Sunday, December 22, 2013

My Heart on My Sleeve

Love, NYC 2011
This week is a post by a student, Barbara Samuel. She describes so well the process of sharing, what we are looking for from others about our writing, as well as looking for from others about ourselves. I think it really fits my last post about not using writing - or anything else - to get love. She really shows the mixed bag of connection and fear. I am discussing a lot of how this relates to writing memoir in particular over at Memoir Mind, in case this piques your interest in that direction. She also begins to explore how hard it can be to depict a particular time in our lives and share it with others without them seeing us as just that at that time. What do we do when the era we are depicting is so different than who we are now?

We just read Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which she refers to in the piece.

This is a rough draft, as always is the case with my students' pieces here.Actually I prefer to call them "raw drafts" instead of rough drafts - it better depicts why I find them so powerful.


When I visit my son and daughter-in-law I take a flash drive with me that contains
everything I’ve written in the last year and a half. Every time we are together, there
or here, they ask me to read some pieces. That’s one benefit of having a close child;
there is one person in the world who actually wants to hear what I’ve been writing.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Don't Use Writing To Get Love - Or Anything Else

Heart on Fire, Austin TX
I have been haunted lately by one of Natalie Goldberg's classic mantras:

Don't use writing to get love.

A few weeks ago I got a reminder on yet another even-more-subtle level, that I can't use teaching - nay, anything - to get love, either.
I don't know about you, but I can use just about anything to try and get love.

I am not talking about consciously seeking acceptance or being wanted. I am talking deep, deep down in crevice, corner, inner-child seeking love missile. Empty whole in belly quality. I think I have taken care of it but then I get stressed out and LO! this issue is still there.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Start of the Breakdown

I haven't posted here in a month. Wow. I didn't realize how long it had been.

It's not that I am not inspired, rather, maybe too inspired. This, of course, is the inverse of being underinspired and, in fact, the same issue: not able to decide, see clearly: feeling over or underwhelmed is still feeling whelmed.

Today I canceled my classes last minute because I realized I couldn't teach them. This is the first time I officially called in mentally ill - and while it feels important to do it and be honest, there is also shame. Mostly shame about not seeing it coming (thus the last minuteness), and about "not caring enough for myself/to make this happen."

I need to let go of all of those stories - they won't help me be gentle and care for myself like I need to right now. I know I am getting better at this all the time - letting go and being with the situation. There's always another challenge for it around the corner.

The start of the breakdown is the end of something - the end of pushing too hard, of, with all the connecting with myself I've been doing, the end of not connecting enough. A day in which I don't have to speak to anyone or be anywhere is what this little breakdown needs. I broke it down: that's what I need.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Let's Rest

One of my writings in response to the first week's prompt for my Contemplative Writing classes - What are you bringing with you to this seven-week session?

My period refused to let me rush: rush from answering emails to packing to checking in for my flight to vacuuming – all the rushing I am inclined to doing when my more sedentary and also patient partner is out of town or at work. I woke up bleeding, and my long list of potential to dos before my Tallahassee 5pm departure slipped through my fingers – words like blood that are no longer needed.

Saturday, October 26, 2013


London, Clapham Common, 2012

I have a thing about control. I am not surprised by this - I have known it to be true my whole life.
However, recently I have come to have somewhat of a more personal understanding of what people mean when they say that addiction, eating disorders and violent sexual acts are about control.

I have many students, a few of whom work with me in a very intimate memoir critique group. Some of those same students, and others not in the critique group, also meet with me personally one-on-one to get feedback and support for their writing. A lot of these meetings happen when I am on break between sessions of my weekly writing classes. It so happens that two of these independent meetings have been explicitly about control - meaning, the students themselves have used the word control repeatedly - though the personal memories they are writing about are completely different.

One woman was in an abusive marriage for over a decade. She still carries a lot of guilt and shame over it, which we talk about a little, but mostly, because I am a dharma arts teacher and not a therapist, we talk about how to work with that in the writing, and how to work with it when not writing but knowing she'll go back to writing about it. The second had anorexia for approximately the same amount of time. Both of them have been away from these situations for a long time, and yet, they are both just now turning around and trying to write about them. They are both shocked at how hard it is to write about, after years of therapy and reckoning.

But here's where I come in, as a human being. I kept hearing them talk about control: about how the abusive husband really was in control of what he did, but only saw her as being in control and fought back against her. About how the anorexic student knows increasingly that it wasn't about weight loss but about coping with a traumatic childhood by controlling the only thing she knew she could: her food and body.

I don't know that I have anything more profound to say than this, because right now I am just feeling the power of what this means to me. Having recently encountered, attempted, given up on but then more slowly, over time, integrated a series of books and ideas on mindful eating, I can see where I grasp onto any new view - but especially those that promise weight loss - and give in totally to it, give myself over to it, hoping it can control me or I can learn to control myself. Structure is always a challenge, because the part of me that wants control wrestles with the part that wants someone else or something else in control.

I recently had a dream - I won't go into here for sake of its intense grossness - in which, as a man sexually abusing a young girl (having been sexually abused as a young girl I was horrified to wake and realize I'd been the abuser in the dream) I could see how it was really, feel how it was really about control. I know from the addicts - including a sex addict - that I know that while one gives over control to the drug, if one's addiction involves controlling other human beings, there's a paradox there worthy of much reflection.

I am doing my best to face all this control and confusion about control with compassion. Gentleness is the enemy of control: too soft, too ambiguous, control says about it. And yet, the space of gentleness is exactly what is needed in the face of airless, tight-fisted deterministic behavior. I keep practicing. Encountering others who see the deep roots and handcuffs of control underneath their most shameful behaviors helps. Feeling myself the difference between when I am in (the delusion of) control and when I am not helps.

Above all, meditation helps. It is the place I have trained myself to drop my grasping, my gasping, my struggle, even if only for seconds at a time, and feel true liberation - from addiction, from abuse, from being caught in the drama triangle. Here I am reminded that these are all human struggles, and I can re-approach my life with curiosity, compassion and communication, in lieu of some semblance of control.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Big Love for Baldwin

James Baldwin is one of our household favorites. He is so clear, so precise, full of what in Sanskrit is called Prajna: sharp wisdom, clear-seeing and often painful clarity.

This is a quote from his essay "The Artist's Struggle for Integrity." Thanks to Whatsupsmiley for featuring it. 

"…But then one has got to understand—that is, I and all my tribe (I mean artists now)—that it is hard for me.  If I spend weeks and months avoiding my typewriter—and I do, sharpening pencils, trying to avoid going where I know I’ve got to go—then one has got to use this to learn humility.  After all, there is kind of a saving egotism too, a cruel and dangerous but also saving egotism, about the artist’s condition, which is this:  I know that if I survive it, when the tears have stopped flowing or when the blood had dried, when the storm has settled, I do have a typewriter that is my torment but is also my work.  If I can survive it, I can always go back there, and if I’ve not turned into a total liar, then I can use it and prepare myself in this way for the next inevitable and possibly fatal disaster.  But if I find that hard to do—and I have a weapon which most people don’t have—then one must understand how hard it is for almost anybody else to do it all…"

For her own thoughts about survival and prioritizing the creative process from recent Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro, please see my most recent Memoir Mind post...

Tuesday, October 08, 2013


NYC, 2011
Synonym discussion from Merriam Webster:
Ensure, insure, assure, secure mean to make a thing or person sure. ensure, insure, and assure are interchangeable in many contexts where they indicate the making certain or inevitable of an outcome, but ensure may imply a virtual guarantee ensured the safety of the refugees, while insure sometimes stresses the taking of necessary measures beforehand insure the success of the party, and assure distinctively implies the removal of doubt and suspense from a person's mind assure you that no harm will be done. secure implies action taken to guard against attack or loss secure their position.
While the noun "ensurance" does not exist, it's been in my head lately, as the idea that "insurance" should actually be "ensurance" or "assurance" rather than, or in addition to, being insurance.

Monday, September 30, 2013


I have had an epic stretch of fundamental loneliness. I have been home for quite some time - not alone, in fact, in classes, with Dylan, with cats. It does not happen when I am alone - it happens when I am with others. Maybe it is autumn, but I suspect it is other things - other stories. Some of it is my own story - missing my mother, nostalgia and real feeling brought about by various books and movies I've been reading/watching*.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

My favorite reasons why people return to writing

Philly, PA September 2013
I often ask students, in the beginning of a seven-week session, why they are coming back (if returning) or why they came in the first place (if new). It tells me a lot and occasionally also gives me great one-liners for promotion for the classes. It's easier and more fun than asking folks for quotes about the classes. Here are a few of my favorites from this time around:

This class lets my life haunt me.
Ambiguity is truth – writing shows me how non-dual things are.
Truth has no edge, and in writing, I find that non-edge.
Humility – really realizing we don’t know – is powerful.
I tell myself in my daily life that I can't waste fucking time writing, and yet, here I do it.
This class inspires me to have curiosity around being a curiosity.
If writing is swimming, then this class is flippers for my writing.
It's a practice around writing that involves other people. 

The ambiguity bit is important and powerful - it reminds me of the wonderful dharma talk by Pema Chodron, linked below. You have to be a Tricyle member to listen to the whole thing, but just reading the intro is strong - and joining Tricycle is a good thing to do!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Chicken Soup de la Soul

I've been struggling with phantom lung distress (no one knows what it is, but it makes it hard to breathe) lately, and this story keeps coming back into my mind, a lovingly funny and odd releif from focusing on what is wrong with my body.

I hope you enjoy it as well.

Chicken Soup de la Soul
A flash fiction story by Tod Highsmith (an un-edited student writing from last spring)

    I felt sick last week, my stomach was upset and after a few hours I went in the bathroom, kneeled by the toilet for a while and finally vomited. It was unpleasant as it always is, and I was surprised to see a slip of paper in the toilet. Did that come out of me? I wondered. I almost flushed it down, but something made me fish it out, dry it off and check it out.
   It was a poem, not a very good one, written in my own hand. I’d never seen it before, but I recognized my own tracks in the words and images. Some of the words were the wrong words, they were close to what was necessary but just far enough off to sour the image or the meaning. I had tried too hard in other parts of the poem, so that it felt overwrought and over written, it wasn’t a poem you could relax into, it had the uptight energy of someone trying to force square words into round meanings, or mixing words of different colors to make new colors but always ending up with gray or brown.
   I went outside later on to sit on the front steps and feel the sun on my face. The neighbor was coming out to get in her car to go somewhere. She saw me and commented that I didn’t look so good.
    “No, I’ve got some stomach thing,” I told her.
   “You should try chicken soup,” she said, “for the soul.”
    I thought she was talking about that popular book which I’d never seen but assumed was full of folksy aphorisms about life and love.
    “Oh, I don’t think that book’s for me,” I said.
    “No, not the book,” she said, “Chicken Soup de la Soul. It’s a rap group. They’re at the coffee house tonight. You should go hear them.” And she drove off.
    That night I walked down to the coffee house. I was feeling better since I’d purged myself, so to speak, and thought maybe an evening out would do me good. I walked the few blocks, my eyes alternately moving from the cracks in the sidewalk where ants were moving in masses, each carrying a tiny white egg, to the horizon, where shining dully in the sunset a comet was visible, its fuzzy tail dragging behind like a spritz of spray from a freshly opened can of soda or the blurry swish of a cat’s tail being violently wagged.
    After thinking up those images, I felt sick again and had to stop for a couple of minutes, squatting on the sidewalk. Then it passed, and I decided I’d go on to the coffeehouse. A cat walked across the sidewalk in front of me, her tail held high like a signal of warning, her loud purr a cross of affection and foreboding.
    I vomited a small puddle of yucky stuff in the grass, almost started home again, but stopped and looked in it. There was a tiny piece of paper -- it looked like a wrapper from a piece of candy. On it were written in my own hand the words “June, croon, moon, spoon.” I kind of laughed, looked around to see if anybody was watching me, and put the paper in my pocket.
    When I finally got to the coffeehouse, the show had already started. There were three men on stage, and I could hardly believe my eyes. They must have been identical triplets -- is there such a thing? And they were dead ringers for myself when I was about 25 or so. They were rapping with an incredible complexity, wrapping words and rhymes around each other in a magical way. I was spellbound. I recognized some of the words that I’d been using in my own poems recently, but in their hands the words flowed with color and feeling.
   There was a woman at a small table next to me who was listening intently and weeping softly. When the band took a break and she got up, I looked over at a small notebook she’d been writing in. She had written something about how the three women on stage reminded her of her younger self. That kind of freaked me out, and I got up and went into the men’s room.
   When I opened the door, the musicians -- I guess that’s what you’d call them -- were all in there. Well, two of them were. One was standing on a box by a small window. The other was supporting him from behind as he crawled through the small opening. When he heard me come in, the last brother turned and gave me a sheepish look before he climbed up and disappeared through the window himself.
    He said, “Sorry, all we can really do is suggest a little melody, try to provide a little music. The words are yours. You have to own them. It’s okay if they make you sick now and then. That happens to all of us. Good luck!”
    When I got home, I pulled out the paper I’d rescued from the toilet and looked at it again. I started copying the poem onto a new, clean sheet of paper and spent most of the night playing with the sounds of words, humming a rhythm into them and underlining them with bright primary colors. I was quite pleased with the poem by morning and taped it to the refrigerator door. I went outside to look at the sunrise just in time to see the comet’s tail disappear over the horizon.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Last Minute Emotions

Yesterday, I had an intense Hakomi therapy session. By the time I reached the evening, and I was getting ready to go out to socialize, I was frozen. I felt "ok" most of the day, and didn't see this freezing up coming. It was clear I had some processing to do, and couldn't go out. But why then? Why at the last minute?

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Swimming While Sleeping

Lake Wingra, Madison: Sky in Water, July 2013

This is a student writing from late last spring. It keeps haunting me. The prompt was about "elements" - which of the four main elements (earth water fire air) do you relate to most?

This student had really been struggling with her writing, but this came out, well, like water.
It is unedited here, just as it came out of her pen on paper.


She is swimming, always swimming, even when not swimming.  Even when sleeping.  No, that’s not right.  She sleeps and dreams of swimming.  Keep the pen on the paper.  Don’t stop.  Don’t look out the window.  Don’t listen to the trucks rumbling by.  No; let the sounds in, but don’t hold onto them; let them float by, as do the tiny sea creatures, down deep, that the swimmer swims through, in the deepest part of a dream.  Everything is slower in the depths, in the ocean, in the murky but strangely light fluid that is filled with life.  She doesn’t need to breathe, at least breathing is not an issue, and she can see everything, but is not aware of her eyes.  She can’t name what she sees, cannot hear, cannot touch, but she is aware of it all and knows it by heart.  This is the ocean, or is it sleep?  Or wakefulness?

She jumps into the clear, sparkling water of the Olympic-size pool, adjusts her goggles and swims freestyle to the end and back, once, twice, three times and more.  The air is warm, the water holds the blue of the sky and crystals of light, and the sun shines with enough power to propel her through the water.  She is smiling, even as she breathes out bubbles of air, turning her head to the side and capturing the sunlight on her face as she takes another breath.  This is what she has waited all winter for: the twelve weeks when she can have it all – the warm air, the bright sun, the sparkling water, the countless gallons of water holding her aloft, weightless, as she moves herself down the lane, back and forth from end to end, free from every single thing. 

In the water her mind is free.  Her thoughts float as she would float in the surf at the ocean, buoyed by the salty infinity that reaches around the globe.  And when her hands are in the water, washing dishes, her mind wanders then, too, and she is free to be anywhere, anything.  As she fills the dog’s water bowl, as she rinses off her dirty feet after gardening barefoot, as she stands under the shower letting streams and beads and bullets of water run over her head and down across her shoulders, as she points the hose at the thirsty plants, holding her thumb over the nozzle to make the water spray far and wide, and the sun catches drops and makes colors and translucent mist, as she watches the rain come in sheets and run in little rivers down the gutters in the street, she is at home in the universe.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

How Was Your Trip?

side of a truck that's been graffitied, paris, june 2013
It's the first question I get upon returning from Europe each summer.
Sometimes I get it when I take smaller teaching trips - Toronto, Chicago, even.
But there's nothing quite like being gone for five weeks to Europe.

It's a fair question to ask. A kind one. And one I often don't want to answer. Here's why.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Thank You

"Eyes of Love," Paris storefront, June 2013
For my writing students.

 “Writing is constantly letting letters arrange into different combinations and meanings.”
-       a student from this last seven-week session

Thank you
for showing up
for speaking out
for putting up with struggle
for laughing when you can
for giving critic space before giving it the boot
for your sincere joy and curiosity
for witnessing words and their energy
for being game to go as far as you can at any given time
for your commitment to the unknown.

Sometimes total strangers trump intimacy in terms of safety and secrecy.

Sometimes metaphor carries deep feeling miles further than it can by itself.

Sometimes when breath hits the bottom of lungs, of diaphragm, something cracks and opens knowing that is otherwise unspoken
there in those spaces we pull out
the shovels
the maps
the compasses
and we curiosity our way through our minds’ landscapes
our hearts’ fire escapes
our instincts’ innate flow
our potential fates’ uneven knowing

Sometimes in the middle of the most ordinary-seeming statements, something clicks into place that’s been edging in that direction, letter by letter, syllable by syllable, for decades.

It’s in those moments
and the gaps in-between
that we practice
this writing.

Sacred and mundane
deep and cheap
real and fantastical
understood and undermined
woven and separate.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Chez moi, ou non pas? (My home, or not?)

"Please don't park here - car exit" Paris, 2012

I remember when I was eleven or so, I went on a trip with my brothers to Ohio, for a family friend's wedding. Staying in her apartment, one of a large building that encircled an active courtyard, I recorded the sounds that were so unusual - normal to someone but not to me - and enjoyed listening to them again and again. I wasn't bothered by being "kept awake" - I was curious about this place where even the pace of speech differed.

I could hear people's conversations, something I didn't often overhear in my quiet, "a suburb not attached to a larger city" town of upbringing. I heard basketball and sirens, yelling and people running around. It was what made me most aware I was elsewhere.

So, when I woke from a nap this afternoon in the lovely, light and open fifth story bedroom of my host's place in Paris, I had a similar curiosity. For a moment, I thought I was at home:
I heard skateboards outside, cars shuffling around one another, a cat on my left, cuddled up close.
It could have been home: comfortable, clean, cozy.
Only, it's not.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

End of In No Sense

Is this the end of innocence? Or the end of confusion? 
The end of delusion or the end of illusion?
What is innocence, anyway? In-no-sense. In no sense did I understand what marriage entails. And in no sense is it a problem. And yet. And yet. In some sense I thought I knew. That’s innocence – thinking we know? Or is that arrogance? Innocence is not even knowing there’s something to think or know about.
I would not prefer innocence. That Buddhist adage – don’t start and if you do start, get it over with quickly. Yeh. And yet, when I do slow down and realize what is really going on, I am so grateful that I have developed skills to notice. That I know something now, things I didn’t even realize one could know, then. When I was innocent.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Trust, Suspicion and True Freedom

Rotterdam, Netherlands, June 2012
I have had a few conversations lately that all seem to be coming from the same core place.

The three "topics" have been:
1. Why do we not meditate when things are going "well"?
2. Why do we not question/ask for what we need when things are going "well"?
3. What's the difference between trusting and blithely hoping (shutting out real concerns) when things are going "well"?

These three separate conversations, at their core, also meet in when things are "not going well:"

When things are not going well, why do we insist on some absolute answer/decision/knowing that they will be ok in the future? This could come in the form of any fix: a verbal/mental guarantee, guilt/taking responsibility for it having "gone wrong" (even if it wasn't your fault) or buying some kind of material good to "fix" a problem that isn't the actual core issue.

Last week, I had quite a panic going on. I was convinced that my wife "has" to do a lot of work in a particular area (we both acknowledge that she does, but the urgency of the "has to" is what really nailed me down). I asked a friend to tell me that she was "confident that my wife will do the work she needs - I need her - to do." As soon as I asked for that request, an awareness that that temporary fix, that temporary consolation/false hope, would not actually help. I wanted a guarantee where there is no guarantee.

So, I said, as soon as I said that out loud, I think what I need to ask is if I believe it is possible for her to do the work. Is it? I asked myself. Yes, I said. I believe it is possible. That does not mean she will do it. And yet, somehow I felt more relaxed with this more realistic understanding. I know that as long as I think it is possible, I will be more trusting and more honest, and paying attention to my own knowing, instead of suspicious and angry when I worry that she isn't doing it.

My wife has also realized, at an ever-continuing level, that when her music-making is going well (which is most of the time), she lacks for nothing. When she is inspired and making great tunes, her equipment is just right. However, when she feels uninspired or is down in some other way, she looks for new gear, new toys to somehow pick up her game, improve her work flow or pull her out of a rut. This is such a common, human thing that it almost feels ridiculous to point out, but when she mentioned that comparison this morning, we both laughed:

If there's nothing missing when it is going right, 
then there is nothing missing when it is going wrong.

Finally, my best friend and I discussed this morning how much we so deeply want to trust situations when they are going well - all the plans are lining up, connecting with a loved one feels good - that we stop asking for what we need. This is good enough, we think, very good - so good that we hope/wish/believe it will never "be bad" again, and we stop asking for what might seem "above and beyond" in the situation. We trust the situation will provide without us having to do any work, which simply isn't true, and becomes a set up for a fall.  What's the fall? The fall is that when things begin to fall apart, we blame ourselves for not trusting it enough, or not doing enough - the latter of which may (or may not) be true, but also is impossible to prevent if we have a core belief that a situation is good enough and we shouldn't rock the boat by doing more.

We can ask questions and still trust.
We can ask questions and not be suspicious.
We can agitate for "even better" when things are "already good."
And, most importantly, we need to continue practicing: being clear, being honest, and watching our own minds, when things are smoother and easier, because they will, without doubt, become uneasy and unsmooth again, likely, quicker than we'd like.

Often people comment to me when they get beginning meditation instruction, especially at follow-up meetings, that they find they stop meditating when things are going well. I've come to believe we do this out of some kind of reverse cause-and-effect understanding. If we take the practice that helps when things aren't going well, and do it when things are going well, then things will somehow  go wrong. This is reverse magical-thinking, and it is plain wrong.

We can ask for help, support ourselves, pay attention to what is going on when things are going well. We can feel ease in our bodies, we can notice when we are in not-pain. We can watch our patterns and know, trust, that things will get rough again, so as not to blame ourselves unduly when the shit hits the fan.

Meditation is always* helpful.
The best part about meditation is that it helps keep things simple and plain and clear:
Watching your mind, knowing your mind is the best preventative for over-consumption, for self-deception, for wishful thinking that keeps us locked in non-reality. 

These are always the core issues. 
If these don't resonant with you language-wise, find your own way. 
Don't get distracted by the stories - see what is always going on underneath:
Knowing what we need.
Knowing what we can do for ourselves.
Knowing what we can do for others.
Knowing when to ask for help.

This is true freedom: 
Knowing underneath, no matter what happens, we are fundamentally good.

*Every once and awhile, we need a walk instead. Some fresh air. A good cry. But in comparison to shutting down, any practice of awareness, of being-with rather than hoping-for, is beneficial without fault. Try it. And if you find you agree, trust it. That's a great thing to trust.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Stop Drop Roll

Addison, TX 2010

One of the first safety lessons I recall learning as a child was Stop Drop and Roll – 
or, how to respond if you are caught on fire.

Last month, on a trip to Toronto where I had no wi-fi connection in the house I was staying in, or available data plan on my iPhone, I found myself struggling with free time. 
I wanted to meditate.
I wanted to do yoga. 
I went for a run every other morning. 
I read a lot of dharma.
I edited a lot of writing – it’s not like I was “doing nothing.” 

Monday, April 01, 2013

Grief and Letting Go

Grief is a tough one for me.

Or is it?

Having lost my parents when I was pretty young, I am prone to moments - on the treadmill, in bed in the morning or late evening, petting the cats, watching a movie - of missing them.

Or am I?

It's spring. My mother died on January 24. My father on March 15. My mom's birthday would be April 10, and my father's March 25. The spring is annually pockmarked with their absences.

For a long time I identified with my grief. Every time I was sad, it was about my parents. A therapist I had in my late twenties, concerned about my repeated, cyclical depression and anxiety, had me map my emotional responses. Sure enough, at the same time each month, I missed my parents. Missed them because they were dead, missed them because they were often absent even when alive. Missed the idea of having parents. Got angry at them for what they did. Wished they'd done otherwise. Regretted disliking my mother so much when she was alive. Rinse. Repeat.

The therapist said:
While I believe you were traumatized as a child and young adult, I think this cycle is chemical.
I was diagnosed with PMDD - pre menstrual dysphoric disorder. It fit the bill perfectly - a very severe emotional response to the normal hormonal fluctuations of PMS.

Ok. Good. I evened out more. Because I understood the chemical component of my sadness/anxiety, I could also see that perhaps I was holding on to something - my parents'/the idea of my parents/my sadness. I got that a bit. I became more able to let it go, meaning: it was already gone, and I could see it was gone. Came, went. Came again, went again.

However, only recently have I noticed that the acute pain of loss, of hurt and grief, 
returns as well.
Yes, it goes. Yes, it comes again.

On one of numerous road trips for a dharma program that I have recently been on, a sangha friend replied that, when I told her that my parents and grandparents were gone by the time I was 22,
You were all alone.
I balked, though I've been known to say things like this, honestly.
I said, No, I still had, still have, my two older brothers.
But you didn't have any - don't have any - aunts or uncles or anything?
That's true.

I felt the acute sadness behind this story - this story I have told so many times, felt sad about so many times. Yes, I am all alone, I have felt so often. Yes, I was abandoned. And yet, what I was feeling then, it feels like now, were the words. I was feeling the stor(ies)y, not the feelings.

Now, now I am feeling the feelings more. Thanks to meds, meditation and more and more practice recently than in a couple of years, I am sensitized, close to the surface, and aware. Aware when the feelings come, and aware enough to really feel them. Then, to really watch them go.

This is what I talked about in a more abstract way in my recent post on elephant journal.
This is what letting go is - letting them go. Permitting, nay, noticing, accepting that what is gone is already gone.

Each time I acknowledge my feelings and let them go away, see that they are already gone, I am actually letting go of my parents. This is something I haven't been doing in the past. Maybe it was extended denial, or shock. It seemed like acceptance, but as I get closer to some feeling of real acceptance, I can see how far off it was.

There's no problem with that. I am not angry at myself, or shocked, hurt that this is 
"still going on."
No, instead I am grateful, most of the time, that I can keep learning to let go, the only way how:
And now again. Experiential. Real. Non-conceptual. In the moment. 

That's the only way to let go.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Opening Up Overwhelm

Space Scrutiny, Chicago February 2013

This morning, I woke after a long sleep. I felt clear, rested, happy. My wife was off to her first day of training for a new job, and I had the whole day ahead of me.  
Yes, I thought. I have lots to do and time alone to do it in. Awesome. I've been waiting for this.

Then I got up, took a shower. During the shower I started to consider what comes first: yoga, certainly. But one hour? I don't have time for that. Maybe 20 minutes. I am hungry, so I should eat first. You know, speaking of body care I said to Dylan just yesterday that I wanted to get to the gym but we were both really wiped out and it didn't happen. I could go there today, too. Wait. When can I fit that in? I've got to clean for class tonight, and I have all that editing to do. Not to mention preparation for Toronto. I leave on Thursday. Ack.

Does this line of thinking sound familiar to you? I began to panic. By the time Dylan left for work, and I was dry and clean, I began to get a tinnitus sound in my left ear where I can hear my heart pumping overtime. I got into a frenzy of over-decision-making, knowing I can't do it all. 
Knowing I will likely choose work over taking care of myself. 
And yet, and yet, panicking wasn't helping me pick good self-care either. 

Ooo. Boy. I sat down and committed to meditating first. Yes. 
This is on my wipe-off board in our bedroom, a place where we write reminders and ways to cut through panicking beliefs that feed themselves. 
"Sit first, especially when in doubt."
And immediately what arose was this:
I am panicking because part of me believes that if I don't panic I won't get anything done.
This got further reiterated by martyring myself on "all the things that Dylan didn't do when I was out of town this weekend" - eg - see what happens when someone does not panic and prioritize?
Ha. Joke is on me:
What I can't seem to do when I panic, the one thing I become incapable of doing, is prioritizing.

Especially, I drop my self care all together, in favor of the belief that if I "just get done what needs doing, I'll be fine/worthy/good enough/won't need self care/will have time for self care/fill in the blank."

The meditation, brief though it was, undid the panic loop. 
Do I still have a lot to do and not enough time to do it in?
Will some things have to fall by the way side, regardless of how hard I work?
So I can still prioritize much-needed self-care and get a decent amount of work done?

I'll probably come back to this post a lot today, and tomorrow, as I try and balance work and self-care over the next forty-eight hours before I board a flight for Toronto and disappear from the US for a fortnight. Even when I am there, may I look back here again and remember. Or, remember to sit. Just sit. Quietly, in the face of overwhelm and all the hidden, not-so-hidden beliefs and agendas it carries, and remind that part of myself, remind overwhelm itself: I am a human being.
I am not perfect.
Some things will not get done.
But what does need to be done is caring for me.
Otherwise any thing else I do will be tainted and speedy.
Any care I give to others or work I do will be biased
in favor of rushing and against all I am trying to do in my work
in the first place.

After I came to this, of course, I found this email in my inbox. I love it when email, something that cranks me up a lot to begin with (somuchtogetdonesolittletimetodoitiniambehindugh), drops these messages for me:

March 12, 2013
We have to make a relationship with our emotional energy. Usually, when we speak of expressing our energies, we are more concerned with the expression than with the energy itself, which seems to be rushing too fast. We are afraid the energy will overwhelm us, so we try to get rid of it through action. However, once you develop a harmonious relationship with your energy, then you can actually express it, and the style of expression becomes very sane, right to the point. 
-From The Sanity We Are Born With by Chogyam Trungpa
-Posted on the Ocean of Dharma, maintained by Carolyn Gimian

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Stories of Suffering/Stories of Joy

"Open" Chicago February 2013
A student stated something to me this week that shouldn't have been such a shock. But it was.

This student is writing a memoir. She's been having trouble getting memories out of her mom. Her mom is older, worn out, has had a stroke, and doesn't want to talk about the past. She has threatened to disown my student, in fact, for asking questions about deaths in the family, secrets, potentially shameful or painful things that my student wants so much to understand and get clear in writing her memoir. The process has been heart-breaking.

"All of a sudden I realized the other night that I never ask her about happy memories," my student told me. Wow. Why is that such a shock? It is. "And so I asked her about some happy memories from my childhood. I couldn't get her to STOP talking."

In an interview with a friend of her mom's, my student had heard that her mom was a good mom. A happy mom who really loved her kids. My student was touched by that, really affected and this information likely lead to her asking for more details about good times. Times my student didn't remember, but as soon as her mom began depicting, she recalled clearly.

Memories that were otherwise lost, that didn't fit into her story of suffering.

It is true that we recall suffering more than happiness, that even being present seems easier when we are in pain that in pleasure, or, as is most often the case for a large number of people, when nothing at all is happening. Whenever I do a body prompt - usually a couple of times of year - and ask people to see what their body is saying to them, almost always pain grabs the day.

Somehow there is so much shame around happiness, fear of bragging around it, that we often don't discuss it. The danger is, of course, if we decide that we know who we are (a victim, or someone who has overcome great adversity, or someone who has genuinely suffered - pick your potential poison) then we dismiss everything else that doesn't fit into that story.

The danger of a single story is just as risky in our own personal interactions with ourselves as it is on a socio-cultural level. In other words, it scales down. Though this isn't an "attitude of gratitude" love-and-light call for what you enjoy, remember in good light, it is an important, again, surprisingly, challenge for all writers and humans to take into account. Remember that before you write a single word, you have already told yourself many stories. Maybe this is why fiction sometimes seems closer to the truth than non-fiction - the truth is most of our lives are fiction. So tune in and make sure to get all the details you can, not just those that fit who you think you already are.

If you end an essay, a book, a paragraph even, thinking "Yes, this confirms who I think I am," then you should question that. Hell, not even about writing: if you end a DAY thinking "Yes, that day confirms who I am for me 100%," that should be a signal of danger - danger of solidifying, forgetting, not really paying attention.

Life is full of contradiction, paradox and mixed messages: suffering and joy alongside one another. 
Let all of it in.

PS A lovely post on elephant journal this week related to working with this.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Seduced? Deduce and Reduce to Produce

NYC April 2010
In the past, I have spent a lot of time wondering how/why it is that we are so divided so much of the time. I am not speaking of culturally, racially, class-wars or the like (though perhaps these thoughts do scale) - I am speaking of the inner wars so many people struggle with: inner critic(s) versus inner child; wanting to establish better habits but being held back by older habits, etc.

I am at the point of saying in my process that I have had enough.
I am still curious about what is going on in there, but I am sick of feeding the distraction through evaluation. For me, I've reached a point where asking all those questions more often than not leads me right back into the loop of the debate again and again. I get stuck. Enough.

Asking those essential questions: 
Why do I believe this? 
Who helped me to believe this?
What is the logic beneath this belief?
Is still important to me. However, they can, just like any other wisdom allowed to languish for too long, lead me right back into not doing what it is I wanted to do, or even be, in the first place.
In other words, the inquiry itself can stall me out - it's an extended tactic of my own resistance.
Even curiosity can hightail me right back into fear, if I allow it to keep going for too long.

Last night, as I was falling asleep, I thought about seduction. The seductive power of my old habits and beliefs. Coming home from a long day of teaching, all I wanted was to "space out." A big part of me said "Please meditate and do yoga, that is good self care." Another big part of me said, "Dude. You worked all day. Those are work. Just watch some TV."

Luckily, maybe because I was teaching and participating in a writing critique session, the meditation part won out, even if I did it with bad posture while snuggling on the couch with Dylan and Aviva. The meditation gave me an opening, some space to realize I really wanted to do yoga, too. So I did.

But more often than not, I give into the seduction of these beliefs. I may even get so far as to ask questions about it, catching on to the debate inside and not believing habits right off the bat. A normal interchange for me would look like this:
"I'd like to do yoga and meditate."
"Yeah, but, it's work, you know? You deserve rest."
"But yoga and meditation are self-care."

"Nah. When you have more energy. Tomorrow, maybe, eh?"
"I said that yesterday. And the day before."
"See what a pain in the ass this is? Let's just go watch some TV. Don't stress yourself out."

BUT where does the stress ACTUALLY COME FROM? 
The voice. The debate. The questioning.
Not the yoga or meditation.

The habits are seductive. I want to look at those voices with more suspicion, more wisdom. And by looking at them, I mean taking a step back and watching them try to convince me that the old way is the best way. Like a bad lover I don't even want to sleep with anymore, but I keep returning to because at least I am getting laid, which means I am cared for, in some strange logic.*

Therefore, as I thought about the word seduction, the word "deduction" came into my head. Then "reduction," and finally "production." 

I am not normally a fan of "Here are the ten steps to productivity" kinds of posts, but frankly, for me, I am needing some bullshit cutting tools for when the same things come up again and again.
I *know* where the logic is going.
I don't need to inquire anymore, show respect,  be curious.
I need to take care of myself.

I knew from Mr. Lee's 9th grade English class, where we studied Latin roots until we were blue in the face (Thank you, Mr. Lee!), that the root "duce" means "to lead."
This morning, I looked up the original roots of the words' prefixes when combined with "duce":
Seduce literally means to lead away from.
Deduce means to trace the path of. 
Reduce means to lead back. 
Produce means to lead forward. 
That's some powerful etymology, as etymology often is.  

Instead of thinking of seduce as "sinful" as in "leading away from a good marriage" (more like it's usage is now) we consider what it is leading away from - the things, in my case, I *know* are good for me and are not really up for debate - ie - I am not debating whether or not they are good for me - then this process looks like this:

When my thinking begins to lead me away (seduce) from yoga/meditation/etc, I can pick up on its path (deduce). I don't have to follow it all the way to its end - simply bring it back to the good habit in question (reduce). Then I can lead myself forward again (produce), from the root of my desire to do this thing I no longer question - yoga, meditation, etc.

This requires making a list of what you know are "non-debatables" - for me - calling a friend when sad, writing practice, yoga, meditation, exercise. As soon as I feel a tug away from doing any of these, I can actually begin to pay attention - there is NO REASON not to do any of these at any time, unless there is serious conflict (injury, emergency, deadline that is imminent or Dylan needing my help) going on.

What are your non-debatables?

What can you do to call attention to helpful inquiry (really being curious) and seduction (getting caught up in a pattern of thinking that actually won't lead to clarity)?
Do these words do it for you, or would you need a different set? If so, what?

This four-word list is going up on the wipe-off board in our bedroom where we keep word sets or questions, "Please meditate and do yoga" type requests from our bodies so that we don't forget the essentials.

*Um. That's not just an analogy. I am writing a lot about doing that kind of thing in my memoir from ages 12-28.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Juicy Anxiety

Collages by Cathy Riddle at Shambhala Art Part II, February 10, 2013
This last weekend I taught, for the very first time, the full curriculum of Shambhala Art Parts I+II. I was trained in LA over a year ago to teach this, and Part III. I attended a retreat this January, and that finally made me feel ready to teach a whole weekend. In the meantime, I had presented parts of it at a week-long Arts retreat with Lisa Stanley and done a talk and exercise in Paris in June of 2012.

I was, needless to say, but I'll say it anyway, nervous as fuck. Super anxious. I mean, really.
I teach full-time. I teach in all sorts of circumstances with strangers. And yet. Not having taught the material yet in public means, for me, that it isn't "mine" yet. A lot of the teachings in Shambhala Art overlap with Miksang and the way I teach Contemplative Writing (because the core text, True Perception, by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, is the same). But the terms are different, the exercises different. Those are what didn't feel mine yet.

My familiar ground quickly became my students' anxieties. Yes. Not just mine, but theirs.

I don't mean that in any kind of sadistic way ("Oh yay! They are suffering! That's good! I can work with that!") but rather that this particular sweet set of five really opened up quickly and let it be known that they, too, were nervous. Nervous about doing exercises they don't know. Nervous about their bodies and about speech, introducing themselves, moving spontaneously in front of one another. Drawing. Speaking spontaneous poetry. Trusting one another as, in pairs, a sighted person led a blindfolded person around. A combination of every leadership retreat meets art retreat - at least one exercise triggered or intimidated everyone, and most, including myself, found nearly every exercise challenging.

And yet, strangely compelling.
I say strangely because normally we don't go towards anxiety. It sucks. Why go there? The students, granted, 4/5 knew me as a teacher, but still - the students trusted me. They quickly trusted each other and even started to trust themselves. Immediately we could all see what that trust brought forth - moments of total clarity, pure inspiration, in the middle of complete and consuming anxiety or distraction.

Inter cut. Inter twined. Inter dependent. While it is so tempting to say, to think, to look for messages that reiterate that inspiration and anxiety are, and should be, completely separate states, they aren't.
No way.
Let's face it.
I know very few people for whom even their most practiced artistic endeavor does not cause them at least momentary panic attacks each time they approach it. Not to mention "regular life non-art endeavors," though Trungpa would categorize everything we do as art. It happens. Shit happens.

And it turns out, no matter how many times we hear it we can't seem to hear it enough, lotuses grow out of mud. Compost is rotted vegetable matter that brings out better blooms. Manure is fertilizer for hearty crops. Going into the anxiety, with acknowledgement, gentleness and even some playfulness, is the only way. No sidetracking, no distraction will access the juice just waiting to be squeezed out of resistance.

Though I have quite the internal dictator, or perhaps because I have quite the internal dictator, I find it very important to distinguish here - sometimes we do need a break. A real honest breather. Some space. A walk in the woods away from the overdue article. A crying festival with a friend to process what's underneath not wanting to pick up the pen. Playing with another media, one with less tension associated with it, until you can relax enough to rediscover inspiration. I am not implying that dogged pursual is the way, all the way, 100% of the time.

But when we take space to rediscover, access what Trungpa calls Square One, and First Thought, we need to be honest about whether we are trying to escape or getting some space. Because anxiety knows. It is clever. And if we run away, it will hunt us down. If we are simply getting space, we discover that even in the seemingly solid intensity of anxiety, there is breathing room. Anxiety, nervousness, intensity - all of these and more grow in the darkness, in being ignored or avoided. Not the kind of growth that inspires - the kind of growth that chokes.

Don't take my word for it. Please. Turn on your bullshit detector and go out and test out what I am saying. Next time, instead of doing the same thing you always do (and we all have deeply ingrained habits around anxiety, especially in "making art"), try something new. Engage in a dialogue with your anxiety. Write down what you are really feeling. Pick up a brush and paint an entire black page before returning to your delicate watercolor. Let juicy anxiety and inspirational intensity dance with each other. Find the soft spot of fear, sadness, anger underneath and let it show you what it has to say.

I guarantee it won't be what you expect. It will be fresh. Real. Honest.
The best inspiration we can ever ask for.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Grounding in Humility

Fading light, Black Earth WI
Recently, a friend visited who is very well versed in Classic Latin and Greek. During one of our many amazing conversations, he mentioned that the word humility, which comes from the Latin humilitas, comes from the same source as ground, humus. Upon further research, the Wikipedia article even goes so far as to associate it with egolessness. Grounding in egolessness. Sounds paradoxical, doesn't it?

Only it isn't.

There's nothing like a good (seeming) paradox to get me to pay attention. Because one of my favorite teachers once told me to go toward paradox, since it indicates some concepts coming head-to-head inside our own mind instead of an opposition in the world, I draw them near and sit them down for breakfast. Humility, I have to say, I mostly associate with humiliation - and not to the more basal associated adjective "humble."

What happens if I think of humility as associated with humble instead of humiliation?
It feels very grounded indeed.

Egolessness is grounded because it is grounded in what is - the fact of everything co-existing without needing self-reference. That is what ego is, by the way, self-reference. The "self that doesn't exist" is that self-referential self, which is quite the opposite of humble. And, in fact, usually when I "get humiliated" it is a big pop to my ego bubble. I don't get humiliated if I am being humble - grounded - present - egoless. Humiliation is a return to the ground, if we let go of the shame and embarrassment that can arise out of it.

A reminder, sometimes a fierce or unwelcome one, to come back to what actually is happening. As jarring as that can be, it is the actual ground of what is. A good place to be, return to, exist.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Privacy Versus Secrecy

Milwaukee, WI January 2012
I write memoir. It’s kind of my thing, has been for a few years now. I am a pretty public person, willing to talk with most folks about private issues, though I am discrete, or like to think of myself that way – trying not to over share, to have boundaries. Sometimes my wife has to remind me to speak quietly in a public place while having an intimate conversation on my cell phone.

I am very careful about confidentiality with my students, and set limits as to what gets shared about my own life with others, asking for confidentiality for myself. But now that some essays are getting published – on elephant journal, in the anthology Trans-Kin, I am beginning to realize what I have set up for myself here – a life of a writer sharing her life with everyone who will read it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Right To Exist

Enter/ing, LA/Mar Vista, January 2013

I know.

You wouldn't think I struggle with that, now, would ya?
Look: I do important work.
I Believe in What I Do.
People love me.
I am happily married.
I have a great home, great cats, a wonderful life.

And yet.
And yet.

 I am working on one of my memoirs (that's how much I am not sure I have a right to exist - I am writing two memoirs at once at age 35 - I jest, but there's a grain of truth there), and I keep running into my dad. Smack dab into my dad. No matter what I write about him, people say the same thing over and over again:
"Ok. You loved him. I get it. But why?"

An editor. A critique group. Friends. It's a valid point, one I have addressed before even here. But this time around, it comes when I am trying to pile through my control and anger issues, of which I have plethora. As most people do.

And he's right there, right in the center.

Listen. My dad had a hard life. He was adopted, had a single mom with a disabled sister living at home with them, for whom my dad had to rush home from school and care for. He married my mom, a woman who was not always able to function at top notch, didn't get paid enough, and had three kids. He had two heart attacks, got Diabetes and then cancer in his 50's, then died.

Whew. I know, right?

Today, in therapy, we discussed a memory that keeps reeling back into the scene, one that seems to be blocking any specific details of positive memories of me and him. In short (you want the long one? Read the memoir when it comes out!):
We are eating cheese and crackers late at night.
We are discussing why I have missed so much school lately (nervous kid, sick a lot, wanted to be home with him, though I said none of this then).
He tells me I need to go to school more.
He tells me not to be a nervous person.
He says "You are not a nervous person. I need you to not be a nervous person."

My hips and heart and throat get tense just typing that, though it is an ingrained, old and long-processed memory.

What one critiquer said about my memoir is that it is clear I was not allowed to have feelings as a kid.
In therapy, we went even deeper:
I wasn't allowed to have feelings.
It wasn't good to have feelings.
And if I couldn't have feelings, I could exist, but only without them.
So if I had them, I have no right to exist.

That's what my child mind heard when my father said that. And it fit with a lot of other messages from him. He was trying his best to keep a sinking ship afloat. He encouraged all three of us kids to be independent, forthright, political, funny. He also disencouraged our emotions.

Like a lot of deeply held (secret, even) beliefs, this one has blocked my other memories because it seems incongruous that my father could both love me and also somehow tell me that I don't have a right to exist. Well, shit. Talk about a mixed message: one I am sure he got when he was a kid (adopted, early divorce, always caring for others) and I am sure he intended to give to us so we could survive. In other words, he meant well.

Today, I could really feel that for the first time ever: the power of this awful idea that I don't have the right to exist, and the deep need I have had for 35 years to justify my existence: through work (yes, sometimes even the amazing work I do, which, don't worry, I won't stop doing but perhaps I'll be happier doing now!). Throughout my relationships. In everyday speech. All the time.

I know I am not alone in this.

Deep down, inside the core, I believe - some part of me believes - I don't have the right to exist. I know I do - meditation, Basic Goodness, you know, lots of good teachings. Not small stuff. But belief takes more work to re-wire.

I don't need reassurance. But I do need to root out that belief and give it a good airing out. Join me, would you? It's time to take the skeletons out and set generations of not believing we have the right to exist free.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

What I Really Really Want

"Hurt Pharmacy Open" Mar Vista, LA January 2013
Around Christmas, I had a series of wonderful conversations with my best friend about what we miss. We both find Christmas - the holidays in general - a lonely time. It's midwinter, dark, and people we love/chosen family, leave town to be with their families of origin. We'd say we miss our families of origin, but spending time with them is never what we hope? expect? it to be. We still feel lonely afterwards, no matter how wonderfully it goes, which sometimes, it actually does.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

New Year's Intention

A few years ago, friends of ours introduced us to, or co-invented with us (none of us can seem to recall which happened) a practice of coming up with a single word for the upcoming year, on New Year's Eve. The word, we decided, should have many possible meanings, and not be stated as any kind of affirmation (I will play more in the coming year/I am playing more in the coming year) or resolution (I need to play more in the upcoming year). Instead, it would allow for word play - for exploration, for change in meaning, throughout the year.

The first one Dylan and I chose, and we chose the same, was "consume." We tried to gently explore our food consumption (going on a diet, eventually, but really focusing more on watching/noticing consumption than losing weight, which was a helpful change in perspective), and also financial consumption, consumption of goods, of energy, of social interactions.

Luckily, neither of us developed consumption.