Today, March 4th, is not a sleepy Sunday to fetter away mindlessly with no thought to passing time and unrealized passions. Today is a day of action, a day to look unabashedly into the face of desires, glimmers of curiosity, grand ideas, or tiny tweaks that align more exactly with the best possible life you and I most long for.
Good morning, friends on the west coast, and good day or evening to you easterners. Let’s agree that the universe conspires in our favor and today in full confidence take action that brings us closer to realizing our visions.
Hearts beat. Lungs breathe. Blood flows. Minds think.
The bodily functions comfort me when I list them as jobs. I don't need to know what the spleen does, as long as it does it well. Every year I visit a doctor who pokes, prods, weighs, measures, flattens, listens, tightens, draws, extends, asks a question or two, defends her authority as a medical practitioner with degrees above a desk that I've never seen, and types her findings into a computer for reference next time. I don't need to know the reason behind every test, as long as she knows what she's looking for, and as long as I have reason to believe she will alert me in the event of something gone wrong. I am a writer. She is a doctor. Hearts beat. Lungs breathe. Blood flows. Minds think.
Without any forethought, I recently found myself out in the backyard, gardening gloves on, a small saw and clippers in hand. We have a space behind our garage where someone once thought to build a raised bed for a garden. Half the joy of a garden is in the gazing at it, and this spot is supremely hidden. I imagine only lettuces and herbs might grow in its narrow shade of the garage and backyard fences that keep our neighbors strangers. I don't want to tend lettuces and herbs in this forgotten corner of the backyard. I've ignored it for years and would not think of the spot at all but for a charming white picket fence that surrounds it. Whoever built the bed all those years ago must have had a dog, for why else fence in a small shady section behind a garage in an otherwise entirely enclosed yard?
Blood flows. Minds think. Weeds grow. On Saturday, I pulled up the roots of thorny weeds, scooped dead branches into our yard refuse bin, bundled tubes from the defunct irrigation system, raked tidy lines in the dirt around and inside the bed, and wondered about what this out-of-the-way spot might be used for. Blood flows. Minds think. Egos lie.
I don't know what the spleen does, but the ego is a different story. After so many years of keeping journals and meditating, I know when my ego lifts like a porcupine's needles or a skunk's tail, instinctively guarding me, protecting me when the hard shell of protective armor rises and exposes an inch of my own soft belly of truth. I know when my ego chooses words like wonder, feigning innocence, as if I'd never considered it before. As if the truth is not what led me to the shears. I am lying to you: I did not wonder what this out-of-the-way spot might be used for. It is the reason I wandered to the backyard and spent hours clearing the brush.
The space is nine feet wide, another two or three if I measure beyond the fence to the concrete wall at the back of our property. Lengthwise, the space is probably twenty feet. Some people, like Darby, can visualize beyond over-grown orange trees, piles of mulch, debris from when the trimmers cut back the mulberry at the start of the fire season. At least a year ago, he suggested that the spot might be good for a writing studio. He has his own studio in the house, and for years I've worked from the dining table. A "she shed," he called it. A room of my own, I thought.
Why lie about that? What stake does the ego have in a little she shed, a little clean up of the backyard? A big one, apparently. As I raked the clutter away, pushing crisp leaves into the green bin in order to stuff in more twigs, the nine (or twelve) by twenty of the space became clear. The area could accommodate a cabin larger than one I once lived in, Thoreau-style, not far from Walden Pond. I could imagine a desk, perhaps a daybed, a music stand. The walls, painted with white-board paint or simply white or unpainted, could be covered with maps outlining the book I've been writing. I could unselfconsciously try out new song ideas, practice clarinet, talk to myself (as I tend to do when I'm writing), or sit in the quiet -- because as I pulled up a vine, I realized how well the garage and fences muffled street noise -- and drink tea.
And the heart beats, and the blood flows, and the mind, the mind, the mind thinks.
My mind turned to how much I don't know about building a little cabin. Because of everything I don't know how to do, I couldn't do it myself. Foundations. Studs. Electricity. Roofs. Supports. Windows. Doors. I can't even really correctly measure. I would have to hire an expert. Services and materials. My needle-y ego raised its fear-mongering head:
What if whatever I create inside that cabin never earns back what it cost to build the space?
I found myself pacing in the dirt, watching the noon sunlight lift higher on the garage wall. What if after all the effort and money, I never make anything worthwhile? What if whatever I write in there never earns back a penny?
I found myself reasoning: I should make due with what I already have, not waste the money on a room of my own. I am not worth it. The dining table has worked well enough, hasn't it? And when the girls are watching a movie in the living room, and Darby is in his recording studio, I can retreat, as I always have, with my laptop to our bedroom. But you never practice your clarinet when they're all around, the non-fear-mongering voice said. And you need quiet space to write, to think.
The next morning, before anyone in the house had woken, I poured my mug of coffee and stood in my socks in the raked dirt. An hour later, Darby was up, and I brought him back there to see my progress from the day before. This would be a good spot for your she shed, he said again, eyeing the dimensions, going back to the house for measuring tape, and, soon after, pulling up websites for tiny cabin building companies. What if I never make back that money, I worried.
And yet: An artist studio of my own.
The heart beats. The mind thinks. It runs over ideas, looking for ones that I might find interesting. Will the fear-mongering intrigue me more? You can live safe and small. Or will the curiosity to see what I might make in a quiet room just for myself win out? The mind thinks, the mind thinks. Next weekend I will fill up the green bin with the last of the leaves and begin dismantling the raised bed. I'm not yet ready to make a decision, but like Anne Lamott's advice - don't worry over the vast sky, just take it "bird by bird," one twig at a time I will make some space.
So much churns and rises to the surface during the night. A few days ago, I sat with my coffee and journal as I do most mornings, trying to capture my waking thoughts. As usual, only after my inner compass steadied could I turn my gaze to the headlines and other people's stories. Though I am enamored with the world, I don't know what magnets may swing too near my needle as I sleep so nearly every morning I do this scan of my inner horizon, as if it's an object on my nightstand, to ensure true north is where I left it the night before. If I can engage the first half hour of the morning with my pen steadied over the page, I rein in some otherwise missed understanding of the world. I write, listen to the hum of the refrigerator or the chatter of finches across the street, and sip my coffee. Sometimes, when there's little to sort out, I just write about the refrigerator and the finch. I aim for at least three pages of anything, and no matter what I write, mornings like that start out well.
The break of a new year is much the same. As one year's clepsammia thins, I hold my inner compass to the events of the previous twelve months. How does my living measure with the map I envision for my life? Have I lived aligned with my values? When the hourglass inverts, I face the future and envision how to rebalance lopsidedness from the previous year and further build on past progress.
As I began to write my way across the transition from 2017 into 2018, though, I noticed a distinctly uncommon wobble in my journaling. My compass seemed to be spinning. When I asked What did I do with my time? I felt unmoored, and then understood: The November before, not to over-play a broken record, had named the loser of the popular vote the winner of our last presidential election. Though I believe people can change, I don't think Trump will, and I didn't buy some commentators' hopes that his election season manner would temper after his swearing in. Instead, the weight of all the injustices ever wrought against women -- the silencing, the harassing, the violence, the unfair narratives, the pay gap -- pushed at my back and pummeled me through the gates of that new year. I had crossed threshold with a heady mix of anger, fear of the unknown, and a whopper of an election hangover.
Between the election of '16 and the swearing in last January, with my usual New Year's reckoning, I somberly acknowledged that the creative and professional plans I had thought would be my focus of 2017 had been based on an election outcome much different from what came to pass. Instead, I saw, 2017 would be not a year of embarking on new journeys, but on rehashing tired arguments for why, dammit, women need access to reproductive care; why, dammit, people for whom skin color has been the primary correlating factor for economic disparity should benefit from affirmative action; why gender expression or sexual orientation should make no damn difference when it comes to employment, military service, marriage, bathroom access, safety, or equal rights of any kind; why health care, particularly for the very old and very young and very sick and very poor -- and every child, like ours, with Type 1 Diabetes -- should be, in every civilized and wealthy society, guaranteed, accessible, and affordable; why we must be aggressive and progressive against industries that exacerbate climate change; why we must be diplomatic in our foreign relations; why we must encourage and support advancements in science, the arts, and education; and why, dammit, the individuals we choose as representatives should represent us at our best, not just for political reasons, but because, for god's sake, the children are listening.
This week, as I tried to clarify my retrospective of 2017 in order to create my vision for 2018, I saw too well that the past year, instead of moving forward, had been spent going back over the leaks in the boat we'd already built and had thought was airtight. That was the wobble. It came from the gravitas and boredom of battles re-waged. It came from tamping down celebrations; pulling back recording projects; setting aside money for the ACLU and NARAL and other organizations with other letter combinations; and delaying creation of new books in order to have time to consume more articles analyzing what had caused this great ship to dip, and how to simultaneously bail out the water and repair the leak before we all go down.
You many think I'm being overly dramatic, but that's part of what I love about you and me: we are not identically the same in our passions. And sometimes we are.
Still, the point is that 2017 has ended. To honor it, Darby and I chilled a bottle of prosecco and holed up in his recording studio to reclaim what was left of the new year. We staked out the final hours and marked them as our own, getting back to making music and writing stories.
We finished the year like that, never getting to the Prosecco, and woke up on January 1 to continue our work, which is on the Bliss Drops record that we first started over a year ago. Never mind the past. Through this New Years Eve and Day, we picked up where we left off before the election fiasco of 2016, with what is called "the Guru mantra," a Sanskrit chant that I've put to melody and chords, and which Darby has dressed up in groove. Gu = darkness. Ru = remover. Seems a fitting way to start anew: removing the darkness to bring in clarity, truth, healing, and joy.
"By reciting this mantra with a sincere heart," activist, musician, writer, and yoga teacher Sharon Gannon writes, "you will see that the power that enlightens is all around you at all times. [...] The guru is your own self, the inner guiding light."
To you, dear reader, I wish a very happy 2018, filled with love, joy, good health, creative inspiration, and the light of truth so that you may see more clearly in the darkness.
Guru Brahma, Guru Vishnu, Guru devo Maheshwara, Guru sakshat, param Brahma, tasmai shri guravay namaha
Brahma is the force, or guru, of creation; Vishnu, that of preservation; devo Maheshwara is behind the trials that transform us. There is a remover of darkness nearby (Guru Sakshat) and one beyond the beyond (param Brahma). I make my offering (tasmai) to the beautiful (shri) remover of my darkness, my own ignorance; I honor that guru with my life (namaha).
“Destruction, creation, catastrophe, renewal, sorrow, and joy are merely human ways of seeing, human projections onto the landscape, the ecologists say. What is real, they say, is change." - from Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore
Here on the north side of Los Angeles, we're all ashes to dust to smoke to flame. In at least four locations across Los Angeles and Ventura counties, brush fires, which first ignited Monday night, are reportedly 0% contained. Funny, now, to think that while I was out running earlier that day, I didn't think, as I usually do when the winds kick up fiercely in the afternoon, It's fire weather. In the newly-chilly winter temperatures, I must have forgotten the danger. After all, this week I began wearing a winter jacket to the office.
As of this writing - Tuesday - communities have been evacuated across our two counties over the past twelve hours due to the 50k-acre Thomas Fire consuming Ventura and Ojai; the 5k-acre Rye Fire burning in Santa Clarita; the closer 2.5k-acre Creek Fire in Sunland and Sylmar; and the fresh 2k Runner Fire in Thousand Oaks. Though many fires have burned this year, these are places where friends, including some of you, live. Where the artisan who designed and hammered our wedding rings has his business. Where my kids jumped horses over fences and then fed them peppermints and carrots. The burned acres will certainly grow as I draft this letter, along with other tallies: structures and irreplaceables burned, costs for what can be repaired, businesses destroyed, large and small animals lost, deaths. The Santa Ana winds blow strongest in December. It's going to be a long week with a lot of math.
[Wednesday morning edit: Thomas Fire is 65k acres, 0% containment; 7k acre Rye Fire, 5% containment; Creek Fire is 12k acres, 0% containment; Runner Fire is contained; a new overnight Skirball Fire by the Getty Center has shut down I-405 in both directions right through Los Angeles and has burned 50k acres.]
Fires need only spark, fuel, and air. In the coming weeks, investigators may determine it was a stray cigarette butt thrown out the window of a speeding car, or a bit of ash that floated up a chimney and caught on a palm frond. Maybe, like a nearby fire in October, an emergency flare too close to the shoulder rolled onto a spit of grass. Possibly, a bit of burning debris from one fire was carried on a gust of wind, and sparked another fire elsewhere. Last winter's glorious rains pulled our region out of severe into moderate drought, and spurred excellent new growth on the thirsty hills, which the dry summer desiccated to tinder. Even in recent weeks' chill, the humidity index hovered in the single digits. Then, Monday, the Santa Ana winds blew 60 mph gusts over a tiny spark, from some yet-known source, and now southern California is on fire. CNN reports that on the first night, the Thomas Fire was burning at nearly an acre per second. In New York terms, that would be Central Park ravaged in fifteen minutes.
In spots, like the one where I sit now in North Hollywood, for the very young, or the very old, or the very weak, these few days of ashy air may prove challenging. Nearby, my friends' 20-day-old baby, who I love, and his newborn lungs, is on my mind, because dust from smoky air creeps inexplicably through doorjambs and windowsills.There's a young man named Miles who's stood half asleep for a year or more on a busy corner near our house, his father in a wheelchair just behind him. Their clothes, skin, and hair are only variations of the same unwashed brown. Darby frequently gives them money, food, and clothes. What do they do in weather like this, cold and horribly gritty with soot? The patients in the mental hospital that burned in Ventura this morning -- what toll does a trauma of relocation take on a fragile mind? It brings to my mind the undergraduate student in a course I have been teaching this fall at Antioch University, who moved in November to Thousand Oaks, where the Runner Fire cropped up. She emailed a few days ago, just a week before the final class of the term, to say she's suffering from the mental illness that she's written about in her papers, and she won't be able to complete the course. She is on my mind.
Though I am ashamed to admit it amid these and other very real fire-related concerns, I'm also thinking of my week's running schedule, now disrupted. With my face hiding behind my hands, I confess that last night I sought out a local gym with a treadmill. Self-care seems indulgent, but also necessary, in the face of local disaster. I've grappled with questions related to this issue for years: How, when there is real suffering, can I justify my own passions and comparatively petty needs? When horses are being evacuated from stables where my kids used to ride, can I justify an hour on a treadmill? While standing outside Berklee College of Music in 2002 just before I enrolled, I wondered how I could devote my life to music and literature, singing about love and lovers' disagreements - for fucks sake, SINGING - while only a few sidewalk squares separated me from a man who stumbled through the streets suffering demons and dire poverty in the winter cold?
I attempted to reroute myself eight or nine years ago. It was a moment of reckoning, during which I was accepted to a Masters in Social Work program and awarded a competitive and generous fellowship. I might have done real good for some people. The program would have put me in the center of Los Angeles family and children's services, working with kids in the foster system and couples caught in domestic abuse.
I turned it down, and even now know that was the right decision. In the end, I released the award to someone more whole-heartedly suited for the work. My domestic and existential drama interests are more introspective: what it means to love and be a flawed human; the forked path of growing older, and what paths are necessarily precluded in the wake of the others we choose; the difficult link between womanhood and motherhood, and motherhood and daughterhood; how to live fully while fully aware of mortality's shadow. My mind untangles narratives with as much success as an old rabbi and a gaggle of Talmudic scholars worrying over the meaning and order of words. In other words, the untangling is probably its own kind of tangling, but working that web fascinates me.
Meanwhile, Miles and his father seek shelter from the ash, my ex-student fights for her sanity, and the fires rage on. Last night the Santa Anas whipped stronger. The Skirball Fire ignited, and the city is under more duress. People are calling for everyone to stay off the roads, to keep them clear for first responders. I, though, have an obligation to my students on this last night of class, and unless the university closes for the evening, I will cross town to hear their final presentations. They've been researching creativity, interviewing artists, and exploring their own creative impulses, desires, blocks, fears.
I can't say what is, in light of disaster, the worth of art. I can say that my students appear grateful for our discussions in class. They report new insights into their own helpful or unhelpful patterns, and curiosity to further excavate their artistic inspiration. After an in-class writing prompt that centered them in an early memory about water, we talked about 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill, who advocated for, among other things, women's rights and labor unions. He'd fallen into a deep existential depression and lost all drive for his passions. What eventually drew Mill back to happiness was the poetry of William Wordsworth, with what philosopher Adam Etinson recently called its "quiet contemplation of delicate thoughts, sights, sounds, and feelings, not just titanic struggles."
Poetry was a soul-medicine that reinvigorated Mill's passions, inspiring his return to the good fight. Wordsworth, and his literary descendants like Mary Oliver, David Whyte, and Kathleen Dean Moore (quoted at the top of this letter), have been my own soul-medicine. The story of the solace Mill found in Wordsworth assuages my concerns about the relevance of art amid disaster, or the connection between art and self-care.
Right now, Darby, the girls, and I are lucky. The air is bad, but the flames are far from our home. In the coming days, if you are local and need support from the fires - a meal, a bed, a shower, reprieve - reach out. We have all the fixin's for a pot of chili, a cabinet of of mugs and tea, and a fridge of beer.
Writers! If you have a polished book project (or #CNF proposal) ready to pitch to agents, head to Twitter tomorrow (Thursday 12/7) for the #pitmad event. Between the hours of 8 a.m and 8 p.m. EDT, tweet up to three different 280-character pitches (new Twitter character limitations) directed to agents and publishers per manuscript project.
This event happens four times a year, so if you can't make it tomorrow, mark your calendars for 2018: March 8, June 7, September 6, and December 6.
Click here for Pitch War's list of hashtags for your genre and the rules. Remember: Don't "favorite" friends' tweets. If you want to show your support, you can RT and Quote-RT.
Here's a Writer's Digest piece by #pitmad founder Brenda Drake about the history of the event. And this link on her site is all about past successes.
Speaking of Twitter, after a big 2017 hiatus, I'm venturing back. Find me!
"Nestled in a sweet, escape in nature, I opened up myself to the deep work of being willing to go to the center of my own being. Through the guidance and love of Arielle Silver, Darby Orr, and Alexa Shore for three days, I was brought closer to exploring and honoring my own identity. And I connected with souls on the same spiritual path, who offered so much depth and their own vulnerabilities. They brought me closer to my own humanness. A magical community was created! This experience solidified how I want to continue to show up emotionally and spiritually for myself, my loved ones, and the world. And how I want to enjoy the simplest things like sunsets. I am deeply grateful for this community. Looking forward to the next one!" - Selma, 2017
We're sending well-wishes to beautiful Ojai during the Ventura fires. In January 2018, come see the magic of that ancient Chumash land and join me and Darby for a joyful and introspective event just for our friends and students, yoga practitioners of all levels, and creative spirits of all types. What is it you'd like to create in your life for the new year?
Alexa at Guru'd is our logistics guru. Click here for inquiries or to reserve your spot.
In an excellent piece from last month's New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan writes, "No tribal conflict has ever been unwound without magnanimity. Yitzhak Rabin had it, but it was not enough. Nelson Mandela had it, and it was. [...] [T]his requires, of course, first recognizing our own tribal thinking. So much of our debates are now an easy either/or rather than a complicated both/and. In our tribal certainties, we often distort what we actually believe in the quiet of our hearts, and fail to see what aspects of truth the other tribe may grasp." Read it here.
Last night was the first meeting of "Sources of Creativity: Theory and Practice," a course that I'm teaching this quarter in the BA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. The students come from a wide variety of backgrounds and with a broad array of creative experience, from poetry to visual art to acting, photography, coding, skateboarding, and scriptwriting. About midway through the three-hour class, as we reviewed the syllabus, a colorfully designed nine-pages with its outline of the quarter's assignments and midterm and final projects, dotted with drawings from my 13-year-old artist-stepdaughter, I sensed an unspoken concern in the room. How, I almost felt the students' thoughts, would this instructor evaluate our papers and projects - our creative work and our personal reflections on our process.
Ah, yes. This is where we need to start, every time, but especially in a setting like this one: a college classroom strewn with desks and chairs and whiteboards, all bright and muggy under the florescent lights. Especially when the students are all-too cognizant of the evaluations they will receive from me, their evaluator, at the end of the quarter.
I looked up from the schedule of academic rigor, scholarly essays, and details of how I will assess their work, to get back to the essence of what it is I hope will happen in this class over the next ten weeks: I hope they will create. I hope they will dig through whatever resists that desire, and come out the other side. I hope that by doing this together as a class, interviewing artists in their world, reading scholarly theories by Csikszentmihalyi, anecdotes from Anne Lamott, and spiritual inquiry by Nachmanovitch, they will find themselves among creative spirit comrades, and feel inspired.
Art is a process. Creative thinking is a process. Self-inquiry is a process. Exploration of the outside world is a process. Looking at the ordinary from a different angle... process process process.
So is the development of a class syllabus. I'll write more on the process by which this one came to be, but for now I'll leave it at this: When the students saw this syllabus, colorful and chunked and so unlike the common-looking black and white 12-pt Times New Roman font Word doc, they smiled. SMILED at a syllabus. I keep smiling at it, too.