Friday, June 27, 2008

40 Days 'til 40

So ... I'll be 40 in 40 days. As a Leo through and through, I thought I'd sound the trumpet early so you can all get your gift-giving and party-throwing plans together! :-)

On a more serious note, I've been thinking a lot about ... what am I thinking about turning 40. Turns out, not a lot.

I feel very much where I am supposed to be. I feel at the peak of my performance, as I guess athletes say. Do writers say that? Maybe more accurately is the notion of feeling fully in my season of summer. Maybe it's the mid summer time in my life. Maybe it's late summer. I don't know of course. Seeds I planted early in my life, as I moved from winter into spring have blossomed now. I feel in harmony with my body and my work. I am healthier than I have ever been. My work is finding an audience in the world. My teaching is reaching many people. My heart opens more each day (and so does my shoulder and my spine). 30 wasn't like this. 20 certainly wasn't like this.

The photos above are:

top: me, current -- in front of the barn in my "backyard". It's really someone else's barn and backyard, but I can look at it from my deck and have claimed psychic ownership!

2nd from top: me, 33, MFA graduation, Antioch University Los Angeles

3rd from top: me, 10, I played "Hagga" in the Charlotte Children's Theatre production of The Thirteen Clocks. I still remember a line... "The guards are guarding the clocks! YOU wanted it that way!" (I got to hiss the word "YOU" as I sneered at the kid wearing purple).

4th from top: me, 1 or 2 with my dad. Both my parents read a lot to me. We can blame reading to children for the reason I am the way I am today. :-)

I can look back on each year and see how it fed into the one that followed. I can see how every "crappy" experience fueled the next period of growth. Without exception, everything has happened perfectly. I have deeply loved people outside of my family. I have loved too many cats to count.

I married myself when I was 25. Best decision I ever made! :-) (Who wouldn't want to devote their lives to moi... but that's another blog!) ;-)

But it was the best decision I have made because my commitment since 25 has been to my personal and spiritual growth and my writing. That may come across as selfish, but I have found it to be exactly the opposite of selfish. By committing to me and to what I feel I am on the planet to do, I then have more freedom and desire to be with others and to give to others. I don't feel that others drain me because I have placed a priority on filling myself. I learned to set boundaries and not to do the things I don't want to do. That doesn't mean I don't compromise and sometimes do things that aren't the first thing on my list, but it does mean I don't pretend to be what I'm not, or to enjoy what I don't. This has kept things very clean. I am able to be more fully with the people I choose to spend time with because of these choices.

I promised to love, honor, respect and cherish myself and my writing. I promised to live my life with writing as a companion, not with writing as a pet or a short-term lover -- a companion, a day in, day out stinky sweet companion. Do I write every day? No. But is writing with me every day? Yes. It knows I have shown up, and so it shows up.

I will renew these vows at 40. At 50. At 60 and beyond.

I am absolutely tickled with gratitude to be hanging out in this flesh and bone body right now.

(And yeah, 40's the new 20!)

Happy Living Days to You All!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Closing Time

These past few days have felt like one continuous summer day. It's been so sunny and bright (though fortunately not crazy hot), and of course, it was just the longest day of the year. But that's not why. Since returning from Omega, I've been able to really put the "teacher" hat away and sink, sink, sink into words.

I have written for practically three days straight, sleeping very little, getting up, doing my practice, and then going right to the computer. In bed, I push the edges of the sheets away with my feet and scream. This is the birth. I love every timeless part of it. I have been carrying this book with me since I was 7 years old. Each day I write, I lose something. Each day I write, there is more space in my belly and my spine. Each day I write, my shoulder releases. I feel like I am literally losing pounds by finally getting this book done. I should have a full on draft ready for fine tuning in just a few more days. (Thank you to whoever established summer break!)

It is always the right time, though. The work had to germinate through adolescence and gigantic 20-something mistakes. It had to gather steam during years of different types of therapy and projects and education. It had to push against me from the inside out until I paid attention to unrecognizable aches and pains in parts of my belly I didn't know I had.

I have danced with this book, run from this book, analyzed this book -- practically any other verb you can think of I've done with this book. This is the end of it, and I know it this time because I feel the space and the freedom. I know it because I am crying and crying and crying and laughing and laughing and laughing. He asked me to write his story for him when I was seventeen. I hadn't known how to do it before this very week. I think I honestly didn't want to give him to anyone else. I had to first be able to stand in the space between him and me and find my own feet, my own spine, my own healthy, strong body unencumbered by his illness and his sadness.

The title of this blog is called Closing Time because of the Leonard Cohen song. The song sums up perfectly the place in between where I have felt I've been for 33 years.(If you can't hear Leonard's voice when you read the lyrics, you're missing a piece of that amazing angst) :-)

"Closing Time"
(c) Leonard Cohen

Ah we're drinking and we're dancing
and the band is really happening
and the Johnny Walker wisdom running high
And my very sweet companion
she's the Angel of Compassion
she's rubbing half the world against her thigh
And every drinker every dancer
lifts a happy face to thank her
the fiddler fiddles something so sublime
all the women tear their blouses off
and the men they dance on the polka-dots
and it's partner found, it's partner lost
and it's hell to pay when the fiddler stops:

Yeah the women tear their blouses off
and the men they dance on the polka-dots
and it's partner found, it's partner lost
and it's hell to pay when the fiddler stops:

Ah we're lonely, we're romantic
and the cider's laced with acid
and the Holy Spirit's crying, "Where's the beef?"
And the moon is swimming naked
and the summer night is fragrant
with a mighty expectation of relief
So we struggle and we stagger
down the snakes and up the ladder
to the tower where the blessed hours chime
and I swear it happened just like this:
a sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss
the Gates of Love they budged an inch
I can't say much has happened since

I swear it happened just like this:
a sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss
the Gates of Love they budged an inch
I can't say much has happened since

I loved you for your beauty
but that doesn't make a fool of me:
you were in it for your beauty too
and I loved you for your body
there's a voice that sounds like God to me
declaring, declaring, declaring that your body's really you
And I loved you when our love was blessed
and I love you now there's nothing left
but sorrow and a sense of overtime
and I missed you since the place got wrecked
And I just don't care what happens next
looks like freedom but it feels like death
it's something in between, I guess

Yeah I missed you since the place got wrecked
By the winds of change and the weeds of sex
looks like freedom but it feels like death
it's something in between, I guess

Yeah we're drinking and we're dancing
but there's nothing really happening
and the place is dead as Heaven on a Saturday night
And my very close companion
gets me fumbling gets me laughing
she's a hundred but she's wearing
something tight
and I lift my glass to the Awful Truth
which you can't reveal to the Ears of Youth
except to say it isn't worth a dime
And the whole damn place goes crazy twice
and it's once for the devil and once for Christ
but the Boss don't like these dizzy heights
we're busted in the blinding lights,
busted in the blinding lights

The whole damn place goes crazy twice
and it's once for the devil and once for Christ
but the Boss don't like these dizzy heights
we're busted in the blinding lights,
busted in the blinding lights

Oh the women tear their blouses off
and the men they dance on the polka-dots
And it's partner found, it's partner lost
and it's hell to pay when the fiddler stops
I swear it happened just like this:
a sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss
The Gates of Love they budged an inch
I can't say much has happened since
I loved you when our love was blessed
I love you now there's nothing left
I miss you since the place got wrecked
By the winds of change and the weeds of sex.

[ ]

So I made a Wordle of the final scene of the memoir. (The lovely image you see at the top of the blog!)

Here's the final scene: (Skeleton Woman, Lillian, Gabriel, Hannah, Frank, Claire, Helen, Zoe, Necahual are all characters in my novels)

Chapter 23

Characters as Teachers

The moon waxes outside my bedroom window. Thumb Butte mountain is silhouetted in grays. Tonight there are bats and coyotes and tiny biting bugs. I smell javelina, though I haven’t seen one rutting around the scrub brush in quite some time. I’m awake at my usual time – 3:45 a.m. I watch and listen. Sometimes I wake up and just use the bathroom. Sometimes I wake up and pull whichever cat is closer under the covers with me. I can usually get away with that for a few minutes before she gets sick of me and jumps away. But other times, I wake up because something has shown up – a solution to a scene in a novel – a new book idea – a sadness that seems real only at 3:45 a.m.

“Hey,” says Lillian, one of my characters. “Don’t let us keep you awake.” She presses her hand to my forehead, sinking me back onto the pillow. I burrow deeper under the down.

“Wake up!” It’s Hannah, another character. “I’ve still got more to say to you.”

“Shut up.” This one’s Zöe, the one who’s way too much like me. “You had your turn. It’s my turn now.”

“Ain’t none of y’all’s turn,” says Frank, from my newest novel. “It’s my time now. I’m still stuck in Chinatown.”

I could be asleep, but I’m not. The bed is heavy with all of them here. More are here than choose to speak. There are always more of them than are speaking. Always more.

Two black swans slide across a pond I can’t identify. I think of Freedom Park in North Carolina where we used to go when I was growing up to feed the ducks and crows. I wonder what those black swans are about. Janis Joplin cracks her heart open in Golden Gate Park in 1967 and twenty-year-old Helen feels the blood thumping in her own heart. In her belly, a baby who won’t live to hear Janis Joplin and make up her own mind about the radical nature of women. Outside of the park, Benjamin, another ghost, circles over Frank’s head in Chinatown. The ghosts of my ghosts.

Skeleton Woman dances on the dresser, her reflection in the mirror with the moon enough to make me so eternally grateful for this life. She nods at me, her jaw a constant grin.

Lillian, Hannah, Jay, Roberta and Gabriel – you helped me heal my relationship with my grandmother, even though she was dead long before you stopped by.

Zöe, Necahual, Fire Wolf, Bob and David – you helped me forgive my mother for being the one to survive.

Helen, Claire, Frank, Ellie and Benjamin – we’re still in contract negotiations. I don’t know yet what your gifts are.

A bat flies too close to the sliding glass door. The cats stiffen. They want to be outside hunting, but I don’t let them. I know they’ll become the hunted and I can’t bear that. Still, they clack their jaws and slash their tails through the air, barely missing the ghosts.


You don’t know, really, what each moment leads to. You don’t know what the threads are weaving. You just follow the needle and admire each color as it blooms. You stay as long as you can – you hover over your daughters, your wife. You wake them up when the air conditioning unit catches fire the month after you are gone. You ride trains in your daughter’s dreams. You leave a message for her on her answering machine a year after you died. You visit your mother and father, though you cannot speak to them, and if you could, you still don’t know what you would say.

You listen while you float and all the words you never spoke bubble up and dissolve into the air you no longer breathe. As each sentence flashes and vanishes, so does a fragment of you. As each piece of you becomes glitter, you move farther and farther away.

Your daughter’s pen is filled with the ink of your experience. She has waited for you to die so she can move. You have waited for her to let you go. You have work to do now. Your life, all your lives, have become the sparkle of rainbow. She writes with purple ink. With green. With gold. She writes you farther away; each word pushes you closer to your new home.

You see the crowd gathered in her bedroom. You didn’t see them before, but you see them now. You want to talk to her about them, but you know your role is finished. You showed her how to see them. It is up to her to write them.


Dear Daddy,

Summer’s here. I’m looking out the open window at the Wild Iris Coffee house. There’s water in Granite Creek. My shoulder doesn’t hurt. My fingers thrum with words. Good journey, Daddy. The words are fire, water, air and earth. The words are my body. Our bodies.

I am breathing still.

Still, I am breathing.

What a wondrous gift indeed, to be one of the haunted.


Skeleton Woman’s perpetual smile lights up the bedroom. The cats sleep in fluffy cat piles. The black swans slide across the surface of the lake. I close my eyes to dream a story.

Lillian sighs, her old hands gnarled as the tree branch where Gabriel hung. “Best let her get some sleep. It’ll be morning soon enough.”

Gabriel sings, his deep bass vibrating my sternum. “Swing Lo, Sweet Chariot…”

Helen grabs her Southern Comfort, touches Frank’s hand. “Come now, she’ll get you out of Chinatown when she wakes up.”

I sink into the feather pillow. Skeleton Woman sits next to me, then snuggles deep under the covers. “I’m here, love.”

My bones sing.

You don’t know how perfect the world is until you float above it, your own smile glistening in the night, the waxing moon, the constellations; you have become the eternity you have been seeking, and all you can do is shower the earth with gratitude for your own small, forty-six year piece of the whole.

“Comin’ for to carry me home…”

The handsome white horseman looks more than a little like Elvis. He opens the door to the chariot, bows low. “It’s no big thing,” he says to you. “Just the space between one breath and the next.”

A pause, a comma,

It’s no big thing.

The moon falls behind Thumb Butte. The moment between moonset and sunrise is electric with life. I inhale and exhale, sleep the closest thing to death for now. It’s no big thing. The pause, the comma,

You step into the chariot. Elvis closes the door behind you. “Hold on. The ride gets bumpy sometimes.” You hold on to the safety loop for only a moment before you let it go, knowing you want to feel every moment of whatever is next. Your legs have no polio virus. Your heart is not blocked.

Only a pause. No big thing. Skeleton Woman and I wait on the precipice.

Until we meet again,

Until then,

Dear Daddy, I love you. Bye-bye, Daddy,

Bye-bye sugar.

I am in my yellow swing in the backyard of our house. It is 1969. I am full of the joy of words. B-R-E-E-Z-E. The wind’s breath holds me up, flying in the space between your arms and the rest of my life.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

How to Bury Your Father

How to Bury Your Father

First, make sure your father is dead.
It’s important to note that although he may no longer be breathing,
he may still be alive for you.
If he is alive for you, then no amount of digging, or
flower planting
or epitaph writing
will do the trick.

Second, ask yourself if you indeed are ready
for your father to be dead.
You may have noticed that people die
in the most unexpected times --
when you are a child, or a young adult, or a new parent;
in the most unexpected ways –
crossing the street after a puppy, falling asleep with too much gin, or
the simple slice of an attack of heart.
If you are not ready for your father to be dead,
then no amount of praying, or
or counseling
will do.

Third, determine what you need to take with you from your
father – though he is dead, surely, dead now.
Do you need the Timex he wound each night so time would not run out?
Do you need the LP of Elvis, Live at Madison Square Garden
so you’ll always know how to make yourself cry?
Do you need the money clip with his initials – GAH – to remember to always carry
twenty dollars because “you never know when you’ll need a cab?”
Do you need the weight of his life-long illness?
His rage at his body, his crises of faith?
Do you need his golf putter – the one he used to scratch the ball of his foot that
polio had
eaten away?
Be ruthless.
If you don’t need these things, box them up.
Bury them first.
If you do need these things, refer back to stanza

If you have reached this place in the poem, then you are
ready to bury your father.
Take a deep breath.
Exhale the midnight chocolate cake eating contests,
the scream from the bedroom when the last stroke came,
the coldness of his hand in ICU.
Inhale again, and on the exhale,
drop his body into the earth.
You have taken what you needed.
The rest is up to him.


This poem came out of an assignment for a class I'm taking this summer with the amazing Peter Levitt. I wrote this in the way I usually write things -- a big dump, and then an editing. This was interesting for me in several ways, so I thought I'd post it for the purposes of "the writing process" and the notion of the poet/author as narrator.

I've noticed when I teach poetry that many students believe the narrator of the poem is the poet. They seem to struggle more with that distinction in poetry than in prose (though they struggle with it in prose too). This poem is written in the 2nd person, something I don't do very much, but I'm currently working with 2nd person in my memoir -- using the 2nd person as the voice of my dad the last five minutes he was alive. Obviously, I'm making that up -- although I was in the hospital room with him, I couldn't know what, if anything (he was comatose) he was thinking or feeling. That may be why this poem surfaced as 2nd person. Or it may be nothing besides what happened when I started to write. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!

Some of the details in here are true (golf putter, polio, heart attack, died before I was ready, money clip). Some of the details are not true (alcoholic, running after a puppy). The loop in time (return back to stanza 2) and the progression of the process are very much true to experience. Just because someone dies doesn't mean we're ready for that. They may be gone, but sometimes we're still attached. I've been writing myself free of my father's illness and death my whole life. Maybe this newest book I'm working on will be the final huzzah. I really can't know. I just keep mining what shows up to be mined.

I've never written about fathers in a poem before without it being a direct experience of me and my dad. This was very freeing (and maybe a sign that this new book really is the final huzzah). I also appreciated being able to add the qualities I absorbed -- how pissed off he was at his body, how frustrated and angry he was because he was sick -- and move beyond the idealization of a relationship that ended too soon.

Ultimately, I wish he could talk about it with me, but that's the kicker, isn't it?

He's dead and I'm not, and today, I'm the one who is grateful to make a poem.

Tomorrow I may not have a poem.

Thank you.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Deer Candy

"Deer candy!" shouted an African American woman as she walked through the organic garden at the Omega Institute in New York. She was walking with a friend. "I hate them. Hate the deer."

I was sitting in an adirondack chair drinking coffee and journaling. It was my last day at Omega. I'd been teaching a week long workshop on Writing Begins with the Breath. It had been a glorious week, although temperatures in the early part of the week hit 100 degrees, with the full on shower of humidity I had forgotten about from 25 years in the desert. I laughed and caught their gaze.

"I want to know where the deer fence is," she went on. "There's too many deer in New York. Why aren't any of them in Omega? Why aren't they eating the vegetables?" This woman had obviously been wounded deeply by deer, but she had a point. Where were the deer?

Omega is a fantasy. It's a place with no smoking, no cell phones, no pagers. A place where everyone composts and recycles, takes their shoes off before entering a building, and eats organic vegetarian food three meals a day. It's a place with no deer, but woodchucks, bumblebees, squirrels, wasps, ants, mosquitoes, mice, chipmunks, and birds that are not (who knew?) brown. At Omega, it's OK to eat in silence. It's OK to avoid conversation and small talk. It's OK to just sit in the sun. It's delicious. But it's a bubble. A model, perhaps, of what the outside world could be, if you just took out that pesky human nature component. Don't get me wrong, it's a wonderful fantasy and I loved every minute of it. Twenty year old guys with beautiful long locks and guitars made the food or picked the veggies or served the most amazing ice cream in the cafe. What's not to like? They even (I kid you not) congregated on the porch of the cafe at night and played folk songs from the 1960s.

It's very helpful for us, in this extremely fast world, to take the time to go to a place like Omega to quiet down and calm the mind. It takes people a few days to unplug from New York City, or Boston, or from wherever they came. Often when they hear themselves (from the inside not the outside) for the first time, they cry. They feel empty, raw. This is good, and Omega is a wonderful cradle for them to crack open and feel, truly feel, what it's like to connect with their deepest selves. But most of us can't afford to live in a place like this (those twenty-year old guys would get expensive after awhile!) and we need to come back to the world of deer. And many people could never afford to come to a place like Omega in the first place.

My students taught me how much they need permission to feel. They taught me how important it is to hold the silence for them, so they can surrender into it. They taught me how to open up into place of discomfort with them, so they can move into it, breathe it in, and then breathe it out. My practice of yoga and qi gong gave me a center. It continued to hold me through their resistances and emotional curves. It continued to bring me back to stillness so I could witness their motion. And by Friday, they had moved mountains. It was an honor to be with them in this bubble of a place.

Now, when they are back out in the world of deer, back with their deadlines and their voice mails and their work demands, maybe there will be a physical memory of what it felt like when they sat for twenty minutes in silence and counted their breaths. Maybe there will be a visceral remembrance of how the handwriting shifted in their notebooks when the voice became the real thing. This is my deepest hope for them, for all of us. The world of deer cannot sway you if your center is rooted and calm. As the Taoists say, "If a house falls on your head, be yourself!"

As the 21st century comes crashing down on all of us, use each moment to model acceptance. Don't resist what is in front of you. Each moment is a teaching, an opportunity to grow, even if it's ugly and hurts. It grows uglier if you hold onto it. Breathe it in, breathe it out. Breathe it in, breathe it out. In a sanctuary like Omega, we have a chance to get a glimpse of our true selves. The veils of roles and expectations fall away -- from the 98% humidity, the vegetarian diet, or the unrelenting discipline of growth.

You don't need to go to the mountains to find God. You don't need to fly 3000 miles across the country. You don't need to eat vegetarian food or sit in lotus position for six hours. These places and behaviors are just vehicles that can help make it easier, but these places are not God, are not anything but another facet of reality. You need go no further than your own breath and body to touch the work of God. You need go no further than your own fingertips to find divine possibilities. The journey isn't out, it's in. Writing doesn't take you out into the world, it pulls you deeper into your world so that your words can help another find a way.

No matter where you live, no matter how you live, bow deeply with awe and gratitude to all that is around you.

You'll find what you're looking for in the eyes of the deer.