Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve and Beliefs

If our family had kept the Christ in Christmas, as the slogan of a few years ago goes, we would have never celebrated it. My parents were atheist/agnostic, and not interested in belief.

However, we had a tree, and lights: white ones on the part of the tree that shone out to the outside world, color lights for inside the house. There was magic there, in the jokes, in the presents, in the lights and in the Handel's Messiah and other classical music. The wine. Herring filets on Ritz Crackers with Mertz's cheese spread. Potato chips with French Onion Dip.

In other words, we had traditions.

Sometimes I think I miss my parents on holidays like this. I do. I miss them. I miss these traditions, though I barely celebrate Christmas anymore. I could bring any of these back, enact these traditions. Fundamentally, though I miss childhood, which I know I can't get back. None of us can.

So what can I take from that to believe in? Carry forward?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Grief and Gratitude

"The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them." - Francis Weller
It's coming up on the half life anniversary of my mothers death. As of January 27, 2016, my mother will have been gone half my life. And as I found out when I checked to see what might be happening astrologically for me during this time, it turns out she died around my first lunar node, which means this will be the second lunar node date. It's time for me to experience some more independence, to turn another corner of liberation and autonomy from my family. At this time, that feels like adding gratitude to the mix, and not just lots of grief.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Felt Sense/Thought Sense and Choosing What We Want

On our recent trip to Austin, Texas, my wife asked on a long drive to and from Dallas (long story) what I meant when I refer to "felt sense"*. She'd noted I use it a lot - when I am trying to process something I don't (yet) have words for, when talking about EMDR or TRE or other somatic modalities with therapists and coaches and the like. I even used it quite a bit in the most recent Level III Nalanda Miksang workshop I taught, though it is language more from the Shambhala Art teachings than Miksang.

So what does it mean, she said. Coming from anyone else it might sound airy-fairy, but I know from you it must mean something. What?


Thursday, November 26, 2015

Today I Give Thanks For My Privilege

(a poemletter to my white American cohort celebrating Thanksgiving today
and anyone else who has privilege who feels compelled to give thanks today)

Today I give thanks for my privilege
at a laptop computer
(Apple, no less)
in my own, relatively quiet, and totally safe home.
A white woman, queer but accepted fully by
by my chosen society
(the immediate 18 miles that surround me).
With a warm, fat cat on my lap and
another in the bedroom -
more than one room, three bedrooms, in fact
(though small, I want to say, and the traffic outside
can be loud when it is not a holiday).

I have today off. The whole day off. Because
I am self-employed doing 100% what I love.
When people ask me:
"How can I do what you do?"
I have to pause in order not to start with:
"Do you have enough privilege to get going?"
An inheritance? Which I did.
A good credit rating? Ditto.
White skin and an educated upbringing? Tritto.
Because these are what made all the rest of it possible.
Even though it took dead parents to get
the money
and a lot of forced independence
for that credit rating -
the skin
the education
came first and most importantly
based on nothing other than chance.
Not a single choice in my life hasn't rested on that chance.
On privilege.

My desire to hedge, to say
"I am privileged, but..."
is itself a privilege, a mark of my own knowledge
the freedom I have to feel responsible
guilty, even,
or not.
Today, I choose not to feel guilty or ashamed.
Today I choose not to brag but to give thanks.

Because it is due to grace
that I am here.
That I am not in Syria
or trying to escape Syria
has absolutely
not one thing
to do with who I am
or my goodness.

This is privilege -
to feel safe. To feel unthreatened
except by my own mind.

I ask you to join me in giving thanks
giving back to what has been given to you.
I do not ask for guilt
I do not ask for shame
I do not ask for hedging or apologies or amendments
I do not ask myself for these
and I do not ask you either.

If you are in North America and your skin ever reads as white,
you are privileged.
Please stop trying to fight it.
On a day like today, where people focus on
gratitude for all the extra things,
I would like you to consider
like I am
giving thanks for being the basics:
for being alive
(because consider the alternatives)
for being here
for being safe.

I am not asking you to give up your privilege.
I am simply asking you to
See it.
Give thanks for this blind gift.

Because it is a gift, it is something that can be given away.
Risk it, risk it for the black people being shot
in Minneapolis,
in Chicago.
For the Syrians fleeing -
the migrantsrefugees the whatever whichever newspaper wants to call them today -
the human beings risking their lives to live.
Risk your reputation with your family
with your careful safe society
and side with those who don't have such safety.
Risk your sense of self
and consider what it would be like
to be born somewhere else
or in another time
or in another body

What you - what I - take as fact
is chance.
This life as a privileged white North American
is not fate.
It is not a manifested destiny you have earned.
None of it.
Not a whit.
All if it comes out of privilege.
And the best way to honor it
is to start by giving thanks
whole hearted
nothing held back thanks.

Then, to show our real gratitude,
we must risk it.
In small ways, in big ways.
Because privilege brings with it power.
Because we can do more
since others read us as not a threat.
We can go into the frontlines
(if that is your way)
or into the headlines
(if that is your way)
and still keep our privilege.
Since it is so indelible, such a given,
give it away. Just try.
You cannot lose it.
It cannot be taken from you.

Privilege was given to you completely.
Give it away completely.
People without it have sacrificed more and more readily
for centuries.
Start small
start today.

Today I give thanks for my privilege.
Today I ask you to do the same for yours.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Cocoon, Creativity and Life

I co-taught a Shambhala Training Level II recently at the Madison Shambhala Center. This is the first time I have taught this material, and I was nervous as hell. The main teachings in Level II relate to "cocoon" - Trungpa Rinpoche's image for the solid sense of self we build with our habits and avoidance of life.

As you can see in this post, I've been working personally with doubt and choice, agency and hiding out a lot lately.

So I know it is important. Really, really important. But it is so, so hard. Why?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Exploring the Spectrum of Fear

In preparing to co-teach a Level II Shambhala Training program this last weekend, I did a lot of reading about, contemplating and meditating on fear. Trungpa Rinpoche says that fear is our main reason to build a cocoon, a wall of habits and tendencies that give us a protective sense of solid self.

But of course, fear is not just one thing.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Doubt and Choice

I have been working with doubt and choice and agency lately. I posted this on Facebook last week, and it got reposted/liked/commented on hundreds of times - so I know it is not just me.
Most days I give myself the choice to do nothing. Fuck it, I think, when my Bluetooth keyboard won't connect with my computer, when the coffee goes all over because I didn't set up my aero press right. Small frustrations threaten to pull me way off course.
No matter how much privilege and access we have, life often feels brutal, boring, irritating and too hard. But because I have privilege and access, especially to powerful, life-affirming Buddhist teachings, I know I need to keep going.
I take a deep breath. Feel the minor frustrations and real crippling suffering of all human beings. I step back, go for a walk or write, and come back and do it again.That's what I am doing right now - writing this to remind myself. I have a lot to offer. It is worth it. 
To myself: Don't shut down and watch TV all day. You've got this. Take breaks, snuggle cats, eat chocolate. But keep going. You've got this.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Trap of Doubt, Delay and "Discipline"

Recently, I met with one of my writing feedback groups. Most of the folks in this small group are working on memoir, which is a supremely difficult genre. One woman in particular is writing a very hard tale about a very small but potent part of her life - a year or so of mental health struggles in which she lost most of her support network. It's a poignant story, and she tells it very directly.

Since she has begun, she's written with great momentum, clear about what comes next, able to pile through very tricky scenes with great ease. Then she hit some doubt - a moment of not being sure where the story was going next, or what the point was in writing/sharing it. And then she hit some stress - way too many external and internal stressors coming together at the wrong time. Her actually writing got delayed - put on the back burner - by a few months, due to illness and literal, physical inability to write. It's also inevitable that such an intense story would bring up doubt, eventually.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Your Inner Critic's Secret Tool

I met with a new client the other night. We chit-chatted, since she's been a student before, and we wanted to catch up. Then I got a glass of fresh water and sat back down and said:
"So. How can I help you?"
She had come to me looking for my "writing advocate" services, supporting her regular practice - which has since the class fallen by the wayside. She gave an opening line worth a million dollars:
"My latest reason for not writing is..."

We both burst out laughing. She is a smart woman, and knows what her mind is up to.
This is the first - and a very, very important step. She gets her own game - she makes up reasons not to write but they aren't the real reasons she's not writing. She's not writing because she has to be accountable to someone else. And like so many people, she thinks she shouldn't have to ask for help.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Recycling Grief

"If that younger self inside you is the only one who responds to grief, then you end up doing what I call "recycling grief," because that younger self doesn't have the capacity to handle it." 
-Francis Weller, interview in October 2015 issue of The Sun

I don't have much to say about this yet. I am still mapping it all out, and figuring out what will resist mapping. But something is shifting in me, deep inside. After I read these lines by Weller, I realized another piece of it - the grief my inner child self has carried for so long - ostensibly for my mother and father, who died when I was so young - is slowly transferring to my adult self. 

It is a delicate procedure, a handling of an egg without a shell. Slick and delicate membrane of feeling and all that I couldn't feel when I was younger. Raw sadness without labels or names. Yesterday, on a walk through the Wingra creek portion of he Arboretum, I felt the lowlands marshy-ness, the high oak hill. I knew all of this is natural, suddenly, with full feeling. A relief. I can have this grief in the world, for the world - not just about my loss, but about all loss.

It's hard to describe, but ascribing my specific sadnesses to the larger current moment helps me both feel more specifically and directly, and also with fewer labels. I can just feel. And that feels amazing.

No more recycling grief. Feeling a fresh sadness now, so what comes from before can move through and on. I don't expect less sadness in the future because of this. But perhaps clearer sadness, less muddled by story and yet with better insight into past and present.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Class Chorus: Lessons in Love

(I am bringing back something I used to do for my classes each week - write a new piece that threaded in all the experiences from the classes I had. Each week's writing has a theme.)

Why oh why does English only have one word for love? Intimacy, sexuality, romance, none of these are verbs. You can have sisterly, brotherly, friendship love but these are only adjectives, adverbs to describe the verb of loving, which attempts to describe something so profound and instead gets so overused as to become cheapened.

Romance, of course, appears most. First loves - heart breaking and rejuvenating. Spontaneous, raw, intense. Snapshots and short strips of film lodged in memories like symphonies that begin all over again with a simple cello tuning.
Leaning that fairy tales aren't real, unless princes can be girls and have paws. Not betting on anything related to another human, hurt, hurt and so much need for connection. 

And yet when you can grow where you are planted - marriage, children: saying I love you a million times a minute so it will soak into your spouse and children's bones. Is it possible to love too much? Is it possible to give too much? Can loving the self really help someone else? The most complex love of all - that which we try to grow for ourselves, without feeling selfish. "How can I be me and love someone else?"

Animals. First dogs and cats, wet paws and snouts that lick broken up wounds. Some kind of unconditionally, simplicity, like most have for their children and few have for their parents. Teaching us how to love, then, because they die so easily, under card or of cancer, so young, how to let go. Love of land and nature go here, too, love of most places, especially those without people - farms and cabins, lakes and hills or mountains.

And trying to make what once was one love into another, under the public gaze of your friends' opinions. When do ex's become friends? Have we really let go of they are the one thing we regret? What we hoped to leave behind, to blame, that follows us into every other relationship to come. Trying to answer complex questions with simply leaving, and yet, sometimes leaving must happen.

Yoga, dance, running - for some the simplest love of all, and for others a fear-based festival. Sweat and trust, knees and feet thrust just so. Who made you feel good? Is sometimes less a who and more a how, just like studying the patterns of how we were hurt, the furrowed brows, we can feel when a skull was held just so in another's hands. 

"I love deeply, steeped in the people around me," the sacredness of sacrifice when in the right context. Looking at religiosity - when is surrender not about paid for sins but about a fundamental forgiveness. An erasing between the boundaries of icons and myths and into the deep earth experiences we all share: bliss of connection, sharpness of rejection. Being together in groups, simply working or laughing, a thousand eyes looking back across the Willy St parade. Sometimes easier to feel it for or from hundreds of others than the one right in front of you.

So excited to get love. Then, shit. Now what? Habit and grasping, lust and disappointment. But after that, love again, from a friend or from the same companion, a re-working it out. When er can't hold or hug, when what our other needs is something we can't give, how can we trust they know they are loved? Letting them soak in it in any way we can. 

Focusing on breathing, again and again: falling asleep on mama's belly, listening to a lover or partner or pet snore, feeling in your own body enough to feel love or a longing for love. For life. Love is our oxygen; drink it in. There are depths of love possible that we aren't even aware of, and chances are they won't come from those we know best. Stretching to meet different families, different languages that can express these feelings with their bodies or faces or words we can't even pronounce. 

Exciting, exhausting, pacing ourselves because the best love is constantly discovering, finding comfort in discomfort, being willing to be unsure for just a moment longer. 

Being willing to put a stake in the ground and choose love over death means active work. Resistance, resilience, resonance.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Facing Procrastination Demons

I don't set out to procrastinate. It just sort of happens. After a couple of hours of work - good, hard work - I suddenly start to feel totally crappy. As if I have DONE NOTHING at all, even though I've been working hard.

I get up from the desk, wander the house aimlessly, maybe take a shower or meditate. Then, if I write or really ask myself what is going on, chances are I find out that I've been getting a lot done - but not THE ONE THING - or the few things, but usually it's just one - that will help me feel like I've gotten something done. Contacted that client I am way behind on. Sent in my bio and picture to that Shambhala Center. Returned that call for a potential gig.

I am not really interested in why I do it. So many people do it. I am sure it is part self-sabotage, part old habit, part lack of organization and prioritizing. Sure enough, now that I recognize the feeling and face it, I can find THAT ONE THING and put it at the top of the list. 50% of the time it's not nearly as hard/bad as I was making it out to be.

But to be honest, 50% of the time it is. Or worse.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Returning in Stages

A couple of days after I got back from California, last week, someone asked me if I felt like I was back in Madison yet. I'd been in Europe, then Texas, then California, gone for over a month of the summer, which is not unusual for me.

Feeling a bit spaced out, not quite landed anywhere, I replied, quite spontaneously: "I am working on just arriving in my house. Can't arrive in Madison yet."

Friday, August 07, 2015

The Power of Narrative

Earlier this week I taught a day-long contemplative arts compendium - presenting practices like haiku, Miksang and contemplative writing all in short hour or two-long snippets. In the micro haiku workshop, which went surprisingly easier than I thought, one woman came back from her perception walk with a few photos and a few short narratives in haiku form. Though I had encouraged the students to cut as close to direct perception as they could, viewing their thoughts as another set of sensory data, I had not explicitly said to avoid narrative. I find it better not to say "don't do this," especially in a short workshop.

And paired with the photos that the narratives explained/interpreted, her work really shone. One shot was an abstract, textural photo of part of a tree trunk, beautifully shot and totally simple, with a lot of space. Her haiku referred to an elephant that she saw there. By itself, the haiku would be too metaphorical, too abstract. By itself, the photo was really more of a texture shot. Together, they made something quite poetic - not haiku, other than in form, and not quite Miksang, other than in form. I told her so, as she apologized when she heard others' haiku and realized that she has a penchant for narrative. I said that her pairing was simply less haiku and more senryu (human-based experience, with more room for metaphor/narrative) and/or a haiga (an image and haiku matched together). In other words, forbidding narrative would have cut off this experience for her, which was rich and affirmative. Especially in a short workshop, where they are going out for a first pass to just see and smell what they experienced.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Separating Truth from Shame

Loony Lunettes, Paris, 2015
Like a lot of people, I find it very, very tricky to engage with people who dislike me. Especially those who refuse to admit that that is the core issue, affecting their judgment of things such as "my unprofessional manner."

Yes, it is true that part of it relates to me wanting everyone to like me - survival skill! However, there's also an element of relentless meanness that sneaks in under the radar under the guise of shame. I often experience it as them exposing something "real" about me, something I feel ashamed of, my embarrassment flushing up. But I have come to see that actually when I feel that way - red in the cheek - that's actually a sign that someone is being excessive. Sometimes even bullying. Basically, mean for the sake of being mean. Trying to make me feel bad. And for awhile, it works.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Fear of Dying

Bandaged heart graffiti by Beni, Paris 2015
Travel takes me close to death, but not in the way you would think.

When I board a plane to Europe, when I find my seat on the Eurostar, when I climb down the steps of the Metro to ride the No 1 line to La Defense, I am not thinking about death. Not even remotely. When the metro car stops mid-tunnel when it is supposed to be moving, when the train slows down for a moment and the lights go out, when the plane jostles through some rough clouds, maybe I think of death just a bit. Never conscious, always under the surface, some sense of knowing the truth peeks out and makes itself known.

But when I really really think about death is when I am with the people I love. When I look at the face of a friend across the dinner or breakfast table, when I take my wife's hand on the sofa and share a smile, when I tightly bind myself to a heart another in a deep hug, at these moments, often something fleets across my awareness: this may be the last time. We never know.

This is the thing: we never know. If having lost my parents when I was young taught me anything, it taught me this. It did not teach me what to say to others when they have dramatic loss. It did not teach me how to feel or what to do to assuage grief. But it did show me that we really never know.

This is an odd kind of knowledge. Unfortunately, unlike memorizing the conjugations of the verb "to be" in a foreign language, it's not the kind of knowledge that comes back easily. When it arises in my consciousness, as it did this morning in the bathroom, brushing my teeth, I want to bat it away. I want to know what happens next, even if I know that that knowing itself causes me more harm in the end. 

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Bridging the Gap of Shame

I met with a client this week via Skype. She lives in another country. We have been emailing weekly for the last six months or so. After she took some writing classes with me, first when I was visiting on retreat, then online, she realized she wanted to get back to other kinds of making. Writing isn't her main form - getting a regular writing practice got her into realizing she wanted to get back to other kinds of physical making - sewing, drawing, photography.

She was the first "client" really, the first official person to take me on in my newer capacity as creativity coach. I was nervous - could I help her get her creative juices flowing? I had all kinds of doubts - self-doubts, not about her - and went forward anyway. I am so glad I did.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

My 3 R's

I don't do much arithmetic. When called to do it, I derisively jest that I am a writer and writing teacher for a person - a classic artist, uninclined to physics except for metaphors and definitely not good with numbers. For me, the third R - a real R - that rounds out reading and writing is equally tricky, strangling even. But it's related to the writing process in a way that mathematics isn't.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


Ilana on a swing at a baby shower last weekend.

UPDATE JUNE 25: it turns out she simply has basal cell and not melanoma. We are very relieved. Still, grateful for support and it's been a hard week! 

There's really no easy way to write about this. I have thought about it, cried about it.

Last week, Ilana got diagnosed with melanoma. As she said in her Facebook note about it, it wasn't as much a question of "if" she got skin cancer, but more "when" - her father has had basal and squamish cell cancers both so far in his life. But melanoma is scary - it's the most severe and though her case is "3 out of 10 in severity" the name alone keeps rattling us.

Cancer, as a word, carries a lot of weight in my family. And fear. I've been working with panic and fear all week, trying to relax enough to feel the sadness underneath. Panic and fear can drive me into depression, anxiety, and then I am not really feeling what is going on: the deep awareness of impermanence, not as a concept, but as reality.

As Ilana said in her note:
I never broke a bone despite all of my time on a skateboard. I never became dangerously ill through my childhood and early adult life. No major accidents, no long-term risky habits. Very little death in my family. I never assumed I’d live forever, but I did have a misguided idea that I’d coast along for decades and somewhere down the road just not wake up one day. Nice and easy, no struggles along the way.
This is a well-written reminder that even for a woman like me, someone who lost both of her parents and other relatives early, impermanence is still so easy to deny. Even with my experience - in comparison to hers - we are relatively on the same page. Human beings scared as shit.

The flip side - a both/and flip side, not either/or -is that we are also really treasuring each other. Savoring. When I am able to recognize the panic and dissociation, I can connect to the deep sadness underneath. And also appreciation.

Her procedure to have this tumor removed is in just over a month. They'll know more then - making sure it hasn't spread to any lymph nodes, etc, though they doubt that is the case. It's a deep tumor, all the way through the dermis, so there'll be some recovery. Then we watch and wait.

It is incredibly likely that this will NOT be what kills her.

I am reminded that, except for when we are pretending we won't die, or hoping there will be "no struggles along the way," we are all watching and waiting. Always. Cancer seems to make it more real, but the fact is either of us could go any day now, in any number of completely undiagnosable but perfectly normal ways. A car crash. A fall down the steps. Nothing so dramatic as melanoma. 

And yet. Cancer. I am trying to respect it. And turn my fear into appreciation. It is a practice. A constant one.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Discernment and Structure

Student at my Washington Island writing retreat last week.
Discipline is a word I try to avoid using in my teaching.
It is a word that one of my teachers, Natalie Goldberg, does not use.
Most of the time we associate the word discipline with punishment.
Very few people respond to the word discipline with the gentleness I believe we need to continue practicing.

Usually I use the word structure to replace it - meaning, the positive parts of discipline (knowing where/when/how you will do your practice(s)) without the negative (punishment, cruelty, self-denigration). 


Thursday, June 11, 2015

When We Envy Ourselves

Student writing last weekend on Washington Island, Wisconsin

I gave a small talk of sorts at lunch today, the last full day of a week-long writing retreat I've been teaching. It turned out, as talks sometimes do, to be about something I didn't realize it was about. A student, towards the end, said it so succinctly: "We envy the week." Yes. We envy the week we have just had, already, and it isn't even done.

It's just six of us left, from thirteen last weekend. Six came for just the weekend, which was planned ahead of time. Then seven remained, one leaving a couple of days early. It's been a peaceful, powerful time. It takes tremendous courage and forgiveness to continue writing no matter what arises. All of the people here have been in my weekly classes for years, most of them also in feedback groups, working on longer memoir or book projects. A few cut deep into the things they have been writing around for a long time. All of us got tremendous insights, lots of time to write, wonderful food and compassionate community.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Reaching Across the Gap

There are gaps between everything.

Who we think we are and how we manifest to others.
What we want to get done and what we actually get done.
What we write and how it sounds to ourselves, reading aloud later, and how it sounds to others.

These gaps are natural, normal. But where we have gaps, we often believe we are lacking.

I am about to teach my first week-long writing retreat.
How am I preparing?
Not by reading, not by writing talks. By walking, by shaking, by dancing and stretching.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Days of Mothers

Silohuette of Gloria Merriam, one of my mom's childhood friends, California January 2015
(a spontaneous poem on Mother's Day 2015)

My days of mothers cut short.
Turned by the sun into tinier versions of ones
given to most,
my mothers died at my sixth
my thirteenth
my nineteenth years.

A daughter with no mothers
many others stepped forward
or I called forward.
One confessed she didn't feel worthy:
not a good enough mother already
to the two children she bore.
My boyfriend (a bore)
said I'd done wrong by her
put her in an impossible position.

I know by now as an author
as a teacher
a mentor
that he was right in one way:
being a mother
giving birth
or raising to live on this earth
any creation
is impossible.

And yet, here we are.

My days of mothers seemed short -
cut off by early death.
And yet
I hear my neighbors on both sides
celebrate their firsts
with wailing children at their chests,
I get and give all the love I need
from families I married into
or create myself.
And yet
the Tibetan Buddhists
who make up my family say
Everyone was once my mother:
every insect
every cat
every serial killer.

Even myself.
I was once
I still am
Mother to myself.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Not Taking it Personally

One of the interesting parts of being on Facebook and having over 1000 contacts is noticing trends. Not the kinds of trends Facebook tracks - who's talking about Miley Cyrus this hour, for instance - but the kinds my subconsciousness tracks.

Often they are things that likely happen all the time but the level of critical consciousness doesn't raise until I know what something is. For instance, I never knew there was a part of the body called the meniscus until a close friend tore hers, then, all of a sudden, a few friends were having surgery on theirs. Is that coincidence? Not likely, nor even a trend. But perhaps I just didn't notice it before because people weren't using that word (most just say "knee problems") or I didn't recognize it and so it didn't register for me.

But here's a word I know well, linguistically and personally:

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Fresh Start

One of the main teachings in Shambhala about meditation is the importance of using a fresh start when needed. Not to be mistaken for taking a break, fresh start is dropping the technique for just a moment, still seated, in mid-meditation, when you feel you have fully lost what you are doing. This fresh start you can take at any time - stop meditating, reconnect, then begin again freshly.

This can feel like a spring breeze coming in the window for the first time in however long you have been sitting. Finally feeling your breath, you know you are alive again.

This is how it feels coming out of sickness for me, too. Though I can get bogged down with all the "things I supposed to be doing," there is also a miraculous quality of appreciation for my health, no matter how major or minor the illness. In the case of a cold/flu, as I had a few weeks ago, breathing became very hard for awhile. So the simple act of breathing took on huge importance and felt very fresh as it returned. In fact, getting better for me paralleled the arrival of spring, with a strong sense of the chilly but warming air actually helping my lungs and sinuses lose some of their fire.

The key thing about fresh start - and I am reminding myself as much as I am reminding you, dear reader, is that it not only can happen all the time, but it DOES happen all the time. While we are stuck in our stale suffering, the world is changing, micro- and macroscopically around us all the time.  While impermanence can get a bad rap - the old aging, sickness and death stuff - it also means we have a fresh opportunity in every moment. That can be scary or it can be exciting - it's there no matter what we think of it.

Friday, April 10, 2015


My mother, in her twenties in Northern Ireland

Today would be my mother's birthday.
I know the first question you want to ask me: how old would she be?
I am not 100% sure. This is because I cannot seem to remember her birth year, no matter how hard I try. Because I am in touch with some of her childhood friends, born the same year, I have some confidence in saying she would be 73. But I could stand corrected, certainly.

Recently I have begun writing a different kind of memoir. I know, I know, don't start writing another book, Miriam! But this one is coming out naturally, not taking energy from other projects. It's a different kind of writing, more standing outside and looking in rather than telling what happened from a scene-based experience. I am sure a lot of it comes from reading Abigail Thomas' latest memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like It. Anyway, as I usually share a post about my mom on these days, here's a tiny piece from my zygote memoir project, which I am calling (for now) Your Face Before Your Parents Were Born (after the old Zen koan). It's rough draft.

I have many stories I tell about my mother, and even more I tell about the two of us. In particular, I have single stories, threads with common themes I have told over particular eras of my life.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Charles Blow

I have already shared some about Charles Blow's memoir Fire Shut up in My Bones over on my other blog, Memoir Mind (  I wanted to make sure folks caught him here, too.

The memoir is outstanding and also difficult to get through - childhood poverty, racism, molestation. But Blow is an amazing writer. The ways he depicts and discusses the sexual abuse (listen from about 17 minutes on for a few) are lyrical and frank. The ways he talks about sexuality, bisexuality in particular, are hilarious and mind-reversing. 

This is a link to a great talk*/interview about the book, even if you don't/haven't read the book. This man is wonderful at taking what is inside and giving it space.

*A footnote that the first fifteen minutes or so are pretty awkward. The interviewer and Blow have awkwardly differing opinions on social programs and segregation. Don't let that dissuade you from listening on.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The White Expanse

This piece blew us all away in class. 

It's very tricky to lean into a full-on metaphorical image like this. Though Tod said it happened without his thinking about it, and without planning, his practice has allowed him to stay very close to surprising connections. He says he didn't even realize it was him until teh part about "the other members of his writing group." 

The imposter syndrome - feeling a fraud is well-depicted here. Also, the more nuanced but super tricky feeling that anything we do well must be cheating, not worth reading. If the writing comes easily, if, for instance, we build fictional worlds easily with barely any effort, then that must be bad writing, or we are just tricking everyone into thinking we are a good writer.

How to overcome this? Practice. Regular and compassionate. Consistent. And companionship.

Tod's writing:

He sprung into the white open expanse of his blank notebook page as if he was diving into a swimming pool of milk.  When he surfaced, breathless, blinking away the liquid pearls from his eyelashes, he was astonished to find that he’d written an entire story.
            The story was about a man who wrote stories, but hadn’t always been able to do so because the stories got stuck on their way out, they spoke in languages the man didn’t understand, so he didn’t know how to write them down, how to spell them.  It was a matter that came before the actual craft of writing itself, because he had to learn the language the stories were speaking.

Thursday, March 19, 2015


Yup. There's no mincing around it. 
This is what has been coming up lately, in my life, in my wife's life, in my students' lives. 

When I don't get done what I set out to do (PS I had unrealistic expectations)...
When I make a mistake - or even moreso, a series of mistakes - while teaching or in public...
When I choose to sleep in instead of meditating...
When I procrastinate...
When I feel sexually aroused in a situation I suspect I shouldn't feel that way in...

I feel ashamed.
A heavy brick in my belly.
A punch to the gut.
Not a voice, not an inner critic, nothing that conscious or obvious or literal.
I don't THINK it, I FEEL it. In my locked up hips, my tightened legs, my triggered wrists.

More and more I am convinced that this is what Writer's Block, what creative resistance, what perfectionism, what procrastination ALL ARE - shame. Which is the cause and which the effect? Shame is like the fuel that powers the freezer that keeps us locked in one place. Not exercising, not writing, not exploring, not asking - all because some part of us, deep inside, believes we are unworthy. Anytime we make any kind of perceived error, it goes right into the evidence bin - not only have we done wrong, we are wrong.

For a long time, I have contended that Brene Brown's teachings on vulnerability and shame (click here to watch her stunning TED talk) are a perfect compliment to Shambhala's teachings on Basic Goodness (an article here demonstrating how the two are linked). Shame is our biggest block, our most underground and dug-in belief that we are not good. If we believe this, we can't believe we are basically, fundamentally good. We can't believe in bodhicitta, that we are all born awake and with full potential.

Shame is endless in its layers. Luckily my faith is also endless in its depths. Every time I find a new layer - this last week it was seeing that during a live online class I felt ashamed of myself because of technical errors beyond my control! - I react, I work with my body responses (through TRE or breathing) and then I slowly unpack all that was going on there. It can take months or just a moment. Over time, it gets easier to see, and easier to let go of the belief in shame, let go into the belief of my own - and others' - basic goodness.

What do you do when you encounter shame? How do you know it in your body? Do you know it? Does it have a voice? A story? Or is it more undercurrent? What is your relationship to shame and vulnerability?

And if I catch you using these questions, or my exploration, to compare yourself to, and shame yourself with, I'll come right over there and hug you and hold you while you cry. 

That is your punishment. I will mete it out mercilessly.

As Sakyong Mipham likes to say: "Be careful, or I am going to get gentle with you!"

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Former Friends

Photo by Mandoline Whittlesey

Today I woke haunted by those who are no longer.           
People who passed through my past
ghosts before they were gone:
a Jessica, a few women named Amy, one Virginia, and many more.
As if they are states I once visited
but no longer possess a visa for.
They litter my contacts in voicemail and email:
I type in someone new,
and there they are, their former selves
smiling at me.

They are not smiling at me.
I am not smiling at me.
Last night I dreamt of a host of them,
a gaggle of them approaching me in anger. I felt shame like a virus,
gangrene infecting my leg, bacteria spreading
organically, as if this is always
how it ends.

I know forgiveness.
I know how to give it for another.
Where can I cauterize my self-inflicted wounds,
these dangling ends that stir in me
amoebas of what could have been
invisible spikes
of what I thought
was a beautiful and safe cactus?

My own mind became dangerous, found land mines
in these interactions. I cannot seem to let the hair triggers go
drop the reflex to defend
let myself really never understand
let myself know that I will never really know.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Such Great Heights

Lately, I've been suffering from vertigo. For real. No joke.
The sensation? Spinning when I am still.
Reminiscent of? Childhood games, binge drinking in college, standing at top of a tall building.
It's an interesting combination of memories - excess linked through feeling dizzy.
Standing on top of a tall building is the association I've connected most with lately.

Why? Because on the way to San Francisco and back recently, I was editing the copy editors version of the book we are about to release. Because at the Karuna Training program I was attending, we spent the entire time exploring egolessness, aka: Who am I? Do I even exist?

Because during the program, I had a conversation that lead to the fortune in the photo above. It reiterated a reckoning I've been feeling getting urgent lately: that I need to leap into a deep end, begin telling The World I am available for things I've been offering so far in beta mode. For instance: creativity coaching, one on one instruction, and more. 

Finally, because I read all three Tara Gentile's titles on the way home and answered some big, hard questions for myself about my business.

I was very happy with all this hard work and thinking, but arrived home exhausted. And I crashed, physically, mentally, from pushing too hard.

The end result, vertigo. Doc says its from an inner ear infection.
My intuition says it's more than that. Both/and.

The Postal Service has a track called Such Great Heights that's been in my head the last couple of days. Ilana often sings the part about freckles in our eyes to me, but the part I've been thinking about is the heights. Queasiness, unsteadiness to go where I need to go. Fear of failing, of falling. I've know ever since turning the corner of the Western New Year that I am so terrified of this book getting out and that I have delayed it some out of that fear. Now that Losar, the Tibetan New Year has also passed, I realize it needs to happen. Now. And I also can't push myself. And it will happen whether I like it or not.

My trying to control it, what comes out of all this change, is causing the vertigo.

It's a paradox. And yet, it's not. It only seems contradictory to me - the idea of getting something done and also being kind to myself. My story is they are incompatible. And yet, this is how I've gotten here so far. I haven't gotten here on self abuse. I've gotten here on self care, on letting go, on being kind. And I'll need even more where I am going, my vertigo seems to know better than I do.

My fear of heights is not telling me not to go. It simply knows these are big heights. While the rest of me pretends it's no biggie to keep her cool, my vertigo knows the truth. I try to listen to it without panic, simply noticing the spinning sensation. Also noticing that some part of me knows that while there will be some falling, some failing, I will not die. This will not kill me.

Part of me knows I will fly. But the step that it takes to get to that point? Seems impossible.

Here it comes. Here I go. Here I come. Ready or not.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Americans

My father in Northern Ireland, early 1960's*
Ilana and I began watching the series The Americans yesterday. It's a fantastic show. The acting is subtle and strong, the depictions of spying and undercover life understated and compelling. Ilana told me, after just one episode, that she had had a fantasy that her family was undercover, secret Soviet spies, when she was young. I never knew that, but it makes sense in light of some other fantasies she's shared with me.

Funnily enough, I never had this fantasy, despite the fact that I experienced my mother as a Russophile.

The photo above shows my dad in Northern Ireland. This is the beginning of the era where they drove to Russia together, peeping behind the Iron Curtain in a VW Bug. The story goes that they were taking a co-worker of Dad's back, but of course Mom wanted any reason to head to Russia. She was fluent, with a Master's degree in Russian. I haven't dug deeply enough to see what her personal reaction was to being there (I have letters and whatnot somewhere), but I know she joked that people mistook our father for a young Lenin. The facial hair probably had a lot to do with that.

You can see it even more obviously in this theatrical shot of him from when my parents first met. He was Judge Hawthorne in a production of The Crucible at the time:
My dad as Judge Hawthorne, late 1950's. Pretty Lenin-like, eh?!
What is funny to me is that I grew up in Joseph McCarthy's hometown and burial place - Appleton WI - and my mother was a Russophile. We had Russian books and artefacts all over our house. This was mid-Cold War - 70's, 80's. Not an easy time to be into Russia in midwestern America. My mom was pretty quiet about it - didn't have many close friends in our town anyway. Dad made jokes (and likely actually did both) about pissing on McCarthy's grave and dating one of the Rosenberg's cousins before marrying Mom.

So it wasn't exactly a secret. Then again, there was nothing to hide.

If you are a spy, you cover it all up.
My parents had nothing to hide.

But I didn't grow up in a typical American family. Definitely not average Midwesterners, and certainly not the suburban-like neighbors we had. Mom taught me that New York was the promised land, and even more so, Europe. Travel was to be expected, if not living abroad. They would have raised us in Ireland if there hadn't been "the troubles" at the time. Mom went to a private, very well cultured school in Chicago growing up.

To be a small-town Midwesterner meant things she disdained: well-kept lawns, carpools, gossip and doing your nails. It's hard now to tell what was her own shame in comparing herself or our family to the surrounding community, and what was actual ethic or cultural preference for her. But the ebony bust of Nefertiti on our grand piano and the brass-and-glass Russian tea sets on the side board certainly imply she had other tastes.

Very few objects in The Americans look familiar to me. They don't indulge in Russian culture - the spy KGB couple have to act as if they have no idea what caviar is when they encounter it. And yet, there is something about their lives - trying to get by in the 80's in America as non-Americans - that I get. My parents were Americans by birth, but they didn't act like the other Americans around us. So something feels familiar to me in the way these Americans act. A little bit off. A little bit disjointed.

*I made some revisions to this post after my eldest brother brought some family stories - and definitely some dates! - into better alignment for me.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Mea Culpa


Finally, I am going to write a blog post about Charlie Hebdo.
I know it's a bit late.
It's taken me awhile to get clear on how I feel, and to apologize for my initial reactions.

It’s interesting times, being an American Francophile. Most of my friends who are fans of the French or of France jumped on the “Je suis Charlie” campaign ASAP. I waited a few days, absorbed in a retreat I was teaching, only able to read on my phone, never able to read deeply enough. I kept everyone I know in France and all those I don’t know in my practices – Metta, Tonglen – the victims, the terrorists, everyone. I posted little-to-nothing on Facebook, which is my main social media outlet.

Then some folks I trust and respect started pointing out more critical articles, pointing to Hebdo being a “not innocent” institution. While I am usually wary of this line of thinking (“She asked for it, judge, she was wearing a skirt!”), I never particularly – nor do I now – liked Charlie Hebdo. Living in France, traveling in France over the last twenty some years of my life, I generally leafed through the issue, repulsed by its images while also knowing their satirical nature. However, in my moments of reactiveness, of feeling I needed to say SOMETHING. Why did I feel I need to say something? Friends who know me as Francophile were asking how I felt, wanted to know how they should feel, for better or worse. I reacted and posted based on those old reactions. I broke a cardinal French rule: neglecting Voltaire’s maxim (paraphrased: I may not like what you say but I will defend your right to say it) I based my reactions on not liking Charlie Hebdo.

I started re-posting articles that criticized the publication, even as they clearly stated they were not saying the cartoonists or magazine asked for it. They still imply it.

The French, generally, are pro-criticism and pro-critical thinking. This is what I betrayed in my need to say something: I dropped my own more subtle awareness of Charlie Hebdo’s satire in favor of reactivity. Why? 

I understand full well why they use racist images/cartoons in their issues. (Here’s a good article on Al-Jezeera about how satire is sacred in France. Here's one on vox that explains how double-layer satireworks in the French culture, including a great statement: "satire that indulges racism along the way:) In short, Hebdo doesn't actually create many of its ideas. It uses images already described in media. For instance, this heavily reproduced image is made from the Front National's leader's description. It is used to make her out to be the racist, in a direct way that the majority of readers would understand. This is a part of the double-layer satire I mention above. I know that a lot of American media missed this. I didn't miss it.

However, I still think it is problematic. It is not as simple as "Hebdo is racist" for me. For me, satire does not justify perpetuating aggression. I simply think there are other ways to do it. I don’t agree with them, in other words. But it’s a subtle not-agreeing. A not agreeing with a particular tack, angle. Not a disagreeing with a world view. The cartoons are racist, even though they are using racism to leverage against those who initially expressed it. I don’t think the cartoonists are racist, or the magazine is. That takes awhile to explain. I feel like I can finally state it clearly.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in this careful post to Atlantic Monthly (which also has, as always, very intelligent discussion following, for once on the internet!), he took heed in Paris as this was happening and listened to all sides and parts, like a good student of any foreign culture does. After reading his post and the comments, I finally felt I could write what I have been experiencing. And part of it is something akin to guilt. Guilt that I let ignorance fill me, first, literally trying to ignore it was happening, then letting much simpler posts and articles speak for me, when I could be responsible for my own more nuanced view. 

My mother always hated it when we said, like teenagers and kids do, “I’m so-rry,” with no actual apology behind it. She warned us, like other mothers might warn kids to eat their veggies, to not apologize without real feeling. Save it for what we meant. For what we actually felt sorrow for.
Later, in my teens, she taught me Mea Culpa: Latin, a more formal way of saying, This is My Fault. Reserved for very specific and special circumstances, I feel it is appropriate here. It is appropriate for me to say I am sorry for not expressing myself more clearly about Hebdo, earlier, with so many people waiting on me to have a read on what is happening.

Because the fact is, Charlie Hebdo, which I do not identify with and never will, did not ask for this action. And the fact also is that the state of being any minority – visual or verbal – in France is pretty awful right now: Jewish, Muslim, African, Middle Eastern. There’s a lot of anger and aggression going around there and it’s extremely confusing and scary. Adding blame to that game is not helpful. 

The “I am Charlie” manifestation is expressing solidarity – a key feature of French society – that means far more than identifying with the publication. And yet I couldn’t say it. Maybe because I am not there right now, not connected enough, not reading enough. Maybe because my knee-jerk inner French-leanings ironically got in the way of me doing a very American thing: jumping on the band wagon and saying that I am Charlie. And yet, my very American habits then kicked in and put me on an opposing bandwagon.

I won’t say I am Charlie. As Coates says “I may be Charlie?” I don't actually think it's my place to say. I am not French. I may, despite all my study and sympathy, be missing something. Likely I am. But I am also not not Charlie. It saddens me to see the French government tightening up in a potentially post-911 manner, ala Patriot Act. I worry about reactivity everywhere, including those in Coates' post who say that “Je Suis Charlie” means the future of Europe. 

After a tragedy, we are all subject to quick reactivity – whether it is jumping to support or denigrate, it tends to be dualistic. I promise to spend more time in the coming weeks and months, connecting with my French folks, going more deeply into myself. This means I will never be able to say in one line how I feel about it, and certainly can’t tell anyone else how they should feel. That’s just not how I roll. But at least I can admit nuance and take the time to commit to only knowing my own confusion.

Finally, let us not forget that while all of this has been happening in France, awful and for the most part overlooked massacres have been happening in Africa. Not enough of us are considering saying "Je suis Afrique," an especially challenging possibility considering France's post-colonial relationship with Africa.

Here are even more, subtle and varied views (all in English) on Hebdo. These folks also helped me to understand how to express what I am feeling...
Slavoj Zizek
Amy Hollowell
Roxane Gay
Olivier Cyran
Joe Sacco

Monday, January 26, 2015


My Mother, Northern Ireland, 1960's
Last night, I dreamed my mother lived longer than she did. That she was alive, now, and revealing to me two surprising things: she A) is really into Sade now(this from a woman who listened almost exclusively to classical music) and B) now wears make-up and gets her hair blown out once a week (no make-up, only done-up hair was a big bun she wore her hip-length, uncut hair in daily). I asked her, "Where have you been hiding your Sade tapes all these years? In your Chopin cassette cases?" and she smirked and nodded.

Saturday January 24th was the 18th anniversary of her death. Having spent a few days recently with her longest-term friend - her bestie from Kindergarten - having done TRE and spent time working through old triggers related to my interactions with her - having mourned who she may have been becoming when she died, and who she may have become had she lived - the anniversary passed subtlely, sort of subconsciously.

I slogged through prostrations, felt worn and sad but also alive. Little conscious thought or process, plenty of body awareness of loss. It's powerful, this grief, ever-changing and sometimes more subtle, sometimes more strong. When people ask me - is it always the same? How does it change? My answers vary depending on audience - have they faced a major loss? Are they asking out of ignorance, curiosity or because they want to know if their own struggle is normal? Are they a spectator or a cohort member? And my answers change based on how I feel.

18 years ago I became an orphan. Something about this feels powerful to me: I have now been without parents for an "adult" amount of time. Recently an image came to me of "giving birth to my mother" - it didn't "make sense" until now. Now something is shifting, seismic level. The TRE is releasing trauma deep in my hips, letting co-dependence slip less frequently out of my lips. My neck loosens, softens. There's some kind of shift happening.

I am an adult at being an orphan. This is a new life, all over again. Next year, a year from now, she will have been gone half my life: half my life with a mother, half without. I cannot say exactly what it is, but it feels something like this: this year, 2015, is some kind of window. It feels like wanting to finish my memoir, Bermuda Triangles. It feels like I can see all her old friends this year and feel some opening as well as closure at the same time. It feels like stories I've told are changing forever, for good, for better. I am independent now, not as chained to my grief. Individuating from my orphan self, while also integrating.

Something is finishing, and something is beginning. Something is slipping away and I am finding something else in its place. The slippery life of grief, the slippery stories of memory. I feel strong, sad and clear. For now.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Day Off Syndrome

Welcome to my life.

Well, my mind's version of my life, anyway, which is what often runs the narrative.

I have a day off coming up tomorrow, the first in over a week. I taught a four-day writing retreat last weekend, then traveled for a day (not a day off, especially when flying across the country!), then participated in a four-day teacher training. So tomorrow, Monday, whooo boy. Do I ever want to sink into you with nothing to do.

Only there are emails. Lots of them. Behind on clients' images and words, in need of catching up. Not the whole day - I don't do *that* anymore, at least (some of my workaholic-ness is put to rest). But I'll need to do some. And those online classes that need to get up and running. And, and and...

Monday, January 05, 2015

The Underbelly of Obsessive Thinking

Here's something I have known about myself for decades, and it trips me up every time.

When I do something to someone that hurts their feelings, I get concerned. This is natural, of course. I worry I could have done it better, found a way to make it less hurtful (yes, I am, after all, a Midwestern woman), or avoided hurting them altogether.

Then it gets complicated. Turns into obsessing. Quickly.
From this point on, my thinking contorts into a manifold, manifested obsession. It's a bit hard to track, seeing as how it is so complex and a bit dark and full of shame/blame, but it looks something like this, with all these thoughts turning and churning over each other in no particular order: