Guilting the Lily

I would like to just walk away from this, but it sticks in my heart and mind, the charge that I am a bully. Look inside myself—anonymous, and one not-so -nonymous, commenters said to me. If they are saying I’m a bully and they know many, many people who agree, then it must be so. Their feelings are valid. (Okay, they also accuse me of a having a “chronic need” for validation and recognition, which I think is a bit ironic.)

I did look inside myself and couldn’t find the bully they described. But I found it hard to write a blog post. Nothing seemed to get through the fog. The more I told myself to let go, the harder it was to think of something else. It was kind of like when I was a kid on Christmas Eve and the grown ups told me that Santa wouldn’t come until I fell asleep—and then I tried to fall asleep.

I just couldn’t get the voices of the chorus out of my body, mind, heart, and psyche. I had no idea what to do with that energy.

So, I set on a quest to understand what it was I needed to let go of.

Betrayal? That was painful, but that healed.

Anger? As always, that one subsides with time.

The hope that things could have been different? Almost there.

And then, I found it, lurking in my genetic conditioning—what I need to let go of: guilt and shame. Guilt for believing that I am entitled to be recognized for my accomplishments and shame for voicing it.

I will readily admit that the most painful thing for me is when someone willfully doesn’t “hear” me.

I will also readily admit that not being heard is a deeply rooted wound for me. I believe that when that happens, I attempt again and again to be heard, increasing the desperation and then the volume, as if either will solve the problem. I become relentless in my attempt to be heard.

I suspect my relentlessness is what is being translated as bullying. It is perceived as hostility, but really, it’s anger. I would say that willfully not hearing someone is a hostile act—a passively hostile act. I suspect that the decision to willfully not hear is a defense mechanism, one that might not even be conscious. It’s probably reflexive.

But that’s the other person. The question for me is: why the relentless pursuit to be heard when it’s clear that the person either doesn’t have the ears that are capable of hearing or just doesn’t think it’s important to hear me.

There is that niggling voice inside me that preaches guilt: who am I to expect to be heard—it is after all, just me.

So, really, I end up yelling at my own guilt. It’s the most useless form of guilt ever created by humans—a guilt for which there is no way out, because there is no reason to feel guilty to begin with. It is our birthright to feel entitled to our own life.

If gilding the lily means giving something a deceptively attractive or improved appearance, then I think guilt over feeling entitled to one’s own life is “guilting the lily.”

I don’t think we need to do either with our lives.

In defense of my relentlessness, it was my relentless pursuit to have writing as an art integrated into Art Happens that got Storied Nights established. I continued pursuing that goal when other writers who wanted a venue for recognition of all forms of writing gave up. Tricky thing, it is, the strength that can also be your weakness.

Let Go Before You Think You Should

Those were the words of instruction on the Chucker package. A chucker is a long, bent piece of plastic with a claw on the end. It is designed for people like me who throw like a—well who can’t throw a ball more than 3 feet, but have a dog who’s fast and likes to run after the ball.

The first time I used it, the ball, instead of sailing gracefully down the dog park, landed one foot in front of me. Tessa (our dog) was not amused.

So I read the instructions. Something about winding up, lifting your arm straight, and then with a flick of the wrist the ball will sail down the dog park. The hint was: Let go before you think you should.

Well, of course. Let go before you think you should.

Letting go is actually pretty easy, I’ve learned. The difficulty is in discovering what it is I need to let go of.

Today, it has something to do with my Writing Shed. The actual shed. The place that became a place of refuge for me. A place where I wrote.

In about five weeks, I will be leaving it behind, turning it over to the new owners to do with it what they want.

I’m afraid I won’t be able to write without my Writing Shed.

It’s early in the morning. The birds have just started awakening, calling out to each other, perhaps battle cries as much as joyous greetings to the new day. A chicken bluck, bluck, blucks.

The arms of the butterfly bush flutter in the soft breeze at the edge of my Writing Shed. butterfly bushI planted the bush in honor of Ed, my high school teacher and mentor, who died nine months after we moved to Livermore. To the right of my Shed, a cat plays next to a pond—a fountain I bought shortly after Rug died. cat fountainRug, our bunny-soft-furred cat who was killed by a car three weeks before Ed died. And, of course, this is the shed that Gene built—Gene, my father-in-law. The man who called Tom Sweet Man when he was a little boy. Gene died three months after Rug and Ed.

My Writing Shed is a big part of the tapestry I wove while I was here in Livermore—the hometown I returned to.

As we prepare to leave, friends around us are experiencing major life events. One friend lost his brother to a grueling struggle with Parkinsons. Another learned he was going to be a father. This last weekend we attended the wedding of a friend who was widowed ten years ago, his heart mended by the grace of love.

We also learned that a writer who attended our salons had died suddenly of a massive heart attack. His widow thanked us all for listening to his words. I was grateful for the salons. Grateful that a writer had the opportunity to be heard.

I guess life really is a series of letting go, of knowing when a piece of the tapestry is complete—imperfection and all.

Writing this, I realize that I take my Writing Shed with me. It is a part of my tapestry. But, I don’t know what’s next, other than that we are moving to the North West in a few weeks. That is both exhilarating and scary.

Let go before you think you should.


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.

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.”


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.

Beauty, Peace and the Grandeur of Death

’There were no human voices, no everyday sounds,’ she wrote.
‘There was only beauty, peace, and the grandeur of death.’”
From “Errand,” by Raymond Carver

My friend George died at 5:20 in the evening on Thursday December 3, 2009. He was sixty-three.

I met George when we were among the first group of volunteers for a hospice program at San Francisco General Hospital. It was early 1980.

We worked with people for whom economic circumstance made daily reality an uphill struggle. Our job was to help people through the system so their dying had some dignity. My first patient was a woman who was diagnosed with oat cell cancer just as she emerged from rehab.

At monthly support meetings we talked about our patients, exchanged ideas for how best to support them, and drew strength from each other. Death, we learned, was intimate, and we were privileged to be a part of that intimacy.

It was in this context that I became friends with George. A friendship forged in the intimacy of pausing to recognize that death has come and gone and a life has ended—what Raymond Carver refers to in his short story “Errand,” a story about Chekov’s death, as the “grandeur of death.”

Shortly after we began volunteering, what started as random articles on page fifteen of the San Francisco Chronicle about a strange trend in cancers found in young gay men, morphed into more alarming articles about a “gay cancer,” and then became the tsunami that was AIDS.

San Francisco and the General were ground zero for confronting the tsunami head on. While gay men died in shameful isolation in hospitals around the world, the General created an AIDS Ward that was revolutionary in the way it treated people who had terminal illnesses.

The room usually reserved for doctors and nurses became a place where patients and medical staff met over coffee. The emotional chasm between patient and physician or nursing staff did not exist on this ward. Since AIDS at that time was such a devastating disease, cut a swath through an otherwise young and healthy population, success was not measured in cure, but rather in how to maintain quality of life even as it was ebbing.

Staff did not draw away or reject patients as death drew near. They stayed close, opened their hearts. The system was set up to welcome compassion—including compassion for those who provided care.

The hospice program continued to serve all of the population at General as it integrated the AIDS patients, usually young, otherwise healthy men.

George was gay. As long as I knew him, he never tried to hide it. But I think that for him as well as a lot of gay men, being gay had to take on a new meaning of identity—the response to the disease was delayed because it was largely affecting gay men, who deserved to die because they committed acts that were an abomination against God.

I think it was that commitment to his sexuality as well as what he learned in those early years at General, that drew him to Maitri, first as a volunteer and then as a board member. He became the voice of conscience about who they needed to remember to serve: those who would otherwise not be served.

Perhaps because he was gay, George saw and embraced the beauty in women in a most unique way. My personal experience is this:

In the early nineties, while riding the California Street cable car he saw a woman and thought, I really like her energy. “As the car passed by her,” he said, “I realized it was you, Karen.”

For the first time in my life, I felt—desirable—not because he desired me, I knew he was gay, but because he recognized something in me that I thought was forbidden to be: a woman in charge of her own destiny.

I suspect that the reason gay men and strong independent women connect so well is that we have both had to overcome notions that our very beings were somehow a threat that might unravel social conventions and bring a society to its destruction.

Those notions are probably true. Our very beings do unravel those social conventions that bond people together through hatred for and fear of the other. By thriving, we are living proof that being authentic is more life affirming than is surrendering to hatred of yourself.

George and I kind of lost contact over the past few years. My move to Livermore put more of a physical distance between us and that seemed to also put a distance in our relationship.

In retrospect, I think my part in the distancing had to do with facing childhood demons—demons I thought I had dealt with during the thirty-four years I had been gone. These demons were not easily dissuaded. For those who followed my blog over the recent months, these were demons who were not happy about being written out of my story. Facing them was like running a gauntlet with them throwing old messages of fear and loathing at me.

My rage was fully engaged.

I have no idea how this affected my relationships. But I know that in August, 2008, when I met George for coffee shortly before he was due to check into the hospital for his hip replacement operation, I was depressed. Felt like a loser.

It was during his hospitalization for his hip replacement that George learned he had a sarcoma in his pelvis. Sarcoma, a soft tissue cancer is very nasty.

When he called to tell me his diagnosis, I asked, “How are you?”

I don’t remember his answer exactly, but it was clearly polite, designed to protect me.

“No,” I said, “How are you?”

He exploded in anger. “Oh, I can’t go there.”

He apologized for his outburst, but that kind of set the stage for our relationship over the following year. I spoke with him one other time, and he was angry with me then, too. I suspect that the awkwardness between us was born in the context of our initial friendship—a time of facing death head on.

I don’t think George was ready for that. And I could never find a way to meet him authentically while I was acutely feeling the prospect of losing him.

Finally, late this last summer, the chasm began to be bridged. But I was still on the periphery of his life. That felt peculiar to me, because of the intimacy we had had over the years.

It pained me. I feared that I had misread our relationship over the years—a fear that spilled over from the final year of my mother’s life.

George weighed heavily on my mind and heart. Then I remembered the story he had told me about being on the cable car, and wrote a draft of a poem that came out of that memory.

When I spoke to him the Friday before Thanksgiving, he seemed like the George I had known over the years. Whatever shield he had put up to cope with his illness and impending death had come down, as had my fear of misinterpreting our relationship.

We found a project to work on together—preparing for publication the blog he had posted that tracked his journey from diagnosis to search for wellness to acceptance that he would not recover from the illness to his preparation for death.

I prepared a design for the publication and sent it to him. The next time we talked, it was clear that he was starting to drift. “I know I haven’t been there for you, Karen,” he said.

I assured him that he had always been there for me.

It occurred to me that in this brief exchange, we had acknowledged the distance that had occurred between us and that it didn’t matter. What mattered was the connection, and that distance had not broken it, only covered it in the fog of everyday living.

I don’t regret the distance—our lives just took us in directions that created the fog. We each had to pay attention to what our lives demanded.

Maitri was home to George in his final days. His request was that following his death, he lie in repose there for three days. His request was based, as far as I know, on several traditions that believe that the soul stays connected to the body for three days after death.

I received the call about George’s passing on Thursday evening as we were having dinner with our friend, Rob. He had come over for dinner and to play music with Tom. The two (Tom on piano, Rob on saxaphone) played for me, their music carrying me through the first shock of grief and loss.

I woke on Friday and knew that it was important for me to sit with George.

The staff had prepared his body, washing it with water scented with cinnamon and vanilla. He looked very natural lying in the bed, a soft green comforter covering him. His mouth, as rigor set in, had formed the beginning of a smile. He looked as if he was at peace with himself.

Others had come to sit with him as well. As we spoke, I kept expecting him to open his eyes and join us, felt that in many ways he was there with us.

I will miss George. I want more. I want more of those times that George and I talked on the phone, met over dinner, went to the symphony together. We came away each time energized, with new insights about the course of our lives.

I want more.

One of the gifts George gave me was to help me send my demons scurrying. His dying forced me to see that life has an expiration date—and that it was time for me to embrace my life, instead of keeping it at arms length through guilt and shame. Without guilt and shame to nourish them, demons quickly fade away.

It feels strange to have someone who shared a particular moment in a time of my life gone. George was a touchstone. I fully expected that we would grow old together, sitting on the park bench like bookends.

I carry those memories of times we shared alone now.

I believe that, as a culture, if we can figure out how to have compassionate birth and compassionate death, that everything else will fall into place.

George did his part through his actions in life and his dying to show us what compassionate death means.

And on Friday, as I sat with George, there was only beauty, peace, and the grandeur of death.