In my early adulthood, with aspirations not for wealth but for creative fulfillment, I disciplined myself to live down to the bone. I nurtured thrifty tastes, saving my dimes for guitar strings and reeds. With my vegetarian diet, I shopped frugally, buying from the bulk bin, shopping in season and local, for a time splitting a $200 monthly rice and beans budget with a friend. I did not drink much alcohol, did not frequently dine out, did not indulge in fancy coffees or convenient sandwiches, did not buy frivolous clothes. Glad to finally enroll in what I fondly call Hogwarts School of Music, in my first semester at Berklee, instead of scrounging together $75 for a light-weight guitar gig bag, I drilled holes in my heavy hard-shell case and fashioned it with thick piano moving straps into something I could wear on my back. It was heavy, very heavy, particularly with my clarinet and laptop slung over my shoulders. I walked or took the T everywhere, and my back bent under the weight.
In a recent newsletter to you, I wrote about raking up backyard leaves in a forgotten spot behind the garage, and my nascent vision of a cabin where I could practice my clarinet, try out song ideas, and work on essays and poems. It's been ages since I've had a room of my own, as Virginia Woolf wrote. I have long wished to sit in a windowed room and stare out the door at pale leaves as they unfurl into spring. I have wished for a room strong enough to withstand a thunder of ideas, because I have lately increasingly felt a rumble rolling through my heart, a heady mix of sound and emotion, art and media, questions and exploration.
But I also wrote in that letter about fear of failure. I was worried about wasting money on something so specifically made by me for me. It felt a little arrogant: a playhouse for a grown woman who thinks she's got some talent or ideas worth the expenditure. What if I stepped into that arrogance, that audacity of hope (as Obama says), and nothing, in the end, comes?
My fear might be rooted, in part, in an old Jewish superstition of the evil eye: If I do something so bold as build an artist studio just for myself, the heavens may train their unwanted attention on me, bringing tragedy to me or my loved ones. I should spit three times and hang a blue hamsa on the door.
My frugality (always for my own desires, contrasted sharply, I hope, with my generosity for others) might also come from the valorization of parsimonious rationing in New England, where I lived for college and music graduate school, but whose culture I had admired since childhood. It suited the environmentalist in me: reduce, reuse, recycle. What throw-away materials might I re-fashion into use? How can I avoid purchasing newly manufactured goods, with their accompanying industrial waste and unneeded expense?
But I bent beyond logic under the weight of that guitar case. I hadn't yet read Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but I rued the albatross around my neck. The irony of it: that in my mid-twenties, finally glad to be at an incredible school and immersed in the study of music, I felt my instrument was a psychological curse I was tasked to bear.
It took until my early thirties to examine the cliche of suffering for my art. Till then, I had accepted carte blance the stereotype of the starving artist. Looking back, I realize how easily I could have found $75 for a gig bag, saving my shoulders and neck a little of the physical pain that inevitably comes from the weight and repetitive motion of playing instruments. But I wanted so badly to be an artist, and from the stories I'd internalized, I thought suffering an essential part of a creative life.
Fast forward to the past seven years, since Darby and the girls and I moved in together. It's a sweet house. Darby and I often say how glad we are that it isn't bigger. We want to stumble over each other, and engage with the teenagers even when they may prefer to sequester themselves in far off corners. The downside, though, is that I sometimes want to sequester myself away. As a musician, I need to make noise in order to get to the music. I am a lyrical writer, even in my prose, and tend to speak aloud every word as I write (even this, now). I've longed for a dedicated place where I can excavate my artist heart. A room of my own where I can throw ideas around, many ideas, because a good idea is not something that happens in isolation, but rather, comes out with dozens of bad-idea siblings. I've been yearning to throw spaghetti on the walls (I just love that phrase, don't you?) because something must eventually stick. Right?
But what if nothing does?
In this world of art as commerce, I have feared that the cost of building a little shed for myself won't find a return on the investment.
And then I came across this passage in Elizabeth Gilbert's book Big Magic, where she writes, "Let me list for you some of the many ways in which you might be afraid to live a more creative life:
You’re afraid you have no talent.
You’re afraid you’ll be rejected or criticized or ridiculed or misunderstood or—worst of all—ignored.
You’re afraid there’s no market for your creativity, and therefore no point in pursuing it.
You’re afraid somebody else already did it better.
You’re afraid everybody else already did it better.
You’re afraid somebody will steal your ideas, so it’s safer to keep them hidden forever in the dark.
You’re afraid you won’t be taken seriously.
You’re afraid your work isn’t politically, emotionally, or artistically important enough to change anyone’s life.
You’re afraid your dreams are embarrassing.
You’re afraid that someday you’ll look back on your creative endeavors as having been a giant waste of time, effort, and money.
You’re afraid you don’t have the right kind of discipline.
You’re afraid you don’t have the right kind of work space, or financial freedom, or empty hours in which to focus on invention or exploration.
You’re afraid you don’t have the right kind of training or degree.
You’re afraid of being exposed as a hack, or a fool, or a dilettante, or a narcissist.
You’re afraid of upsetting your family with what you may reveal.
You’re afraid of what your peers and coworkers will say if you express your personal truth aloud.
You’re afraid of unleashing your innermost demons, and you really don’t want to encounter your innermost demons.
You’re afraid your best work is behind you. You’re afraid you never had any best work to begin with.
You’re afraid you neglected your creativity for so long that now you can never get it back.
You’re afraid you’re too old to start.
You’re afraid you’re too young to start.
You’re afraid because something went well in your life once, so obviously nothing can ever go well again.
You’re afraid because nothing has ever gone well in your life, so why bother trying?
You’re afraid of being a one-hit wonder.
You’re afraid of being a no-hit wonder.”
I included the whole list here, but the two (of many) that most stuck out to me are the third and tenth. Of those, the line "You’re afraid that someday you’ll look back on your creative endeavors as having been a giant waste of time, effort, and money" hit a nerve.
If a friend came to me with an idea, I would urge her to pursue it, to see where it will lead. Well, after I wrote here about that morning two months ago when I began to clear out the space, I heard from a number of you. Go for it! you said. Darby might have said it loudest. The compounding encouragement was astounding, but more than support for an idea, your words were an actual amplification of a desire deep inside me.
David Whyte's poem Faith came to me recently:
I want to write about faith,
about the way the moon rises
over cold snow, night after night,
faithful even as it fades from fullness,
slowly becoming that last curving and impossible
sliver of light before the final darkness.
But I have no faith myself
I refuse it even the smallest entry.
Let this then, my small poem,
like a new moon, slender and barely open,
be the first prayer that opens me to faith.
So, this is all to tell you: I did it. It's a rule of cabins to have a name:
Welcome to Seeds & Thunder, where on a daily basis I meditate, write, play music, and watch the pale leaves unfurl. It is also the world headquarters of Seeding Thunder, a passion project that I hope to tell you more about soon.
You never know if something you create will resonate with another in this world, but it's not our job as artists to worry so much about that. Our job is to just create the damn things. We do it as well as we can. After crossing out words and rearranging sentences, after speaking them aloud and finding the rhythm and the soul, we hope we're communicating something worthwhile. And at some point we send the thing out into the world and hope that our intuition is right: That the thing we made is a thing to be loved.
It's been a little while since I've had some publishing news to share. I'm pleased to report that a flash essay ("The Sleeping Porch") will be published in the next issue of Under the Gum Tree and what originally started as a haibun and turned into what you might call a 4-part prose poem or 4-part flash essay ("Cliff Side") will be published next month in Jet Fuel Review. I love both of these pieces - I read bits of both of them between songs at last week's David Harvey Presents event - and am thrilled that the editors of these wonderful journals love them too. I'm so grateful for those champions who create platforms and shepherd creative work to larger audiences.
Not to get too greedy, there's another piece, a completely weird one, that I hope some journal snatches up. And there's a big handful of songs that are begging to be heard. But I'm reminding myself: Right now it's not my job to worry. My job is to create more, to polish them, to find their rhythm and soul, to communicate something that might resonate with others, and to give them wings to fly.
There are times we want to cower on the couch and hide the thing we created for a little longer. I can make up a hundred reasons why I should read someone else's book instead of answer the call of my own. In fact, I did that last night. But, I suppose I should've picked something longer than "300 Arguments." I finished reading Sarah Manguso's latest and the deadline for the NEA grant had still not passed.
So: Despite there being a hell-bound snowball's chance that I will get this, I'd rather say at least I tried. And now I have a little bit of experience, so in two years when the NEA writers fellowship grant for prose comes back around, it'll be old hat and I'll have the right version of Adobe Reader.
This morning, at 2:44, the northern hemisphere tipped into winter. Later, when we woke, Darby whispered, "Do you hear the rain?" The drops here are so soft, but with no hope for snow, rain is our favorite. They are often just a misting, no louder than a snail's movement. I tried to listen, but my thoughts were too loud for such a gentle sound.
I'd woken early, as I do lately, and had been thinking about my book manuscript and the writer Abigail Thomas, because last weekend I was in Portland, OR for Lidia Yuknavich's writing workshop and had gone straight from PDX to Powell's City of Books, bought Abigail Thomas's newest, along with a bunch of other things (note: always travel to Powell's with a suitcase and room to spare), and then woke at 4 a.m. each day of the workshop to work on the fifth round of my manuscript revisions before Lidia's sessions began. After the weekend workshop ended, on the flight home, I started the new Thomas and remembered that her book Safekeeping had been the one, nearly three years ago, that tipped me into writing the particular manuscript I spent the weekend revising. Reading Safekeeping had helped me figure out a way to write my own material, which became a book, and which is titled, for now, Shiva: a memoir concerto. In the drafts since then, I'd forgotten all about Safekeeping and how it had been my portal. Then, yesterday, while back at home and cleaning out some computer files, I stumbled upon the first draft of my book, the one I'd started right after reading Safekeeping. It was like bumping into a three-years-younger Arielle. I was still in my thirties, I'd barely begun my MFA program. Now I can't hear the rain outside on this winter solstice because I'm in a weird time capsule conversation with my younger self, my current self, Abigail Thomas, and Lidia Yuknavich. You can see why it's loud in here.
But this morning is the winter solstice, and with the mention of rain my thoughts shifted. Darkness, literal or figurative, reveals things not otherwise visible. The moon, the stars, the shadow-self. It is a dark time in American history. A childhood friend, whose family fled from Moscow in the 1980s, has been writing on social media lately about her sense of loss coming out of the election and the electors' vote this week, her loss of trust and faith in America, in Americans, in our democracy. It doesn't take a Russian-born to say it, to know that's how many of us are feeling. And it's small comfort that the majority of voters share our values when the loser is the winner of the presidential office, and the winner has no platform to unite us.
America has taken a strange turn: we are steering toward icebergs. Allied international leaders growl sternly: danger, stay. The ACLU has taken to full-page letters forewarning prosecution. Already, in this new American darkness, we are seeing parts of ourselves that we weren't able to see in the light of an Obama administration. We don't want darkness, and we mean it wholeheartedly. But like the solstices of winter and summer, dark and light cycle in and out. And in the dark, we see stars.
In the Harry Potter books, when Voldemort gains strength and the Death Eaters emerge from their hiding holes emboldened to flaunt their racist, xenophobic bigotry, Harry and his friends unite as a secret Dumbledore's army. Dumbledore has left the scene and knows nothing about the D.A. Without their wise leader, Harry reluctantly teaches his comrades how to fight against wrong. He has no experience teaching, they have no experience fighting. They are children, after all, but they lead the defense against the dark forces of evil. Now, as the eloquent, wise, educated Obama family and administration leave their post, many of us feel poorly prepared for the fights that we face. But as Harry and his friends find themselves fighting against wrongs they might previously have turned away from, you and I are now faced with our core values, passions, strengths, and, hopefully, we will re-discover the power of a group when it is willing to come together.
At the end of Lidia's workshop, one of the editors at Connotation Press asked some of us to record on video a minute or two about some uplifting or optimistic aspect of this current political climate. I wanted to participate, but in the end I made some excuse and walked away. Any positivity seemed pollyanna. I didn't feel that I had any new perspective to share. The next day is when I stumbled on the old computer files, and this morning is when I woke in dialogue with my younger self. We live moving forward in time, our past with us but invisible like stars in daylight, filed away in drawers we rarely open. What I might have said for the video is that maybe it was time for dark to remind us of our deepest, oldest mores, the ones beyond our daily living, that guide our every rule. Maybe it was time to start fighting for them, not just for the greater revolution, but for our own personal evolution.
Here we are, the longest night of the year. Hello, darkness, my old friend. I've come to talk with you again. Let's get quiet for a minute, still. We are made of stars and dinosaur bones, heartbreak, and the strange ever-temporariness of time. This is an era of darkness: there is no fighting that fact. While here, we must strain our eyes to see what wasn't apparent before. Turn them inward. Turn them outward. We must point the telescope beyond the horizons we thought we knew, build fires of passion, burn whatever we must to warm this chill, give socks and soup to the hungry and homeless, send letters and money to those on the front lines, listen to stories at the campfires, invite strangers in, and hold on tightly, tightly, tightly to the ones we love.
I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you about three things:
First, the Yoga & Creativity Retreat is next month! We moved to a larger estate -- a gorgeous spot in Ojai, CA, perfect for a weekend of yoga, campfires, introspection, and delicious meals -- which opened up a few spots. Darby and I have been creating this retreat for a long time, but it's taken on new levels of importance since the national election outcome. We cannot think of a better time to join together for reflection, community, and creative inspiration. We'd love for you to join us January 20-22 in Ojai to practice yoga and create new visions for 2017. Other than location, the original plans are all the same: four yoga sessions; several creativity workshops; a wine tasting on Friday night; time for writing, optional massages, or hikes on Saturday; and a campfire circle on Saturday night. The poet Mary Oliver asks, Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? In Ojai we will ask, What is it we each plan to do with our one wild and precious 2017? Every year is a new gift, and 2017 will surely hold its own surprising beauty.
Second, my little piece about stepmothering and pie (with recipe), "How to Make an Apple Pie," has finally been published by From Sac, a print journal in Sacramento. If you're up there, keep your eyes peeled on the news stands. You can also purchase a copy here. It's over 200 pages of stories and photographs, and only $12. I hope you'll support the independent press.
Lastly, during my MFA work, I was honored to be selected to serve as Editor-in-chief of Lunch Ticket, a well-known and well-loved literary and art journal. The new issue, Winter/Spring 2016, was published last week, and then I passed the baton to the new editor. Do check out that issue - I am proud of the whole staff that pulled it together and love every piece that we published. Here, also, is my final Word From the Editor.
Wishing you love and light throughout the holiday season,
This piece originally appeared in the online journal Lunch Ticket on September 12, 2014:
Sitting under a café umbrella recently, sipping iced tea with an MFA colleague, the conversation naturally, unsurprisingly, turned to writing. We’re both in our second semester of graduate school. As I’ve mentioned previously in this blog, I’m “Creative Nonfiction.” It’s a fact which never ceases to amuse my fiancé who takes it as an existential statement. My tea-sipping friend is “Fiction,” which amuses my fiancé even more.
Regardless of fictive or nonfictive embodiment, my friend and I both agree that the monthly packets we are required to submit to our MFA mentors are very real. Troublingly so. My most recent packet of twenty creative writing pages and two book annotations was due to my mentor in mid-August. For two days afterwards I celebrated its completion by not writing a single word (status updates and margin notes inBehind the Beautiful Forevers, of course, aside). On the third day I intended to get back to writing, but—nearly a week earlier than expected—I received my mentor’s return email: a detailed letter, in-line track change comments, and lecture notes on a particular topic she suggested I study.
I was paralyzed for a full week afterward.
Could. Not. Write. Anything.
I sat with my friend at the outdoor café during that time. It was one of those blazing hot Saturday afternoons when everything melts: ice in our drinks, lipstick in my purse, ego. We sat together, pulling our sweat-soaked shirts away from our backs, fanning cigarette smoke from the table next to ours. Inside the café, the A.C. was on full blast but the room was crowded with chatter, and she and I both had some things to get off our chests. She, too, had a hard time getting back to work after sending off her last packet.
“I’m afraid of criticism,” she said.
It was powerful to hear her express what I had been feeling. Of course criticism—particularly at the hands of a knowledgeable and supportive mentor—is meant to be helpful. Indeed, it’s a primary element of why we both came to this program: to receive critical feedback about our work. But the fear we associate with criticism is attached, I think, to shame. Shame that the basket we’ve put our eggs in is full of holes. Shame that we will fail. Shame that there is a right and wrong to writing and that, ultimately, it is just beyond our personal abilities to get it right. Fear that we are not capable of stepping into our highest creative self.
My friend’s reflection of my own fears was enough to remind me of a time, years ago, when I had not allowed my fears to stop me.
After years of studying classical music, sometime in college I ended up with an acoustic guitar and a book of folk songs. Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger, etc. I had been raised on these songs by a guitar-strumming dad. My first concerts were folk festivals where my parents spread a blanket and we picnicked on my mom’s cold fried chicken and berry pies. The folk songs in the book hit a deeply personal spot from my earliest childhood memories. It was a place that classical music, as much as I loved it, had never tapped. The book was a doorway, and when I walked through it, I walked away from classical music, stepped onto a path of songs, and, shortly, started writing my own. Right away came the desire to sing for others. A moment later, my stomach clenched with fright.
Stage fright, like fear of criticism, can be debilitating. It can also be exhilarating. I’m not a fan of roller coasters, but I wonder if the draw to them is similar. Do coaster-lovers shake in fear? Do they wonder if they can handle it? Do they get a rush from the courage it takes to ride? This is what it feels like, for me, when I send in my mentor packets. I silently beg, as I hit send, that my mentor’s feedback will be enough to kindly push my edge, an edge just shy of disablement.
Often, to work out fears that arise in my new(ish) writing endeavors, I look back to my life in music. How did I overcome my life-long stage fright so that I could pursue my love of singing and songwriting?
I showed up.
Back then, I was up against all these same fears of failure and shame, but my desire to get better at my craft was larger than my fears. I knew the only way to improve was to do it. Perform. As much as possible. The solution? I joined the busking world. I didn’t have to wait for a club booker to let me in the door. I could pull up a piece of sidewalk and play every night, which I did throughout summer and fall until my fingers froze, and then again the following spring. There was a good community in my Boston busking world days—Amanda Palmer, Guster, Mary Lou Lord, and many others who passed through for a week or for years—but also, I learned to stand up in front of an audience. I learned to show up against my fears.
After a few hours at the café, our iced teas were finished, our conversation spent, our backs sweaty. I drove my friend several blocks to where she had parked.
“I made something for you,” she said as she unlocked her car. From the backseat she pulled out a pale green cotton bag with two wide shoulder straps and a red and white swath of cloth down the center. I can’t sew at all, but I appreciate the craft. Her stitches were perfect. The muted colors were imbued with my friend’s gentle spirit. The kindness was almost overwhelming. Fingering the stitches of my friend’s gift, I remembered something an old teacher used to say: How you do one thing is how you do everything.
I haven’t read my friend’s writing, not yet. Nor has she yet read mine. But I am certain that when the day comes for us to exchange not just our trepidations but our art, we will find in each other’s writing the level of courage, commitment, and care that we bring to our other arts and crafts. As with everything, sometimes fear stops us for a few days or a week. But always, every time, our desire to do this—to explore questions, share stories, to write—leads us through the turnstile and back onto the ride.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.
Jelaluddin Rumi - 13th century
Middle school is full of toxic pre-teens. I know most of them are ultimately good people trying to work out their confused pre-teen crap, but it can be painful. You'd think that by graduate school toxic personalities would have softened, or at least melted into a puddle of nothing worthwhile, left by the dump behind the cafeteria. You'd think those personalities certainly wouldn't find their way into a program, at least not one like a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. You'd think that life would have thrown them enough curveballs to show them that a pattern of burning bridges, of writing publicly about petty personality judgments, of attempting to skewer the very community -- the MFA program, the greater literary community , etc -- that is in place to bolster us all up will not come to any good.
My oldest stepdaughter finished middle school a few weeks ago. I dare say, if she didn't finally learn quadratic equations, didn't run the P.E. mile in under 9 minutes, didn't memorize how to build a major triad or find the relative minor, I hope she learned how to walk away from drama llamas.
Looking back on my own middle school years, I can hardly recall my own experiences with this. I had forgotten, I suppose, how cruel kids can be. No doubt my super bright, super cool, super gorgeous middle schooler was only attacked out of jealousy. Hell, if I were a middle schooler with her, she's the girl I'd want to be. But still, at thirteen how can she have this perspective? Even with her graceful confidence, how can she know, truly, how awesome she is? She's got thirteen years of life on this planet, eight years of school under her belt.
Over the past three years, whenever she came home burning in the shame of careless words, stewing in anger at the latest antics of the mean girls, teary about shifting social groups, we tried to remind her that the only one who can truly assassinate her character is herself. We taught her to know her center, to know herself, to not worry about the negative energy others might try to pull her into. We tried to help her temper her fire, rise above, stand in the beauty of her own true nature. As her father says, Take the high road. There's less traffic up there anyway.
And yet, there are some who manage to squeeze past the middle school graduation stage, manage to squeak through high school, college, perhaps employment. Perhaps they land, with a particularly wicked pen, in an MFA program in creative writing. There are some who carry their toxicity with them through their life, and I imagine that these particular people must find some benefit along the way. Perhaps they are of the camp that any attention -- even negative -- is good. Perhaps they think that they are honing their craft by dwelling on dark emotions. Perhaps they think that there is a place for them in this world.
And perhaps, standing with colleagues at an MFA gathering, drinks in hand, schmoozing among their classmates, they believe that their fellow writers are unaware of their online blog posts. Perhaps they believe their classmates do not mind, or that they might even applaud the way they suck camaraderie out of a room. Maybe they believe there is a volley that can ensue: they throw toxic waste from their blog, and the writer who has been lambasted then throws toxic waste from their blog, back and forth like a tennis match. Perhaps they believe this is a way to make friends.
And yet they are wrong.
They are wrong because we have all been to middle school, and all of us (except this type) have learned that toxic waste dumps are no place to hang out. We all (except, of course, the drama llamas) choose to spend our lives being inspired, building community, focused on our work, finding writers who we admire, and reading their work.
We choose to be the bolsters, because we trust the process and know that when we lift up others, others lift up us. We choose the high road, above the muck of people who prefer to wallow in waste.
We find that despite the fact we are all on this road – the high road--, it does not feel crowded. There’s spaciousness. The path is clear because we are moving forward, helping each other along the way. And truly, the view from up here, at times, can simply take your breath away.
I had a moment on Saturday evening, sitting at the dining room table while the kidlets watched season 2 of The Muppet Show in the adjoining living room. I had spent the entire day alternating between working on a new song that had suddenly emerged from some noodling on my guitar that morning, and trying to read the entirety of Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse in time for Sunday's MFA reading conference on the book.
Somewhere in Woolf's incredible 28-page dinner party scene (28 pages! 14 pages on just the soup course!), Elton John broke into "Bennie and the Jets". The muppets echoed him every time he said "Bennie". "Bennie" he sang in perfect falsetto. "Bennie" "Bennie" "Bennie" they sang in muppetly ragtag fashion. My attention shifted from the book to the show - how could it not? - and then the scene changed. The Swedish Chef chased a chicken across the stage. Scooter, in that ridiculous and joyous unrestrained Muppet way, introduced the guest star's next act, "The greatest talent in the history of the universe - Elton John WAHHHHHHHH!". The curtains opened and the Electric Mayhem band accompanied Elton on his ballad "Good-bye Yellow Brick Road". Animal on drums, Dr. Teeth on keys, Janis on guitar, Zoot on sax, and Sgt. Floyd Pepper on bass. Elton had a new pair of glasses for this song, but more noticeably he was just so young. He was thirty years old in this performance. And so mind-blowingly talented.
What is the point, I wonder sometimes, and again wondered just then in the glow of the television. The muppets flopped, chickens scattered, and Elton crooned. And me? I spent an entire Saturday working on a song that seemed at once divinely inspired and now, in the company of a long celebrated classic, entirely unnecessary. Infantile, even.
And meanwhile Woolf was laid open on the dining room table. This 1981 Harcourt, Inc. edition with Eudora Welty's forward is the second copy I've bought in the past month. The pages are yellowed and underlined and scribbled by a former reader, but as long as I can distinguish my scribbles from hers, I prefer this to the shiny-paged, no-paragraph-first-line-indentation, solid-text-block version I bought in December. Yes, I am getting picky about my publishers, but formatting is a necessary consideration. I awakened on countless mid-nights throughout the month of January with the book in my hands, unsure if it was the writing or the printing that brought on my irresistible sleepiness.
Since twelfth grade I've half-read Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando, have seen the Tilda Swinton film based on the latter novel several times, and been thoroughly amused by the Edward Albee stage-play and joke "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Me, I have often thought, I am. Too many words, too little plot. Too fluid, not enough grounding. I didn't get it, didn't get her. I simply couldn't get through a Woolf book, despite my deep love for the writer Jeanette Winterson who claims Woolf as one of her biggest influences. If not for this particular piece of required reading, I would not be wading through To the Lighthouse now. And for this reason, thank goodness for required reading.
After three days with my new Harcourt edition, I admit I am still afraid of Virginia Woolf, but now it is for different reasons. Her genius has finally revealed itself to me. Her fluidity is incredible - like water undulating through cavernous rock at high tide, Woolf moves between external events and characters' internal experience with amazing deft. How does any writer step up to that? She captures the constant mind chatter and mood fluctuations of her cast, then passes the thread of experience around from character to character, each tumbling through thoughts like sea glass churning through waves, each shift of judgment and emotion in pristine and exact language. I have never read anything that catches so well subjective perspectives and the interplay of relationships. Granted, there is not much of a plot. However, the grand gestures and broad paint strokes of plot are not the point here. To the Lighthouse is painted with the delicate minutiae of Rembrandt, not the impressionistic swatches of Cezanne. The precision is immaculate.
It is intimidating, actually.
And so I found myself wallowing in that same question again -- What is the point? -- , this time from my reading. And that is when Woolf entirely endeared herself to me. A few pages after my pity party, Woolf shifted from being my tormentor to my savior. Her dexterity, her insight blow me away, but when she used her craft to comfort my aching inner-artist, I melted. Here, it is as if she says, just for you I will put in Lily, the painter, the artist. And so that you know that I know what it is like to be an artist, I will let Lily have doubt, because don't we all? And I will show you how she overcomes it.
For this I must show you with her own words:
...before [Lily] exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt. Why then did she do it? (Yes! Isn't this the same question I wonder always??) She looked at the canvas, lightly scored with running lines. It would be hung in the servants' bedrooms. It would be rolled up and stuffed under a sofa. (Yes! The doubt of unworthiness!) What was the good of doing it then, and she heard some voice saying she couldn't paint, saying she couldn't create (Ah! Those inner voices that enter innocuously and then fester!), as if she were caught up in one of those habitual currents in which after a certain time experience forms in the mind, so that one repeats words without being aware any longer who originally spoke them.
Can't paint, can't write, she murmured monotonously, anxiously considering what her plan of attack should be. For the mass loomed before her; it protruded; she felt it pressing on her eyeballs. Then, (Ah! this "Then" is the glimmer of the new moon, the faith, the passage out of doubt and into doing) as if some juice necessary for the lubrication of her faculties were spontaneously squirted, she began precariously dipping among the blues and umbers, but it was now heavier and went slower, as if it had fallen in with some rhythm which was dictated to her... by what she saw, so that while her hand quivered with life, this rhythm was strong enough to bear her along with it on its current.
So, at the encouragement of Woolf, despite the doubt, I've continued.
On Sunday morning I went running - my first 11 miles since last May's marathon - and spent the nearly two hours of asphalt and trails working out Saturday's new song. I fell "in with some rhythm which was dictated to her...". The rhythm of the subconscious. The rhythm of the artist doing what she loves without ego-doubts intercepting every creative turn.
Sometimes people joke with me after a run. What are you running away from? they ask, and we laugh together. But really, if they wanted to actually hear an answer, I would say this: Doubt. Stories I've been told. Words I repeat "without being aware any longer who originally spoke them."
As it turns out, I don't run faster than doubt, but I do have more stamina. Eventually, every time, the mind chatter loses interest in me. I keep running, singing, writing... and doubt sits down on the side of the road and waits for some other artist who is willing to give it some attention. I feel a little badly about it - leaving the doubt out there for someone else - so perhaps that's why I write this blog. I can't do away with the "can't write, can't paint" words that float around maliciously, but I can keep doing my art despite the doubt, and write about the interplay between art and doubt here. After all, not everyone has the time to get to Woolf.
(But if you do, don't worry - there's nothing to be afraid of.)
I haven't mentioned the List in some time not because I abandoned it, but because the List shifted my focus away from itself and onto the new paths it has forged in my life. I am now standing on one of those new paths at the far edge of 2013, marking the last days of my second List year.
The first List of 100 Things began on my yoga mat, on December 31, 2011. It was inspired by a friend's own list (you can read about it here), and although I had no premeditated plan to embark on my own, there I was at 8 p.m. in the front row of a packed New Years Eve intentional yoga class, thinking about the upcoming 2012 and some things I hoped to do. Though it took me several months to come up with all 100, that night was the beginning.
The List of 100 Things To Do in 2012
So, how did that first year feel? A little practical. Those socks I'd meant to darn? Done. Ditto old clothes donated. Ditto the back-up hard drive.
But more than practical, the List was magical. Even now, at the end of my second List year, I am still in awe of how my life has changed. The List opened up inner desires of how I wanted to live. It encouraged me to break beyond patterns I had fallen into, let go of final outcome, push past anxiety that was holding me from taking the first steps in things I had been secretly yearning to do. The short story I had been wanting to revise for six years? The List got me to dig it out, and sit down and write. The List got me to run longer, further. And running and writing became intertwined, as every morning I worked on the short story, and every afternoon I reviewed the story in my mind as I ran. I got stronger in body and spirit, and the inner chatter about all the ways I don't measure up to media's perfection finally quieted.
The List of Things To Do in 2013 is three typed pages long. Just like last year, the writing of it was several months of fits and starts, paperclips keeping track of my sloppy almost-cursive hand over the pages of my journal, items scribbled out in black and blue ink as the pages of the moleskin were spent and that volume finally tucked with the others in my closet. As most of my journaling tends to be, the list got unruly. Sometime in the late spring I typed it up neatly, numbered each item with little square boxes for checkmarks, and folded the three printed pages into the back pocket of my current moleskin. I didn't look at it much recently, caught up as I have been with school and other things, but the year is ending, and so is the list.
In the end, my work with running in 2012 led me to 2013's running Door to the Shore and M2B running goals. My work on the story led me take a few online classes at UCLA and then to apply to (and get accepted) (and begin) the MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch. I have become a runner. I have become a writer. I have become a swimmer. And most importantly, I found my way to a place where I can work steadily towards goals while enjoying the process along the way. The List has been teaching me how to step up and do my part, and when my part is done, how to surrender the result to the universe.
This week I tallied up the items that I have completed on my List of 2013. A few days ago it was 59, with a probable final tally of 61, exactly what last year's final list tally was (59 by the end of the year, but 61 in the end). Yesterday Darby and I took the girls ice skating , so now I'm up to 60.
#83 Do a winter sport of any kind
So here it is. THE LIST OF 100 THINGS TO DO IN 2013.
Perhaps next year's should say "Practice math skills". As it turns out, I've already done 63 this year. And still with four days left of the year...
I write a lot about doubts because I have so many. I spent the first half of my life -- actually, perhaps the first two-thirds -- accidentally incorporating other peoples' fear-based beliefs into my own psyche. Metaphorically, in a right-handed world I was a lefty who was taught, and later bought, the story that right-handedness was the way I should be. An artist must struggle, according to the lore I was handed, and can either starve or give up the art. I tried both of those options for years before I became suspect about the credibility of my source.
These options -- to either starve or give up -- are not the only possibilities. That emperor has no clothes. There is actually nothing to support that narrative except the perpetuation of that story.
When I moved to Los Angeles seven years ago, the city itself cracked open the false front of that narrative. It is a fear-based and limited story, and Los Angeles reveals the ridiculousness of it every day. This city is built on and by creative artists of all types. L.A. is a testament to the power of vision. You can talk about the smog or the traffic jams or the sky high real estate prices, but if you really want to talk about the essence of L.A., you've got to talk about dreams, and that dreams come true.
In sixth grade I participated in my class's lip sync contest, bouncing around the gym in colorful '80s leg warmers, mouthing the words to the Starship hit song that year: We built this city on rock and roll. I've rarely thought about that song since. Were they singing about Los Angeles?
The other day in the Breath and Writing workshop, we focused on the physical act of breathing, and also the way that breath comes across in writing. Then, after two minutes of matched inhales and exhales, we put pen to page and were asked to write about the thing that resides in the deep, hidden folds of our breath. I found myself bored with fear and doubt. I've written enough about those things. Instead, I flipped the coin over and explored a new story. My pen tested out another line of thought, one about possibility, limitless and authentic expression, accepted and applauded vision.
There's a story I sometimes talk about in my yoga classes about a man walking down the street and falling into a pothole. Perhaps you've heard it before. A man walks down the street, and everyday stumbles into the same pothole. One day the man walks down the street, and while he stumbles into the pothole, he sees it first. This is his awakening. He still falls, but he is aware for the first time that the pothole is his pattern. Later, the man walks down the street, and sees the pothole before he stumbles. That day he instead has the consciousness to walk around the pothole. In the final piece of the story, he eventually takes a different road entirely.
I am not yet on a different road. I've been writing about the pothole, still often stumbling in, sometimes able to walk around it. Sometimes I end up circling it for days on end, peering into its depths. In the Breath workshop this week I took a test stroll down another street. It was sloppy and I felt the pull back to my old familiar territory.
Doubt and faith are bedfellows that cannot occupy the same space. I've been sleeping with doubt for too long, but faith is still a new companion. Seven years in Los Angeles, and every year I find a little more faith. Who would have thought that this city of heathens would teach me this, but it is, and as time unfolds I learn more.
Here is a David Whyte poem that I always remember, nearly every day when I am gripped with self-doubt. I am thinking of it again today.
I want to write about faith,
about the way the moon rises
over cold snow, night after night,
faithful even as it fades from fullness,
slowly becoming that last curving and impossible
sliver of light before the final darkness.
But I have no faith myself
I refuse it even the smallest entry.
Let this then, my small poem,
like a new moon, slender and barely open,
be the first prayer that opens me to faith.
-- David Whyte