Without Darkness, How Can We Appreciate the Light?

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A friend recently found out about a family member’s 10-year obsession with her. They had been compulsively collecting and cataloging her failures and perceived cruelties and mistakes. Their intractable and absolute conclusions as to her intentions and actions over this time, and perhaps even earlier, currently exist as highlighted, underlined, and (probably alphabetized) chronological “proof” of her awfulness. A solution or reconciliation did not seem to be the purpose here and my friend began to think this archive was apparently “evidence” for a retaliation of an undisclosed nature. Regardless of how many times my friend tried to address the root of the problem, the relative would not participate in a solution. It seems that to ask for clarification of, or response to, these logged behaviors would make the accuser have to acknowledge their own failures (the root cause of the dilemma is not necessary to the point here, so the personal details will be omitted).

In this mind-numbing set of circumstances, my friend found herself stilled and bereft of creativity and confidence. She had become very self conscious and nervous after this revelation. If this person were so obsessed with her weaknesses, real or perceived, how would she fare under the scrutiny of others who are not obligated by blood or kinship to be kind or compassionate? After all, even informed and logical life choices she had made had been twisted out of context. How could she guide reality? This worry affected her writing. Her opinions were tepid. Ambition, rather moderate. It took some time before she would even practice yoga in our group! Her sadness would not dissipate; but, she did brave asking me what she should think of all of this. Was she really what this person claimed?

The only thing I could say with certainty is that the need to believe in and, thus, prove the worst is simply just that–a need–rather than a reality or truth. Like other forms of interpretation, what may look to be absolute may have more meaning if one educates oneself beyond the surface “evidence.” If one refuses to question or confront something, any reality can become terrible and impossible to participate in or change. This participation in reality takes strength and courage, not the hoarding of pain and blame. The family member was without the ability to understand or care about this.

After this discussion, she disappeared into herself for a while. Then, after about two months, she reached out. She told me that, after a time, all the obsession about the betrayal began to feed a different energy. She became more analytical about the whole thing. Rather objective. She couldn’t really explain her internal process, but she could offer some solace or help to those in similar situations or difficult circumstances by sharing her experience as a kind of allegory for questioning the self. With calm meditation and reflection, it became evident that her antagonist was quite the narcissist, less focused on revenge than self validation in relation to my friend’s abilities, and accomplishments. The antagonist did not want to acknowledge their own faults. Their lacking was easier to ignore or deny if someone else was to blame for their own life choices or their inability to make wise ones. The accuser stopped being a nemesis holding a “loaded “pile of paperwork “aimed” at her and threatening her very permission to exist as a faulted individual. Her identity could no longer be reworked and scripted through a curated installment of electronic and print missives. For my friend, there was a kind of “dark night of the soul” before her inner light and common sense could regain their rightful place in her consciousness. But that light did illuminate reality and offer the comfort she needed.

My friend’s succumbing to fear and insecurity had been part of the person’s goal; but, she found that hiding and cringing took  more energy than finding relief.  The obsession should remain with the obsessed and not participated in or subscribed to. Through engagement with discomfort and fear came reassurance and affirmation.

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The key here is that her “soul” or inner spirit endured and expelled the darkness. She maintained a sense of self that even a long and highlighted list of ill-informed accusations or misinterpreted scenarios could not eradicate.

We cannot control the results of, or reactions to, our actions, intended or unintended. There really is no outside environment that is worthy of arresting our right to create, grow, learn, and teach. What we can do is move forward and learn to identify what is true and renounce what is false. Then we should, if possible, not walk away but use the experiences to inform our next, productive moves.

What “dark night” can you turn into fodder for creative growth?

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Keep Reading, Keep Learning, Keep Growing

Some ideas and observations are worth a revisit. This entry was originally posted about 3 years ago and I find that it has relevance still today. I’ve  changed the title and did a bit of editing but the essence remains:

Perfection is an inaccurate term to use for a human being, I believe. There is a positive force to embody in our lives regardless of the term we apply to it. As I continue to savor random moments alone with How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach, I find myself kind of floating emotionally in a soft cocoon. My head hums a bit, my chest alternates between tightness and the most clear and weightless expanse of breath I can ever remember having. Realizations and fear, regrets and hope all ebb and flow. It’s like having a misty aura pulsing around me. Very spiritual. Very new. Very different from the reactions to the texts I usually read and write about.

A current passage that has insinuated itself into my thoughts contains references to the dilemma of pride. Pride is especially troublesome when it has installed itself within a student and the master or teacher must find a way to refocus it. One of the pending titles for my blogging is Teaching People How to Learn. I still may use it later on, but for the moment it serves as a better example of the trajectory of this post rather than a guide for a separate entry. As the narrator tells us, pride must be hit or beaten with a figurative stick until it becomes “a healthy kind of confidence” ( 135). One holds onto pride jealously but confidence is flexible. It can be shaken, it can be restored, and it does not begrudge change.

Confidence is what many of us lack when we endeavor to write. Pride is what stops us from learning. Those of us that have allowed rejection letters or the disinterest of influential people or difficulty with insecure bosses  to define our worth have allowed a perception to dominate our overall sense of ability and worth. That is not to say that there is a ceiling to learning and that writing is a static medium. The negative must be analyzed closely to find the realities within that collapse of hope or momentum.

This leads me back to teaching people how to learn. I have students who go into throws of anxiety and confrontation when they get a C rather than the expected A (Read: grade earned for simply producing the work). I see them as people with potential to evolve if I can assist them in realizing that earlier grades came at earlier periods in their education. Perhaps the standards were lower as well–let’s be frank about that. Many do not know how to evolve from the platform they have rested upon and refuse to find that there is more work ahead. Their pride is blocking the growth of their knowledge base. I am the wall they hit or the stick that beats the barriers down if I can.

What overcomes the obstacles? Reading of course. The text is life. Each text is a portal into a new perspective on life as it was or is if you see it for its potential rather than only its concrete form. How Yoga Works teaches us that things are not “themselves” or, rather, don’t have an unyielding unchangeable identity. Our engagement with the world creates or molds the nature of what we behold and that nature “itself” is not static. Roach offers us an example when the narrator engages her jailor in a discussion about a bamboo pen on his desk. Is it a pen? To him, yes, but is it only a pen? He comes to realize that it is also  a tiny piece of nourishment: “I mean that impression, that sense of division is so strong . . . I simply never realized that I make the pen itself ; my mind takes the pen a pen, just as the cow’s mind draws the same green stick as something good to eat” (118).

Now, I don’t  believe that our perceptions are an illusion or that people do not create texts, art, or even meals in an unconscious state that only others can give concrete form to as they engage with them. We are not passive vessels nor are our accomplishments eradicated by lack of witnesses or missing accolades. What this text brings to me and what I take from my interaction with it is that we can change our perception so that pain and discomfort do not concretely define an experience. If someone is cruel, the unhappiness is real, but the root cause of our pain may be suppressed or veiled by the surface actions. What is truly cruel in the moment?  The actions or the causes of these?

For a non-spiritual on non-philosophical example, think of the “kick the dog” syndrome. Someone is raked across the coals by his unhappy boss who is looking for someone to abuse because his wife made nasty comments that morning. The employee, feeling victimized and powerless, then spits profanity at someone who accidentally bumps his arm causing hot coffee to burn his hand. The person soundly abused for an honest mistake cuts someone off at a turn feeling the need to assert her authority and presence. The person who narrowly misses hitting that car comes home shaking and, as the dog trips him in his glee at finally having someone to play with, kicks the animal for also being in the way.

These examples and questions are not meant to confuse your sense of order or make you doubt your eyes or heart. Doubt is not the goal. Doubt is real at the moment you feel it, but it should not be a  manipulative tool for preventing the emergence of self-assertion and confidence. The key here is that self assertion must be based in awareness and tempered by acceptance of the changeable nature of what Roach calls “universal powers” and of perception.

The text I am reading is life. What you are reading is life. As it should be? As you agree? Does it matter? We are experiencing the opportunity to learn and grow from the nourishment that is found in the narrative.

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Begin Again

images-6Begin Again is the title of a movie that my husband turned me on to. The main character, a producer in the music business has many reversals in his life like a failed marriage and stagnating career. As the movie evolves, we see him pushing forward and drawing from his past success to bolster his future. There is reinvention regeneration of spirit. He begins again and againIt was a good flick. So, what’s this got to do with writing or even yoga? Begin and Again. In both your writing ambitions and your yoga practice, each day is a beginning.

Aristotle stated that ” . . . the beginning is thought to be more than half of the whole, and many of the questions we ask are cleared up by it.” Basically, the best most focused start is the most promising for desired outcomes. If something goes awry, look to the pattern of events that led up to the road block. How did you begin? How did you set up or clear your space? Maybe you did not have everything you needed, including the focus, so your pages are not so inspired or your poses were a struggle to maintain. We all have to begin each day when we wake up up even if the projects or poses are part of an ongoing ambition or enjoyable habit.

images-5The “again” part is a bit more complicated. Each day can be an “again” in a positive light or an “again” as in “ugh.” Returning and beginning again can be synonymous but quite a big difference also. In writing, the starting over can be so frustrating. You may have scrapped something that was not working out and are feeling zapped of the will to try again. But, like the character in the movie, if you love what you do and want to stay in the business/genre that you chose, you’ll unload or shelve what you have to and bulldoze past any naysayers to see your vision become a reality.

My yoga practice and my riding both create a focus for me that I don’t find coming from anything else. For both of these my beginning has to include being fully present or there is no flow or forward movement literally or figuratively. My poses are stiffer. If the horse lacks clear communication and relies on himself to decide how to respond to my aids, any effort is lost energy and potential. It only makes sense that if I sit down to write, I need to have a plan. Even a plan to free write so that I can let the words come out. I can edit and adjust later but I need to begin, and begin with purpose.

images-7Thus we begin again and again. But and it needs to be in the spirit of learning and endeavor, not frustration. So beginings are new, they are do overs ,they are retracing of steps ,they are clean slates. They are framed by your past behavior and generate results based on your focus or lack thereof. There are “agains” in everything so let the again be a revisiing of an effort you’d like to see more sucess from. Don’t let it become a state of repetition and stagnation.

What’s YOUR Story?

I think of my friend Malynda who used to go up to people and say, in her Texas drawl,  “What’s yer story?” RealRembrandt, Old Man with a Beard (left) and self-portrait (right) hidden underneathly, this would be her greeting. Those are the first words she ever spoke to me and I was dumbfounded at first. But her face was inquisitive and she really wanted an answer. I observed her do this many times over the years and she nearly always ended up getting the “story.” Sometimes the tale was of the present. Other times it was a yarn about how the person came to be standing there answering. But we all answered because someone was present, interested, and ready to listen.

I recalled her bold and genuine query the other day as I thought about writing in general and memoir in particular. Really, what is your story? What makes you “you” at this moment and how did you get to this place where we are interacting? What brought you to this screen? This blog? Why are you asking yourself to offer a real part of yourself to strangers? Why am I? Come to think of it, memoir is not the only writing form that suits this question.

What path led you to fiction or fact? I think it is much more than wanting to share or explore versions of reality. I think those of us in Malynda’s presence responded rather than recoiled because she wanted our story. Her attention told us that we we might be interesting. That our general outline might be much more textured and rich once revealed and explored. What we thought we covered up or lost still showed through and is considered to be a hidden treasure by some. She was actually making us ponder our motives, incentives, and resultant existence as openly as she.

So, you may think you are fully aware of why you are a memoirist or a short story writer or a poet, etc. But if Malynda bore down on you today as you passed on the sidewalk or sat on a bench, what would your answer be? What’s YOUR story? And who will you honor with it?

 

 

It’s All Good Experience

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Calvin’s  idea is one way to address the harder aspect of writing. I think there are other possibilities. Just recently I took on some nonfiction work for an educational publishing company that I have a long-standing relationship with. These tend to be short pieces for dual-language learners or ESL students. Let’s see, the last educational text on I worked on was Skyrocket Your Grammar (under Heron Moon Press on my site’s menu). It was an incredible challenge because I had to write songs, stories, and mock interviews using only the grammar excercises each chapter focused on and the topic at hand (e.g., insects, sea creatures). I’m still rather proud of the results. I’ll be gathering some examples of the different kinds of projects to post here soon.

Over the next months, I’ll be doing more nonfiction and fiction for various grade levels. I was crazy enough to try to write a graphic novel type of layout for a biography of Florence Nightingale. I made it way more complicated than it had to be for the grade level. This was for 1st graders. So many restrictions on vocabulary and sentence complexity (actually, lack of complexity). I have to do a nonfiction piece for 5th graders this week. I’ll be doing fiction for the same grade in the graphic novel style soon. My editors may need therapy before I am done, but I’ll do my best to meet their requirements.

Basically, what drives me to to do my best for my employers, besides regular income, is that I was on the editing side of the desk for a long time. I was a project editor and was sent into spins when writers sent me useless  or off target work. I had one writer tell me that she was “just a gun for hire” and that she was not really worried about perfection. She wrote for the check; she was not a writer. It showed in her submissions. She wasted my time and the company’s money. While many of us don’t worry about a corporation’s bottom line, the more money wasted the less the employees have a shot at good raises and improved working conditions. Anyway, the point is, I know how important even the shortest essay for a textbook is to the group working on it and I respect all of the people who rely on me.

What does it do for my own work? I have a clear audience in mind and challenge myself to make sure I understand their interests and needs. I have to think about how extensive my own vocabulary is or how effective I can be with less. How clear can I be without boring everyone? Let’s face it. Little kids have short attention spans. They are a tough crowd! Using an obscure synonym for happy does not impress all grown ups. So, the more I take on genres that I would not usually gravitate towards, the more I can figure out what I do best and for whom.

Who do you write best for? Why? How?

 

 

 

Ask, and the Answer is Not What You May Expect. Listen, and a Path Opens Up

I listened, earlier, to news about youthful offenders. Missives of sadness. I read now from poems of welcome and belonging. Of comfort and sureness of purpose. Which is more likely to teach me about love and hope? About life and how events unfold and to what purpose? Both.

NPR’s story of the horror of one particular offender’s actions resounded within me. While not identical to my own encounter with another’s cruel and manipulative violation of trust, it answered my desperate question as to how one’s troubling behavior can be overlooked or ignored by others. I was reminded that it is common to find out, after the crime is committed, that the assailant had been exhibiting antisocial behavior already. That their friends and family knew the person was troubled. It’s not personal that no one let you know. It’s not a conspiracy of silence that set you up for trauma. There is basically a pattern of ignorance or passivity that many  participate in expecting that “this behavior” is not a long-term problem or a sign of danger. But if you are dragged into engaging with the seemingly preventable damage, there is a relentless psychological, spiritual, and emotional nagging that adheres to you. It’s like grief after a loved one dies. No amount of comforting or advice can make you skip the stages you must go through and the time it takes to become accustomed to the loss.

I was not comforted that someone else was hurt. By no means. But I was finally brought to face the commonality of many victims’ experience. A sense of community, albeit tragic, came to me. I am not a freak, nor a failure. Just another dupe. No amount of beneficent intentions can prevent bad actions. All one can do is hope to earn the respect and love of others so that you can share all that is good. This trust creates a respite from anything too large to bear alone. There is hope that I can now help myself and others through this unexpected life lesson.

The poetry book, The House of Belonging, now that I think about it, called to me because of my need for gentleness. I have been afraid to let too much gentleness in since my hatred and loathing for another and myself was evoked many months ago. The book has been moved around as I have packed to move. I couldn’t quite part with it but I did not want it near me. It took something as objective as radio journalism to bring me back to face something that is not about being alone and isolated, but a painful part of a greater whole: humanity in all its horrible truths and insatiable lust for healing.

In one morning of routine actions (turning on the radio as I work with the horses) the message of hope I needed found its way to me. All of my prior asking  did not result in satisfaction. But my continued listening did.

You Can’t Write if you Don’t Read–and Listen—and Look!

trees2This may not be news to some of you. It may be a good reminder for those of you who have fallen off the “good writing habits” wagon. There is absolutely nothing that you can read, listen to, or view that can’t become fodder for your own writing topics.

If there is anything that helps writers engage with their innate or practiced talents it is having to create a story based on a visual prompt. A friend recently asked me to collaborate on a book project with him. He had created a series of pictures. He wanted a story to go with them. I happen to have included in my syllabi over the years, assignments that included writing prompts that were solely images. The coursework idea came from an NPR interview in which an author had mentioned that something she witnessed in nature fed her curiosity, leading her to do research, which led her to create a work of autobiographical fiction. First, she looked. She saw. Then she read. Then she wrote. I’ve always loved this exercise and the surprising results in the classroom but did not expect that it would become so influential in my own process. But, here I am writing to you, writing a manuscript, teaching new groups of hopeful writers and reluctant college students. Nothing is wasted when it come to engaging with the world with all of your senses.

What do you see in the picture above? I see a narrowing of focus created by the gradual lowering of the branches. Like a telescope in reverse. My fiction choice would be in the mode of a kind of Alice in Wonderland falling down in to a smaller world of possibilities. My nonfiction choice would be to debate which is more beautiful: Nature left alone or sculpted and planned. Very rough ideas at best, but that is the planning stage, right? These choices make up the adventure and the pain of the writer’s life.