Saturday, November 21, 2020

A Visit from Mom

Last night in my dream, I was browsing in a used bookstore and picked up Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the PortugueseI'd read it more than 30 years ago in grad school but had little memory of it. I thumbed through the pages and saw notes inside...written in my mother's hand!

My eyes shot open to the black night. I reached for my Kindle and downloaded the book. I knew there had to be a message in it from Mom, who died eight years ago.

Mom (Arlene), 1958

Mom, a school nurse, was an avid reader and later in life became a writer of articles and, eventually, romance novels. Our love of the literary profoundly connected us. She read everything I wrote, including my poetry, although poetry wasn't really her thing.

But I clearly sensed in this vivid dream that she had a message for me in this book of poems. Not just any poems, but those written by a woman she would have admired. Browning (1806-1861) was a prolific writer and social critic who condemned child labor and advocated for women's rights. 

Elizabeth Barrett Bronwing

Likewise, Mom supported the Equal Rights Amendment and was very active in her community, helping the poor and underserved. She said that the best self-treatment for sadness, depression, or regret was to help other people.

Helping others, fostered in her Catholic background, became her "religion" once she no longer believed in the church. While my father and I were drawn to spiritual explorations, she rejected it all as hocus-pocus. 

No surprised then, that after my dad died, I felt him come to me several times (which I've written about here and here). My mother, though, proved to be more elusive...until last night.

It wasn't only that I saw her handwriting in the book. I felt her presence. 

Sonnets form the Portuguese, published in 1850, is a collection of 44 love sonnets. They weren't really translated from the Portuguese, as the title suggests, but Browning titled it this to keep her privacy. She'd thought the poems were too personal to publish, but her husband insisted it was the best sonnet sequence since Shakespeare. The most well-known poem in the book starts, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways."

I didn't remember that last night, though, when I opened the book at 3 a.m. My heart was pounding as I read the first poem, waiting to see what Mom had to say. 

The first sonnet starts with the speaker thinking of a Greek poet, Theocritus, who sings about the past, "the sweet years, the dear and wished for years." She begins to cry, thinking about all she has lost in life. (Browning had suffered deaths of many close to her, including her favorite brother.)

She then feels a "shadow across me," a "mystic shape" moving behind her. Eerily, it draws her "backward by the hair" and then speaks to her. It says: 

'Guess now who holds thee?'—'Death,' I said. But there,
The silver answer rang ... 'Not Death, but Love.'

I broke out in tears. There it was, my mother's message, plain as day, fittingly written in the pages of a book, since we so loved books. 

It isn't her death that holds me, but her love.

Mom and me

Friday, October 23, 2020

More Than Our Bodies

Sunset in Baja (photo by Dave)

Next to "It's benign" and "the margins are clear," hearing "it's not broken" is the freaking greatest news.

Two weeks ago I took a bad spill and messed up my ankle. Initial x-rays were inconclusive. I had no idea that sometimes a break won't show up for a week or two after a trauma. I went back for another x-ray.

I was trying not to catastrophize. But we are supposed to take the long drive up Baja in two weeks to get to a housesit in California and I was wondering how that would work with a broken ankle...much less one that might need surgery.

Bizarrely, in the past days, THREE friends have fallen off their bikes and suffered compound arm fractures that required surgery.

I just keep reminding myself that a) the body knows how to heal, and b) we've faced a lot of surprises and unknowns in this nomadic life we live, and we're always able to figure things out.

My mantra has been LOVE on the in-breath and HEALING on the out-breath. One of my arm-healing friends said this helped her a lot, too. It's so soothing that I think I will continue to use it, especially to help me get to sleep. 

So today I went back for the second x-ray...and, yay, it's a bad sprain, not a break. Doc told me to start walking with the boot. I did immediately when I got home. It's like being half non-automated robot. But I'll take it.

My 50s have been quite a ride for my body, what with brain surgery (for a benign tumor), thyroid surgery (for a benign tumor that had initially been diagnosed as cancer), surgery on my leg to remove a squamous cell growth (clear margins), and now this.

In Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying, Ram Dass talks about how if we live long enough, all of us face physical changes. This is an opportunity to learn we are "more than our bodies and our minds."

This decade has been teaching me this, it seems. 

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Angels Everywhere

Me today

I had a freak fall while walking to the beach and was in such extreme pain I couldn't put weight on my ankle to stand. Three strangers in a truck heard my call for help and drove over. The young woman hovered over me, lightly placing her hands on my leg and shoulder, which immediately made me less nauseous. I asked her if she's a healer. She said no, but one of the guys said, "She just might be."

Still, I was wailing in agony.

They helped me into the truck. I said to the driver, "This hurts worse than my brain surgery and thyroid surgery."

He said, "I just had a tumor removed from my chest two months ago. I still have some morphine pills they gave me. I have no idea why I brought them today...but I guess you were the reason."

He handed them to my neighbor Vivian who had appeared as the two guys helped me hop on my (thankfully strong) right leg into my house. Dave and our friend Art, who were doing yoga, jumped from their mats into action:

pain meds
love and kindness
reminders to breathe
reminders to accept the pain and let it flow by
checking if I could wiggle my toes (yes)

I reminded myself that I'm a good healer. And I activated my mantra, Something good will come from this.

I'm not big on morphine because it's addictive and causes bowel impactions, but damn, I wasn't going to say no at that moment. (It'll be ibuprofen from here on out.)

Art, a former college basketball player, talked me through similar injuries he's had. I was extremely uncomfortable on the couch so Art PICKED ME UP and carried me to my bed! Let me just say I'm not feather-light. His care almost teared me up.

Vivian brought me herbal tea and essential oils from our other neighbor, Chelle. Chelle's husband Kris gave us the ace bandage. Another neighbor, Julie, loaned me her crutches.

And of course Dave has been caring for me ever since.

Something good has come from this.
A reminder that angels are everywhere.
In human form.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

How to Write Freely (hint: Befriend Your Mind)


Years ago—via the work of Gabriele Rico, NatalieGoldberg, Anne Lamott, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—I learned about the right brain vs. left brain, the creator vs. the critic, the writing of the shitty first draft, the generative power of flow. These concepts helped me a lot as a writer. They helped me surrender to the stream (the dream, the trance) of writing. Writing unharnessed, I could feel my unconscious do its work. When I was in the flow, words poured onto the page; patterns and meanings emerged.

And yet there were competing voices. Voices that said writing is hard. Really, really hard. The boot camp voices: You must be disciplined. You must keep your butt in the seat. The existential voices: You have to open a vein and bleed on the page. You must kill your darlings. The masochist: If you don’t suffer, you’re doing it wrong. If you don’t sacrifice your life to your art, you are a poser.

These competing, contradictory voices fought inside me. As I result, I’d experience stretches of flow and confidence, followed by expanses of scarcity and deep doubt. I wrote numerous short pieces, but I stopped several books fifty pages in.

One day I came across a book called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. In his examination of the working lives of famous writers and artists from the 19th century to the present, I saw that the most prolific artists do work most days to take advantage of momentum. 

But not all day, every day. 

Generally three or four hours a day—with a day or two off a week. For many, more work than that becomes self-sabotaging, leading to burn-out. This four-hour pace is about creating a body of work, of living a sustainable life as an artist. Their focus is the process, not an attachment to the product. But what struck me the most was this: They adjust their thinking to their benefit.

While writing or painting or sculpting wasn’t always easy, many of these artists foster the attitude of Willa Cather, who said: 

“If I made a chore of it, my enthusiasm would die. I make an adventure of it every day.”

The word “adventure” popped off the page. Adventures can be arduous. They can have scary moments. But we love them! We choose them!

The book I wanted to write was, in part, about the adventure my husband and I embarked upon: leaving our jobs and home to live as nomads. It was a memoir about how life is an adventure. How we transformed when we stepped into the fertile void. Suddenly, the plot and the process of my project felt interlinked.

It had been six years since I’d written a book. The stakes felt high. I’d retired early in order to focus on my writing.

We were staying for four months at a house in Tahoe. The house had extra rooms, and groups of our friends would be coming and going. I decided that no matter what, I’d write two to four hours a day, with my earbuds in playing music to inspire me, to make it fun—and to block out the noise of all those people. When I took off the earbuds, I’d be living my balanced life: we’d talk, make food, go hiking and snow-shoeing.


The first day I sat to write, I turned on my computer and, with my hands on my lap, took a deep breath. Spontaneously, I closed my eyes, and listened to my inner voice say something like this:

I’m writing today because I choose it. It’s an adventure! It’s about allowing, not forcing. It’s about being curious and joyful. I am doing this because I love it. I’m willing to make a mess, like a finger-painting kid. I trust my instincts. My unconscious will guide me. I’m willing to get lost in the dream of writing.

I opened my eyes and was off and running. Every day, I closed my eyes and gave myself what I began to call a “Meditative Pep Talk.”

Never before had I written so prolifically. Words poured out like water. If I hit a speed bump, I’d close my eyes, breathe, and tap into thoughts served me best. Thoughts like, It’s okay to be unsure. It’s okay to not know. You’re doing this because you love it. You’re not suffering, you’re adventuring.

In four months, I wrote 160,000 words. That’s about five or six double-spaced pages a day.

When it came time to revise, I knew I’d have to cut. I decided I wasn’t killing my darlings; I was pulling weeds so the garden would thrive. Every day I appreciated how all those extraneous words were instrumental in forming the essential ones. I thought about Michelangelo, who said: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

I have a choice. I can believe my fears or I can believe my assurances. As though my process and my product wove together like a Moebius strip, I ended up titling my memoir: Call It Wonder, from OSHO who said: 

“Don’t call it uncertainty—call it wonder. 

Don’t call it insecurity—call it freedom.”

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

11 Books That Touched My Life

Many books have touched my life. These are a few that have helped me better understand who I am, why I’m here and what I’m capable of.

These books opened up worlds to me that I didn’t know existed. Eyes may be windows into the soul—but so are books.

1) Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.

Harriet rides her bike around, peeking in on her quirky neighbors and writing about them. She likes to wear jeans and her dad’s blocky glasses frames. Her best friend, a boy named Scout, wears an apron when he cooks for his widowed father. I first read this book at age eight. When I re-read it 30 years later, I saw many things I care about contained in its pages: the love of traveling and writing, the rejection of gender straight-jackets and the fascination with how other people do this thing we call living.
Favorite quote: “Life is a great mystery. Is everybody a different person when they are with someone else?”

2) The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.

In seventh grade, my science teacher read to us every Friday from this book about humans colonizing Mars. While I may not have grasped the social criticism, I was bowled over by the gripping writing and by how the stories offered deep insights into life. That a book could give me (existential) goosebumps helped me internalize the power of the written word.
Favorite quote: “Why life? Life was its own answer. Life was the propagation of more life and the living of as good a life as possible.”

3) Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.

I was in my twenties when I first encountered Whitman, whose work became my bible. He wrote about how we are connected to each other and all of nature, how the body is to be praised, how equality should be a given, and how what matters most is love in all its forms. His long, rhythmic lines crackle with life more than 150 years since they first appeared in print.
Favorite quote: “Do anything, but let it produce joy.”

4) Journal of Solitude by May Sarton.

At age 29, I sold everything I owned and moved alone to Japan to teach. There, I devoured all of Sarton’s soulful and insightful journals, starting with this one. I was spending a lot of time alone, and she helped me see how I didn’t have to be scared of solitude; alone, I could plumb my depths.
Favorite quote: “Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is richness of self.”

5) Wild Mind: Living the Writers’ Life by Natalie Goldberg.

With her pragmatic, soulful wit, Goldberg helped me free my inner creator. As a young expat living in Japan, I tried out her writing methods and turned myself over to my dream of being a writer.
Favorite quote: “Stress is basically a disconnection from the earth, a forgetting of the breath. Stress is an ignorant state. It believes everything is an emergency.”

6) When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chodron.

When I was going through a devastating divorce, a good friend gave me this book. My lifeline to sanity, Pema’s book was the start of my journey to better understand how to deal with suffering. I think I saved thousands of dollars in therapy bills by reading this book again and again.
Favorite quote: “If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.”

7) Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed.

As I read this book, I found myself wishing over and over again I’d had it in my hands when I was younger. It just might have helped me change course—or at least be kinder to myself. Her advice and voice wrap their arms around you and help you stand up straight.
Favorite quote: “You will learn a lot about yourself if you stretch in the direction of goodness, of bigness, of kindness, of forgiveness, of emotional bravery. Be a warrior for love.”
The final four books fit in the category of “Badass Women.” All of these women overcame great odds to claim their power—and at some level, to change the world. These books ignited my inner flame so that I more deeply appreciated my freedom, my voice and my capacity to inspire and be inspired.

8) Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

In this memoir, a Somalian woman follows a harrowing and unlikely path and ultimately becomes a political figure in the Netherlands. In the face of death threats, she fearlessly champions free speech, women’s rights and the banning of female genital mutilation.
Favorite quote: “It takes a long time to dissolve the bars of a mental cage.” 

9) Champion of Choice: The Life and Legacy of Women’s Advocate Nafis Sadik by Cathleen Miller.

An incredibly inspirational example of a woman who has affected millions of lives. A Pakistani national, she bucked tradition and became a physician and eventually a leader of the U.N. population fund, fighting for women’s health and reproductive rights. Now in her 80s, she is still working to make the world a better place.
Favorite quote: “We must be courageous in speaking out on the issues that concern us… We will not allow ourselves to be silenced.”

10) She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan.

With humor and intelligence, Boylan tells the poignant story of her transition from Jim to Jenny. As with all the other “badass women” books, I developed new understandings and deeper compassion reading this.
Favorite quote:As it turns out, we’re all still learning to be men, or women, all still learning to be ourselves.”

11) Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls.

This novel is based on the life of Jeanette’s extraordinary grandmother, Lila Casey Smith, who, at age 15, left home on a pony to ride 500 miles for a teaching job in a frontier town. She learned to fly a plane and ran a ranch in Arizona, surviving droughts, tornadoes, the Great Depression and personal tragedy. Like the other badass women, she stood up for the underdog and spoke out against injustice.
Favorite quote: “Nobody’s perfect. We’re all just one step up from the beasts and one step down from the angels.”
What’s a book that touched your life?

(This piece first appeared in Elephant Journal.)