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.

Deliver us from Fear, Lead us out of the Wasteland

We can no longer speak of “outsiders.” It once was possible for the ancients to say, “We are the chosen of God!” and to save all love and respect for themselves, projecting their malice, “out there.” That today is suicide. We have now to learn somehow to quench our hate and disdain through the operation of an actual love, not a mere verbalization, but an actual experience of compassionate love, and with that fructify, simultaneously, both our neighbor’s life and our own.

Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That page 30.

I “liked” a Facebook page called Pledge of Renewal. It showed up on the right column of my page with the suggestion I might want to join it because it was a group who pledged a renewed support and dedication to the Constitution.

I took the bait and clicked over to the page. I found that this group’s interpretation of the Constitution, and what America represents, was quite different than mine. It (PoR for short) insisted that America is a Christian nation that has lost its way through political correctness.

I “liked” the page so I could participate in the comments and discussion. I had to leave after a couple of weeks. Willful ignorance fueled their hatred. Obama was an illegitimate president because he was born in Kenya. His Hawaii birth certificate was a fake, but the Kenyan birth certificate was valid. He is a Muslim who is out to destroy America. Glenn Beck’s Restoring America rally showed that white people could own Martin Luther King (perhaps they didn’t realize the irony in that statement). The rally was peaceful (uh . . . maybe because it was homogenous?) and those geese flying in formation down the reflecting pool were sent by God to prove that America is a nation of white people blessed by God – no not that god, “our” god.

Good white Christian people had been oppressed long enough. It was time to claim their right to be right, and the “other” wrong. That was what our Founders meant by freedom of religion — the freedom to put the full force of the law behind their Christian beliefs. They might tolerate same sex relationships (hate the sin, love the sinner), but God reserved marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman (serially, perhaps, but  . . .). Once a man fertilizes a woman’s egg (whether by rape or consensual sex), she becomes an incubator with no rights over her body.  Islam is un-American and evil.

Oh, and, of course that mosque (that isn’t a mosque) should not be built at ground zero (even though it wouldn’t be) because ground zero is sacred ground and Muslims build mosques on conquered ground.

Most of the time I was measured in my comments and responses, suggesting that no laws respecting the establishment of religion meant just that; that the founders had learned through years of bloody battles that religion is a private matter, between the individual and their god (or lack of god). That religion that is forced by law of the land has little to do with faith.

Or, as Joseph Campbell says, when force, not love, is required to give the myths and metaphors of religion meaning, you have wandered into the Waste Land.

The good that came out of my wandering into the Waste Land was that I started reading Joseph Campbell and Karen Armstrong again. They chased the Blue Meanies away.

If asked, I say that I am spiritual, but not religious. My father was a Catholic who had been married before; my mother a Baptist who drank, smoked, and danced. I checked out both religions. The Baptists dissed the Catholics; the Catholics insisted that they were the true and only church. According to the Catholic Church, my parent’s marriage was not sanctified by God (sort of like a marriage between two people of the same sex) and thus invalid. If Catholicism determined the law of the land, my mother would not have been recognized as my father’s legal widow and I would be considered illegitimate.

My parents took no sides in the religious wars going on around me. They let me choose my spiritual road for myself.

I am grateful for that. And, it makes me laugh at the notion that calling America a Christian nation means something. Which sect of Christianity are we talking about: the one that says the Pope is infallible, or the one that says women can be ordained as ministers? The one that says dancing is a sin, or the one that sponsors dinner dances as fund raisers? The one that says homosexuality is a sin, or the one that has a lesbian as its minister? Or the one that says ordaining women as priest is more heretical than protecting priests who molest children?

In the Power of Myth series Bill Moyers asks Joseph Campbell if humans create myths based on their environment. He said yes. He gave the example of what it was like when a Pygmy, who lived in a rain forest, was taken to a mountaintop. The vastness of the landscape overwhelmed him. He wanted to retreat into the rain forest where he felt safe.

I think we are all Pygmies standing on the mountaintop right now. The site of the earth viewed from the moon, has altered forever our notion of boundaries and horizons. The earth is home to all living creatures. We are interdependent. Our mastery of weapons makes none of us safe. It puts us all at risk.

I think we have a choice. We can look out over the vastness of our world with awe, and be willing to embrace it. Have compassion for being human. Feel fear, but not let fear determine our actions. Retreat to the safety of our rain forest, but keep the memory of the vastness that lies beyond it alive in our hearts.

The alternative is to let fear lead us into the Waste Land.

Perhaps this September 11 is a good day for America to go to the mountaintop. Maybe that will quench the flames arising from the Quarans the church in Florida threatens to set on fire. Let us not become the men, crazed with fear of change and hatred of the other, who flew planes into the towers, taking lives and inflicting unmerciful pain on the loved ones left behind.

Let us experience compassionate love, so we can experience our own lives and apply our hearts unto wisdom.

Sacred Ashes and Hallowed Resting Ground

Sad-voiced winds moan in the distance. Grim fate seem to be on the Red Man’s trail, and wherever, he will hear the approaching footsteps of his fell destroyer and prepare stolidly to meet his doom, as does the wounded doe that hears the approaching footsteps of the hunter.
Attributed to Chief Seattle

It’s hard to know what to say about what is happening in the Gulf. I wonder if this is what it felt like when Hitler was elected. Could anyone have possibly imagined the horrific consequences that would ensue?

I’m wondering if that is what April 20, 2010 will be in our history. Eleven people were killed in an offshore oil rig explosion that unleashed a different kind of horror. For forty-five days oil has been gushing from the ocean’s floor at the rate of millions of gallons per day.

No one knows how to stop it.

We certainly don’t know how to repair the damage it has caused. That’s what happens when you create God in your own image.

To us, the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. . . Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors—the dreams of our old men, given them in solemn hours of the night by the Great Spirit, and the visions of our sachems, and is written in the hearts of our people.
Attributed to Chief Seattle

As the oil gushes out, we are learning that all the technological research and development went into drilling for oil. None went into what to do if an accident happens. And accidents do happen.

The Sarah Palin/Charles Karuthammer-world view would have it that this is the fault of the extreme “greenies.” The greenies – the environmentalists – forced the oil industry into drilling without a condom.

Could there be any more ignorant, cynical human beings on the planet than these two?

Long range business planning is developed in terms of business quarters. Three-month cycles.

This is not the time to have the small-hearted, lizard-brained in charge.

Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come, for even the White Man whose God walked and talked with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We will see. . . .
Attributed to Chief Seattle

I’m pissed. And I’m up to past here with the fear mongering.

We need to change the story. Let’s start by calling this event what it is – a holocaust — a mass slaughter, a reckless destruction of life.

I think it’s time for Crones every where to rise and demand we be heard. And you don’t have to be an old woman to be a Crone. Jimmy Carter tried to get us on the path of oil-independence more than thirty years ago.

Obama has taken the first step. He said he grew up in Hawaii where the ocean is sacred.

Sacred. Naming it sacred — our world. That’s where the story begins.

And when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night, when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The White Man will never be alone.

Let him be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead are not powerless. Dead, did I say? There is no death, only a change of worlds.
Attributed to Chief Seattle

Note: The quotes for Chief Seattle are from a text different than the one I am used to. Here’s the link.

Applying our Hearts Unto Wisdom

Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”
Moses, maybe

When last I blogged, I decided to work on my howl. Howling to find my pack.

Perhaps because of that, a friend who Tom and I last saw years ago (as in over 40), came to dinner. He was in town for a high school reunion. Kelly was a part of the group called Auxiliary Players – a group comprising audacious high school and home-for-the-summer college students – that produced plays and performances during the summer.

Our friend Jim joined us. Tom has known Jim since they were both in the seventh grade. I’ve known him as long probably; his mom was my mom’s best friend. They played bridge together for more than 40 years. Marge sorely misses my mom. They were the only liberals in their bridge group.

The conversation turned to memories of high school and what they have done since. There were no stories of missed field goals, favorite cars, or even girls that got away. Instead they talked about music – and how their experience in high school nourished them as musicians.

At one point, Tom put on the CD recording of Psalm 90, a psalm that he set to music when he was nineteen. The recording was of the 1969 a cappella choir’s performance – a high school a cappella choir.

Tom set Psalm 90 to music after hearing it recited over the graves of four students – eighteen-year old boys – who had been killed in a dorm fire set by a disturbed resident. For Tom, I think the most important verse is the one that reads “ . . . establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.”

Let our lives matter.

His mentor, the high school music teacher, asked the choir in September if they were up to the choral piece – a fairly complex piece of music (anyone who knows Tom’s music knows of what I speak). Kelly told us that he thought if Tom wrote it, it would be okay. The choir worked on it through the year and performed it for their Spring concert.

As we listened to the recording, Tom heard the voice of a friend of his who died fifteen years ago of brain cancer. Kelly reminded him that the friend he had visited a day earlier was in the choir as well – a friend who is desperately ill with cancer and is not likely to live much longer. He asked for a copy of it so he could share it with his friend on his next visit, scheduled in two days.

The next time we saw Kelly, he had just returned from visiting his friend. Midway through the recording, Kelly said, his friend broke down in tears.

And I understood that this was my tribe.

People who transform and are transformed. These are not tiny-hearted men. They are men with enormous hearts. Men who had the courage as adolescents to follow the call of their creative souls and now, with the fragility of life staring them in the face, speak with a wisdom of the heart that had its seed in adolescence.

For me, the verse that resonates is the one I quoted at the beginning of this blog, “ . . . teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”

For me, that means being willing to experience life through a mortal body. To be willing to own what being alive means to me, and not shrink from either the joy or sorrow that might bring.

To honor my spirit.

To howl.

Note: The verses that precede my favorite one talk a lot about god’s wrath. I’m not big on that. But given who wrote these verses (Moses, maybe, then translated into English during the time of Shakespeare, by people who think monothesitcally) I think that the point is if you really want to piss off god, waste your life by not living it.

And on another note: I’ll see if I can post the recording of Psalm 90. Stay tuned.

If You Start to Die – Don’t

I read that quote in Gail Collins’ New York Times column today. It was 108 year-old Frank Buckle’s secret to a long life. Frank is the last surviving veteran of World War I.

I read it this morning after spending a fitful night of maybe-sleep worrying about how I will pay my bills. Not an unusual concern these days. Nor is it the first time in my life that I have worried about this.

I have been a freelance technical writer for 24 years; and never have I had so much trouble finding work. Some of the problem is that I was distracted for a good five years with taking care of my mother’s and father-in-law’s descent into declining health and eventual death. My mentor also died over this time period. As did the wife of a friend of ours. And my cat.

I say I was distracted by this. Actually, work would have been a distraction from that. As Willie Loman’s wife says in Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid.”

But those four or five years took me out of the loop. My Linkedin profile is practically anorexic. I don’t really know how to take advantage of the maybe-there’s-a-three degree-of-separation between me and someone who is hiring.

I have begun to think I am unemployable.

But, when you start to think something like that – don’t.

I think in part, the workplace has changed. Companies want to hire temporary employees, but ask that the temporary employee commit as if it (the company) was offering a marriage proposal without a prenup.

I remember from my dating years that what they are really offering is a one-night stand.

So I can rant about this change (which I am quite capable of doing), or try and retool myself. Much as I did when I finally decided that if I was looking for a committed relationship, I shouldn’t settle for one-night stands with the hope it might be more.

I still have no idea what the answer is or where to go. I just know that taking a job that requires twelve-hour days, four of which are taken up in a commute, is like death to me.

Someone said to me, “Anyone can put up with anything for six months.” She said this right after I visited a friend of mine whose life is waning. He will probably not be here in six months.

So my choice was, “When you start to die, don’t.”

And my challenge is, how do I pay the bills?

Don’t know the answer yet.

But, I think it’s important for all of us in these weird, rocky economic times to put our lives first, and don’t put up with one-night stands – unless you both agree that’s what you want.

Comments and suggestions are welcome. If you know anyone who needs a writer (technical, business, etc.) let me know.

Oh, and I love Gail Collins. In a recent column she said that the Republicans were afraid that if Sotomayor was appointed to the Supreme Court that she might become untethered and commit empathy. Her writing takes some of the sting out of losing Molly Ivins.

When Your Heart Breaks Open

A friend I have known for close to 30 years is being invaded by tumors. Alien beings are taking over his body, stealing the nourishment intended for him.

I have known him for half my life, met him as I turned a critical juncture in my life – when I became a hospice volunteer. We were in the original group of volunteers in a hospice program at San Francisco Hospital. This was 1980 – just months before the tsunami of AIDS surged across the landscape and SFGH became a Mont St. Michel in an epidemic that carried away thousands.

When I told him I always expected that he and I would be in the same old age home, rocking in our rocking chairs on the porch, he replied, “This is it. Sixty is the new eighty.”

I’ve lost many people, particularly over the past ten years. In-laws, my parents, my high school teacher. I’ve also lost family members because they weren’t willing to alter their view of me – weren’t willing to let go of roles that kept the family intact, but were toxic for me. And so I am no longer a part of their lives. There is no room in their hearts for me.

But, my friend has been in my life on purpose. One of those people who became family by virtue of spirit and intent, rather than birth or blood. Perhaps that is why his leaving is particularly confusing and unnerving for me.

I have no idea where to put it. How to hold it.

What we learned in hospice was that our role was to be a witness. It was a good lesson for me because I had always been a caretaker. Doing something to make it better, and better meant getting between the person I was taking care of and whatever difficulty they were facing.

In working with the dying, I learned to step out of the way; to clear the path so the person could face their impending end in whatever way gave them the most dignity. For some it was denial. For others it was looking it squarely in the eye.

My friend is looking it squarely in the eye. Both his life and his impending death. He believes there is a life after death – not heaven or hell – but other lifetimes. And, I feel that he will always be with me, woven into my heart, because of what we shared.

I became a hospice volunteer because I wanted to learn how to accept death. I thought that meant that it would become fathomable to me. It hasn’t.

It is particularly unfathomable to me that the life of someone with whom I learned to become a witness, I am now serving as a witness to.

But, my heart is breaking. I’d like to think that it is breaking open so I can fully witness the final journey of this very dear man, whose heart bettered the world with each of its beats.

Would that he could live so we could celebrate his eightieth birthday together.

______________________________________________________________
Karen Turns Sixty
by Karen L. Hogan

If I could turn back
the hands of time
I would have nothing to regret

or remember.

So, I’d do much of it the same way
no doubt,

end up with the same regrets,
the same memories,

and my age-spotted hands
would be no younger.