacher told me once, Arawana Hayashi, a teacher in the Shambhala tradition, when I mentioned to her that I feared being “too gentle with myself for fear of becoming indulgent” “watch for how you define things: indulgence isn’t the same thing as gentleness. One does not turn into the other.” Aha. Yes. Gentleness, true gentleness, begets gentleness.

The edifice of anger and belief in a solid self melts gently each week. It’s an indulgence, but not the bad kind. More like a fresh strawberry I can truly taste because I am present enough to its sweetness. There is a paradox where the two meet - a paradox only because we want opposites, and we want those opposites to stay apart. They don’t – instead the lessons which hurt the most wind up helping us in the end, the other side of the coin winds up being the core of the actual issue, and positive feedback winds up making us more critically acclaimed writers. Go figure.

Monday, June 16, 2008


Lately, I've been having a lot of dreams in which my legs don't function. They are tired, worn out, weak, or actually disassembled in some way - broken, cut off at the knee. There are never any graphic details I can see, but rather I just know through trying to use them that they won't work. Often this happens so strongly in the dream that I wake to go pee suspecting I won't even be able to walk or that my legs will be asleep or stiff. We're talking almost every night.

Directly, this could represent the larger amount of activity in my life - regular running, biking, walking, lifting, gardening. Maybe my legs really *are* tired. Certainly after the day long yoga and writing workshop a week ago I *did* wake on Sunday feeling stiff. But most days I wake feeling just fine. Even if a bit sore from a particularly long run or lots of lifting (good sign if your LEGS are sore!), I still don't think I should be feeling it so acutely, so strongly, all night long.

I didn't ask my acupuncturist about it, but that's next on my list. Last night I dreamt two versions of a group trip to Seattle (we're talking AARP bus group trip kind of thing) with various friends along who came to our engagement bbq on Friday (hey, we're getting married, btw!), quite a few of whom I hadn't seen recently. In both, we were lost; in both my legs were plum worn out. In fact, Dylan and I often joke about moving to Seattle - a sort of sweet sore spot, as he would prefer the weather and I might, too, but I am very attached to being here and he is increasingly as well.

So could the legs be "purely psychological"? Especially with these two dreams being "about Seattle" and so close to the engagement bbq (Did I mention we are getting married? Woo hoo!) I decided to "ask the internets" this morning and see what sites say about legs in dreams...


To see your legs in your dream, signifies that you have regained confidence to stand up and take control again. It also implies progress and your ability to navigate through life. If your legs are weak, then you may be feeling emotionally vulnerable.

To see someone else's legs in your dream, represents your admiration for that person. You need to adopt some of the ways that this person does things.

To dream that you legs are wounded or crippled, signifies a lack of balance, autonomy, or independence in your life. You may be unable or unwilling to stand up for yourself. Perhaps you are lacking courage and refuse to make a stand.

To dream that one of your leg is shorter than the other, suggests that there is some imbalance in some aspect of your life. You are placing more emphasis and weight on one thing, while ignoring other important aspects that need attention as well.

To dream that you have three or more legs, denotes that you are undertaking too many projects than you can handle. Unfortunately, you will find these projects to be unfruitful and a waste of time.

Ok. So. Huh. What I would say is that I feel very confident about the decision to get married. It's the right thing to do, I love D. so much, etc, etc. I would *think* I would be dreaming of progress and navigation, and yet, I am dreaming of weakness. I should also mention that in the last months I have had these dreams where I have a life either before, without or after D., in which (much like those I had after each parent died) D. either hasn't come into my life yet, never will, or did and we've broken up. The dreams are, not to be melodramatic, devastating. My life sucks, I am stuck on stupid dates all the time, I feel lost and lonely and gone. So are these dreams tied to those dreams?

Aha. I think I just made a connection with another website's interpretation. It was the first one I read but I bypassed it thinking it wasn't relevant...Here it is...
From Bellaonline:
"Compare the state of the legs in your dream to situations in waking life. If they were strong, embrace new opportunities coming your way. If they were weak, examine the obstacles and inner fears that are holding you back."

So. If instead of comparing the dreams to my life, I compare them to OTHER DREAMS in which my fears are much more obvious (RAISE YOUR HANDS IF YOU ARE SURPRISED ABOUT THAT ONE), then I find out that I fear losing D. Big time (as Peter Gabriel would say). "Examine the inner fears that are holding you back". Well, my fear of losing D. isn't "holding me back" in any literal way - I *know* I want to get married and I'm not letting that fear stop me either way - but it might be holding me back emotionally, especially from OTHERS.

And in particular, I suspect it's holding me back from doing riskier and more essential things in my life emotionally - for one, I have not kept up contact with quite a few longer distance friends because I am losing my closest friend in Madison - Becky - out of fear of losing her, I have shut off those who already moved away. And out of my fear of losing Dylan - far less founded, for he is not moving to Portland, but still possible - I have done the same. Ironic, isn't it? But common for me - horde what I have close by and lose the rest because I fear losing what I already have - only to lose the periphery - birdfarm, pagiepie, blackforestghetto in particular...Not that any of these folks are going anywhere, but my connection to them is fading. Weak. And those folks are my LEGS. All of these folks are my LEGS. They are my stability - my, for that matter, center, much like with centripital force, where we actually need to have the edges in order for the center to stay.

Besides, distance belies significance - those three and others may be far away geographically, but they aren't from my heart. And lest I cloister Becky and D., shut up in the whole of my grief or worries, locking them away in my dreams, it'd be good for me to reach out.

Maybe tonight I'll dream of strong legs? Or, as yahoo says, I'll dream of someone else's legs (as my own? So I admire myself?). Let's hope I don't dream of three legs or one shorter than the other....

Thursday, June 05, 2008

"Is anybody alive in here (nobody but us in here)"

-from "Miss Gradenko" on Synchronicity by The Police

Still thinking a lot about intention, accidents and synchronicity. Met a dude at the Madison Flickrmeet last weekend (flickr handle KAP'ncraig) who does Kite Aerial Photography - sends up thousand dollar cameras on his hand-built kites and clicks the remote shutter when he thinks the shot just might be right. He and I talked about control and synchronization, trust and the universe being far more creative than we are, choices and non-choices. The shots I took on the walk are good - clear and sharp, totally focused, and yet, free. I felt very free shooting, freer than usual, corralled a bit by the group, but not as much as I would on a Miksang shoot. Not working, not all alone, a good happy medium.

Other things don't feel so clear or good right now. My sinuses continue to give me trouble, and I alternate between exercise and activity, rest and refusal to stay sick. I finally got taken down yesterday, a sore throat scaring me into mono fears, and today I have mostly rested - slept 12 hours much to the cats' happiness, and only attended a small meeting and deposited my income for the month at the credit union. I have been following reading freedom all morning - first with another installment of a students' memoir (not yet published), snippets of Notes on the Need for Beauty (a loan from a student - book by the author of The Book of Qualities, by J. Ruth Gendler I mentioned a couple of weeks ago) and a return to a book given to me by a student and she introduced me to the single most significant genre I have understood in so long: "lyrical essays". This student, the one who gave me Deborah Tall's book A Family of Strangers, has been writing lyrical essays for a long time and was frustrated by the classification "creative non-fiction" feeling it too broad to suit her writing. And so she found out lots about lyrical essays, which are certainly what she and most of my students write in class, and this also gave definition to my own writing. My attempt at applying this to the "family memoir/novel" I had left aside for now ...but re-reading over parts of Tall's memoir (Family of Strangers) has allowed me to reconsider- maybe I could write a whole book like that, alternating "fact" with "fiction" and memories, mistaken or real...

The need for narrative drive fascinates me. How much we need to read, or think we need to read, something with a plot really points at the way we depend on stories in our own lives to sustain us. This leads me to wonder, and only wonder so far, if maybe a truly "Buddhist" literature would be a plot-less one, or one which questions/wonders about plots. Perhaps there are more and more of these books out there - certainly Tall's book wonders about these questions, having grown up in a family of secrets and forgotten memories, a life lacking in narration of the past and even, as she says, "In time my parents' habit of secrecy leaked over into areas that needn't be suppressed at all." The absence-as-presence of my actual parents, both being dead, throws me into a similar void, with catches from siblings of history, barely backed up, like a fading computer aging into oblivion and no external hard drive in case one of us crashes. Or maybe we *are* those external harddrives, no longer connected to the original sources?

My best friend in town, Becky, has decided to move to Portland slightly earlier than was planned - August now, instead of November. I have entered into a defensive mourning posture - though I see her on a regular basis still, I've been isolating myself a bit, combined with being sick, or half sick most of the time, plus changes in weather, I haven't been calling folks as much or going out as much. The inner child part of me that has spent so much time identifying with being abandoned is having a raging field day with all of this, playing victim and other related roles. I can see it very clearly, though this part of me has done enough damage already before I started consciously catching on that it's hard to repair what's happened in the last weeks. Becky and I are going camping together the last weekend in June and I am relieved that we will have a couple of days of silence and hiking, intense chats alternating with healthy food to connect. Each time we say goodbye now we both mist up and get tortured looks on our faces. It will be a hard move, for certain, but now that I've caught onto the "inner secret" narrative of my ego, I think I can let go more easily from now on.

And this is where it all comes together - how even if we don't know what the secrets are, they still feed us. I feel as if the history of my family, known and unknown, comes to fruition in me, and the more I can find out, the more the history becomes an actuality, the more I can feel out how it applies to this life, this conglomerate of experiences I call "me". What this means most for me right now is that I am preparing to write to the brother I haven't spoken to in almost four years, for better or for worse, to reconnect with what is. This sense of secrecy, though I am not secret about it with pretty much anyone, this active undone-ness is coming to haunt me a bit, and it's time to take something that has gone from intention into the disuse of habit and reconsider it a bit. Add intention back in and see what accidents or synchronicity result there within.