I Write My Life

writingOccasionally, I teach a creative writing class. I teach off the beaten path in dark corners that don’t get too many visitors—homes for seniors, halfway houses and jails. The stories in these places are less polite than the stories you get from a class at your local community colleges. I teach in these places because writing has helped me to better understand and accept myself, so I share the process in hopes that it may help someone in this way too. Writing is how I make sense of who I am and what I’ve lived. Writing is the talent that I give as service.

Aside from a few newspaper articles and a couple of magazine pieces (I wrote a piece for Quilter’s Magazine once) and few big blogs like Care2, I am not a widely published or famous writer. I write because I am a writer, one of what I imagine to be millions who get up each day and scale a white screen or blank page, looking for the right turn of phrase to convey the story, the life within life. I blog a couple of times a week, because it just feels right to see a finished piece that you are willing to put out there. It’s a risk. The more authentic a writer you become, the more you risk.

I knew a man when I was in my 20’s– Murray Schisgal. He wrote a whimsical book: “Days and Nights of a French Horn Player.” He went with me to an acting class that I was taking. On the drive home he gave me a great piece of advice. He said “don’t worry about whether people like your work or not. You should worry about whether or not they remember you.” I write to leave something of myself, just the way the Sumerians did.  The written word is the story of being human.  We live in a time when literacy has never been higher and in spite of inane tweets and texts, there are those of us who want to tell the human story in complete sentences.  Please God let me be remembered for half-way decent descriptions!

Jessica was a student of mine at The Jefferson County Detention Center. She was eighteen and landed herself in jail for over-using, abusing and in general screwing up her life with meth. She was so pretty, so young. Armed with Jesus and G.E. D. she always sat close to me, beyond excited about discovering Emily Dickinson and May Sarton. She wrote strong, haunting poems about the sensory experience of meth, longing essays about “getting it right,” and I so believed that she would. When I knew she was being released, I left a Natalie Goldberg book for her.  I penned a note of encouragement and gave her list of resources—a contact at Naropa’s Writing program, a lead on a writer’s workshop that would give her a scholarship. But she never called anyone. I heard months later that she was back at Jefferson County and sent her regards. The system slithered and coiled itself tightly around her. Drugs lulled her into submission. Now she belonged to them and I learned the sad song of “you cannot save anyone,” you can only give what you’ve got and the rest is just the rest.

I read books about writing. I look for ways to deepen and keep it real. Some mornings I think about Jessica and I wonder where she is and I am afraid to know. I sit in my warm little house, with my nice cup of tea, caffeine being the only thing that I am addicted to. I write my life on a laptop and I look for where my story connects to others. I was connected to Jessica. We both longed to get it right. We both wanted to leave something that asked to be remembered.

Life Lessons From a Pack of Teenaged Girls

locker roomWalking into the locker room after my swim, I heard them before I saw them, a giggling, chatty pack of them. Teenaged girls. As I approached my locker, I noted that they were everywhere, a veritable swarm of locusts taking up space with towels, bikinis, lip gloss, incessant texting, and talking. I waded through them, “excuse me, you are sitting in front of my locker. Excuse me, I need to get to my…thank you.” Youthful energy smacking me in my face each step of the way.

One young woman, adorable in her black and white bikini, also wore a grey wool hat. She stood in front of the full-length mirror adjusting it as I struggled out of my wet bathing suit and into street clothes. I guess that’s the new look for bikinis, but it seems like it would be so hot. Then I heard her friend say “How are you going to swim if you don’t get your face wet?” She put an arm around her as black and white bikini pulled off the grey wool hat, revealing a totally bald head. “My eyelashes and eyebrows are beginning to fall out too and what if the water makes it worse?”

“Don’t worry. You look cute.” The swarm of teenaged locusts suddenly morphed into something other than what I had imagined. Six young, kind women who under normal circumstances in my book, would be overly concerned with how they looked and who they were seen with—because that’s the cluelessness of being 15, right? Wrong. Oh so wrong. I bore witness to six young angels, one of them bald and obviously dealing with sickness and suffering that no fifteen year old should have to deal with, and all of her friends who had brought her to the pool to swim; who rallied round her with love, support and protection. “You look cute,” another one of them echoed and then they disappeared—off to the pool in their little pack.

In an ordinary moment in an ordinary place, I was blessed to experience an extraordinary hope. I am sometimes cynical and disheartened by a world grown harsh. But here, in the locker room at the local rec center, I found gentle inspiration in a gaggle of teenaged girls who embodied hope in the simple actions of what it truly means to be a human being.

Emotional Balancing Act and Other Musings on What’s Positive and What’s Not

iStock_000016138662XSmallThere are a lot of people and things about this life that are rasty—politicians and banks are my two personal favorites. I want to know what is going on in my world, my country and my community, still, I can’t take a steady diet of news feed. It makes me feel as though we have all gone mad. I cannot ignore these things either. Somewhere in the spongy corridors of my little brain, I have hope and vision. How can we possibly reach solutions to the challenges of our world if we are unaware, or worse, conveniently apathetic about the work of making the world a better place? I have met people who tell me that they never watch the news because they only want to accentuate the positive in their lives. What is positive about deliberately hiding your head in the sand?

I am not certain if “making the world a better place” is something that we are taught or if it’s something that rises up from within us. I don’t remember learning, or even making a decision about trying to leave the world better than I found it—it was just sort-of, kind-of, always with me and one day I woke up to it. Maybe it was the prayer that I was afraid of that acted as the alarm clock– the one where you ask: “please show me Your will and Your way,” and then hope that Greater will is something you actually want to do.

How are we in any position at all to determine or judge what is positive and what is negative in our emotional life or the life of humanity? We bandy about these words as if we knew what they imply– and the truth is, we often don’t. Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, said, “when a thing happens, you don’t always know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.” I return to this quote again and again, because of its compassionate reach and reminder. We have all met someone who gets fired from a job and feels devastated. Then a year later they might say something like “getting fired from that old job was the best thing that ever happened to me.” When a thing happens, we don’t always know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.

A week ago I was telling a friend about this pocketful of grief that I had recently pulled out of an old pair of jeans. She listened empathically and then said to me in her well-intended way: “just don’t think about it.” On the one hand, not focusing on something painful is sage advice. On the other, if we don’t face the fears and pain in front of us, how will we deepen in understanding and compassion? While true that turning grief over in one’s hand, examining its edges is what some would call a real buzz kill, looking at how that particular grief arose when it did, often allows the space to forgive, give over, and move ahead without the pain of limiting and un-resolved baggage. So initially such a discovery appeared not to be such a “positive” thing, yet ultimately became a lesson  that brought both resolve and liberation from the hard pebble of something past that had been stuck in your shoe.

Now, back to the news. When I read about our corrupt banking system or hunger in our own county, I am angry. That anger in turn informs a kind of activism to make a change for the better. So, is anger really a negative emotion, or like “fight or flight,” does it hold a deeper message if we are willing to acknowledge it and explore the opportunity underlying the whoosh of feeling?

For me, the emotional life is meant to be fluid and it’s meant to be full. It’s when we get stuck on any emotion that we falter and slide into unintended consequence. I cannot go through life only feeling its losses; yet by feeling life’s losses and being true to that process, compassion and tenderness grow. I cannot go through life in a constant state of joy, not if it means ignoring the ache of my heart that aligns itself with  the needs of the poor, the sick, or the hungry. I am suspect of those who claim to have “reached” a state where joy is static by some force of will—the “I will be happy no matter what” mentality that excludes anyone grappling with the state of the human condition.

There are various self-help gurus in our world who pontificate that they have no investment in, or need for emotion. It seems a terrible affect, fraught with wasted opportunity if you eschew having your heart-broken open in order that you might better serve the world and leave it a better place. The emotional life of humankind is a complex and interesting journey, meant to inform the fullness of the life experience.

In the end I would be more sad if I hadn’t let life move me to great heights and great depths of all feeling; more sad if my heart had gone through life unscathed because I had never watched the news, never had a negative emotion and never opened myself in compassion and caring because of, and in spite of those things. It is the jagged edges of life that I find most interesting and delightful, the horrible beautiful journey of becoming a human being. For me, part of making the world a better place is living life fully.  One more time, with feeling …as the acting coach used to say.

 

Number 42

Jackie Robinson swinging a bat in Dodgers unif...
Jackie Robinson swinging a bat in Dodgers uniform, 1954. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is something that both of my parents gave to me: they taught me that it is wrong to judge another human being by the color of their skin. I grew up with a sense of inclusiveness. My father told me that it was the contents of a man’s heart by which he should be measured. I never knew any other way of looking at the world. I also grew up in all white neighborhoods and went to all white schools, so I couldn’t possibly grasp what it was to be black in America in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

I didn’t meet my first African-American person until I was 18 and had left home. Moving to Los Angeles in 1969 provided me with a much more richly textured life that exercised the inclusiveness with which I was raised, and educated me to the tremendous amount of inequality, which still needed to be made right in our country. And though a lot has changed since my girlhood, I still see the injustices of a white America and a black America all around me. My work with incarcerated women underscored that heavily. Most of my students at the jail were either African-American or Latino women, revisiting the system for the umpteenth time, sentenced by a judge and sentenced by the conditions from which they came.

Yesterday I saw a movie that inspired me–a story of racism in America and the possibility for change. “42” is about Jackie Robinson, baseball’s first black player to be integrated into the major leagues. Until 1947 there was major league baseball and there were the “Negro Leagues.” Like everything in America, life was segregated. The sign on the bathroom door said “Whites Only.” The sign above the drinking fountain said “Whites Only…” an ugly, shameful part of American history.

Branch Rickey was a businessman who owned the Brooklyn Dodgers, who in those days actually played in Brooklyn. He loved the game. Here is what is so moving to me about Branch Rickey: He was a business leader who had a deeply rooted sense of social justice, and he was willing to try to make the world a better place because of it. A business leader with a strong sense of social justice is practically an oxymoron these days. You just don’t see that anymore. As Branch Rickey points out, Jesus tells his followers to “love your neighbor as you would love yourself,” more than any other directive found in scripture. And this inspired him to bring Jackie Robinson to the major leagues.

In 1947, the climate of American was neither kind nor receptive to an African-American playing ball in the major leagues. The major leagues were the exclusivity of whites. Everything was set up to underscore a wrongly perceived inferiority of African-Americans and a wrongly perceived superiority of white people. There was one game where a policeman tried to arrest Jackie Robinson for playing on the same ball field as white people—even though he is a Brooklyn Dodger. Robinson had to leave the game. Back then, that stuff happened. Any association between the two races was held with contempt.

Robinson was called horrible, ugly and demeaning names. But Robinson was not only a great baseball player; he was a great and courageous man. He did not fight back. He couldn’t. Any fight in which he participated would have been construed as his instigation. The press back then was mostly racist and ignorant too. So Robinson became the ultimate peaceful warrior, who suffered great humiliation to further the game of baseball and right the wrong of segregation in sports. Moreover, he suffered great humiliation in order to advance and evolve the hearts and minds of a racist America. He paved the way for a new generation of black athletes and a new mind-set for Americans.

After the movie, my husband and I talked a lot about Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey over dinner, and drew the correlation between the hard-fought battle for equal rights for African-Americans and gay marriage rights. At the end of the day it all comes down to human rights. The right as a human being to live your life fully, without being ostracized or excluded because of the color of your skin, your sexual orientation or any other external nuance of nature. We still have a long way to go.

“42” is a movie that I will see again. It’s a reminder of how horrid people can be and how amazing people can be. There were plenty of individuals who supported Jackie Robinson, and were not afraid to stand up for what they believed and Jackie Robinson gave them a reason to stand tall in the light of that truth. 42 was the number on the back of Robinson’s uniform. After seeing the film, that number will serve as touch stone in my life of how important inclusion and compassion are in the grand scheme of things.

Musings on Living Fully

iStock_000015408259XSmallI’ve read that if there is a question when you die, it’s probably this: Did you live fully and love well? In my sixties, I am more taken than ever by what really should be for me, a daily inquiry. There is an arc to life that I feel I have crested, but not yet completed. Is the trajectory down hill as potentially invigorating and vitalizing as the strong trajectory up? Today, I would have to answer yes, but it is a different yes than the one I might have given twenty-five years ago.

Twenty-five years ago, tennis was my game. I loved the feeling of getting up early and hitting for an hour before work. I loved the cute little tennis outfits. It was a vibrant game and it made me feel vital. But as nature sometimes compels, that particular sport was finite in my life. A scoliotic back and disc degeneration saw to it. Those two physical messengers had their way with me. Eventually I would stop playing tennis, downhill skiing, or any type of aerobics where my feet hit the ground and my back took a pounding. So, what was left? Walking.

Walking is an activity that nurtures aliveness. I have learned to walk all year-long and in all conditions. I walk in the spring and marvel at the wild flowers that fill the meadows and mountainsides. I walk in the summer and stop to take sips of cool water and breath in the offerings of the panorama. In the fall, I delight in the changing of leaves. And of course, the great winter snow hike has become one of my favorites, because in my way of seeing, there is nothing quite as joyful as watching my dog romp through snow, and nothing quite as exquisite as the lone grey heron standing on the ice, keeping watch over the frozen water.

Being in my sixties has given me a perspective of the grace contained within the conflict and challenges of life. Cocky thirties made me think I could do life without such things, but I realize now that I would not have wanted to. There is a comfort in knowing that your marriage is so solid and committed that in spite of disagreements, snarls and frustrations, there was never an instance where you didn’t eventually sit down and work it out, thereby strengthening the union.

As for failure, you can put up all the posters of “Failure is Not an Option” that you want, and good luck with that! I have failed many times. Sometimes I have beat myself up for those moments, wrapping the failure around me like a scarlet letter. Failures though, have propelled me forward in business, friendships and making peace with the limited, finite human being that I am, albeit with an infinite and loving soul. Failure has taught me that God loves me in every moment. Failure is, as Billie Jean King once said, “only research.”

There was a time in my fifties that I mourned the loss of youth and its beauty. I don’t know a woman (if they’re honest) who hasn’t stood in front of a mirror and gently pulled the skin of her face back to remind her of a time that her face was not headed south…and then entertained for a moment some magic surgery that would restore it all, if only for a while longer.   In the blink of an eye, the world seems as though it is no longer yours, but belongs to women who still wear high-heels and know their way around an i-phone. But the grief of that passing, was kind and swift and I have started to grow comfortable with the sags of my face. The important things are that I stand tall and straight and that I walk. I am learning that the geese that fly overhead sing their songs for me. I have begun to understand that the fox that trots across the open field and stops to look at me with curiosity can fill me with wonder. In short, I have slowed down enough to take in the sights and sounds of the natural world, letting it fill my heart and speak to me, and that makes me feel as though I am living fully. I know that I can and will walk until the end. When Dylan Thomas wrote “Do not go gentle into that good night,” I believe that he was talking about living until you squeeze out the last drop from it.

I still stress too easily. I give in to the sorrows. But even those things, when observed with clear eyes and distance show me that they have added texture to a journey that keeps edging me toward the meaning and purpose of being human. Stress is just a wake up call to stop and breath deeply, go read People Magazine and take a hot bath. Stop and realize that nothing is so important that it should disturb your health or your peace of mind. That’s the tough one—we all make things too important and over identify with that importance. It’s a killer. As for sorrows, a little sorrow in life can break open the heart to the suffering of a world that needs you to reach out. Too much sorrow is like indulging a seductress that will take you somewhere you don’t really want to go.

Cycles of the season, cycles of age, all of it meant to be. The sixties are not so bad. In a way, I feel like I am doing my best work. I finally have some perspective on life and am now looking forward to what my seventies might bring. I love to write my thoughts and then go walk in the early hours of the day.  And as Irenaeus said; “The Glory of God is man fully alive.” Did you live fully? Did you love well? Is it ever to late to take those questions to heart and count the blessings and the joys of waking up and doing the day one more time–fully alive?

Dreams of a Restless Night

A pod of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins in t...

Enormous in the sky, a full moon cast a glittering ribbon of light upon the dark, black waters, a path that if followed leads you to the weaver. Deep, deep, down at the bottom of the ocean, the old woman who does not remember how she came to be among the fishes and the coral, sits at a loom and weaves the loose weave of nets from seaweed strands brought to her by her by dolphins. A shuttlecock made of shell moves back and forth, back and forth in her bony hand, stringing the weed over and under as the net takes shape. When finished, she will give it to you to cast into the realm of dreams, but you must know how to ask her—to tell her that you long to gather the inspirations and visions of what might come to be. You must ask her nicely and promise to pull these things close into your heart, nurture them with delicate care so that they will grow.

Bringing offerings of small round stones and sea glass eroded by the undertow into smooth, shiny currency to lie at her feet, I wait for her to sing to me–long, beautiful sad songs. When I do not sleep well and cannot enter the dream, I try to remember the melodies to sooth myself.

Morning brings a headache, and cups a strong black tea sweetened with honey and cinnamon. A deck of tarot cards and “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” sit next to a notebook and pen on the side table. A pair of severely smudged reading glasses, slightly bent have been folded and placed where I am sure they will be found again, even though I end up searching, never remembering exactly where they were left. Light has entered the room enough that the lamps can be turned off and the day begun. Old woman, don’t let me lose the feeling tone of you. Don’t leave me.

What will the dolphins tell you when they come to swim by your side? Will they nip at your hands and feet and push you with their long dolphin snouts, urging you toward your fate? Did you bring the net?

Too Big To Function

Bank of America Tower
Bank of America Tower (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How did we get so big? When I was a kid there were local shops where I bought school clothes. Even the larger department stores were not in every city. You could tell an area by the uniqueness of its small businesses. Not every town or city looked the same, like it does now.

My mom knew the president at the bank. The company that delivered milk and eggs to our house was a local company. These days if you travel the country, you can see Wal-Mart everywhere. Bank of America is everywhere. McDonald’s and Starbucks are everywhere. Nothing distinguishes one place from another anymore. The local flavor of small business and small community has been stripped of individuality. What happened to the rules and regulation about monopoly? What happened to the rules and regulation about banks? Everything has become so big, and we blindly or impotently accept that too big means don’t fu*k with it, or something bad will happen.

Something bad has already happened and it is breaking the collective American heart. What has happened is that the greed of power and money has seeped into Washington like an innocuous gas and put our leaders (who used to be public servants, but aren’t anymore) to sleep. . . Asleep to the corporate-ization of America. We are a corporate-ocracy. We are no longer a democracy. The bi-partisan stand-off in Washington, where nothing gets done anymore, is the result of corporate money that speaks louder and stronger than the voice of the people. Look at what has just happened with Monsanto.  They were granted all kinds of leeway in spite of a huge outcry from the public.  The results could be harmful to our health and our land, but Monsanto’s profits became center stage for “importance.”  Too big” means “Big Bully.”

I read a lot of blogs, newspapers, and books and the prevailing theme of our current “too big to fail and too big to jail,” system is creating a terrible despair among the citizens of our country. It is a despair that is resigning and resolving itself to be voiceless and powerless, infecting the heart and soul of our citizenry.

We have become so “business/profit” oriented that we are forgetting that great nations take care of their own and work through and with government and leadership to make a country that works for everyone. There is a lot of rhetoric from big business these days about how government is bad, and while I agree that government can always improve, it is not really a bad thing—it is the thing that unites us a people and directs us to living a good life—it can be a protector and advocate for its people, but it has stopped being that. Now there is a war against the poor—those lazy losers; a disdain for the elderly and the sick—they should have made millions so that they could care for themselves, and a sickening attitude of intolerance when it comes to women’s reproductive health care and gay marriage. In other words, lets unravel the bad, bad government, but let’s make sure that we regulate people’s bodies and bedrooms. It all feels like Alice on acid, stuck in a rabbit hole from which there is no return.

The problem, so clearly defined, raises then the question of the hour: what can one ordinary citizen do? How can I as an individual who loves my country make a change in this horrid “too big” corporate-ocracy that is trying to pass itself off as America? How do we find our way again, shake off the despair and compel our leaders to lead? It’s a hard challenge. I cannot afford to make $10,000.00 donations to various members of congress, so why should anyone care what I think? Are we resigning ourselves to a truth that without money to control Washington, we ordinary citizens are powerless? Is there one thing that each one of us can do to turn this ship around, or is it too late?