Friday night our local community store had an artisan night — we have small monthly parties, and local artists show their work, gain exposure, and there is plenty of free food, wine, and margaritas, all donated. Artisan nights are a reason for people to get together, mingle, spend time together, and local artists are stars for an evening.
A friend who lives down the street showed up to the gathering with a pretty teal blue and white gift bag for me. Inside were two elegant boxes, “You can open them both now, or you can open one, and open the other on Sunday.”
I chose to open only one gift as this same friend, her daughter, and I had plans for a special brunch date on Sunday.
“Just one gift,” I said. “I want to open the other when we’re all together on Sunday.”
She told me which box to open. Inside was a tiara. Not a plastic tiara, but a sterling plated tiara with quality rhinestones, with a well made hair comb for placing on my head. Not a toss-away-toy, but the real deal.
Now, I’ve always disliked tiaras. They seem to me to scream privilege, and a princess mentality that I have looked down on in quiet contempt. I would never say, “I think those things are ridiculous,” rather, I held my self-righteous smug superiority to myself. I would see pictures of women in tiaras, and turn my nose up. “Why,” I would think, “would any self-respecting woman want to wear a tiara?”
I found out Friday evening.
I wore the tiara all night at the artisan party, and I made sure everyone saw it. “See my tiara,” I said with a childish pride. (Recent Harvard studies show that thinking young — age is an attitude — has positive effects on aging. I turned the clock back 20 years Friday.)
There’s magic in putting a tiara on, in owning one’s specialness and saying, “I celebrate myself. I sing about myself. I shine. I sparkle. I glow. I am wonderful. I am royal and proud of it.” Amanda plugged into was something deep and precious, and I was ready.
I pulled her aside, and told her that two years ago, I never would have dreamed of wearing a tiara. “You get the tiara,” I told her, “when you’re ready for the tiara.”
I wore my tiara all night at the party, and I wore my tiara during our elegant brunch on Sunday.
So here is what I think about the metaphysics of tiaras, because I do believe there’s a metaphysics involved.
It’s not about personal superiority. It’s about not shying away from the magnificence that we are all born with. Being royal is our birthright, it’s an attitude of grace and confidence, not the birthright of a select few, and it’s something more profound than Disney princesses and beauty pageants.
The metaphysics of the tiara is best expressed by Marianne Williamson in A Return To Love:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people don’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. It’s not just in some of us, but in all of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Yes, there is a metaphysics to the tiara, and Marianne Williamson sums it up.
I spoke with another friend on my birthday, and told her about my tiara, how I felt, and how I thought there was something deep and karmic about this gift, how much fun I had, how light and wonderful the world seemed when I wore it.
“There’s magic in it, you can feel it when you put a tiara on,” she said to me, “in the practice of magic, the tiara has power in it.” She went on to explain something about magic and head wreathes and their relationship to power and the tiara — the specifics eluded me, but it sounded like the metaphysics of the tiara.
A sparkling magnificence worn on one’s head that says, “I don’t play small.”
It’s a powerful life choice seen in a play of brilliant reflection, beauty, and confidence effortlessly worn.
You get the tiara when you’re ready for the tiara.
Sheets of nearly completed mandalas and almost finished paisley print pictures and bright flower pictures needing more color cover the living area’s floor.
Pens and pencils and scribbled-in journals and half-read books are strewn in exquisite chaos across the rug, in a room lit by candles, scented by incense, serenaded by crickets and frogs and late summer breezes blowing through the doors, a music that will too soon fade into winter’s slumbering silence.
Behind the couch sits the dining table, the boundaries between it and the easel in the corner are indistinguishable, for the flurry of paints and torn art books and brushes and pencils and watercolor pads and tubes of gouache and brightly colored tissue paper create a scene worthy of an artist’s canvas, form and content merging in this cosmos of clutter.
I am less certain that I am creating art than living it. Yet in the heart’s sphere, these beautiful atonal, asymmetric stacks of paper and paint and glitter and colored pencils dance in reverie, disregarding my too critical eye. Because they show my heart finding its way, art emerges in these exquisite stacks of colorful bedlam, an exploration reminiscent of a nebula explosion.
I know at my life’s end, there will be more left undone than done, and I whet my spirit with that dissatisfaction. Until then, I look at what some would call clutter, the maelstrom of a disorganized and unfocused mind, and I see life rise like great art into the evening’s quiet.
When I lived in Cambridge, I had seven large wooden bookcases, stuffed with books.
Mostly philosophy, literature, mythology, poetry, and world religions. And art books. Oversized, gorgeous, collector’s editions. Some I picked up at museums — I had publications from American and European museums — and others I bought simply because I couldn’t resist their beauty.
Some of my favorites were on the Uffizi, Van Gogh, The Louvre, Kandinsky, Leonardo. And Giotto. I loved the volume on Giotto, a magnificent publication that received glowing reviews, for it celebrated the father of the Italian Renaissance in remarkably accurate, color saturated reproductions. The oversized edition had sumptuous fold out plates, and detailed images in which you could see the master’s brush strokes, dabbles, accents, photographic close-ups whose beauty brought me to tears.
When I left Cambridge, in the whirlwind of change and dissolution, I sold or gave away most of my books. I didn’t mind getting rid of my other stuff, but getting rid of the books was something I never imagined I would do.
I remember crying to a friend in the middle of my bankruptcy, pending eviction, moving to the middle of nowhere chaos, “other women have children, and homes, and whatever it is that those women have. I have my books, they represent my life, and I have to get rid of them.” I was blathering as though I had been given a diagnosis of terminal cancer with only weeks left to live.
My victim narrative was in overdrive, my books tethered to something that needed to be excised at the root level.
I can’t tell you how much it pains me to write that, now. How transparently silly and self-indulgent I was being. But as I spoke those words to him, I started realizing that is why the books had to go. I was too heavily invested in an identity that wasn’t working, and I needed to let go so that I could dive into deeper creative waters. I also needed to embrace parts of myself that I had too long-buried, under work and study and self-loathing.
I didn’t know it then. But I do, now.
Getting rid of the books was transformative, because it meant letting go of one identity to embrace another, and I began understanding that all of this dissolution was the destruction before an inevitable creative resurrection. My choices, however radical they may seem on the surface, were an affirmation that I was willing to do what needed to be done to get to where I wanted to go. Which is what I have always done, with a kind of unflinching resolve when my back is against the wall. Ironically, where I wanted to go was exactly why I had all the books: I wanted a bold, creative, meaningful life, full of a spiritual, emotional, and intellectual richness.
“She who would find her life must lose it.”
I was getting rid of the unnecessary to get the meaning that I sought. The books were central to my intellectual search for meaning. But I needed to shift my perception. I was beginning an exploration in which I crafted meaning from the inside out, not the outside in.
For this reason, although I didn’t understand why, once I started getting rid of the books, they couldn’t go fast enough. I packed them up into suitcases, called a cab, loaded the cab with the suitcases, which I then hauled down to the basement of Harvard Bookstore, that is, their used book buying department. Sometimes someone offered to help me get them down the stairs. Sometimes I was on my own lugging a hundred pounds of books down to the basement. Trip after trip after trip, it took several trips a day for days to carry out the heroic task.
I won’t say that it doesn’t still sometimes pain me to realize the tens of thousands of dollars of books that were swept from my life in a matter of days. Other women have children and homes and cars and whatever it is that they have. I had books. And I had an extraordinary library. As I went through my life’s exhaustive hoarding, I appreciated what great taste I had, the breadth and scope and intelligence that I managed to stuff into my collection. Some of civilization’s finest written works, lovingly sitting on my shelves, row by row by row.
I also had a fairly extensive collection of Folio editions, beautifully bound and illustrated classics, that lined several shelves like the kings and queens of the collection. No used books on those shelves, just classics elegantly bound and sitting in embellished slip cases, looking grand and stately.
It was a library that I would have coveted. I had made it mine.
The art books were the last to go, sold to the book store just days before my move. While everything else in my life I let slip through my fingers with relative ease, the art books were precious, for they represented my life’s treasured adventures. They represented not just beauty for its own sake, but visits to some the world’s great museums, that I had managed to tuck into visits here and there. There was a gorgeous, red slip cased, double volume on Van Gogh that I shipped to myself from The Louvre. The complete catalog of Camille Claudel, bought at the Musée Rodin. Catalogs from exhibits that I made the time to visit, Kandinsky, Picasso, Brancusi.
The search for meaning lay most conspicuously in the art books. Travel, adventure, beauty, spiritual longing, stored in two shelves of gorgeous books that circumstance dictate that I leave behind.
It took three cab trips of several suitcases, but they were gone in one day.
The several hundred dollars helped pay for my move.
I don’t have room for books, now, though I have managed to collect a couple of stacks in the art supply littered living area. I ask for a lot of interlibrary loans from our small community library, and I sometimes access the New Hampshire public library’s online system of electronic content.
Our library is right down the road from me. Out my front door, over the river’s bridge, down the road a couple of hundred feet. Our librarian is incredibly helpful, always making sure I get my idiosyncratic requests from larger libraries. She once even went to the trouble of borrowing from a New Hampshire university, though they were somewhat begrudging in filling the request.
The pubic library here is funded mostly through community efforts. This weekend there were bake sales and book sales through the “Friends of the Library.” These events coincided with Old Home Week, a rural fair celebrating the old historical homes in this area. The weekend draws a lot of tourists — there’s a large craft fair held in the elementary school, the library has several events, and both our community store and our library generate a large chunk of their annual income from Old Home Week’s visitors.
I normally don’t attend bake sales or community book sales. I rarely eat sweet baked goods, and I usually doubt that any of the books will be to my liking. But something told me to go to the book sale. I just knew to go. I walked down the street to the library, and on the front lawn stood a large white awning, covering the bake sale and rows and rows of boxes of books. Three smiling women volunteers greeted me. Most of the boxes were of contemporary best-selling fiction, which isn’t my interest.
“Do you have anything that is pretty and colorful, maybe some photography books?” I asked, thinking of my art journals.
“Nonfiction,” the volunteer said, “is in the library, downstairs.”
I walked in, and at the top of the stairs were two boxes of books. On the top of one box was a book bearing Leonardo’s famous angel from “The Virgin Of The Rocks.” The angel got my attention, immediately. I started digging in the box, and there were old art history books. Varying degrees of quality, but lots of books with color plates. Color plates for art journals. I was ecstatic. A book on Giotto. A book on works in The National Gallery. A book on Leonardo. A large color book on the Uffizi. A beautiful small book on The Louvre collections.
“Hey, are these for sale,” I asked.
“No. Those aren’t for sale.”
My heart sank.
“Oh, wait. One box isn’t. Let me look at the other box.” Our librarian walked over. “Yes, the books in that box are for sale.”
I dove in with abandon, “Oh my goddessess,” I sang outloud. Book after book contained plates that could be used in my art journals, a luxury I never would have allowed myself with my other art books, but here they were sitting and waiting for me at the top of the stairs.
Waiting for me, in this box, not even shelved with the other book sale books. Art for my creativity. Not art to sit on a shelf, but images I could use to develop my own voice, my own creativity.
I dug in deeper. “How To Draw A Horse” found its way into my fingers, complete with illustrations and sketching instructions. I smiled from a place of quiet if ebullient joy. “The Year Of The Horse,” my year. My promise of creative adventure. (Search for “The Year Of The Horse,” if interested in reading the backstory. The book was nothing less than Providential.)
There’s a time for simplicity. Then there’s a time to go all in. This was a moment to go all in. Restraint wasn’t called for, this was a time for Blakean excess. “The road of excess,” wrote Blake, “leads to the palace of wisdom.”
Two large stacks of exploitable art books made their way into my grateful arms, for twenty dollars.
I awoke last night drafting this essay in my sleep, going in and out of dreams, remembering my life as it was less than two years ago. For it was about this time in 2012, that I was hauling books to Harvard Book Store, selling my futon and bookcases, giving away porch loads of stuff to The Salvation Army, having no clue about where my life was going. Leaping into the unknown, yet again, with a vague idea of becoming a writer, as though it wasn’t something I didn’t already do, all of the time.
I thought of my beloved art books, and my treasured library. I will have a library again, larger and even more voluptuous in its excesses, I believe. But now is not that time. Now is the time for embracing my voice, with clarity and conviction, and writing about why it was important to abandon other people’s ideas to craft my own.
Perhaps most important, I know with certainty, not the certainty that blinds you, but the knowing that’s been earned from living one extraordinary experience after another, and learning to listen a little better to that inner voice, that there’s always another side to our darkest days, if we let life slip easily through our fingers.
We can get better at it. We may never arrive, but a life well lived means letting life flow through you, instead of reaching for it over and over, grabbing onto something as permanent, then getting upset when it slips through your fingers, as all of life does.
“Other women have . . .” such a powerful reflection of where I was and who I thought myself to be.
Last week, I returned some books at the library, and entered a raffle to support the summer reading program. The volunteer said to me, “Well, if you’re lucky, you will win.”
“I’m one of the luckiest people I know,” I said, with an understanding of how many in the world would look at my life and say “blessed.”
“Well, you’ve made good decisions.”
Yes, I have. And no, I haven’t. I have made disastrous decisions, mucked things up big time in so many ways that I’ve lost count. But that’s not the point. It’s always what you do with yet another inchoate draft, a seemingly irredeemable art journal page, and a major bad decision that gets you closer to where you see yourself headed, if you’re willing to work a little more with it, and then give the mistakes over to imagination and grace. Over and over again.
This is creativity’s essence: the vision to see through failure after failure, blunder after blunder, and let the beauty emerge.
Creativity isn’t economical. Creativity’s full of thousands of pages of wasted words, journal pages decorated in expensive mediums and then covered up by gesso, in the need to start over again. Creativity’s full of excess, as Blake understood, an excess that is as necessary to our creative life as air and water are to our physical life. Formula only takes us so far. This is what religious dogma doesn’t understand, and where science fails when it demands unremitting skepticism. The artist’s adventure, and life’s adventure, is in breaking from the formulas into failure and perseverance.
We may touch mystery in the process, learn more than we ever imagined possible for ourselves.
This morning, I remembered my beloved Giotto art book on the bottom shelf in my living room in Cambridge. It was such an indulgence when I bought it, but I had to have it. The closeups, the thick black lines, the vibrant pinks and blues and greens, the brilliance and passion and tenderness with which Giotto painted. I then remembered my first visit to D. C., and my visit to The National Gallery. I turned the corner, and there was my first Giotto. I didn’t know The National Gallery had a Giotto, but there it was, and I immediately knew it was a Giotto. There was no mistake, the way the infant grasped the Madonna’s hand, the unmistakable break from religious iconography into Renaissance humanism. I gasped, and almost cried. My first Giotto in person.
One day, I will visit Italy, and see the Giotto Saint Francis cycle, I will view his works around the churches in the Italian countryside. But this morning is not that morning. This morning, I took a book on Giotto that I found in a box of old books that inexplicably failed to make it to the shelves for a community book sale, and I lovingly tore out details from one of his great frescoes. I glued the fragments on an art journal page that I’ve been working on, glued them over an extravagance of metallic blues and Caran d’Ache pigments and various lines that I created with a French curve set, obliterating some fine work, so I could cut up Giotto and make his work my work. I gilded the page’s edges, and then I gilded the fragments. I thought how fortunate I am to be living this life, creating this art journal page, listening to the birds, and seeing the sunlight bathe the room.
I am the luckiest person that I know, to be able to document this experience in writing, an entry that could not be written had I not given up a life that was not worth hanging onto, while embracing the uncertainty of the one waiting.
In giving up the Giotto on the shelf, I got the one I could use.
the fuzzy stems on cucumber plants, and their massive leaves that grow and grow,
the colors purple and green,
the old blue blanket’s soft velvet nap,
the big red cardinal singing in the lilac tree yesterday,
the smell of cut grass and basil warmed by the afternoon sun,
the scars on my arms,
the holes in my heart,
the split ends that need trimming,
the chipped white porcelain mug filled with green tea,
the sweetness of Super Hit incense,
the candle flame burning next to me,
the rain’s melody,
the brightly decorated card in the mail this past week, reminding me that others think of me more than I often realize.
Thanks for this moment, these few words.
May I disappointment myself less, live deeply, love selflessly, dream boldly, create effortlessly, and give without thought, better than I’ve imagined, for however many days life gives me.
May I be a little more practical and a little less foolish. Or a lot more foolish, with the courage to make foolishness farsighted and wise, even if I never know it. So long as the world is more beautiful when I leave than when I arrived, having recklessly lived my days loving generous and well.
My landlord moved out about 8 months ago. In getting rid of his unwanted stuff, he offered me an old dictionary, it didn’t even have a binding. “I’m going to throw it away, otherwise,” he said, “but I thought you might like it.” The implication is that geeks and writers like dictionaries, and how could I not love receiving a dictionary. I reluctantly accepted the gift, not having a clue as to what I would do with it. I thought I’d do him the favor of taking it off his hands so that he could get on with his moving, and then secretly trash it at some point.
Besides, people like to give things to other people, especially when it acknowledges that they know a bit about you (“writer” and “dictionary”), it makes them feel good, so I didn’t refuse.
This dictionary is old school, and, as the binding and frontispiece information are missing, I don’t know the publication date. I’m guessing the 1930’s, maybe even 1920’s. It’s almost like an encyclopedia. Weighs no less than 15 pounds, the pages are delightfully fragile and yellowed and tattered. The main body is the dictionary, and the back pages are a trove of those small, detailed antique botanical, zoological, and entomological illustrations. I wonder: who created these unsigned illustrations, artists without a name, selling their meticulous skill without recognition or glory? And who transcribed the illustrations for printing, what hands made sure that these images were properly detailed onto a plate — I assume — for the printing press? Hundreds and hundreds of small illustrations of flora, fauna, animals, fish, insects, butterflies, bats, as much of the natural world as the editors could stuff into a dictionary, given their publication restrictions.
There are also world and U.S. history graphs and charts galore, and tens and tens of pages of historical illustrations and maps, all printed in those beautiful antique fonts and in the stark simplicity of black on yellowed white.
I received this gift before I undertook my art journals, and hadn’t a clue that I would be doing them with pleasure and perseverance. This morning, while puttering between writing and Facebook and feeling sorry for myself because of the mountain of stuff that I seem always to take on, I was thinking about an art journal page that I was working on. It needed something — well, it needed more than something — but I had to take the next step. I had already gessoed over the first attempt, which was an epic disaster. There sat the page, a mess of gesso covered failure, a haunting metaphor for my life if I didn’t do something to the page.
The dictionary. Stuffed in the corner of the front bedroom, the answer came to me from nowhere, “the dictionary.” All these illustrations and maps and graphs and words waiting for me to cut-up, embellish with indigo blue gouache, splatter with black acrylic, line with magenta and pine green washi tape, etch with white watercolor crayon, and layer with the soft velvet of oil pastels. All this stuff waiting for me to lovingly exploit, reworking it into something that makes my day centered, and more hopeful for creating beauty from waste.
The page that was a horrific failure became something better than myself, for it encompassed giving, receiving, and creatively using what might have otherwise been put into the dumpster, without its value being recognized.
And now, someone else’s art silently lives on, having traveled down time’s stream in an old dictionary, and into my art journal.
(Please note: I wrote this entry in two hours. It may show that investment. I hope it offers something useful.)
Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your destiny. — Gandhi
Since moving to the outskirts of civilization, I’ve done a lot of “spiritual work.” I don’t know what else to call it. I’ve experienced a shift in consciousness, how I see myself, and how I see the world. Stuff that I thought that I knew, I now understand better as a way of (B)eing. I previously posted a piece on loving myself, “A Love Story,” but there’s a bigger picture that’s unfolded: understanding myself as part of life’s beautiful play is finally sinking in.
The myth of separation dissolves. For today, I’m simply throwing that out there, do as you will with it, for brevity’s sake. Perhaps by the entry’s end, it will be clearer.
The past year, I’ve worked through many conscious and unconscious stories that governed my beliefs, and I’ve left the worst of them behind. And, yes, I do believe that these things can happen that quickly, when one is ready. Therapy wasn’t my answer, but committing to my creativity and spiritual path has unleashed insight after insight, in remarkable and demonstrable ways. Friends tell me of the changes they see. I smile. Nature is instrumental. I’ve come into myself by realizing how simple and magical life is without trying. Spring arrives, flowers bloom, tress grow. All this will pass, there will be a deep sleep, and the spring will come again.
I am one with the forces I see in the seasons, and I’ve merged with life and (B)eing, because life exists everywhere, here.
Education, for its many gifts, really fucks up life’s simplicity, on a fundamental level. We’re taught wonderful ideas, learn to ask better questions, and learn to answer with more sophistication, but self-love, awareness, and (B)eing are conspicuously missing from the curriculum funded by the incredulous student loan debt that I incurred and have since given to the Powers That Be to worry about. I am unlearning not only my stories, and my family’s stories, but the intellect’s hubris for its works and artifacts.
Last week, during an early morning walk, the world grabbed my shoulder, and got my attention. The sun hung low, a glowing ball shining through a perfectly clear blue sky, surreal in its clarity and depth. The valley and hills exploded with life, innumerable greens, birds, butterflies, insects, all the critters that remained invisible to my eyes. “I am the sky,” I heard myself think, “when light passes through me, life grows as it should, it happens without question or worry, and it will happen with or without my attention.”
God is a label. Gratitude another label, a way that language limits lived beauty and power and grace, the ineffable experience of being alive, and being part of life’s magnificence. “Gratitude” is how the mind places its attention, a practice that we can submerge ourselves in. It then becomes a loop, the more we do it, the better life gets. Beauty, joy, nature, poetry, the body’s strength, a good meal, a glass of clean water, a bird, whatever meaningfully grabs the mind and heart, no matter the circumstances, whatever feeds the soul and makes it feel alive, that’s where life presents itself.
I admit, it’s easier here and now. But during my psychotic break while living in Manhattan, I remember focusing on a pigeon nest across from my window, as I lost my mind, my family, faced eviction, had no food, and feared that I had entered mental nether regions from which I would never return. The wall between myself and the forgotten homeless living on the streets was a rent controlled building that I hadn’t paid rent on in months. For hours, I simply watched pigeons cooing and caring for each other, because I could do little else. They gave me serenity and a connection to living. Those hours in which I watched cooing gray birds, their nest tucked in between concrete slabs, affirmed life. And, therefore, myself.
I’m blessed with good friends, many who have had charmed lives. Truly charmed lives. Money, travel, life experience, prestige. Prestige with a capital P. While I was cleaning houses, they were traveling the world, making medical breakthroughs, starting NASDAQ companies, the list goes on. Yet, their lives are full of problems. Whenever we talk, I hear of some new crisis, some new problem, some melodrama occupying the most precious real estate on the planet, their mind. Relationships and circumstances always resolve, but you wouldn’t believe it from the way they talk.
Materially, they have more than 99 percent of the world’s population, but they believe they have nothing, believe themselves broken, believe something is wrong with them, see problems that don’t exist everywhere, and therefore create problems that do. They scream this reality with every-other-sentence out of their mouth, in their judgements of themselves, and of others. Instead of allowing a sunset to sink into their skin, or water’s music to slowly connect them to themselves, they fully inhabit their perceptions of the world’s failures. To look at, touch, and smell a flower, and radically experience it for a moment, eludes them, or leaves them far too quickly. Instead, they allow somebody’s annoying behavior or some situation rental space in their sacred mind, where we make and create the world we wish to live in. Nothing happens in the world, without it happening in the mind, first. I see them give away their life sentence by sentence, unconscious of where and what their attention is doing, at that moment.
This is the voice of experience writing, not the voice of judgement.
In the middle of nowhere, without a car, with a bazillion dollars owed in back taxes, student loan debt, and living, by some folks standards, a terribly uncertain future, I find myself the wealthy one, grounded and flourishing.
If I could give them gratitude, I would. But we have to find it inside ourselves, for ourselves, if that’s what we want. We’re free to do so, it’s all in front of us, with or without our attention. When my friends get tired of slamming their heads against that wall, when they realize that the pain they’re living isn’t worth the prices they are paying, they will come around. For those of us who know the talk, but struggle with the walk, it looks something like, “yes, I am grateful for x, y, z . . . but, [insert problem or complaint or whatever horrible thing that is happening far away, over which have very limited or no control over],” followed by more emotional engagement.
Most of this is fear. Fear that life will abandon them, fear that they can’t do it themselves, fear that they’re not worth what they say they want, which is presumably peace and happiness, which costs nothing.
It’s impossible to talk about accomplishing and doing wonderful things, then dive into melodrama. Most of us say we want all of life’s great things because we want peace and happiness, but the peace and happiness are already there. I finally get the platitude, “there is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.” I also believe it’s the quickest way to stop violence and hate, because when you’re really connected to radical love and happiness, you do less dumb shit. I didn’t write, “no dumb shit,” just a lot less. At some point, some of the dear souls in my life will realize that love does it’s job, and surrender to it, because they know they deserve to. That’s it. That’s why we’re here.
That’s when gratitude, no matter life’s heart breaks, disappointments, and setbacks, becomes a way of life, for those who want to live as fully as possible, and not practice gratitude as a period at the end of sentence filled with anxiety and doubt.
You don’t do it all at once, but you can get better at it.
This is how it looks to me, today.
Video: Children’s Orchestra Plays Mozart On Instruments Made From Trash
“Impoverished” children whose homes are built on a garbage dump see the world different, and create a better one.
“I believe the most important single thing beyond discipline and creativity is daring to dare.” — Maya Angelou
I never met Maya Angelou, never hugged her, never kissed each cheek, never told her “thank you” in person. I hoped that I would someday, but knew that I would not, given her fragile health these past years.
Though I never met her, I considered her a mentor. More than a mentor, through her unique love and hope and creativity, she’s helped me believe in myself and my choices.
There was an interview with her that I found on YouTube many years ago, and in it she tells a story. The interviewer asks Angelou about her days working as a prostitute. The interview seems to have been deleted from YouTube, because I haven’t been able to find it for sometime. In lieu of posting that now lost interview, I am liberally paraphrasing Angelou in the following, but the story’s heart and main details remain intact:
“I was at a book signing for [her latest book] and there was a long line, going nearly around the block. It was during the day, and I noticed a girl in the line. She was obviously a working girl. Her nails were long and painted brightly, she had the false eyelashes, bright lipstick, her clothes were a working girl’s clothes, but there she was standing in line, probably after working most of the night, to have me sign her book. I smiled to her when she came to the front of the line. She handed me her book and said softly, ‘you give me hope.’ That’s it, right there. That’s the whole of life. If I gave this one girl hope, I knew I had done well during my life.”
Angelou’s voice broke as she recounted the story, and her eyes teared.
Angelou brightly shone her faith in life and love through selflessness, and, from what I have read and seen, she never buried the working woman’s narrative under shame, or lied about it. Of all the tales she could have told about her years as a prostitute, she chose this simple story of hope. I believe that some of Angelou’s strongest moments as a writer and a human confident in her creativity may have come specifically from her work experience, in which her originality, sexuality, and ability to love deeply were expressed.
Her poem “Phenomenal Woman” seems to me to have emerged from those years, for it is a singularly redemptive expression of self-worth, and the radiant power of the creative self in the world, no matter the world. Though the poem can be read as a black woman’s affirmation of herself against a white class system, I believe the poem touches on deeper themes and realities, and it seems more akin to Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in its spiritual orientation and celebratory grandeur. Whereas Whitman locates his epiphany’s source in nature (“The Leaves Of Grass”), Angelou boldly locates her epiphany in her own being and body. In its deceptively simple swagger, Angelou fearlessly seizes self-splendor, the shining self that we bring to the world, when we’re connected to the mystery in ourselves, the transcended self beyond limits, the self beyond the “I”. Her life’s wounds dictated that Angelou dive into a profound center of love and spiritual luminosity, and spiritual beauty exudes from the poem’s seductive details, a work of singular grace and inimitable style.
Angelou will teach for decades to come, her courage echoing as a celebratory song to those finding their own voices. This past week, bemoaning my proofreading shortcomings in ‘Simplify, Simplify, Simplify,’ Angelou encouraged me to love my writing, embrace it wholeheartedly, and continue confidently, without second guessing myself. For a few hours after my posting my entry, I remembered the following line: “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”
I’m not a big fan of the word “truth” — the people I know who cling to it most tightly tend to be dogmatists, and not much engaged with reality’s malleable and imaginative aspects. Truth becomes a function of certainty, the belief that the world exists in a real way, and there are usually prescriptions for how we are to interpret this reality. That seems to me counterproductive at best, functionally delusional at worst.
My assertions may sound strange, especially as I spent a huge chunk of my life studying philosophy, and pursued an equally strange creature called “God,” or enlightenment.
Love, the practice of compassion, the art of forgiving ourselves and the world, is really the only principle — I deliberately write principle and not truth — that exists, and the best we can do is approximate what that principle looks like in the moment. For myself, the best response is usually intuitive, not something that can be predetermined. The other stuff seems to me just the mind doing its thing, and should be regarded as such, the mind doing its thing.
These days, I’m not too enamored of the mind. I am more or less bemused by its convolutions.
As I set down my story, and a series of other stories, I’m pretty appalled at who I’ve been, and at times gobsmacked by who I’ve become. Not because I was such a horrible person, or that I am so demonstrably awesome now. I’m appalled at the self-destructive behaviors and the self-loathing, the amount of unnecessary angst that I carried as a personal truth written in an unalterable understanding of my story, and my self. It was all so warped, a singularly stellar production of my mind. Who I was is now deeply disconcerting and very uncomfortable, the self-love and self-awareness being more constant with time.
Which got me thinking about all the melodrama and shock value that have been emerging from the pages. I find myself wanting to edit who I was, because that person’s perceptions were so unbelievably skewed. I know why she ended up that way, but seeing her play out the things she played out, makes me more than a little nervous.
Not in the specifics, but in the emotional lenses that got her there. My inclination is to give her an eye roll and hit her upside the head, which was precisely the problem, because all she ever wanted from me was a gentle hug and some understanding.
So I have been questioning the issue of transparency, and if all this “truth” is really necessary in my writing.
The issue, of course, is one of courage, not the narrator’s story. I knew when I began seriously thinking about this memoir that I would use a nom de plume, not because of shame, but because I wanted to create a safety zone. I am crafting from memory a character, and though her story’s emotional contours and extensive experiences are framed from my history, I barely recognize her as “me.”
Two anecdotes come to mind while I buckle up and address my reservations about self-revelation, as the girl that I once was emerges from the pages. During my recent writer’s conference, a poet who has recently published a brutally honest memoir stated, “the more specific, the more universal.” That bit of advice sticks to my skin like something resembling “truth,” a principle irrevocable and inalienable. Be specific, don’t elide the details to make the story palpable. Yes, I will be choosing which details to include, to craft a cohesive story, but I must not omit details simply because I don’t like what I see. Or worse, try to capture her in a way that makes sense, because my choices were chaotic. At times, there’s no making sense of that person, because there’s no making sense of a soul driven but lost. Or creative. Or both. That’s part of the story. The good stuff is the stuff that makes me wince, because that’s where something like beauty or transformation or redemption emerge. And that’s the universal, the material that binds us together.
In Buddhism, “the lotus of enlightenment blooms from the substance of the world.” The pond in which the lotus blooms is usually the nastiest mire of gunk. It’s not the fresh water pool of crystalline blue water in which the lotus takes root. No, it’s all mucky, stagnant, and repugnant. The lotus takes root in the mire, and that’s why its a symbol for the awakened soul, the one whose roots have gone down into the world, while blooming above it’s waters.
In Christian theology, it’s called “grace,” and understood in more stark terms: the more sin increases, the more grace increases. I prefer to side with Jesus (“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”) and the Buddhists on sin, rather than Paul. I think of sin as ignorance, not an abstruse theological truth requiring violence for atonement. At-one-ment: a recycled label of belief won’t get you there, a shift in consciousness gets you close.
Which brings me to my second anecdote. I once knew a man who wrote a memoir. Because he was married and had children, he omitted the experiences that would have created a compelling and powerful story. He left out all the extra-curricular sex, the buying of it, the affairs, the phone sex, the experiences that men and women need to hear, from a man’s perspective. He omitted much of what made him human, much of his-story. I understand why he left these details out, in deference to his family. But while his sentences were clean and elegant, the story felt disingenuous. Something was missing. Actually, a lot was missing. “The more specific, the more universal.” The specifics didn’t just fall to the ground, they were ignored. Yet it was all there, waiting to be told, the roots of his craft begging to take root in his life experiences.
As memoirists, we certainly have no truth telling us how to write, or what we must include. Life may at times constrain many narrative decisions. I choose to write a memoir that doesn’t ignore the muddy waters, to shape my story as it comes to me, no matter how much I dislike looking at who that girl was, because I am a writer. As memoirists, we don’t just shape stories, we shape ourselves, and our history. I’m writing my story, and in so doing, owning my life, while creating something that I’d like to call art. In a story’s specificity, we raise ourselves beyond our personal history, and touch those who may choose to pick up our book, read our blog entry, while we go deeper into our own personal truth, which is the only truth that life gives us.
Dani Shapiro once wrote: “I think it may be time for a literary education about what memoir is, and what it isn’t. Memoir is not autobiography. You did not pick up my 1998 memoir ‘Slow Motion’ because I’m an important, influential or even controversial person. You did not pick it up because I am, say, running for office, or just won an Academy Award, or am on Death Row. No. You picked up my book because –– whether you know it or not –– you wanted to read a good story shaped out of a lived life. You wanted to sink into a narrative that redeems chaos and heartache and pain by crafting it into something that makes sense. You wanted to read a memoir.”
Another friend — a man who taught creative writing, and is a published memoirist — exhorted me at length several years ago about art for art’s sake, when I mentioned the word “redemption” in relation to the craft of memoir writing. While I value his opinion, I agree with Dani Shapiro. Life is art, and writing is both life and art. To arbitrarily create boundaries and insist on something like art only for art’s sake seems to me to smack of another “truth,” as though we’ve got Venn Diagram aesthetics. “Art and art therefore art” is a valid syllogism; “art and redemption therefore life” is invalid. Embracing life, art, writing, redemption, and letting go of the labels isn’t just easier, it seems to me closer to the art that humans have enjoyed and shared since we first sat in circles to be entertained: our storytelling ancestors didn’t tell stories in an aesthetic vacuum, they connected us to each other, and the world. My friend’s position seems to me too dogmatic, too much a construction of the mind, although I admit that I’m probably stretching his meaning a bit to make a point.
In the craft of life, I see no reason not to be artful; in being artful, I see no reason not to redeem my life from its ignorance, while putting metaphorical pen to paper, one day at a time.
I choose to write a narrative that isn’t always pretty, but in owning its muddy waters, I may come closer to a life and craft that serenely float on the world’s waters, while fully rooted in its muck and heartache.
(The original version of this was drafted in early March. There is no longer snow on the ground, and ice skating has given way to bicycle riding.)
All we need is music, sweet music,
There’ll be music everywhere
There’ll be swinging, swaying, and records playing,
Dancing in the street. — Martha And The Vandellas
“You’ve never heard ‘Dancing In The Street’,” I asked in a lowered voice with feigned seriousness as though everyone in the world knew something that they did not, while looking into the inquisitive eyes of my friends aged four and six. They became quiet and earnestly shook their heads “no” from side to side.
“Well, we’ll have to change that,” I said with more feigned gravity.
“Meanwhile, let’s pretend like we have music, and let’s go sing and dance in the street.” I smiled at them. Then, as they’ve come to do often in the days since, they took my hands, a small hand clutched my left fingers, a smaller one curled around my right palm, and they led me outside, while asking me the million-and-one ever so important questions that kids ask.
Sarah, the older sister, Jordan, and I left the village store, and went onto the main road to sing and dance under the summer sun’s retreat.
“What do you want to sing?” I asked them.
“I want Oooga Chaka, Oooga Chaka” Jordan yelled, his hand now freed from mine, arms raised above his head, his face glowing in the thrill of this positively wild adventure of dancing and singing on the village’s main road.
So “Hooked On A Feeling” it was for a few minutes — though I’ve yet to figure out how he knew this one, our exotic musical safari taking place well before the song’s recent resurgence. We three slipped into random song and dance, led by the two star performers, in the middle of the street, on the outskirts of civilization, and we danced in the street until the sun went down.
“Hey, Lucy, look at us, we’re dancing in the street!” they laughed and shrieked to one of the locals who passed us, on her way home from the library.
“Indeed you are,” she said, somewhat amused, somewhat perplexed, mostly concerned with something more important.
Now, the above may smack of kitsch embellishment, but it’s a real story. And I believe it’s grounded in a deeper truth than adults allow themselves to live in — similarly, I’ve come to believe that kitsch is undervalued, for related reasons. In those moments late last summer, Sarah and Jordan became my soul friends, friends who remind me of something that need not change, but we seem bound and determined to let experience devour a precious part of ourselves: creative innocence. One of my great joys this past year has been Sarah and Jordan ecstatically squealing my name, and then unquestioningly running into my arms during our chance encounters. For Sarah and Jordan, life is immediate, free, loving, and nearly wholly imaginative.
I made certain that Sarah and Jordan got to sing and dance to Martha and The Vandellas’ “Dancing In The Street” more than a handful of times, from late summer into the autumn. Then one evening, after winter had gripped the air, and several feet of snow covered the ground, I received an email from their mother, Amanda: “Hey, I’m thinking of you. The kids are running around the house singing their versions of ‘Dancing In The Street.’ Been doing it all evening.”
Yesterday, I ran into Amanda and Jordan at the library — Sarah was at ice skating lessons. Jordan saw me, yelled my name, ran to me with his arms wide open, jumped into my arms, laced his legs around me, put his face to mine, puckered his lips, and kept puckering. There we stood, locked for a minute or so, me kissing his face over and over, especially his puckered lips, him laughing and delighting in my unrestrained affection.
I let Jordan slide down to the ground, so that he could throw himself into the snow bank, before making a few snow balls to toss at me.
“So,” I said to Amanda, ” . . . I know the kids have birthdays coming up, and I have a couple of ideas that I want you to see. Not sure if they are age appropriate. There’s a really cute fire truck made of recycled milk jugs on Amazon, but I don’t know if it’s too young for Jordan. Can I send you the link?”
“Oh, that’s sounds very cool,” Amanda smiled, “but you don’t have to get them anything. Just have them over to your house. Really. Just have them over.”
I understood that Amanda was being polite. But later in the evening, I realized that these two friends really do need very little. Amanda wasn’t being polite, she was being descriptive. They don’t need anything, other than a friend who sees the world as they do, in all its imaginative glory. One of their favorite games during the winter was stealing my sweater and playing “catch me” in the store. Grandparents who give them most everything a child could want, but their favorite toy was my sweater; more precisely, my leniency in letting them steal it over and over and over for “I have your sweater, catch me if you can.” They pushed those invisible adult boundaries, and I simply played along. And face painting — using watercolor crayons, we spent an afternoon decorating each others’ faces and hands with fish, rainbows, sunshine, stars, and the indecipherable cryptic ornaments crafted by a four year olds’ fingers. Or combing my hair. They both love to have me sit in a chair and then comb my hair, while taking turns rummaging through my purse and pursuing a relentless q-and-a about its contents.
They still live in the powerful land of make believe, where the boundaries between reality and imagination haven’t been corrupted by the socialization of facts. A tube of gold mascara becomes a magic wand; a Pilates ball becomes a dragon; a living room chair is a fortress; a blue throw rug is a river; a storage closet is a jail cell. (Jordan is obsessed with putting me in jail for littering, despite my protests that I am innocent and my demands for a trial.) Everything is easily transformed for them, and I remember how real and vivid imagination is when we’re young: nearly everything possible can be experienced in that unbound terrain. Little is needed to create a universe — imagination creates the magic entry door, as well as the hills of whatever alternate landscape suits the moment.
There’s so much freedom in a mind that requires little, and demands nothing but its created pleasures. Let the imagination do its thing, and infinite universes emerge.
It’s tragic that we teach kids to need stuff, when lands and worlds already exist for them, invisible realities of greater depth and breadth than anything we can buy them.
Our most precious gift — our imaginative self — is bartered away for banality: Barbie dolls, G. I. Joes, plastic this, manufactured that, or whatever the consolation prize. Slowly, we replace creativity with disposable consumer items, television, and computer games. The imagination isn’t inspired to fill in the gaps with it’s own colors and countries, engage in play that feeds the deepest part of the soul. Unfettered imaginative play feeds us, because imagination speaks to the self that we’re in the process of unfolding, day by day. That’s where the magic of creation resides, for the life lived fully.
Ovid claims that “[i]n our play, we reveal what kind of people we are,” and I’ve come to understand this past year how little adults play. It took me moving from the quintessential land of adults — Cambridge and its oh so important intellectual environs, to see this truth starkly. Adult play is rarely play — most of the time, it looks to me like a series of numbing diversions incapable of nurturing the inner life, the hungriest part of the imaginative self. Play and work become all tangled up in a near psychotic mess that tries to pass for play and life, but more closely resembles an unconscious mishmash screaming “help me, I’m trapped, and I don’t know my way out.”
We stuff the fantasy equivalent of Doritos, Diet Pepsi, and McDonald’s burgers into our psyches 24/7, and then scratch our heads at our collective psychic malaise.
But what if we were really to take to the streets in joyful abandon? What if we really took to the streets, to dance and sing. Gather with friends in happy impromptu gatherings to make music and dance in the street, just as Martha and Vandella’s sang about decades ago?
We need to take our voices back, with courage and without comparison or criticism. Imaginative adventures, for the fun of it, insisting that our responsible adult selves take a time out, banish them to the corner for a few hours, and let the inner child rule the roost for a few hours.
I was at a casual dinner party last week, and it took over ten minutes for a group of ten people who knew each other to open up and really let themselves go, to sing to the “Frozen” title track. Adults, stymied in the privacy of a small group, socialized by years of learning what a dinner party presumably looks like, and apparently firmly convinced about what fun looks like. Most thought singing to a soundtrack was silly, at first. Until they reluctantly joined in. Once they broke free, they actually smiled and laughed and embraced the moment.
The power of freeing the themselves from socialization’s expectations, from the right and the wrong of the way things are, cracked open something deep in this small group. A small and silly foray made them laugh and experience the moment, lighten up and experience life without judgement. It was an impressive moment, one that they won’t forget, I suspect. Small and silly, but powerful and palpable.
There’s a wonderful internet meme that people love posting: “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching.”
My guess is that too many posting that meme don’t actually get off the computer, turn up the music, and dance like nobody is watching. Or better yet, dance in the middle of the street, and not care if anybody is watching. The joy and the unselfconscious experience of playing like a child dancing in the street under a setting summer sun may be the sanest thing we can do as adults.
Last month, after some intense meditation on where next to take the book project, I discovered a conference taking place in Florida. According to its promoters, the conference not only focuses on refining one’s submission, getting the agent, and getting the contract, but on writing from a personal and meaningful space. In other words, the conference’s creative premise is that the quality of content is just as important as understanding the work as a product which must be presented and marketed to get an audience.
Several New York Times best selling authors will be there to help us understand the mechanics of both processes, writing and successfully submitting materials — and offering the best they have to give for those of us hammering out a dream.
When I stumbled on this conference, I felt like this was something I should do — a knowing. I never heard back from the coordinator when I requested information on a scholarship application, and I thought, “well, I guess your gut was wrong.” Then, two weeks ago, out of the proverbial blue, I received an application for the scholarship — tuition reduced by fifty percent. It was the last space, and I didn’t have a dime in the bank. I pressed for the space to be held, and it was reluctantly saved for me.
Through some very fortuitous circumstances — and I do mean, fortuitous, because I lost the scholarship twice, and got it back twice — I procured the scholarship. “We rarely do this, we’re making an exception for you,” the coordinator wrote me last week. Welcome to my world, I thought. Yes, I’m the exception, and the better for it. I’m the one who shouldn’t be here, but here I am.
I also quickly found cheap digs for staying, not easy in the heart of a Florida convention center city, and a generous friend has used his frequent flyer miles to get me there.
Here’s what’s inspired this entry. My dear friend called me yesterday to book the reservation, and I was trying to micromanage flight times, squeezing in this and that, insisting that I could only afford to stay three nights, even though I have this feeling that I should stay the day after the conference. I don’t know why, I just do. Micromanaging the money and then trying to figure out how I could squeeze in an extra day wasn’t working at all: the bus trip from New Hampshire to Boston, then the flight to Florida leaves small windows for transfers and check-ins. I got all wound up in my predictable indecision, frustrated and not really certain how or what to do. When pushed against the wall, I like to let circumstances dictate, pretending that I am going with the flow, when in reality I just don’t know what I am doing. It wasn’t happening, circumstances weren’t dictating anything, I needed to make decisions. My friend gently said to me, “here’s what I recommend,” and he convinced me to stay 5 nights in Florida. It felt right. Logically insane, but it felt right. “You will make it work,” he confidently said, without any doubt that I will do I need to do to stay for five nights in Florida. I realized then that doing this trip right meant honoring the investment of myself that I have already made, and the conference deserves a full investment of my courage and wits. My friend graciously swept away my insecurities, and my limited ideas.
I breathed deep. It was beautiful and it felt right.
Some gifts are priceless, extending beyond a frequent flyer plane ticket.
With this gesture, his confidence broke new ground for me. I majorly upped my life game during the course of one conversation. If this is something that I know I am to do, then why would I worry about the extra bucks and set myself up for unnecessary stress because I thought I had to cram everything into a short time. I’ve already given away most of what I own, hunkered down in the middle of nowhere without a car, and I’m going to worry about two extra nights in Florida? His insight was part of the big picture, the thing that’s unfolding.
Yes, I will make it work. It’s not in the budget, although that assumes that I have a budget. But I will make it work, and it will work. Because it will.
I can also cross one thing off of my new yearly list: “Every year, go one place that you have never gone before.” I can’t say that Florida is a place that I would have wished to go, but I’ve never been. So I’ve got one goal met, and since it’s early in the year, maybe I can squeeze in a visit to somewhere else that I’ve never been before 2015.
Five nights in the land of hanging chads, following my bliss into yet another leap into the unknown.
Couldn’t be happier knowing that my inner GPS and I are working it out just fine.
Not coincidently, I discovered a mesmerizing TEDTalk this past week, and it was part of the game changer mentality.
“Fake it until you become it” is a holy mantra these days.
Amy Cuddy On TEDTalks. Twenty minutes worth investing in, if you’ve not seen it.