Completion

A writer friend of mine finished NaNoWriMo yesterday, one day early. In case you don’t know or remember, NaNoWriMo is the older sister of NaBloPoMo. The intention is daily writing of between 1,500-2,000 words during the month of November, with a goal of 50,000 words – the first draft of a novel. This has always seemed like an extraordinary effort. Don’t know if I’ll ever attempt it. But my friend completed her draft of 52,000 words one day early. And, to quote her, “now the massive rewrite”.

As I write my final post of the month, I am struck by the fact that completion is always followed by a beginning. I know that for me, facing the ‘next step’ has sometimes been daunting, even discouraging. So, although it may seem obvious, this insight is actually a small thunderclap.

Now, with this post, I am completing NaBloPoMo 2015. As has happened each year previous to this, I am of two ‘minds’. That’s the expression, but not exactly what I mean. Oh well. There is one part of me that is relieved to have completed this self-appointed challenge. And another part that wonders if I want to continue with blogging on some regular schedule, or just remain dormant until November 2016?

I will reduce my expression further.

Completion = beginning.

Now what?                   NaBloPoMo_2015

Why

Why write? Why do I write and why do I write a daily blog post during NaBloPoMo? Well, writing has been a reliable, heart-opening and challenging experience for me all my life. It has provided a place where I could express my thoughts and feelings when there was no one to speak to. For many years, my words have been mostly private attempts to capture a sensation, idea or experience. I’ve partaken of some workshops, classes and writing groups now and then, but for the most part I’ve kept my writing to myself.

As I got older, and honestly, as I came to care less and less what other people thought about me (which had been a youthful preoccupation, not unusual) my writing began to shift, in content and in level of privacy. The benefits of getting things written down without mincing words, without holding back at all, are seductive. “If it’s bad, so what, I tried.” And with the dramatic shifts in the publishing world, it became easier to remember that always focusing on publication is no way to write.

I have spent about 35 years working with other writers, working hard as a coach, teacher and editor. I still enjoy working with writers of all stripes, but as time ahead no longer appears infinite, its time to focus on what I want to write. As I dig deeper and unearth unspoken truths, it is as if I am removing boulders from a path. Once I have removed an obstacle, there is no question about moving forward, I just do.

The relief and release (and relaxation!) that writing out my history, my angst and my joys is monumental. Giving myself a chance to freely express thoughts and feelings is no small thing. Okay, I’ll say it: It is healing. And what I have learned from reading blogs on the Internet and concentrating my book reading on memoirs, is that publicly sharing one’s truths can occasionally have an effect on others. I have been the recipient of so many ‘Aha’ moments while reading the work of others; that has been the richest part of my inner life, all my life.

The very first year that I participated in NaBloPoMo, catapulted me into a new arena. Speaking aloud, online, not only didn’t kill me, but there were two or three people who found words in the posts that meant something to them. That is more than enough encouragement to keep writing and posting, one month a year. As I have said before, it is hard work and I continue to be in awe of bloggers who post daily. But I am proud to be in the kindergarten of the blog-o-sphere. If I never graduate to first grade, that’s okay. I have plenty of work to do here: digging in the sandbox, making things from clay and taking naps.

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Family

You may or may not have noticed that I’ve had a hard time writing a blog post for the past couple of days. The reasons are many, I suppose. There is certainly the busy-ness around an event holiday, with cooking and traveling and lots of time with people. Spending too much time with people, even the ones I love, is exhausting and makes me cranky.

And speaking of cranky, there is a lot of what I’ll call pretense about this holiday – perhaps most holidays. So if my post on Thursday seemed sort of negative or bitter, well, that’s because this country, my country, along with being wonderful in some ways, has and does behave deplorably in so many other ways. One could say that this is true of most people, as well as nations or governments and perhaps that is so.

However I find it troubling when a person or entity touts its praiseworthy values and then does not even come close to living them. It’s ‘talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.’ Most people who know me would probably say that I am perilously close to being a ‘Pollyanna’ in my determined optimism. But that veneer seems to be wearing thin in places, as I age.

I’m going to return to the pretense issue as it relates to family. Family of man [sic]: we all belong. Blood family: even before genetic testing, the net of biological connection was rather vast. I know that I have many blood kin whom I have never met. But we are family in a genetic sense. And of course there are the blood kin with whom my life is closely intertwined. There is family as a legal entity: this would include those who have married ‘into the family’ as well as any other legal joining, like adoption.

Family as a unit: those who protect and nurture one another, without specific biological or legal connections. That would include ‘friends as family’, regardless of living situation, or any of the classifications used to define people as different. These are the chosen ones, the people we want to spend time with, or more specifically, at least for me, the people that it is relaxing and comfortable and de-stressing to be with.

Unfortunately, my experience with holidays over the decades has involved many hours surviving the pretense of family as nurturing and loving. Patience and good will is wearing pretty thin in that arena. I think that part of what I am trying to say is that I have shed almost all of the illusions I treasured as a child and young adult, that the rosy pretenses were real. And I am no longer willing to wait for the idyllic future when some miracle will have taken place and the rosy pretenses (like the Velveteen Rabbit) have become real.

There is a song from the mid-1970’s, written and performed by the Steve Miller Band. If you want to take a trip to the past, click the link here. The clothes, the guitars, the hair… One line keeps playing in my head. (I believe they are called ‘earworms’?)

“Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future.

Yes indeed, the future is here.

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Today

As a nation, the U.S. has such a dismal human rights record, from its treatment of Native Americans on into the present day on the streets of Chicago and other cities, so I cannot and do not consider this to be a Pilgrim day, but a day for giving thanks.

On this day of promoting gratitude, I think of the Louis Armstrong classic, What a Wonderful World. To see and hear him sing, please click the link.

I’ve also encountered a youtube video in which Armstrong gives a spoken introduction which you might find interesting. That link is here.

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Dreams

As a child, I was a sleepwalker. They tell me I would be found curled up, asleep, on the fuzzy rug in the bathroom, like a cat. I also talked in my sleep, although it wasn’t until I had a roommate in college that my words were captured for posterity. Profound things like: “Chop, chop, chop the nuts.” and “Somewhere there’s home and I’m going.” From childhood through my 20’s I remembered my dreams some of the time, but never really paid attention, so the images and feelings would slip away quite rapidly upon awakening.

Then I met a woman who was really ‘into’ dreams. She wrote detailed descriptions of her dreams every night, often several dreams, filling pages and pages, which obviously took some time. I began to ‘attend’ to my dreams more and suddenly they were more vivid and my recall was much more complete. This is a truism about dreams and dreaming. If you express interest in them by writing them down, even the briefest image or lingering feeling, or if you simply place paper and pen beside the bed with the intention of capturing dream stuff, your dreams will respond by being more present.

Another truism is that we do all dream, virtually every night. But there are so many environmental factors that interfere with experiencing and then remembering dreams that many people believe they do not dream. I’ve had the opportunity over the years to prove this point to many disbelievers, so I feel pretty confident about that assertion. But I am getting a bit ahead of myself. I began reading about dreams and dreamwork, Carl Jung being a true visionary (oops, pun, or not) and prolific writer in this field. I also experienced and practiced guided dream reentry, which is surprisingly powerful.

Eventually, I started a dream group with two other women. We met every other week for about ten years. That was an amazing time, writing and sharing our dreams and then sharing questions and insights that arose. I found that I had the capacity to suspend my own thoughts and just let the images of someone else’s dream enter me and stimulate insights. Okay, I am sounding sort of wacky again, but it was true. I think the other women in the group would still agree.

So, it came to pass that I taught classes in dreamwork in a few different settings and in each one I learned more about dreams. I was teaching English in a small alternative high school, with students who had troubled histories (and present lives as well.) Run-ins with the law, time spent in institutions, substance abuse and mental health issues were the norm. So, I offered an English class on dreamwork to these ‘unmotivated’ learners. We had a blast.

At first they referred to the class as ‘kindergarten’, because I would close the blinds, have them lay on the floor and take them through guided visualizations. Then they would write, in class, about what they had experienced. Sometimes I would give them art materials like crayons and paper or modeling beeswax to recreate images from their excursions into the unconscious. There were never images of gratuitous violence. I think they were as surprised as I was by the ‘material’ that came out.

A few of them began writing down dreams at home and we incorporated those into class work. Several of these young men and women had never read a book in their lives. Most did not write, or read their work aloud or own up to their ‘dreams’ of any kind. Each one of them broke through some barrier over the course of the semester. I can’t say if it was life changing for them, but it was for me. I went from that job right into grad school for education.

A few years later I had a chance to teach a similar course to college students at a local university. (Full disclosure: it was the same one where I had previously learned drafting on-the-job and also my undergrad and grad school alma mater.) These students could not have been more different than the rough, street-wise kids from the earlier class. But in spite of their privileged status and education, they were just as skeptical about dreams and dreamwork. And they were slowly won over by the experiments I forced them to make: journal by the side of the bed, writing down & sharing dreams, crafting images from their dreams and experiencing dream re-entry. With just a couple of exceptions, these undergrads had suspended their disbelief by midway through the semester. The course got very touching evaluations, from these future engineers, doctors and mathematicians.

I guess I should say what a privilege it is to hear about people’s dreams; in classes or privately. I’ve worked with many friends (and some paying clients) on their dreams over the years and I’ll be darned if there isn’t something for me in each experience. Call it the collective unconscious or what ever you like, there’s something there. When I led a three-session workshop on dreams at a local ‘New Age’ bookstore, I encountered a participant whose input stunned me at the time and still has me puzzling. She was blind. She called me on the amount of visually based language I used when speaking about dreams. And she was right! I began to learn from her about the dream experience of a visually impaired person and if I were inclined toward research or an advanced degree, I might follow that path.

As it is, my dreamwork life has, with so many other Sparks that I have Truly loved, been on hiatus while my real life took over all the space. This NaBloPoMo writing is certainly stirring up some old passions. Once they are unearthed, I will have the opportunity to Truly Triage and live intentionally, re-incorporating these Sparks of joy into my life once again.

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Stones

Picture them, if you will… smooth stones from a river or a beach. If you are like me (in this way), the very thought will provoke a deep, wonderful sigh; a sensation of settling and safety, solidity and rest. Stones that have been worn smooth by their time in water carry a double dose of elemental energy, but I also have known (know) a love of stones that have arisen from the earth. Now that sounds a bit too poetic, even for me.

Two images come to mind. The first is the stonewalls created by hardy farmers, all over New England. These rocks ‘arose’ through the labor of humans and horses, mules or oxen. Want to cultivate crops? Clear the rocks from the field and use them to mark the borders of your land – and perhaps keep your cows from wandering.

My earliest love affair with stone was with a huge (to a child) rock that sat atop a stonewall like a tabletop. It was my first magical place and over the hours I spent there, I came to know every crack and dip in its surface. I still get an inexplicable, quiet thrill whenever I see the remnants of an old stonewall meandering through the woods along the side of a road. What I’m calling a ‘thrill’ is like a small surge of energy. It’s a connection with earthly energy that I feel whenever I palm a nice rock.

The second image is from my midlife years and took place far from the stony fields of N.E.   I was visiting The Big Island, one of the islands that make up the state of Hawaii. This island is named Hawaii, but it is not the population center, which is on the island of Oahu. When I was reading about the island of Hawaii before the trip, there was a note about possible volcanic eruptions that really surprised me. It mentioned the likelihood of traffic jams on the narrow roads of the island, in the event of a lava flow. Not from people fleeing the danger, but from people crowding in, wanting to get close to the event!              I thought: “No way! Not me!”

At the center of The Big Island is Volcanoes National Park and there I was, hiking with a friend across the Kīlauea Iki, a pit crater, which is next to the main summit caldera of the Kīlauea volcano. There was sulfuric steam puffing from vents in the crater’s surface and tiny scraps of green plants poking through the rock. It was a misty day, so we wore raingear and saw few other hikers. A snapshot taken by my friend actually captures the elemental joy that I experienced standing in that shallow crater. Unlike anything I had ever felt before. Closest comparison is the thrilling surge of ions during a thunderstorm or the exhilaration of ocean air.

The difference, I guess, is that those are airborne energies and this was rock. Solid rock, through which I was rooted, connected into the center of the planet. I know, sounds a little too mystical, maybe, but I’m trying to catch an emotion in words. Does it convey some of the power if I say that I can still feel that elation today, almost thirty years later? I will also add that as we traveled around the island that week, every time I encountered a lava field, my body started to hum. Newly formed earth, lava rock to be specific, carries quite a voltage of energy. Suffice to say, I understood why the guidebook had warned of people charging in to observe a lava flow in action. I thought: “Damn, me too!”

Sometime in the years between the hours of my childhood perching on the stonewall and my hike across Kilauea Iki, I studied Native American culture. “Animism was a commonly shared doctrine, or belief, of indigenous people and various Indian Tribes of North America. It is based on the spiritual idea that all natural objects within the universe have souls or spirits. It is believed that souls or spirits exist not only in humans, but also in animals, plants, trees and rocks. This cultural belief also extends to natural phenomena such as thunder storms and rain and geological features such as mountains, caves or rivers.” It immediately made a lot of sense to me and seemed to explain the elemental connection I felt, particularly with stones.

A few months ago, when I was going through a difficult time, a friend brought me a unique and personal gift. It is a pile of small stones she collected on the beach, that can be assembled into a desktop cairn. I can’t leave it out because my cats would take great delight in scattering the stones. But that means that I have the repeated pleasure of removing them from their pouch and creating the cairn anew: handling each stone, creating balance, admiring the different surface textures, colors, shapes and patterns.

A meditation on stones, indeed.

cairn onecairn in sun

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Wood

Have you ever had the experience of being in a conversation and hearing yourself say something, which you suddenly realize is a previously unarticulated, but basic truth about yourself? What I said was: “I feel more comfortable when I am somewhere where there are more trees than people.” Oh so very true, to this day. I love trees, in all seasons. And, as you probably know, wood comes from trees.

When I think about my love of wood, as in items made from wood, a couple of things come to mind. The smell of sawdust was utterly intoxicating, from my very first whiff to my most recent exposure. My paternal grandfather had a woodshop at his place in Vermont. As a girl I would stand at the doorway, inhaling deeply and sensing that magic was happening in there.

He was retired, a self-taught woodworker and he was also a stingy old bird, holding tightly to the dictates of his generation. I see that now, but as child all I heard was his strict rule that girls were not allowed to enter the shop. Ever. It was for men and boys. There was no attempt at explaining the ban by citing safety or even his private pleasures. It was simply a matter of being excluded from this enticing space.

I grew up surrounded by old wooden furniture. A lot of the tables, beds, bureaus and such were ‘well worn’, but that was a good thing because then we children couldn’t really hurt them. It was the warmth of the wood, the many shades of brown and the patina of age that I liked. Over the years I began to look more closely at the mystery of the grain, the depth and organic designs that appeared when wood was sanded and finished.

Wooden bowls and handmade wooden spoons were crossover items, combining two loves – cooking and wood. As a young adult, it was difficult for me to resist touching and occasionally purchasing small, handmade little boxes when they appeared in shops and at craft shows. They didn’t need to serve a real purpose; I just wanted them around.

Then some friends asked to store a piece of furniture in our recently purchased house, while they were in the midst of a move. It was a magnificent sideboard, replete with carving and a silky, shining finish. I was all over that thing, clearly out of place in our hand-me-down furnished home. What an incredible antique, I thought. The ball and claw feet were gracefully carved; every detail was crisp and perfect, in pristine condition. Well, they didn’t have children yet, maybe they were just careful with it.

When I learned that my friend had made the piece, I was disbelieving. No. Furniture like that had to be an antique. Nobody made that, certainly not these days. I was forced to admit that at some point in time, each ‘antique’ had been newly made by someone, but that was a really long time ago, right? Come to find out, he had gone to trade school and learned to make traditional furniture. Wow. Really? Sparks!

I wanted to learn how to do that. The rejection I had experienced with my grandfather was undoubtedly a source of motivation and as I butted my head against further sexism when applying to the school, I doubled down on my determination. The man who initially interviewed me was dismissive. I did not have any of the qualifications to enroll. That was that, as far as he was concerned. Bye, bye.

He pissed me off and I set to work acquiring the requisite experience. I needed to learn drafting, so I left my job and got hired to do very basic floor plans of buildings at a nearby university. I enrolled in a night school program at a local high school to learn how to operate woodworking machines. Eventually I progressed to a class, taught by a very sweet young man who introduced me to the fine art of hand tools. I practiced working with chisels, planes and precise measuring tools; being naturally neat, compulsive and careful was an asset.

And wood… I really got involved with different types of wood for the first time. The transformation from rough lumber to a finished piece was truly (Truly!) thrilling. The grain was not just a thing of beauty, but an inherent quality, which I would come to know through the interaction of tool and wood. The ease of ‘working’ straight-grained pine or mahogany was so different from the more brittle and seemingly rock hard challenge of working with walnut or an exotic wood like ebony.

Armed with some skills and confidence, I marched back to the admissions office to make my case. The same man tried to dissuade me, but I was determined to gain entry to the kingdom. I was later to learn that when I had first interviewed, two years earlier, they had just been forced to admit women for the first time. The Feds said: no accreditation or financial aid unless you allow women students. It was the 1980’s for heavens sake.

So, I was in the second, very small batch of women to enter the Furniture and Cabinet Making program. Many tales to tell, but what matters here, today, is that this is a Spark of joy that is still very much alive. I have neglected the pleasure of working wood for decades, but the act of Triage, answering the question of what I have Truly loved has brought me back to this elemental joy and I intend to re-explore.

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Ladder

What do these words have in common: Sparks, Triage and Truly?

I began the month discussing the idea of tracking the things in my life that Spark my interest and to notice Sparks of joy in my daily life. Then a week later I wrote about the concept of Triage, in the words of Ellen Goodman: “Triage what you want to do and what you want to quit…” Yesterday, taking off from a Nietzsche quote, I began considering “…what [I] have Truly loved thus far” in my life.

Early this morning it occurred to me that the three topics are of a piece. At this point in my life, when I have definitely entered the autumnal phase, I am choosing joy over struggle, pleasure over industry, serenity over angst. That does not mean that struggle, industry and angst will have no place in my life over the ensuing years. Of course they will. But I am choosing to focus on the upside.

Yes, I could have chosen to focus more on the light and joy in my life over the past 60+ years. And believe me, I have tried. But there were a few cards that were dealt in my original ‘hand’ that were difficult to discard, if I may be allowed to pulverize that metaphor. I did my best, trying to remember to look for the bright spots and I did survive with some pretty happy memories among the more troubling ones. So I was looking for Sparks all along.

It took me a while to wake up to the fact that I did not have to keep playing out the same hand, or to shift metaphors mid-stream, to stick to the same script, year after year, job after job, and in every human interaction. I think my issues were primarily my attitude toward myself (questioning my worthiness) and the belief that it was my preordained role to take care of others. Once I was able to even imagine disassembling those traps and cages, I could approach the idea of Triage.

However, Triage, an alluring idea, seemed beyond me. I didn’t have a clue how or where to begin. No wait, that’s not true, I was able to begin with the things that I wanted to quit. Not that it was easy to change lifelong behavior patterns, but it was profoundly obvious that there were a few things I had to quit doing if I wanted to have a decent quality of life. That process is underway and although I frequently regress, the discomfort of doing the things I have decided to quit generally forces me back onto the path of change.

Which brings me to yesterday’s post about “…what magnifies [my] spirit” (Popova), “…what uplift[s my] soul, what has dominated and delighted it at the same time.” (Nietzsche) Now I am moving beyond what I need and want to quit and beginning to identify, to “…pick carefully and boldly… what I want to do.” (Goodman) This is the good part, the fun part, the reward, if you will, for slogging through, first surviving and then the  shedding that is required to reach this place. It is no longer simply about sparks of joy, it is about using those sparks to keep a small flame of joy burning, day after day, night after night. I am getting a clearer picture of “how [these pleasures and passions] form a ladder on whose steps [I] have been climbing up to [my]self so far…” (Nietzsche)

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