Charlotte

“It is quite possible that an animal has spoken to me and that I didn’t catch the remark because I wasn’t paying attention.”  

—  E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web

Several years ago, a cream and yellow striped feline visited me in the early morning hours, during Cambridge’s oppressive mid-August swelter.

Charlotte, as I came to call her, introduced herself about five a.m. under my window with a hoarse, insisting cry.  I looked outside, she saw me, and when our eyes met, I knew that she wasn’t going anywhere, soon.

I didn’t jump with joy to play surrogate mama to a lost cat so early in the morning.  Despite my grogginess, I pulled myself out of bed and went outside to find the creature needing help.  There she was, skin and bones, coat dull and shedding, skittish and frightened.

I went back inside, opened a can of food, put it in a bowl, grabbed another bowl, and filled it with water.  I returned to the back steps where she was waiting for me.  I put the bowls down, and Charlotte gorged the food in under a minute, which I took as my cue to go inside and grab another can.  Finished with the first can, she greedily lapped the water, until I came back with more food.

She was too anxious for me to pet her, so I simply sat on the back steps and talked with her.  This went on for about thirty minutes, me talking, her eating, drinking water, calming down, looking around and orienting herself, checking me out, until she finished the second bowl.  I went inside for a third can, but she was gone when I returned.

The next morning she came back, about the same time.  I again met her at the back door with a bowl of water, a bowl of food, and an extra can, certain that she’d eat two.  She wasn’t as hungry as the day before, and her attention was as much on me as on the food.  I talked to her in soothing tones, and asked if I could pet her.  She nervously froze when I put out my hand, so I withdrew it and spoke my reassurances.  She finished the first can, and attentively watched me as I opened the second.  She again took her time with the second bowl, drank water, walked around, walked close to me, but she couldn’t bring herself to let me touch her.  She wanted affection, but her frayed nervous system was all defense.  She walked in big circles and small circles, went from bowl to bowl, moved toward me a little at a time.

I finally put my fingertips  to her body as she lapped water from the bowl.  She didn’t pull back.  I touched her dry, dirty coat.  She accepted my touch, and her tail’s tip curled a little and shook, like a faint smile.  Two strokes.  Three.  She pulled away.  She circled around again, came near me, looked up as I talked to her, let herself get close, then pulled away.  It took maybe another half-an-hour before she decided that we were okay, and she finally let me caress her head, stroke by stroke.  When I sensed a calm in her, I reached my fingers for her body and she moved close to me.  I slowly stroked her, and a delicate purr hummed in her throat.  We enjoyed each other’s affections for a while, before she moved on.  When she walked away, I saw that her paws were bright red, and she put her feet to the gravel surrounding the yard as if to broken glass.

She didn’t stop by the next day, but she did the day after, announcing her arrival under the window, with the sunrise.  She was friendly and calmer.  On her third visit, I named her, believing that her sweet, resilient soul deserved my first literary hero’s name.  She craved my touch as much as food, and she struggled between a desire for affection and her stomach’s demands.  Conflicted she moved back and forth between me and the bowl, purring, rubbing against me, rapidly eating from the bowl, until, apparently, she ate enough to quiet her hunger.  Then, after eating most of the first can, while I sat on the stairs, she stepped into my lap, nudged my face with hers, and purred as I stroked her.  She stayed in my lap for a few minutes, then returned to her food and water.  She looked better than her first visit, but she was thin, filthy, and her coat was in miserable condition.  I got a better look at her paws, which were tender with abrasions.  She had obviously traveled some rough roads.  We spent the morning together, and when she had her fill of affection, company, food and water, she left.

I wanted to bring her in, soon, but there was Leonardo.  Leonardo was curious about her, pushing his nose against the balcony screen when she appeared at the back steps, and squawking when I talked with her.  He enjoyed being “The King Of Everything,” as I had nicknamed him, and I doubted that he could share — share me, share his toys, share his home and the privileges of his kingdom.  He was older when I adopted him, and he quickly settled into his kingship after too many homeless days.  I gladly spoiled him, knowing that someone had dumped him, not caring if he lived or died.  According to the shelter, he had been homeless for a long time, because it was difficult for the volunteer to trap him and bring him in.  I wasn’t certain if bringing in a one-to-two year old female was fair: he wouldn’t be aggressive, he was a gentle creature, but at his age and with his temperament, he was ill-disposed to happily adapt.  I called my friends at the no-kill shelter, his home before ours.  “You have to have her tested for FIV first,” Joan told me, “you need to catch her and have her tested, do the FIV testing before you allow her in.”

I didn’t know about this FIV protocol for strays, and the information bought me some decision time.

I researched how to lure Charlotte into the cat carrier — I didn’t want to scare her by trying to trap her, but I now knew that I had to get her in for the FIV testing before I could consider letting her into Leonardo’s dominion.  This bred in me another anxiety, for I knew that I may have to give Charlotte to the shelter.  I felt responsible for her getting the home that she deserved.  Though the no-kill shelter vetted applicants, if I gave her to them, I had no way of knowing if her home would be a good one.  My nurturing instincts were in overdrive, fretting about Leonardo if I decided to keep her, fretting about Charlotte’s long-term well-being if I gave her to the shelter.

“We have time,” I told myself.  But Charlotte’s visits over the next weeks were irregular, and timing proved difficult.  Her only predictable behavior was that she preferred visiting between five to five-thirty in the morning. My brain rarely worked that early, as I was on a late night schedule.  Catching her meant cajoling a stray into a cat carrier in the early morning hours on the day of her choosing, while triumphing over my morning brain inertia, without notice.  Or caffeine.

During the day, I often saw her in the neighborhood.  Wandering the streets near the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, near the Graduate School of Design, darting in and out of yards on Irving Terrace.  This deeply troubled me, for the neighborhood is deceptively tranquil, with its red brick side walks, old New England homes, flourishing trees, and Harvard owned buildings.  Irving Street, the street I lived on, is a residential one-way shortcut to reach the Cambridge Street Mass Pike exit — cars illegally speed up to seventy miles an hour down the quaint, narrow single lane road during morning and evening rush hours.  Kirkland Street, right around the corner, is a rambunctious thoroughfare for semis and delivery trucks avoiding Harvard Square’s traffic.  Not many in the neighborhood let their cats wander outside for long.  To do so is asking for heartbreak.

Seeing Charlotte run from yard to yard made my stomach ache.  I had to catch her.  Another concern murmured in my thoughts.  We were now well into September.  Soon the weather would cool.  I wanted her safe before the cold arrived.  All preparations were in place for what I hoped would be a gentle, safe trapping and cab trip.  I hated the idea of trapping her, but I had to for her welfare.  Food, carrier, cash.  If she showed on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, I would take her into the shelter for testing.  Any other day, expect Sunday, I would take her to the vet, pay the bill myself, and figure out what to do from there.

Oddly, Charlotte quit visiting.  Mid-October arrived.  No Charlotte.  I feared finding her body on the street, hit by someone racing to work or dinner, her excoriated paws not fast enough to avert their speed.  A few years earlier, a neighbor found her cat Maggie dead in the street near the Science Center, hit by a car.  I imagined finding Charlotte in a lump of open, rotting flesh left for dead.  I didn’t want that for her, and I didn’t want to remember her that way.

November.  December.  No Charlotte.  I didn’t see her around the neighborhood.  I left the window opened even as the temperature dropped, so I could hear her if she announced herself.  The first snow came.  There were no cries outside my window.  Winter was brutal that year.  Snow drifts covered my basement apartment windows after a record-breaking Nor’easter.  For two months several feet of snow pack covered the tightly shut windows.  In my heart, I had buried her.

As the days grew longer, the ice and snow melted.  Spring came and the world dissolved into greens and flowers and singing birds.  The windows were again open.  One morning, late in June, about five in the morning, I heard a familiar if too long absent cry outside my window.

I jumped out of bed, grabbed a bowl of water, a bowl of food, and an extra can.  I ran for the backdoor.  There was Charlotte.   Her coat shined, she was clean, and she had gained weight.  She looked up at me, brushed up against my legs, and her tail curled.  I put down the food and water, but she refused both.  It seemed deliberate.  She ignored both bowls, as if to say, “that’s not why I am here.”  I sat down on the porch steps.  She stepped into my lap, rubbed her face against mine, and melodically purred as I stroked her.  I asked her where she had been, told her that I missed her.  I looked at her paws, they were pink, soft, and healthy.  Even though she didn’t have a collar on, I understood that Charlotte had found her home.  I kept offering her food and water, but she wasn’t interested.  She had come by to say thanks.  She didn’t stay long.  She seemed eager to get back to where she had come from, as though she needed to get back home.  You may think my imagination has trumped my good sense, be amused at my anthropomorphic indulgence, find my need for sentimental embellishment running roughshod over intelligent narrative decisions.

I think not.

I think I was paying attention.  Charlotte visited that day to say hello and thanks.  She left, perfectly happy.

I lived on Irving Street for at least another five years.  Charlotte never again visited, and I never saw her in the neighborhood.

*****

Many humans suppose that because nonhuman animals don’t have language, they don’t speak, and because they don’t speak, they don’t communicate.  In this view, reason and language show our superior intelligence, presumably because of either God’s will or evolution’s privileges.  And we’ll continue to live in this privileged position until Jesus returns, or we get the research done that proves otherwise.

I believe that this hubris is wrong, be it a sacred or secular dogma; I also believe that the dogma has it backwards.  Language doesn’t give us better communication: I believe language’s most common uses lead us into an intellectual and spiritual deafness that we must unlearn if we are to listen, again.  This insight runs through the world’s great mystical teachings.  This is why the mystics tell us, “Be still and know.”  Meditate.  Learn to listen to the whispers in the trees.  Listen to the voices that aren’t heard with the ears, but are found in the heart.  Life’s deepest communication comes from listening, not from language.  Language seems to me something that we’re stuck with because we’re human, a tool as beautiful as it is dangerous, full of metaphorical darkness and light.

There’s a telling moment in the movie “Being There” when Melvyn Douglas says to Peter Sellers’s character, Chauncey Gardiner, “. . . there’s something about you, you don’t play games with words to protect yourself.”  Chauncey is a simpleton, but everyone mistakes his simplemindedness for wit, understanding, boldness, and honesty.  The story brilliantly and hilariously maintains a difficult premise: a simpleton catapulted into power and privilege through dumb luck and projected interpretations onto nothingness.  “Being There” is one of the darkest, funniest comedies ever made.  Written by Jerzy Kosinski, Kosinski was a Polish Jew whose family narrowly escaped being sent to the camps during the German occupation.  (Itself a fascinating story.)  The movie, based on Kosinski’s own novella, is a penetrating critique of the media, language, and interpretation — his insights obviously came from living during Germany’s propaganda fueled genocide.  But Kosinski’s critique goes deeper than political satire.  He distrusts language’s created realities, he questions our unassailable trust in this flawed tool, and he shows how we fall prey to the beliefs given by our uncritical dependence on language.  We may do language, as Toni Morrison writes in her Nobel lecture, but in doing language, language does us.

Chauncey emerges at the story’s end a free man, unperturbed by the world.  He doesn’t read.  He doesn’t write.  He is.  He doesn’t do language: therefore, language doesn’t do him.  The movie famously ends with a shot of Chauncey walking on water, as a voice tells us, “Life is a state of mind.”

We mistake language for communication, but it too often obscures communication, because it’s slippery.  We believe that language is concrete and necessary, think that it reflects permanence and reality, and that’s the illusion, because nothing is permanent, and reality’s a strange and strained construct.  There’s a more problematic conceit in everyday language use, though.  We use language to hide ourselves from ourselves, and from others.  We unconsciously play the mythologies, the stories, the unquestioned traditions, the denials in which we’ve created comfortable niches.  Consequently, habits of mind bestowed by language and engrained by life’s inertia deafen us.   Unless we work at unlearning, we don’t control language, it controls us, limits us, and keeps us from hearing what we would otherwise hear, if we weren’t domesticated to hear in ways too convenient for our own good, ways that keep us from listening to the world’s infinite voices.

That sunny spring morning in June, Charlotte said thanks to me, without saying a word.  And she did it better than many of us who have this thing called language.

The philosopher Wittgenstein wrote, “Words only have meaning in the stream of life.”  Words may need the stream of life, but the stream of life doesn’t need words.  The stream of life needs us to listen.  Then, if we’re paying attention, we can hear speech where we would least expect to, although it’s taken me almost twenty-seven hundred words to convey that point.

 

Official trailer for “Being There.”

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcPQ9gww_qc]

This Morning’s Rhythm

This morning I awoke about 4 am or so.  Stayed in bed until 4:45, doing my lazy woman’s I-don’t-want-to-get-out-of-bed meditation (“thanks for my life, thanks for this breathe, thanks for these moments, thanks for another day  . . .  [ a drift into silence] . . . thanks for this silence”), giving myself another 45 minutes under the covers.

Pulled myself out of bed, remembering Rumi: “The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you, don’t go back to sleep.”  Okay, I’m up.  Barely.

Open the front door.  Smell the lilac.  Listen to the birds and bugs.  Watch the trees play in the morning light.  Put the herb garden on the patio.  Water and talk to them.

Chug a pot of yerba maté, made the night before so that I don’t have to think.

Check email.  The Universe, that is ‘Notes From The Universe,’ tells me in today’s note that “There was a time in the life of every hero, champion, master, and tycoon, when they said to themselves,’I will not wait any longer.'”   Yes, that’s it.  Just do it.  The note’s better than the yerba maté, I’m feeling awake now.  Believe.

Meditate.

Write in my journal.  Ask about having my self-imposed limitations dissolve, quickly and permanently.  “Maya Angelou inspired confidence, in my way and my time,” I write.

Make another pot of yerba maté, for when I come home.

Wash my face.  Brush my teeth.  Throw on my sweats and sneakers for today’s excursion.  New route the past two weeks.  The hills are more arduous than the ones I conquered in April, and I am loving this route more.  The first 15 minutes are a fierce, unforgiving incline.  I’ve nicknamed it “Everest.”  The views at the top are breathtaking, and my reward: a vista overlooking a valley of flourishing woodlands, and a panoramic view of The White Mountains’ outer edges.  Only 4.2 miles today, 2.1 to the main road and back.  The 5.4 loop tomorrow.  Listen to Gould on the iPod.  Listen to affirmations.  Listen to the trees and the birds and the brooks and nature.  Listen.

Back into the village.  See my little friend, who waves and says my name with a sparkling smile.

Home.  Check phone messages.  Check email.

Make a large salad: one fresh avocado processed with fresh lemon juice and salt, a package of baby arugula, a few raisins, a couple of chopped dates, a chopped gala apple.  Slowly devour in gratitude, while the stream and birds supply the meal’s background music.

Log into Facebook.  Stumble on an NPR article about 91-year-young Harriette Thompson who is a cancer survivor and just set a world record for a woman’s marathon time in her age group.  Remember this morning’s journal entry on dissolving limitations.  Synchronicity abounds.  Keep showing up.

Sit down.  Listen to the birds.  Smell the lilac.  Watch the light dance off the tree tops.  Write a brief blog post.  Think of the things on today’s list, some of which I see as challenging and unpleasant.

Not so much.  Attitude is everything.  Just ask Harriette Thompson.

Live life vividly.  V-I-V-I-D-L-Y, the word keeps making its way into my journal pages, highlighted, decoratively boxed, boldly scripted in greens, purples, pinks, reds.  Live vividly, or it’s just existing.  “Let everything else go,” I remind myself.  Harriette Thompson would no doubt smile if I told her about my problems, and I do so with her when I see them from a 91-year-old’s record-breaking finish line.  Vividly.  She seems to know about that topic.

This morning was like many mornings, but I wanted to chronicle today’s unique and beautiful rhythm, and I wanted to remind myself that “when I get over that finish line, that’s the best part.”

 

[http://youtu.be/5vlGKyxl22M]

[This entry was originally sent to subscribers with Ms. Thompson’s first name misspelled.  The above reflects the correct spelling.]

 

 

 

 

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]

 

Dancing In The Street

(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.

 

[http://youtu.be/fHK2lxS5Ivw]

 

[http://youtu.be/87qT5BOl2XU}

 

 

More Creative Confluence

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.

 

 

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:

 

Think Outside The Mandala

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

jung-first-mandala

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)