Art, Writing

Write Any Way


He asks me, “What are you writing?”

Should-be-simple question.  Nevertheless.  WritING and What suggest a singular focus towards an identified goal, and if only.

Of the half dozen projects begun in the past dozen years, I am WritING exactly zero Whats.  To complete that sentence: half dozen projects begun and abandoned because (– excuses dolled up as reasons –) keep damming the river.

The biggest boulders of debris may look like procrastination, may feel like avoidance, may clang like doubt

May choke like syrup even as it caulks the leaks where the hunger seeps through

Continue reading “Write Any Way”

Determination, Mindfulness, Music

Grows All Around

And the dirt was in the hole
And the hole was in the ground
And the green grass grows all around, all around
And the green grass grows all around.

Trouble comes around. It always does. The ol’ noggin is not a very reliable companion when the bad things kick your feet out from under you. The imagination flees. Instead of heading for the safety of open light, it usually panics and takes you further down the rabbit hole. You know the one I’m talking about. The walls crumble and you lose your grip. Nests of dark things gather at the edges. Through the tunnel, wrong voices howl.
Up and is an open field, low sun and a place on this earth where you belong exactly as you are. You have to plunge your hands in. Grab the root of something bigger than you. Climb.
This is how I feel my way back up towards that tiny circle of light. Because it is dark down there, I memorized the steps. One for each finger of each hand (or for each toe when the hands won’t still themselves) Five things by mid-day. Five more before nightfall. This mnemonic map gets me there every time, one inch at a time. It helps me seek purchase. Catch my breath. Return to the vast sanctuary of the living.

Giggle. Doesn’t matter how. Bad stand up comedy, a goofball friend, or potty humor. Force a laugh up through that body and cast the demons out.

Rest. Find it again. Work naps in. Create order in the night: no screen time before bedtime, ease down the lights, arrange a nest of pillows. No talking allowed. No thinking either. For that, move on to the next step:

Exit. Literally: Go outside. Find air, art, body. Move over the skin of the earth. Figuratively: Every time your thoughts return to Trouble, picture turning your back and walking away. Every time. Even the 472nd time in an hour. Notice that you have looped back. Smile and say goodbye again. Turn around and leave it behind.

Eyes Up. Ten degree above the horizon. Notice something, anything, up and out of yourself. Take in the streak of the light across the roofs. Learn the name of one single tree. List all the synonyms you can think of for “free” and “flight.”

Nourish. Find the luscious, immerse in the extraordinary. Treat each one of your five senses to a decadence that you rarely allow. Take a bath in water scented with tea and chocolate. Press your cheek to the flank of a horse then get up and ride. Sit near a window and eat a heap of jewels – beets and rare greens and shavings of ginger – as you track the setting sun.

Give. Find someone or something needing care. Provide it. Offer a gift. Your time, your strong back, your cookies, your hug. Your well is not empty. Fill someone else’s and you will replenish your own.

Reach. Keep on giving shape to the life you want. Name it, scratch a blueprint of it into the walls, build the scaffolding from old take-out chopsticks and unpaid bills. Work the flesh over it one patch at a time until it is whole. You have more than enough lung capacity to breathe it to life.

Assemble. Troops, allies, cheerleaders. Find your friends and loved ones. Don’t be afraid that you have been too absent to draw them back in. The ones who will help you heal will show up, and others you have not met yet will join your army.

Sweat. Don’t wait until you feel like it. Don’t give yourself one second to think. Get up and get moving. Right there on the living room floor if necessary. Move. Jump. Run. Let your endorphins do the work all the self-talk can’t.

Sing. Out loud, in the shower, on the street. Push the volume past 10. Flood your ears with music. Rumi offers this:

And if one of our instruments breaks,
it does not matter.
We have fallen into the place
where everything is music.

Let it penetrate every crack in your shattered being. Let song knit you back together.

And in that dirt
There was some roots,
The prettiest little roots
That you ever did see.
Oh, the roots was in the dirt and the dirt was in the hole
and the hole was in the ground,

And the green grass grows all around, all around
And the green grass grows all around.


Here, See Louis Jordan and the Tympany 5 do a jump-blues version sometime in the 1940’s:
See Coleman Barks’ interpretation of Rumi’s poem, “Everything is Music,” here.


Happy 100 Days: 65

“Mommy, I’m scared.”
Twice already, I have shooed him back to his bed with clipped reminders that his body needs a good night’s sleep and that there is nothing to be scared of. And anyway, if he keeps getting up, he is going to lose his nightlight. These approaches aren’t worth spit. I take a deep breath and remind myself that the kid does not need consequences. He needs a hand.
“Baby, it’s two hours past your bedtime. Sleep is the only thing that will make you feel better. There is nothing to be scared about.”
“But I just am scared.” His eyes well up and his little voice rises to a sob. Boy, do I know that feeling. Logic is about as effective against it as a wet noodle.
“Oh, sweetie, come on. Let’s go.” I set aside the shirt I am folding and try to shake off the list of unfinished tasks squatting on my shoulders. I put my hand on my little boy’s chest, turn him and guide him back to his room. “Hop up, into bed.”
He crawls under his Dora blanket. His lips are quivering. In the gentlest voice I can manage, I say, “I know you are scared, but it is just a feeling. There is nothing to be scared about.” My words are a stroll along the riverbank. My palm draws lazy circles on his chest. “Your grandma is here, your grandaddy, your mommy. Even your doggy and your kitty. Everyone is here in the house with you. We are all getting ready to sleep. You are safe.”
“I know,” he squeaks. “But I am scared of what is under the bed.” He tenses again and starts to shiver.
I don’t change my tone of voice or the quality of my touch. Dull and rhythmic. “Only happy things are under the bed. Your box of gold coins. Your yellow Sit & Spin. Some books that have fallen down the side. A bunch of loose legos.” I take a deep breath and blow it out. “Breathe in warm, quiet air,” I whisper. “Then let it go.”
He turns to the side and presses his back into my hand. “Let your mind wander to all the happy things we did today. We baked sourdough bread together, mixing and kneading and watching it rise. We played that silly running game when we walked the dog. We made the lego horse trailer. We found the rectangles and the crescents.”
“The star,” he says with a yawn. “I found the octagon.”
“Breath in the happy things,” I whisper. “The warm, quiet air.” I do this myself. “Then let it go.” I blow out my breath. I do this again and then again. I feel his shoulders loosen under my fingers.
“Remember how we cuddled on the couch and read that new book, A Prairie Dog for the President, and how Lewis and Clark made that animal pop up out of its hole. That was so funny. We laughed and laughed.”
I take another round of deep breaths. “So many happy things happened today. Just breathe them all into your belly and let them swirl around your body. Then,” I whisper, “you let all of it go.” I blow out a long breath. “Let all those happy memories float away with the air. Breathe in, fill your tummy. Breathe out. Release it all.”
He nuzzles down into the pillow and after a sigh, his jaw goes slack. I take two more deep breaths just in case, then kiss his cheek and whisper my love into his temple. “Sweet dreams, buddy.”
He is out. So am I.


Happy 100 Days: Beginnings

This whole thing started because I was stuck. Two years had come and gone since the Jenga blocks of our little family had fallen all around us. Apparently it was not the most solid construction to begin with, but that’s a different story.
I was waiting. Waiting for what is anyone’s guess. Something to change, maybe? For a surge of energy? A white knight? I kept waiting to feel ready for the next chapter. Was I ready to move forward with Giovanni or ready to let go? Maybe I was waiting for Tee to make a decision that would force me into decisiveness. I am sure I was waiting for a better-paying job to appear on the horizon (as if this is how such things happen), or to feel inspired enough to launch the project that haul me out of my financial pit. At the very least, I was waiting to feel something other than dread about the future.
I think I was waiting for a sign. Since I do not believe in signs, it will come as no surprise that none materialized.
All this waiting contained neither momentum nor acceptance. It was frantic. I kept swirling, spinning my wheels, slipping into the same old vortex of exhaustion and hopelessness. Pick your metaphor. Every one is a different version of a circle turning back on itself. Work was a grindstone. Conversations with both Giovanni and Tee were broken records. The needle never moved forward along the groove of the music to find its conclusion and lift away, making room for the next piece. No, it was all just revolve, skip, repeat.
Work was getting done. I was walking and dancing myself healthy, staying on top of Bug’s schedule, calming myself before the reactiveness and complications that seemed to weigh down every interaction with the people closest to me. Sure, I was looking well enough on the surface. “You really just have it all together,” one of my co-workers said to me. I gave her a “huh!” that made her jump. I was holding things together, but only barely. It just didn’t make sense to me that two years into this new life, and everything (and I mean everything) felt so hard.
I claimed I did not know how to do anything differently. Those familiar grooves, even the revolve and skip and repeat, were keeping me a kind of safe. Known safe. Nothing-has-to-change-and-I-can-manage safe.
But, boy howdy, was I miserable. Oh, and did I mention? Tired, tired, tired.
About three weeks ago, I found myself returning to the same refrain of despair after a brief detour. I had gone through a tailspin preparing for a series of interviews for a job opportunity that would have helped me approach self-sustaining. After the dizzying crash when it was offered to one of the other two candidates (the one with 14 years of experience in a field to which I have just returned, so who can blame them?), I brushed myself off, got back to the grind, and heard the mean little voice I had heard at least four thousand times before:
No one is coming for me.
For two years, this message has left me bereft.
But on this day, I woke up. Something sounded different. I looked that voice right in the eye. “Say that again. A little louder.”
No one is coming for me.
A key turned in a lock. The whole mechanism of my understanding slipped into alignment, and the door fell open.
No one is coming for me!
I am off the hook! I do not have to keep waiting for vague fantasies of rescue to come pulsing to life. No one is coming. It’s all me, and I get to do this in any way I see fit. No more clutching, grasping, longing, and struggling to endure this in order to get to that.
What a relief!
The reason I am stuck is not because I do not work hard enough. The reason I am stuck is because I am stuck. The only way to get un-stuck is to lift the needle, remove the worn-out composition, and replace it with music more to my liking.
I am ready to make my own happy.
I understand that “happy” is not a steady state nor is it a fixed target. I also know that whatever form it takes, it is an ingredient required for that elusive success I feel is so far out of my grasp. Without a little pleasure, I am just stuck in the same groove. Revolve, skip, repeat.
Depression, exhaustion, and a worst-case-scenario mindset have done far more damage than all of my professional and relational decisions combined. Or, another way to say it is this: feeling bad makes the universe of options constrict so completely that I make poor, short-sighted choices. And I generally choose inertia over bold steps.
So, “happy” may be an insufficient condition for getting un-stuck, but it is certainly necessary. Career success, inspiration, intimacy, and health all demand this one thing. Not harder work, no. I have been working myself hollow. Instead, it is throwing open the curtains and maybe humming a little good-morning tune.
That’s how this all started. I decided to right then and there to quit kvetching and start taking in the good, as Rick Hanson advises. It was a simple decision to begin the daily practice of seeking out a more positive, loving perspective. To calm my reactions and smile the tension down. I figured that doing this with any intention would require turning the good experiences over in my mind, rolling them around the tongue. First, seek moments of engagement, then collect them, and finally, describe them.
For these 100 days, I give over to the possibility of neuroplasticity, and let these practices do what they can to rebuild the tendencies of this long-suffering brain. This was the promise I made to myself when I wrote that contract with joy.
I will let in the light. I will find the new song. I will not shy away.
I will write it all down.
This final practice, I have discovered, kills two birds with one stone (or plants two trees with one seed, as the case may be), because writing makes me happy. Writing about happy things makes me doubly so.
Let the signs come. I may not believe, but I will keep my eyes and ears open. If they do not materialize, well, then, I will just have to go and cobble them together from whatever is on hand. Which is, after all, everything.


Into the Deep

“Mommy, I’m swimming!”
“Yes, baby, I see.” I am distracted by my phone as I stand on the pool deck and bicker with Tee about things that only might happen. I have my suit on but I have not yet ventured out. Bug is already drenched, goggles magnifying his eyes to frightening dimensions.
“Are you talking to daddy?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Tell him, okay? Tell him I am swimming!”
I tell Tee that Bug says he is swimming. Satisfied, Bug turns and bounds back into the shallows, but not before shouting, “Come on Mommy! The water feels really good!”
Since he could first form the words, Bug has been convinced he is a swimmer. “I can swim, Mommy. I can!” His confidence can be a little frightening when he is dancing around on the concrete by the deep end. It is something of a comfort to watch him shift into low gear and take things one inch at a time when he makes his way in. He checks the depth. He plays on the steps. He asks for help.
I can’t count the number of YMCA pools in which my boy has splashed, nor can I remember the names of half the lakes. He has lived in water since birth. Since before, actually. He and I swam through my third trimester in a camp pool under the cloudless San Gabriel sky. I first took baby Bug into the water in the Colorado Springs Y when he was four months old. A blink later, he was in lessons. From making bubbles to holding the edge to draping himself over a noodle, he has crept his way ever closer to total immersion. At a few months shy of his sixth birthday, he is still hanging back.
I stash the phone in a cubby and follow my son out to the 4-foot part of the pool. There, he can just barely touch the bottom if he bounces on his toes. His head goes under, up, under. He no longer sputters, scowling into the air when his head slips beneath the surface. He simply dips in and leaps back out, cheeks bright, already on his way across the expanse of blue. Over near the wall is an underwater bench where he can stand firm. He makes his way there, bobbing along.
“Here I come!” He stands, crouches, and then flings himself across the surface towards me. With his legs out behind him, he kicks and simultaneously paddles his arms in a great churning frenzy. His head is under. In 5, 6, 10 strokes, he roars toward me until he stops and lets his feet fall to the bottom. His head pops up and he looks up at me through those googly lenses, water streaming down his face. His grin is as big as the ocean.
I am stunned into a rare moment of silence. Then I catch my breath and begin clapping like a seal on crack.
“You’re swimming, buddy! You’re really swimming!” I reach for him and he hops over to me.
“I told you!” His voice is wide-awake happy, and he climbs up into my arms for all of a tenth of a second before squirming out.
“Again!” He says. He hops over to the edge and grabs on. He shoos me back. “Further,” he calls. I take a step backward. “No, further.” A few steps more and he stops me. “That’s far enough.” His fingers clutch the lip of the pool. He is almost vibrating out of his skin with contained momentum. “Okay!”
He lets go, turns, and pushes off the edge. My boy swims across the water to me.
How does he know it is time? What changed this week, this night? For all of his life, this child needed solid ground. He needed a place to be planted. Then, in one moment, he trusted. He sensed, or maybe somehow knew, that his body would hold him up and that he could carry himself through water that might have been 200 feet deep.
The idea of being “ready” has been rolling around in the noggin for the past few months. When is a person prepared for whatever comes next, and how does the moment make itself known? When does it become clear that it is time to let go or to embrace? To work harder or to step back? To trust? To push off from the edge?
Beginnings leave permanent impressions on the internal chronology. Just try forgetting the moment you heard the words “divorce” or “malignant” or “we’re sorry, but we have to let you go.” Despite the branded scar of the start, transitions rarely have clear endings. The head-down, eyes-front posture into which a person enters in order to move through the sharp-toothed rapids of the in-between can become the normal stance even when the danger passes. After a period of emotional turmoil, the mind braces for the next blow. The simple act of looking up is almost too much to bear. I suppose a person can live this way for years. For the rest of time.
My own personal holding pattern is, for good or ill, unsustainable. The long-term prospect of raising a child on an inadequate income while living with my folks is enough to force me to change course. Because of this, I have started to hazard glances up and out. Oh, how big and improbable all the options seem! Even just fiddling around with the idea about a writing project, a career move, a relationship, or a class can make me feel out of my depth. I grip the wall. I want everything to stay the same, even though I don’t really and it can’t anyway.
I think of Bug there, just all of a sudden letting go. It seems “all of a sudden,” but of course, it is not. Bug is not landing in open water for the first time at 5 ½. His intuitive knowledge comes from immersion (pardon the pun) in a setting that has become almost as familiar as the earth itself. All those visits to backyard pools and lakes and YMCAs provided the vocabulary. Constant exposure allowed him to make sense of the grammar. Then, one day, a phrase rolls off the tongue. Without thinking, he bypassed the water-wings of translation. One day, he is simply speaking a language.
Practice, then, is key. This I try to do for myself by writing daily, avoiding avoidance at work, and faking glee as I take on bike commuting or designing a workshop. Reaching even in the presence of fear seems to be a good way to develop new habits. New postures, even.
Practice alone, however, only carries things so far. A person can rehearse for a hundred years and never make it to the recital. It is also necessary to understand something about one’s capacity to cross the divide.
Bug may be an astute dabbler, but he has a handier trick up his sleeve and he doesn’t even know it. It is this: my boy never believed himself to be a non-swimmer. The language of limitation was unknown to him. He did not need to unlearn anything in order to make room for a new self-concept. He simply needed to embody a truth that he had already accepted, and let his skills catch up with his confidence: “I can swim, Mommy. I can!”
So, once again, the familiar and achingly simple lesson washes up onto shore. First, picture the dream. Then dip the toes into its rippled surface. Immersion, one inch at a time, and keep the senses alert to the currents. Eyes up. All is possible, and more.
Where do I want to be? What do I look like when I inhabit the skin of my most potent self? Do I let myself believe in the truth of my limitlessness?
Hold the edge, sure, and practice the strokes. As you grapple with gravity, do not let your inner gaze linger on anything but that image of you, surging into the open sea. You never know where or when it will occur. Then, suddenly it does. The shift. The moment of knowing you are ready to take the plunge. Let go, turn, and push off the edge.


Self Help Book

“Don’t look back.” This is a handy rule for keeping a journal. Write forward, write now. Or, in the priceless words of Natalie Goldberg, “Keep your hand moving.”
Not looking back is also a handy rule to break. Inside those nights that flood your throat with brine and scour the art from your hands, you might have no choice but to turn around and fix your eyes on the shoreline. Open the old books from the previous years. Peek at where you were. This is a good way to remember that you have arrived at exactly the place you need to be.
Tonight is such a night. My year-ago self hollers directions across the distance separating us, calling me back from the undertow. It is awfully cold and not a single star orients the sky. A person could take an unplanned detour into the Bermuda triangle. Thank goodness that girl packed the map and a bullhorn.  
The entry below, from April 30, 2011, is translated more or less directly from the cursive.

So, you let go of your joyful thing because you are not as good as the good ones (you tell yourself), you lack the drive or talent or passion (you believe), they are wise and better and more together and older (or something) and you feel so young and directionless and wide-open and full of unlimited possibility.
And so. You let go. You move on to a different hobby, find a love or a project or a child or a simplified identity to consume you. And your life is full, you smile a lot, you have friends, you climb things and make things and learn things and master things, and life is good.
It is all just rocking along until one day you stumble across a person doing the thing you used to know as your joyful thing. And that person? That person is so very young. That person has cobbled together a way to do the joyful thing from scraps of potential, a handful of opportunities, a pinch of time. That person is just as muddled as you were (and, in fact, still are). But, that person is doing the joyful thing anyway. Doing it with dedication, doing it well, making something beautiful with it. And you see now that no one was wiser than she is now. No one was wiser than you were then. You had an answer in your hands, in your life, in your daily practice.
Do your joyful thing. Do it badly. Do it in the spaces between. Do it sloppily and selfishly and with too much self-absorption. Do it no matter how much better someone else seems to be at it. Stumble doing it. Be awkward doing it. Make an ass of yourself doing it. Improve and adapt your way of doing it. Seek new approaches to doing it. Talk to others who do it (but not too much – you need to be doing it, not talking about it). Do it for an audience of 1000 even if no one shows up. Do it for god, for the neighbor kid who beat you up, for the other kid who rescued you. Do it for your ancestors and your grandchildren. Do it because you know you have to.
Do it because you suck at it but the world doesn’t care that you suck and the world doesn’t care if you’re a genius. It is not up to the world.
You are not great for doing it. You are not a martyr for not doing it. You are only less you if you don’t. You are only getting one thing right if you do.
Practice. Every sing day, practice your joyful thing.
It’s true you may never be any good at it. So, you should spend the rest of your days doing it because it is yours. You cannot escape it. It will haunt your years if you don’t do it. Don’t fool yourself. If you are not engaged in the daily practice of doing your joyful thing right now, something is askew in your life. You may be drinking too much, or having dreams of infidelity, or living a little too stretched to fit the role you’ve taken on, or you hate your job, or you don’t quite have the energy to make a decent meal, or you spend your evenings watching TV and zoning out on Twitter, and something feels wrong but you can’t put your finger on it. Maybe you still do your joyful thing a couple times a year, and you think of it as a hobby, and call your life “balanced.” But when you do it, it feels hard and a little forced, and doesn’t feel like the joyful thing it once was. And so you wonder, Was it just a passing fancy? Maybe it wasn’t really my joyful thing. . .
Don’t let yourself off the hook. You know better. The reason your occasional attempts fall flat is because your joyful thing is rusted out, thirsty, and in need of a good cleaning. You can’t just hop on and roll it around the block once or twice a year and expect it to function optimally. You’ve got to get back in there, take it down to bolts, oil it, prime it, feed it, get it moving. You need to work the kinks out a little every day. Every damned day.
Your joyful thing is not a toy. It’s not a hobby. It is you. It is your limb. An organ, maybe. You have to treat it as an undeniable, irreplaceable, necessary part of you. A part that will turn septic and poison the rest if the nourishment is cut off. A part that will feed and energize and balance the rest, if properly attended to.
It doesn’t take much. Just daily practice. Start today. Do your joyful thing.
Now, this very second. This is when you return to yourself.