You Get The Tiara When You’re Ready For The Tiara

Last Saturday was my birthday.

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.

I was ready.

On Suicide, And Life

My grandmother knocked on my bedroom door.  “Your mother’s on the phone, she wants to talk with you.”

I was asleep.  I rolled over and looked at the clock.  It was a little past 2:30 in the morning.

“Huh?  She wants to talk with me, now?”

My mother was a nurse and worked graveyard shift.  She was calling me from work, the hospital.

I got out of bed and went to the kitchen phone, trying to wake up.

“Hi.”

“Do you have Susan’s phone number?  Do you know where her and the girls are?”

Susan was my best friend Lynn’s mother.  Susan had left Lynn’s father Rob a few days before, because of his rampant alcoholism.

“No.  I don’t have their number.  Why, why do you want their number.  And why are you calling me now,” I insisted.

My mother didn’t hesitate, never considered the consequences of what she then said.

“It’s Rob.  He’s shot himself.  They’ve brought him into the emergency room.  It’s not good.  He needs surgery. They need Susan’s permission to go in.”

My best friend’s world had changed forever, and I knew it in that moment.  Like the way I knew the world changed when I saw American aircraft dropping bombs on Baghdad.  The morning that I watched shock and awe on CNN, I knew that world had changed forever, and that there was no going back.  Something permanent and palpable had taken place, and the world was different.

I had the same feeling when I received my mother’s morning phone call, my junior year of high school.  I  knew that Lynn’s world had changed, that nothing would ever be the same, and there was no way to go back.  I didn’t understand what that meant, I simply knew that something had irreparably exploded, that everything was now different, none of it for the good.  My mother’s call was a psychic gunshot, leaving me numb and dumb.

There was another layer of devastation in this information, because I knew that Lynn’s world had imploded before she knew it.  At fifteen or sixteen, there was a God-like knowing that had been unwittingly bestowed on me, because I knew that something horrific was about to visit my closest friend, one of the kindest, most generous souls that I have ever known, someone who would give you the shirt-off-her-back if you needed it, someone who didn’t play games like so many in our small high school did, and someone who never spoke with malice about another person.  She was kind and fun and smart and cool.  I loved her, trusted her, and envied her in the way the best friends often do, thinking her the better of us.  We never once quarreled, never bickered, and we both avoided the catty, shallow people who overpopulated our school and town.  My mother’s call was like watching a movie in which you know from the set-up that a guileless protagonist is going to suffer a terrible fate, and there’s nothing to do to stop the tragedy.

Only this was life, it was real, and the violence and destruction would irrevocably change her life, the whole of it.  In that moment of knowing, my life changed as well.

“No.  I don’t know the number where they’re staying at.  I think the Walkers might.  If someone at the hospital knows the Walker’s phone number, call them.”

I hung up.

*******

Lynn’s dad didn’t die.  The gunshot managed to blow the cognitive part of his brain out, while leaving the parts that kept him a shell of a human.  When I write, “blow the cognitive part of his brain out,” I am not being metaphorical.  He lived for ten or so years with a large chunk of his head missing, a deep hollow in his skull existed where Rob once lived.  He stayed in a long-term care facility, until his death.

The family rarely visited him.  I think it was too difficult.  Susan had lived for years with his alcoholism, and now there was this.  I think, though I don’t know, she decided to salvage the pieces of her life, with as little guilt as possible, which probably took a long time.  Lynn and her sisters couldn’t bear seeing their father wasting in a nursing home, seeing the man they loved existing as he did.  He had been a gentle and generous man, a caring father, not abusive or violent, by all accounts and evidence.  His drunken sin was melancholy, not violence.  He was a sympathetic person for whom the excesses of self-medication had long ago quit working, and whose psychic demons got the best of him.

It wasn’t until we were out of high school, three years after the attempt, that Lynn finally visited him.  “I went and saw my Dad,” she told me.  In telling me of her visit, I knew that she was confessing to me her failure to visit him before this, and unburdening herself of what she saw.  “It was so strange.  The doctors say he doesn’t know anything, but I swear he knew me when I talked to him.  There was something in his eyes, I would swear he knew it was me.  It was weird.”

I didn’t tell her that I suspected she was correct.  No, I never said that her father might be buried in there somewhere, happy to hear his oldest daughter’s voice, after so long alone in that bed.  I wouldn’t give her a hint that some consciousness might stay in that shell of a body, forced to live knowing, in some way, what he had done to himself, and his family.  I don’t know, and no one ever will.  But I know that science is learning that a part of us often remains intact when the doctors pronounce that our minds have checked out, declare us brain dead.  It’s emerging science, but its persuasive and resonates with the wild imaginings that many experience when they believe that, “there is somebody in there.”  Until science catches up and gives us a new story, empirical research trumps experience.  But I trust Lynn’s perception, and I believe that Rob’s heart or mind, something deep and residual, related to consciousness, jumped when she said, “Hi, Dad, it’s Lynn,” and took his hand in hers for a few minutes.

I wouldn’t tell her that.  I said, “maybe he did, and if he did, I’m sure it made him feel better.”  I then listened and understood when she told me that she couldn’t visit him again, for a while.

*******

When I write that “my life changed forever” because of Rob’s failed suicide attempt, I am not, again, being metaphorical.  For the only thing that stopped me from killing myself for over a decade was the phantom that Lynn relayed of her father in that bed, after failing to kill himself.  When Lynn described the scene of her visit, my mind created an image of Rob in that bed, part of his skull missing, which I elaborated and built on as time went on.    One summer I worked in a convalescent hospital, and all the sights and smells and sounds of the half-dead and dying allowed me to add details to a picture that was already horrific.  In my imagination, I saw Rob being turned, saw the oozing red bed sores, imagined the daily diaper changing, smelled those smells that long-term facilities fill your nose with, smells that rot memory’s fragrance of innocence.  All the sorry particulars about what kept him going, I filled in with excruciating detail.

I imagined that he was living out every day alone, in that shell, suffering a fate worse than the one that he had tried to escape.  I conflated the story of Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun,” with Rob’s nursing home existence.  Although Rob was brain-dead, because of Lynn’s description, and the flicker of life that she thought she saw, I imagined him trapped in a body, with enough memories remaining to plague him, a person with enough brain left to know that he needed changing and turning.  I imagined him waiting for years on end for a visit, a timeless steam of days, endless and empty.

I developed this prolific embellishment from Lynn’s relatively brief story.  But if I excessively ornamented her story, it’s because my psychic demons tormented me to excess.  “To be or not to be” wasn’t a philosophical question, but my confrontation with a logistical reality: will a plastic bag work, how deep does a razor have to go, are there legal poisons that kill fast and quick.  Immediacy is important, because it’s the overwhelming pain that needs remedy, without worrying about extending one’s life a day longer than necessary.  The “what if I tried and failed” propelled an alternative narrative rich in sensory detail and emotional projection, a part of my psyche warning me to think this thing through.

Failure was not an option, so when it came to taking my life, the fear of failure proved a valuable ally in the will to survive’s beleaguered battle.  When you’re in the throes of depression’s debilitating darkness, nothing really matters but finding a way to rid the mind and body of that crippling stranglehold.  Sometimes in a movie, there is a character who gets gangrene, and must cut off their own limb to save their  life.  Suicide is similar, only to cut one’s psyche from one’s self, the whole of life must go.  Suicide seems unerringly logical, for the rotting, debilitating thing needs ridding.  For those who have never lived in depression’s fathomless depths, selfishness has nothing to do with it.  It’s the pain.  Day in, and day out.  There’s no escape.  Day after day, a relentless beast that consumes everything you have and then demands more.  When the pain goes on for years, it’s like living with the infectious invasion of a gangrenous limb: though you know that poisons are spreading through you, know that the prices you are paying are too high, you don’t know how to make the thing go away, other than cutting it off.  The weeks  — no, months of my life —  that I spent researching possible ways that I might permanently rid myself of the pain, and not merely fantasize about living without it, are incalculable.  Researching my death, with a kind of scholarly ambition, was at times a part-time hobby: the idea of living without the oppressor was itself a hope, a medication.  But Rob’s failure was the story that kept me from slashing my wrists deeply enough, consuming poison, putting a plastic bag over my head, for I learned early that I needed to get it right, needed to infallibly carry out whatever method might relieve me of the unbearable torment that was my life, the existence that I lived in.

I don’t know if the fear of failure is a good reason not to kill one’s self, but it’s the one I had for too many years.

*******

Manic-depression was the diagnosis.  At my worst, I was on five medications, twelve pills a day.  The doctors incrementally increased my Prozac dosage, until I reached the maximum dose of 80 milligrams, four 20 milligram capsules a day.  It didn’t put a smile on my face, a bounce in my walk, or make me feel like life was worthwhile.  Every few months involved a new medication, a different color to add to the assortment: meadow green, pale pink, baby blue, white, sunshine yellow.  They discussed putting me on lithium, but I couldn’t take lithium, because, I believe it was the blue pill, and lithium were potentially dangerous when taken together.  There was a quasi-lithium medication, a salt related to lithium that they thought would act like lithium, while taking the blue bill.  Or that’s how I remember it.  The blue pill was important for some reason.  I had been on it for some time.  It took time to reach therapeutic levels.  It required a managed, protracted withdrawal.  They wanted to keep me on it.  Instead, they would start me on lithium’s blue-pill friendly cousin.  This pill, they assured me, would do the trick, and I could stay on the needed blue pill.

There was a story for every pill, and none of the stories translated into psychic relief.

I don’t know how long the insanity to cure the craziness went on.  Those days are lost in chemical soup.  Eventually, I felt absolutely nothing.  I was as dead inside as Rob had been in that bed, alive but not living.  I barely functioned, struggled to complete life’s basic tasks, take a shower, brush my teeth, do the dishes.  I usually had the groceries delivered.  Shopping, some people’s medication of choice, overwhelmed me when things were especially bleak.

One day, I went to my apartment balcony, picked up my cat, held him, and looked out the balcony doors.  Bleu was the new player in the unconscious will to survive.  I doubted that anyone could cherish him as did I.  I found him, because the clerk at out-patient psychiatry was talking about his Persian cat who was pregnant.  I overheard him, and  I told him that I would like one of the kittens.  He agreed, and Bleu became mine before he was born.  The horrors of the Rob narrative had weakened, from too many years of recycling, and too many years of psychic torment.  Bleu was real, and he brought a new story into my life, because I wouldn’t leave him.  My care of this little creature, despite my personal pain, affirmed something deep about me, and life.  I replaced the picture of failure, the image thwarting my darkest demons from having their way, with hope, although I didn’t know it until writing this essay.  This was the truth waiting to get out in this writing: I began a long process of psychic healing, when I replaced the image of failure with love.  This was a deep shift, a meaning that I hadn’t comprehended until this moment.  Caring for myself was onerous, but my invariable morning ritual was cleaning Bleu’s box, changing his water, and feeding him, the first thing every morning.  In these simple daily acts, I touched something beyond the pain, however briefly.  As I held Bleu and looked outside the balcony doors, stroking him and listening to his soft motor, I told myself, “I am going to live, or I am going to die, but I am not living like this anymore.”  I then did what every psychiatrist tells their patients not to do, and I got rid of my medications.  I didn’t simply quit taking them — I flushed one bottle after the other down the toilet, hundreds of dollars of meds, flushed.

I’m not suggesting psychiatric patients dump their meds.  A friend recently pointed out that it’s miraculous that I didn’t die within days, from the physical shock of withdrawal.  This never occurred to me.  I simply knew that if I were going to live, I refused to live as a member of the walking dead.  I don’t know how long I had been on meds, I think several years by this time.  Presumably, one doesn’t quit taking potent psychiatric drugs, for as long as I took them, without supervision.  So they say.  My inner voice, a voice that is perhaps documented somewhere as “hears voices,” called me to life.  The sound was the faintest whisper in my soul, but I listened.

I’m certain that a professional would scold me for being careless, for implying that seriously ill patients get a kitten, go off meds, and find happiness.  I am not.  Everyone differs.  For me, because this is my story, my life, and my truth, I write that this was a powerful day, one that stays in my memory as pivotal, on an unconscious level, a really important seed planted itself in my soul.  I gave myself a choice, to live or die.  I chose to live, and somewhere, somehow, the message took hold.  There’s no immediate happy ending to this story.  I didn’t suddenly see the light, do the happy dance, and then go live in sunshine and flowers.  The pain didn’t stop, nor did the suicide ideation disappear overnight.  The road has been long, hard, and full of major setbacks.  Including the Thanksgiving day that a too young Bleu unexpectedly died, and the crippling months following his death.  I didn’t think that I would survive.  But I did.  Because that day that I looked out of my balcony doors, held a sweet creature in my arms, and dumped my meds, I affirmed life as a reality worth living, and that I was willing to work for, despite myself.

Because this is my story, it’s my truth, as I know it today.

If you’ve never struggled with depression, my great insight, that life is worth living and working for, is obvious, and my epiphany may sound obtuse in the extreme.  For those of us with a skewed emotional lens, it is not.  That’s the disease.

The Buddhists, positive psychologists, and William James talk about habits of mind.  Meditation.  Awareness.  Finding the good in every situation.  Saying affirmations.  Writing affirmations.   Finding a truth that resonates with goodness, hope, love, and our most generous human sentiments.  Culling for the good in every situation and every person.  Appreciating nature.  Focusing on life’s abundance.  “There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way” may sound like tripe to those who haven’t been to hell and back on a nonstop loop from which there seems no end.  But for those of us who have, it is perhaps the most precious gift that life offers, to simply be, and from that, to be happy, a little at a time.  Building on being, day by day, working on self-love, fostering a loving, soul centered consciousness, that’s freedom and peace.  Life does the rest.  A little at a time.  Day by day.

I believe that I now live where I live, because of the work I’ve done for the past decade.  Listening to the trees, the birds, seeing the seasons change, all of this life everywhere, I see and feel and hear, because I have known the other side more deeply than most.  Life presented the opportunity to thrive, and I took it.  There’s a synchronicity when you’re doing what you should, and listening better than before.

There’s no simple explanation about how I got from point A to point B: the road has been a lot of trial and error.  I have no answers.  I also know that I have shortchanged an important topic, one fitting for a book, into a truncated essay with a cat and some platitudes for its ending.  That’s not the point.  The point is my personal progression from a grim and firsthand knowledge of debilitating psychic pain, to a life in which I appreciate life’s most simple gifts a little more, and feel their profound happiness, here and there, as life goes on.  I call that thriving.

My experiences seemed important to write on given last week’s headlines, not because I know someone else’s story, but because I wanted to share mine, however briefly.

I have done so.

Lessons From Art Books

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.”

All in.

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.

It’s a good day, and I’ve come a  long way.

Journal page in progress, with cut outs from Giotto, and the Leonardo angel who lead me to the treasure box.
Journal page in progress, with cut outs from Giotto, and the Leonardo angel who lead me to the treasure box.

A Few Words On Gratitude

(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.

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yiYFcuIkBjU]

Thank You, Maya Angelou

“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.”

Thank you, Maya Angelou.  Two kisses, and a hug.

And thank you.
 

[http://youtu.be/VeFfhH83_RE]

 

Where’s The Sex?

A recent mandala.  It's created with gold, metals, and lots of iridescence.  Peacock inspired.
A recent mandala. It’s created created with gold, metallics, and lots of iridescence, which didn’t translate in the scan. Peacock inspired.

 

This above all, to refuse to be a victim. —  Margaret Atwood

Last week, a client I’ve been speaking with for most of my professional life called.

A scientist in a prestigious institute, Tracy is transgender, in the closet most of the time.  During our first conversation over 15 years ago, my role was cast: I was the go-to girlfriend to help her explore her true self, a person in whom to confide.  Our talks explored ways for Terrance to be Tracy, while married to a heterosexual woman, and working as a successful male in the scientific community.  Tracy’s come into her own these past years, and I think she has embraced her identity as much as one can without surgery.  What I believe Tracy values is that I give her the freedom to be herself, and that I talk with her as a girl  —  which is to say, I talk to her without assuming that she’s playing gender pretend.

I am proud of this aspect of my career as a sex-worker.   I’ve been listening to and encouraging many closeted folks long before this kind of dialogue was in the mainstream.  I’ve dealt with many who didn’t fit into normative boxes.  All I’ve done is listen, and sometimes dole out too much unsolicited advice in the hope that I may be helping.

After Tracy and I spoke this past week, it bothered me to think of Tracy as transgender — a label that would have her live in a limiting psychological prison, as though she is in between one thing and another, a label that obscures her personhood.  It may be true that externally, Tracy’s life has been an evolution from one way of being into another, but in her soul,  Tracy has always been just Tracy.  She’s a devoted father, a husband, a scientist, a writer, a woman with great taste in clothes and shoes, a compassionate and caring human.  She navigates life’s complexities well, and I don’t see her as being “trans” anything.  Tracy is Tracy, a woman experiencing life deeply, as she owns her story and herself more fully.

Over the past few months, I’ve been writing these entries as a human with a wide variety of experiences.  Broader experiences than many, I suspect, which I think is necessary in order to write with some grace and substance.   Several times recently, while thinking about the handful of entries that I’ve offered, I’ve asked myself, “where’s the sex?”  “Where’s all the stuff about sex workers rights, and economics, and equality.”  The memoir that’s coming together that presumably gives people permission to write their own stories, in order to lovingly embrace every day of their lives, and not be victims of other people’s well intentioned if ignorant narratives  —  where’s all that stuff, in these entries?

Well, the sex worker story is only one story, and because I am more than just a sex worker, there are hundreds of stories that I own and live and breathe.  My problem is too many stories, not enough time (and really poor proofreading skills).

The bigger problem seems to be the label.  Society, the socialization game, deems some labels good, some bad.  Good labels:  doctor, teacher, professor, scientist, married with children, etc.  Bad labels:  transgender, homosexual, sex worker.  Although homosexual and transgender are far less onerous these days then “sex worker.”  But all labels do is keep the status quo cozy in its lethargic security blanket, nursing on inertia’s comforting, delusional milk.  None of these labels have to do with our personal depths, or capture the breadth of experience signified by the label, as well as the complexities beyond the label.  I’d also argue that many of the good labels actually perpetuate bad social norms, but probably best not to start down that road.

When Tracy and I spoke, I talked with her about my own coming out over the past couple of years, and expressed my discomfort at stereotyping sex workers as victims.  The label is sympathetic to the work’s many difficulties, and legally necessary within the context of trafficking.  However, it is psychologically problematic in helping people wrestle their lives from the grips of other people’s judgements and sympathies when we identify a person as a “victim,” especially in the context of sex work.

I’m not at all convinced that coming out as a “victim” makes one stronger — come out as a survivor, always.  That’s where to find the power.

The victim label excludes a wealth of experience, strength, insight, character qualities, and the possibilities that an individual brings to their life, and the lives of others.  It reduces a person’s life to a single experience or series of experiences, and reduces the person to a caricature.  A cartoon is a simple line drawing depicting the basic elements of form — yet most of us prefer living three dimensionally, in the world of color, light, and shade.  By slapping on the victim label we render too many too simply, preventing a more cohesive, developed portrait, a life representation that every human has the right to.

The most profound tragedy may well exist in the label.

****

After I moved to Cambridge several lifetimes ago, I visited an elderly Holocaust survivor through Jewish Family and Children’s Services.  To me, Michael was a great teacher, a simple and quiet man, living on the economic margins, with humility and dignity.  Michael had been imprisoned  in both Dachau and Auschwitz, a Polish Jew who lost everything when the Nazi’s ripped his eleven employee linen business away from him, and separated his wife and only son from him.  He never saw them again, never found them after the liberation, they became invisible under history’s weight.

He could have framed his life in the imagery and metaphors of loss and hate.  He did not.  Instead, he found a more meaningful message in his experiences.  Michael told me over my first Jewish Shabbat, that he prepared for us to share:  “the Germans were just people, too.  Just people,  just people . . .” his crooked arthritic index finger gently wagging, his round brown eyes filled with uncommon understanding.    I still see his eyes as he described to me how his ten year old son and wife were taken away, screaming, ripped from him, while he was violently ushered away by the Gestapo in the opposite direction.  The wisdom that Michael gave to me I have never forgotten:  we’re all very small players in the march of history, most of us are trapped in forces larger than we will ever understand, and we’re all just humans.

Michael understood that labels serve little useful purpose, they divide us instead of bringing us together.

And he never once used the label victim in the context of his story: he wrote poetry and prose about his experiences, which he shared, but never in his words, no matter how graphic their images of the camps, did Michael carry bitterness.  I never saw Michael carry himself or refer to himself as a Holocaust “victim.”  Rather, he saw himself as someone with a story to share, that might help others, lead them beyond hate and into understanding a reality beyond all our moral labels: we’re all just people.  Pretty simple.  No Elie Wiesel Nobel accolades, just one man’s story, wrestled from more heartache than most of us will ever experience.  One story at a time, one poem at a time, never with much fanfare, Michael put it out there, “just people.”

Whenever some well intentioned ideologue talks about the “evils of Hitler and the Nazis,” usually in the context of some distracting, moralizing  political discussion, in the heat of demonizing party politics, I often remember Michael, and the gift of his wisdom and friendship.  “The Germans were just people.”  He was such a rare and special soul that I have always considered myself unworthy of his gentle humanity, and treasure his simplicity as one of my life’s great spiritual teachings.

At first I found it odd that Michael came to mind while writing this entry — but it makes sense.  He taught me long ago that those whom it would be easy to demonize are “just people,” part of cultural forces much larger than ourselves.  They, too, have their stories, I learned many moons ago.  “Just people” is the standard I’ve tried to maintain throughout my professional career as a “sex worker,” a label that reduces an extraordinarily complicated profession into an easily digestible two word phrase for mass consumption.  A profession flippantly denigrated in the word “whore,” a term that very few have earned the right to appropriate for use.

“Just people.”  Practiced on my end sometimes better than others, because some of the damage that strolls through a sex worker’s life is not for the faint hearted or self-righteous.  That’s been my lesson in these years of work.

Sex workers are just people.  That sounds like a given, but I think it’s much easier and smarter than worrying about if they are social victims or sexual liberators, which is how such discussions frequently split among social activists: sex workers usually cast either as poor victims or heroic vixens.  But they are just people.  And because they are just people, they have a right to carve out lives and stories like everyone else, without a stigmatizing label that has less to do with their humanity than a fairly slow machine called “the wheels of progress,” a mechanism propelled by the ubiqutious fear of our creative impulse.

6 Million Dollar Spirit

The spirit is larger than the body.  The body is pathetic compared to what we have inside us.  —  Diana Nyad

I still have a handful of posts that I’ve pieced together, but not finished — as usual, I’m trying to do too much in a single post, instead of just hammering out something somewhat entertaining and enjoyable.

But they are good posts, and will be completed.  Although there is a tension between writing them and working on the book, which is gaining momentum, to the exclusion of most everything.  But training.  And art.  Because the writing and the training and the art are all connected, informing each other in an inexplicable and mystical and creative dialogue that constantly amazes me.  It’s not me who does a lot of this.  I just show up.  The rest comes with time and practice.  I show up.  Stuff starts happening.

I just returned home from my best 5 mile time in too long, and I thought to post a quick entry on the joys of training.

This post on training is actually part of one of the other posts I am working on, but posting this sequel entry first seems to make sense, for reasons that may be clear, should you read both entries.

I didn’t realize until a month or so ago that I had accidently landed into a paradise for training.  My front steps lead to four different routes for biking, walking, or running.  As a local friend said to me, “I didn’t realize it until you brought it up, you really are in the best spot in this area for taking off on the roads, aren’t you.”   Four routes converge on my doorstep — the only place in this area that can boast such a wonderful fluke of circumstance.

It’s really extraordinary, yet another confluence that’s taken place in my life.  I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect portal to place myself for training, with the hills, the pines, the rivers, the lakes, the fresh air.  And there’s no fighting with cyclists or cars for the right of way — a bane of existence during my life in Cambridge.  The few drivers that pass me here are excessively courteous, slowing way down for the strange, foot bound humanoid that is less common in these parts than deer.

The joys of training.  One mile becomes two.  Two miles become three.  Three miles become five.  Every day, a little more.  Soon the challenging five miles is not only effortless, but invigorating.  Not just invigorating, but thrilling and nurturing.

Today, I not only did my best time, but I came home energized.  Some of the hills around here are steep and unforgiving, and today for the first time, every incline was skillfully managed by slowing down, breathing deeply, and letting the endorphins kick in.  No stops.  No feeling like I was going to puke.  No making the hill and then stopping for the breath, while telling myself I had just made the hill while stopped at the top and checking the monitor as an excuse to catch my breath.  Just concentrated effort.  And breathing.

Before today, some of these inclines have inspired not much more than an “oh shit, here we go” with an immediate heart rate spike, well past the safety zone.

Today, there was simply the joy of pushing through, maxing out my heart rate while pushing through and filling my lungs with fresh air.

That’s another joy.  The air here.  Having my lungs fill with this clean, pristine air.

I considered everything I have pushed through in the past few years, some of which I mentioned before, some of which comprises the entry that will follow this one, and I’ve often had the feeling like all the strength had been sapped from me.  But today’s easy 5 miles — soon to be 10 — reminded me how incredibly strong I am, how resilient and fortunate I am to be given everything I have been given.  Here’s a truth: just when we think we can’t make it, if we push through just a little more, practice patience with ourselves and with life, there we stand, edging closer to the person that we want to be.

This invigorating 5 miles, by the way, happened after a mild back injury last week, which I quickly recovered from thanks the miracles of the modern heating pad.

Injury is usually temporary.  Giving up is always fatal.

Today, by just showing up, there was inscrutable joy — the sound of the birds, the trees, my heart beating, the sound of my feet on the open roads, my lungs filling and feeling like they never have.  Thanks to the mountain air, deep breathing takes on a whole new meaning.  I was completely present and in the moment, and it was beautiful.  Everything sang in unison, and I was part of the choir — contralto, no doubt.

So I eased on home strong — cutting a full 15 minutes off of the times I previously clocked on this one route.

My heart rate’s been dropping fast during a cool down, indicating that I am building great cardio strength again.

Better.  Stronger.  Faster.

Never give up.  Humans are capable of so much more than we allow ourselves to believe.

“Better.  Stronger.  Faster.”  Although I’d qualify that its the human spirit is the actual bionic powerhouse, for we simply follow our spirit’s lead:

 

Pictures of the Backyard

I’m currently painstakingly piecing together 3 essays for posting, have ideas for about a dozen more in the works, am jotting down story ideas, art journaling, making mandalas, getting the book proposal together, eeking out a marginal income, and I’ve started training, again.  Finally.  It took me almost a year to see that I was living in near perfect circumstances for training, but that’s another essay.

I took a few photos yesterday morning, because it’s really easy to quiet any arguments with one’s doubting, lazy self when the skies are perfectly blue, the hills sing, and the trees dance in quiet unison, and I thought to share that beauty, here.  No one around, rarely even a car.  Quite extraordinary.  Also, I wanted to provide proof that I really do live “in the middle of nowhere,” most of these views less than a half-a-mile from my doorstep.

I set out yesterday morning about seven-thirty or so in the morning.  The temperature was about 2 degrees, but it felt colder.  My eyes watered, the tears freezing by the time they hit my lower cheeks, the mucous in my nose started running like a river down my throat, and when I tried to spit it out, it congealed in the cold, hit my sweater and hair, and froze.  By the time I got home, the cotton handkerchief in my pocket subsequently used for spitting was a mangled, frozen, rock hard trophy of besting myself.

I felt like I had what it takes to be a hard core runner.  Moments like that, in solitude with frozen snotty spit on an old sweater, steamy breath, tight thighs that are resisting any stride, hills that challenge then release then challenge again, the early morning sun, and an open road, make believing easy and natural.

This is my backyard, a gift I’ve been given for I don’t know how long.  I hope you enjoy the views.

The river that's about 250 feet from my doorstep.  Photo taken from the bridge.
The river that’s about 250 feet from my doorstep.

 

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I’ve learned firsthand about the magic of talking trees.

 

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Snow and stillness.

 

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Music in silence.

 

Now here.
Now here.

 

“They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have tuned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.”
— J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf

Think Outside The Mandala

Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.   —   Carl Jung

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Carl Jung’s first mandala, 1917

 

I’ve worked with mandalas off and on for a long time, and I’ve been something of a Jungian for as long, though I’ve never consciously linked the two.  Until recently.

As I wrote in “Creative Confluences,” I’ve returned to making mandalas and working with art journals, creating a dialogue between hands-on works, self, life, and writing.  Mixing, coloring, painting, they inspire.  I lose myself, and, in the process, I see connections that my writing self fails to make.  According to Jung, mandalas are especially powerful, an unconscious and universal symbol of wholeness, a snapshot of the psyche artistically captured.  So evocative is mandala practice, that in Buddhist ritual, monks create an intricate, large scale sand mandala, have a community ceremony when its completed, and then ritually destroy it, in a striking meditation on life’s impermanence.

My mandalas are private expressions and suffer no such fate.  I quickly finish them, a few hours or so for each.  Regardless of the quality, I sign, date, apply a clear acrylic protectant, and place the piece in the growing pile of finished works.  They are self revelations and respectfully handled, even if they lack artistry.  Modest creatures, they are at home in seclusion —  and the better for it.  My simple works are offerings made to myself, by myself.  Playing both child and parent, I am proud giver and doting recipient.

Freedom.  It’s there, in these circular meditations.

Or, as Jung describes them, “psychological expression[s] of the totality of self.”

These expressions have become a primary spiritual practice, as I wrestle my self from myself in the middle of nowhere, while I write a book without a whit about book writing.

Everything’s connected.  The book.  The mandalas.  The spiritual journey that I set my mind to when moving here.  The dreams that appear, disappear, reappear.  The imaginative roads whose distances shimmer while I put words on the page.  Everything’s connected,  but if I try to delineate the contours, what I’m doing vanishes in its own mystery.  I don’t know what any of it means, or what I’m doing while I’m doing it.

During a conversation last week, I told a friend that I’ve stopped building the social media platform, it’s “a diversion at this juncture.  It makes me crazy.  There’s so much information, that we’re all getting stupider.  Noise, it’s noise.  Writing’s the thing, now.”

My ever patient business savvy friend said to me, “I know what you’re doing, and . . .”.

I nearly jumped through the phone in a breathless, ecstatic excitement.  Someone who knows what I am doing.  I thought my friend literally had an insight that I could wrap around my existence.  Apparently, it was merely a convenient turn of phrase.  But all I could think of during the comments that I have replaced with ellipses, because I quit listening after, “I know what you’re doing,” was, “Really?  You know what I am doing?  It’s obvious to you?  Tell me, what am I doing, because I haven’t a clue.”

I am writing.  I am making mandalas.  But I don’t know “what I am doing.”  And I’m not certain that I want to, which is frightening and beautiful.

A couple of weeks ago, I started a mandala.  Nothing was coming together, the design was strange, the color choices were off, and I was fumbling around, vainly trying to make it better.  I put it aside for several days, if not a week.  I returned to it.  It was as strained and uninspired as I remembered.  “Toss it,” I thought, “not salvageable.”  Then I begrudgingly remembered the contract that I’ve made with myself, to respect my work, no matter my feelings.  Especially the mandalas, given their now privileged status.

“Don’t throw it away,” I told myself, “think outside the mandala.”

I did.  I literally thought outside the mandala, started laying down layers around the edges, filled the space beyond its borders, created a deep teal background, and resisted the constraints imposed by the paper’s edges, filling the entire page.  I then worked on bands within the circle.  Normally, I begin from the center and work out, it avoids smearing, and allows the work to naturally unfold, as is common in mandala meditation practice.  I was working from beyond the edges and moving in towards the center.  The periphery informed the development: instead of unfolding the work from the core, I folded layers in while reaching for the center.  I incorporated the smooth and vibrant ink of gel pens, which I’d never used on a mandala, a few metallic gelatos for sheen, watercolor pencils for rich color washes, and then highlighted areas with oil pastels for added texture.

I ended up with one of the most detailed and multilayered works that I’ve yet made.

Is it one of my favorites?  No.  Aesthetically, it’s an odd thing.  Cohesive, vibrant, multilayered, yet odd.  But emotionally and creatively, it’s one of the most satisfying pieces in recent memory.  Although I’ve worked outside the mandala in the page’s empty space before, not with this degree of invention.  I’ve usually seen the empty space as part of the mandala, coming to the page with an idea of the whole, superimposing my will on the sphere and its surrounding space: I envision what I will do, and if I decide to work beyond the edges, the work is still essentially defined by the mandala’s sphere and it’s center.  I’ve rarely if ever truly thought outside the mandala, I simply enlarged its borders, while flattering myself for my cleverness.

In this work, the space outside the sphere existed on its own terms, for itself.  I was struggling with the circle’s interior, hadn’t given a thought to exploiting its periphery.  The emptiness surrounding a sphere in the middle of a 12 inch by 12 inch piece of paper was a complete unknown that I falteringly entered in order to make sense of the predetermined space that wasn’t coming together.  I had to think outside the mandala, because I hadn’t a clue as to what I was doing, and I had committed to completing a ragtag work, no matter what.

“God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere.”

Nowhere.  Emptiness.  The unknown.  Outside the imposed limitations that we bring to experience, the “I live in the middle of nowhere, and I don’t know what I am doing,” that’s where life begins, because we put ourselves beyond our cherished and limited ways of looking at the world.  This mandala’s most important narrative doesn’t exist on the page that I have signed, dated, sealed, and saved, but in the story born by stepping into a page’s nowhere, its now here, beyond the confines of an inked circumference, and my understanding of that boundary.

Mystery existed in a space that I hadn’t any presumptions about, an experience of not knowing, but that I was willing to enter.  When I saved a little faltering mandala and thought differently about its space, I mirrored a deeper reality, one rippling through my psyche and life.  I didn’t just enter an unknown space on a piece of paper, this is the life path I’ve chosen.  I’ve freed my self to live in the middle of nowhere, to write a book whose destiny is uncertain, to live at peace in this creative uncertainty, and to embrace its mystery.  In this acceptance, I’ve touched something that historically we’ve labeled as God, an unfortunately small if not unkind word.

After a lifetime of pursuing knowledge, thinking that “knowing” had something to do with enlightenment, I think I’ve come to understand that it’s not “knowing” that gets us where we desire to be.

Rather, it’s “not knowing” that deeply, radically, and beautifully transforms us, rends the veil between the ego’s illusions and our freest, most creative, loving selves.

To enter the kingdom of God, one must approach as a child, Jesus famously taught.  Perhaps he meant that one must not know.

If Buddhist monks destroy a mandala, possibly it’s not just a meditation on impermanence, but a profound archetypal leap into the great unknown, beyond understanding’s circumference, and into life’s mystery.

A leap that’s the greatest gift that we can give to ourselves, when we’re ready.

 

(YouTube video:  Tibetan Sand Mandala, Creation And Destruction)