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.

Bursting into Bloom

I hope that you will go out and let stories happen to you, and that you will work them, water them with your blood and tears and your laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves

I suffer from multiple interest syndrome. I not only want to write, I want to see the writing in a three dimensional form. I like acting, and after directing Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, I discovered that I love directing.

The common denominator is story. A writer writes the story; the actor tells it through acting. What I decided my role as director was to set the stage so the story could be told and heard.

Robert McKee, who presents – well performs – a seminar called “Story” refers to story as a metaphor for life. I would agree.

When I first took this seminar in 2000, I was emerging from a period of tremendous loss – loss so great that I was in a constant state of shock, without even knowing it. These were not losses caused by the death of someone; but rather the loss of the belief that love would always win out. I had lost the family that was my stepchildren.

For anyone who has been a stepparent (perhaps, but maybe not, particularly a stepmother), you know that that relationship is a delicate one – delicate because the heart is at once delicate and durable. Parent and child need and want to be loved by each other, but that is far more complex than Mother’s Day and Father’s Day can accommodate.

To preserve everyone’s privacy, I don’t want to go into details. But what I learned about being a stepmother was that I wasn’t issued a bulletproof vest. So when the pain of confusion broke out, I got caught in the gunfire. I felt as if someone ripped my heart from out of my chest, shot it full of holes, then shoved it back into my chest.

The surprise for me was that my heart, riddled with bullet holes, kept on beating. I had survived, and had to learn to live with it.

McKee’s seminar took place over three days. As he took us deeper into story, using examples from films, I found myself drawn onto a path that awakened my numbed heart and gave me a way to experience the feelings I had put on ice. I saw the story of what happened to me; saw everyone with compassion; saw how everyone acted as if they were right, from their point of view.

Being able to see the story of what happened to me, allowed me to see the humanness of everyone involved, including me. Allowed me to see that love is not about surviving – it is about thriving.

I had been blaming myself for having gotten so involved with people; that it was my fault that I got hurt.

But, seeing the story – a story that involved a cast of characters, allowed me to see without blame or judgment. I saw it with compassion – compassion for being human.

It created a metaphor for I could feel the experience without the trauma.

As I started this post, I was thinking of writing that stories are necessary for our survival. But in truth, story is required for us to thrive. To let stories happen to us, we need to be willing to experience the gamut of emotion, from joy to grief, from elation to disappointment, from success to failure.

We need to experience our lives with the compassion for being human, water our stories with our blood and tears and laughter till they bloom, till we ourselves burst into bloom.

Note: I eventually got my family back. We all had to risk exposing the tenderness of our hearts — to trust that the heart is both delicate and durable. I have no regrets.

The Doll Who Hid the Toilet Paper

I use a fountain pen to write my morning pages. It’s a Mont Blanc fountain pen that sits in its desktop holder. It belonged to my mentor, my high school English teacher Ed Brush. Ed is responsible for Tom and I coming back together; he married us at the side of Mt. Tam.

Ed actually left the pen to Tom, but Tom doesn’t like using fountain pens. I, on the other hand, have a collection of them. I like writing with a fountain pen. There’s something about the way the ink flows onto the page.

Ed’s gift to me was the doll who hid the toilet paper.

We had one of those in my bathroom growing up. It appeared about the time I was ten. My grandmother had crocheted an antebellum-style pink dress for a small doll, stuck the legs into the center of a roll of toilet paper, and without much ceremony, given it to my mother.

My grandmother was an expert seamstress and knitter, and could crochet anyone under the table. I still have a blouse she hand stitched when she was 95. I don’t wear it. I just keep it so I can marvel at the evenness of the stitching. I think those stitches would survive a nuclear explosion.

The doll who hid the toilet paper began appearing in bathrooms around the country about the same time it appeared in ours – during the early Sixties. I suspect it began as a nifty idea in Woman’s Day or Better Homes and Gardens, and then swept the nation without fanfare or being noted in daily newspapers.

Woman’s Day and Better Homes and Gardens were targeted at women whose homes would have the toilet paper neatly stashed out of sight in a closet or cabinet. I’m kind of thinking that the doll who hid the toilet paper was a way to bring graciousness to the bathroom – a way to provide guests with a brand new roll of toilet paper, thus avoiding their coming face-to-face with the dreaded final square at an awkward moment.

This could be where the phrase “Getting caught with your pants down,” comes from.

Of course, like the guest towels, I don’t think anyone ever used that roll of toilet paper the doll hid. I mean, what would you do with the doll afterwards?

Last night, as I cleared the table, I lifted the bowl of roasted broccoli and cauliflower to reveal another domestic vestige of my childhood: the round wooden trivet it had been placed on had this inscribed on it:

My house is clean enough to be healthy, and dirty enough to be happy.

That was my mother, the daughter of the woman who made the doll who hid the toilet paper and in her nineties bragged that the manager of the elder housing community she lived in told her she kept her house nicer than anyone else.

This difference created some tension between them. Particularly when my grandmother lived with my mother for some five years. Getting her own apartment was like manna from heaven for her and for my mother. Each once again had dominion over her domain.

My mother’s home continued to be clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy. Her approach to interior decorating was haphazard. It had its own logic. At some point I discovered that the silver-coated wine-tasting cup, dangling from a chain hooked onto a picture hanger, was hung in her den not because of its significance, but because it hid the hole that revealed the layers of paint that had built up between the time my brother’s wedding picture had been hung there, and then taken down after his divorce.

It was, I guess, a version of the doll who hid the toilet paper.

She eschewed crafts that kept her at home. Traveling the world was her passion. This Christmas, as I put the hand-painted Santa Claus on the tree, I realized that it was one she had made. I remembered her kitchen table covered with vials of paint and blank precut flat wooden ornaments – angels, trees, Santas. She had resorted to crafting them in order to keep from losing her mind as the relentless march of Alzheimer’s took my father from her. Leaving the house was an exotic event for her during the time he lived at home.

My mother had wanted to be an artist, wanted to work for Disney studios. But, she came of age at a time when women had to have a particular mindset in order to be out in the world, rather in the home. She would have had to stray too far from my grandmother to do that. And so she didn’t.

It’s a shame. My mother’s hand-painted ornament reveals her talent. It was innate.

That trivet — “My house is clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy,” I think was my mother’s act of rebellion – a rebellion against what defined a woman. She, along with so many other women, got a taste of what might be possible for them when they left the home to work during World War II. Then, like many of the others, she sucked that experience up so things could get back to normal. I think they sucked it up so they could heal the men who returned from war

But, she and they were of that generation who didn’t talk about it. They just did what they thought they were supposed to do, for the good of all.

I think that beneath the surface of that normal life was a world of grief: the grief of men who had experienced the Great Depression and a War; the grief of women who had lost loved ones in the War; and the grief of women who had been given a glimpse of a world outside the home, and then had it taken from them in the name of returning to normal.

Modern conveniences (TV dinners, frozen fish sticks, and so on) were supposed to make them happier, relieve them of the chore of domestic life. I think what it did instead, was remove the artistry of domesticity, and turned it into a trap. At least that was the struggle my mother had. And I had to figure my way out of it.

Somewhere along the line, I learned that writing was my avocation. Claiming it required that I had to throw off the self-imposed limits the women in my family had accepted as just a fact of life. And then I had to reclaim my need for the art of domesticity – creating a home.

Ed Brush was my mentor. He taught me Shakespeare. He taught me that it was important to look beneath the surface – to reveal lies that kept us from our humanity.

About a month before he died, I visited with him and his wife Lee. I told him the story about the doll who hid the toilet paper. He disappeared and returned with a roll of toilet paper and the doll who had hid his toilet paper. It had been given to him by some relative who clearly was clueless about their household.

This was his gift to me. His legacy. What he wanted to pass on to me. I laughed and then asked why he had kept it all these years.

He told me to pull down the top of the doll’s dress. I did. On the protruding, plastic breasts of the doll, he had painted red dots. He had given her nipples.

I keep his doll who hid the toilet paper on the bookshelf in my writing shed.

Prepare the Soul, Make it Ready, Move it to Tenderness

“That’s all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places so that they can best say what they are meant to say.”
From “On Writing” by Raymond Carver

“Words lead to deeds . . . They prepare the soul, make it ready, and move it to tenderness.”
St. Teresa

I walked in the arroyo last week. It’s about two blocks from my house —a little bit of wildness that has endured as suburban neighborhoods developed around it.

I came back from my walk and grabbed the first book that caught my eye as I sat down to write in my writingshed: Call if You Need Me – the Uncollected Fiction and Other Prose, by Raymond Carver.

One of the reasons I am captivated by him is that he is of and from the West Coast. He went to Chico State — I lived in Chico around the same time (he started in 1958, I moved there in 1961). When he wrote about John Gardner, his mentor, taking them to sit on the lawn I could see the town and the campus. I was in junior high at the time and the college always seemed — well so college-like to me. Neither of my parents went to college, so it was an exotic setting to me.

He taught at the Iowa Writing Workshop in Iowa City — I attend the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and absolutely love Iowa City.

He got married at 19 and had two children by the age of 20. He became a raging alcoholic, relied on his wife to support the family, and treated her like shit – as alcoholics have a tendency to do. He had affairs himself, but nearly killed her by hitting her on the side of the head with a bottle when she dared to stray. They eventually separated and divorced.

He stopped drinking in 1977 and confronted the wildfire of his alcoholism, met the poet Tess Gallagher, who, I suspect was his soul mate, and went about his writing.

His early publication history is a bit of a horror story; his editor, Gordon Lish, edited his short stories without consent and then published them.

Carver wrote “Errand,” the short story about Chekov’s death from tuberculosis, in 1987. Shortly after it was published, Carver began coughing up blood. He was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer and died in 1988 at the age of 50.

So even I am wondering what Raymond Carver has to do with my walk in the arroyo.

I think it has to do with the distant sound of a train.

One of my favorite things when I walk through the Arroyo is hearing a train pass through — a distant sound. I feel life simultaneously passing by and standing still.

I start to wonder who is on it, where they came from, where they are going. Are they running away from something? On the way to visit a relative? Maybe there’s a hobo or two riding the rails to wherever.

Of course, mostly now, the trains are carrying containers that get filled in far away ports and then placed on a train at the port of entry. Carrying things.

Yet that sound makes memory present tense for me — untethers it from time — while also giving it the context of reflection.

I think that turning those memories into words is what writing is to me. My voice.

All writers benefit from good editors. They help us identify where our voice is not clear.

But for an editor to do otherwise — as Lish did with Carver — is to wipe clear the sensory memory of the writer. For writers to relinquish those memories, that voice, as the price for acceptance, is to participate in their own oppression.

Even when the editor making the changes is the one inside the writer’s head.

I wonder if our voice is the hobo and the Arroyo: both a bit of wildness in the mundane world that is part and parcel of our everyday life.

Carver nearly lost his life to alcoholism. When he stopped drinking he began to stand up for his voice.

I found St. Teresa’ quote in “Meditations on a Line from Saint Teresa” — I think it is a talk Carver gave about writing —which is in Call if You Need Me – the Uncollected Fiction and Other Prose.

He concludes the piece with this:

“Long after what I’ve said has passed from your mind, whether it be weeks or months, and all that remains is the sensation of having attended a large public occasion, marking the end of one significant period in your lives and the beginning of another, try then, as you work out your individual destinies, to remember that words, the right and true words, can have the power of deeds.

“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. That’s preparation enough. No more words.”

In the end what we have is our words. They should be the right words. They should be punctuated so they say what we mean them to say, so they have the power of deeds, so they can prepare our own souls and move them to tenderness.

Two things. I wondered if hobos still exist. They do. They have a convention each year in Britt, Iowa. I want to go to it.

And . . . checkout the lyrics to Woody Guthrie’s “Hobo’s Lullaby.”

What I Want to Say

The first assignment in my Literary Hybrid class at last year’s Iowa Summer Writing Festival was to write a list that responds to the question, “What do you want to say?”

I wrote down favorite product instructions (and, yes, they really are product instructions):

For best results use joy.

Let go before you think you should.

And then Isabelle Allende’s comment that experience is what you get right after you need it.

Which led to . . .

I’m approaching 60—the age, not the speed limit—and it’s making me think. More like churn. About my life. And what it means to be alive. And what it means to be authentic.

Even if I live to 106, like my great grandfather.

Or 99, like my grandmother.

Or 83, like my mother.

For best results use joy.

Let go before you think you should.

Experience is something you get right after you need it.

That’s what I want to say today.

What do you want to say today?