Monday, September 29, 2008

A Stitch in Time

(flash fiction piece I wrote at the retreat. Still in early stages):

A Stitch in Time

Flash fiction story by Miriam Hall

She began stealing watches at a fairly young age – six, maybe seven years old. An only child, with all the time in the world on her hands. She gathered their leather or gold or plastic bands in the basement, in the bottom drawer of a dresser her mother retired for something more fashionable a few years prior. Her father used the top drawer for tools, but as he used them rarely, the bottom two drawers were empty and therefore, safe.
By her 8th birthday she had amassed a collection – would haul them out and count them by the light of the single bulb in the center of the room. 15 gold banded watches. 6 silver. 7 plastic, including a cousin’s Barbie watch, left behind at their house, so not really “stolen,” just forgotten. 10 leather. She’d sort them this way, like suits in a deck of cards, or rearrange them according to size, from the tiny gold face of her grandmother’s watch (she never used it anymore, anyway) to the bold black band and plastic bling face of the watch which had belonged to the mean man who owned the corner store. She never felt it was bad or wrong. No one ever caught her so she was never punished. Because she didn’t think of it as stealing, she never heeded any moral lessons from after-school specials on the topic of theft.
She saw it as saving time, collecting it. She counted up all the hours she could have and hold with all these watches. She noticed them all ticking time at once, and she felt she had an eternity trapped in one drawer. She was aware of both the speed of the passage of time, but also the seemingly endless span of her hoard. She was not sure where she developed this panic or what for; no one else in her family had such habits. Then again, how would she know this?
So she dedicated the first couple of months of her 8th year of life to noticing how adults, in particular, were always stealing glances from their watches and clocks, grabbing extra seconds, always in an unawares way. She began to worry that perhaps she had taken something from them, something necessary and irreplaceable, something more than her limited arithmetic could imagine. What if there was only so much time and she had taken more than her share? She felt regret. Finally, she felt she’d done something wrong. Maybe time could be owned or contained, instead of endless.
She stopped gathering watches and let her collection grow still in the drawer, no more winding, no more inner wars with herself about whether or not what she did was right.
For her 9th birthday, her father gave her a watch.
“I noticed you’ve been asking what time it is a lot lately. It’s time you have your own watch,” and he beamed at what a good father he was, heeding her needs.
She smiled and thanked her father, strapped the watch to her wrist uneasily. Of all the watches she had acquired, she had not yet worn one of them. The purple plastic scratched her skin and wore heavily on her.
The next day she took all of the watches, including the one her father gave her, on top of the stack, out to woods behind their house and smashed each one on a rock. She opened them all the way with her hands, cutting her fingers with glass, repeating a tiny prayer as she did so, made up on the spot: “Be free and return to those who need you.”

"The stories of all those animals who went to sea

who went to sea in their beautiful pea green boats..."
-from "Beautiful Pea Green Boat" by Laurie Anderson

Taught my 5th retreat out at Linda's farm this last weekend. Exhausting and beautiful, all at once, each of the students in the boat of their lives, "danced by the light of the moon". I wrote a lot about death, really struggling with it again and again, going around the bend, looking for, I only realized on the way home, a way to understand it so the pain would end or to acquire the pain as my own so I could wall it off. But it isn't mine. The fact that we die is as universal a fact as it gets, and trying to hoard that pain as my own is as unhelpful as any isolation is - unhelpful not just because of the suffering but because it simply does not match reality - the reality of total interdependence. On the way home, CTR's voice in my head "no private space." I recall first hearing this concept at Dathun (month-long meditation retreat which is a part of the Shambhala "path"), from my meditation instructor. I was talking about taking the Boddhisattva vow, and doing Tonglen with her. My fear of helping others and foresaking myself ("idiot compassion" as CTR calls it). Her explanation that anything that TRULY, honestly, and with brutal honesty does benefit us, will benefit others. We aren't talking about a donut for breakfast, we are talking about not being an asshole to one's self. Foresaking the self doesn't benefit others. Neither does trying to own a pain which belongs to the whole human race.

Every time I come around to something this big, that phrase comes in again and I feel the need for more and more brutal honesty with myself. I finally found the voice that was anchoring me to this suffering all weekend long, and probably for years now, and likely still is, just hiding deeper away now, trying to preserve some corner, some dark space to itself. This part of me, trying hard to be separate but still the same me, wants the pain and identity of death and loss for herself. "I am a person who has lost people, someone who has experienced death. I deserve to cry, to be alone, to mourn this." The issue is that yes, I do deserve to mourn, but so does everyone else. We will all lose, all feel pain. Others' pain doesn't detract from my own, it benefits it.

At the retreat, a story of a monk doing a sand mandala with a family watching. He'd been working on it for months. Someone was asking him what he would do with it when he was done and he said he would wash it into the river. A little girl, maybe 6 or 8 years old, began to cry and cry, hysterical, saying "It's so beautiful! How could you do that!" and he shed a single tear. He could feel her pain. Not judge her. Just know how hard, how really hard, impermanence is. The hardest, even, for us to "get".

"A piece of glass, and your heart just grows around it."
-another song on Bright Red by Laurie Anderson

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Feeling Begins

I wander out into the yard and find as many loose pieces of nature left behind in the winds of the last few days, dropped from drooping in the heat. As the housecleaners clean the place where I am retreating, I find nature's inconsolable messes and wrap them up into some kind of orderly but organic form. This helps me to re-enter my novel, a place where feeling is already in action when I arrive, and I need to be able to just drop on in.

Last week's assignment: what would an older you say to you now, or what would you say to a younger you?

Let nature teach you. Others have always said that a hike in nature centers them, and as much as you have suspected the same might be true for you, you have never leaned on nature, never trusted its messes to show you order, through allowing you to let go. Look out over the fallen leaves of the locust tree and watch as the gradiation from green to gold winds its way out to the river. What more order do you need than this?

Relax more than you work and the work will go better. When there is work to do, do something pleasureable first. This isn't indulgence, it's intelligence. You tell your students this ALL THE TIME - now practice what you practically preach.

Don't forget to do Artist Dates and write down your dreams. All the violence that came to me in my sleep last night need not be interpreted, but should be witnessed for what it is. Slow down, dreams often say, before your mind is awake enough to listen. Don't work your life away.

Do whatever little art projects make you happy. Sew cards. Make cut paper stop animation films. Play with nature. All of these are not distractions but ways to feed your art. A novel will write itself if you let it. Too much time with the same things to say and you'll never get it done, getting in your own way all the time.

Let the cats and love of your life show you the way. Snuggle a lot, with them and yourself.

There's not much one can say to the self of yesterday. But there's a lot to be learned for the yesterday self of today. Here is the way. Open the window and begin.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Along Superhero Lines/Self Promotion

Yikes it is hard to promote. Eeeks.

Finishing Line Press has finally sent me my contract and so I feel like I can promote my chapbook. Wait. I mean, that I HAVE to. In order to get a certain press run, I have to make pre-sales. So belly up to the bar, my friends, because now is the time to show your willingness to pay 12$ for a published bit of Miriam! I promise to make it easier for you to buy than it is turning out for me to sell myself...

I am not sure why it is so hard, but a few nights ago Dylan and I had the conversation I now think anyone embarking on a career in the arts or any kind of public office should have: "Just how famous do I *want* to be?" It sounds like a) an egotistical thing and/or b) an unrealistic conversation, as of course fame comes in wily and unpredictable ways, but underneath I found I have some issues (big surprise) about becoming "famous" in any way. Why? That remains to be seen. A simple answer is that of course fame is mixed, right, not always such a pretty bag of baubles (just ask Eryka Badu). But underneath that we all have our reasons, reasons why I don't want to email everyone I have ever known, all the bookstores I love and support and former and present teachers for blurbs. Ugh. It just makes me sick. I just want to write, can't someone else do the selling?

But no one else can. I sell me, it's always been that way, and always will be. Someone else doing it means a reproduction. And so with hesitation and doubt I will do it as much as possible and hope it gets easier over time. Sucha dilemma. Silly me - I thought "Just sell the book and it will all work out." Or maybe *I* will work it out - by working harder and more differently than ever before.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


If I were a cartoon character/superhero, I would be Supertuna!

Just think - Popeye with more Omega 3! Eating fish as well as greens. And an ability to be sad as well as grumpy enough to save the world with his anger.

Or maybe I could never be a superhero. I worry about trying to do that everyday. Like today, when I woke ok, happy, pretty settled, but yawned my way through my 9am class, not out of boredom, but out of apparent exhaustion. The night before's 12 hours of catch up didn't catch me up all the way, I guess. Wandering home, enjoying the day, wondering why I don't spend more time outside, only to fall asleep on the couch, a cat on each curve of my hip.

I woke craving tuna. Needing a tuna salad sandwich. Seems to be a cold-weather craving for me, like the fats in the tuna are just what I need. Mayo, capers, cumin, celery salt. The cats both lick the can in turns. Maybe I would be a kick the can hero! I was never good at this in my schooldays. I feared things flying at my face.

It's not that I wouldn't make a good hero, I would. But what do heroes have for personal lives? They have to lie all the time, the ultimate governmental secret position, unable to tell lovers or brothers what they actually do for a living. "Um, I travel a lot?". Would "contemplative arts teacher" be the perfect, unpredictable cover-up for a superhero? If so, maybe I am closer than I think. And I have enough trouble with boundaries as it is trying to save myself and those I love, much less the whole world.

I feel about superheroes the same way I do about Santa - how on earth do they get around the world so fast, take care of all that goes wrong, or all that deserves meritous gifts, in such short time? Surely it must be that they live on some alternate plane. They exist where others cannot live - in telephone booths or on the North Pole - in order that others may survive.

I am "supposed" to be writing fiction. This was the assignment I gave the classes this week. And usually I have no problems with that - I woke late last night suddenly knowing how to "fix" an issue I am having with Orphano, I tend toward a lot of flash fiction lately, more often than journaling, even. And yet today I am recalcitrant toward everything- even my own exercise. I don't want to do work, I don't want to read, I don't want to even go for a walk. Everything I want I don't want just because I want it. Maybe I should try and do something I *don't* want to do and see if that, too, has been tainted? I am not depressed, oddly, just tired. More than half of the last two weeks away and I still haven't recovered. This is what the life of a minor superhero could be like - more traveling salesman than superhero.

So I'll go brush my teeth, the cats will go back to sleeping and I'll dink around on flickr for a bit. Not exactly top tuna behavior, but not bad for a Wednesday afternoon without huge looming deadlines. Got to take my down moments when I can, yo. Maybe I'll even take my flippers out for a walk...

Monday, September 08, 2008

Sources of insight

Intuition (from perception of truth, fact, etc., independent of any reasoning process; immediate apprehension.
5.Philosophy. immediate cognition of an object not inferred or determined by a previous cognition of the same object.

Instinct (from inborn pattern of activity or tendency to action common to a given biological species.
2.a natural or innate impulse, inclination, or tendency.
3.a natural aptitude or gift: an instinct for making money.
4.natural intuitive power.

Here I am, at my first day as a day fellow at Edenfred, and I am thinking about the conversations I had over the weekend, teaching Miksang at the Chicago Shambhala Center, as well as with birdfarm and her partner. Ever since Acharya Jeremy Hayward came to visit and give his program entitled Experience, Consciousness and Death, I have been thinking about what it means, or could mean, that (according to the research of many cognitive psychologists and its implications) we only actually consciously deal with 4 out of 1 million parts of visual data which enter our minds at any given moment. That's a really small number, and that weekend we talked about how we must then construct a lot of story with so little to go on.

But one question that has been nagging me is: "What happens with the other parts? That's a lot of bits/bytes of information! Do we store those? Do they serve us? Is this what we mean by 90% of our brain "not getting used"?"

There are so many possible thoughts and discussions to come out of this, but the one we had at dinner on Saturday night rotated around the idea that information comes in "under the radar" so to speak and gets stored for when we need it, when we least expect it. birdfarm and partner had great examples to share - the best being a fireman who was out in a forest fire and "without thinking," or from instinct/intuition, did what was needed and "right" in the situation to save himself (the best he could do) and all the other 27 firemen died. In a matter of seconds, perceptual information he had previously taken in somehow served him back without being consciously aware he had either "learned" how to save himself or being aware it was going back out. Amazing. And we talk about this in Shambhala all the time - how you can actually "do the right thing" if you just relax, let your attention do its work, trust that it is happening without your ego or conscious mind in gear.

That was great - a sort of scientific/cognitive psychology "explanation" for something folks had only explained to me in a bit of a "woo woo" way before. But then I became curious - what had I thought before when folks said "intuition" or "instinct"? Where did I learn those come from, if this new idea was so surprising to me? Instinct has always connotated to me that something is unlearned, genetic, so deeply and animal-y ingrained that we are totally unaware of it, but also the implication, for me, is that it's not an exchange with the outside world, rather, a response. Intuition on the other had is more morphous - does it mean an exhange? Hadn't thought so, but it makes sense to think of it now that way. Not all from the self, but rather a meeting of the true self, not ego self, non-conscious self, and the "messages" or direct, clear, unconceptual perceptions of the world. The term "gut feeling" pulls attention from the mind (as we usually think of it) down into the body. Below. Deep inside. Under the radar.

I feel as if I am saying nothing new, but the difference here is that perceptual, sub-conscious exchange. That's what I hadn't really realized before could be - likely was/is happening. an exchange, whereby lesser used back portions of our brains are using information to help us to live, survive and also do what we tend to think of as "higher brain/eg frontal lobe" functions. Not just get out of a forest fire, but write a novel, too. The mystery comes from the world, in other words, as much as from ourselves. Wow.

Now off to tap into some of that, hopefully. A rainy day, perfect for writing, as my Day Fellow buddy Bridget calls it. We'll see!

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Queen of Hearts

(photo from recent trip to Chicago - many bustier forms on Michigan Avenue)

I have used queen beds since my sophomore year in college. In high school, I had my own room (true of all my school life up until then - as the only daughter with two brothers I always had my own room and a single bed), and just after it, in the year between when I was traveling part time, I think I might have had two single beds pushed together for some reason, but of course my dorm bed freshman year was tiny - smaller than a single, I am certain.

My sophomore year I was returning to college from 1/2 a year off, after my mother's death. I had no bed to speak of, no car either (had crashed that); had to borrow a friend's truck to move my stuff, newly inherited bits, but no beds. So I bought a futon - seemed the most practical thing in a small bedroom which, with roommates, would also be my private living room - and I had to choose what size. The friend said "why not get a queen size?". Why not? I didn't question his argument, it wasn't that much of a difference in price, and I found being able to splay out really pleasurable. But I had another agenda. I also believed that queen-sized bed would bring me a lover.

Really. Honestly. Total no holds barred here. I still recall the person on whom I had a crush, helping to move the futon into my new place with me. I wanted that person to take me by the wrists, pull me down onto that new and still smelly mattress and make sweet love to me. I wanted someone to want to move in with me, just to share that queen-sized bed with me.

I did have some lovers. Some old lovers came back, enjoyed more room with me, though clearly, in the end, not enough space. New lovers popped up - a random architect, recently divorced, with whom I spent most time in Chicago at their place, though once on my futon in Madison. The futon moved to storage for the year I was in France (where I only had a single bed and no sex) and then to my new place with more roommates the year after. There it did me no good. I slept mostly on the futon in couch form - a tiny, tiny bedroom, the ultimate Miriam compromise room - it was easiest that way, and less lonely.

It was my bed for the first two years living alone and there it got a lot of traffic but nothing permanent. Then, a former girlfriend moved and offered to sell me her queen-sized bed, and I gave up the futon for good. I thought "this is a good move, maybe a bed will reek of more permanency?" I had that bed for a few years, and it did, eventually, wind up being the bed on which I first slept with my now partner. Erika offered a piece of advice when we first moved in "Take your bed away from the wall, leave both sides open, so a lover can fall in onto it as easily as you can." Maybe it was her advice, maybe some good juju from the mattress finally coming to fruition, maybe I was finally no longer desperate, overwhelmed, searching for love and myself, like the mattress, now centered with its head below the window and both sides bared, open.

This spring we bought a new mattress. It was time.