Tuesday, July 30, 2013


I'm posting this for a special friend.  (You know who you are).

You see, the other night she and I were talking about a loved one who battles with mental illness.  One day he thinks he is seeing aliens and must arm himself against them.  The next day he is sharp as a whip,  and to all appearances completely compos mentis.

This is because the mind is on a merry-go-round.   And sometimes, it looks to me as if mine is on the merry-go-round too. Some days, and I don't exactly know why, I find a particularly beautiful outlook from the back of my carrousel pony.  Everything looks great.  God's in his heaven, all's right with the world.  Except of course, the merry-go-round keeps moving, and with a subtle shift, things look suddenly bland.

Or blah. Or chaotic. Or depressing.

Then, with time, the merry-go-round goes around once more, back to a peaceful and happy perspective, and it's hard to understand quite what has changed,  when  so little has fundamentally altered in my outward life.

So why does my perspective shift so drastically?

I sometimes try to trace it back. Today, for instance I talked to someone who was extremely bummed out by a friend who had her driving all over the town on errands and never even said thank you, and all the while kept up a running commentary about how dreadful other people were.  So hard to brush this off.  Instead it took root in this person's consciousness and life looked suddenly dreadful.

But it wasn't. After all, that was this other person's view, not hers.  She was still on the very same pony she started with.  And my pony, like hers, is moving at pace with the others.  The view may shift. I might feel like I'm traveling. But I'm actually not going anywhere at all - unless I'm going somewhere from within.

To survive the ride,  I must return my focus to my position.  On the pony.  My mind is the only shifting element.

The Irrelevance of Hope. A terrible thought, perhaps.  Yet the absolute irrelevance of hope was underscored today in my yoga practice.  You see, I always try to get to the hot room early,  and stake out my position.  I want to have a little control.  Something in me thinks that if I lay my mat in a particular location this will affect my practice.  By the window may suggest an open perspective, and a view beyond the studio.   Down at the darker end of the room is quieter and cooler in the summer months.  In the direction of the fans, or near the door, you have a better chance of a breeze.  And so on.

So I've thought it wise to use this element of control, because once you're off and running with your 26 poses, you have so little control of outside forces.

Then today I was talking to Viet, who practices almost every day at the same time as me.  He always arrives at the studio late, and lays down his mat just as the class is beginning, sometimes after we've begun our Pranayama, deep breathing series.

I used to think he arrived late by mistake.  But today he told me he arrives late on purpose.  And he does this because when he lays his mat down in the studio, he must simply take whatever space is available - and then deal with it.  This enhances his practice.  Because the practice is all about being in the moment, and dealing with the moment, however uncomfortable it is.  Repeating the same poses, and then letting them go. No matter how hard.  No matter the shifting perspective of your merry-go-round life.

Of course, when you are riding a carrousel pony, you have the illusion of movement.  But actually the movement is immaterial.  What matters is the calm presence of your mind.

"Oh, Gentle Presence, peace and joy and power.  Oh Life Divine that owns each waiting hour."

That line comes from a favorite hymn by Mary Baker Eddy which I learned as a little girl in the Christian Science Sunday School. I'm no longer a Christian Scientist but the line has new meaning for me now.  If the mind is steady and present, it's not on a carrousel ride after all.

#yoga  #presence #ohgentlepresence

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Here it is, in not quite all its glory.

"When are we going to visit the corpse flower?" Ben asked yesterday morning.   There's been considerable publicity this week around a special plant at the US Botanical Garden.  Titum Arum, otherwise known as the 'corpse flower', has come into bloom for the first time in years.  This is a mixed blessing since the flower is known for a sickening fragrance reminiscent of rotting flesh.  The stench is said to become more intense at night and early morning.  But the day before yesterday it should have been at its prime.

We had theatre tickets in DC that evening, so we decided to stop at the Botanical Garden before the show.

Washington was hot and sunny.  Several soccer teams practiced on the Mall on the newly laid and well-drained grass.  But we walked on by, up towards the Capitol, expecting to find a line for the corpse flower, because the Botanical Museum has reported ten times the number of visitors over the last week.  Oddly, the coast was clear.  So, disregarding beautiful displays in the flowerbeds out front, we headed straight into the Conservatory to confront the stinky monster.

We found the plant immediately.  It was roped off like the Mona Lisa - and a crowd had gathered round.  People were posing before it and taking pictures.  It was straight out of Little Shop of Horrors.  An enormous pale green stamen, about four feet high, speared forth from a ruffled maroon petticoat.   But sadly those petals were closed.  Thus there was no smell.

Disappointed?  I was. I had read that the stench was so overpowering as to sicken those who smelled it.  It was like roadkill, we read in the newspaper.  Now I wouldn't smell that.

 But we had to sample something this terrible.  We couldn't just take their word for it! We wanted a whiff firsthand.  Human weakness dictated that we must satisfy our morbid curiosity.  We longed for it and also we dreaded it.  We had hurried there to smell it for ourselves.  Now we found nothing but a big old flower.  No ghastly smell. In fact, no smell at all.

Remember in childhood - when somebody, usually a boy, would force you to smell something stinky? They would thrust a bottle of something underneath your nose and you'd  scream and pull away but yet you'd feel like there was a challenge here and you had to take a whiff just to see if you could stand it?  Not that you were better for being able to stand it.  But something in you was looking to broaden your repertoire, good and bad.  Experiencing the bad would make you appear a fuller, more reckless person.  Recklessness was an indication of breadth. Well, that's what it was like.  And then, because we couldn't smell anything at all, it was the exact opposite.  It was like rubbernecking after the crash has been cleared away.

We headed back to the car.  Ben told me that for hours after smelling the Titum Arum, someone had reported they couldn't  face even the idea of food.  "Well, at least we won't be sick during the show," I said. "True," he said.  "But now you won't be able to write about it!"

Once again we passed the soccer players on the mall, now backlit by a setting sun - with the Washington Monument behind them.  Before continuing on to the theatre, Ben pulled over to take this shot.  


Saturday, July 13, 2013


Breughel's "Icarus" - it's hard to even find his legs here, disappearing into the ocean

When your creative work is repeatedly rejected, it begins to feel definitive. You've submitted your novel for the hundredth time - your painting, your audition piece, your CD, whatever it might be - and 'they' have turned you down.  Again.  It must mean they are right. You are a failure.

When this happened to me three times in a week, my mind began to reel. I found myself mulling over WH Auden's - Musee des Beaux Arts.  "About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters, how well they understood its human position..."   Later in the poem,  Auden writes,  "In Brueghel's Icarus for instance how everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster...."

I feel like Icarus, flying with wax wings.  I got so close to the sun that I forgot the danger of falling. Then I splashed.  I heard my own forsaken cry - and for ME it has been an important failure.

And this is what's painful.  The fact that for others it may not seem an important failure.  They turn quite leisurely from it.  A friend of mine was rejected this week by an agent who read her chapters with interest but in the end "didn't feel passionately enough about the writing or the story..."   You can hear in that phrase what Auden articulates in his poem: That this agent "had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."

We don't turn from our own disasters calmly.  It's awful to understand the minor splash of our own failures and the very minor impact they make on the world around us.  It's such a loss of dignity.  The fact that you've become just another failed writer or actor or musician in the world.  It's also the I told you so, often unspoken, we imagine from those who didn't try.  I told you that failure was far more likely than success. I too could have tried like you did.  But I knew better. I was wiser. And I have somewhere to get to. 

But yet we got so close - we began to soar on the wings of hope. Right before the meltdown, we began to think that this time we might make it. Then when we didn't, it seemed that nothing could be more ordinary than our own fated artistic careers.

Especially when considering other struggles people endure.  The loss of limb in random acts of violence - like the Boston bombing.  I was humbled when I saw a news clip about a particularly courageous victim yesterday,  as I struggled with self pity and rejection.

Except this latest artistic effort of mine, so many times rejected, has been for  me the most important. It took a lot of guts to write, never mind time. Oh,  the hours and hours I've spent writing and rewriting the damn thing. And it's not by any means my first taste of failure and rejection.  I've been doing this for years.  Learning to fly. Yes, Icarus knew how to fly! No small feat. That's why he strapped on his wax wings and heading off the cliff edge.  Getting better at it.  Getting higher.

Some rejections are particularly soul crushing.  It might happen with age and the accumulation of other believers - who get on board with your project. But then a failure means more unrewarded hope - for those other believers as well as for you. You sense that you are running out of chances. 

 It should be comforting to think of those who've come on board with your projects.  The many who have tried to see your work through.  Your family. Your friends. Your beloved beta readers, not to mention the nurturing teachers in MFA programs and literary agents who have gone to bat for you - putting time and energies behind your efforts.   Only to be told that although your book is beautifully written, with characters who linger in the mind and will not be soon forgotten -(yes I have heard these things, and so have you - words you most want to hear as a writer, about the quality of your work)...

...only to be told that the market is so tough right now. That they don't know how they'd break it out.  That they are very sorry.
 I've been told that rejecting my novel was heartbreaking.  That even a story as well told as mine, my kind of books known as midlist, and I quote, "are exactly the ones that have become homeless since publishers began to cut their lists a few years ago."  This rejection went on to say: "I cannot say how sorry I am or how glad I would feel to read anything you write in the future."

 Yes, you can be encouraged while also feeling pathetic and embarrassing.

Because you find that your hopes are irrelevant.  In fact, 'good writing'  is irrelevant to a publisher.  You'd be better off writing a bodice ripper.   I'm reminded of John Cleese in the film Clockwise:  "It's not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It's the hope."

Hope keeps us going forward into battle - keeps us trying.  The audacity of hope is the great American Dream, after all. Believe enough, click your heels together, and you can make your dreams come true.

It takes a lot of work to dream. And dreams are only ephemera.  You put a lot of yourself behind that ephemera. You poured in years of effort.  And while you are busy the goal posts can move.

But wait, my friends!  What is the disaster in this case? I don't think it's always your work. As I said,  Icarus could fly, and he must have flown very well to get so close to the sun.  That wasn't his problem.  The problem was his vehicle.   In my case, it's a publishing industry which no longer nurtures or encourages books like mine.  They want heavy hitters. And if you aren't obvious best seller material,  or don't have an established track record of sales, you might only sell 10,000 copies.  This happened to another friend of mine.  And 10,000 sales, to her publisher, represented a net loss.

 Let's walk away from that kind of standard.  Let's call it disaster.  And turn, with dignity, quite naturally away.

It's at this point in my reasoning that I return with gratitude  - and not in the Pollyanna sense- but really consider - my fellow travelers along this difficult and seemingly fruitless journey.  Those who read books like the ones I write.

Also, the fact that I still find books to read and am swept away by them - the fact that reading good books brings me such exquisite joy, shows that there are readers out there like me and the people who write such books are also my readers.   It's when I read a bad book that depression kicks in, and makes me feel there's no point in going forward if that is the standard.  But when I read a good book I remember why I write. It's because this magic still exists.

Icarus needed a better more substantial pair of wings.  He already knew how to fly.  But wax won't keep you up.  Spending your most serious efforts working at your art is a noble and worthy enterprise.  What is needed is a solid publishing vehicle to hand us back our dignity.

#rejections #icarus  #wh auden #writing life