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...
MFA SEMESTER 1: THOUGHTS ON DAY 10
Yesterday was the last day of my first residency. While I was at school, Darby and the girls gussied up the house for the holidays. They hung their red and hot pink with gold lame handmade stockings over the fireplace screen. They draped white lights over Ganesha on the mantle. Our old friend, the styrofoam snowman, was planted back in the soil of the potted plant where he sits every winter. The handful of holiday cards we've received so far this season were set up on display. The girls assembled our vintage two-foot-high aluminum tree, hung their ornaments, and plugged in the accompanying color light wheel by the fireplace where the money tree used to be before the roots rotted from my over-zealous watering earlier this year. Hanukah's been over for a while but we tend to pack the holiday decorations all together. Darby made a centerpiece of two plastic dreidels, a cactus, and a frosty-the-snowman cookie tin for the silver thread dining room tablecloth. I walked in the front door at 5 p.m. to a living room bedazzled with glitter and tinsel. It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
This must be what Rip Van Winkle felt like when he awakened from his slumber of a hundred years. On the top shelf of our fridge is a sweet potato I baked before school started. I suppose I should compost it, but a part of me still doesn't believe two weeks have passed. I missed Emerson's holiday choir concert, and Esme's acting class presentation. I missed the newest batch of released music, the primary project I oversee at my day job. I've missed emails, New York Times headlines, and Facebook updates. I've missed details never to be recalled about Darby's life.
But what would have been missed had I not folded into this MFA program? There’s a lot that’s in theory right now, but I’m pretty sure that once I sit down and actually start writing (I don’t know if this almost stream-of-conscious blog counts) I’ve got a new set of awareness and inspiration to work with. I’ve blogged before about 40-day transformation practices. If I consider these ten days as the beginning of another set of forty, I wonder by mid-January how my writing practice will have changed.
It is nearly 9 a.m. and I am sitting here at the table, writing by the light of day streaming through the dining room windows. Faint but distinct synth chords and a melody that Darby has been working on come floating down the hall. The girls are watching Hairspray, both wrapped up in their comforters munching on Honey O's cereal, and I am typing to a little dance number featuring John Travolta in a pink sequin dress.
This morning, before the coffee, before the disco music, before I even opened my eyes to the morning light, Darby held me in his arms and whispered over and over, "I got my woman back, I got my woman back, I got my woman back."
MFA SEMESTER 1: THOUGHTS ON DAY 9
When I think of my favorite Boston bookstores, I immediately think of the independently run Harvard Book Store with the wide glass window display of new releases and local interests, taking up nearly half a block of Mass. Ave heading towards Central Square, just after the Leavitt & Peirce tobacco shop. I must have biked or walked past this shop thousands of times in the thirteen years I lived around Boston. Many evenings, with nothing urgent calling, I stood in the yellow glow of the bright glass windows, letting my mind wander and my eyes graze over the covers on display. Sometimes I would file a title away in my mind, something to look into later, and then keep walking past. Other times my curiosity pushed me through the front door into the stacks, and I'd leaf through crisp pages, loosen my scarf and unbutton my coat as my eyes wandered to another shelf and picked up another book. Time slipped by in those visits, but it never felt wasted. Often before leaving the shop, for some unknown reason, I'd head to Fiction - W just to be sure that my favorite author was still in stock. I went too often to be surprised with a new Jeanette Winterson release, but it gave me comfort to see the familiar spines.
I also think of The Trident Booksellers and Cafe, which is not ruined for me despite the year I worked there, managing the cafe. The Trident is on the Boston side of the Charles River. I discovered David Sedaris in that shop, and Kathleen Dean Moore. There is the travel section with Lonely Planet books for every region, and I fantasized about where on earth I would go. There are shelves for all kinds of spirituality that I had never heard of until my first time there, on a field trip into the city with some of my undergraduate friends. Always a greedy journaler, comparative shopping for the most pages per penny, it was at the Trident that I first discovered the Moleskin journals, and abandoned the hard-backed sketch books I used in my Brandeis days for the extra-large soft-cover unlined Moleskin with the trademark pocket in the back I started to use at Berklee.
Sometimes, rarely, and mostly just for the restroom, I wandered into the Harvard Coop, now owned (I believe) by Barnes and Noble. It's a grand building now - if I recall correctly it was renovated back in the mid-'90s - with a winding staircase up to a book-lined balcony, but the selection never captured my attention like the Trident's or the Harvard Book Store. Still, there were rainy days I took refuge at the cafe on the second floor or spread my reading out on a table looking down into the atrium.
I once caught a snippet of a tour guide's speech about Cambridge having more book stores per square mile than any other city in the world. It was a glorious place to live for a girl like me, for both independent book and music stores alike. In those years, I was happily oblivious to the corporate restructuring of the book and music industry that was taking place across the rest of the country, wiping out independent stores and streamlining the interests of America in what I now have the lexicon to call "intellectual colonization".
Now in Los Angeles, I miss those Boston bookstores. Yes, just yesterday I wrote about the magic of this city built on rock and roll, but it is also a literary desert. Half of the books on my shelf were acquired from the literary division during the year I worked for International Creative Management, one of the top talent agencies. A few weeks ago, discovering that the library closed early on Fridays, I drove around aimlessly searching for a place to buy the book I was (insanely) desperate to begin. The night ended with margaritas, but sadly no book.
However, lest you weep in sorrow for my plight, I can happily tell you that just three blocks from my house, along the Chandler bike path, there is The Iliad. Literally, it is (I believe) one of only three bookstores in the whole San Fernando Valley. (Actually, I am being generous here -- I can only think of two off-hand now that the Aroma Cafe shop closed, but even that was more gift boutique with a few compelling titles than a serious book store.) The other night, with my semester's reading list in hand, I climbed the ladders up to the top shelves, my head crooked to one side, reading every spine in search of the books on my list. It is a used bookstore, scented with the mustiness of old pages and attended by unkempt introverts. I found all but five of my books (truth told, I forgot to look for two of them), and now have a stack next to my bed and a warmth in my heart that at the very least there is this one place of book lover refuge nearby.
It's funny that today I am thinking so much of Harvard Square and the bookstores of Boston. You'd think I'd be filled with thoughts of these past days at Antioch. But maybe there's something to this reaching for the past while moving forward on this new endeavor.
Yesterday in a workshop on narration and reflection, we read (and re-read) (and then re-read again) the Joan Didion essay "Goodbye to All That" about her time in NYC as a young woman. Maybe while I slept last night I turned over her New York into my Boston. Reading and talking about writing gives a framework, a structure through which to talk/think/write about the past. After seven years here in Los Angeles, my memories of Beantown have softened a little, the background noise has become more muffled. Meanwhile, the highlights have brightened, the distinct moments have become more pronounced. Luckily we humans cannot remember everything. How that would crush us in nostalgia. Hemingway was only able to write about Paris when he was back in Michigan. So now here in Los Angeles, maybe it's time to write about Boston.
Here's the final list for my Project Period (subject to change):
1. Safekeeping, Abigail Thomas
2. The Periodic Table, Primo Levi
3. Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion
4. To The Lighthouse, Virginia Wolf
5. In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin
6. Moby Dick, Herman Melville
7. Light in August, William Faulkner
8. Plainwater, Ann Carson
9. Here is Where We Meet, John Berger
10. Beloved, Toni Morrison
11. Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor
12. The Golum and The Jinni, Helene Wrecker
MFA SEMESTER 1: THOUGHTS ON DAY 8
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
MFA SEMESTER 1: THOUGHTs ON DAY 7
Was it intentional that yesterday, with the growing stack of hand-scrawled note paper tucked into the back pocket of my bag and the deadline for their neatly typed untanglement gnawing at my mind, that the Residency schedule handed me first a lecture on breath in writing and then a seminar on meditation and chant? Yesterday, Day 7, was a gift of non-linearity.
In both classes yesterday morning, I planted my feet firmly on the ground, shifted my spine upright and away from the chair back, closed my eyes and breathed long and slow. The second seminar, led by one of the writing mentors who is also a Kundalini yoga teacher, was a solid two hours of kirtan dance, kundalini chant, pranayama and mantra. Not counting the Metallica I blasted down the 405 on Saturday, it was the first time I'd heard music all week. I closed my eyes and let the rhythm and song sway my bones that have been folded into right angles. We chanted Ong Namo, Guru Dev Namo, and the tight lines of sentence and story structure slackened into ribbons and streams. Afterwards, in a fevered rush to write faster than our minds could race, we pushed our pens across the page without agenda, prompted by "Disco" and "Zebra", unleashed by the meditation and chant that came before, and fell into uncharted territory, pulling from hidden nooks of memory and desire. It was like rolling down a grassy hill, laughing and falling into a pile of daisies at the end. It was like eating ice cream before there was any mind chatter about calories and clothes. It was like playing music when the notes just sail from the horn. It was like riding a bicycle home.
Later, while standing on line for a salad at the little shop across the way, a classmate said to me, "You sounded like the ocean." I told her about ujjayi pranayama, victorious breath. I asked her about the little aluminum-backed book in her purse, and she showed me her bible, all dogeared and doodled with colored pencil. She told me how in love she is with Jesus, how he has saved her and loves her. I told her about Rumi and Hafiz, and how they felt the same way. We ate our lunches together and spoke with open-hearts about life and spirituality, without fear of difference or coldness of ego.
I got home late last night, but Darby and the girls did too. It was a lively house at ten. Emerson was still dancing because her holiday choir concert had just ended and she was wired and hungry and happy. Esme was dancing because Emerson was dancing. Darby was happy because his girls were happy.
I was, of course, exhausted. I've finally succumbed entirely to the cold that has been threatening to settle in my lungs. The cough has deepened, the sneezes sudden and loud, my voice barely over a whisper at the end of the day. But, the girls were wired and giggling, and they would not let me crawl into bed. They flung the covers off me, yanked at my arms, tickled my feet, pushed and pulled and twisted me in knots, until I finally surrendered to their love and threats, crawled up with them to the birdsnest and tucked them into bed.
Last night I slept for the first time since last Thursday. I laid on my belly, pushed away the pillows, and didn't move for hours. In the morning, just before the alarms sounded, Darby lay next to me, listening to my sleep. He watches over me, I know, sends me love in those quiet hours when I'm still deep in dream.
Was it the breath or the chant? The meditation or the music? Maybe it was the fierce love and laughter that tugged at my weary limbs, and pulled me despite my protests, out of story structure and back into the home I adore and the family I love.
It's a strange thing to leave the comfort of a perfect life to reach into unknown territory for unknown riches. It's a beautiful thing when the perfect life pulls you back in from the abyss. Sometimes it tickles you halfway to death, and then insists that you kiss it goodnight. Jesus, Darby, Kundalini chant, girls, music... whatever it is that gives you the love you need at the moment you most need it is perfect, perfect, perfect.
MFA SEMESTER 1: THOUGHTS ON DAY 6
In my yoga classes, sometimes I will ask my students to hold a pose beyond a few breaths, beyond the point of comfort, beyond the point of interest, and ask them to explore their experience. If it's pain, I tell them, move out. But if it's merely sensation, even if the sensation is not pleasant, I ask them to stay. It is so tempting to break a pose under the guise of thirst, reaching for the water bottle with relief, not because of the water, but the escape. However, the discomfort can be interesting. It can reveal a physical imbalance in our body -- oh, this hip, oh, this quad -- and it can reveal a psychological crutch. How many times do we shift prematurely out of a relationship or a situation simply to avoid dealing with discomfort? What revelations do we miss when we shift too soon? Or reach for the closest distraction? What at point do we stagnate in our personal evolution because of an aversion to difficult sensation?
Yesterday I met with my mentor. I took the elevator to his office on the second floor, and as I moved to step into the hall, he stepped into the elevator and pressed the button to go down. Perhaps this was a sign that we might experience mixed messages in our mentor-mentee relationship these coming months. I rode the elevator back down and filled the coffee I had just topped off, and then went with him back up to the second floor.
When we finally settled into his office to discuss my goals for this Project Period, he suggested that "we" might need to break the songwriter in me. He's read an excerpt of my story about a night I spent in Texas while on tour. "Tumbleweeds," he said. "It's like a country song."
I was up all night thinking about tumbleweeds. Literally, I did not sleep. The damn things mingled with my muffled coughs as I tried not to wake Darby. Which states have tumbleweeds, I thought. What songs? By morning I had concluded that of course tumbleweeds make an appearance in my story. I was in Texas for a week, west Texas for two days. The story is about one of those nights. I'd never seen a tumbleweed in my life until those stops on the tour. They were fascinating, but even more importantly, they were everywhere. I write about setting, and every long stretch of road was bordered by the dry globes of loose stems. One stormy night, the last time I traveled those roads, my hands gripped the wheel as I dodged them with every gust. Actually, come to think of it, the song I wrote about the same night doesn't mention tumbleweeds at all.
My mentor lives in Vermont. Has he raced the wind and rain and rolling weeds? It doesn't take a songwriter or a country song to write about nature, and in west Texas in the second half of summer, nature was rolling.
As I drove to campus this morning, those tumbleweeds kept spinning in my head. I tend to sell myself short. While I don't want to inflate my writing experience, perhaps I undersold it. Did I somehow imply to my mentor that I have only written that one story? Did I come across as a songwriter exploring longer form for the first time? My resume is not lengthy, but did I do a disservice by neglecting to mention these past five or seven years of blogging? Is it relevant to mention the published essays? Does it matter that I teach writing/yoga workshops? In my interest of exploring "voice" did I give him the impression that I haven't developed my own?
And under all these questions, deep in the discomfort, I am crying out No. Do not break the songwriter. I still feel that in the world of songs, I have only just begun.
So, enter the discomfort. I have been shaking for days, every morning trying not to spill my coffee as I write these posts. So this is me, exploring. Open to discussing. Breathing.
MFA SEMESTER 1: THOUGHTS ON DAY 5
Yesterday was day five of this ten-day residency. About mid-afternoon I hit a wall of supreme fatigue in which I was able to fully function except under one circumstance. When a classmate or teacher asked me the question "How are you?" I was confronted with such a complicated internal survey coupled with the request to externalize the discovered sensations and thoughts, I could only answer, "Exhausted." After several hours of this, the awareness that the question was simply one of nicety and greeting settled upon me, and I was able to muster smiles and variations like, "Good" and "How'd you like XYC seminar?" and "Are you happy with your mentor selection?".
As it turns out, almost everyone I've seen is happy with their mentor selection. With one exception in my posse of first-semesters, there's an infusion of excitement and optimism about the coming Project Period. I am certainly electrified. After five days of seminars in these rooms and walls, I am curious about the next phase of work. Once these ten days are over and we all head back into our normal lives of day jobs, yoga teaching, and family, my mentor and the four other students in my mentor-group will be my crew.
My mentor for this Project Period is the same teacher/writer I have for this Residency's Genre Writing Workshop. Coincidentally, two of the four in my mentor-group are also in my GWW. For the first five months of 2014 we'll be peas in pod. Each month we will participate in ten- to fourteen-day online discussions about our group-chosen books. Every Sunday we will have a friendly check-in with each other just to see how the writing is going and what, if any, frustrations are arising. In addition, in these five months we each will read another five or ten books chosen with the guidance of our mentor based on our personal writing and literary goals, and submit paragraph- to five-page annotations on a monthly basis of anything we read. Finally, we will each work on our individual writing projects and submit to our mentor via snail mail up to twenty pages by the last Friday of each month.
I have a one-on-one meeting with my mentor in an hour, and it is in that meeting that we will determine which books I will read this spring. Meanwhile, the books I will read with my group are:
Here is Where We Meet, John Berger
Plainwater, Ann Carson
The Periodic Table, Primo Levi
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
Sad to say, I never did read those last two in high school, so I'm happy to dig into them now. It is mind-boggling how many classics I've taken up on my own in the years since high school, to make up for holes in my education. What did we spend our time (and tax payers money) on back then? All I recall is Dicken's Great Expectations, Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, Romeo and Juliet, and, when I moved to rural Florida in twelfth grade, the Bible.
Despite my exhaustion, yesterday ended magnificently. I didn't want to leave the school, could have sat in the seminar room for another two hours. This is the power of story. Most days end with a Reading, usually with three student readers followed by a faculty or guest reader. I truly enjoyed all three students yesterday, but what glued my entire attention was faculty writer Hope Edelman's reading of an almost-finished essay she has been working on. It was a riveting piece of personal memoir/investigative journalism about the military toxic waste dump that formed the foundation below her elementary school and childhood neighborhood. By the time the reading officially ended she was only mid-way through her tale. Last night I was tied, tethered to every word, reeling with each new revelation of her investigation and the unfolding of her childhood memories.
This, this, this. Yes, yes, yes. This is why I am here, now. To learn, to explore, to figure out how to stitch together narratives that engulf, capture, and eliminate exhaustion, hunger, and desire. To dissolve the future and the past and anything outside of the very moment in the story. To vanish everything in the world save the next word.
MFA SEMESTER 1: THOUGHTS ON DAY 4
"For women, it's really about do it all, do it perfectly and make sure you make it look effortless." - Brene Brown in her interview with Krista Tippett on NPR's show "On Being"
I've purposely avoided blogging about the academic side of my MFA experience. There's time for that later, if necessary, and in any case, part of my required residency work is to submit reactions/analysis of the seminars/workshops/etc. Actually, I didn't intend to necessarily blog about this residency at all. Sometimes there's no plan. Sometimes I just need to write.
Flipping through the radio stations on my way home from the Reading last night, I happened upon Krista Tippett's interview with Brene Brown on NPR's "On Being". If you haven't already caught Brown's Ted talks on Shame and Vulnerability, I highly recommend them. It feels synchronistic to have ended up in the middle of her interview last night after a difficult afternoon at school. Without realizing it, Brene Brown was exactly what I needed.
Our capacity for wholeheartedness, she says, can never be greater than our willingness to be brokenhearted. In other words, in order to experience and express our full capacity as humans (and artists), we need to entirely let go of expectation, of comparison, of perfectionism. In fact, Brown created two lists in her research on shame and worthiness and found that productivity, busyness, exhaustion, and perfectionism are incompatible with wholehearted creation and authentic joy.
Yesterday was a tough one. The first thing scheduled was a Meet the Mentors panel, in which the students had an opportunity to ask questions and get to know the working style and expectations of the mentors in the Creative NonFiction track. Afterwards, we were expected to rank in order our mentor preference and submit our list by 9 a..m. today. Although I intended, as a first semester student, to raise my hands in surrender and simply request that the committee place me where they saw fit, I left the panel presentation feeling dejected. I have fifty or sixty pages of a manuscript and many questions about how to proceed, yet it appears as though none of the mentors are willing or able to read more than twenty pages per student per month.
As I wandered out of the seminar room I felt genuinely lost. I need guidance, I felt, and was concerned that none of the mentors would be able to provide answers to my questions. Figuring the exhaustion and lack of exercise was contributing to my mood, I headed to my car to switch into walking shoes with the intention of wandering in the cemetery for a while between workshops. On my way off campus, though, I veered back into the main building, up to the fifth floor, and into the faculty offices.
"I don't know where to go with this story. How do I find the guidance I need?" I asked one of the core faculty members.
"Put your fifty or sixty pages in a drawer", she told me.
In other words, just start writing from here, from a different place. Don't worry about what I've already done, she advised. Just write the new pages, and in the process of exploring and working with the mentor I will eventually know when the time is right to take out the old pages. I'll know what to do with them then. Release my expectations and my need for perfection. No mentor can tell me the answers.
It's strange, but sometimes the same advice we've heard before suddenly takes on new meaning. Where in the past it would have been frustrating, now it sounds perfect. I need to release who I was as a writer, the control I've exercised on these pages so far, and step out into the void of unknowing, be vulnerable, surrender entirely.
Do these thoughts this morning make any sense? I don't know. Here I am, five minutes to nine, releasing control of this morning's blog. It's time for class.
MFA SEMESTER 1: THOUGHTS ON DAY 3
After several mornings of get-up-and-go it seems I can't sleep past six, so I am here in bed on a Sunday morning listening to the airplanes overhead. I'll head back to Antioch in a few hours, missing the day's graduate presentations but in time for the Meet the Mentors panel. Despite my later start time today, with the core faculty's first night advice to honor our body/mind/spirit needs, last night I begged out early. Yesterday I had arrived on campus shortly before 8 a.m. for a long day of back-to-back Presentations, Lectures, Orientations, Readings, and Info sessions, and by the time I got my first ten minute break it was already 4 p.m. After the final class of library system orientation (aside: This national inter-library system will deliver books/dissertations/essays to my door. It's like Netflix for books. Brilliant!), I could feel my eyes rolling sleepily in their sockets and my blood sugar was on the floor. I skipped the night's Reading* and called Darby on the ride home to keep me awake at the wheel. It was only 5:30 p.m. but I was ravenous and ready to drop from fatigue.
(*Reading: to distinguish a live performance from a solo sit-down with a book, I'll capitalize the former.)
As I lay here this morning listening to Darby still sleeping beside me and the planes occasionally passing above, I've been thinking about my new community of Antioch writers. When I imagine what the general public might picture writers to be, I conjure a group of milquetoast individuals, quietly reading their books and bickering about grammar. The truth is, I am in mouth-gaping awe of these people. I am floored by the unwillingness to be swayed by anything short of Truth. They argue and question and write, write, write until they get past the false fronts. I am inspired by the unwavering quest to dig beyond the easy, past the cliche, despite the pleading of their family or the mask of social history. I don't know if there is a more courageous set than writers. Writers are true warriors who look at the world closely, behind the curtain, under the bed, out the window, always with eyes wide open to the external world, questioning their interior experience, self aware and willing to dismantle social conventions, unravel invisible passions, dig into sometimes painful and particular personal events in order to connect and uncover universal truths. Is there anything more innocent than a page? And yet on that innocuous slate, writers stab, cut, carve, and bleed, fighting with every word for the essence of Honesty and Truth.
MFA SEMESTER 1: THOUGHTS ON DAY 2
I have found a bagel and the library and 53 minutes in which to reflect on yesterday's events before jumping into today's. I am awhirl with three strains of thoughts.
First, of course, there is the academic strain. Yesterday was an information dump. I attended orientations for the paperwork we're required to file which will track our activity and progress throughout the four (or five) (or six) semesters, the computer system which functions as the virtual gathering space and discussion platform during the five month project period that follows every ten-day residency, and the genre writing workshop in which seven of us (plus the teacher) will meet three more times over the next week to discuss the 20-page writing samples we submitted two months ago. In the morning I attended my first seminar (Reading Like a Writer -- based on the Francine Prose book of the same title), and in the evening my first student and faculty reading (a combination of poetry, writing for young people, and a work of fiction with a lengthy and detailed sex scene).
In between these academic events were social gatherings. There was the Buddy lunch, where I had the opportunity to connect with a writer who is further along in her MFA studies, also in the Creative Nonfiction track. It seems impossible that our match was random -- she too is a chef, a runner, a yogi, and her daughter rides horses -- yet she assured me that the program truly doesn't attempt to match buddy interests. Later, there was the Tostado dinner where some first-semester students and I had time to connect. I feel that we are creating a little community here. There is the housewife with the Harvard Law degree, the mother of six who recently left the Mormon church, the Jewish math teacher whose husband is also a recovered Mormon, and the other Jewish woman whose marriage to a Latino man is not recognized outside of West Hollywood. There is the recent college graduate with the fresh face and long blond hair who thinks her interest in writing about the darker side of life might be a result of her Las Vegas upbringing. There is the woman who moved to the States from Belarus six years ago and has mastered English enough to be in this masters program, and the other woman who speaks Russian, Armenian, and Hebrew.
And then there is the last thought that has been spinning around in my head: the one about fate and coincidence, that wonders at the oddity that six years ago I visited this very building, this corporate campus with the parking garage, to pick up my then-husband who worked for a company whose offices were housed in this very complex. Driving the roads to get from my life with Darby and the girls in our sweet house in the Valley to the Antioch campus, I've been crossing through the Mid-City neighborhood where I last lived with my ex, where I deepened my yoga practice and engaged in creative endeavors that had no career objective, where I unraveled the inauthentic life that I had been living, where I awakened in the pages of my journal and in long moments of silence, where I faced fears of loneliness and lost dreams, and finally, through clenched belly and tear-stained cheeks found the courage to leave that inauthentic life I had created out of blind, grasping fear, scrape down to the very bedrock of my soul, and begin the long, beautiful process of building the life that truly inspires me to live.