Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year's Intention

Every December in the last few years, I have practiced an adaptation of a game/exercise/prompt that visiting friends did with us five years ago. At that time, they mentioned they had begun to set an intention word for the year - a word to explore, to replace "resolutions" and instead be curious. That first year, my partner and I both chose "consumption" and explored that relationship via food, money and more throughout the year with as little aggression and as much curiosity as we could.

The next year, I picked another task-y like word, but the last few years I've been picking more open words, verbs like 2013's "Play," or 2014's "Breathe." This year, in late November I started to feel the call of intention words, exploring candidates like "Balance" that came to me on their own accord. After being pretty sure for a couple of weeks that "Balance" was the winner, I stumbled into "Value" in writing one day and realized it had a lot more juice: challenge, fear, power - than "Balance." So my 2015 word is "Value."

Here's the prompt I used at the beginning of 2014 for my writing classes to find their intention word:
I want you to find a word:
an intention word/s, a sankalpa*, for this year.

Explore. Play. Find a word or words or
start writing and let the word or words find you.
Try to soften and let it happen.

This is not a resolution.
This is not expectation.
This is finding a word or words you can weave into all you do for the next year.

If you already have an intention word, use this time to break it open.
Experiment with future six word stories for 2015.
Let the word/s fall apart and show you what they have to really say.
In my New Year's Intention Retreat, the first weekend of the year (this year's is this upcoming weekend), we use a period of silent contemplation to invite the word to come to us, then contemplate all the associations/meanings that arise, then write. The key factor is to INVITE the word, rather than forcing it or searching for it. 

Many folks find that one "doesn't come" the first time around, that they find many or none. That's fine. Keep staying open to what words want to attach to you for the next span of time.

This year, I am adding in work based on Danielle LaPorte's Desire Map. The gist of her work, though getting the book is both useful and powerful, is to search for - or invite - three or more words that match how you want to FEEL in any/all of your activities, so you can use them as feedback to see if what you are doing matches how you want to be feeling. I will be offering some exercises in this direction this weekend as well. I find her approach - instead of affirmations or resolutions or goals, looking for a felt sense of result and aiming for that - quite useful and in compliment to setting New Year's Intentions.

Play. Explore. Invite. If you have ways you use to prepare for the New Year, leave them here.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Compassion: A Short Fiction Story

I get to offer you another incredible piece written by a student for my prompt on Compassion a few weeks ago. As always, it is unedited, written rawly this way. Powerful stuff.

This one blew all of us away. This student, Kika, doesn't usually write in fiction and we were immediately pulled into the world she describes - the snow, the insect, the mug, the window.

The ambiguity she addresses was universal in so many student writings that week. Compassion: we want it to be easy and clean. But it isn't.

Please enjoy.

Compassion. It was the guiding force in her life - or at least, she liked to think so.

As she watched the bundled humans toddle past in their heavy boots and scarves, Clementine noticed an insect crawling up the window pane. It had a long, narrow body and bowed legs, with delicate wings in four sections. It was a pale green color, at odds with the weather, and it used its antennae to gently tap the glass, as it it, too, wanted to be out in the snow, moving through that fresh glittering white. Where had it come from? Clementine was overcome with tenderness at its unlikely presence, its fragility, its ghostly vernal beauty. She looked at the glass again; such a thin pane, old enough that cool drafts seeped from it, causing her to clutch the mug of tea more tightly. It had been a bad idea to put cold cream in the tea. In December it was always best to heat the cream, so both vessel and drink stayed hotter longer. A warm kind of company, almost like holding hands with someone you love.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Let Some Shit Lie.

Day 8 of ‪#‎Quest2015‬ - The prompt of the day from Eric Klein:

How will you face your shadow bag and stop the stink, so you can bring forth what is best within you in 2015? What can you claim right now?

What I can claim is that I do this work all the time, constantly. In fact, dragging around the bag tired me out years ago. What wears at me now is actually the work of scooping it up. I am ready to let some shit lie there and let it stink.

I find I am tired now because I have dug a bit deeper recently than usual, and pulled up some plugs that I knew were keeping my drains from flowing freely. Now that the fluids are rolling out again, I need to lay back and let myself go out with the waters.

My only shadow is what I keep from myself, whether out of survival/protection or in some kind of saving face/flying under detection manoeuvre. For awhile now I have had recurring neck issues, and worked through them with Hakomi therapy and also chiropractor work. These have both been useful, but as some recent deep re-configuring of grief over my mother's death has arisen, I had suspected that my neck and my sadness were deeply entangled.

At a meditation instructor training I found incredible palpable energetic evidence that they are. In situations, repeatedly as we practiced and trained, I tracked as my body tensed and mind became righteous, worried because "the person in charge" (not me) was "not doing their job" and so "someone had to do something" and "the only person who could/would do it was me." In these tiny interactions, the teachers detected my aggressions before I did, mirroring back a struggle I didn't realize I was having. My peers, the other students, mirrored back gratitude that I interrupted unhealthy situations. But my body felt exhausted, like it had been climbing uphill all day.

I had to ask myself, once I saw how clearly I was triggered, then reacting to my sense of lost power with incredibly controlling behavior, what was really going on? The answer was clear as day: I was taken back to a place, the place I visited so frequently when my father died (I was 12) and my mother didn't know how to stay alive - the place, the era, the state of mind of unpredictability, drinking, incredibly hostility at home. It only lasted a few years - and in fact, got better in the last few years of her life - but I was so traumatized that for a long time all I would feel was shock, tension and control whenever a situation seemed at all unstable for me.

Cue now.

So this is the current shadow. They get subtler over time - when I told one person what I was wrestling with, after our group meeting, she screwed up her face and looked at me oddly. What? I hadn't been controlling, she said. But my body told me otherwise. I use "controlling" not to be judgmental but to get to the core of what that energy-draining background program has been trying to do, unconsciously, for over half my life now.

I am ready to pull the plug on this shadow beast, but of course that's not how it works.

Instead I am using this darkest time of the year to rest, and to merge a bit, with long moments of deep breaths, with this inner core pain.

Hello in there, dear shadow.
Let's air you out and maybe you won't stink so much.
Let's go for a walk together, get you out and about.
Let's get you more familiar with life so it doesn't freak you out so much.
We are about to do some flying and I need you to be willing to let some shit lie so we can take off together into the huge sky of 2015.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Stopping for Discomfort

(Photo from Lynda Barry's latest - and brilliant - book, Syllabus.)

So. I have a - what? Confession? Revelation? Insight? - little something to share with you. Sometimes I catch myself taking down other teachers. Disparaging other Dharma guides, ripping down writing instructors, pitching tar at other photo folk. 

I am sure you are not shocked to hear this - you know, better than I do, that I am imperfect and human and that's the only way I am ever going to be. But, of course, I have lots of shame and blame around it. And when I told my wife about the following story early this morning, she implored me to blog about it. It also happens to fit with the #quest2015 #stop prompt for this week, thanks to Charlie Gilkey.

Here's what happened.

In the tiny week of classes right before Thanksgiving, one of my most dedicated students mentioned she got into a workshop with Lynda Barry. 

Lynda Barry is a local yokel, who luckily is gaining more and more cred, now that she has published not just collections of Marlys and occasional memoir/novel action, but three books on the mystery of creativity. She went to school with Matt Groening (Simpson's creator). She's quirky, loud, funny as fuck and super smart. 

I've had the great fortune to attend talks by her over the years, and two of her writing workshops. To those who know her work, I've been known to say I would like to be a blend of her and Natalie Goldberg (with whom I have studied a great deal, and is also quirky, but a lot quieter and more, well, Zen, in the real sense). All of this is background to make the conversation I am about to impart all the more aberrant.

Said student announced to her small-attended class that week that she got into a workshop with Lynda. While Lynda is local, she is also very popular and it can be hard to get your "one-time" spot in one of her free workshops. So it was a coup. I was surprised to detect my first reaction - a bit of a scoff, mostly internal. Barely detectable.

The other students asked who Lynda is, what her workshops are like. No one else knew, so I kind of described her process. I have found it disappointingly one-pointed in the past - after two workshops I really didn't need more, since she always recites the same poem and gives the same assignments.

So what did I say to the students? 
Did I say I was disappointed?
Did I say that to do it once was amazing?
Did I acknowledge her broad and deep exploration of memoir, fiction and what she calls "image" - the deep well of memory and creativity that lives in us all?

I said this:
(Gah I don't even want to write it!)
"Well, she's a bit of a one-trick pony."

As soon as it left my mouth I wanted to cram it back in: foot-in-mouth disease.

Now I know what happened: I did not stop to check my own discomfort. I got too easy, too informal and in an icky way, said something gossipy. I back paddled, trying to explain while also covering my own ashamed ass. The student attending the workshop looked a little sad, the others shrugged. 

I apologized for it again before class ended, but the damage was done. 
To them?
To me.

At the time I had no idea what had happened, not really, besides being a bit mean and inappropriate. But I used it to beat the fuck out of myself for weeks after. Really. Like not-sleeping, rolling the bitterness over and over in my tongue without resolve, without any compassion for myself. It's when my wife said I should write about it, that clearly I was still carrying it around, that I finally felt myself soften.

And why did that happen? Because this week I caught myself - after the fact - blaming myself for some things a student said to another student in one of my classes. Perhaps because I was already overloaded with shame/blame background noise, I saw it faster, and saw the same thing was happening here.

Its all nice and good to realize it after, but ideally I can feel the discomfort that precedes such pinning down self-blame on the spot, before it morphs into crunchy, sticky self-denigration.

And how will I stop this?
I will practice stopping it - it will never fully go away! - by noticing. I will stop it by stopping. Stopping when I feel unsure, instead of leaping into idle speech. 

I will, as I said in a post awhile back, stop drop and roll:

And when I don't stop until after? 
When the confusion lingers? 

I will stop as soon as I am able and get some compassion going. After all, this is meditation in action. Compassion as practice. Accepting imperfection as the only way it can be done. 

And I will also admit, discuss, lance the infection with some self-reflection. 

Let the disparaging that comes out of places of discomfort and disappointment stop as soon as it can, and re-route that energy into learning for the next time.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Feast of Plenty

A prompt from a couple of weeks ago, "Feast of Plenty," inspired this response from a student. We were all struck by how the container of one year showed such a dramatic difference in her life. Without being sentimental or romantic, she shows a serious reversal of thinking along with her reversal of fortune, so to speak.

When I asked her if she wanted this to be anonymous or with her name, she said: "No anonymity needed. I shout my truths loudly and unapologetically from rooftops." Excellent courage and power.

Feast of Plenty
Polly Sackett

This will be the first year that I will not write several checks to charitable giving and 503 c organizations. Goodman, Second Harvest, Common Wealth. I don't chip* anymore. This is the first year that my children and I will not go to Farm and Fleet toyland to purchase gifts for children in the Goodman Center holiday gift sponsorship program.

No, this is the year that I ask the Goodman Center if my children can be sponsored. Boy - age 7 - loves Rick Riordan books and Legos. Girl - age 5 - any little toys she can use to manipulate and play out her world.

This is the year of foodstamps. This is the year of eating out of the free box at work. This is the year of filling my van with gas only $15 at a time. 

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Spontaneity, Serendipity, Accuracy and Curation

Quest 2015 Prompt from Jason Silva*
In what ways might you artfully curate your life in 2015 to occasion serendipity, creativity and awe?
Ontological designing says: We design our world and the world designs us back.
What are the linguistic and creative choices you can make in 2015 that will in turn act back upon you and transform you?
Lately, Ilana and I have been speaking to "curating" our lives: directing what we want to happen and making it happen. For instance, for me, a day off is a bit risky - so easy to consume lots of social media, even overwork, only to get to the end of the day and not have done the things I want to do and actually need to do: meditate, practice, write, exercise.

So how can I curate my life, my days off, like an exhibit - seeing on the wall what I want there - without overplanning it/overstructuring it so the exhibit feels like one of the walls at an early Paris museum?

So this question - curating to occasion serendipity, creativity and awe - takes me back to a core principle - a few of them - in Shambhala Buddhism.

1. The relationship between spontaneity and accuracy: Trungpa Rinpoche speaks to the necessity to allow for spontaneity in order to find accuracy. We so often emphasize planning/accuracy over spontaneity. But the natural order is in fact to arrive at spontanenity first, then allow accuracy to arise from that. In other words: if we are truly present, what is needed will arise.**

2. Serendipity - or magic - arises out of every situation. It is always there. Always. The question is: are we practicing - eg curating - our lives enough to recognize it? Sakyong Mipham often speaks to the fact that we already know how to meditate and contemplate - we just usually use these practices to focus on getting what we want or eliminating pain or ignoring what we don't want to see. If we use these practices - this power of mind that already exists - to see what is actually here, then we find we have all we need.**

3. Therefore, if I curate my life to allow for spontaneity, I will find the serendipity that is always there. Now the question: how do I curate for this? The answer might seem contradictory, but here Trungpa Rinpoche speaks to "intelligent spontaneity" and the role of discipline. I find the "answer" - mind you, not simple and not one-time, is practice. Doing the very things I avoid if I don't schedule them - same list - writing, exercise, meditation, practice - these are the things I have to structure (aka discipline) in order to allow for the space needed for serendipity.

As always, the questions I constantly, gently ask myself are:
Am I using this for compassion or to beat myself up?
Am I using this because it helps me feel better and be better or not?
Is this what is needed now?

I try to stay in touch with how it feels when I don't do what I want - see list above - and when I do,
that is the best motivation for me. What I do find, when I do practice, when I do curate: spontaneity arises around those structures and out of those spaces, serendipity knows where to find me.

*Quest 2015 is a "do it together" 2015 planning group happening with Jeffrey Davis. Here's a link to the video about this December 2014 curating-serendipity-group!
**I find it very, very important to state that none of these teachings are "prosperity principle" or abundance related in a financial way. I struggle with money, as so many do, and the idea here is NOT to blame ourselves if we don't have enough to eat, enough shelter, enough health or money. The main understanding is that of the daily suffering so many people experience, so much of it is mental state-based. If we can adjust our mental state, we can access clearer mental states and lower our amount of mental suffering. For most of us, that means that other forms of suffering will decrease, too. But it takes work and doesn't happen automatically. It is up to us - and up to the systems of oppression around us to get with what is happening, too.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Gritty Compassion

Note: I am participating in Quest2015 with Jeffrey Davis and company. This is the first post in response to themes they are giving us. So you'll see some extra hashtags and the like here. Thanks for the prompt this time, Jen Louden!

Grit without compassion is just grind. What would be most fun to create this year? How can self-compassionate grit support you in that creating? - See more at:
Grit without compassion is just grind. What would be most fun to create this year? How can self-compassionate grit support you in that creating?
-Jen Louden

Last night, unable to sleep because I was up working on memoir stuff and writing poetry (a great reason not to be sleeping! Inspiration!) I also did some reading in preparation for a meditation instructor training I am taking in December. It's a familiar chapter - the Four Foundations of Mindfulness in a book called Heart of the Buddha by Chogyam Trungpa. These are super essential, really fundamental teachings, the four foundations, and I have come back to them again and again - there are many eras of highlights, underlining, notes to refer to notes, marginalia from all kinds of stages in my Buddhist and Shambhala journey.

I glanced at a page in the chapter before (Intellect and Intuition), which speaks to Idiot Compassion, one of my favorite phrases from Trungpa Rinpoche. Idiot compassion is when we are actually using what we call compassion in an un-useful way - contributing to co-dependence, enabling, etc, to use common psychological terms. I love his teachings on this, and so read further, even though it wasn't assigned.

Then I spotted the word Karuna, which is another word for compassion (the most common Sanskrit word we use for compassion in the west is Maitri/Metta, which means Loving Kindness). I didn't know of the word karuna until the last couple of years. I am now taking part in a program called Karuna Training, which began in November of 2014 and will go for two years. Here's what Trungpa Rinpoche has to say about Karuna:
Karuna is usually translated as "compassion." However, the word compassion is filled with connotations in English which have nothing to do with karuna. So it is important to clarify what is meant by enlightened compassion  and how it differs from our usual notion of compassion... Enlightened compassion is not quite as simple-minded as that notion of a kindly, well-meaning soul...compassion is a state of calmness; it also involves intelligence and enormous vitality. Without intelligence and skillfulness (dare I say, grit?), compassion can degenerate into a bungling sort of charity.... In this type of compassion we do not just blindly launch into a project but we look into situations dispassionately.
Here's why this passage echoed in my head this morning. 
When I read Jen's prompt, I read it like this:
Compassion without grit is just grind.
Interesting mis-read, no? 

For someone who works with people in an ostensibly helping way, as a dharma teacher, this "mis-read" is actually more powerful for me. I can certainly find "compassion" (I put in quotes because real compassion is not like this) to be grinding - feel compassion fatigue, as the social work field calls it. I need some grit - some reality, some traction, some deep but practical reason - to feel and practice compassion.

The grit I find works best is to let myself rub up against structure - sort of like discipline but more flexible and loving. For instance, when I do self-care (self-compassion, in Jen's phrase above), I do get more done. I often have such a dim view of self-care - even though I think it's a good idea, the self-hatred kicks in before I even attempt to go to the gym, meditate, write, etc.

I know I am not alone in this. But here's what really makes life less of a grind - and I'll say it loud and clear here! - to actually DO THE GRIND - the gritty stuff like self-care and eating right, etc. those things actually help me feel less grind-y and more involved in real life. Otherwise I am just going through the motions in my work, and not really caring deeply for myself, or anyone else by extension.

And as for my work? The main work I need to do is make my work more financially sustainable. Though it often feels like "one more thing I have to do" it, too, is like going to the gym and eating right and meditating - essential self-care. Baseline self-care. And it all helps me be more present and truly compassionate for my students, my wife, my life.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Horror as Consolation

Last week in my weekly, in-person classes, the prompt was about reading. I got so many amazing responses, as I recall was the case the last time I used this prompt, two years ago. In fact, I am going to ask students to share their writings and put together a small book of them - Writers on Reading.

However, one response in particular really hit all of my personal bells.
I wanted to share the part(s) that struck me most here.
The first spot to really shock me awake was her insight about compulsive reading. I often find (and many others wrote about this) that I read mindlessly, intensely, and that's even reading "good literature."

Here's Kara's insight on this that struck home for me:
I grew up as one of those quiet shy girls with my nose in a book. I actually resisted reading at first. I remember in first grade being behind. Then something happened. I know my sister gave me The Little House on the Prairie books in second grade, and the next thing I know, I began tearing through books. I kept reading, and did it a lot. Compulsively. These were my video games.
It's that last set of lines that hit me. That would have been enough. So articulate. But then she went on to describe something I have NEVER heard anyone else describe: assuaging grief with horror. When my father died, I read all of Stephen King, a fair amount of Peter Straub and the like.

Here we go with Kara's passage that blew me out of my seat:

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Doing Something When I Needed to Do Nothing

Boy, have I had an interesting week. As in the purported Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times".

I am in France, teaching for two weekends in a row. In between, this week, I am out at a student/friend's lovely home near the forest of Fontainebleu. A beautiful, peaceful village; quiet, quirky home. I had mixed agendas - will I spend time working or resting or both? - but this is typical for me and I settled in after a few hours on the first day,

Tuesday. A nice walk in the forest, some good planning for my upcoming program on Shambhala Online called Write Now... Looking good.

Back in the flat, I diddled with some video on my phone,  trying to get talks uploaded and such onto my laptop. Learning Word Press in a new way, I was a bit frustrated, but moving ahead. In a moment of great efficiency, I emptied the trash on my desktop without realizing I'd somehow, accidentally (now I see it as ironically) put my most current folder, with above-mentioned materials for the upcomig class, etc, in the trash prior.

The folder's name? TO DO.

As I watched the trash empty much more than the single video I thought occupied it, I scanned my desktop, which I keep pretty clean. The gap, the missing folder, was immediately apparent.

It hit me right away but in waves. When I have done this at home (not often, but it has happened) it's no biggie since we back up regularly with time machine. But I've been in Europe for over three weeks and haven't backed up. I've done hard work on some essential projects, now gone. Hundreds of photos, good ones, of and on this trip, not backed up.

Deleting and emptying this folder was a small but reperable mistake, though I didn't know that then.
Here was the real mistake: I felt strongly that I had to DO SOMETHING.
THAT was my mistake, and I did it again and again over 24 hour period.

It was hell.
But to be clear, it was hell mostly because of how I handled it.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Slow Growth

Yesterday, taking the dogs for a walk, my friend-family the Hurns and I encountered some very old growth oak trees. Jubilee Park used to be a location for anti-aircraft machinery in WWII. Now it is a wildlife preserve. Despite the great clearing that occurred in preparation for its defensive purposes, oak trees kept their hold in some places, so now these heritage woods patches can frolic free in the windy plain.

The night before, the BBC reported that trees like these are in trouble in Britain. If you place any population on an island like this - and yes, it is an island - once contamination hits, it spreads like proverbial wildfire. In fact, an algae or fungus - I've forgotten which - has begun to spread, taking out these trees from the bark side in. It turns out the cure is garlic - concentrated, pumped under the outside edges, the garlic is an anti-fungal. However, some argue, just like antibiotics in our system, these anti-fungals wipe out all fungus, including good, useful fungus needed for other thriving. So it's a quick - but strangely expensive - cure. As is often the case with fast solutions, perhaps more trouble than it is benefit.

Monday, September 22, 2014


I read this short post today. It compares the self-soothing of a new baby with the self-soothing of its new mama. A friend and student who works with trauma recovery posted it.

I know a lot of new mamas right now, so though I am not one, I am becoming familiar with their particular brand of fraying. However, I am well-familiar with an overloaded nervous system of other sorts - any sorts - in both my students and myself. One thing I particularly like is how the author draws attention to self-soothing - that it can manifest as overwork, drug addiction, rubbing feet together or going for walks. In other words, she does not judge one as better than the other, simply recognizing that we all have our own methods, most of them semi-conscious.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Counter-Narratives of Joy

It's easy to tell a sad story.

I know, because I have told one a long time. Many sad stories, in fact. I am not saying it is easy to live a sad story, but modern American culture seems to long for tragedies.

I know this is hedgey ground. I, myself, highly dislike overtly positive psychology, affirmations, attraction theories. I think, I believe, it is highly important to not only address our pain, but to tell that story, again and again and again. Until we feel heard, until it is clear, until we understand.

And yet.

At a short writing workshop in Toronto on Monday of last week, a student ended her last piece, the last one read, with a passage about "counter-narratives of joy." This struck everyone immediately - we all felt the power of it, though it took some discussion afterwards to figure out why, and what the different meanings were.

The main gist was this: we tell stories of woe, of suffering, of sadness, and they are essential.
And yet.
Sometimes they become the main narrative. The only story. The way we show how hard we have worked, how much we have been through. Suffering can seem a credential, being a victim a preferred position, always being wronged as being on the right side. So it's not just a need for stories of joy - stories that also express - also, not instead of - where we have reveled, appreciated and celebrated. Not just that need, but that following, developing, expressing that can actually seem antithetical, opposing, against the stream.

Monday, September 08, 2014

What Do You Want to Say?

In reviewing French recently (I recommend the Michel Thomas method), I encountered this gem. The lesson is ostensibly about something I already know. Luckily, French has two verbs for knowing something. They show how my knowing shifted:
the French verb connaitre - have familiarity with - implies how I knew this grammar lesson before. But after hearing it stated this way, I developed a deeper knowing, which the French verb savoir expresses.

Here's the lesson:

Monday, September 01, 2014

Living the Subtle

I have a cold right now. Just about nothing feels subtle about me: I honk when I sneeze or blow, cough constantly, and my voice has dropped an octave, instantly declaring me sick to all I dare speak to. And yet, so many subtle things have been happening recently.

Under-the-surface, mid-sea changes that bring strong waves to the shore. Those waves I have yet to see, but I am learning to feel and trust what is happening deep underneath will have its own effects.

What do I mean?

Dylan and I "celebrated" our sixth wedding anniversary on August 15th. I put the verb in quotes because, in fact, we spent a good chunk of the day crying. Struggling through wants and needs, accusations and defenses, we were able to rest holding hands at the end of the day. But it was not pretty arriving there, and for days - weeks - after, I contemplated the ultimate, not subtle thing:

I thought about leaving her.  In a short period of time, she also considered the same about me.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

No Home Like Home

Watering Hole, Philadelphia, August 2014
In case you haven't noticed, I travel a lot.

The first weekend in August, I was in Philadelphia teaching Miksang. A few weeks before that, on a three week retreat in Colorado. My wife gets tired of me traveling (that's the polite way of putting it). I get tired of me traveling (that's the simplistic way of putting it). And my cats? I think they don't notice so much, but they sure are happy when I get home.

As am I. I wish I could bring the cats and my wife along with me. I get jealous of dog owners, that they can carry along their dogs. I see them in carriers (well, little ones) on planes, out running in dog parks in other cities, and I wish the cats could just curl up and come along. I wish each place I am for between 4-21 days could become home for just a little bit.

It does, sort of. I figure out where to get the food I need. I take good care of myself: I practice, sleep, bring my own pillow, make sure my meds are in order. I get better and better at this over time. And yet, ironically, I also get older. It takes longer for me to adjust to time changes, more sleep for me to feel recovered. I get sick less often because I am more in touch with what I need - and I need more than I did when I was younger.

Nothing beats arrival - especially arriving home. Piles of mail, of dirty laundry, of dirty dishes, even, can't deter me from snuggling my wife and cats. Home is my watering hole, where I come back to again and again.

In my first chapbook of poetry, At Home Here, I implied I can be at home anywhere. Yes, and also, there is actually no place like home. No home like home.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Tara Mohr on Inner Critic

I cannot suggest Tara Mohr's posts on inner critic enough.

Over the years, she has focused on the voice of an inner critic. This is a highlight of the posts I find most useful. She also offers classes and coaching in these areas, as well as women's entrepreneurial work.

This is not an affiliate post! I simply love her work and find myself referring to it so often that I wanted to have one place where folks could find the core links.

Please visit, digest and spread around. Potent stuff.

Simple and useful lists and charts like this and this.
Pithy and powerful short videos like this and this.
Explanations on why not to argue with your inner critic (here and here).
How to determine whether your inner critic is a motivator or saboteur (here and here).

As for me: I encourage you to battle gently with your critic - she has a lot to offer, but how she offers it is limited. Help your critic to get past her own boundaries and free your energy to create and live.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

What Writing Looks Like

Deadlines and then reaction.
Banging head against manuscript again and again.
Breaking through: writing.
Time is up, drop it again.
Come back.
Try to write again.
Deep joy and relief, thank you thank you thank you gratitude.
Calling on friends to read and for support.
Going for walks.
Crying some more.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Groundless Inspiration.

Confession time:

When I have not written in this blog for awhile, like recently, it's not because of block.
Or not the kind of writer's block one would normally think of: a lack, a drying up, an inability.
Instead, I have been too inspired.

Too inspired. Tired from being inspired. Not opening books that I know will spark off my mind. Too many ideas, and I cannot get them all down on page or screen. If I could write each time I get an idea, I would be writing all the time. I can't keep it all organized. I know that, especially as I increasingly guide people through the process of book-length memoirs, I should not say this out loud. I should tell you that I have an ideas document, that I use Evernote, that I know how to make all these thoughts manifest into being.

But some days, after teaching, reading, talking so much (so much richness! my god! no complaints!) the last thing I want to do is process more. Chogyam Trungpa says there is no such thing as a moment off, no such thing as vacation. But I need space, and I think - since he taught meditation - this he would understand. Room for the ideas to run around, disappear and reappear in a form that is more digested and bloggable, bookable, speakable.

Last night, on a quiet walk at Olbrich Botanical Gardens, sans camera or notebook with my wife, I cried and said lately, since getting back from a busy, full and wonderful teaching and personal trip to Toronto for eleven days, I have felt utterly overwhelmed. Too much. Too much good work, too much energy, too much to read.

What a "problem" to have! I wake grateful for this "issue" every day, and also, I know that it is one that I will be working with, if I am truly as blessed as it seems, the rest of my (hopefully long) life. Some days all falls into place, organizes itself. The memoir writing is clear, the blogs perk up and fill themselves with my thoughts, the client and student appointments, the classes, sharpen and soften in the right rhythms. Most days.

In fact, the days where this does not occur are the days when I am "off," when I have to structure my own time. I fight between the part of me that wants time "off," truly off, on the beach off, technology off off, and the parts of me that recognize my need for structure: yoga, exercise, writing, cleaning. If I know what is next, I can relax and let go. This is my own personal balance, but I recognize in many of my students how universal it is. Because it is personal for all of us, and intuitive, while we may find systems or ways of understanding it, it changes - and should stay this flexible - from day to day, week to week, month to month.

The groundlessness that accompanies a day off after weeks of work is so so so familiar to me. In particular, I got trained into it working in technical theater, when my only days off were either once a week - Mondays - in which I slept and drank, or weeks on end, waiting for another gig, where I'd get lost and depressed, anxious and come up with projects I would never complete.

Of course, it turns out groundlessness - not knowing what will happen next, the sudden anxiety or panic of open time without a plan - is so universal and human. Some of us have an acquired taste for it and others hate it - and the hatred can come in the form of overplanning for me. But can I love that open time with just the right amount of structure? Each time I hit an open - or relatively open - patch, I have to remind myself that I can. That's what I am doing right now, in fact. And in the process of writing this, a friend writes to see if I want to go see a photography exhibit with her today. I say to myself: why yes. I can. I have my blog posts done for the week, I can schedule some email catch up for later. It's a gorgeous day. Let's do it.

And for just a moment, the groundlessness feels liberating. The secret is: it always is. The inspiration is groundless, always is, and is always liberating.

Remind me next time, ok? I have a hard time remembering, just like every other human being.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Searching For My Father's Voice

My dad in his office, mid 1980's
Daddy? I ask the tape player,
Is that you?
It is Tom Clark. Not Dad.
The jovial
joking commentator on
takes me right back
to my mother's bedside
listening to Chapter a Day
falling into nap.

This man is not my father,
nor the next, a guest on Jean Feraca's show.
I look out the window at the crocuses
just now popping up in my late-blooming
yard. Twenty-four years ago
these bloomed in my mother's shade
mid-March, the day Daddy died.
Now it is late April,
two hours south
and I am still searching for his voice.

I put in another cassette. These are
promising - Maxell from the mid-80's
and the shows are ones I know
they listened to together.
I listen to silence, silence, silence
90 minutes of it on each side. 
I am rapt with anticipation,
dread. The last time I heard Dad's voice
I was in my teens and accidentally found
him yelling at the end
of a radio recording.

Here I am hoping I will find his voice.
Hoping I won't.

Monday, April 14, 2014


This writing is by a student named C. V. Clark. She is relatively new to the practice, but empowered instantly, as is often the case. Call it "beginner's mind," but her direct hit on wilderness (the prompt from a few weeks ago) was insightful, vivid and real. Her insights reflect many of those that arose all week - questions about whether humans are wild or nature is, about solitary/solitude/loneliness and nature, and about the edges of danger meeting beauty.

In particular, the closing line really struck at the paradox of the prompt:
"The wilderness of humanity is not always so welcoming and reaffirming."

Please read for yourself...


Wild. Wilder. Wilderness.

Instantaneous pictures: Painted Desert. Great Plains. Badlands. Congaree Swamp. Ice caves

and frozen-over Great Lakes.

Awesome and inviting in their sheer lonely, empty, overwhelming beauty. Nothing distracts

me. That is what I first recall.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014


I struggle, as so many do, with prioritizing self-care. I also struggle with scheduling/not scheduling, especially on a day off after many days in a row of working.

Yesterday, this struggle looked like this:
Energized by the strong winds and 60 degree weather, I ran bunches of errands until, part way through, my inner child voice said, "Um, can we go home now?" I responded, "Is it ok if we just run two more? Then we can be done." The completist voice, which always wins because it is so logical. Inner child shrugged, looked away. Aha. I see, the question I was actually asking was an order: "We will do these last two, I'd like it if you were ok with that." Even seeing that, I persisted, and by the time I got home, I felt all befuddled. I had time to do both these things: go out into nature, and also snuggle with cats, but I was frozen. Acute anxiety/depression kicked in, and I got locked down.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Smiling Like My Mom

Last night I dreamt my mother, now dead for seventeen years, was alive and happy.
This is an unusual dream - meaning, I can't recall it happening before, though I am sure it has.
Usually we are in conflict, fighting, or she is distant in some way.

In the dream, there was no plot. Simply the image of my mother smiling, happy, facing me, sun on her face. It was glorious.

In fact, she looked quite a bit like me in the photo above, from almost a year ago. Our faces are very similar, with notable differences, but especially our noses with the line in the middle...and because the camera was above me, you see my glasses below my eyes. She often did this in order to read. And our smile - a bit mysterious, no teeth, turned up at the edges.

For years, when I took my glasses off to eat, when I caught a double chin in the mirror, I'd do a double-take. I did not. Want. To. Be. My. Mom. What woman wants to be her mom? I know a few, but they are rare. Most of us want to be our own person. When my mom died with me so young, nineteen years old, it became panicking-ly difficult to remember: who was she? Who am I not being?

As I grow older, instead now I want to know: who was she? Who am I becoming?

Slowly, bit by bit, I play out the same irony so many people do as we age: increasing interest in our families, who are already gone or fading. It would be convenient if as teenagers we wanted to know all that geneology our parents might be researching. But that's not how it works most of the time.

So, instead, I look to my dreams. And there I see that when I am happy, I look a lot like her.
And that is good.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The Power of Trees

Tree Prayer, Deer Park, 2012
A few weeks ago, I gave a prompt about trees in my contemplative writing class. Out of the deep cold of winter, many students pulled memories and palpable experiences. Just the week before I'd asked them for what brought them joy. When they couldn't find it asked directly, a lot of them found it in trees.

There was an article recently in the New Yorker where the writer debated whether or not plants have intelligence. In the article, one scientist was quoted as saying, paraphrased: They can turn light into food. Isn't that intelligent enough? The student poetically captures this thought in this line:
All words grasping at form, imagery that belittles the magic of life essence, the simplicity of warm transmuting into life.

This piece resonated along those lines: really appreciating the ordinary magic of trees. It has a lot of specificity - the writer has become the tree! And yet, it is so spacious and open. Enjoy.

I am an outlier. I am the tip of the tip – round, full, bulging. An ever so slight pulsing puts me in close association with my world; the world beyond my borders, my edges. I feel clear and warm – a bubble of a cell. Green. Clear. Light beams into me, through me. The sun is warm. 

I lie on the edge, the boundary of something and nothing. The boundary of shape and shapeless. My shape shifts slightly with the pulse of the warm sunlight as I form sugars and sweets that pass, that get passed – sucked – shloop, shloop and shloop – steady, unremitting giving up my sweetness that comes from the sun and moved along. Shloop. Shloop. Shloop. Moved along the channels, the pathways that connect me on the outer edge of this internal world. The sweetness sets out on its own journey from the edge of shape and form; pulses along the channels. The sweetness gathers and is joined and formed and becomes more intense. 

The outer reaches are where birth happens but it is at the centre in the main trunk of movement, the solid form, the upright channels of life that support the edge, the boundary of form and no form. The heat on the edge is sun-warm, today anyway. 

But further along, deeper in, is the life warm, the essence warm.  Factory? Engine rooms? Control central? All words grasping at form, imagery that belittles the magic of life essence, the simplicity of warm transmuting into life that is anchored deep in the earth to the outliers of where form and no form rests in the cool damp earth. I am warm. The tip of the edge where the sun touches, caresses and makes magic. 

Far below is the edge which opens to receive the moisture of the earth; the shapeless pulsing edge of life. Our edges never touch. We do not know about each other. We stay on the edge. This edge is for now. Tomorrow there will be another edge; the separation between form and formless and we will continue to be where we are.

By Miriam’s novice student, February 2014 (this was how the student asked to be credited)

Monday, February 10, 2014


signs of life, january 2014
This is a student piece, written in response to a Rumi quote prompt from a couple of weeks ago. I was impressed with her deeply physical descriptions of being cold, and the description of a civilized city like Toronto being a wilderness. As well, her on-the-spot spontaneous analysis of "side effects" really hit me.

This is my favorite line:
And so this quiver that I quiver is a reminder that I am alive and fragile and only a moment in all of time, waiting for a bus that will be late and trying not to make all of this a bigger deal than it really is.
-----On to the piece--------------

Stay here, quivering with each moment
like a drop of mercury

By Jan Derbyshire

I quiver here like I don't remember quivering before. It is minus 31 with the wind chill factor. I don't understand this wind chill factor. The temperature, I'm told is minus 19 degrees celsius*,but with the wind chill factor it feels like minus 31*. If it feels like minus 31, isn't it minus 31? This is all too much like drugs and side effects. To me an effect is an effect. When they say side effect it makes it sound like something that will happen beside you. If a drug has a side effect of making you gain weight, the fat will just pile up next to you. You can even leave it there when you go out, just call the fat sitter. My point is this-they talk about the wind chill factor like a side effect of the weather. It's true, they say, it feels like minus 31 but don't feel too bad, it's really only minus 19. And who can say what one person's experience of minus 31 is to another person's experience of minus 31.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The Way of Writing Is Not A Subtle Argument

Lost, Chicago 2013
I am sharing a student writing again this week.
I love this piece because it so clearly shows the writer's process.

The prompt for this last week was to use one of many possible (and provided) quotes from Rumi. This is the one this student, Heather, chose. She chose another one and felt similar resistance, so she went on ahead with this one: "The way of love is not a subtle argument." At first it seems to be "working" - she's writing about the quote. Then she feels her block, and proceeds to describe the guards who are protecting whatever is behind her block.

Then, the not-subtle argument becomes her process - it's not (just) about love anymore, but about the very writing she is doing. Finally, she returns to the place where she is - neighbors and sounds, and creates/discovers a little universe that is conspiring against inspiring her.

Monday, January 27, 2014

What Awareness Is

Intersection, 2011
This piece was written by a student, J.S., for the first class of this year. The prompt is for students to find an "intention word" for the year. This was her response.

I deeply appreciate how she gets into the nitty gritty of how we can relate with the parts of ourselves we don't like with real compassion - simply by seeing how they are a part of our physical existence. Everyone in the class really appreciated the physical imagery - it helps pop open an understanding that otherwise stays conceptual.

Awareness sometimes sounds passive - or is conceptualized this way. This student really makes it clear that awareness is active, and something we need to practice - a lot! - with gentleness.


Awareness. Attunement.

I’d like to be more aware and awake this year. Less caught up in the stories I tell myself, the chronic parade of tiresome explanations, expectations, assumptions that probably stem from some past truth, a hurt, or disappointment, but that may or may not have any relevance to the immediate now.

Yet it’s so easy to make those assumptions relevant – to believe they’re true and act on them and then bring about a negative situation in the very real here and now.

I would like to step outside the accretion of all that conditioned thinking, those automatic feelings. I feel as if there is a part to my personality that I can’t seem to shake off, a part that can be small, petty, gritchy, bitchy, prone to anger and judgment. I’d like to gather all that up, collect it all like you’d pull up lint from a garment, to suck up and vacuum the dusty, dirty, debris-ridden portions of my psyche and then empty it out and be done. But it keeps being there, oozing and emanating from my character much like sweat and mucus and oil are just a part of what’s daily produced by our bodies.

Monday, January 20, 2014

My Mother, My Brothers.

January 24th, next Friday, will be the 17th anniversary of my mother's death.

I don't formally recognize it every year. It almost always it takes me by surprise if I don't, as if my body knows (and it does) exactly when it the anniversary is, even if my mind has forgotten.

This week, the week of the anniversary, I will go to where our family is buried - mother included - at our family cabin in southern Wisconsin. The brother who owns it has decided to sell it, which is fair. I can't imagine having a second property to keep up, and this one is laden with all kinds of heavy family history, as well as some good memories. It's time to let go.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Choice and Victimhood

$5 directions Portland December 2010
Dylan had the following written on our wipe-off board in our room for awhile. This is a place at the foot of our bed where we keep important reminders. This one was given to her by her therapist.
The Choice: Where there's conflict, I can go either way
A. Pragmatism - DOING
"Hey, it's cool. I'll do this other thing to try and make it better."
This is: dynamic, active, decisive, assertive. I am not a victim/Agency.
B. Self-Pity - BEING
"I am a disappointment and I suck."
This is: static, passive, relinquishing control. Victim hood.
I've been exploring victim hood a lot lately, since it became clear this last summer that the victim/rescuer/perpetrator triangle is really the main theme underneath my Bermuda Triangles memoir. It's painful stuff - especially because of course I'd love to say I am all over that now, but I am not. These are deeply embedded habits and they pop up every-fucking-where - in my marriage, and intimate relationships the most, but even at the grocery store, waiting in line to ring up.