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?

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!!!

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.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Undoing the guilt of non-doing

So, in theory, I am on vacation for the three weeks including this one and next two.

I teach this upcoming weekend, so that's definitely work. And the weekend after that, also work. Let's say that is half time. If my life were easier to assess in terms of what is work and what is pleasure, I could say that I could work 20 hours this week, if I wanted to, and relax the rest. Or say that since I am freaking working during "vacation" I shouldn't work at all during the week. ONly there is stuff to get done, not much, but some, and well, my life just isn't that distinct.

The kinds of things which sometimes feel like work and sometimes like pleasure:
-sewing tablecloths for our wedding reception
-wedding reception prep stuff in general
-painting the kitchen
-writing, yes, writing
-cleaning the cat boxes, the bathroom, the floors

The things that never feel like work:
-watching Buffy (just about to start Season 7)
-reading (even when I *have* to do it)
-hanging with the cats
-going for a walk
-taking photos

Things that always feel like work:
-emails (even if they aren't work-related, and that's a fine boundary for sure)
-phone calls (except for very personal ones, and if I am depressed, they feel like work, but a different kind of work)
-teaching (as much as I love it, it's definitely draining, even with good boundaries)
-taking care of house repair calls, appointments, errands
-grocery shopping

Last night I spoke with a student and friend who is a "stay at home mom". We talked, because I was having some trouble with these things and was curious how it is for someone who is "not" getting paid to do her work, no matter what kind it was at home, how she felt about that. She said at first, when her boys were young and always home, she could relate to working class families, and felt underappreciated at times. "Look at me, I am freaking working full time and getting no pay," but at the same time, she said, they shared more tasks, she and her husband who worked/s outside the home. Now that both of her sons are in care, one in school the other in pre-school, she has more time to do the house things during the day so they can all relax at night. "And I am ok with that, because now that makes more time for all of us. Even during the summer, it works, because the boys are older now and can amuse themselves." Still, she said, of course she can't be as creative for longer as she wants, and it is hard, but not the same kind of hard. She even prefers summer without scheduling, free open days. She also now appreciates how her husband works so hard to ensure they have benefits, safety, paid mortgage, etc, and realizes what a sacrifice he makes.

Huh. I was on a martyr trip all day yesterday, really feeling like because I am at home a lot, whether officially working or not, I am "stuck" doing the stuff at home. This is neither totally fair nor true, of course, and was triggered mostly by a) my lack of boundaries about it and b) not doing more fun stuff for myself during the day. And a discussion with Dylan about whether or not he should keep his full time job "just so we can have benefits."

So why not do less? Why not take advantage of this time, instead of blaming the feeling that I can't do nothing on the tasks that are always hanging around regardless of how much I or Dylan do/es? The endless to-do lists of all ilk. Pick more from the definitely never to-do feeling, especially for the next couple of days, before I go to work for the weekend. Chill out. It's a choice. And one I can be especially grateful for, for as "unstable" in theory as my job is, I have a lot of freedom and choice, which can be almost paralyzing, but also appreciated.

So that's it. Nothing from the definite work list. Some tasks from the sometimes-feels-like-work list in order to get them in order. And today, lots from the not-work list. Knitting. Cat cuddling. Reading. If I do enough of those, then even weeding and painting don't feel like work. Like so many things, context is key.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Spontaneous Cooperative Action (Return from Taos)

Here it is. "The post" following my week in Taos. I put up a couple of posts while there, but of course I hand-wrote my heart out, so the idea of getting online to either copy over some of my experiences or write them in a different mode was far from appealing.

I was glad I took my laptop along, though. The couple of posts I did make, as well as being able to sieve through email bit by bit, use Skype to talk to Dylan for free and keep tiny tabs on Facebook (I was very proud of my non-progress there!) were all really helpful. I found the first of the four intensives with Natalie Goldberg (I am doing a four-part program and this one was part two) intensely lonely - I knew almost no one there, we were in silence almost immediately, and I had to pay outrageous cell roaming rates to talk to Dylan. No hugs, barely any eye contact, no cats. Plus I was in a mid-winter depression.

This time around was remarkedly different for many reasons, but the main one is the title of this post. There was a sense, barely logically built by the minimal email contact in-between, of actually knowing each other, and of increased compassion. Folks made a bit more eye contact, were relaxed into their issues more easily, and the pain rose, for all of us, to the surface a bit sooner and stayed there. The first few stormy days let us feel at ease being unsteady, and the sun dried it all up toward the end. I went on an (almost) silent spontaneous field trip with a core group on Thursday, and got to see the Rio Grande Gorge (pictures up soon on Flickr) and a few of the small towns nearby. Friday we did a similar trip with a caravan of all 25 participants and Natalie - to Sweet Nymphs in PeƱasco, to Dixon and their fantastic community library, to Banana Rose territory. Add to this so many hours of inner landscape, and the sense of spaciousness, though tittered through with depression, confusion, self-hatred, was glorious.

For those of you who haven't done it, I can't recommend it enough. Go Study With Natalie. The area she teaches in, Taos, and the building/retreat center, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, are an experience all in themselves. Though I am working on getting her here to the Midwest to teach, she is utterly in her element there, her home scape of now 20 years. The high desert is a powerful tool for stripping one down to the elements. She offers financial aid. She is a master. There are very few reasons not to do it, and I guarantee I could convince you out of them if you give me half a chance. If you feel any calling to writing practice at all whatsoever, just one long weekend retreat will buoy you up for years.

The sense of what can happen in a space where people are gathered for just this motivation: spontaneous cooperative action - that sense is hopefully common enough in our neighborhoods, with friends and family, but to do it with strangers, in the desert, high up above the earth, and one hand held by a master while the other writes through your fears to the deepest truths that exist, that is immeasureable. Priceless, as Mastercard would say.

I am lucky enough to realize I get whiffs of this week to week, whether or not I am in class sessions. I am also smart enough to realize very few are as lucky as me. You want the luck? Make it happen. That's the way to make a path for it to beat its way to your door. You have to cooperate for spontenaity to act toward you. Go for it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

She'll be comin' round the mountain when she comes...

We sing sometimes doing walking meditation, Natalie's groups. Nat will call on a particular person she knows loves to lead singing, or ask for a specific song. "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen (later covered by Jeff Buckley) is a fave. "Wallflower Waltz," "Amazing Grace," and a few other songs I don't know the sources of are on pretty steady repeat. Occasionally she'll just say "anyone have a song they want to sing?"

Today, walking over to the main house for lunch after a very loopy and ungrounded group discussion of Red Azalea by Anchee Min, I had that song, "She'll be comin' round the mountain when she comes." I am in Taos, after all, high up on a hill with Taos Mountain framing the building from no matter what angle (save the back, bordering the Pueblo, where the public are asked not to go) you see it from. I come out to go to breakfast in the morning, Mountain. To the "log cabin" (mostly adobed over so it makes us Northerners laugh): Mountain. Running from a rainstorm coming in? Mountain. 

And that's what I have just returned from doing - being chased off the grounds of a gallery situated nearby Mabel Dodge Luhan House by an oncoming storm. This morning Nat commented "Funny how weather affects us, isn't it?" The group had grown silenter - I know were are on a silent retreat, but there are always degrees of grumbles or giggles, and they were drowned out of our bodies by the downpour - and somberer. I, for one, usually love rain, but had plenty of it back home before coming, thank you. But I know they need it here. It's rare. After lunch, with "She'll be comin'..." still runnin' through my head, a friend and I indicated to each other with minimal words that we both wanted to go for a walk, read each other's "How are you feeling right now?" replies Nat asked us to write after the bizarre group idea bazaar. We perched on the edge of the pond in the gallery garden, noted the sculpture where I took a picture of her last time was gone, and photographed the oncoming storm swallowing the tops of all three surrounding mountains. We read fast, trusting each other with our neurotic splashes, pausing to laugh or notice the woodpeckers and pigeons. 

It helped us both, to get "stuff off our chests," since neither of us trust everyone in the larger group, on some level. But as both of us noticed separately in our own writings, neither of us totally trust ourselves, either. "What happened to our little sweet retreat?" I whined in my writing. And yet I've done enough retreats to know very well what Day Three feels like - like this. Ungrounded. Egotistical. Wild. Breaking. 

The storm continues to rage for minutes on end, then disappear with the sun. After a pause, she comes around again.  And so do the feelings. Way to say it, Natalie. The weather may not be causing our feelings, but it sure does fit them.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

“Make sure to secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others"

“Make sure to secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others” 

Have I really heard this message before? Three flights today, three times stated, and even the first time it hit me. Why? How American. Take care of yourself first. But wait. Take Care of Yourself. Suddenly it sounded to me a bit like “you have to love yourself in order to love others.”


This was especially on my mind after reading a biography of Dorothea Lange by Elizabeth Partridge (her granddaughter, of sorts), called Restless Spirit. Lange lived in an era when women were expected, even if they had enlightened husbands, to not work (only ¼ before WWII of women worked outside the home, and those mostly in the classic female professions – nursing, maid, teacher, etc), and even if they did, big surprise, to still be the primary caregiver for the kids. Oh yes, the kids. Of course there would be kids.


Is it Lange’s fault that she put her family first? Is that even a problem, more interestingly? In the end she wound up shooting photographs of a lot of her family, in the final years when she was home sick with esophageal cancer. She had spent all the time documenting the migrant poor of the Depression, the destitute and dislocated of Japanese internment camps, and finally, at home, she photographed her family, her house, her settings. Always people. Always photographing people. She tried natural abstracts ala her buddy Paul Strand, but that wasn’t to pass.


She traveled a lot toward the end of her life. Would she have taken boats or planes? Did she hear this message, was that even played at that time, in the late 50’s early 60’s? “Do onto others as you want done unto you.” What about doing onto you as you want done onto others?


Oxygen mask is about as essential as self care gets. Make sure you can live to help others, this message now seems to say to me, instead of “save only yourself,” or “save yourself first.” Can you imagine? Someone fixing their kids’ or parents’ or neighbor’s mask, only to pass out on the spot after helping five others first? That same person could help ten if they had only paused to put on their own oxygen. Eleven – they would also help themselves.


Yesterday at a workshop I was teaching a college student asked me about a couple of vows I made casual reference to earlier on in the day. “Are these vows marks of accomplishment,” she asked “or more of commitment?” I explained the refuge vow, when I publicly stated that I thought Buddhism was the sanest, bestest stuff out there and promised to do my best to think first of it whenever I was confused. She nodded. “Sure. It’s a sort of communion, baptism, confirmation.”

“Yeah, that’s analogous,” I said.

“What about the other one?”

“Bodhisattva vow? That’s like the same thing only, um, more,” I replied.

“How so?”

“Well, above all, I have stated that I will help others before myself,” her mother, who had also taken the workshop and who is a recent widow, nodded. A lifelong Polish Catholic. “That’s not exactly it, though. It’s more like – well, we are all interdependent. So if I truly do something to help you, it benefits me, and vice versa.” Both of them nodded.

“Teaching is a great example, right, does that make sense?”

They both smiled. Yes. They had seen how I truly loved teaching, and also that it benefited them.


The truth is that I can’t live without the truth. I’ve become a bit of an addict, even when it gives me an emotional hangover. Lange seemed addicted to the truth, too, even moreso. She had to stop and take pictures of pea pickers. She gave up her family, often, in order to record the roaring woes of other families. I am not saying she neglected her duties – she was born and lived in a time when balancing these two was a rare and difficult harmony. I guess what I am trying to say is that I feel for her struggle, especially as more and more of my peers have kids. How on earth does one do that? Then my friends say to me, “How on earth does one ever understand, truly give over themselves to an understanding of interdependence, without having kids?”  I think of Dorothea Lange, who somehow did both. My friends and I smile at each other, for each of us has our own journey. Put on your oxygen mask. It’s going to be a wild ride.

Friday, June 05, 2009


(Ekphrastic image from a quilt by Cheri St Cyr)
It's Friday. I've spent the week paring down my email inbox, which overflowed with last semester's emails, cleaning out, fixing pipes and lawns, wrestling with a tight back. Now, today, at the end of the week, I turn my eyes toward a weekend of teaching, followed by a week of being taught. What a blessing.

200 posts. A few of those Prayas wrote back in the beginning, almost 5 years ago. Before I began teaching. Just after being on writing residency retreat at Vermont Studio Center. Before I met Dylan. Back then. Eventually, Prayas moved off to another blog and over the years, this has become a practice for me, a mix of teaching myself and sharing what I have been taught or am teaching others. As the byline says "opening inside spaces." How I had no clue back when I wrote that, which is probably what I will say another 200 from now.

Gratitude today to yoga teachers and pregnant friends, the sun and my cats, my partner and visiting friends who give me the night off to do what I want alone, to my students-to-be of tomorrow and the day after, my students of the past. To my teachers, Natalie and John, and the other participants in the Taos intensive I am about to return to who offered me more rides to the workshop than I could take in one lifetime. To the planes that will take me there and the planes that will take me home. To back pain, which reminds me there are many times I am not in pain.

Goodnight sweet world that often hurts, you beautiful, sharp earth. Let us wake tomorrow with eyes open wide and let in all of you we can handle and still survive.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Wisdom and Knowledge

I slept long and hard last night, as if fighting off death. A cold incoming, worn exhaustion from weeks of work and a long weekend program. My arm and upper back, which have been injured and off for weeks now, despite chiropractors, yoga and acupuncture, settled in so I could finally rest. Woke up after 8 hours, decided it wasn't enough and went back for 3 more.

When I woke up, this idea popped into my head: "Wisdom is lived Knowledge." I kept thinking about this elusive line the visiting teacher at the Shambhala Center said on her Friday night talk: "Whenever I am anxious, I ask myself what it is I am not looking at." When I heard that line, in the context of her talk, it seemed like magic, a key in a large iron door, swinging open something it seemed it would take 10 men to push. Just like that. Open. Clear. Knowing. She wasn't just showing that she knew this, had experienced it, but that I could suddenly see, yes, that is what one should do. I understood it. I even told it to a couple of friends and as I recounted it I began - not to doubt it, but to understand it LESS. My heart turned it into manipulated fodder: "Use This Against Yourself," it intoned. "What is it you're not looking at? Anxiety comes from looking at too much!" I couldn't seem to reconnect with the flash, the Wisdom of the Knowledge I know was there - I don't doubt her or the truth of her statement, I don't doubt I understood then, I just can't seem to find the connection.

Or can I? Depression, a week-long companion last week, seems to have dissipated and left no forwarding address for now. It's a tender amnesty, quiet and without hassle. Maybe, after all, this is what she meant. "Look at what is not there," maybe she was really saying "Open to the space."

So that's what I have been wondering about, in a surface-level very sweet and curious way, without pressure. What is this difference, between Knowing something and feeling the Wisdom of it? My intuition says that to know something is to have read it in a book, hear it, maybe even memorized it. But to have wisdom is to have experienced it. Wisdom is bone-deep. You cannot become wise about something without having lived it. Yet, wisdom isn't necessarily preferable. It's not an either/or. I have lived through a lot of tough, weird shit for someone my age, and I still have a lot to learn. Wisdom comes from the same place as confusion, and can easily turn on the edge of habit into a bad track record. Knowledge without wisdom can become too edgey and without heart, fundamentalistic, overly rational.

What strikes me as funny is that neither of these seem solid. One day I can write an essay about how much my UGH turns to an AHA - a real AHA a wisdom-based one, and the next the pain underneath, the pain the UGH churned out still needs to drain. Neither Wisdom or Knowledge is any kind of cure. I am not sure there is a cure. Today, I am ok with that.