Setting a New Course

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Great Egret - HB 0455_DSC8374

First post of 2016.

I tried for one last week, but all I could do was rant. I will grant you, there is a lot to rant about. But . . .

So then this morning, I drew the Ant card from the Animal Wise Tarot deck. And the Scarlet Macaw. And the Porcupine.

It’s all about balancing work and play and finding the spiritual in the mundane.

Setting the new course.

I emerged from last year. That’s how I can best describe last year’s journey around the sun. A journey from which I had to emerge. Mortality shadowed me. Not mortality as in my death, but in how mortality shapeshifts life.

As I said, I felt like that candle in the wind.

And then the winds stopped as I sailed into the doldrums.

I don’t much like the notion of god as a stern taskmaster, looking down on us, wondering why we can’t be better, forgiving us for not being better. I personally believe that god is in awe of humans. Amazed that we can live and love with mortality perching on our shoulder.

I remember reading that Inuits don’t have a word for art. Their art is functional, tools fashioned for the mundane but imbued with spirit. A recognition that the ordinary tasks required for living a life are part and parcel of an extraordinary creation.

I read this last week in an article by Nancy Langstonian titled “In Oregon, Myth Mixes With Anger” in the New York Times:

Great Egrets Courting - HB 0169_DSC6647“In the first decades of the 20th century, the conservationist William Finley paddled a little boat through the marshes of the basin and came upon a colony of egrets slaughtered by plume hunters, the young left to starve. Out of hundreds of thousands of egrets that had once nested in Malheur Lake, only 121 were left.

My first response was to rant. To scream at the television. To swear on Facebook. To join those who are sending dildos to the people who are occupying the Malheur Refuge Center.

I wanted to do something extraordinary to make it go away. But I wasn’t sure what “it” was that I wanted to go away. Stupidity? Ignorance? Arrogance? But, other than keeping my head from exploding with outrage, I could not see how screaming at the television, swearing on Facebook, or sending dildos to the occupiers made it go away for me.

Side note: just as pure theater, I think sending the “Occupiers” dildos was brilliant and encourage its continuance. Even if it can’t help, it can’t hurt.

That article in the NY Times was just one of the many outrageous pieces of information floating around in the media. And with journalism taking a back seat to corporate media, the information just hangs out there as if all sides are equal. As if anger that we have to share the world with others is equal to anger over lives lost

So, setting this new course, having decided to sail into this new year, is going to be tricky

I’m going to start by saying right out loud (please read this aloud) that claiming god as yours and yours alone is not a spiritual act. That is finding the mundane in the spiritual and calling it religion.

Okay, got that off my chest.

I’ll also say out loud (please read aloud) that “telling it like it is” is not truth telling. It is vomiting out vitriol, which I guess gets it out of one’s system, but exhorting crowds to believe that god supports their prejudices and that they can kill (figurative or literally) anyone who matches their prejudice or gets in the way of their god-given right to have a world that supports that right, is blasphemous. And nasty. And mean. And cruel. And stupid. And cynical. And will lead us into a very dark world.

Snowy Egret Reflection - HB 0133_DSC4460One where only 121 egrets survive.

I often start these posts not really knowing where I will end up. I think I just got what this has to do with setting a new course, finding the spiritual in the mundane, the spirit in the mundane in the coming year.

It’s remembering those slaughtered egrets and giving voice to the ravaged landscape. Wherever that may take me.

In case the copyright doesn’t show, all photos are copyrighted by Sue Padgett, a friend for close to 50 years and photographer extraordinaire.

Turn Left at the Whale

DSCN1057I have been on blog silence for three months. I know. I know. You’re not supposed to go on blog silence, but since my whole intent with starting Writing Shed was to change my story, I’m giving myself permission to make my own rules.

I go silent when I don’t know what to say.

These past three months have not been easy ones. Tom started radiation in July. Each treatment lasts 10 minutes and we are about 10 minutes away from the facility. So treatment and round trip amount to about 30 minutes a day, five days a week. He has 10 more treatments.

Doesn’t sound like much—30 minutes a day. Radiation doesn’t have the noxious effects (they aren’t side effects, they are effects) of chemotherapy. And yet, it has been a period of endurance for him. I am on the sidelines watching it. Helpless to do anything to make it more endurable as he prepares five days a week to do what he can to protect his bladder and bowel from the noxious effects of radiation.

Every Monday he meets with the radiation oncologist where he is asked questions to determine if he is being affected by the treatments. Any trouble urinating? Any pain urinating? Any diarrhea? Any fatigue?

No. No. No. And yes. Being hyper-aware of one’s bodily functions is exhausting.

There was something sobering about Tom starting the treatments. It made his diagnosis real. And then two weeks ago, we learned that it will be about a year and a half before we find out if the treatments are indeed curative. Six-month intervals of PSA tests. And even then . . .

That’s the reality of a cancer diagnosis. Once it enters into your home, it’s there as a ghost—if not an actual presence.

It’s the new normal—the realization that there is an end parenthesis, even if it isn’t punctuated with cancer. One never knows when it will come or how it will come or if it is your end parenthesis or an end parenthesis that leaves you the one left behind.

We all have that end parenthesis hanging out there. It’s just that it’s a bit more in our faces.

The new normal.

For me, it has made me wonder, why did I, a native Californian, end up in the Pacific Northwest for this journey into the wilderness?

The theatre group we threw ourselves into turned out not to be our tribe. It tends towards the cliquish, and Tom and I are the opposite of that. We didn’t fit. It was a loss on many levels, including losing a feeling of belonging. His diagnosis intensified our feeling of loss and isolation.

So why here? Why now? What?

Turn left at the whale.

That was the instruction I received to locate the Marketing Your Small Business class offered by the Jamestwon S’Klallam Tribal Library. The photo at the top of this post is the whale at which I turned left.

The culture that was here before Europeans arrived, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, is strong here. I want to say that their artwork is pervasive, but I think referring to it as artwork doesn’t quite fit. It is a work of being, rather than something that is done.

In June, a totem pole that tells the story of why the sun shines in Sequim was installed in the new Civic Center plaza. I had stopped by the House of Myth where the carvers were working on the totem pole so had seen it as it transformed from a piece of wood into a story.

The dedication included a ceremony conducted by the tribe.

Last night, I attended a storytelling event that featured Tribal Elder and Storyteller, Elaine Grinnell, who shared stories of her people, the Jamestown S’Klallam, the Strong People. The blurb that described the event said that her stories can, “. . . include retellings of canoe journeys in the wild North Pacific Ocean, where death is always a possibility that must be faced . . .”

As I listened to her last night, the answer to the questions, why here, why now, and what washed over me.

Turn left at the whale.

I live in a place that is a reminder of being. A place where the original inhabitants derived their spiritual essence from the environment that surrounds them—who recognize that the end parenthesis is a part of being.

The new normal that was actually the normal all along. It just comes with eyes that see more clearly, ears that hear more perceptively, and a heart that feels more strongly.

Turn left at the whale to discover your human being.

I cannot leave this post without thanking Renee Emiko Brock-Richmond, who taught the class, for her gracious and generous spirit. Check out her website.

Somewhere Between Times Square and a Happy Valley

I looked over my new business cards, ordered so I could get them in time for my trip to New York City where I was headed to attend Robert McKee’s Story in Business seminar.

I liked the color. I liked the design. I liked the font. Pretty impressive I thought. And then I noticed my address. I live on Happy Valley Road. Would New York City take anyone who lived on Happy Valley Road seriously?

I had been so looking forward to this trip. I had recently been raked over the coals by a local group who thought my voice sounded too authoritative. Women cringed. Certain men responded with hostility to any sentence that came out of my mouth. If only I could do something about that voice, they said, maybe then they would like me.

New York City seemed like a refuge to me. An authoritative voice was just talking there. It’s how you ordered dinner, hailed a cab, or asked directions.

But then I saw it: Happy Valley Road.

Would an address as optimistic as that make me seem as alien and untrustworthy to urban dwellers as my authoritative voice had to the members of the group in the rural community I now live in?

My first truly rural experience happened shortly after I moved here. A German shepherd started running after my car as I headed down to Happy Valley Road. It was getting close to rush hour and Happy Valley Road, let’s face it, is a more or less thoroughfare. As many as five cars might barrel down the road at rush hour.

I had recently moved from a suburban town so immediately went into protect the dog mode. I stopped the car and started talking to him. Loping up the road came a second dog. He was enormous and it was clear to me that he was a wolf hybrid.

It was a sign, I thought, that I had moved to the right place. I have a wolf tattoo on my right forearm. The wolf hybrid lay down in front of my car. How very trusting. I was moved by his trust of me.

Another car drove by and stopped.

“Do you know who these dogs might belong to?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied, “but they killed one of my chickens this morning. I think that one,” she pointed to the wolf hybrid, “was the instigator. I called animal control but their truck is out of commission. It got hit by a drunk driver last night.”

Wolves get such a bad rap, I thought as she drove off. Remembering that I was in a rural environment, I now worried more that they would get shot than that a car might hit them.

I looked back at my car. I had left the driver’s side door open. The shepherd had climbed in and was sitting in the passenger’s seat, ready for a trip to the drive-in. I walked around the back of the car, opened the door and tried to coax him out.

I turned and saw that the wolf hybrid had followed me around the back of the car. There I was right smack in between the German shepherd, who occupied my car, and the ginormous wolf hybrid who stared at me with a look that said, “I hear humans taste like chickens.”

Well this was a conundrum. Was the shepherd my friend, trying to get away from the bad boy chicken-killing instigator, or was this part of the plan? Were the two of them hunting down tasty treats?

And then it occurred to me that rural living also requires street smarts—just a different kind than urban living.

I don’t honestly remember how I got the shepherd out of my car, but he did leave. As I drove off I still wondered, was the shepherd trusting me to get him away from the bad boy instigator or was he part of the plan? I drove past a house that had chickens in the yard and realized it was all out of my hands.

I enjoyed New York. I stayed in a hotel in Times Square with its overload of neon lights and teeming humanity; walked half a block to see Love Letters with Brian Dennehey and Mia Farrow. Made sure I was always aware of my surroundings.

No one seemed threatened by my authoritative voice.

I returned late in the evening to Happy Valley Road and the crisp clear autumn air, the darkness barely pierced by the lights of the farm across the street and the homes sparsely scattered across the valley.

This is where I live, I thought—somewhere between the optimism of a Happy Valley where wolf hybrids stalk chickens and naïve newcomers, and a teeming city where a human hybrid might stalk you.

It makes sense to me that I can live in both places.

As for my voice, well, I’m a writer. It makes me neither predator nor prey. Anyone can have an authoritative voice. You just have to make that choice. Like me, don’t like me, just know that without a voice, I’m not a writer so I’m not giving it up.

I’ve earned it. Get over it.

Things Are Much More up for Grabs Than You Think They Are

Reading and writing are in themselves subversive acts. What they subvert is the notion that things have to be the way they are, that you are alone, that no one has ever felt the way you have.”
Mark Vonnegut, from the introduction to Armageddon in Retrospect

I think this is going to be about story and story is important to me.

I went to New York City two weeks ago to take a seminar from Robert McKee. I had taken his Story seminar in 2000 and 2003 in San Francisco. I took it twice because the first time I took it (in 2000), I had to stop taking notes and just let the experience of story carry me out to sea, knowing it would bring me back to shore. Or maybe I didn’t know then that it would bring me back to shore.

I just trusted.

I had been through a particularly traumatic experience in which I thought I had lost the family I had worked hard to build. I’m a stepmother. Stepfamilies are precarious. The heart is a resilient muscle. And that’s a good thing. Life tests it.

As I sat through his seminar, I began to see the story of how I discovered the heart’s resilience. A villain is not a villain in the villain’s story. The character is right from the character’s point of view. If you can’t see that, you have a caricature of a human being. You haven’t drilled down to the truth of what it is to be human.

That humanized the trauma for me. It didn’t take it away. Instead it lifted the numbness and allowed me to feel the loss. It also lifted blame.

This latest seminar I attended was called Story in Business. McKee is right about story. It is one of the most powerful tools a leader has to connect with people and move them to action.

Leader as author he says. I agree.

As the day progressed, I found myself once again being swept out to sea. I was nursing a recent disappointment. Not traumatic like what happened in 2000, but nevertheless very disappointing.

Once again, I saw the events and my experience in terms of story. No villains. No heroes, just humans acting in very human ways, driven by fear of change and life passing them by. It’s what we do when change is thrust upon us and our lives are turned upside down. We try to restore our lives to what they were before they were turned upside down, when what we need to do is use our experience to change the story we were living.

For me, it’s allowing myself to be swept out to sea and then use story to make my way back to shore. It’s what I have in place of religion, my way of making sense out of chaos—out of that which I cannot control.

I said this is about story, and I still think it is. Story does not so much give me hope and faith as it shows me that things are much more up for grabs than I thought they were. That’s how Mark Vonnegut puts it in the introduction to Armageddon in Retrospect:

What occurs to people when they read Kurt is that things are much more up for grabs than they thought they were.”

The news has been filled with dread the last few weeks. Between ISIS and Ebola, we’re all feeling as vulnerable as a young black male who’s stopped by the police, or a raped woman who wore a short skirt.

We’re all going to die, Lindsay Graham predicts.

Well, that is certainly true. We all are going to die. We have that in common.

But in the meantime, things are much more up for grabs than we thought they were. Story, our stories, can help us discover that. Not a bad thing when dread hovers over us.

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.