Monday, October 20, 2014

We are not our things; our things are not us

We visit our Montana kin, circa 2005
I've been quiet for a little bit, and part of that is because we have experienced two deaths in our community and family over the past week. Through the course of a single weekend, two people who meant a great deal to our lives passed away.

A friend and colleague passed away from complications of an auto-immune disease. Alan was my husband's first boss and became both a mentor and then a dear friend.

He was 71 and had just been convinced to retire to spend more time and be able to travel with his husband.

Then only a few days later, our cousin Frani died in her beloved home, with her husband at her side, after choosing to halt treatments for cancer just a few weeks earlier. She is the woman in the center of the photo above.

Frani and her husband, Kim, lived in a log cabin they built themselves from logs they had cleared from their land on the top of a mountain in Montana. We were some of the few brave family souls who loved to visit in deep winter and experience the beautiful solitude of their magical home and their generous, loving hospitality.


It's so easy to get caught up in minutia; to blow out of proportion slights, irritations, disappointments, and material losses. I know I am not immune. So much of what we worry about is caught up in ego and fear. We are always grasping for more - more money, more fame, more recognition, more things - and lose sight of what makes our lives truly meaningful. For me, that is the web of connection with friends and family and community, and remembering to take (and make) the time to honor that.


We are not our things; our things are not us. We are also not better or worse, more or less deserving than the people around us. It is so easy to lose sight of that in our endless striving.


Yesterday I followed a link to an article in the Guardian detailing how an author, feeling slighted and humiliated by a negative review, stalked (her word) the reviewer, both online and in real life, going so far as to visit the reviewer at her home.

Perhaps the piece was meant to be snarky and amusing; I found it sad.

We are not our things; our things are not us. This is even more true for creative people. We think of our work as 'our baby', or a reflection of our deepest selves. Therefore, rejection becomes a personal attack that we must defend against.

But when we are just a memory in the lives of our loved ones, will a bad review, poor sales, or even never getting to publish matter? How will you want to be remembered?


We are not our things; our things are not us.

Rather, we are the sum of our choices and our actions. 


Yesterday, I had the chance to walk through the Mt. Auburn cemetery with my dear friend, Diane, who was visiting for the weekend. We paused to read many of the headstones, and one, in particular, moved me. I don't remember the family name and I didn't take a photo, but the man had been a scion of early Boston, a man of wealth and influence. In 1850, he lost his wife and daughter about 6 months apart. Then a few years later, his son died in the Civil War. He then dedicated his life to opening primary schools. I can't help but think his actions were related to his losses.


Life is precious and fleeting. There is none of us who will not experience loss. If I could reach out to that aggrieved author, I would ask her why she needs to define her self and self worth by what others think of something she's created. I would invite her to walk in the cemetery with me and reflect on the nature of impermanence and loss.


I will continue to think about Alan and Frani, and what these two individuals have meant in our lives.  I will grieve their loss and celebrate their memory. And in honoring who they were, I will focus on what is important, letting go of all the rest.

I invite you to walk with me on that path.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Sometimes you have to hit it with a stick

. . . Or why revising is like trimming in ceramics.

This is what a bowl looks like after it's been thrown and taken off the wheel to dry for a few days. Do you see the thick mass of clay at the base of the bowl? (It's upside down, so you are looking at the 'foot') That's clay that will need to be trimmed away to reveal the profile of an ideal bowl.

First you need to trim the bottom of the bowl flat.

Then you choose the diameter of the foot and trim away the excess.

Trim the slope of the side smooth from foot to body of the bowl.

To remove weight from the bottom of the bowl, and to create the 'ring' of the foot, carve away excess from the base.

Now we have a bowl with a nice balance of foot to body, and a foot that fits the slope of the bowl.

Unfortunately, when I went to remove it from the wheel, I compressed the side, warping it. And once that happens, there's no way to recover it to round.

So I did what one of my teachers taught me. I hit it with a stick.

Now I have a squared-off bowl.
That will be a dramatic piece, like this one. (Yes, I've done this before. . .)

This is the 'revising' phase of ceramics.

In writing, the first draft is the just-thrown bowl. You really can't do much with it. It needs to dry, to set up so it can be shaped into something finished, something able to be used. While a piece of ceramics will reach that stage in a day or two or three, a first draft story often needs to sit for weeks or months, letting time pass between the writing and the revising so that the writer can approach the work as new again.

Revising a manuscript is the act of shaping and altering. And just like something doesn't work out exactly as you'd planned, you can hit your story with a stick. Metaphorically, of course - turning it into something that may be quite different than your original conception.

And that's okay.

Not all bowls need to be round.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

A Time of Reflection

A quick snapshot from a quote I read in the holiday prayerbook

I have a strange relationship with organized religion. My upbringing was in the Jewish faith, but my parents were more culturally than religiously Jewish, if that makes any sense. They were not observant, nor did they attend services. I ended up being the sole member of my family to belong to our local temple because it was a place of social gathering and I wanted to be like all the other kids in our neighborhood.

So I attended Hebrew school, 3 times a week for most of my school-aged life, sang in the choir at family services, and became a Bat Mitzvah.

But I wasn't like all the other kids there; my family didn't attend with me. And it had something to do with organizational politics and the stubbornness of two men - the Rabbi and my father. I'm still not sure of the full story. (But it reminds me of the old joke about a Jewish man marooned on a desert island. When he is finally rescued after several decades, he proudly shows off the two temples he built to keep busy and sane. When asked why he built 2 temples, the man replied "This is the temple I attend. That other place? Hah! I wouldn't set foot in that other temple if you PAID me!")

What I loved about services at the temple was the music. So many of the prayers are sung in haunting, old tunes and in minor keys. They are ancient laments that have always stirred my soul. I'm not sure I ever believed in 'God' as depicted in the Torah or in the commentaries, but I also enjoyed the way Jewish scholars over the centuries continued to argue over interpretations and laws.

As I have lived my life, my spiritual alignment has drifted closer to a Buddhist philosophy. And still, while I am not terribly observant in terms of the Jewish rituals, there are some concepts that resonate with me. One of them is that of Tikkun Olam, which literally is translated as 'repair of the world.'

For me, what Tikkun Olam means is that my choices and my actions have consequences and I strive to chose the path in life that heals rather than shatters.

The other ritual that resonates deeply is that of the yearly fast and day of reflection on Yom Kippur. Say what you will about religion in general and Judaism in particular, those early scholars were nothing if not pragmatic:  They created a way for self-assessment and community building that just makes sense.

In the High Holiday services, there are repeated mentions that you can obtain forgiveness through prayer, but ONLY for those transgressions against God (ie, lapses in observancy, etc) . If you wronged a member of your family or community, you had to ask them directly for forgiveness. And saying 'sorry' wasn't enough. You had to make a commitment to action and change that your community would hold you to.

So here is my apology and my plea: If I have, by word, deed, or inaction, caused harm to any, please forgive me and know that I will strive to be a better person in the year to come.  And please continue to help me be that better person.

I wish you a world full of healing, light, and love.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Dandelion Break

Dandelions, photo by Marcel Grieder, used under cc license, with attribution

The title of this post is from one of my favorite recurrent themes in the Berkeley Breathed comic, Bloom County. Whenever things would get overwhelming, Opus would head out to the dandelion patch to chill out. The strip I linked to is from 2009; it is just as relevant today.

Not only are world events still horrific, there is even more of the sense that we are all living in a constant state of outrage. And in so many cases, that outrage is either manufactured by media spin, or by our own desire to feel something.

So much of what we choose to feel seems like the negative emotions: outrage, fury, jealousy, pettiness.

Not that there aren't plenty of real and terrible things to feel outrage over. It's just that if outrage is our default response to the smallest of things, what is left for the truly outrageous?

Someone recently said some unkind things about me and one of my books. I think it was meant to spark some kind of outrage in me or in others. And honestly? My first reaction was one of confusion. Then I began to feel sorry for the person who wrote the piece. I suspect that this person is living in or is fueled by that state of outrage. It must be a terribly isolating and distressing place to be.

I choose otherwise.

Partly that's out of sheer perspective. In the past 4 years, my family was forced to flee our house in barefeet and pajamas one winter morning and watch it burn. I witnessed dementia tangle my mother's mind and soul and held her hand as she died. I nearly lost someone I love dearly to suicide.

I am crystal clear on what's important in my life and what is simply dandelion fluff. 

So here is my reminder: when faced with outrage, consider if what is pulling on your emotions is worthy of such an intense response. I invite you to choose otherwise. There's a spot in the dandelion patch waiting for you.