Wednesday, June 25, 2014

desert song

I had some different plans for this post—I'd been thinking about friendship break-ups, and my increasing reverence for deep, active friendships, what a kind of crazy miracle they are—but the instinct to get into that evaporated and now I'm just going to talk to you about what's happening at this moment, what I'm thinking about at writing time. The friendship break-up thing, though, I'll return to that here at some point. I had a big one this last year, and that's a hot topic in my brain on the regular. But today the breeze has blown me somewhere so much nicer, and I want to go with it.

I've mentioned earlier that I've been working with this spiritual teacher, Jim, whom I chat with via Skype every couple of weeks. We had a session today, and I want to take you where we went. 

Where do I start? How much do I set you up with? I can't drop you in cold.

I'll just start at the beginning. That's always solid. 

I started working with Jim last November, a few months after the recovery needle started moving up after my huge mystery illness. (For those late to the game, short form is that I had a huge mystery illness in 2012/2013 that had me bedbound for a few months and then hospitalized for a couple of weeks, and then I got all the way better and I remain at 100%.) Those first few recovery months were just about gaining strength/catching my breath/enjoying life, but the illness itself was terrorizing and relentless. I want to talk about it sometime, but not today. Anyway, a few months after I came out of the hospital, I lost nearly half of my hair in a delayed stress response, which will maybe give you a sense of scale. (Hair's all back now, been back for about six months, she said, pulling the strands around front and kissing them, mwah mwah mwah.)

So my body was recovering, but my insides needed some care. The illness was so damn medically mysterious, and I'm the sort that starts to wonder what might have contributed to it energetically or emotionally, and even if nothing did, even if my body randomly flipped out and broke for a while, I wasn't taking any chances. Once I was healthy enough, I was like fu-hu-huck this, let's grab a shovel and some mining helmets. We're getting a—what's a Sherpa for going underground?—one of those—and going in. 

Because I could feel it, while I was sick, that there was some kind of energetic mass deep inside me, like a collapsed star down in my tummy. Sometimes I could feel it move around, uncoiling and releasing, like plumes of black smoke. I made an MS Paint drawing of this while I was sick, what it felt like. Here it is:

That was the illness for me on a metaphorical level, what it seemed like it was trying to do for all those months. Cleaning house. Don't ask me yet what was getting cleaned, because I don't know, and I don't know if I'll ever know, and I don't know if I'll ever need to fully understand. My own stuff. Family stuff. Ancestral stuff. Quién sabe? But holy smoke, I must have had some kind of long-term ecological disaster reverberating down there. Gulf-of-Mexico, BP-level crud accumulating in me over who-knows-what span of time. That's what it felt like, anyway.

So, yeah, there was this something to deal with. And then Jim and I started working together. I'd approached him in the summer, after I'd taken a free class of his—in which I'd been impressed because he spotted that mass-feeling-thing down in my whereabouts and described it to me without my having mentioned anything about it—and he was like, nope. Go chill for a couple more months. You're still stabilizing. And then November came, and he asked me to meditate for half and hour every day, and we'd get on the Skype every other Tuesday, and dig in. 

It's hard to describe a typical session. It's not therapy, we're not talking about very many of the specifics of my day-to-day life. There's an improvisational vibe. It's like I'm one big, shifting metaphor, and we look at whatever gets kicked up to represent my internal terrain on any given day. We started out spending a lot of time in a kind of genie-bottle-cave right in my middle—sometimes inundated with flood-waters, sometimes clear and dry. I always had a little flame in there to illuminate things. Sometimes it was birthday-candle pitiful, sometimes it was campfire-sized, but it finally got gigantic/dazzling enough to break the genie-bottle-cave frame and deposit us in some different scenes. I've found myself at Indralaya, I've found myself in creepy, flame-extinguishing blackness, I've found myself in a forest. We take a look around, I desribe what it feels like, we see what it's connected to if we can, or we just note it and move on. 

We're getting to the good part, the thing that made me write this post.  

That desert picture up top, that's as close as I could find to give you a representation of the new terrain we discovered a couple of weeks ago. Amazingly, Google-Image doesn't have any shots from my subconscious, or superconscious, or wherever this place is. I don't know how I got there, I don't remember what came before it in the session where it appeared, but it's the best place I've ever been, so I want to talk about it. I want to say what it's like. I visit it sometimes on my own, and it's better than any vacation. Potent, alive, like a great dream that's broken out of its nighttime box and become real somehow, as real as my backyard. 

It's a pale, sandy, baked-out desert landscape. The air is still and warming, and it's usually dusk. I'm sitting there at a little encampment by myself. Home base. Maybe there's a rug and maybe there's a white tent, a kind of Laurence-of-Arabia setup, but the physical details are secondary to the feeling there. The first feeling is of permanence. This place, this warmth, this perfect stillness, they will always be available to me. It's not going anywhere. I will never be denied access, I can tell. And with the permanent feeling is a sense that this place makes all things okay.  There is no bitch or worry or heartache or fear I can arrive at this spot bearing that doesn't start getting transmuted instantly. 

When my husband proposed to me ten years ago on Balmoral Beach in Sydney, it was one of those transcendent moments where all the bad feelings in the world felt like they'd drained away. I couldn't feel a drop of darkness anywhere on Earth for the life of me. I wondered a little bit if we were still on Earth. The sensation lasted, I don't know, fifteen minutes? Half an hour? I mean, the whole day was glorious, but this shot of pure sublimity dissipated relatively quickly.

And back in 2001, I traveled with my then-boyfriend and his family to England, and we made a stop in Bath. The Roman baths there in Bath, the main attraction, where people went through the centuries to heal from illness—holy gods. You can feel in ten minutes how it came to be a healing Mecca. I sat by that pool and I never wanted to get up. The air there was so tranquil and humming. It felt like it was doing something, you know? Bittersweet, because after an hour we had to go, and I wanted years.

The love and brightness on that beach, the healing vibe by the baths: mush them together and we enter the territory of this desert image/experience/thingy. But the kick is, this place is mine. I own it. I have it, I can't lose it. It may even be me, the ground of my being underneath all my history and habits and specifics. That's Jim's theory. I can't speak to that and I don't care. All I know is that every time I take myself there, it's complete, instant respite, a heaven-feeling, the spa of spas. I don't know what it is, but it makes me feel so solid to know it's there, like I've discovered an endlessly renewable ace up my sleeve.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

word processor

Writer's Block (Richard Ahnert, 2011)

My friend Paul Mullin has tagged me in a blog tour meme hashtag deal called #MyWritingProcess, which he's tackled like a champ over at his place. Paul's one of those capital W writers I talked about a couple of weeks ago, a prolific and talented playwright who's bowing out of his old form for a while to jump into memoir. Go read about his process, but after you read mine, because he's got a lot more to offer you than I do and I want to look good for a minute.

You might notice that I wrote about writing only two weeks ago, and maybe it seems soon to circle back and hit it again, but this prompt appeared now and I don't have another topic wrestling for supremacy this week. So I'm going in. I promise next week's post won't be about writing, unless it is. 

So these are the four questions on deck with this meme:

What am I working on?
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Why do I write what I do?
How does my writing process work?

Let's see how faithful I am to this little group. I can tell you right now that every single question makes me squirm. But it's good to squirm sometimes. It's tonic. I'll fight through it.

What am I working on?

Are we talking about on the page? Or in my mind? Because I've got a whole Walter-Mitty-esque panoply of things getting worked on in my imagination. If we're talking about cold, hard facts, then you see everything I'm working on every Wednesday. 

But if we tweak the phrasing of the question, I can give you a little more. If the question is "What are you working on or toward?", then the answer is threefold: I'm working toward a memoir, I'm working on an application for a writing residency, and I'm working toward getting essays published in places that are not this blog. I'm making the distinction because I'm dealing with some resistance, like I talked about a couple of weeks ago. Words—you know, words, the currency of this whole endeavor—are not piling up right now, except for here. But I've made moves toward these goals. I've pitched a few things, published a couple of teeny ones, and am waiting to see if a particular pitch I've made will fly for a piece I'm dying to do, which would happen a few months from now. 

The memoir, though. Oof. It's a slippery fucker. I have the subject but not the story, even though I've been hanging out with/working on this thing for three years. Right now I have a handful of scenes, an incomplete list of scenes I haven't written yet, and an ancient mass of vamping waste product. The lack of clear handle on the story makes me want to pull my hair out. What exactly am I tracing? Where does it land? I know the terrain, I have a sense of the transformation I'm undergoing as narrator, but I want to know where the rainbow ends, for fuck's sake, which I can't find out until I stack up the scenes and find out the actual truth.  I want to see it before I make it, but I can't, and it's turning me into a stubborn little donkey. It's dark up there on that path! I'm not going. You can't make me. What if I accidentally walk off a cliff? Fuck you. 

But this is the project, this is the thing that if I don't do it, the last word on my deathbed will be one long obscenity. I want it and resist it more than anything. I've blown it up too big in my mind, too, like writing and, god willing, publishing it it will change my life and validate my whole existence. I have to shrink it, so I can get to it. 

I'm afraid. Fear, stupid fucking fear, my archenemy. I'm afraid of that cliff, or all the cliffs. I'm afraid to tell the truth and alienate people, even dead people. I'm afraid of writing a dumb book, or a shallow one, or one that just misses the mark. 

I got kicked out of college once. I got kicked out, and then they let me back in, and then I freaked out, got paralyzed and flunked out in the end, anyway. I had trouble writing my papers, because I didn't want anyone to see my opinions, because they were probably stupid. My professors were like what the fuck is wrong with you, girl and I couldn't tell them. When I was lobbying to be let back in after they kicked me out, I had to go in and face this gigantic room of faculty and plead my case. Someone asked me the "What the fuck is wrong with you, girl?" question, and I tried my best to articulate it. "I think it's perfectionism," I ventured. My Abnormal Psych professor was particularly scornful about this theory, saying, "I would hardly call your lack of work the result of perfectionism!" and I wanted to throw my purse at his head. Fuck him. It was and is. 

Anyway. That's what I'm working on. Things, and perfectionism. 

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I so badly want to tell this question to go scratch, because I hear a touch of what makes my work unique/better than others of its genre, the answer to which is I don't know/nothin'. But the part of me that understands that marketing is a thing thinks I ought to take a stab at it. 

My genre is memoir/personal essay Is that a genre? Shit, man. Am I doing something different? I guess this blog is really all we can go on, since it, you know, exists. I think a strength and a weakness in this blog is that I don't stick to one tone. I write humorous things when the spirit moves me, but as often as not I go the other way. It's nice that I can swing both ways but it makes it tough to pinpoint what I'm doing all up in here. Maybe that's the difference. A wide straddle? This fucking question. You tell me, folks! 

I swear a lot. That's something. I swear because that's how I talk and think. I can clean up when I need to, but I like to be free and tell the truth, and swearing is shorthand for the truth/occasionally necessary to convey the truth. 

This is the worst question. I don't know, man! I will inevitably have to do better with this, but not tonight.

Why do I write what I do?

Why do I write about myself? Oh, this one's easy. Because of my childhood! 

That's flip but it's true. The drive to grab hold of the mic rose from a way-back feeling of invisibility (inaudibility?), and I think I'm perpetually trying to establish that I exist. 

How does my writing process work?

For starters, Tuesdays. Tuesday's my day. I have one inviolable writing day a week, thanks to the good loving/blockade running of my husband. He covers my ass as long as I want on Tuesdays, since I publish this blog just after midnight at the top of Wednesday. Time is the sine qua non for a writer, and so far I own one day. I need another one, or some more pieces. I occasionally pounce on a not-Tuesday, but a real standing date with my brain would help. We've got two little kids, so we're both struggling for time. 

But, okay, so it's Tuesday. We have the when. Where is either sitting on my bed or at my favorite café. I'm there right now. Check it out:

This is my office away from home. When I did intuitive readings for a living, I either did them on the phone at home or here. I love this joint. The coffee is great, the walls are red, I like the music, the crowd is sort of nicely varied and schlumpy-ish. What more could I ask?

And this is what I write on:

An iPad mini, seen here on my other office. I love the portability, and I've grown to love autocorrect. And it seems casual. What, I'm just throwing down a few words! Nothing to stress over. I used to occasionally write longhand, but my handwriting is horrible when I'm thinking and writing fast. If I want to know what I said, I better type—that is, unless I go calligraphy-slow, which nope. 

I will pull out pen and paper, though, if I'm brainstorming, which has become a go-to part of my process. I took a brainstorming class at the Hugo House taught by the smart and delightful David Schmader, and I'm so glad I did. It's the one part of my process that has specific, formal steps—even if they're very simple ones—which are a comfort when I'm flailing. 

That's the concrete stuff. I can't speak to anything else, I think. It feels premature to discuss anything more esoteric. I'll do that when I'm a Writer. I'm conscious that I'm developing as a writer, and part of that development has to do with ownership. I don't fully own it yet. For the w in my writer to go capital, I need to fight for it harder: fight for the time, fight to push my voice out there in the work itself, fight to be read by a wider audience, and remunerated for my work whenever possible, and most of all to value my own work enough to do all of that. I'm working on it. 

And now it's time to pass the tag baton. I'm going to toss this in the direction of a couple of women whose work I love, in different genres. My pals Suzanne Morrison and Keri Healey are capital Ws. Suzanne has written a memoir called Yoga Bitch (get it, read it—so smart, so charming) and is at work on a new one and also, I believe, on some short stories, one of which I've heard her read aloud, and it was the bomb. I wanted fifty more. Her voice is urbane and sharp and open and tender all at once, which is my favorite thing. And Keri Healey is a playwright. Her most recent production was a dark and brilliant piece called Torso, which rocked this town. Keri wades balls-out into tough subject matter, but her writing is also incredibly funny and personable. Seattle is lucky to have her, and I had the pleasure/challenge of performing in one of her plays while I was pregnant with my oldest son. I hope they take me up on it and spill. Keri doesn't have a blog, but hey, technicalities. She can borrow mine. 

There. I gave you all I could give you. Thanks to Paul Mullin for being curious and giving me something to write about this week, and for constantly encouraging me, which means a ton. Now you can go read his post, and the rest of his blog, and his plays while you're at it, and hold tight for his memoir. He's one of my favorite thinkers and he's got a pugilistic streak that I love. Or maybe the pugilistic part is the main part, and he's got a streak of tranquility. Whatever it is, I dig it. Go look. 

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

red light, green light

Starting back in January, when I made a commitment to pump life back into this blog and post once a week, I had a grace period for a couple of months where the topic for the next post would arrive well in advance, floating up to the top of my consciousness with a feeling of certainty and a few sentences ready to leap. It was a nice ride, all those ideas sidling up to me politely like little butlers, offering their services a cosmic minute before I needed them. 

Yes. Well. We've moved to a different part of the program. And, of course, I knew that golden age would pass. There are a lot of weeks under the every week umbrella. They just keep coming. One of my writing mentors, Bob Ray, talks about how much endurance is a part of the deal, and that's a big set of muscles getting worked right now, though not the only set. 

Sometimes I get hit with resistance so hard that I can barely keep my eyes open. I took two long, powerful, inadvertent naps in front of the blank page just today, trying to figure out what the fuck I was going to talk to you about here, and that was after a good night's sleep. I didn't want to go under, I fought it, but it was as though I'd wandered into a field of enchanted poppies, or been slipped a roofie by some internal saboteur, which I actually think is about right. My money's on the notion that this move to develop endurance as a writer is starting to challenge some old identity, and whatever identity that is is not having it.

Soon after college, I remember hanging with my friend Tanya, complaining to her about how out of shape I was. Tanya offered, sensibly, that I could go the gym. And I was annoyed, like, THAT is not the POINT. I am not looking for SOLUTIONS here. If you drag solutions into a thing, you don't get to keep your beautiful, tragic destiny, and I guess my beautiful, tragic destiny was to be an under-appreciated weakling or something? If I went to the gym, I would become a whole different person, and nobody just becomes a whole different person. Doi. I didn't examine this resistance, either. You get an idea wedged in there and it's going to look solid at a glance, so you just leave it.

Lately, I'm having this thing where I burst into tears of longing whenever I hear of somebody getting a book published. They don't have to be real people, either. I saw Her for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and when Joaquin Phoenix's character was surprised with the news that a publisher was turning his letters into a book, I had a heart pang and a little sob popped out of me, so dramatic it was almost comical. But news of book publication, faux or no, hits me like I'm one of the people left behind after the Rapture. First it's like, wow! Yay! Rapture! How 'bout them apples?! And then I'm like, oh, no. I'm down here among the damned. Everybody's up there eating potato salad in heaven or whatever and I'm stuck down here wandering around some horrible housing development underneath a gloomy, apocalyptic sky. 

You don't even have to say it. You don't. You want to, I can feel it, YOU SENSIBLE TANYAS. You're about to say, how 'bout just writing a book, doofus? I got that part. I'm working on it. I'm just stalled, so I'm popping open the hood to see what's gumming up the machinery. 

Like, for example, I have some ideas about what real writers are. I know I'm a writer, but I'm talking about Writers. Besides being published, they're like something. You got two kinds. There are your tough, whiskey-swilling, unstoppable, Indiana Jones motherfuckers who outrun boulders and hang off the bottoms of moving trucks and punch Nazis and just get the shit done, no matter how beaten up they get in the process. They have no time for little armchair dreamers. Talk to them after you've retrieved a couple of arks. And then you have your academic, straight-A, Ravenclaw types in sweater sets, typing away primly, amassing endless stacks of pages. They have no time for Type B fuckups, people who turn in their homework late or not at all. They peer down over their glasses long enough to sniff that you all got the assignment at the same time, so you really have no excuse. 

So that's the gamut. Real writers, right there. Never mind that I know a good bunch of real writers, by my definition, and they're generally delightful human beings whose company I enjoy. I'm still toting these ideas around, which is a problem because a) I'm not like either of The Two Kinds of Writers and b) I don't want to hang around with them or be rejected/mocked by them. Why go for success as a writer if it means I'm applying to swim in and then drown amidst a pond full of dismissive assholes? That sounds bad, right? Totally bad. Give up. 

What's a bit more radioactive, and trickier, is bumping up against an outdated identity that doesn't want to let go. I can feel it in there. I felt it in there today as I struggled to stay awake. The work I've been doing—writing work and spiritual/emotional/whatever-you-want-to-call-it  work—has dug up what feels like an ancient statue, a porcelain-hard Tina-likeness, something that's calcified over hundreds of years of reinforcement. (Let's agree that I could be a few hundred years old for these purposes, okay? It's just a metaphor. It's all a dweam.) 

This Tina-statue is an unassuming, supplicant, pitiful little creature. A wimp-angel. When I look at her face, I can tell that she needs permission for the least move. She looks flinchy, like she's been beaten, and she's just trying to sneak along under the radar so she won't get hurt. I don't know exactly where she came from, but being a writer probably feels to her like a terrifying move. If you're going to say things out loud to people over and over, you're probably going to say the wrong thing—over and over, even—which is inviting the worst kind of trouble. And I think when I say the worst, I mean the worst. A survival thing. 


So there she is. You have to walk a fine line when you pull up something like this, I think. Deciding this is a made-up problem and plowing forward disregarding it feels like a mistake, like kicking the problem down the road. But there's a heavy victim element in this statue-image that I don't want to romanticize/further attach myself to, either. 

A friend of mine, a Real Writer, likens the writing process to doing dishes. You just get in there and do them. Sometimes it goes quickly, and sometimes you hit a patch that takes a bunch of scrubbing, and you just have to hang in and scrub, and you just do it. I like this. I like the simplicity of it, the lack of drama. I feel like something similar goes for undoing old conditioning, only the scrubber in this case is just pure attention. There's something cleansing in plain old attention, something that can dissolve anything with enough patience, no matter how hard and baked-in the mess is. It's enough just to look.