Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Manifesto

So, my dear friends, I have an announcement:

I have just published a self-help book. I wanted to say “a sort of self-help book,” but I don’t think it would fit into many other categories. Something about philosophy, perhaps? Or spirituality? But not quite. Not really either of those.

It’s a book. A short book, which should make for a quick read. I self-published it through Amazon. It is called The Manifesto. In it I list 10 ideas that help me to feel freer to be my own authentic self. I talk a bit about each idea, trying to explain and clarify. I give a few suggestions for exercises that might be helpful for readers, things I do myself. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and I don’t suggest that my perspectives are the only “right” ones. In the end, I challenge readers to write their own manifestos for their own freer lives.

Why did I write this little book, when I’m a literary poet and creative nonfiction writer? Well—it felt urgent. It pushed at me. It seemed important. As I wrote it, I thought of the people I have been privileged to support through difficult times. I thought of the students who have cried in my office (NOT because I made them cry, but because I just listened). I thought of how much it would have meant to me if someone had said, years ago, that it might be helpful to try to stop judging myself. I thought maybe a few people will read this, and it will say something they need to hear. I thought, if even one person reads it and it says one thing that person needed to hear, then it is a good thing.

I’m not a self-help expert. I’m not a doctor, yogi, therapist, philosopher, or guru. I’m just a teacher, writer, reader, friend. I meditate, but not, I admit, every day. I think a lot of different groups are onto a lot of really important stuff, but for me, no single formulated ideology gets everything right for all of us all the time. I think the biggest job each of us has in this life is to try to figure out ourselves and the world, and any tool that helps with that job is worth trying. And I think you, my friends, are very, very smart, and already on the path of figuring out yourselves and the world, and if anything I say can support you in that endeavor, then I’ll be honored.

Another question: why did I choose to self-publish, starting with Kindle, through Amazon, a company some people have political difficulties with? Really, I just wanted to get the book out. I wanted to have complete control over it. I didn’t want to have long conversations with editors about making it “sexier” for the “market.” And I wanted the process to be very simple and very easy for me, so I could spend my time writing, reading, and teaching. I’m sorry if it is politically problematic for any of you. There will be a print version, also through Amazon, but that’s the next step for my tireless and saintly friend, Jim Miller, who has already volunteered his expertise to format the book for Kindle. If you don’t own a Kindle, incidentally, you can get the Kindle app for free on any computer, tablet, or cell phone. Or you can wait for the print version, which we hope will be available soon.

At this point, I will try to split my posts into “more literary” things that I put on this blog, and “more manifesto-related” things that I put on my other blog. I hope you will dip in and read either or both, and perhaps get something from the reading.

Boundless love and gratitude to all of you. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

November Grief

This Thanksgiving--the Sunday after Thanksgiving, actually--it will have been six years since my mother died.

The grief is like a cocklebur I have picked up on a walk somewhere, stuck to the back of my shirt. I feel a scrape when November starts, but it goes away and I forget. Some part of me knows there's pain back there, so I spend a lot of time leaning forward without remembering why. And then plans for Thanksgiving finalize, and it's like leaning back so the stinging bits of the burr finally push through my shirt. Oh yeah! That's what it is. This is the anniversary of the loss of my mother, her absence from this world. No wonder it hurts.

If you've ever tried to remove a cocklebur from your clothing, you know it's an imprecise process. The thing comes apart, each little hooked spine trying to stay embedded in the fabric. Even after you take the shirt off, even after you wash it, you might find bits of it scratching at your skin.

I know people feel differently about marking the anniversaries of painful events. Some believe that ritual gives us comfort, and maybe that's true. For me, I need to mark the anniversary of my mother's death--to remember it--because if I try to forget, the feelings cling to me anyway. I go around hunched and jumpy and not really sure why. That's opens the door to self-judging, as I think I have no reason to feel bad and why don't I just stop moping already? And then I remember. Or I don't, but my sister reminds me, and then we both remember.

And, remembering, we recognize grief. Yes, that's what is hurting. That hurt is never going to go away completely--a hooked spine will poke and scratch me at random, forever. But I know what it is. I can see it, examine it, feel it. And thereby make space in my awareness for all the other things I'm experiencing, as the days get shorter and we approach the winter solstice and holiday celebrations.

Maybe I'll start making this year's Christmas playlist.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Sometimes I Go Shopping

I go every week to a "sangha," a group of people who meditate together. I discovered it by searching for meditation in the Champaign Urbana area, and luckily they have a website. Meditation practice is, as most of you know, basically a solitary thing--we sit, or walk, in silent contemplation. Each of us has her own issues to think through and notice, his own path towards feeling freer. But like most of us, I am helped by routine and the expectation of other people; because I go "do meditation" once a week, I know that, if I get lazy, I will still do this thing that I love and is good for me at least sometimes, if not as often as I wish.

The location is a Quaker meetinghouse, so it's airy, simple, and open. The space just feels good. We sit on cushions or chairs for an hour, in silence. I often have images of light--light going up towards the sky from each person's head, or a swirling set of colors that move around and among us. Some of the older and more centered-seeming people have very strong, stable light in my imagined world. And then I do my own thing--have thoughts and feelings, notice them, remind myself to focus on the breath, concentrate on radiating love out into the world. The hour is over very quickly.

After meditation, we listen to a "dharma talk" (yes, I'm using quotation marks around these terms because they're new to me; I came to meditation via secular self-help and not formally through Buddhism, so I'm still enamored of all the special terms). It's generally recorded from a retreat, so it's a teacher talking to people who have come to learn and meditate over a period of time. I like that the teacher isn't there in front of us, in part because I can listen more objectively. After the talk, the group (sitting in a circle by this time in another room) discusses any ideas or reactions. Without the teacher being present, everyone feels free to question, disagree, wonder.

It is an eclectic group of people, from 15-25 on any given night. Some are retired, some students, a lot of us in-between. People are thoughtful and passionate and confused and intelligent. No one pretends to have all the answers.

My favorite discussion so far, however, was decisively ended by a woman I find delightfully frank. We had gotten onto a tangent, and phrases like, "the commodification of wisdom" and "money-making-machine of self-help" had gotten thrown around. The general attitude was one of disdain for money and materialism and all those things we were supposed to be "above." And yeah, I supported this line of discussion myself--I do think that we live in a culture that tells us money and objects will make us happy, and we have to fight against that to figure out what will actually make each of us happy. And then this gray-haired woman who brings her own chair said, "I just have one last thing to say: sometimes I go shopping. And sometimes I even like it."

I burst out laughing. A few people smiled uncertainly. The leader wrapped it up, and we started putting our chairs back in their stacks.

The thing I loved about this comment was simply this: she had called us on our little judging bubble. Is it good to get caught up in materialism? No. But we are all human, and flawed, and imperfect. And judging other people isn't something to aspire to, either. Even the Buddha, I am learning, advocated the Middle Way. Not totally ascetic, nor totally indulgent. Just muddling along trying to do the best we can in the middle of things. Sometimes we meditate. Sometimes we eat chocolate. Sometimes we put on makeup, or we drink too much, or we sleep too late. Sometimes we go shopping.

Instead of telling myself not to do normal human things, I opt for liking it all as much as I can.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

I'm Ready to be Adored Now

Every day I have a kaleidoscope of feelings, beautiful and terrifying mood swings and fractures of the time-space continuum--I might move from loving the window wall in front of which I sit at the library, looking into someone's tiny 3rd story deck, to lamenting my lack of huge riches with which to solve the problems of all my friends, to thinking that my taste in music is quite plebeian (but no self-judging, Katie!) and wouldn't it be fun to blast Macklemore's "Thrift Shop" in the nonfiction section about now?

The funny thing is that when the feelings quiet down a bit, when my moodiness abates--the pendulum taking shorter and shorter arcs--I often don't come to a sense of peace or self-acceptance. I come to emptiness--what Louis CK calls in this terrific clip (watch past the kids and cell phones part to the brilliance, please) "that forever empty."

Oh, and how BORING it is there! How without the drama of tears or the hip swing of wanting to dance to a catchy song (see Macklemore, "Thrift Shop") I simply don't know what to feel. And when I don't know what to feel, I fall back into one of my most basic desires, and find myself thinking, "I'm ready to be adored now."

Then of course the Buddhist in me feels like a failure (emptiness should be a goal, a gateway to transcendence) and the psychologist in me feels weak (we should each be self-sufficient, should be able to live with the quiet inside ourselves, love ourselves before we love others, etc...) and the me who was raised in this culture that seems to value both bragging and humility just feels confused. Should I be telling the world I'm awesome, or that I'm really not? Or should I be feeling so completely self-sufficient that I don't want to tell the world anything?

But all those thoughts are about judging, and they're not honest, and they tell me, at the most basic level, that I'm not allowed to want.

I think sometimes I need to get to that quiet, boring space in order to hear the tiny voice inside that wants things. And not just the loud, easy desires: chocolate, money, a brand new stack of books and a week of vacation to read them. The more complex and elusive things. The things I might only joke about wanting in my regular life. Big desires, vast as canyons, and dreams, and freedom, and hope, and love, and to feel good, really good, about being alive and being me.

But admitting to wanting those things is terrifying. Do they even exist? Do I deserve them? Does anyone ever get them?

I don't know. I really don't. But I want to give myself--and you--permission to want. No self-judging, really. I mean it this time.

Here's the amazing thing: when I have given myself permission not only to want, but to tell other people, honestly, what I want--even when those desires conflict with what others want me to want, and even when I fear hurting other people by wanting what I do, even when I fear looking stupid or vulnerable--I have opened myself up to greater connection with myself and others. I have given and received love. I have felt larger and more free inside.

Maybe one of these posts I'll tell you a bit more about that.

For now, let me just say to you all, "I'm ready to be adored now."

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Goal

Yeah. So I woke up this morning thinking, "The goal is not to have no feelings." A double negative there, I know. But let me try to explain. It's not quite accurate to make it a positive: "The goal is to have feelings." Because, honestly, we're going to have feelings whether we want them or not. Even when we try to numb out, shove the feelings down into our stomachs, lose ourselves in endless tv, answer "fine" when anyone asks us how we are--even when we try to do that, we're still going to end up with feelings. Somewhere along the line, we'll trip over a crack in the sidewalk and find ourselves on our knees, crying and cursing and wondering why the world hates us.

The world doesn't hate us, by the way. The world is just there, doing its own thing, and we're not in control of very much at all when it comes to our lives, and that's terrifying, so we make up things like we're specially singled out for pain.

But anyway--I've cried a good bit lately. I'm doing something amazing that many people don't get to do--taking a year to live in the landscape I love, with family, and re-center myself--but it's still a whole ton of change all at once. And change, even when good, is always about loss. So I'm at the beginning of a year of flux, and I've got some crying to do.

More specifically, the other night I was walking down the country road in front of my sister's house, at night, under the stars, beautiful temperature, endless sky, no cars or people--heaven for me--and crying so hard I went through all 5 of the tissues I'd stuck in my pocket on the way out the door. I was thinking, as I often do at such times, that I couldn't bear it. I simply could not bear the sadness I was feeling, the loss, the grief, the fear, and how those feelings so often turn against me, until I feel utterly valueless in the world. I was thinking, "I'm not good at this living thing. I'm just not good at it. How can I go on hoping, wanting, when I don't get what I want? Shouldn't I just stop hoping, stop wanting?"

Luckily nothing said anything back to that--the corn, the stars, the asphalt road--except for some night-birds resting on the warm ground that exploded into the muffled feathered drums of wings when I walked too close to them.

And then, eventually, I went back to my room, talked to some people I love, and fell asleep.

A couple of days later, I heard from two friends who both apologized for appearing to be feeling sad, and assured me it wasn't really all so bad. And I thought again of my own brain saying, "I can't bear it," and the lengths to which we will go in order to avoid either feeling or admitting to "negative" feelings. And I knew that I felt closer to my friends because they admitted to their negative feelings; I felt the humanity we shared. I was connected to them in their sorrow and fear, just as I am in their joy and hope.

And I realized that feelings are, really, everything we have. All of them. All the pesky, irritating, despair-driven, itchy feelings along with the comradeship and love and wonder. Do I want to live my life so I never cry? Nope. No, not really. I was crying because I cared, deeply, about myself and other people and the whole idea of trying to be a human. Would I cry less if I cared less? Sure. But I don't want to care less. I want to be all in. I want to be passionate. I want to push my face into the cold water til I come up with an apple in my mouth or see the other world. Maybe I'll come up laughing, mouth full of sweetness; or maybe sputtering and crying. But at least I'll feel something.

Some people think the goal of meditation, the tenets of Buddhist and Yogic thought, are about ending desire and blocking out emotion. I don't think so. Yes, I want to always have a part of me that's aware of being connected to the universe, made of the same atoms--a part that notices I'm having feelings and doesn't judge those feelings, a part that notices I'm dripping snot and tears on a country road and still knows itself to be Part of Everything. But I'm not planning on giving up the tears and snot part of me, either. That's not my goal. Feelings--all of them--are what this human thing is all about for me. Meditation doesn't take away the feelings; it just mutes the part of my mind that judges the feelings and analyzes and schemes to never have them again, to never feel that bad again, to never burden the world with my sorrow again. Meditation turns off the logic and opens up the contradiction and paradox: I am the one crying, the one laughing, the one cursing out the indifferent universe, the one loving other people, the one with her soul off in the dark sky, the one hurting, the one afraid, the one who doesn't judge, the one who can be disappointed, the one who hopes, the one who wants to give up, the one who wants dazzling kisses.

So. The goal is not to have no feelings, because feelings are not problems in need of solving. They are, like all of us, Part of Everything.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Goodbye (for now) to Florida

Goodbye to ibis. Goodbye to the Gulf of Mexico. Goodbye to alligators and armadillos. Goodbye to drive-through liquor stores. Goodbye to people dressed in suffocating costumes dancing on street corners in 95 degrees just to get one more driver to stop and buy stuff at a store in a strip mall. Goodbye to daily thunderstorms. Goodbye to smiling clerks and servers. Goodbye to the host at the gate to my friend's apartment complex who asked me, "You all fixin' to have some fun?" and laughed when I said, "It could happen." Goodbye to Winn-Dixie, one of the only places where the clerks don't always smile. Goodbye to Publix, where everyone seems genuinely happy. Goodbye to traffic jams on I-75. Goodbye to the giant confederate flag on I-75, the one that embarrasses us all. Goodbye to year-round porch-sitting. Goodbye to royal palm trees, still exotic to me after five years. Goodbye to Sandhill cranes in the mall parking lot. Goodbye to black widow spiders. Goodbye to cigar-sized grasshoppers. Goodbye to so many people I love. Goodbye to the places I didn't love, like Bruce B Downs north of Fowler. Goodbye to my best excuse for using "y'all." Goodbye to TPA, the easiest and most efficient airport I've ever been to. Goodbye to socklessness. Goodbye to the ubiquitous palmetto bugs and their ilk. Goodbye to hurricanes. Goodbye to the anoles my dog loves to chase. Goodbye to shorts worn with Ugg boots. Goodbye to decent iced tea served everywhere. Goodbye to the zebra longwing butterflies that liked the passion flower vine I planted. Goodbye to bringing a sweater to restaurants in the summer, and not in the winter. Goodbye to the voluptuous smell of gardenia and the velvet-heavy scent of jasmine. Goodbye to pelicans. Goodbye for now, Florida. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye...

Sunday, August 11, 2013

I Hate Packing

Whether it's for an overnight trip or a move to another state, I hate packing. Every decision nearly paralyzes me--should I take these earrings or those? Do I have room for an extra pair of socks? Should I give away this book, though it was my grandmother's, though I haven't opened it in years? I want to live simply; I want to save everything, just in case I need it later. I want to get rid of the STUFF that is expensive to move or store, that weighs on my mind so that one of my recurring dreams is of having to move and never quite being able to gather everything. But then I pick up a card, ready to throw it out, and read it again, and see that it was given to me by a friend and it contains words of love, and I travel in memory...and then I put down the card, not having decided what to do with it, and look around me at the unfilled boxes, and despair. I contradict myself, like Whitman, "...I am large--I contain multitudes."

But I like unpacking. I like opening a box and figuring out where those items should go in the new place. I even like opening my suitcase and putting away the things I took on that trip in their proper places. The decisions have already been made--the stuff was taken with me, and brought back. It is finite, having already been contained. And the old brass figurine of a terrier dog that was my grandmothers comes out of the box and is put on the shelf, clean from having been dusted before it was packed, and I am home.

There's a lot of talk on the internet these days about being an introvert. There are tests that people take to define them as introverted or extroverted, this or that. Simplistically, introverts don't like to be around people, and extroverts do. But I--sometimes I like to be around people and sometimes I don't. Sometimes I like to meet new people and sometimes I like to stay home from the party and read. Sometimes I like talking one-on-one, and sometimes I like talking in groups. And aren't we all, really, like that? Some of both?

I'm not saying labels and categories are completely useless. But I do think we all contradict ourselves. We love to travel, and we love coming home. We hate being on the airplane, but we love glimpsing a new place from above, the mountains and trees so familiar and so strange. We love dreaming of going to Ireland, but hate planning the actual route to drive and where to stay. We feel a bit sorry for ourselves when we're sitting on the couch for another Friday night watching Netflix, and we dream of doing something so relaxing when we're standing awkwardly at a stranger's party with a drink in one hand and a fake smile plastered on.

But this, I'm sure of: I ALWAYS hate packing. It goes too slow and I get nothing done, or it goes too fast and I just KNOW I'm taking something I should have thrown out. Packing makes me feel like I'm shrinking, like I'm losing certainty; I don't know where that ball of garden twine is, and what if I suddenly need it? And it gives me more reasons to judge myself, because inevitably I'm far less organized than I would like to be, and packing highlights disorganization. It is, by nature, imperfect.

I think now I will put aside the boxes and tape, find my tennis shoes, and take a walk. Later, no doubt, I'll dream, again, about being unable to gather all of my things--the books that don't fit in the one box I have with me, the jewelry lying in a tangled mess on the dresser, the lamp I simply cannot carry down the stairs with this load, and the truck already driving away...and then I will wake up, and it will be nearly as awful in the waking world.

And then, finally and too soon, one day I will be unpacking boxes at the other end of my journey, rediscovering the parts of myself and my life that I had to put away for a little while.