Thursday, December 31, 2009

Coffee in the Sun

(image from Kohler Art Center Artery, where you can make art of your own)

All I can hear over the distant hum of traffic on 151 is the sound of eggs whirring around in a pot, boiling hard so there's protein in a one-person package for my students on Saturday. In preparing for a retreat, I like to give myself a broad list of things to do - make the soups, cut images out of old National Geographics, make a list of prompts - and then putter my way through the list in no particular order. If I am headed to the basement to get the cooler I may also pick up the lingerie in the washer and hang it on the drying rack upstairs.

It's not exactly multi-tasking. There is far less a sense of force and far more a desire to allow space between these tiny tasks. I prefer to do just about anything this way. Whatever I am working on - usually one major thing (preparing a manuscript, preparing for a retreat, etc) It takes me all day, and during that day there are all kinds of other occurrences - a call from my godmother in England, a text or two with a friend in distress. And the coffee and sun continue all throughout, a reminder that there is no reason to hurry in ending out the last day of this year and preparing for a solid start to the next one.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Most Wonderful Time of the Year?


Christmas equals ambivalence for me, as I am sure it does for others.

And yet, this morning, I woke with the song "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" in my head. In fact, it won't leave. And I have to say I don't mind it, strangely, though I am feeling somber today and a bit tuckered out from too many (even if good) social interactions over the weekend.

There is something about how this time brings people together. Like overloading with food, especially rich food, I am overloaded with guests and invitations and visitations. I am grateful that I am on break, so that the energy normally reserved for classes is spread out into my broader social life.

And yet, I also have to say that I am tired. Very tired. Tired of rich conversations, productive boundary setting, even silly jibber jabber about this and that. I want to sink back into Jane Eyre, which I began reading last week (as Natalie assigned Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel of sorts, and I thought it was time for me to read the classic, too). I want to get lost in my own writing, my own past relationships and made up townships, and I keep popping up, numerous times a day, into reality.

I trust, I hope, that others of you out there can understand this - that it is not a lack of appreciation, but appreciation of all the wonderful people in my life mixed in with a writer's natural inclinations - those which require lots of time alone, lots of time reading and writing. In fact, I'd say that both are writer's inclinations - the need and desire to really listen to people and be with them intimately, which contrasts - though doesn't always conflict, except maybe at this time of year - with the need to be alone and processing it all through writing.

What a conflict! I guess in a way I am grateful that this should be my conflict. Of all the things I could be worrying about, struggling with or fretting over, this is it. I don't mean it is little - it doesn't feel that way at all - but it is special and a privileged conflict, in a sense. That I have so many I love in my life and who love me. That I have plenty of rich conversations - and food - to feel overfull on. That the one thing here I am not experiencing, at the turn of the darkest time of the year, is lack of any sort. I am grieving, of course, always am from before Thanksgiving until after New Years, but even that feels like a strange celebration - I had people to lose, which means having to begin with.

That produces its own wonder in me.
Definitely a wonder-full time of the year, even if not always easy.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

14 Questions about Buddhism

Awhile back, a student at Edgewood College here in Madison asked me if she could interview me for a paper she's doing on Buddhism. Actually, the paper is on the role of silence in spiritual practice, I found out when she came to interview me. We talked about John Cage and chanting and all kinds of stuff. She took notes and recorded our interview, but it turned out the tape didn't come out right, so she asked me recently to "re-answer" some of the questions.

Here's those answers. Some fun stuff to consider. Also interesting to remember how I answered them then, off the cuff, not knowing what was next, versus now, the second time - partly because I have had more time to consider them, and also because I have changed, even in a few short weeks...

1. How did you initially become interested in Buddhism?
1. I read a lot about Buddhism in High School. A boy I had a crush on was really into it. But it was all intellectual discussion - no meditation and no real heart connection.

Later, in college, I got back into creative writing (I had gotten a scholarship to college for my writing in High School, but dropped it after my mom died) and after college, hooked up with a local community of writers. One of them brought me to a class with a woman who taught what I teach now - writing with a Buddhist bent. From there I joined the meditation center downstairs from her office and the rest is history.

2. How does it shape your life?
2. The other day I had a really gross interaction with a woman I am acquaintanted with who has a pretty cranky manner. During the interaction, I watched as my emotions went from offended to sad to angry, but I kept an even keel with her, though called her out on some of what she was saying. Once we were done, I realized that the way she was acting isn't "her" - it was just the way she was acting. I also realized I had a choice - I could continue to wreck "vengeance" by acting like a jerk to everyone all day, or I could accept what happened, and use it as a positive lesson - to think twice before snapping at someone and act with compassion.

It affects everything, but this is a particularly poignant example. Sitting allows me to actually see what is happening and act with wisdom and patience.

3. What is it like to live in Madison as a Buddhist?
3. There are a LOT of Buddhist groups here and all are pretty active. At a dinner party recently, I was "the only Buddhist" and so was a bit of a novelty, but everyone understood the basic tenets of Buddhism and respected them. So it's not Buddhist "paradise" but also a pretty privileged place.

4. What are the challenges, if any, to practicing Buddhism?
4. The challenges are all interior, really. This morning I want to practice Yoga, for instance, and I keep putting it off. Why? Yoga really connects me with my body and spirit, is an extension of my Buddhism, and yet, I put it off. I make excuses, choose to do other things. I "forget the instructions" - the most basic ones - to do it, just show up and do it. Once I show up it is far easier than the battle to show up.

5. Does it affect the friendships and relationships in your life? If so, how?
5. Well, see 2 and 3, but in addition to that, it is true that certain friendships have been strengthened because I have had the good luck to have, for instance, my two closest female friends, both friends "before Buddhism" also be Buddhists. And there have been folks who's behavior - drinking constantly, doing a lot of drugs, not being very mindful in their lives, etc, I let fall away because we could no longer relate. It's not that I am better than them by any means, but that we have different goals.

Also, because of my sangha (community), I interact with people I wouldn't normally interact with - different ages, interests, beliefs - and I think that is very healthy. It's good to not just hang out with people "like us" as much as possible.

6. Have you experienced or witnessed the practice of Buddhism in other parts of the world or United States? If so, is how you and others in Madison practice different from other places?
6. I am a part of Shambhala, which is a modern re-configuration of two ancient schools of Tibetan Buddhism - Kagyu and Nyigma. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of Shambhala, was a Lama in both of these traditions. I haven't spent much time with other groups - when I got to this one, I knew I was "home" because there is so much emphasis on the arts and on everyday life here, something a lot of other groups don't focus on as much, from what I understand.

So I travel a lot to teach, actually, in Shambhala Centers across the USA and a bit in Europe, and the centers I visit are a lot alike - similar aesthetics, practices, etc. I haven't necessarily seen other communities on my travels.

7. Do you follow a specific school of Buddhism? If so, explain the difference between yours and others.
7. Besides what I said in 6, Shambhala has very similar basic core beliefs, like all of Buddhism, but the feeling of it, the aesthetics, the focuses, and the intentions are different. For instance, we share a shrine space with a Korean Zen group and they all wear black robes to sit, sit facing the wall, chant in Korean. We wear regular clothes, face out into the room with our eyes open, and chant in English.

8. What is your perspective of classifying Buddhism as a religion?
8. It's hard not to. "Back in the East" (I hate to say it that way, but it's pretty much true) Buddhism has been used, still is used, as a religion. But our main Western understanding of religion is that it is "theistic" (meaning: belief in a deity) and no Buddhism is that way to the same extent that the major Abrahamic religions are - like Islam, Christianity and Judaism. In this way it is more akin to other philosophies - Taoism, Confucianism.

I have read a great passage about how Buddhism fits the container, like water, it is put it. So some places that flask is a religious shape, some times more secular, like here in the US.

9. Being raised as an atheist, is it hard to classify yourself as a Buddhist, because it is portrayed as a religion in society and to outsiders?
9. At first I was really shy about it, but now I don't mind. We can't control what others think of us, and I'd rather be a "Buddhist" than any other label, regardless of any inaccurate associations. It was hard for me to have faith in anything, thinking that would be a weak thing to do, but Buddhism encourages healthy doubt, and eventually, I realized it's not as much faith as it is understanding from personal experience.

I do have to say that being Buddhist has given me a ton more respect for people's relationships with religion, and I like that. I used to be pretty intolerant.

10. I've been reading articles about the effects of meditation on psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, OCD and addition. What do you think are the benefits of meditation? Do you agree with these findings?
10. Absolutely beneficial. I have a Buddhist friend who tells me that being a Buddhist is like "having a therapist who totally understands me in my head 24/7, free of charge." That having been said, that same friend has sometimes insisted when I am depressed or having a panic attack (I am prone to both) that if I "just sat" i'd feel better.

For me, though not true for everyone, I also rely on meds, therapy and exercise to keep me going. As a "team", meditation keeps this act all very strong. None of these "solutions" work on their own for me. I guess I believe it's really personal - has to do with trauma, chemistry, and a lot of things we don't understand. I am generally pretty wary of any "one solution" kind of answer - life is too complicated for that, though it may work for some folks, like my friend.

11. What do you think about programs in jails that teach meditation?
11. I think they are superb. They have wonderful results again and again. What a great way to use that time, away from society, as a retreat? I know it can be tortuous, and I think meditation seems to really help. I have had friends teach it in prison and it has really changed my friends, too. I think that gratitude and curiosity, two of the biggest things that you develop connects to in meditation, are big salves for a lot of the world's social ills.

12. Do you meditate in silence or using mantras or music?
12. Silence.

13. What do you feel is the importance of silence in meditation?
13. Spaciousness. We cram our lives full of sounds - radio, tv, conversations. Just like being in a quiet, calm place visually, it is good to reduce stimuli and allow us to have an experience of auditory space, too.

I have never really used mantras. Not in our tradition. But I have done long periods of chanting, and while it is not the same result as meditation, I think I understand the purpose - to alter the mind in another way, open up to a different kind of space. But me, personally? I am very partial to silence.

I actually listen to less music and talk radio than I used to. I can sit around for hours in silence, reading or writing or doing "nothing". It's calmed me down a lot.

14. Do you feel you have reached enlightenment? If not, why not? If so, how can you tell?
14. This is such a great question. I mean, all your questions are great, but this one is so "controversial" in the Buddhist world. Why? Who knows why. Enlightenment is supposed to take a lot of work, but in relative terms, the Buddha found it really quickly. Some teachers, like the rogue named Adyashanti, say you find it all the time and shouldn't deny it, that Buddhists are in this weird state of self-deprication/deprivation and are denying themselves the benefits of what they already have. I think there is some truth in what he says, and yet?

I experience flashes of major insight. It's not like a solution to a math problem - I don't suddenly know all the world's answers - but more like total clarity, awareness. From that space I can answer with complete compassion - my problems, someone else's. But they aren't that common. They were something I experienced before practicing but they were random - now they are pretty regular, but still more like on and off lights than a constant experience. My guess is that if I were "like that all the time" I would "be enlightened".

It's funny, too, because although we "talk about enlightenment" Buddhism is very anti-goal orientation. You can shoot yourself in the foot if you put the cart before the horse. The path is the way, you are already enlightened, is what the teachings say. That's what I wonder about with someone like Adya. But we all have our own paths to hoe.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Muscle Connects to Bone, Bone is Filled With Marrow


(title is a lyric from St. Vincent)

Outside, the first layer of sticking snow covers all the horizontal surfaces and clings to those half between up and down and side to side, like my 45 degree roof. Inside my body, all the connections adjust to the new cold, another 10-20 degrees lower than it has been previously, and my eyes contract with the new light reflected by all the whiteness out there. I feel the snow and winter sink deeply inside of me. It's an intimate feeling, my thirty-second rendition of this in a life of living in Wisconsin - except for the one year I was in the south of France for their farce version of "winter".

Rich foods fill my blood with the fats and minerals needed to keep warm from the inside out for the next three months. Others complain, but I look forward to the sustained spaciousness of this new visual world, and the chance to turn inward - mentally, emotionally, physically - and restore.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Magic at Marquette


Last night I met with my Marquette University students again. I had to miss last week, because of a nasty head cold, and this week I am still sniffling and hacking out phlegm. But I didn't want to miss this week - germless as I am - because we were talking about Magic.

It's clear from their response papers that some of them read the chapter on Magic from Shambhala, Sacred Path of the Warrior, with skepticism, and some read it with joy. That's natural. All semester I have been toying with the edges of the believable with them - giving them somewhat concrete assignments like "Color" or even "People" and when they come back, insisting that they experienced more than just a moment of "getting the assignment right" - in fact, that that wasn't what they were doing at all, rather, experiencing direct perception, which is, ultimately, experiencing reality directly. At first they were confounded - even the joyful ones - but after a semester of reading John Daido Loori (RIP) and Freeman Patterson and Chogyam Trungpa, and putting up with my weird chalkboard renditions of reality, they are becoming a bit more malleable.

And all of those things would mean nothing if it weren't for the practice. The practice of photographing, this tiny (most of them have little low-power point and shoots) miracle that allows them to share what they see with all of us in a dark room and discuss it. They have become "processed" as Chogyam Trungpa puts it, and like in cooking, you wait until the food softens, then add the spices. Now's when they are ready to absorb the most radical, and also simplest, teachings of them all.

In the chapter, Chogyam Trungpa says that not only is the space we can experience (if we allow ourselves - of course it is always there) spacious, relaxing and nifty, it is also charged with energy. Potential. Spontenaity. In the reading, he actually names it - Drala (above aggression or beyond the enemy in Tibetan) and then goes on to say that in fact there are, in a manner of speaking, Dralas - entities which exist in this space, of this space, which are this space. Even the wildly awake, in love students who accept most of what I or the readings say, took this one with a hard swallow. What? Is this guy talking about faeries here?! He sort of plunks this on at the end of the chapter, and doesn't leave much explanation.

So that's mostly what we talked about last night. After talking about what was mysterious in their lives (The Future, one woman said - these are college sophomores - another mentioned The Origins of Everything - Both Cosmic and Personal - and another, Relationships With Other Humans) I asked them if the cosmic - how the universe began - is really so different from how, say, they arrived in this class. There's an answer for the class - "I signed up for it" - or is there?

"In my Poli Sci class, we talk about this a lot," one student said, very excited. "How can you separate the origin of the universe from your own life?" We reference the Carl Sagan quote Loori used in our readings a few weeks ago - that you can't truly make an apple pie from scratch unless you go back to the beginning of the Universe. Another mentions in German class how they are reading a text which says we don't truly know anything at all, that science is actually less informed or answered than, say, religion.

Ok. Good. We've established space. They've learned a lot in the last 12 weeks - and certainly not just from me or the class or their experiences from this class. So then I drop the bomb.

"What does this idea of Drala entities mean, then? Are they faeries?" All the students shrug, one then shakes his head and raises his hand. "It's more like - well, we can't see it, but we experience it, right? Like the tuning fork example you gave, that we make contact with something, we know it, we have all felt it here, right?" and the rest of the students nod "So it's worth naming, but it sort of doesn't exist. I dunno. Something like that."

This from the student who's an RA in a dorm where a freshman just committed suicide over the last weekend, throwing the whole campus into shock.

"Thank you," I say to him. He's delivered it - or maybe the student's death delivered it - right to our doors. Naming the unnameable, the unknowable. I don't say it's a bit like naming God - these are Catholic, Christian or Atheist students still questioning a lot in religion - but they all toy with this as I wait a bit to speak.

"What about this idea of "beyond the enemy" though? What if we call it "beyond aggression?" They all look at me, dumbfounded. That's understandable. I bring it down to earth.

"See this table?" I sit on the same table every week. I like it - just the right height, swinging my long-skirted legs. I can see all of them, all their heads, and the whole chalkboard from here.
"I like this table. What if I were to go to the department head and say 'I really like this table. Please let me take it home,' and he says to me 'You know we are having a shortfall this year, Miriam, we really can't give up any table,' and we fight about it. Is the aggression only between me and the head of the department, or somewhere else?"

They squint at me, some giggle a bit. Really? Man she's a weirdo. What weird examples.
"What are some things like this in your life?"
"Grades," one pipes in.
"Getting good grades is good, right?"
They are Honors students. They all nod vigorously.
"But sometimes do you hurt others or yourself to get them?"
They keep nodding, some smirk, some look sad.
"Where's the aggression?"
"We're too attached to getting the good grades, just like you are too attached to getting the table."
I nod.
"And in that same German text," the student who mentioned it earlier rushes forward without raising her hand, eager, "it says that if things are too tight, there's no room to move."
"Right. Does hurting yourself over getting good grades mean you will get them?"
They frown, some look sadder. "No," one student answers.
"Why?"
"Because we miss out on the world, we miss out on joy, spontenaity, trying too hard. And we hurt ourselves, and sometimes others." You can feel the loss in the room. It's palpable.
"So if we let some space in, some not knowing, some doubt even, what happens?"
"There's room for change, for joy, even for pain, but also for --- (she gulps) Magic."
Ah. Yes.

The silence in the room is deep. This is not ordinary, is class over yet silence. The students are struck dumb, literally. Which is a good thing. Beginner's mind penetrates the darkened room.
"So when I am fighting with the department head, and I have aggression with him, where else is there aggression?"
"With the table. You're being aggressive toward the table."
"Is the table aggressive toward me?"
They laugh and shake their heads no.
"Ok. So you know how I told you to watch your energy photographing people? How that was really hard because - as he said - relationships are hard and mysterious?"
They nod.
"Guess what. You have had relationships this whole time. With color, with light, with a chair or table or oak leaf."
They nod.
"You have a relationship with everything, and everything relates to you. There is always energy there, and that energy - when it is open, without aggression and totally aware? That's beyond aggression. That's Drala. That's what we are naming."
"And when it's not Drala?" someone asks, frowning.
The German student answers her "There's no room for anything."
Right.

There are no class bells at Marquette. The class ends when we end it. I am remiss to do the normal closing up stuff - remind them of our show coming up, wish them a good Thanksgiving break.
"When you are shooting the next couple of weeks, don't forget about this. Heck, try to remember it even as you eat cafeteria food. (some groan) It's up to you. You are the gateway."

They get the hint. It's the end. Three out of the seven smile as they stand up, looking right at me. The rest don't chat like usual, deep in thought. I catch them up on what's due and wish them a good holiday. When they leave, I cry for a moment, spontaneous tears, totally unexpected, and completely without aggression.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Learning Not to Attack Panic


Last week I had what I quickly realized was a panic attack.
Even more astonishing was the realization that I have had them before, once every other month or so - that in fact, they punctuate the PMDD I take anti-depressants for - but I had never recognized them as being panic attacks.

I spent a couple of hours frozen, unable to act, feeling pressure from even the tiniest inclinations, desires, much less obligations. Luckily, Dylan was coming home early, and as soon as I was able to cry, I was able to release enough of the anxiety to see more clearly. That's when I asked him, since he gets panic attacks, what they feel like.

It felt good to have a name for the frozen feeling, the state of total alarm, edginess, and shock that accompanied my life every few weeks, along with large bouts of grief, until a year and a half or so. Funny that no one ever called them that before, not me, not my therapists.

This week in class, there seems to be an ongoing lesson we are all learning. It's not relevant to the topic I am assigning this week - not directly - so I am not sure why it keeps coming up. I'm not bringing it up. And yet, there it is. It started early in the week with someone writing about how even a car mechanic doesn't know for sure what is working or not working in a car - they can only tell what is *not* wrong. This is the nature of diagnostics - process of elimination, guesswork. This is true for science, medicine - and now that I say it out loud, it makes perfect sense. No one really knows anything. There's constant guesswork, is all.

But at the time it really hit all of us in the class how many "experts" we rely on to get through our lives and how angry we can get at them (especially doctors) when they are wrong. Various conversations like this cropped up in EVERY class of the four out of five so far this week - one woman brought up her anger at the federal level doctors who now claim maybe the H1N1 vaccines won't work, for instance. Someone else pointed out (her father is a doctor) that doctors don't know everything - that especially with a mysterious illness like a major flu, it's more a set of games around what this flu isn't - which strain it isn't, which origin it didn't come from - than what it is. Sometimes it takes releasing a vaccination, a gamble, to realize that the guess was off.

So it is with psychiatry, too. I came home and took a nap - still recovering from the cold which began the day after the panic attack, as if to cap it off - and when I woke I realized that this wisdom passing in and out of all of my classes is true as well for my panic attacks. The doctors, even me, no matter how many words or books or data entries we make, it's all a matter of guessing.

And why? Because the world is a really rich place, with quite a few pitfalls and many many hot spots. More mystery than anyone can shake a stick at. And truth is, I'd rather it be that way. So I'll trade in the expertise - today, at least - for some mystery, and try not to attack the panic next time it comes.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Cashing In

I have been sleeping a lot the last month or so, since my last trip to Taos, banking up the hours of rest, getting all I need, fighting off the flus and colds and "other" things that have taken down any one of my over 40 students a week, not to mention retreats and travel and other petri dish circumstances I am quite often exposed to.

Before I left Taos, Natalie warned me that maybe I shouldn't hug my students any more.
I have stopped kissing those (there are a few who do that) on the lips.
But I knew I would get sick eventually.

For the last three days I have cashed in on the germ bank, fought off a cold, gotten into the cold, and now I can feel myself coming out. "Easy there," the cowboy riding the horse of this illness warns, "no reason to push too hard."

Just got off the phone with one of the folks in our Madison Miksang community who has been sick now for almost a whole month - one thing after another, never fully recovering. So yes, I am going to take it easy. Do one small thing - go see the Rauschenberg exhibit at MMoCA and then come home and continue to rest.

Now it's time to cash in on all that sleep, and the more sleep I've had over the last few days. Cash in on my lymph nodes, my ginger teas, my immune system, which has had a month now to get strong and fight this off. I'm banking on it to stand up strong.

Monday, November 09, 2009

A Poetic Aside

I've been really busy making a chapbook's worth of poems over at Poetic Asides this month.
I did their Poem A Day competition in April of this year, and helped to judge the preliminary results. This time it's the same idea, only with the "goal" of making an end book (ala NaNoWriMo).
The participants will spend December revising it, and in January we'll submit our final revisions that someone will win and get it published through Writer's Digest.

Check it out. You can start late! Or read along...

Friday, October 30, 2009

Escaping In


I've been reading this last week like it is going out of style. Natalie says to us, when we are meditating, "Meditate like this is your last minute on earth," during the last minute of the meditation session. Katagiri used to say it to them, now she says it to us.

I've been reading like each book is the last book I will ever read - On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett. Good books, no doubt, excellent books, in fact. Not bad ones to be the "last" books I ever read, heaven forbid. But I haven't been reading them like that, voraciously, only because they are good. This morning, waking, wanting to rip through another, I had to admit to myself that I am also reading out of escape.

I'll never forget reading in some Adult Children of Alcoholics or Adult Survivors of Abuse book that "these children" (meaning I am one of them) tend to read to escape. In the last year I have learned more than I did in college about reading to learn - about structure, style, to really appreciate where the author was coming from and, as Natalie says, "To get inside his/her mind." This has lead to a very different kind of reading, more attentive, less escapist. I've also read more memoir in the last year than ever before, and those can feel harder to "escape" in some ways, for me, at least.

I am clearly escaping into others stories, and I am not here to say this is bad. Last week in Taos was tough - I told some of my students that I hemorraged writing (one newer student worried that I was talking about it so "negatively" but I don't see it that way) - scenes from my sexual life from ages 12-28 poured out of me at all times of the day and night. Just writing this now, I realize it makes sense that I might want a break, and I am not so sure that "escaping" breaks into books right now is a bad thing. Living Lucy Grealy's face through Ann Patchett, following, like a detective, the beach honeymoon of McEwan's doomed newlyweds, these are not escapes into their problems (versus mine) but deep divinings into how these authors, whether in the form of memoir or fiction, depict these difficulties and joys.

So there, writing about it, I remember that we can escape into things, not just out of things. I am still in my life, still thinking about all that arose last week. I am done writing about it for now, have written many other things this week. All this reading is not a "problem," I see, if it ever was for me. I am just as present, just as joyful, just as compassionate, for the fictional or memoir rendered people, and still present for the real persons in my life. I'm doing alright.

Thanks for letting me check in on your web time, world.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Behind/Ahead


I'm back from 4/5 weeks in Taos, spread apart over the course of a year. The trip has become "easy" now, my BFF from the intensive, Maryam, and I have decided. We are so used to the flights, the trip, that we were able to shake it up big time this time, take stops along the way, meet up in Santa Fe and do separate legs, coordinated through texting and my iPhone GPS system. Fun had by all before and after, and during, well, as I described to my students on retreat with me the weekend before I left for Taos for a week, Imagine 6 days of nothing but sitting, walking and writing in silence.

Everything drops away, all the surface everythings, and everything rises to the surface, all the underneath things. Out went work, students, paperwork, email (though I checked it to make sure nothing big was going down); up came my entire sexual life from age 12-28, and, well, this time, that was about it. 6 days of my sex life. That's a lot of sex and sexuality. I woke up writing about it, fell asleep writing about it. And it wasn't all sexy, let me tell you.

I come back to this life, this day-to-day classes and assignments, students and paychecks, and I feel behind. Not as behind as if I had left it all behind and not checked my email or phone at all, but there'll be a few hours of catch up for sure.

But I also come out ahead. The writing is still pouring out, as I joked in Taos, hemmoraging out of me, practically. With the acceptance of my second chapbook of poetry (Dreams of Movement) through Finishing Line Press (announced right before I left) and many more projects on the burner, I feel ahead of wherever I would want to be, not so that I need to stop now, but so that the balance is built in - I can relax on writing and pick up the work slack, while still writing, and neither will take over. this year has meant so much to me, still does, in making a true equinimity with teaching and also being a student. "Closing the gap," as Natalie Goldberg talks about to us in Taos, "Close the gap between what you think you are writing and what you are writing," and in my case "What you are teaching and what you are learning."

Behind on tasks, ahead on appreciation.
Behind on submissions, ahead on rough drafts.
Never behind on Love.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Overwhelming Appreciation


I asked the Miksang students this last weekend in Chicago to consider what exactly happens when we are saying "Too Much Information" or "I am overwhelmed." It's an important question, especially when we can use it as defense against the world. Shut down. Close off.

I am in a state right now where I want to do both of those things. I have indigestion from something funky I ate (broken yoghurt container I discovered after consuming it is my highest suspect) and it feels metaphorically that I am having a hard time digesting my life right now. Too much information, not enough time.

John O'Donohue spoke in a talk I listened to on NPR last week about how "stress" is really a misconception of time, of believing there is a limit to time, that time is in fact far from infinite. He didn't say it this way, but Buddhists call this "Poverty Mind." He was getting even more specific though about our delusions regarding TIME. That it is here to serve us, when it doesn't, we are angered. Feel betrayed.

I do feel betrayed in some ways, and I also feel blessed. What things to be stressed about: putting up my first show at the Overture! So many students, so little time to be with them! A tender retreat about to occur and healthy soups to cook for it, for me, for them, for Dylan! And a week with Natalie ahead after that, with all my new lovely writing practice friends, in the desert fall!

I am not attempting to disguise my stress, rather let it coexist with appreciation. I posted on Facebook last night that I am discombobulated but happy. A friend and student noted that that is one of the reasons she likes me, because I can be both of those at once.

I needed to write this, to remember that I actually do feel the balance, when I pay attention. That I am, in fact, overwhelmed with appreciation. That it is hard and also beautiful.

And an RIP to John Daido Loori Roshi, another wonderful spiritual teacher (John O'Donohue died last year), who died at age 78 on Friday. As my teacher John McQuade said, the only response he has (and I have) right now is one of heartbreak. Beautiful, exquisite, agonizing heartbreak.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Weather Report


The cats are very wiley today. Aviva got up every half hour or so after midnight and played with a large mirror that hangs on my bedside wall. Her tactic is to futz with it, pull it a bit so it fidgets on the wall, then stop, paw usually still in the air, and look at me in the moonlight to see if I see what she is doing. If we aren't awake, she keeps doing it until we are. And when I spray her with a spray bottle, she keeps doing it on and off, indignantly licking her wet butt or face first.

A student came into class this week and said that she's been having a rough few days. "I choose to believe it's a full moon. That and I am PMS'ing, too." It's been rough for me, too, and also not. Stirring old pots lately, to try and bring the brew to surface so it can heal, so the pot, me, can heal. Juicy things, floating up, sometimes bobbing below surface. I am tired of rowing in all of this stew but I know it will be better this way. Eventually. In a way it already is.

The cats remain crazy. I came in and they both woke up from apparently a long nap to make up for a night of nagging me out of my dreams, and now they are running around the house, playing with things, popping objects off the dresser to get my attention. Feed us more! Play with us! Open the windows and doors! Part of me, too, wants to go run around, break free and expand. An equal part wishes as much stillness as I can find, to keep the boil at a tolerable level.

Outside the weather echoes us all. Windy, cloudy, always on the edge of a storm. This morning it was stormy. It may be again. Then again, in between bouts of wind, the sun peeks out from between two clouds and lights up a yellow changing Honey Locust. Impermanence in action.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Halloween Haiku/ Post Number 222


Skulls and skeletons
Line the autumn sidewalks-
Last Echinacea dies.

It's that time of year again, when skeletons and monsters and witches appear cartoon-like on the lawns and in the windows of our neighbors and storefronts. Last year I began to wonder most seriously about this strange holiday, which I haven't much celebrated for years now, being a bit out of the "drunk and wild on State St all night" loop, and not particularly interested in costumes. I used to love Halloween, dressing up in disguise, both as a child and as a drunk twenty-something, and that affection remains, though it was, for awhile, underground.

Increasingly I have become aware of Dio de Los Meurtos, and the way this celebration traditionally sets off the spooks and fright of American Halloween. I referenced a whole Wikipedia article about what I discovered about the history of Halloween last year, so I won't get into that now, but suffice it to say that I find it fundamentally fascinating that Mexican culture puts aside a day to really be with the dead and celebrate their lives, and we have a day to scare the shit out of each other and put up representations of monsters none of us could survive coping with in real life.

Skeletons and skulls are one thing, but bodies crawling back out of graves? Death itself? Ghouls and goblins completely enraged and ready to eat your head off? I have no commentary for these, just a sudden peaking fascination with these occurences, symbols, signs. Wide open curiousity.

For my part, I am working up to celebrating a more "Day of the Dead" kind of fall. That seems good for the soul. In the meantime, keep watching Flickr - I made a trip to a huge Halloween Express shop a couple of weeks ago and the pictures I took! Wow...

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Mil woo-hoo! kee, WI


I spent the majority of this weekend in Milwaukee, WI, a very working-class Wisconsin city on Lake Michigan. It's about an hour away from Madison, WI, where I live, and it's a place I spent no time in except to drive through on the way to Southern Wisconsin from Appleton, WI (where I grew up), until I became an adult. Now I teach there once a week in the fall, and spend time there on and off to visit with one of my brothers and one of my best friends. But usually it's a pretty in and out job. Until now.

Early memories:
Miss Katie's Diner, which is just a few blocks from Marquette, where I now teach as adjunct faculty. Then, at age 18, eating there with a friend who wanted more from me, I was mutually fascinated and horrified by the view of industrial wasteland, casinos, breweries and highways out the window.

Bayview: A few years later/ago, I went along with a few new friends to see an exhibit at the newly Calatrava-ized MAM (public modern art museum) and then they pulled me to the now-defunct Paper Boat owned by Faythe Levine who made the film and book Handmade Nation. Broad Vocabulary, the also now-defunct feminist bookstore from heaven (though they still organize online!), Cafe Lulu (still open!), Harry Schwartz bookstore (now gone), and Fasten re-fashion collective (now Sparrow) filled in the rest of that day. Wow, I thought, this is Madison's East Johnson Street funky shops gone big-city. How wonderful is this, still mixed into the funeral homes, bowling bars and Catholic Churches of south side city neighborhoods. When I went to Oakland in the intervening years between then and now, I saw a strong resemblance.
We went back there, to Bayview, on this visit, which was an appointment on Friday and then plenty of poking around both Friday and Saturday. I've been there in between the Andrew Bird's first album era (I recall hearing that for the first time on the way there) and now, but mostly just to repeat the pleasures I knew well. This time, in Bayview, we also found vintage shops galore (Tip Top Atomic Shop and Luv Unlimited, how did I never see you before?!) and some great record shops (Bay View Books and Music, Rush-Mor Records). Chartreuse and Future Green were sweet and had fun and rockin bits to buy. Glow in the Dark Bowling we did not do, but looked great, and dinner at Cafe Centraal with a fabulous patio (they are the folks who did Trocadero on Brady and Water) finished us out. Hi Fi Cafe will have to wait.

And as for "not Bayview":
We also went to Carleton Grange Pub on Thursday night (though we did not fake-gamble), and hit the brand new Andy Warhol late career exhibit at Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM), with clerks wearing Andy Warhol wigs and all! I also made a visit to the new-found and a bit expensive but super helpful Allure (which helps to actually fit you for bras in a very warm and not pushy way) and got some really sexy and also really comfy stuff. Finally, I had never visited a Halloween Express store before, and every year they put up this massive pumpkin one in a big tent in the parking lot of the State Fair, so I finally went. Photos up soon on Flickr, as I've become a bit obsessed with the oddness of how we handle "death" in Halloween in this country. From there I visited three cemeteries just off Hawley Road which I have seen over the years driving in and out: Calvary, Spring Hill and Wood National Cemetery. Wow.

We didn't even touch Brady Street, and only skirted Third Ward to hit up the Milwaukee Public Market, which was too small (we'd never been there before) but wonderful and, yes, reminded me of markets in Europe.

With a room at the downtown City Center Hilton on the 16th floor overlooking that same view I questioned 14 years ago (the highway exchanges, industrial yards and breweries) we had a for sure woo-hoo weekend. Now the view tantalized me, and we snuggled overlooking all the lights and fine concrete. Thank you, Priceline, where I won a bid for $50 a night at this otherwise $250 a night 3.5 star hotel, for making this dream mini-honeymoon complete! Woo hoo!

Monday, September 21, 2009

When It Rains...


I managed to pull a weird muscle in my eye last night crying.
Behind my eye, of course. Eyeballs don't have muscles.

I remember in High School when my theater group took a trip to NYC for the first time, and Luke, one of the actors, got a burst blood vessel during the flight due to sudden changes in pressure. He said it didn't hurt, but it looked like hell. Blood floating all over his eye, but inside the cornea. Trippy.

Dylan couldn't see anything burst or pulled or off in my forehead or eye last night, but maybe that's just because I was crying. I woke this morning and the pain was gone. When we talked about it this morning I joked that maybe I cried so hard because it finally rained last night - for the first time in almost a month. Nada, nothing; cloudy days but no rain, for 21 days. It was such a relief last night, walking back with the in laws from dinner, to feel a cool breeze, some dampness on my skin, the smell of fall made that much huskier by the wet air. I guess my eyes needed some rain, too.

There's nothing like having a strong set of feelings come out with direct no trigger to bring meditation, writing or any kind of mindfulness practice to play. Thich Naht Hahn has said something to this effect (what Buddhist teacher hasn't?) - but he said it so well. That we can learn and learn all we want, but it isn't until the crap hits the fan that we actually really begin to practice. A friend of mine who runs a used bookstore in Appleton and was the first to publish my poetry, would always tell me, as a teenager, "It's good you're in pain; write from that." I never understood it then, but now, thinking so much lately about how deep feelings really help - strange to say but true - jerk us into the moment, to be here NOW, if we let them - us make direct contact with our lives. This doesn't mean I seek being in pain, but when it happens, it can actually be a gift. Even if a funny one.

We joked about this lightly yesterday, after the Harvest of Peace address at the Shambhala Center, as I was having 10 different "Madame Director" conversations at once while also putting away lots of gear - zafus and folding tables and digital projector, oh my! - and someone accidentally squished my finger between two heavy tables. I went from being overwhelmed and multitasking to being in very sharp pounding pain within two seconds. I yelped and she moved it, and I began to laugh. "I bet you're really here now," someone said, and I laughed more, "I even saw it coming, and didn't stop it!" and we all began to guffaw as if someone had just told the funniest joke in the world.

Maybe the only reason why feelings seem so overwhelming is that once we have opened that gate, let one or two in, a whole mess can come in at once. It's like meditation, when we leave so much space so that our mind can reign free and let go for a bit. The bits of mind usually hiding under the surface come in to play, too. Suddenly it seems as if we are "thinking" more when in fact we are thinking the same amount, just noticing it more. Maybe feelings are the same. Piggybacking, interdependent feelings accompanying the distinct sadness of a severe crying jag, or anger of a screaming match. The clown car of emotions - fit them all in at once. Who knows when the next opening will come.

So today I am letting whatever is left drift out. I have my suspicions of the things that "set me off," and read a chunk of Courage to Heal last night to help work gently through those. The chapter on feelings reminded me that I don't get to control them, that they come when I least expect them and often all mixed up. The best I can do is give them space.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Big Exit


I'm back into order. The office, the kitchen, are fully functional. The structure of the school year has saved me from myself. And falling back into the forms, freedom comes. The freedom to consider what structures haven't worked before, why, how to re-form them, what to reject and what to accept.

Family. Family order and inheritance is in my head a lot lately. A very good friend is going through a mid-twenties reckoning, figuring out what her raising has done, how it has shaped her, affected her. What to accept, what to reject. Right now there seems a lot to reject: parents' manners, opinions, structures. Yet she can still feel the love, compassion, underneath. Is it an undertow or an inner connection? Karma or Samsara? I know this battle well. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater - that baby, floating in your family heritage, emotional, political, psychological - is YOU.

Or, here, Me. I dreamt last night that my family was seated like a council around a large table. They were plotting and planning, in deep undertones, like a warren of gangsters accustomed to the action, to murder and torture folks. Even in my dream mind, I could see that the content came from watching so much Angel lately with Dylan, but the intention came from a long conversation just after TV with the aforementioned friend. Violence - intentional or unintentional, psychological, sexual, emotional - haunts us, from the inside out. I felt this strange allegiance to the family - I couldn't just walk out, and not because they'd kill me - and yet, I knew I opposed what they were plotting.

I woke disoriented, concerned about the content, the plot of the dream. Ugh. Why so violent? Less Angel, more Barney, I guess. Then it hit me, steel beam on the head: duh, of course, I was combining our conversation with the data from Angel. How do you stay in your family and yet make your Big Exit, become who you "really" are, and, for that matter, as the friend and I were discussing, how do you actually HEAL your family's karma, wipe some of the slate free, make sure the Samsara buck stops as much as it can at YOU?

How intertwined we are. In order to see interdependence, just look at your family, so many teachers say. You want practice? Call your mother. ("Say hi to your mother for me, Miriam!" a friend said yesterday after we hung out. "Oops," he quickly stated, sheepish grin. "That's ok. Even I forget sometimes that she's dead.") Think about your childhood. Go "home" - to where you were raised, to your adolescence, and you'll have plenty of fodder.

Fodder. Crap and Compost. Fetid rich rot. Ready to fall Apart. Perfect ground for Growth. Exit yes, but you'll have to come back, compelled to do so, with or without resistance. And there you cannot help but heal, yourself and your family. May as well make the best of these return visits.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Machine?


I got Regina Spektor's latest album, Far, a few weeks ago, and have been pretty inseparable from it. It's rare that music haunts me nowadays, except with nostalgia. I seem to have developed a strange separation from music; I don't "need" it as much as I used to, and tend to prefer silence. So when I get into my car to go to Milwaukee, for instance, once a week to teach, I listen to Alan Watts or This American Life, and when it comes to time for a "music filler" at the end of the trip, I'll default to something familiar, skipping over newer albums Dylan has played for me which I liked at the time but now can't tell apart by name.

The song that haunts me the most is the high-powered song "Machine." In it, Spektor depicts a world in which everything is taken care of, one is up and downloaded at the top and end of every day, and there's a strange comfort to it; even God wishes he were in her place (lyrics below). Today, the song hit me especially strong, as I had just finished the article "Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School" by Mark Slouka, in this September's issue of Harper's Magazine. I started the article awhile ago and, like I often respond to things that are very powerful for me and dense in terms of digesting, I put it down for awhile.

Slouka does a very fair job of pointing out that education priorities are now primarily determined by commerce. Our "Crisis" in education, if one carefully looks at and listens to the media, has more to do with our global position in business than to do with broadened minds or critical learning skills. No one talks about democratic process, whether or not our kids are able to critically think (and those of us teaching those kids or raising those kids do see some of these things slipping) - especially in "sacrifice" to the "marketable" skills of, as he calls it, mathandscience.

This is not a dualistic argument. Slouka has a lot of respect for both. He points out that it's not mathandscience's fault that they have been taken up as causes to save our society, nor inherently humanities' fault that it's been relegated to the trash heap. Politics and, even worse, strangely invisible controlling factors, determine how all of these educational aspects are represented in the media and, therefore, in pundits' and "consumers'" minds.

I have grown to have increased respect for mathandscience. I have developed a very keen interest in particular in science, and read a lot more on physics and neuroscience in the last few years than I had since forced to read science texts in high school. There's obviously, if done right, a lot of humanities in science, in particular, and a lot of science and math in humanities. And yet they have been separated and pit against each other more and more since the Renaissance, and now they are flung against each other.

Slouka's concern, if I may be so bold, is painted out in Spektor's song. Scienceandmath don't have to lead to us all becoming mindless machines, but the way it is being sold (and not "they" are being sold, but the package, as a single object, is being sold) is just in that way. How can we move forward in measurable progress? No child left behind means no child on a chart we cannot keep track of. How does one measure the opening of one's heart, either through science or math or humanities? One doesn't. It's not relevant and in fact, potentially dangerous.

(Lyrics from letssingit.com):
My eyes are bifocal
My hands are sub jointed
I live in the future
In my prewar apartment
And I count all my blessings
I have friends in high places
And I’m upgraded daily
All my wires without traces

Hooked into machine
Hooked into machine
Hooked into machine
I’m hooked into hooked into
Hooked into machine
Hooked into machine
Hooked into machine
I’m hooked into
Hooked into machine

I collect my moments
Into a correspondence
With a mightier power
Who just lacks my perspective
And who lacks my organics
And who covets my defects
And I’m downloaded daily
I am part of a composite

Hooked into machine
Hooked into machine
Hooked into machine
I’m hooked into, hooked into
Hooked into machine
Hooked into machine
Hooked into machine
I’m hooked into
Hooked into machine

Everything's provided
Consummate consumer
Part of worldly taking
Apart from worldly troubles
Living in your prewar apartment
Soon to be your postwar apartment
And you lived in the future
And the future
It’s here
It’s bright
It's now
Lest we demonize science, or get ANY impression that I mean, or Slouka, or, for that matter, Spektor is anti-science, it's not about that. Even Humanities, which is often the first to go in times of dictatorship due to its messiness in the face of Science or Math, can be neutered and used in a dangerous way. The problem is usually it is cut before that even happens. Another problem is that it is easier to strip science and math of other meaning. We accept that easier, fund it easier, even neutered of healthy debate, discussion, insight.

Call me a Renaissance lady. I'd love to see the two back together again. This re-invigorates my fire to teach a course on inventing and the creative process using science as well as art, for Junior High School kids next spring. And when I go back to Marquette next week, I'll be sure to emphasize that which my Miksang course already does naturally - it is WHAT you learn, but also HOW you learn, and this course will hopefully help you to "see" that (literally) so you can use it in all of your other classes, from Engineering to English. Stay aware, you non-machine, as long as you can.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

True Blue


PMS. Pre-Menstrual Syndrome. Syndrome - syn/drone. I act the same every time, or my emotions seem to be the same and I respond in habit. Which is the syndrome part? The hormones?
Drome
Mone

My response is to get sad, always has been.

The trees on our block are already starting to change. The first to go, I see just now, is the yellow Honey Locust on the corner which gets the most of the setting sun before it disappears off the trees on our street. The yellow makes the blue sky more blue. How is that?

I tell my Miksang students that - "colors contrast each other," I say, then "contrast is part of how we see. We see one thing because it is not another." Aviva, who is currently chasing a fly, sees the fly because there is not-fly around the fly. Funny, but without the not-fly, she wouldn't really be seeing fly.

I could make all kinds of profound comments here about how it's because of joy that sadness can be seen, appreciated. But that's not really what I mean to say. I mean to say something more subtle than that, and the PMS itself, which is triggering washes of sadness the last twenty-four hours, blocks my ability to be clear about it.

So this afternoon I took a nap. Hung out in the not-fly space so that when I awoke, the fly of sadness in my face wasn't quite such a nag. No story, I said to myself, there's no story here. Just a feeling. See it and let it be.

This is true blue. Not pining after an obsession, not making up stories about depression. This clear bell of feeling, tolling in my heart, which changes almost minutely every second I can sense it, this is true blueness.

Great Eastern Sun - imagery from Shambhala to represent our basic goodness. We talk about the clouds which cover it, our concepts and aggression. But what about the sky, the space that holds it? I'd like to think this kind of feeling is that kind of space - not tainted, not biased, ever-changing but very sensitive, like film, to the world, to perceptions, to experience. And mostly blue - the world is a hard, sad place - and yet, that's not a bad thing.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Rejection


Yes, I know the last entry was entitled "Inspiration."
No, I didn't remember that when I woke up this morning thinking about my most recent rejection letter.

Lately, I've been uncovering, discovering and trying to be honest with/about my deep, deep core under-beliefs. My secret beliefs, the beliefs that are not shaken by evidence, by logic, even by experience (unless any of those three contribute to the belief, but not if they prove the belief wrong). The kind of beliefs that are real trouble unless they get seriously called out and worked with, because they defy the surface level games of the mind.

For instance, Rejection (Letters):
Surface level: "The publisher said the kids' stories aren't defined in age and she doesn't see a market. This is the highest up we've gone with these and at least the artist gave good feedback! Go Miriam! You have gotten rejection before, and also been accepted, these weren't your first thing you wanted to get out there anyway. Just go back to work on the Family Matters chapbook and getting that out there. It's ok. The time will come."

Under belief: "You suck."

It's the sound of the critic, the sound of deep ego bruised by someone else's opinion. It's simple and dumb, it doesn't need sophisticated logic or understanding. It doesn't care - it just plain thinks I suck regardless of the evidence, it just keeps quiet until someone rejects me, then reflects that back, millionfold.

Yes, it does help to write that, to know that others will read it and relate. And yet, it's true, a part of me, underneath, even deeper now, still believes it:
"The stories got rejected because you aren't a good writer."

And even now, typing this, I see how absurd that is, how it flies in the face of other things I believe, truly believe, not just on the surface. Yet, it still holds power, swaying power like a snake in a charmer's basket.

It's not something to fix. I'm not going to "fix" it anytime soon. Just observing it feels like a big deal. A lot of the power goes out of its sails when I write about it, when I call it out, especially if I can do it with equanimity. For now, that's true. And today? I'll politely reply to the email, which has haunted my inbox for three days now, waiting for a wide open day like today to leap out at me and taunt me, and get back to the "drawing" board. In the end, the deep end, that's what it takes.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Inspiration


I'm home! 10 days out of my own bed, without my cats and loving partner. 10 days with new and old friends, teaching, learning, and spreading out my experiences in New Mexico, deepening them. Lots and lots of writing and photos to be posted soon, especially the photos.

What a place that New Mexico is. I saw more inspiration than ever before, and felt the desperation of the place more keenly. Just a touch, a taste, of what the reality of living there must be like. Like so many tourist places, life is extremely gorgeous and intensely tough.

On this intensive, I began to daily read and consider passages from The Way of the Bodhisattva, from Pema Chodron's No Time to Lose. Here's the part I got today, coming home:

1.6
Thus behold the utter frailty of goodness!
Except for perfect bodhichitta,
There is nothing able to withstand
The great and overwhelming strength of evil.

On the road, I feel the tenousness of life more and more - of myself, of my understandings, and of others' experience. Impermanence. This passage was a perfect one for just beginning to process this trip and all it inspired in me. If you take away the "western" connotations of good/evil and see "evil" as "our neuroticisms and mindless suffering," then this quote really rings true for what I saw in myself, in the other participants, and in day-to-day folk this time around.

More soon, I promise. Off to begin all weekly classes again.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Resident

(photograph of a print from Memorial Union show "Home Sweet Home," which is up until mid-September . Artist/title unknown. Link: http://www.union.wisc.edu/art/)

So here I am, in writing residency again at the Shambhala Center. It's pretty casual - I hang out and write the whole time, and students and other writers just kind of drop in whenever they have 15 minutes or three hours and write alongside me. I have said I can give advice/feedback, but the main aim here is to just be together, to go somewhere and write. I need it. My students tell me they need it - some of them have told me they are getting wiggly for class to start again, especially since I put it off two more weeks to get some other things done.

Like doing a reading in Appleton yesterday. I went back to my hometown, the place where I lived on and off until I was 19, and read at Harmony Cafe. It didn't exist when I was in High School - I helped to establish a poetry night at the cafe attached to Conkey's Bookstore (RIP) at the time. Harmony is a great establishment - social services, wonderful food, and orange sherbet even, which I hadn't had since I was a kid! (Thanks Matty for buying me a scoop)

I went early and Erika and I swam in her mom's condo association pool. She lives, officially, in Grand Chute, which is sort of the conglomeration of said condos and old farmhouses just past the Fox River Mall. In spitting distance, in most cases, of the mall mecca. So it was a good place to "dip in," so to speak. In the past, going "home" to Appleton has been hard, very hard, but this time it was easier. Erika is from the area, so there was a sense of comraderie. Beyond that, though, we talked about all the why's which could contribute to a stronger sense of ease going back: that we both own our own houses now, we are married, happy in Madison, glad with our work. Add for me Facebook (thanks for coming to the reading, Debbie!) which has gotten me back in touch with the better elements of growing up, in the form of old friends.

But I think Erika said it best when she said, and we were talking about confidence a lot yesterday on the drive from Madison to Appleton, that we are both confident enough in ourselves that our "pasts" have nothing that can shake us up anymore. We might stumble a bit, or feel guilty or off, but nothing that could come up there would actually THREATEN the lives we have now. That was key for me - this idea that nothing can threaten it, at least nothing from my "past." I almost braked the car at 65 miles an hour to sit with that. Wow. When did *that* happen?

I think for me it happened just in the last year. I saw a friend last night at the reading (Thanks for coming, Matty!) whom I saw in Appleton almost exactly a year ago. We spent the afternoon getting wasted. That's all I could do there. I had nightmares about going back before going and was confused the whole time I was there, except for at my nephew's birthday party (the main reason I went back). I realize now that the key point, the key turning point for me, for relating to Appleton, the point on which the THREAT which may have keeled me over turned was realizing, really coming to terms with the fact that my parents died there, that in fact, they both died in the house I grew up in, and in fact in the same bed, 7 years apart.

Of course I have known this the whole time, but I wasn't really aware of it. It was like a secret, a pocket, some part of me was hiding from myself. I wasn't ready to deal with it. Even when I was ready, last year, after that drunken trip, it still knocked me out for a few days. Wow. No Wonder It Is Hard To Go Back There, I thought. And like that, poof. The power seeped out and I got back on my feet.

I didn't realize it but this was a bit of a test. "Good to go back to your place and be recognized for what you do well," Erika said, and I agree. But more than that, all the secrets are out. I've spent the last few years removing the wind from their sails, airing out the closets that no longer belong to me. Now I have my own house, which I keep open and airy, as much as is possible.

It's almost as if Appleton was a grave, not just a closet, but a deep-down dark crypt for me. Literally. And now it isn't. It's not "just like that," it took many years of hard work, but it's clear to me now that it has changed, that I have changed, that my relationship with the town has changed. I am no longer nor likely ever will be a resident there again, but I can go there without a fear so dark it most closely resembles death.

And today I feel light. Airy. Open. Ready to write. Ready to reside in myself, nothing left to hide.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Unplayed Playlist

(L-R me in my 2$ rummage sale find, June, Dylan, Alex, Patty and Heather and Tyler in front)

There are so many cheesy metaphors I could espouse here, the day after our third and final "wedding." The one which actually is fitting is the life ahead of us, and how it could be similar to an un-played playlist.

Last night, we turned our neighborhood coffeeshop (often referred to as "our second living room" by coffee-date friends) into a reception hall in less than two hours, with the help of many friends; our dream team of many-cited provenance: Portland, Chicago, Milwaukee, Rotterdam, London, Madison and more. Dylan and I came in with our well pre-prepared parts and itemized lists and we distributed tasks to headmasters who became loving dictators. Tealights in jars with sand, twinkle lights and tents needing assembly, 110 sets of plates all lovingly mismatched blues from resale stores, hand-sewn tablecloths, and food, drink and more food! The final piece in place, for us in our planning as well as to arrive to the party, was music. Dylan had made a "mellow" playlist for during the meal, then a dance list for afterwards. I made one, very last minute, for the "afterparty" should there be one (there wasn't - not one we hosted, anyway!).

We got to the mellow list, and later, washing dishes and taking out the trash at the end of the night, we discoed a bit to a stretch of his dance list. But most of the music went un-played. And that is ok. Let's hope we have plenty of time to "enjoy the music," so to speak.

In the coming weeks we will post videos folks took, especially of my tearful "speech" and moment of silence along with our famous couple joking nature, and the first ceremony from England last year. I'll keep you posted on it. Despite incredible heat and humidity last night, everyone had a great time at the party (not a frown in place) and we indeed felt very well-loved.

We didn't take enough pictures of all the combinations of family and friends, so please send them our way if you did! Thanks to all who came and love also to those who couldn't or we weren't able to fit in. We still are grateful for your support.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

How Do You Do


A low-grade sadness has underpinned my interactions with the world for the last few days. These activities include parties with visiting friends, to-do lists a mile long preparing for our wedding reception this Saturday, and our kitchen, which will hopefully be done in time. Is it pre-menstrual? Maybe it's this or that, I would say to Dylan, grabbing whatever event had most recently occurred. Not *exactly* depression, but melancholy.

In the last week I have had numerous intense conversations: about gender and sexuality, about divorce (a friend's possibly pending, not mine!) and previous family history (one of my brothers, with whom I am barely in contact and will not be at my reception, and his ex-wife), for starters. So any time any of those occurred, it seemed they might be the trigger. But I know how these things work - triggers are reminders, not establishers. Last night I "finally" had the conversation that made the "source" apparent.

Having an iPhone is a mixed blessing. I love having my to-do lists and contact with me always. For the most part it's kept me more in touch with myself and others. But last night, adding to our wedding reception list out at dinner with Dylan, I gave into the temptation to check my email. Dinner was done, not really a problem. Only two new messages - one from the mother of the son of the brother who is coming to the reception. She was writing to say that she and her son (my nephew and my brother's son) wouldn't be at the reception. They had a last minute offer to take a friend's cabin for the week, and would be back on Sunday, a day after the reception. She said she wished us the best, and was looking forward to seeing me in mid-August, when I will be visiting where they live.

My first reaction was pure anger. What?! We invited them months ago. I couldn't believe she'd back out last minute. It's not like he's a ring bearer, but he's family, so is she, for that matter. She wouldn't pull this kind of thing with *her* family of origin. I began to analyze it, trying not to take it personally, and Dylan warned me to back my brain off from it, let myself just feel. I had just texted the brother about something else - I texted him with this news, as well. He called back, just as we were leaving the restaurant. He had found out a couple of days ago, was waiting for her to tell me, as that is her responsibility. He was irate - and had told her as much.

We got home and as I folded laundry, I fumed. Finally, after piling through arguments I didn't want to have with her, because they were useless even if with base, I pulled out my computer and sent her a really straight-forward email. I said I was sorry if somehow I had not communicated how totally essential this party is, how it is not "just a reception," and what essential family members they are. That the "Hall" family is tiny, and not having him there to meet folks who have waited (some, a decade) to meet him - the godmother who married us, my in-laws, people visiting from as far as England was a big dissapoinment and possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity. I told her she has the right to make her own choices and the last thing I wish to do is to "guilt" her into bringing him, but that I didn't see why they couldn't cut the vacation a day short and come.

As I read out loud the part about "tiny family" I began to bawl. Dylan asked me if I wanted to keep reading it out loud, and I did - that always helps me to hear for certain what I am saying. Overnight I had many intense dreams - as I have been having for days - mostly about family. I woke with certainty that the low-grade melancholy is about exactly this. Was not caused by her email, but that cracked open the cause (and for this I am grateful to her): that having a reception, a wedding reception, my wedding reception, without parents, grandparents (all passed) or my brother and his son (we aren't to the point where my brother can come to something like this yet) is really painful. I knew that last year when we spontaneously "eloped" - we knew it would save some pain. Another godmother said at the time "Wow. You really dodged a bullet. That would have hurt like a bitch." Except for the part where this will also hurt like a bitch. Or already is hurting.

How do I do this? Like I have done everything else. With honesty. Not shutting off my feelings. Moving forward. Celebrating and also crying. Knowing I am not alone. Letting friends be family. Missing those who are missing but not lingering too long. Eating delicious food. Letting myself be held. Leaning on the family I do have. Appreciating Dylan. Resting and feeling. Feeling. Feeling the hole in the leaf and letting it be.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

"If he were a regular guy, he'd be arrested by now."

I haven't done much internet reading or other reading on Twilight. So I am going to launch into this knowing that likely a million other good feminists have ranted about just this in their annals already. Only this rant will be kind of confessional.

I started reading Twilight last night. I bought it on a whim last weekend, on my one day off since the last blog entry (June 25th), when Dylan and I were out on the town. I got it super cheap, and as I had been with teens all week who sighed about it, I had to see what was up. When I woke up yesterday I knew my ice cream, my empty calorie treat for the rest of the weekend, once my summer school stint was over at noon, was going to be reading this oh-ever-so-popular tome. I was prepared to deride, to sneer, and to want to put it down.

Only I don't want to. Adverbs aside (have you never read Stephen King's good words on adverbs, Stephenie Meyers?), it's got a very good plot drive. "Nothing happens," by this "always looking for first base tittilation" reader for over 100 pages. Lots of anticipation, plot build and character set-up. It's like a Louis L'Amour, Natalie would say, empty yet somehow driving enough to make one miss a plane. Only this has got something I had long forgotten gets to me - the tittilation of total absorption; the draw of insanely impractical love.

We aren't even talking Romeo and Juliet here. Bella and Edward have something far beyond that. Trying not to spoil it for anyone (I read the spoilers, I could care less), but clearly if this guy were a regular guy, as Dylan just pointed out in conclusion to what I was saying to him, he'd be in jail by now. Not because he rapes her, not because he abuses her in any way. But because no one, not even a teenager, would accept the kind of behavior he does from a "normal" guy. Ok, maybe a few, but the lure of his "otherness" is so extreme that it excuses a lot. And even though my intellect is screaming running the other way - this dude's a freaking stalker, yo this is disgusting, ugh ugh ugh, my loins are running backwards over my own feet to the scene of the badly-adverbed crime. Give me more of his total devotion, his multiple lifetime I can't resist you fetishism. Give me more of that other-worldly pull. Luckilly I've got my brain to check in on me when my neck is crooked from a couple hundred pages of the wrong reading position, to pull me back into the present with my lovah who is plenty devoted to me as is.

But what about the girls? I hate that I loved the lyrics "Everything I do, I do it for you," and "I would die for you," from Bryan Adams in Junior High School. But I did. I wanted someone to sing it to me, I wanted to feel that way for someone else. I won't decry Meyers as some new horrible thing that needs to go, lest it filfth the minds of our impressionable teens. She's not really doing anything new. But I am an adult now, and I am shocked to see that despite my confidence and comfort, the woman in me responds to its old dog training: Want This. Want It More Than Anything Else. I am surprised I'M not arrested by now.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Spiritual Authority


Tomorrow, I am scheduled to give a talk in Burlington VT entitled "Who *is* doing your writing?"

I'll sell copies of my chapbook, give a little dharma arts talk, then teach Miksang the rest of the weekend. When I first came up with the title, I thought "Yeah baby. That's a good topic." Now I am thinking, how does one TALK about something like that?

Experience. Lean on experience, Natalie whispers in my ear. There is no such thing as spiritual authority. Just tell them what you know from your gut.

It's easy to think that someone is telling us to write, telling us what to write, because there is always a voice telling us what not to write, even if it does it "silently." Don't write about your mother, don't write about your ex-lovers, don't write at all. This voice is strong, and one would think that a) it's actually legit and it does exist and b) that there must be a counter voice, the one that actually does the writing. But what if the "thing/being/mind" doing the writing doesn't exist?

It's a bit like wrestling plastic bags to talk about it - no, even more like wrestling the wind.
A friend and I talked about it earlier this week - the idea that you can only see a black hole by seeing what is occurring around it. "Evidence," you could say, that creativity is happening is pen marks on paper, paint, an invention, even a conversation. And yet, is that itself creativity? What is coming out is not the same as the creative act - the creative act has no bias, no concept, no mind and no agenda. It is a gap between thoughts, space, openness. There is where words emerge, photo opportunities are seen (and hopefully shot from) and paintings become color and form. Why? Because that's how perception itself works. Long before - we are talking milliseconds here - your brush or pen hits paper, or the shutter opens, the mind - or is it the mind? - has opened up from a state of "blankness" and received something, made connection with something, in the phenomenal world.

"But emptiness has a container. A vase can only hold flowers because it has a wall," one might say. So where is the wall on creativity? Certainly all of us have felt walls around ideas before - we come out, open and on fire about something, only to run into our own or someone else's no's or uh uh's or "What are you crazy?"'s. But are they really containing the creativity? Can perceptions be contained? Or maybe they are just turned off - or more importantly - we are turned off. Poof. We lose the connection. "Can you hear me now?" the other line of perception/creativity is saying, and we have dropped the signal.

Signal. So there *is* something coming through, a sign, a concept, an idea. Or is there? Maybe that signal is there all the time, is more than a signal (it is so hard to use words to talk about these things!) - more like a constant, like air. Maybe there is still air inside the cardboard box of criticism we might create, but it doesn't contain all we need to survive, or it won't, in short order, if we stay inside without opening up. And in that air itself is all we need to create. You don't need to remove blocks, to bust open writer's block, or creative "down" periods. Just actually inhale the air around you - do your dishes, take the dog for a walk, call your mom back, clean the carpet. Then write/paint/photograph from that experience. Nat says it to me and I say it to you: trust your gut, your own perceptions. Creativity is not an act, not something made up. It's plain experience, boring, everyday, put on paper, on film, on stage. Interact with the world and it will come to you.

That's who's doing the writing. Wait, what's the answer? I don't get it. Where's the answer?
Exactly.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Long, Long Summer Days


The cats are alternating napping on and sniffing my tent, spread out over the living room floor to dry after this weekend's camping out. Aviva is hunting out any bugs she can find, sure that every pucker contains a caterpillar or spider. Drala could care less - is happy for the coolness of the polyester, which has yet to warm to room temperature, sticky and hot.

I am trying my hardest to fulfill a promise I made this morning in "I just slept from 7:30 at night to 7:30 in the morning" grog: this is my weekend. Right here. Right now. Monday and Tuesday are it - after that, I need to pack up and prepare to go to Burlington. After I do that for four days, I'll be back to visitors, teacher training, summer school and finishing up prep for the wedding reception. That's a lot! And as I told Dylan last night, I thought doing it "all on weekends" would make things ok (eg work on weekends and take the "weeks off"), only if I don't set the boundary to actually TAKE OFF during the week, I won't. My default is work, work and more work. If there is no work left (never mind that that never really happens), I turn something fun into work. So today will be tv, bike rides, coffee with friends, art and reading/writing. Same with tomorrow. Doctor's orders.

Aviva has settled down to nap like Drala. Looks like the cats agree. Time to do some "serious" chilling.

Friday, June 19, 2009

My website is finally back up!!!

www.herspiral.com

Please subscribe/link here for blog - easier to update and more public, not worth it for me to keep two blogs (at least for now) but check there for class schedules, information, more on what I teach. Thanks for being patient through the phishing debacle and host change-over!

Fierce Attachments


The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick was one of our required books for the last session of Natalie's intensive. It's a fantastic book, essays of an intellectual nature about how to distinguish between memoir and personal narrative. Very educational, lots of examples, and an introduction which, as Nat said and I agree, is "pure dharma." I won't even quote it here, that's how good the whole thing is. Read it - check it out from the library, buy it from your indy local bookstore. Yessiree.

In the process of tracking down that title, I also ran into her memoir Fierce Attachments at St. Vinnies for a buck. I bought it, as it promised me to be about a mother-daughter relationship after the father dies when the daughter is in her teens and mom in post-menopausal world. Sigh. Sound familiar? With a title like Fierce Attachments and a name like Gornick's attached, I couldn't pass it up.

Now I can barely pass it through my system. It's a stormy night/day and I feel like the weather, though of course this is more atmospheric and symbolic than true, is reflecting my immersion into this book. My god. Some of the passages strike more closely to home than anything ever has. There are plenty of books out there about grief - the loss of the living - but it takes a special mind to be able to depict the loss of *life*, a parent or partner who totally subsumes under death's will, not theirs, but that of a loved one's. Here's a passage I read to Dylan last night which made him wince, and I said "Don't you see? This is exactly what it was like in my mom's house after my dad died and it was just her and me." Gornick tells it too well, I guess better than I ever have, which is a strange relief:

"It was the year after my father's death, the year in which I began to sit on the fire escape late at night making up stories in my head. The atmosphere in our house had become morgue-like. My mother's grief was primitive and all-encompassing: it sucked the oxygen out of the air. A heavy drugged sensation filled my head and my body whenever I came back into the apartment. We, none of us -- not my brother, not I, certainly not my mother -- found comfort in one another. We were only exiled together, trapped in a common affliction. Loneliness of the spirit seized conscious hold of me for the first time, and as I turned my face to the street, to the dreamy melancholy inner suggestiveness that had become the only relief from what I quickly perceived as a condition of loss, and of defeat."
(Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments, page 55)

Shit. So I did this outside my own window, in a room separate from my mother. So it was just my mother and I. But otherwise the story is the same. The story of unmitigated but also fiercely attached-to grief. Her mom couldn't let it go and it dragged her down, which dragged everyone down. Hopefully you've read other passages by now of my blog, so you know I am not just blaming the mom. I know that grief is ongoing, all too well. That's all the more reason to let it go when you can. And her mom didn't. Ever. Hurt her worse than anyone and made collateral damage on her daughter. Sounds very familiar to me.

Then, because she is blessed, and rich and full, Gornick depicts openness, mindfulness, awareness, with the same ease, the same pedestrian everyone-can-understand way, just a dozen or so pages later:

"That space. It begins in the middle of my forehead and ends in the middle of my groin. It is, variously, as wide as my body, as narrow as the slit in a fortress wall. On days when thought flows freely or better yet clarifies with effort, it expands gloriously. On days when anxiety and self-pity crowd in, it shrinks, how fast it shrinks! When the space is wide and I occupy it fully, I taste the air, feel the light. I breathe evenly and slowly. I am peaceful and excited, beyond influence or threat. Nothing can touch me. I'm safe. I'm free. I'm thinking. When I lose the battle to think, the boundaries narrow, the air is polluted, the light clouds over. All is vapor and fog, and I have trouble breathing."
-Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments, p.103

Not only does she depict singular suffering (the situation of her father's death and mother's grief) but also the larger picture of enlightenment and suffering (what a story we attach to!). Amazing stuff, and not just for another orphan, or 1/2 orphan, as she points out, since she had "only lost Father."

The fierce attachments that Gornick depicts for herself most in this book are that spaciousness on one end and the horrid grief that calls her home on the other. Where's the middle ground? I'll let you read yourself to find out.