Writing by Hand

writing by handI got As in penmanship when I was a kid. I found an essay I had written my senior year of high school—don’t remember even what it was about, just that I was applying for some kind of senior-year prize. I could read every word. My penmanship was neat and even.

I don’t know when my penmanship turned illegible. You would never know my name by reading my signature. Sometimes, I can’t even discern what I was saying in my journals—not even by context. I’m certain there are brilliant gems, words of an insightful genius lost to posterity because it’s impossible to interpret the penmanship.

Lately, I’ve made a commitment to writing so I can read what I’ve written by hand.

Writing by hand. I call this writing acoustically. When I’m in my Writing Shed, I use a fountain pen—a black fat, elegant pen made by Mont Blanc and left to me by my mentor, Ed Brush. Recently, I have discovered Levenger ink—Raven Black.

My hand-written writing comprises two things: recording the Animal Tarot Cards I draw each day, and my morning pages. I sometimes skip my morning pages. I think that is okay.

As I wrote today, I noticed I was writing legibly, neatly, evenly, taking the time to form each letter, careful to spell words correctly, and punctuate for meaning. The slow flow of the ink filled the white space on the page letter-by-letter, word-by-word, sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph. Its clean smell wafted up from the page.

I slowed down. I took the time to smell the ink.

An actor friend wrote on his Facebook page today that he was taking his next step without a plan. His other plans had all fallen through, so he was just moving forward, leaving behind fear of what others thought of him, embracing his own life.

He was writing with ink.

My career path in life has been pretty non-existent. I got diverted from a career in health care administration when I quit a job after ending a relationship with my boss. I became a bar tender so I could spend time with my writing.

That was nearly 40 years ago. That decision was the turning point of my life—the moment I decided to embrace my own life, though I didn’t know it at the time. I backslid off and on, taking paths that had clearly marked signposts. I failed miserably anytime I tried. The signposts annoyed me.

Where Fred Astaire aspired for perfection, Gregory Hines would allow a mistake to take him to the next move, making it up as he went along if the occasion called for it.

He improvised.

It has occurred to me that improvisation, rather than a career, has determined my path in life.

The constant has been writing, though it has only been the last ten or so years that I found my voice.

I love writing on a computer. It allows me to keep pace when my mind is racing. Its fluid nature matches the way my mind writes, then edits. Backspacing letter by letter to erase a word, highlighting whole sentence or paragraphs to cut them, or cut then paste them somewhere else. Seeing the change instantly in black and white without the distraction of crossed out words, scratched out sentences or paragraphs, arrows and notes to indicate where to move a circled word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph.

It has its own flow—writing on a computer.

But writing by hand, with the pen that once belonged to Ed Brush, the flow of ink filling the empty page, the smell of ink transporting me into the moment—that’s an improvisational moment for me.

Much like life, there’s no Undo command when you write by hand. Make a mistake. Then improvise.

Unconventional Wisdom

The trees are bare outside my Writing Shed. Four small birds share a thin branch. Persimmons hang like ornaments from another tree. It is my California home’s version of winter.

Winter is actually the beginning of things – the time when light returns. I heard once that as the sun goes into Capricorn, the moon goes into Cancer, calling to the seeds planted deep in the earth that it is time for them to wake up and start their journey of growth.

That is how it feels to me, this time of year – like something is calling me to wake up and start a new journey.

I was thinking as I sat staring at the blank screen – we need rain. And then I thought well, yes, that is what I need. To end my dry spell.

I have a fantasy that I have this audience out there that has been waiting with bated breath for my return – who wonder why I stopped writing right after I posted a blog about getting women writers out of the corner — over six months ago.

I wish I knew why I did. I certainly started many posts. But none of them seemed to find their way. The blogs I started included: about a bowl filled with plastic fetuses at my local Farmer’s Market on “Family” night; the reaction to the movie The Help; that what America means to me was formed by the civil rights movement – and all its successors; about the death of a high school friend who gave up his law practice and became a teacher at our former high school; about the two “young” people who had a booth at the local Farmer’s Market that displayed the poster of Obama with a Hitler moustache; about the death of Steve Jobs.

Each time, after starting to write, I felt the need to remain silent — that more would be revealed in time.

I think it was a decision. I continued to write in my journal and started writing a story. None of it was for publication. At least not yet.

And, then, this morning it became clear to me that what had been rattling around in my writer’s soul was an increasing awareness of my mortality. Not so much a fear of death. More, the unmistakable reality that life will leave me some day.

My family lives long lives. My uncle died last year at 100. My grandmother lived to 99. Her father lived to 106.

I could have close to another 40 years of life.

On the other hand, my mother died at 83 and my father at 77.

I could have somewhere between 15 and 20 years of life.

My high school friend returned from a hunting trip feeling ill, went to sleep and died of a heart attack.

He was my age.

I’ve already had six more years than Steve Jobs had.

The point is, I don’t know — we don’t know — when Death will come knocking.

So that leaves me with: how do I spend my days? In fear, or making them count?

Not surprisingly, I want to make them count.

Yet Fear hangs in the air these days, nourished by political forces that seek power as an antidote for their own fear: “Push the unworthy in front of the speeding train to prove your own worthiness—in the eyes of God.”

It can make you want to stay curled up in a seed underneath the earth. I already started unfurling myself from the seedpod, so too late for staying curled up.

During my months of silence, I read a book about cave paintings in the south of France. The oldest are 32,000 years old – those discovered in the late 90s in Chauvet. The Lascaux paintings – discovered during World War II – date back to 14,000 years ago. The author noted that the culture of cave painters lasted for some 18,000 years. He also noted that like everyone else who visited the cave paintings, he came away altered, changed in some profound way – almost unnerved.

It gave me a perspective on time, including my time. Conventional wisdom says that in the days of Google, staying silent for so much as a month can lead to death by Google contempt. I’m hoping that I was following unconventional wisdom, that there is time and room for silence even in the day of the Internet.

I started this blog in May of 2009 to change my story.  I think that taking myself out of the corner was the end of my old story — that in the silence I found my way to the beginning of my new story.

I received an email from WordPress that linked me to my 2011 statistics. I was surprised to see how few blog entries I had posted (7) and surprised to discover that nevertheless, my audience had included folks from pretty much around the world.

I think that My Writing Shed is my cave – the place where I allow my story to unfold. And, hopefully, it is a place where others discover my story and find a connection to their own.

Here’s to more story in 2012.

Throwing My Heart Over the Fence

Horseback riders who jump the Grand Prix fences of terrifying heights talk of ‘throwing their heart’ over the fence so their horse jumps after it. We must do the same.”

Julia Cameron in Walking in This World

I made a very conscious choice to remain silent during the month of May. That is I decided not to write for public consumption.

I spent the month of April closing the studio in which I had hosted a monthly literary salon for over seven years. I locked the door, delivered the key to the landlord, and soaked in a bath to soothe muscles that were tired and sore from packing, lifting, and carrying.

I was relieved to have the completed the task, surprised at how easily I had been able to dispose of “stuff” I had accumulated. I think it’s called letting go.

What followed was a weeklong journey wrestling with doubt. I had dubbed the studio Livermore’s  Literary Arts Center, with the belief that if you build it – it will be. I mean how cool to have a literary arts center in a town?

I wondered – had I failed? Or more, was I a failure?

And then I faced the great looming prospect of life without a center in which writers could congregate, read their work, listen to other writers read, and communicate in the language familiar to those who take the leap into believing that they have something to say and want to say it well.

I was also sad. Sad because even though I had built it, it had not come to be. It did not seem to take root. I explored starting a nonprofit, but came to realize fairly quickly, that I had just run out of steam. I needed to focus on income – inviting money to come in for my own personal safety and security – and just didn’t have the wherewithal to create a nonprofit, find a new place for the center, bring in income, and do my own writing.

Closing the studio brought chaos to my home. We turned our guest room into our office; I added books to my writing shed; we stored furniture destined for a garage sale into our library; and put boxes into a garage that was already overflowing with stuff.

I freaked out, fretted, and generally consternated. At some rational point, I consulted my inner adult, who told me that I needed to get my domestic house in order first, and then determine whether freaking out, fretting, and consternating was productive.

We spent the month of May deciding where to put things – and then putting them there. In some cases that meant putting things that had been there, somewhere else until we could decide where to put them. We cleaned an embarrassing (I mean really embarrassing) wealth of dust that had accumulated throughout the house. I created chaos in my writing shed and then cleared it up. And, perhaps most satisfying, we cleaned out the garage. We opened boxes that had sat unopened for ten years and realized, we didn’t need what was in them. We pulled up the gnarly carpet that had been gathering dust and other crap for thirty years.

I came to appreciate the beauty of handy haulers, small dumpsters that for some reason I wanted to call tater tots.

Yesterday, I finished. I emptied the last of the boxes of office supplies, and then went to see the film, Everything Must Go. Good choice, though I didn’t even put two and two together until I just wrote that I went to see that particular movie.

Earlier last week, as I saw the end of May looming, I did some freaking out, fretting, and consternating. What, I wondered would I do without a literary arts center?

“Maybe what you need to do,” my friend Mary Ann suggested, “is to be alone with your writing.” We’ve been friends for over 50 years; you don’t take lightly a suggestion from someone who has known you for that many years.

I had told myself to just take a break from writing until June 1st. Today is June 1st.

And so, here I am writing.

My home is more welcoming to me than it ever has been. My writing shed, more than ever, provides a shelter in which I can write.

The things I freaked out about, fretted over, and consternated about have not gone away. We seem to be living in a time where young, foolish men seem to believe that adopting Ayn Rand’s philosophy is both courageous and a commitment to reality. Simple minds with simple answers to the complexity of being alive.

I am the unofficial godmother to a seven-year old girl with autism. Once a week, she rode horses at an adaptive riding center.  She spoke her first words while riding a horse. Other programs at this adaptive riding center pair wounded veterans, including those suffering from PTSD, with horses.

The horses at this center are big hearted – they seem to have the patience and wisdom to carry heart-wounded humans to moments of peace and healing: two sentient beings connecting on the field of what it means to be alive.

I’m not so much afraid of horses as I am in awe of them. I have ridden a horse exactly once, and was overwhelmed with its power. But I am drawn to horses – to the life force they embody.

Yesterday, I found the quote about riders  “’throwing their heart’ over the fence so their horse jumps after it.”

So that’s what I’m doing today, June 1st, after two months of cleaning and clearing and letting go.

I’m throwing my heart over the fence so that my life force jumps after it.

After the Mayhem

I’ve started blogs the past two weeks, but stopped short. First, I had a back problem that made it difficult to sit at the computer long enough.

Then, mayhem happened.

The blog I started before the mayhem was about the Kennedy Center Awards. Caroline Kenney introduced the evening with the words of her father. Who a country honors, he had said, was a reflection of your country.

I think that is true. The honorees reflected not just the diversity of our country, but the grandeur of the diversity and its creative force. Bill T. Jones, a tall lean gay African American honored for his choreography, moved gracefully in his seat to the music of Merle Haggard, honored for his Bakersfield sound, and who wrote “I’m Proud to be an Oakie from Muskogee.” Chita Rivera, Angela Lansbury, and Carol Channing, defied the media-spun definition of beautiful women as they performed the music of Jerry Herman. Everyone rocked to the music of Paul McCartney, who had looked to the rock and roll of America for inspiration. Oprah Winfrey was honored for among other accomplishments, producing the works of African American women.

The range of honorees, I think is distinctively American. It is our diversity.

Then mayhem happened.

And I got depressed.

I was in my teens when Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy were assassinated, the three little girls were killed in a church bombing, civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi, fire hoses and attack dogs were let loose on American citizens peacefully assembling for their right to vote. I was getting ready for spring break in my freshman year of college when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and then finishing finals two months later when Robert Kennedy was shot and killed.

Over the last forty years I have seen the attempted assassinations of George Wallace, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan. I lived in San Francisco when George Moscone and Harvey Milk were gunned down. I returned from the movie “9 to 5” to learn that John Lennon had been killed.

And then there are the mass killings at schools. How many have there been?

What surprised me the most about the Tuscon mayhem was how unsurprised I was. I have come to expect it.

And I don’t know what to do with that.

Yes, it was a deranged man who ended lives literally, and ended the lives as they knew it for countless others. There is no direct line between the mayhem and the vitriolic environment.

But words do lead to deeds.

The real demon, I think, even more than the gun metaphors, is the noxious notion, perpetuated with enthusiasm by the likes of Sarah Palin, that there are “real Americans,” and then there are the others who are trying to take America from them.

Brit Hume, with stunning ignorance, thought that the Native American blessing that opened the memorial service in Tucson was peculiar. He blessed the doors and reptiles Hume said.

I think we should not dismiss the discussion about vitriolic words that was begun after last week. I think we need to continue it.

Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Britt Hume have a first amendment right to speech. But I think we need to call their speech what it is: words from the tiny hearted.

The heartland of America is not located in the Midwest. It extends from coast to coast, from our northern to our southern borders. The promise of America isn’t the accumulation of wealth, but equality under the law, the mechanism that recognizes that dignity of the individual, rather than prejudice of a group, is the basis for law.

Sarah Kaufman wrote in the Washington Post that the work of choreographer Bill T. Jones showed us the “radiant beauty of the marginalized.”

In my January 20th post of last year, I quoted Raymond Carver:

“Remember, too, that little-used word that has just about dropped out of public and private usage: tenderness. It can’t hurt. And that other word: soul — call it spirit if you want, if it makes it any easier to claim the territory. Don’t forget that either. Pay attention to the spirit of your words, your deeds.”

If there is such a thing as American exceptionalism, it is the tender spot we hold in our heart for the radiant beauty of the marginalized.

Let Go Before You Think You Should—For Best Results Use Joy

I throw like a girl.

The ball just never gets very far down the field. So when I saw people at the dog park in Mill Valley flinging balls that  arched gracefully into the air and sailed far down the field, I thought, “Well, here is my dog’s salvation.”

I bought one, took it to the dog park, placed the tennis ball in the Chucker’s claw, pulled my arm back and let fly. The ball landed with a thud in front of me.

My dog was not amused.

As a last resort, I read the instructions on the packaging. The secret to graceful flinging was right there in black and white. “Let go before you think you should.”

Oh.

Well, that has deep meaning.

I was going to write a post about a month ago about people advising others to “Just move on,” from a disappointment, betrayal, loss, or trauma. I find that really annoying. Because, truth is, people do move on. They wake up, their feet hit the floor, they go to work, they buy toilet paper, they go to bed, then wake up the next morning and do life all over again.

What doesn’t happen, and what moving on doesn’t accomplish, is resolution. Life after a life-changing event is not the same, and the ground beneath your feet doesn’t get stable just because on the outside, your everyday life looks the same.

This has been a strange decade for me. It included a tremendous amount of loss. People died. People fell out of my life. I had to move away from Mill Valley, which is close to the ocean and sheltered by Mount Tamalpais—a physical place to which I felt spiritually connected—back to my hometown, a physical place to which I feel no spiritual connection.

Returning threw me into the white water rapids of my past. I thought I had calmed those rapids. But really, I had just given myself time to gain the strength I needed to navigate them.

Writing became my way to navigate the rapids. My writing took on a new depth. I learned how to rewrite. I learned how to love rewriting. I discovered that finding the right word, while arduous, was the way through.

I learned about endurance and that I am resilient.

It’s been over a decade since I learned that essential life instruction in the directions written in black and white on the Chucker’s packaging:

“Let go before you think you should.”

I have thought, well, yes, if only I could learn to let go before I think I should. And then it occurred to me just the other day: that’s how we let go. We always let go before we think we should.

We move on, but grief, betrayal, anger, sadness move on with us, and, blindside us when they arise to remind us that something has changed for us. We are not the same as we were before whatever life-changing event pitched us into change.

And then one day, Aeschylus says it’s through the awful grace of God, we manage to find our footing on the path change has put us on. There is no resolution, closure, justice, or erasure of trauma that gets us there. I think it is simply that we realize we are on life’s path and decide it’s the path we want to be on.

Let go before you think you should. I think that might be what faith is to me.

I learned one other life instruction from product directions. It was from a giant bubble wand—one of those big hoops that make long, giant bubbles. Those bubbles look particularly magical to me.

The directions said that you could use any liquid dish detergent, but for best results, use Joy.