Moments of Being

“Every day includes much more non-being than being. This is always so. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; washing; cooking dinner. When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger.”

– Virginia Woolf

On The Work Itself

Last night I gave a reading and was in conversation with the wonderful writer Amitava Kumar. I had never met Amitava before, though our paths have crossed at dozens of literary events over the years, most recently at AWP in Minneapolis. I was invited to join Amitava in the event by one of the best literary publicists out there, Lauren Cerand, and we were hosted by a favorite bookstore, The Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, in front of a terrific audience, mostly of writers and certainly of readers.

Being the generous guy that he is, Amitava read not only from his own new book, but asked me if it would be alright for him to read a passage from Still Writing. Before he read it, he asked me if I feel alienated from my own words, if I hear another writer read them aloud. My immediate response was to blurt out that I feel alienated from my own words, almost instantly after I write them. That got a rueful laugh from the crowd, and I laughed too, but I woke up thinking about what it was, exactly, that I meant.

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Lately my memoir Slow Motion has been enjoying a bit of a resurgence. I wrote Slow Motion in the mid-1990’s, it came out in the late 1990’s, and I hadn’t so much as cracked its cover in at least a dozen years, until recently, when it was suggested to me that it might make a good miniseries, and having just watched the brilliant adaptation of Olive Kitteridge, I found the idea compelling. Re-reading my old work, especially such profoundly personal old work, was quite a trip. On the one hand, I found it surprisingly emotional to read about the girl I once was. I thought of her as a character, even as I wrote the book. But now, she has receded even further into the distant past, and I find it harder to reach out and touch her. She was so sad, so lost, so grief-stricken, so out-of-control. To meet her again, frozen within the pages of my own book, was riveting, in a way. I didn’t feel I was reading about myself, or even a book written by myself. And so, I was able to admire it, in a way. The me who wrote it has continued to grow and morph into the me who could read it with a cooler gaze. In so doing, I also understood, for the first time, why people who have recently read Slow Motion ask me whether I feel exposed. The question has always rankled. No, I respond. It’s a book, a memoir, not my diary. But in reading it, I realized that, in many ways, I am quite exposed, and that it was a kind of literary lunacy, a lunacy I’m glad for having had, to put aside the question of what people would think, and just go for it.

The work that holds my attention is always the work in front of me. This blog post is holding my attention as I write. The book I’m now working on holds my attention, and if you were to ask me which of my books is my favorite, I would tell you it’s the one I’m writing. This is always true for me. I feel a sense of distance from each of my books because the woman who wrote them has moved on. She is sitting on her chaise lounge on a cool New England day, pecking away, hoping to find a shape for the chaos, the heartache, the beauty, the confusion, the human catastrophe. She dives deep inside the moment –– as deep as the moment, combined with her own limitations, will allow. And tomorrow, with any luck, she will do it again.

On What it Takes

A number of years ago, I was seated next to a literary agent — not my own — at a dinner party.  At some point during our conversation, she asked every writer’s favorite question: what are you working on?  As it happened, I had recently begun working on a memoir.  No one was more surprised by this development than I.  My previous two books had been novels, and I had been waiting for the next novel to materialize, as a glimmer, a glimpse of something urgent in my imagination.  But that hadn’t happened. What happened was this word, D-E-V-O-T-I-O-N, literally spelled out in front of me one day as I practiced yoga.  I knew what it meant, and I wasn’t at all happy about it.  I hadn’t planned to ever write a second memoir.  I was a novelist.  A serious novelist.  The thought of writing another memoir — much less a spiritual memoir — was not what I had in mind.

The agent sat back in her chair and looked stricken, as if somehow my news affected her personally.

“But you can’t!  You’re getting such great attention for your novels.  You’ll lose your readers if you turn to memoir.”

The agent went so far as to call one of the editors who was interested in my new book to tell her she thought I — along with my actual agent — was making a mistake.

This stayed with me, haunted me, while I wrote Devotion. A writer in the midst of a book is nothing if not suggestible. But I had no choice. The book had chosen me. It had tapped me firmly on the shoulder, wedged its way into my consciousness, demanding my attention. The years I spent writing Devotion, I wondered if I was indeed making a mistake. Who was going to care about my idiosyncratic, complex, singular spiritual journey? What’s more, the book’s structure was also worrisome when it revealed itself. The book seemed to want to be written in small, almost puzzle-like pieces. I had always written in long, narrative sweeps. What the hell was this? I felt like my head was exploding. I felt doomed to write a book no one would read, told in fragmentary prose poems.

When Devotion eventually was published, it turned out that my fears – along with my dinner companion’s dismay – had been unfounded. The puzzle-like structure worked. Readers from all kinds of backgrounds responded to the story. That book and its reception in the world changed my life – not in a yippie-I-can-renovate-my-house kind of way, but in a much deeper way.  It brought me to an abiding, powerful understanding of the way we human beings –once we dig beneath our protective shells – are more similar than different.  The same worries keep us up at night.  The same fears and insecurities drive us.

Just this past weekend, in a workshop, I was discussing some manuscript pages of one of my students – a lovely writer who has been working on a memoir for the past ten years – and I wasn’t telling her what she wanted to hear.  What she wanted to hear was, of course, what we all want to hear, which is: this is magnificent, and your work here is done. After all, she had been working on the manuscript for ten years.  She had poured everything she had into it.  But her work wasn’t done. And as we began to talk about it, she told us she was trying not to cry.

And what I said in response was perhaps not the most teacherly thing I have ever said: I cry every day.

My students stared at me.  Many of them have been with me for years – some, for decades.  They had never heard me say anything like this before. But it was true, and I always try to tell the truth. Especially about writing, because, let’s face it, the writing life is hard. It’s solitary, often thankless, painful to the point of near-madness. It can look, from a distance, especially on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, like the writing life involves days bracketed by beautiful cups of cappuccino in the morning, perfect glasses of Priorat at night. It can look like conferences in fabulous, far-flung places, writers gaily cavorting at festivals wearing cute clothes. But the truth is a wee bit darker. The truth is that writers, if I may generalize, are sensitive, impatient, fearful people, sifting through the sands of the every day, panning for gold.  We never know what’s next.  The next book, the next sentence, the next word all reveal themselves to us in their own time, with their own peculiar alchemy.

If I had held on to my flimsy self-identity – I’m a novelist – I wouldn’t have written Devotion. If I’d held onto the pages I was working on a couple of years ago, ones that weren’t working, I wouldn’t have written Still Writing. And now, as I sit here on the chaise on a gloomy day, my eyes still bleary with sleep, the weight of my new work pressing against me from all sides, the questions lining up, the old terror, my inner censor screaming no, no, no, not this, you can’t, you mustn’t, I find I have less and less patience for impatience — from others, from myself.  This is the way it is, to try to make something out of nothing. This is the price of admission. This is what it is, to press against the bruise — I am pressing now — with no reward other than the doing, and the hope that bruise will bloom.

 

On Knowing Our Own Minds

 

This weekend I led a retreat during which we focused on meditation and writing. To teach well, to teach at the height of my abilities, there are things I need to do –– ways I need to feel about myself, my writing life, my own practices. I need to be clear, rested, my mind settled before I can begin to think of helping a roomful of people settle their own minds and dig deep to find their own stories.

My group met at Kripalu in a large hall that had just been used for a yoga teacher training, and so, the walls were hung with educational posters. As my seventy students broke into smaller groups to share their writing exercises, I paced the room, listening to snatches of their stories. Often those who are drawn to a retreat such as this one have intense material –– the stuff of life –– and are looking for a way to understand it, to express it. Meditation becomes a powerful tool in this regard, a way of coming to know our own minds. As I walked barefoot through the great hall, I noticed one of the posters from the teacher training in particular. It was a list of the five Yamas –– the character building restraints central to yoga philosophy.

These are ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), asteya (not stealing), aparigraha (non-possessiveness) and brahmacharya (energy management).

I stared at that last one: brahmacharya. Energy management. How was I doing in this regard? I felt pretty much okay about the other restraints. I had those down. But energy management? (I should mention that brahmacharya in its most orthodox definition refers specifically to sexual energy, but the more open, modern interpretation raises question of where – generally speaking – we put our energy.)  Where was I putting my energy? Lately I had been feeling like a leaky vessel. Saying yes to invitations I should have declined. Spending time with people who were draining. Worrying too much about other people’s opinions. Reaching for social media rather than opening a book that might nourish my soul. Staying up too late at night. Burning the candle at both ends.

As I continued to make circles around the great hall, I found myself stopping in front of brahmacharya again and again. I think so many of us feel this sense of being drained of energy. We’re working twenty-four hours a day –– how many of us actually turn off our cellular devices when we go to bed at night? Our sleep –– even our sleep –– is punctuated by the sounds of beeping, vibrating, push notifications, texts. The world is always with us. Our weekends, our vacations, even our Sabbaths, are hard to make sacred. In the past three weeks I have been on six flights. I’m on one now, as I write these words. I look forward in my calendar and see no empty weeks, no long stretch of days. For a writer –– for anyone! –– this is not a good thing. Our most creative thoughts and ideas spring from a ritualized dream time. In the absence of this dream time we become mechanized, robotic, detached from our inner lives.

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Energy management. This is the yama looking me straight in the eye. You, it seems to be saying. Know your own mind.

One of the things I most love about teaching is that it keeps me honest, because I simply cannot preach that which I don’t practice. So whenever I teach it brings me back to the truth of my own nature, my own foibles, my own resistance, attachments, insecurities.

Near the end of the retreat –– which had been successful even by my own overly harsh and self-judging standards –– I went around the room and asked each participant, one by one, to call out a single word. At the beginning of the retreat I had also asked for words to be called out –– and it was heartening to see how the feelings of nearly everyone in the group had shifted.  I wrote these words down in green magic marker on a large piece of white paper. Peaceful. Hope. Energized. Joy. The words continued in a warm cascade. Content. Amazed. Home. On they went. There was one woman in the back row, though, who had looked miserable all weekend –– angry, frustrated, literally rolling her eyes at me. When it was her turn to offer a word, it rang out: disappointed.

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I added her word to the cloud of words, and tried to let it go. But instead, for the rest of that final session, she hovered in my mind. Disappointed. She kept walking out of the room when I offered prompts or instructions, until finally, she just simply left. But what was I doing? I was that leaky vessel –– allowing someone who was, as I once heard a healer describe this kind of person, an energy vampire –– to climb inside my mind and sap me of my own strength.

She didn’t have the power to do this to me.

I was doing it to myself.

And so I’m telling this story on myself –– this story of my own struggle with brahmacharya –– because I invariably finish leading these retreats with new lessons I have needed to learn. I want to say thank you to that woman in the back row for reminding me that I’m responsible for my own energy management. There are a thousand ways we can waste our energy –– and only one way I can think of to harness it, which involves paying careful attention to our own hearts and minds.

On Trusting the Tapestry

I’m writing this from a cramped window seat on a flight from Hartford to Orlando. (And no, I’m not going to Disney World.  I’m spending three weeks as a Master Artist in Residence here.)  I’ve been spending a lot of time on airplanes lately. Sometimes with my husband, sometimes with my son, but often alone, on my way to teach somewhere, or give a reading. So none of this is new. But what is new are the tears in my eyes as I write these words. Tears of gratitude that the fears that plagued me for so many years have subsided. For a long time –– in my twenties and early thirties –– I did everything I could to avoid travel. I wasn’t quite agoraphobic, but I had terrible anxiety when it came to taking risks of any kind –– and my definition of risk wasn’t paragliding or skydiving. No. My definition of risk was getting on a train, a bus, a plane. Even driving a car to an unfamiliar place set me on edge. All of it felt, to me, as if I was courting disaster. As if I wouldn’t survive the journey.

I don’t know what, exactly, changed. My son was four years old when I went on book tour for my novel Family History. I remember calling my publicist from the departure lounge at LaGuardia airport, weeping. I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t think I could board the plane that was going to take me away from my husband and little boy. Fortunately, my publicist –– a mom herself, and one who had been through some hard times –– was able to talk me down in just the right way. I got on that plane, and the next one, and the next. But still, I sat in my seat, a heart-pounding, palm-sweating mess. I was able to do it –– but the cost was high. I would arrive at my destination wrung-out and exhausted.

Eventually, I discovered a pharmaceutical solution to my fear of flying. I became willing to medicate my terror. I had a system. Just before going through security, I’d take a half of a half of a sedative –– a very low dose, but enough to quell my nerves. I became able to board flights more easily, and even anticipate flying in a different way because I knew I didn’t have to suffer. I did this for years. I flew more and more frequently for work, and this system was just simply part of what I did in my new role as literary road warrior. I had my travel-sized cosmetics, my plastic bag for carry-on toiletries, my go-to outfits for public speaking, my pile of magazines, and my little pill case.

But then something happened to me ­–– so radical, so amazing that I could never have imagined it. After many thousands of miles –– Rome, Florence, Venice, Positano, Paris, London, Prague, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Chicago, Anchorage, Minneapolis, Columbus, Miami, New Orleans, Charlotte, Detroit, Houston, just off the top of my head –– one day it occurred to me that perhaps I didn’t need to take that sedative before going through security. Maybe it would just be enough to know I had it with me. I could always take it if I became nervous. So I kept my little pill case in my pocket. A talisman. A rabbit’s foot.

Just two weeks ago, my husband and I were on the way to the airport for a trip to LA when I suddenly realized, with a nauseated jolt, that I had forgotten my pill case at home. It was too late to turn back. I felt that old anxiety stirring from its slumber. Could I get on a plane with no safety net? Was I pushing my luck? Did I dare?

Reader, I dared. I was a little tense –– old habits die hard –– but something inside me had shifted in a profound way, and though the superstitious part of me believes it’s tempting fate, I will say that I feel fairly certain that I have changed in a deep, internal way. And to what do I owe this shift? Certainly, I worked hard to overcome my anxiety, but we all know that working hard isn’t enough. I became willing to take medication –– to understand that it was bigger than me. I learned to meditate and developed practices that are a part of my inner landscape. (May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be strong. May I live with ease.) And all of this together formed the roots of a desire to live this precious life, to live it fully, completely, with courage, with abandon. To recognize the improbability of this gift I’ve been given. To see the world. To expand my horizons. To trust the tapestry that weaves us all together.

On Art and Life

I’ve spent a lot of time, more than I wish, thinking about shoulds and what ifs.  Oh, how I wish I could have back all the hours I’ve mused or worried (or panicked) about things that either a) are pointless self-flagellation, or b) uncontrollable.

In the should department, I’ve worried that I should be doing better in virtually every area of my life.  I should spend more time working.  I should be better at what I do.  I should spend more time with my son.  I should spend more time with my husband.  I should cook more.  I should do more yoga.  I should meditate more.  I should re-do the living room.  I should spend more time with my friends.  I should take up a hobby.  Like knitting.  I should knit.

Well, this is funny, even to me.  Because notice how each should cancels out the next.  There aren’t enough hours in the day.  These shoulds do nothing but make me feel scattered, paralyzed, unworthy.

Let’s move on to the what ifs.  These are the biggies, of course.  What if something terrible happens to someone I love?  What if I get sick?  What if we have no money?  What if I lose my mind and can’t write any more?

This is less funny.  Because the truth of life is that something terrible will happen to someone I love.  The phone will ring and it will be bad news.  At some point.  I will get sick.  At some point.  To love is to risk heartache.  To live is to withstand loss.  At some point, we all suffer.

I’m well aware that there are people who walk around not thinking about any of this.  Usually these are people with regular jobs that don’t involve sitting around in ratty yoga clothes or (truth) a bathrobe in the middle of the day, staring at the walls, or pacing the floor.  John Updike called writing “the subtlest instrument for self-examination known to man.”  That self-examination, combined with the capacity and willingness to witness the world around us, is not a comfortable place to be.  We writers often feel raw and exposed, out-of-step.  I myself am often struck mute – as if I can only figure out what the hell I want to say when I’m in the process of putting pen to paper.  This isn’t a choice – its a way of being.  Nobody becomes a writer who doesn’t have to.

If we are our only instrument – as of course, we are – how do we navigate this business of living our lives, quieting the shoulds and what ifs, and finding that inward space in which we’re able to find that truth, as Thoreau wrote, that strikes us from behind and in the dark?

I’m going to suggest something radical here – something that is much easier said than done.  We must not separate our life from our art.  Louise Gluck recently spoke of this in an interview with William Giraldi in Poets & Writers:  “You have to live your life if you’re going to do original work.  Your work will come out of an authentic life, and if you suppress all of your most passionate impulses in the service of an art that has not yet declared itself, you’re making a terrible mistake.”

I’m often asked about motherhood and writing.  About teaching and writing.  About making a living and writing.  Beneath all of the questions is a deeper question, thrumming: Can I have a life and be a writer? 

I’d like to answer a resounding yes to that question, though with the caveat that this requires a daily practice, a daily awareness that perhaps we need not delineate between life and art, draw a line down the center of our days and put our work on one side and everything else on the other.  Sarah Ruhl offers this:  “I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life.  And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion.  At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life.  And life, by definition, is not an intrusion.”

And so, my friends, embrace the snow day, the traffic jam.  Embrace the flu.  Say thank you to the midday school conference, the vet appointment, the plumber, the memorial service.  As I said, easier said than done.  But it helps to remember that every single moment you wholeheartedly experience becomes part of your instrument, part of what you know.

 

On the Path of Possibility

I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to put ourselves in the path of possibility.  We’re always either moving towards possibility, or away from it.  I’ve come to envision this as a stream – clear, blue, lucid, always flowing. We know when we’re in that stream – and we know when we’re not.  When we’re off course, life feels like a slog.  We’re impatient, accident-prone, frustrated.  Nothing seems to work out.  We don’t know why, and we blame ourselves, or everyone else, for our woes.  But when we’re in the path of possibility, everything feels suddenly slightly…easier.  Coincidences abound.  Strange, serendipitous encounters.  Overheard conversations.  Signs and wonders.  My friend Sylvia Boorstein tells me the Buddhists call this the effortless effort.   The effortless effort is unmistakable.  Those of us who are writers feel it when we’re deep in the work and the world falls away.  It’s a hard, hard place to get to, and once we’re there, we want to find a way to stay there forever.

My husband and I have spent the last couple of weeks in LA.  In fact, I’m writing this from the middle seat of a bumpy Jet Blue flight on our way home.  My husband is a screenwriter / filmmaker and we made the decision years ago to not to move to LA, which is a bit like an astronaut making the decision to not board the space shuttle.  My husband has  gotten work, because he’s really good at what he does, but he has most definitely not been in the path of possibility.  He’s been a lone wolf on top of a hill in Connecticut.  He hasn’t been running into studio executives at cocktail parties, or in line to pick up coffee at Intelligentsia, or at the gym.  Example: last week, we were waiting for friends at a bar in West Hollywood when two gentlemen offered to buy us a drink.  Out of nowhere. Like, totally random.

“What brings you here?  What do you do?”  My husband asked one of them.

“I have a fund and I invest in independent film,” he replied.  “And you?”

“I make independent films.  And I’m looking for investors.”

That kind of thing doesn’t happen in Connecticut.

Again and again, the universe shouted, hello!  hello, are you getting the drift?

We were getting the drift.

I am always aware of cultivating a witness consciousness.  I want to be awake to my life.  Awake to my family’s life.  To the lives of all those I love.  To the world around me in all its wounded splendor.  If I am wide awake – not anxious, not fearful, not hesitant, not impulsive – through my open eyes I begin to see the paths of possibility, almost as if they were outlined in neon. It’s hard work – paradoxically – to reach that place of effortless effort.  It requires discernment, and a willingness to take risks.  To leap, with no safety net.  To say, yes, we are grown-ups with grown-up lives and responsibilities.  But we are also willing to shift and change in order to align ourselves with what the path presents.  Shoulds are deadening.  Shoulds put us in a box and close the lid.

This week I spent time with a remarkable array of people – friends, old and new.  One in particular is relevant to this essay, a woman who’d had a big, glamorous job in the fashion world, and one day she was in her car, stuck in traffic (this being LA) and she realized she was done.  She no longer wanted to do that kind of work.  And in the space that suddenly opened up in her head where all that noise had been, she came up with a brilliant business idea.  She didn’t stop herself.  She didn’t listen to the shoulds.  She detected that gleam of light that flashed across her own mind – as Emerson writes about in “On Self-Reliance”– and didn’t dismiss the thought because it was hers.  In fact, she ran with it.  And the path unfurled before her.

It’s a little early for New Year’s resolutions, but chief among mine is to continue to seek out that effortless effort, to do the hard work of finding the path of possibility.  Whether we stumble upon it or tirelessly search for it, when we arrive there, it’s unmistakeable.  The signs and wonders light the way.

 

 

Not If, But When

This morning the dogs woke me at the same ungodly hour they always do, despite having turned back the clocks last night. They apparently can’t tell time. My husband is away at a film festival. My son is away at school. So alone, in my big fluffy white bathrobe, I trudged downstairs and out into the pale flush of dawn. My slippers slapped against the cold stone steps. A brisk November wind whistled through the creaky tree branches as the last of the autumn leaves skittered across the driveway.

Not if, but when. The words moved swiftly through my mind, leaving their trace. Not if, but when.

 I’ve always known this, of course. We all do. We live our lives either running in terror from this reality, or embracing it. I’m not sure there’s a third option, a place of neutrality. How can we be neutral about the idea that our days are numbered? That time moves doggedly, persistently, inevitably forward, and we are nothing more than those leaves on the branches of trees? We are buds, if we’re lucky we bloom, we flower, we are affected by the weather –– the hailstorms of life –– and again, if we’re lucky, we turn rich and magnificent colors, we cling to the branches, we fall, oh how we fall, gracefully, or perhaps not-so-gracefully, through the air. We dance roughly along roads, sink into gutters, are ground into nothing as the stillness of snow blankets us –– until we are no longer us. We are the very earth that cultivates whatever comes next.

Have you stopped reading by now? I don’t mean to seem melancholy. I don’t feel melancholy. I used to run in terror. When I was a young woman (and oh, even that is a phrase that is hard to leave on the page) I lived in fear of the other shoe dropping. I worried about my own health, the health of those I loved. I couldn’t deal with the idea of impermanence. Those years were a howl for me. I railed against my own deep, mute knowledge that I, and everything I loved, was at the mercy of time. And time bore this out. My life closed twice before its close, wrote Emily Dickinson. To live is to lose. To love is to have our hearts broken. We know this. We know this –– and yet.

Not if, but when.

On the bulletin board above my desk, I keep postcard, sent to me by a friend, that shows a half-dozen Tibetan monks dressed in saffron robes, on the steep decline of a roller coaster ride. Their hands are flung up in the air, these monks, and they are laughing, rapturous. Oh life! Oh speed! Oh the joy of this one, precious moment!

There’s a difference between neutrality and equanimity, I think. Neutrality is a dulled and dull way of living. I mean, who wants to be Switzerland? But equanimity is an intentional, disciplined way of being. When I remember that this one day, this precise second –– the dogs snoring at my feet, the branch scraping against the window, geese honking in the distance, my beloved husband on the others side of the country on his way to show his film, my son, light of my life, an hour north of me at his lovely school, me, about to head out the door to a yoga class, writers – twenty of them – flying to New England from all over the world to take part in a retreat I’ll be teaching with a dear friend, but see… see how I’ve gotten ahead of myself?

Not if, but when.

So all there is to do, right at this very moment, is breathe in, breathe out, and kiss the joy as it flies.

On Raising Hands

Last weekend I spent a couple of days at my son’s school, in that annual autumn rite-of-passage in which parents sit in on their kids’ classes, talk to their teachers, and generally get a mini-immersion in their lives.  As I sat in on geometry and physics classes, I began to notice that the same small group of kids raised their hands.  Every time the teacher posed a question… whoosh!  Up went the hand of the boy who sat  third from the left, the two girls on the other side of the table.  The teacher would ask for a volunteer and…whoosh!  The same boy, the same girls. The teacher would try to wait it out, not make eye contact, hoping that, with time, another hand or two might go up.  But no.  Some kids kept their heads down and looked bored.  Other kids (like mine, for instance) didn’t want to risk giving a wrong answer.  Still other kids covertly played World of Warcraft on their laptops.  It brought me back to my own high school and even college days with a shock of recognition.

My boy is not from the hand-raisers.  My husband wasn’t a hand-raiser.  I wasn’t a hand-raiser.  As I watched, I found myself thinking that you could probably divide humanity into those who shoot their hands up into the air – who believe in themselves and their right to voice an opinion – and those who don’t.  But what does this mean?  Especially once we’re out of the academic classroom, and exist in that much larger classroom otherwise known as adult life?

I know why I never raised my hand in school.  I was shy, and risk-adverse.  I was afraid of embarrassment.  Afraid of my own mind.  I didn’t trust myself.  I didn’t trust my instincts, my intuition, my intellect.  I’ve daydreamed about going back to interview my old teachers — from grade school, high school, college.  I wonder whether they’d remember me, and if they did, whether they could have imagined that the blurry blonde girl in the back row would grow into a woman who has a voice in the world.   As I write these words, I am amazed by the truth of them.  Because that blurry blonde girl still lives inside me.  Everything I am, I am because of her, and in spite of her.  She hovers in the background, panicky and fearful.  She doesn’t believe in her own voice.  She hardly even believes she has a right to exist.  And yet, something larger than that girl, something more capacious and essential has managed to win out, over the fear.   It wins each time I sit down to write.  It wins when I get up in front of an audience, or a classroom, and tell it like it is.  It wins when I take care of myself and my family.  When I unroll my yoga mat.  When I meditate.

Our sense of ourselves is formed from an early age — or perhaps being a hand-raiser is a genetic trait, like blue eyes, or long toes.  Certainly the way we’re perceived and treated as children has a lot to do with it.  And though this is the beginning of the story, it certainly isn’t the end.  Next month, I’ll be leading one of my bi-annual retreats at Kripalu, and when the group assembles that first night, I will begin the way I always begin, with every single person in that room, no matter how many are there, speaking one word aloud.  I do this because I know how important it is to hear our own voices.  To be part of something larger than ourselves.  To take a deep breath, a flying leap.  To feel worthy.  I know this because I live it.  I have conversations with that blurry girl every single day.  Raise your hand, I tell her.  Be brave. 

On the Right Book at the Right Time

Last winter, when I was in Seattle for a conference, I spent time in one of the great indie bookstores.  Whenever I’m in a city I don’t know well – and if I’m in a semi-balanced state of being – I remind myself that I become grounded and less weirded-out by travel if I a) take a yoga class, and b) seek out a special bookstore.  So I was wandering the aisles of the bookstore when a particular book caught my eye.  It was written by  Anne Truitt, a sculptor with whom I had crossed paths when both of us were at Yaddo in the mid-1990’s.  At the time, I was young – though I didn’t believe myself to be – and I was writing the second chapter of Slow Motion, while also being very social, and single, and careening around Saratoga Springs with some of the other equally young, energetic, and hopeful artists who were in residence.  Still, Anne Truitt, who was well into her seventies, made a lasting impression.  She seemed, to me, formidable, contained, dignified, disciplined, and I remember that her eyes were both warm and wise.  She kept to herself.  She wafted into dinner, then went back to her studio straightaway.  She seemed at home at the venerable artists’ colony, where I – still in the early years of my life as an artist – felt like an interloper, lucky to be chosen, as if somehow I had slipped through the gates of Yaddo, unnoticed and undeserving.

The sculptor’s warm and wise eyes gazed at me from the book’s cover, that afternoon in Seattle.  I bought her book impulsively – I was, in fact, in the midst of a self-imposed moratorium on adding more to my to-be-read pile – and brought it home with me, where it sat buried in a small stack on the desk in my study, obscured by other books I needed to get to, piles of papers that either were, or seemed, urgent.

Months went by.

Last week, I cleaned off my desk.  I always think of September as back-to-school time, not only for my son, but for myself.  And there she was, once again, gazing up at me.  She seemed to be following me around.  So I began to read her, with shock after shock of recognition.  She died a decade ago, but I felt as if she was in the room with me.  I have spent the last week communing with a woman I never knew, across time and space.  She has joined the short list of women throughout centuries who I feel are kindred spirits, guides to this perplexed, middle-aged writer.  As I navigate motherhood, marriage, community, the passage of time, the financial instability of the artist’s life,  the conundrum of the heart and the head, domesticity and creative ambition, as I grapple with my own history and its scars, my wounds-cum-obsessions, it feels like no less then the hand of grace – by which I mean, the hand of another reaching across the impossible – that makes my pulse quicken, my heart soar, and that feeling, once expressed so beautifully by Jane Kenyon, that others have walked this path before me.  Me too, Jane Kenyon once wrote.  I’ve been there too.

 

Sitting with Ann Truitt

Sitting with Ann Truitt

In exploring in her journal what constitutes making art, Truitt writes: “What did I know, I asked myself.  What did I love?  What was it that means the very most to me inside my very own self?”

So simple, no?  What do we know?  What do we love?  What resides inside our innermost beings?

And this:  “It takes kindness to forgive oneself for one’s life.”

As artists – hell, as human beings – if we are lucky enough to endure, with that endurance we have the option of hardening or softening.  Of residing in judgement or embracing curiosity.  Of diminishing or growing.  Each and every moment, we are moving in one direction or the other.  It takes a while – perhaps a lifetime – to begin to understand  how any of it makes sense.  But every once in a great while, the tapestry grows stronger.  Threads wind together.   A visit to a bookstore on a rainy day in the Pacific Northwest led me to a new and very dear friend and mentor.  I will never have tea with her.  We will not sit together in her garden.  But I love her nonetheless.  She is lighting the way.

 

On the Private Heart

It has felt lately – to me, to just about everyone I talk with – that there is a tremendous, perhaps even unusual amount of pain in the world, that our very planet is shaking with sorrow.  The headlines are filled with tragedy on a mass scale, and this mass scale translates into individual losses, individual grief.  How do we hold it all?  In the past month, I have watched helplessly while several friends have been diagnosed with serious illnesses.  Long-time marriages have hit the skids.  A family we know suffered a terrible, traumatic accident.   At the same time, we have laughed.  We have spread a cloth over a picnic table and grilled dinner on the shore of a beautiful lake, marveled at a glorious sunset.  I have held my boy and my man close.  I have taught workshops in which the work is filled with trauma, and yet we are able to laugh to the point of tears.  I have feared, and I have loved.  And as artists, what do we do with what we’ve been given?  What, when we sit – as I do right now – in our solitary rooms, with nothing more to guide us than our own consciousness, our own private hearts?

Here I am.  On my chaise.  In my quiet house in the country.  My son is still asleep (oh, for the sleep of a fifteen year old boy!) in his room next door.  My husband is downstairs, revising his new script.  The house smells of eggs and toast.  The dogs are crashed on the floor next to me.  I am surrounded by books I’m reading, or hope to read.  My second cappuccino has grown cold by my side.  This is how I begin this day.  In my big, fluffy white bathrobe and warm slippers.  A life of relative comfort and ease.  A life filled with love.  A modicum of safety.  A life of someone who has survived thus far, who has the battle scars and wounds to show for it, but has found a way to deal with those battle scars and wounds.  (It has been years since my question, in therapy, morphed from “Am I okay?” to “Why am I okay?” – the knowledge of my own sanity finally beyond question.)  So why, then, am I on the verge of tears as I write these words?  This seems to be true of me on most days – my private heart brimming, the sheer teeming randomness of humanity pressing in on me, the stories, the stories, surrounding me, whispering, moaning, shouting, wordless, asking to be given form?

“What do I mean by ‘private heart’?” Cynthia Ozick asks during an interview.  “It’s probably impossible to define, but it’s not what the writer does – breakfast, schedule, social outings – but what the writer is.  The secret, contemplative self.  An inner recess wherein insights occur.”

All I know is this, and it’s both nothing and everything.  I am most myself when I am closest to this private heart.  It’s easy – so easy – to run away.  To get busy, make plans, say yes to dinner, to drinks, to traveling to some far-flung destination.  To go online.  Check email.  Pour a cocktail.  To succumb to the headlines, the tragedies both public and private.  Wouldn’t it be simpler not to feel the whole human catastrophe?  Well, yes and no.  And a moot point, because the artist has no choice.  We can run, but we can’t hide.  All the while, our secret, contemplative self – that inner recess – is waiting.  It aches to feel it all.  The sorrows of this shaking planet, the beauty of this human body, the randomness and the grace that are visited upon us each and every day.