’Splain Yourself Lucy

I haven’t finished a first draft of my novel. I finally understand who my characters are, what they want, and what’s in their way of getting it.

But, I was supposed to have finished a first draft of my novel for the class I’m scheduled to take in Iowa, which starts in two weeks. I only need to submit 35 pages to the class, so I can wing it.

But the class description says, “After working on your novel for six months or a year or—say it proudly—ten years, you’re finally ready to show it to other people.”

I think that means I should have a first draft.

I signed up for the class in January, thinking that it would provide me the incentive I needed to get the draft finished. But then, as I discovered one of the characters and as the plot took a new twist – well, I just don’t have a complete draft.

So, last night, at the first Literary Café, I asked should I come clean, or should I just wing it.

My friend, Jim said, “Every episode of I Love Lucy starts with her telling a lie.”

Oh.

When I was a kid, living in Saudi Arabia, I never went trick or treating for candy. I went trick or treating for UNICEF – in my Girl Scout uniform.

When I was 30, living in San Francisco, totally broke, and active in the Gray Panthers, a group I knew from the Gray Panthers decided to go out on Halloween as a group. We would dress up as crayons.

The tag line of Gray Panthers was “Youth and Age in Action.” It was a multigenerational approach to fighting ageism. Perhaps that’s why we were going out on Halloween. Experiencing our multgenerationalness.

We each got two pieces of poster board in the color of the crayon we had chosen to be. Mine was black. We spray painted party hats so we could have points for the crayons, used a stencil to spray paint “Crayola” in the middle and the squiggly lines at the top and bottom of the poster board, stapled the two pieces together, and punched holes so we could attach straps. We wore leotards and tights the color we chose to be.

I carted us from place to place in my 1971 Volkswagen bus. I thought about putting a sign on the front that said, “Sharpener in the back,” but ran out of time.

So here are the three things I learned from that night:

You could still do good work and dress in a costume for Halloween.

When you don a costume, you become the character of the costume.

Crayons really do go out on adventures at night while we sleep, and that’s how they know what to draw and color.

That last thing is the truth.

It’s also true that I haven’t finished a first draft of my novel.

I think that Girl Scouts, like Boy Scouts, aren’t supposed to tell lies.

So, I need to come clean. I think that I can still get something from the class, even though I don’t have the novel finished.

But I really don’t want to have to face Ricky asking me to ’splain myself.

Call it What it is: Proposition Hate

To love another person is to see the face of God.

I remember the first time I saw Les Mis. I wasn’t expecting to like it, thought it was just another Broadway musical. But I became totally enthralled with it. I was already completely swept up in it when, as Jean Valjean is dying, the spirit of Fantine offers him her hand, assures him that his choosing love over fear made a difference. At the transcendent moment, Fantine, Eponine, and Valjean sing:

Take my hand
And lead me to salvation.
Take my love,
For love is everlating.
And remember,
The truth that was once spoken
To love another person
Is to see the face of God.

I didn’t know I had that many tears. I started to say that I totally lost it, but really, I totally gained it.

Yesterday, the California Supreme Court declared that fear transcends love. Declared that if your fear keeps you from loving another person, that you have the right to make that person illegal.

I couldn’t disagree more.

Sometime around 1982 or 1983, I wrote an article about the AIDs ward at San Francisco General Hospital for the hospice newsletter. By that time, I had been a hospice volunteer for two or three years. I was used to how a hospital worked.

What struck me about the AIDs ward (I think it was 5B) was that there was no room designated for staff. The room normally set aside so doctors and nurses could distance themselves from pain and death, was, instead, a place where staff and patients interacted in a casual manner.

They created a community.

The way they dealt with staff burnout was by recognizing that true patient care required an emotional commitment – to themselves as well as to the patient. Staff took care of themselves and each other by submitting to their emotions, and allowing themselves the time and space to tend to them. They supported each other, and when they needed a break, they took it

They allowed themselves to be healers.

The “authority” who designed the ward came from a nurse (now that is revolutionary in and of itself), a gay man. I don’t remember his name.

Towards the end of the interview, I asked him “What is homophobia?”

“It’s the irrational fear of homosexuality,” he responded.

“No, no,” I asked, “what is the fear of?”

He looked relieved that I asked it. “It’s fear of one’s own sexuality.”

That’s when I understood that to “come out” as being homosexual is not simple. It means that one has had to acknowledge that we are here for more than biological reasons. Sex is not only for reproduction, it is for connection. It is a vital part of our being.

And, the acknowledgment that we need connection – that we need to connect with someone who sees who we are and loves us for what is seen. And that makes us vulnerable.That, to me, is one of those moments when we realize that we live in a mortal body that requires attention because it is transitory. Its mortal nature makes for sacred moments.

It is the sacred in the profane.

To love another person is to see the face of god.

What disturbs me about the California Supreme Court’s decision is that it enables fear. It says that if enough people need the world to be defined by their fears, that their fear becomes the law of the land.

And that institutionalizes hate. It legitimizes fear of the other – gives someone the right to say “Just your being who you are threatens me, so I have the right to make you illegal.”

Women were burned at the stake out of fear of the other. Black men were lynched out of fear of the other. Millions were annihilated in the Holocaust out of fear of the other. Genocide against the indigenous people of America was legitimized out of fear of the other. The attackers on 9/11 legitimized their actions out of fear of the other.

We have to stop using fear of the other as the connector.

Instead, we need to allow our fear to give us courage. The courage to change. The courage to love, especially to love ourselves– our mortal ineptitude. The courage of compassion.

I have been basking in the realization lately that I feel loved. In large part, this is because I have a lovely, wonderful husband who is loving. His father called him Sweetman when he was a child, and I can’t help but think that this nickname allowed the sweetness of his nature to inform the fierceness of his nature. He is no pushover, my husband. But there is a sweetness to his soul that is like nectar.

But, I don’t think I could be feeling this way if I had not recently thrown aside the image I had of myself as a monster. That monster, I have come to learn, is really nothing more than my willingness to change. Seeing that as a gift, instead of a curse, has brought me great peace. I have learned to love myself. And now that I know how it feels, it’s easier for me to recognize it when others give it to me.

So, today, look in the mirror. You’ll see the face of god.

And, then, let’s take compassion to the streets, the courts, the ballot box, your church if needs be, wherever we need to take it so that love of and compassion for being human, instead of fear of the other, becomes the foundation for the law of the land.

And in case you need proof that you’re loved, take a moment to enjoy this sunset from Mendocino:

sunset_mendocino

When You Become too Big for Your Britches

So in my last blog, I said that caterpillars change their DNA to become butterflies.

I was wrong.

Their butterfly-ness is part of their DNA from the start. Apparently some messengers are time released – they get woken up and sent out after an alarm clock goes off, a clock that is embedded in the DNA. At least, I think that’s how it works.

Wow. That’s cool.

So, first of all, bad on me as a writer for not having done my research. Fortunately, I have my friend Jim to point it out when I haven’t done my research, because his points always make me delve deeper.

After delving deeper, however, I think that the metaphor still works. In fact, I think it almost works better (which is why research pays off for writers – makes us better writers).

Our DNA is what makes us unique, while also connecting us to each other. This isn’t about fate or destiny, but about our true nature.

I’ve always thought that the admonition, “You’re too big for your britches!” is pretty lame. So what – we’re supposed to wear the same size britches at 14 as we did when we were four?

I have no idea what part DNA plays in our psyches. Maybe something, maybe nothing at all. But I do know that there comes a point in some lives when who you thought you were supposed to be, isn’t who you find that you are. Your story might be different than the one you were told was yours.

I think this can happen on a cultural as well as an individual level. I wonder if that is what is happening now. Joseph Campbell said that we need to create new myths; stories that are metaphors for a world that is both smaller and bigger than one that is limited by geography and topography.

We’ve seen photographs of earth. That has to have an effect on us, whether conscious or unconscious. It can evoke awe and it can provoke fear, for it requires a change in our worldview. We are part of something bigger than what we can see from where we stand.

I think that science, at its best, informs us of that. Art,I think, gives us metaphors that inform us how to stand where we are and participate in that something that is bigger.

We need both.

I think that when you become too big for your britches, the time has come to shop for a new pair. Or, when the story no longer works for you, it’s time to find the story that does.

Faulkner, in his Nobel Prize speech, says that the writer should banish fear from the workshop. He’s not saying don’t ever feel fear, just banish it from the workshop. I agree.

On Purpose

Three weeks from today I will be in Iowa City. I’ve been going there for the past five years for the Writing Festival. My friend Selene came with me one year; a friend asked her, “Are you going to Iowa on purpose?”

My friend Selene being purposeful.

My friend Selene being purposeful.

So she wrote a poem titled “Iowa on Purpose.”

I’m a California girl through and through. Born here, lived here most of my life. Northern California, of course. Though I hear that Southern California has its charms.

What I like about California is its diversity of topography. Within four hours I can be in the mountains or Mendocino. Within five I can be at a dormant volcano or Hollywood.

It’s an interesting place California.

But I go to Iowa on purpose. It has something that California doesn’t: summer thunderstorms, lightning bugs, and cicadas that sing as day changes into dusk. They have waited ten years to emerge and sing their songs.

Talk about patience.

I might be learning patience; trusting that life unfolds as it should, if I pay attention to nuance. Nuance must be what a ciccada pays attention to – waits for the moment when it’s called to emerge and join the chorus. Talk about a miraculous moment.

Maybe I’ll try and record their music this year.

Last night, after dinner with friends, we talked about transformation. One friend, who takes the role of devil’s advocate, questioned whether we could ever really transform; took the position that we can never escape our birth language.

It was a difficult and interesting conversation for me, because I had to articulate what I meant about transformation, without having to be right and win the argument – an argument I didn’t know I was having.

I tried using the term paradigm shift, but he got irritated with the word, “shift.”

I asked him why it irritated him, because that was not my intent. He never answered that question. I think it was an important question, but he did not.

In the end he was satisfied that I wasn’t talking woo-woo nonsense, though I’m not sure he’s convinced, in the way I am, that we can transform.

So here’s what I’m thinking might be the metaphor for what I mean by transform.

Catepillars.

I sometimes think that catepillars are the most courageous creatures on the planet. They crawl along and at some point heed the call that tells them to cocoon. While they are in the cocoon, their matter turns gelatinous, they no longer look anything like they did when they crawled along the ground. In fact, they have no discernable form.

But then their gelatinous stuff forms itself into a butterfly. Their DNA changes.

They struggle to emerge, then have to wait for their wings to dry so they can fly, for what a day or so?

I mean what an experience: go to sleep, knowing a world that you only perceive crawling on the ground, then wake up with the ability to fly – to look down on the world you used to inhabit.

Maybe that’s what astronauts experience when they look back down on earth from space.

So maybe we can be caterpillars or cicadas. Trust that when a crisis gives us the opportunity to make a fundamental change in our belief systems – there isn’t enough for everyone, for example – that it is life calling us take our next step – which could be to take wing and fly or sing our unique song.

Dick Cheney challenges my ability to be compassionate. Why, oh, why does he and his family want us to be afraid – be very afraid. Perhaps his mechanical heart has too many shorts in it.

When Matter Doesn’t Matter Anymore

When matter doesn’t matter anymore, it changes into energy.

I first wrote that some fifteen years ago in an essay about Sally a friend of mine who had taken her life. She had planned on it for at least the three years I knew her; told me that she didn’t want to live past 70.

“The women in my family don’t do well after 70,” she said.

That’s when the vagueries of aging seemed to get them. Being a gambling woman, she wanted to fold her hand while she was still ahead.

Sally had an antic sense of things. She took the pills a day or two before her seventieth birthday, just before mailing out (snail mail – email was still in its infancy 15 years ago) a farewell letter to her friends. An afficianado of eros, her letter concluded,

“And those of you familiar with my birthdate will recognize that the timing of my exit allows me to claim as my epitaph:

Toujours soixante-neuf!

Always 69.

I neither approve nor disapprove of what Sally did. I had decided when she first told me of her plans that I would do neither. I knew it would be of no use trying to talk her out of it and I wanted to keep the lines of communication open. Instead I would say to her that if she got to 70 and decided she wanted to give herself a bit more time, that would be fine with me.

About a week before Sally’s birthday, we had dinner with our mutual friend Jeanette who was slowly but surely declining into Parkinsons. I knew the deadline was approaching so I asked Sally as we headed our separate ways into the San Francisco night, “So, is this goodbye?”

“You can’t get rid of me that easily,” she said, and smiled her Sally smile.

I thought perhaps she had decided to give it more time. But, she stuck to her plan. I got her letter a few days later: the salutation: “To those I love –“; the closing, “Love and goodbye, Sally”.

I did not really understand what Sally meant – about having to live with the debilitation that can come with aging until I watched my mother’s struggle with emphysema. She went very quickly from being physically vital, to struggling for each breath she took.

She had her idea of when to fold them as well. For her, it came when she had to face the prospect of recovering in a nursing home from a broken hip, her health already so compromised that whatever life was left to her would most likely never happen outside an institution. So, since death was inevitable, she eschewed the antibiotics and welcomed pneumonia as the friend who would save her from what was to her a humiliating end.

Both women took matters into their own hands. Took control of their final destinies. Determined the difference for them between what was living their life and merely surviving it, and acted on it.

It was difficult for me to watch my mother’s struggle, for I knew that somewhere in the back of her mind was the question, “Well, when is enough, enough?”

For Sally, I don’t believe that was a question she wanted to ponder. I think she was afraid that once she went down that path, she would hold on too long; that she would not do well in the dance between fear of dying and fear of living. So, she took action before she had to dance that dance.

Sally appeared to me in a dream shortly after she died. She was laughing at the paramedics who were trying to revive her. She had no regrets about her choice. I wondered if she, as an atheist, was a bit annoyed that there was some kind of “life” after life. She wouldn’t say.

About a month after my mother died, while sitting on the patio of a local restaurant, a truck lumbered by towing a speedboat with the name Betty Jean – my mother’s name – painted on its side. It’s not exactly that I think she got reincarnated as a speedboat, but heading out of town for a good time on the delta was not out of sync with who my mother was.

Here is what I concluded with Sally many years ago: She asked that her ashes be added to a friend’s compost pile. Very much in keeping with Sally’s antic let’s-get-real sense of things (Did I mention that she took her vibrator to Mr. Fix It in Mill Valley when it stopped working?), so I assume they were.

My final image then is of life feeding life, even after it’s gone.

When matter doesn’t matter anymore, it changes into energy.

Something Out There Somewhere

A writer’s prayer. Please, something out there somewhere, find me.

I have several decks of tarot cards. The deck I am currently most fond of is the Animal–Wise Tarot. I use the Tarot to give myself a three-dimensional picture of where I am. It provides me with metaphors to understand what is not immediately clear to me.

I suppose I am most fond of this one because it incorporates nature into the metaphors — and the accompanying book has a wolf on the cover.

Five years ago, I got a tattoo. A howling she-wolf tattooed on my right forearm right below my elbow: a local Livermore artist, Linda Ryan, did the original artwork.

The tattoo artist, and she is quite an artist, started scraping my skin away, embedding the ink as she went, waxing poetic about how once people get a tattoo, they want another, and then another.

All I could think was “Get this over with quick. I’m about to slap you it hurts so much.”

About a week later, I noticed that the wolf wasn’t washing off my arm. It’s not that I had thought it would wash away — I just wasn’t prepared for its permanence.

Then began, my odyssey to accept my forearm. This is not a small tattoo, as I had planned; it takes up about half my forearm. It cannot be ignored. It’s just so there.

I wore long sleeves, made jokes about it, endured shocked reactions by a few people – including my mother, who had trouble accepting my piercing my ears my senior year of high school. “You’ll always have holes,” she warned. “They never grow closed.”

My mother was big on certain dire warnings. “If you don’t wear a bra, your breasts will end up like those women in National Geographic!”

One can only imagine what she thought would happen to a tattooed forearm.

At some point, I remembered why I decided to get my tattoo. I asked a friend, who has a lovely Om character tattooed on his wrist, if it hurt to get one, expecting him to say no.

“Pain is a part of it,” he said. “Not because I enjoyed it, but because it marked a turning point in my life. It’s part of the sensory memory.”

Oh.

Then I re-read this passage from Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s Women Who Run With the Wolves:

La Loba (Wolf Woman), the old one, the One Who Knows, is within us. She thrives in the deepest soul-psyche of women, the ancient and vital Wild Woman. She describes her home as that place in time where the spirit of women and the spirit of wolf meet, the place where her mind and her instincts mingle, where a woman’s deep life funds her mundane life. It is the point where the I and the Thou kiss, the place where women run with the wolves.

And I understood permanence in a new way: No turning back. Once you recognize the wild woman in you, you can’t ignore her. This is no out-of-control-woman-on-the-verge wild woman. This woman is wild because she is in sync with her nature, a nature that for years cultures have tried to destroy: by burning women at the stake; by mutilating their genitalia; by corseting their organs until they began to fail; by turning crones into frightful creatures.

I think that the she-wolf on my forearm howls to remind me to banish shame from my writing shed and from my life. Dismissing shame opens the door to compassion.

Who knows how much we can accomplish when we walk through that door.

I am writing this in Moody’s Café in Mendocino. The proprietress set a mug filled with wonderfully fragrant flowers next to me, asking me if their fragrance was too much for me. It wasn’t. Soon, other patrons were burying their noses in the flowers. None was disappointed. One woman came by for a second dose, and then went back to writing.

The flowers were wild azaleas.

Take a few minutes to be wild today.
________________________________
A bit more from Mendocino:

Over Time, This will be More Graceful

Twitter.

I’ve avoided it, almost resented it because I feel like it’s just one more thing I can be distracted by (by which I can be distracted – okay, Ed Brush). I mean what do I care about the minutae of someone’s every day life?

And then there was this from my friend Judy’s blog – a twitter (tweet?) from a friend of hers:

“I just changed over oxygen tanks for my father. My first time. A lot of dictations from both sides. Over time, this will be more graceful.”

My heart slowed down when I read this, as if time itself had slowed down so the words could embed themselves in my heart, between its beats.

Over time, this will be more graceful.

It isn’t true that roles get reversed as a parent’s aging makes them dependent on you. You don’t become the parent and they the child. It’s just a new and confusing relationship, for both sides – a dance for which there is no choreographer. You make it up as you go along. You improvise.

I’m beginning to think that most of life is improvisation. Fred Astaire strove for perfection. Gregory Hines used his mistakes to take him to the next step.

I had to improvise a lot in my mother’s final years. She was fiercely independent, but depended on me, just as her mother was fiercely independent and depended on her. Your job is to lead the dance, but not seem like you are.

My mother died right in the middle of a misstep in our dance– a particularly graceless moment. And so I thought that grace would be forever denied me.

But, death ends a life, not a relationship and it’s up to the survivor to carry it on. That’s a paraphrase from the film “I Never Sang for my Father.”

My mother died three years ago this July. At first I felt kind of numb. But then the numbness wore off and I fell into a vortex of questioning – particularly wondering whether or not I had been a good enough daughter. Could I have done something to make the dance more graceful?

Finally, sometime over the last year the answer came to me in the form of forgiveness – no, there was nothing I, or she, could have done to make our final dance more graceful. There was no choreographer. Just the two of us finding our way through. It was up to me use the misstep to create a new dance – one I would have to dance solo.

I had to improvise. Work with what I had, not what I had hoped for. And trust that I had made my choices based on love, my love for her and myself. And assume that she had done the same. And then I had to forgive us both for not being perfect. Our dance was more like a Gregory Hines, than a Fred Astaire dance.

But I like Gregory Hines dances more than I do Fred Astaire’s. I think they had more life to them. In forgiveness, I found the grace I thought was not mine to have.

Over time, this will be more graceful.

Sometimes, great wisdom is found in the minutae of everyday living.

And now for something different . . . a bit of grace from Mendocino