Archive for the ‘the writing experience’ Category

“Pantsing” as a Way of Life

October 22, 2015

A blog on elder issues that I follow, Time Goes By, Time Goes By recently discussed the idea of writing a ”final” post to be put up on a blog when the writer has passed away. Sort of an extension of making one’s funeral preferences known, completing a living will, etc. The stated intent, however is to have a way to say farewell to online followers/friends who may wonder what has happened, when posts cease to appear.

This is NOT my final blog, although my followers may indeed be wondering what has happened to me. I haven’t dared to check how long it’s been since my last post!

Not that I’ve stopped living, nor even stopped reflecting on all the living that is filling my days. I have, however, stopped making time to write out what I’ve been discovering during the rather brief reflective gaps in the hectic pace of my days. Perhaps now that the weather is changing, and more sedentary indoor days loom, I’ll be able to return to writing posts regularly.

Odd, that – I write regularly every day, just not “for pleasure” as is the case with this blog. I write summaries of the needs of my clients, I write persuasive letters to justify insurance coverage of exceptional procedures, I write recommendations to management for procedure changes to simplify my (and my 100 field co-worker) tasks. I even enjoy some of what I write for my “day job” but it is writing from the logical functions of my brain.

What tends to emerge in my essays that become blog posts is much more intuitive and – to me – more pleasurable. I don’t often know, when I start an essay, where it will end because I don’t “know” what it is that I know on the subject about which I have been cogitating. I wait for – and fortunately reliably receive – flashes of inspiration which mold themselves into coherence as I formulate the words to express the ideas and images which rise to awareness.

Should I be admitting in a public forum that I often don’t know what I’m going to say when I start to write? Will an editor at some future point read my manuscript submission and say that it’s obvious I have no idea what I’m writing about and that I’ve admitted as much already?

I hope not, since I do rework, rewrite and thoroughly edit the books and stories I send out (far too rarely now – my submission listing is sparse indeed). And I reread and edit my posts although not with the same degree of critical assessment as I give to works of fiction. It is part of the pleasure, for me, of posting, that I feel free to share what comes to me, rather in the way one speaks freely in a conversation with friends. Having to “watch one’s words” in fact describes a stilted and tense relationship between people, or at best a formal and careful one such as is the case for my day job writing which I mentioned above.

An interview I read recently asked a writer whether he was a “planner or a pantser” in the production of his novels. Like many of us would, I think, he replied that it depended on the circumstances. Some works require planning, others seem to take on life all on their own and – for me at least – write themselves through me. Those are the most fun and happily they quite commonly occur when I’m in the process of completing a post.

Pantsing this essay, I’ve come to a stop without feeling, in the logical part of my brain, that I’ve come to a coherent conclusion. Perhaps I have, however, accurately reflected the incoherent way my days are unfolding, full of unexpected events, and flashes of insight that bear little relationship to what I think of as the pattern of my days. I guess I’m pantsing my life at the moment, when I’ve always been something of a planner in that arena. Hmm… I should expect interesting new insights to accompany the very novel way my days are being filled.

Not a bad gift to self for the birthday in honor of which I’m putting up this post.
Best wishes to all – and thank you to my readers – for my new year ahead.


Autumn Color

Autumn Color

What Is…

December 14, 2014

I just spent some time last night and this afternoon checking out and replying to various posts on Facebook – a place I have not visited in weeks. Finding out there’s still a world out there where people have time to watch clips, post pictures, and generally interact for something other than work. Wow.

I hit some sort of end point yesterday shortly after noon. In retrospect I recognize how much I had been counting on having the entire weekend to use on personal interests. Instead, I had to work for much of Saturday to meet demands imposed by an impending state government audit of my employer. It was after 3:00 P.M. before I was able to head into Las Vegas for a walk along Bridge Street and a bit of shopping for the few items I needed to complete my Christmas gift package to a good friend and her family. By that time I’d fallen into a snit – one of those unpleasant moods somewhere between anger and self-pity, feeling unappreciated and generally out of sorts.

Walking and window shopping and finding items for the gift box was not in itself important. Doing something I wanted to do, rather than something expected or required of me, was what mattered. Another friend called, we met for a coffee and talk, and my mood improved. Today I am “back to myself” and readying for another long and demanding week of work.

I wrote – I think in my last, rather distantly past blog post – that I’m so busy living I don’t have time to reflect on, nor write about, what I’m experiencing. I didn’t realize until now that I was actually identifying a problem that needs a solution. I’ve gone from an excess of “me” time to virtually none at all. Neither extreme is healthy.

My Teacher instructs that one cannot outflow effectively if one does not first fill one’s cup, to have something worth pouring out to others. I know this to be true of spiritual matters. My Teacher also reminds us “as above so below”, meaning what one contemplates and envisions manifests eventually in one’s outer life, though perhaps not in the ways the mind and ego imagine or expect. Filling my Soul above with Divine Love, Power and Wisdom through my daily contemplation exercises, I am equipped to pass along encouragement and support to those whom I meet in need.

In the spirit of...

In the spirit of…

Knowing and practicing this Truth, why is it still so hard for me to apply a similar practice below, in my daily allocation of time and energy? How ingrained is the habit of acceding always to the needs of others, rather than speaking up for “me” time!

My new husband is such a loving and generous soul – telling me often that if I want or need something from him, just ask. On those occasions when I’ve broken a lifelong pattern, and asked for what I want, he has responded promptly in the affirmative. But, nonetheless, yesterday happened. I apparently still cannot give myself permission to take what I need, when I need it!

I suspect that this is another manifestation of an uncertainty as to “worthiness”. Have I earned the right to self-care? Have I earned my way into grace?

Grace isn’t earned, it is gifted. Isn’t it about time I left myself open to accept the gift in every moment, so that I automatically provide self-care and don’t reach the stressed out point of needing to demand “me” time? Why is this such a hard lesson to learn?

Yes, I know that each time this lesson of self-acceptance has arisen, it has taken a more subtle form. Each time I get “bent out of shape”, I recognize it sooner and do less harm before calling myself out for my conduct. But that sounds like a mental justification for continuing the behavior, not like an indicator of progress toward eliminating it.

Open Acceptance of Beauty

Open Acceptance of Beauty

In this season of annual review, of winding up things and making new beginnings, I wish for myself the humility and openness to finally release whatever underlying sense of unworthiness causes me still to push myself to prove… I know not what.


The last few paragraphs were written after what was in their place “erased” with an unintentional sweep of the mouse. Do I get upset at losing my words – or accept that something expressed more effectively was meant to be in their place? The latter, if I am to implement in my lower, outer life the same acceptance of grace that I claim in the higher, inner places of my spirit
What is, is meant to be.
What is, is enough.
What is, is.


August 30, 2014

No promises as to resuming a regular posting. As today’s essay reflects, my life is unfolding in such an unplanned way that I know better than to commit yet to any regular writing schedule. I have missed the connection to my readers, however so let’s see…


I walked two miles in about 40 minutes, before breakfast this morning. That activity is one of the several things I have been doing with my limited free time, instead of writing blog posts. My walking place is a dirt country lane, straight and well packed, through unfenced plains used for grazing by a herd of black Angus cattle, and occasionally also by a small group of antelope. Heading out – east – the sun is in my eyes so I keep them lowered and shaded by the brim of my hat. I see bugs scuttling across the road, and jeweled colors as the sun glints off shards and stones beaten into the hard clay by the passing of cars. Heading back – west – I can look around to appreciate how incredibly green my surroundings have been painted by our summer rains.

We’ve had as much rain these past three months as in the last 4-5 years of summers combined. Which means before I walk I douse myself in a home concocted mosquito repellant that works quite well. Oils of lemon grass, cedarwood, peppermint, citronella and a bit of lavender added to water and sprayed on. Sounds a bit wild but actually smells rather pleasant to me. I wonder why the mosquitoes don’t agree – but am glad they do not.

My walks – I try to do at least two a week – are about the only unscheduled, reflective time available to me these extremely busy days. Today I contemplated the saying that “life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” In my case, life is what has virtually overwhelmed me when I had no particular plans at all. So much has changed, so radically, from a year ago this time. I had, then, just been hired by Presbyterian, with a start date in October so I engaged with the projects I wanted to have completed before the new job took over my days. I also wrote quite a few blog posts, to have a supply stored up for weeks when it would be challenging to write. As you must realize, I ran out of that supply several months ago.

The job has turned out to be pretty much what I anticipated but far more demanding of my time than I imagined. We’ve had a good bit of turnover among the 70 some of us across the state, mostly people burning out from the constant demands and deadlines, the 60 + hour weeks, and the aggravations of a profoundly user unfriendly computer data system we are obliged to keep updated. There is, now, a bit of light at the end of the tunnel – or enough light to perceive that the tunnel does have an end. Rather like my sighting in on my car, parked at the head of the lane, waiting for me to make my way back the return mile of my walk. I know a cool beverage awaits me there, so I keep up my pace. There IS an end to this madness, really there is!

Meanwhile, I’m busy living each moment, day after day. It’s an interesting change for me – from a good deal of time for reflection to virtually none. I feel stripped down to an essential core, deciding and acting without conscious planning for what will be done when, or how. For someone raised to believe she must organize and plan in order to achieve, living so immediately in the present is a most curious experience. Surprisingly pleasant and freeing. Productive, though not in ways I have previously measured productivity. Most of all, I feel relieved of a weight of responsibility that I’ve carried most of my life.

And that’s perhaps the most novel aspect of this new way of being. Looking back at the past six months, I have behaved responsibly, honestly, as reliably as ever – but I feel as though I’ve been gloriously self-indulgent. I am certain of one thing – I’m not going to analyze that good feeling. I’m simply going to enjoy it, like I enjoy my two mile walks, the people I’ve met through my work, my new marriage and the process of living my life rather than making plans.

Join me? Try it, you might like it as much as I do!

I am the Cat

December 27, 2013

How is it that, as a self-identified cat person, I write so much more often about dogs? True, over the years I’ve shared my home with more dogs than cats, undoubtedly because dogs more easily work out a pack status and accommodate to numbers. For every three dogs, I’ve offered food and shelter to at most one cat. The only time I can recall offering housing to two cats at once, the dominant cat (Natasha) had recently been a mother, her kittens just weaned and off to new homes.

Shifting possessions in a rented storage unit, I heard a frantic mewling coming from behind the building. Huddled under an accumulation of dead leaves blown against the metal siding, was a tiny black handful of fur with a wide open mouth, loudly proclaiming its presence. Chantilly Lace quieted as soon as I picked her up. She dug around against my chest until she found my generously-sized inside jacket pocket, then nestled her way into it and went to sleep.

My chores completed, I returned home uncertain how to introduce Chantilly to Natasha and to the dogs living with me. Isha, a lanky Lab cross, had recently finished her stint as a kitten sitter. She amazed me with her willingness to let Natasha’s brood line up and nurse on her dry tits. Once the last kitten began eating solid food, Isha resumed her role as junior dog in the pack that went daily into nearby fields, to chase rabbits and warn off coyotes. She did not seem disposed to play mother substitute once more. Driftwood (Golden/Collie cross) and Khan (another black Lab cross) showed the normal doggy disdain for felines. No help there.

Not knowing the outcome, I set Chantilly down on the couch between me and Natasha, and waited. My timing must have been perfect; post natal hormones pushed Natasha to wash Chantilly, whose grateful purring response reinforced a bond. The two cats became familiars. I never afterwards saw one without the other. Their preferred sleeping positions were snuggled head to tail (69 position) and belly to belly, Natasha’s grey tiger stripes accented by Chantilly’s glossy black tail, a fur boa draped across Natasha’s neck.

In more recent times, I’ve watched my horses tend to each other’s needs by standing side by side, head to tail, nibbling bugs off hind quarters and those hard-to-reach places that need a scratch or – in the case of the cats – a good wash. Natasha, several years older, nonetheless outlived Chantilly. Alone after years of partnership, Natasha became noticeably more affectionate with me. She would fall asleep against my thigh when I sat reading. Gradually waking from a nap, she was apt to begin licking my leg, her left over habit of grooming Chantilly before and after sleep.

Natasha’s long life ended with a tumor on her jaw that eventually precluded eating. She survived on determination and wet food thinned to drinkable consistency, until the day she climbed onto my lap, looked me over thoroughly, licked my hand and meowed an unmistakable request to be eased on to her next incarnation.

A goodly number of years – and quite a few short-lived cat visitors – later, I was gifted to share space with Haiku, a ginger tom whose disposition was a charming balance of feistiness and affection. He enjoyed the several dogs (a Bouvier, another Lab, a Scottie and my first Shih Tzu) and was not averse to sleeping beside one, or tussling for a bone with another. Indeed, his personality was so like that of Daisy, my departed beagle, that I sometimes wondered if he wasn’t her reincarnated essence.

Handsome Haiku

Handsome Haiku

Haiku was a hunter – solo but also in company with whichever dog felt like going after a rabbit or dove. He would stalk prey, flushing it toward the waiting dog, then join whichever canine (usually the Lab) in pouncing on the heedless rabbit, or jumping into the air to snap at the dove. Together the pair were successful a surprising number of times. Haiku usually left the carcass to his canine teammate – his was indeed the thrill of the chase, more than the achievement of a goal.

Late in his life, Haiku became a test subject for an anti-cancer treatment being developed by a chemist friend of mine, in partnership with a research biologist from Arizona. Haiku grew a tumor on his foreleg which resisted surgical removal, growing back quickly and so deeply that the only further surgery possible would have been an amputation. The anti-cancer medication had, at that point, primarily been tested on mice. Calculating an equivalent dosage for a cat, my friend and I started Haiku on a weekly series of injections to which the tumor responded by softening and growing at a markedly slower rate. My vet followed the experiment with interest – and helped me ease Haiku onward when his system began to shut down as a result of the combined stress of the cancer and older age. He made his mark, not just in my life, but via his test data which went into the pool of information being used in further development of the anti-cancer treatment. A noble contribution from a noble creature.

Miss Socks

Miss Socks

The three most recent cats in my household have been Socks, Limerick and Noelle, all rescues, the first two of whom lived with us for relatively short periods of time. Socks took up with my Bouvier, both of them older and sedate, enjoying sleeping together in the sun. Like a long-married couple, they died only a short time apart. Limerick arrived – and left – by moonlight, spending only a few months with us.

Limerick in the Light

Limerick in the Light

Noelle, now five years old, was a Christmas gift, rescued as a kitten by a neighbor and presented to me “as holiday company.” For an animal born wild, she took to indoor life with alacrity, claiming the utility room as her home and only going out if I carry her to a perch high up under the carport. She hangs out in the rafters, fussing at the dogs and demanding to be transported back to her indoor residence, yet requiring persistent persuasion to come down within my reach. Once back indoors, she hides from just about everyone who has reason to enter the room (she dislikes the noise of the washing machine but hums along with the dryer). Her favorite places to perch are wrapped around the vent pipe for the hot water heater, or atop a box in the room’s south facing window. She has also made herself a hidey hole under a low shelf and it is there she retreats with a flash of tail, if a stranger enters the room.



Noelle is a talker – but only to me and one aide, who works with my housemate on Sundays. She is affectionate with the two of us, but avoids other people, even those who would lavish affection on her. I don’t know why – she’s not had any negative experience of people in all the years she’s lived with me. Her inscrutable cat reasoning, I guess.

I recently received a cute, animated set of pictures from a friend, illustrating the stereotypical difference between dogs and cats – the dogs generally bouncing in excited response, the cats indifferent to whatever is offered them by their people. What my several cats have taught me is that differences between and within species are more nuanced, closely mirroring the differences between humans.

Or perhaps, what I observe is merely the truism that our pets become mirrors of ourselves? In which case, I guess I defy classification, being sometimes aloof, sometimes affectionate, generally independent, usually friendly, occasionally on guard, rarely wary, never mean, often changeable, my bad moods short-lived. I like to play, love to cuddle, enjoy affection but still, when all is said and done and now that I am in the latter years of my life, I am Kipling’s “cat, who walks by himself.” So be it. Amen.

Words of Communication

October 26, 2013

Driving down I-25 toward I-40 in Albuquerque, I passed through more than one weaving section – those complicated stretches of road where it seems everyone is trying to get into a different lane, coming up from an on-ramp or trying to reach the off-ramp or to position themselves for the upcoming interchange where two major roads meet or diverge. I know the term weaving section courtesy of a transportation planner with whom I had a relationship a very long time ago. He also taught me to drive competently and safely. Thank you, Ray.

Once through the series of weaving sections, I traveled from southbound I-25 to eastbound 1-40 via a flyover – or that’s what my British friends would call it (I know the term courtesy of all the British authors I’ve read over the years). A flyover is the part of the interchange that takes you up and over other lanes of traffic, what we in America call an overpass. As I passed over (flew through at high speed) the interchange, I remembered a number of other lessons in American versus British English, these taught me by my Uncle Eric and Aunt Hilda in Sheffield when I was still a teenager. In (I hope) mock horror Hilda scolded my use of wash cloth (only for cleaning dishes) when what I wanted was to clean my skin (using a face flannel). She was also upset that I called her garden (grassy with flowers) a yard (bare dirt or pavement). And she made it clear that the soil in her garden was earth, not dirt!

My venture into reflection on terminological differences arose following my attendance at an emergency planning conference – more properly the New Mexico Local Emergency Planning Committee Annual Conference – at which a number of intelligent, engaged, caring and thoughtful people tried to convey their knowledge and expertise to a largely receptive audience. My problem with the conference was not in participation, nor content, but in the strange transmogrification which occurred in the speakers – from competent communicators to committed users of stilted government-speak. Several of the presenters tried to include humor in their talks; all had the ubiquitous power point at hand for support; some also added pictures and graphics to illustrate key points. But the bottom – common – line amongst almost all of them was their use of that strange obfuscation which passes for communication within bureaucracies.

Ah, you’ve noticed my inclusion in these paragraphs of big words. It’s fun, sort of, to fall victim to that of which I am complaining. Here, I’m changing my usual form of communication for fun, and with intent. The presenters did not alter their delivery for fun. They seemed, rather, to feel the need to assume a formal persona because they were presenting a talk. As though who they are/how they speak normally was not good enough or important enough to give a conference presentation. One exception was the only attorney to make a presentation – he is so at home in his public delivery that there was no discernible change in him (except voice projection) when he stopped chatting over lunch and stood to give the luncheon address.

I’ve coached students learning to write essays for school, and encountered a similar perceived need to drastically alter their manner of communicating. One teen with an engaging ability to tell stories, when asked to turn the story he’d just told into an assignment for English class, became the written equivalent of tongue-tied (pen-tied, computer-tied?).

“How do I begin?”
“Just start telling your story.”
“I don’t get it. How do I begin?”
“Pretend you’re talking to me and just put the words on paper instead of speaking them.”
“But how do I start? Where do I start? How far back should I go, to get the reader to understand what the story is all about?”
“How far back did you go when you told me the story just now?”
“I didn’t have to go back because you know me.”
“So pretend the reader knows you and start the way you started with me.”
“But the reader doesn’t know me and might misunderstand.”
“Write it like you’re writing a letter to me, then. You know I won’t misunderstand.”
“So do I start with “Dear Ms. Sebastian”?”
“If that lets you get into your story, go for it.”

It would seem that wanting to communicate, for many people, contains within itself the root of lost ability to do so! It is a painful truth for stutterers, that the more urgently they desire to speak, the more inhibited that speech is likely to become. Some stutterers overcome the problem by taking singing lessons. Next, they think of singing their daily speech, and the words come out fluently. I aimed for a similar transfer of skills with my encouragement of my writing student to tell me the story on paper just as he’d told it aloud. He did write me a letter, then transferred the body of the story to essay format, and got a good grade on the paper.

I’m convinced that effective communication – whether in a formal presentation or a chat over tea in a garden – is not about the words one uses, not about the style, but about having a comfortable sense of oneself, and an intent to communicate. The presenters at the conference became ensnared by their efforts to appear as some formalized image of themselves, perhaps labeled “the professional”. The student, a natural story teller, was blocked by replacing his intent to communicate with an intent to “be a writer”. Many people, convinced that they won’t be understood, don’t try to express themselves at all, and become the fulfillment of their perception, going sadly misunderstood through life.

The simplest injunction to give to someone undertaking a new communication task is “be yourself” – yet it is also, often, the hardest one to manifest. How many of us really have “a comfortable sense of ourselves” that we are willing to expose through our written or spoken words? To become a good communicator then, there are in fact four necessary steps:
1) Know yourself
2) Be yourself
3) Trust yourself
4) Express yourself

Just four steps – but ones it often takes a lifetime to learn.

It’s No Coincidence

October 19, 2013

This piece has been written in sections, over time. I began it back in early August, completed it just a few days ago. Gaps in time are indicated by a change in typeface, as well as by subsection dividers.


It’s no coincidence – I’m certain it’s no coincidence – that I spent time this morning writing out my answer to the question, “What do you fear about moving forward?” and within half an hour of finishing the exercise, received a phone call giving me the opportunity to push into fast forward. I accepted the offer (a well-paid job doing work I generally like) despite my identified reservations. Identifying the reservations let me see that they are not insurmountable challenges, merely conditions which will necessitate new adjustments to my schedule, diet, work habits, writing goals.


Nor is it coincidence that things come to hand just as you need them. I’ve been having a discussion with writer friends, and reader friends, about how to intermix inner thought with third person narrative in my novel, in a seamless way that will pass muster with editors. (Editors are known to object to the mixing of points of view). Various suggestions have been made, including using italics for the thoughts. I tried the italics and don’t like them – they jar my awareness, as a reader, pulling me out of the flow of the story to register the fact that some change is being made apparent. I also rejected elimination of the self talk/thoughts/inner monologues solely in order to meet a style ‘rule’ that I know has elsewhere already been broken.

Ready to turn my novel rewrite back on itself, and find a way to signal shifts to first person without the jangle of italics, I was forced to turn off my computer and unplug from power to assure protection of the equipment from a fierce thunderstorm raging overhead. Reading lights have been flickering as wild electricity jumps from the sky to disrupt the flow of its domestic kindred through the lines in my house. I picked up the book I’ve been reading – Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon – and there before me was a chapter of exactly the sort of intermixed action and thought I’ve been considering. It works – it reads smoothly, no italics, only here and there a couple sentences set apart within parentheses, which I find an unnecessary distinction. A separate paragraph would be equally effective and clear.

Posing the question to the LinkedIn group Authors, Writers, Publishers, Editors and Writing Professionals brings more valuable input, including recommendations for good reads which effectively mix first and third person viewpoints. I have my answer – a good writer can pull off the violation of rules. It is up to me to assure that my writing is good enough to do so.


That I write well is no coincidence.

It is the product of early indoctrination, a great deal of practice, and continuing learning. I finished a blog post (Ba Gua Lessons) in the morning, and then at noon participated in Lesley S. King’s free telephone class on vivid writing. She offered the session, full of helpful guidance, as an example of what one can experience taking a writing workshop she will be producing soon. I hung up from the hour and went back to review what I had written earlier.

Look Ma, I used present tense, active verbs, multiple senses… I hope I engaged my readers, asking questions, encouraging the possibility of dialogue. But I can do it better, as evidenced by my desire to tweak a sentence here, add a challenge there. What I gained from Lesley’s class was a framework for evaluating my writing, a standard against which to stretch myself further. Good writing is fun, it’s my passion, I don’t consider it work… but it does require effort, absence of ego, an open mind, curiosity, and an unfettered willingness to learn.

It is no coincidence that my encounter with Lesley – who encourages writers to build a career from their writing passion – comes at exactly the moment when I am choosing to once more put writing into second place in the prioritizing of how I spend my time. My new job will initially require enough attention that I can meet my commitment to myself and my readers with weekly blog posts, but am unlikely to do much more about building my platform (the latest word for audience), or marketing my novel.

I am not abandoning a writing career; I am accepting that I’ve been offered an opportunity to do something else I care about (assisting others to access services which help them live their fullest potential despite health issues), and to meet an external financial need, while I learn to maintain a balance between competing interests. Not an either/or choice, but an integrative one. Continuing to write is a crucial part of “taking care of myself” – that imperative frequently stated but not so easily implemented. One of my writing projects, a book of creative suggestions for managing the challenges of Parkinson’s, will undoubtedly be furthered through my new job.

Mind likes to create dichotomies. It suggests that just when my focus on writing is beginning to morph into a career, the rewards of my efforts are being taken out from under me. Mind might think so, but I don’t! Instead, I’m being offered the opportunity to meet both outer and inner needs, to manifest balance not only in the activities to which I give my attention, but in the way I blend social interaction with quiet time, and productivity with stillness. I don’t know yet how this balance will manifest; I’m looking forward to discovering the various ways it will express itself. The one thing I do know, with certainty, is that its place in my life at this time is no coincidence.

Ba Gua Lessons

October 12, 2013

As I count down the days until the start of the intense training period for my new job, I find myself in yet another dichotomy. Do I laze about as much as possible, wallowing in the freedom-to-do-nothing that is about to vanish from my life? Or do I begin a disciplined adaptation to going to bed earlier, getting up early, and organizing my days to accomplish tasks that it will be hard to fit into my upcoming schedule? Or, more practically, do I aim to achieve a balance of both tendencies?

My acupuncturist/friend/wise-teacher commented that it is often the case that moving to the extreme of yin (doing nothing) pushes one into yang (activity) so that resting instead of participating in activities can be an excellent preparation for the burst of energy that will be required of me. I liken this approach to the one I’m learning from the same friend and teacher when we practice Ba Gua, wherein movements are designed to “coil” muscles like tightened springs, until the point of release. The force of the release may serve as the attack (the martial part of the art) or may be contained and redirected into intensifying the next coiling movement.

It’s difficult to consider what Western culture calls laziness and idleness as appropriate preparation for a required, new and busy schedule. In that mentality, I definitely should already be adhering to the new (yang) schedule of waking, and filling my days with tasks, accustoming my body to delivering energy and clarity of mind across the ten or so hours of an upcoming busy day. But what happens if I rename the preparation period (the yin) in an Eastern fashion, and say that I am practicing stillness and emptiness? Then I am setting up a powerful contrast, with the potential for sustained energy emerging from the containment being practiced this week.

What a difference a few words make! Try them out. Spend a chunk of time playing solitaire, or just sitting and watching the wind blow the drying grasses of autumn.

Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

Call yourself idle and lazy for failing to do something constructive with your time. Then, rename that time as allowing yourself to be still and mindless, outside your usual sense of yourself. Which set of terms weakens you? Which seems to relax and yet energize you?

To a large extent, even when I’m not engaged in writing, I live my life through words. My grandfather taught me the importance of choosing the right ones, when he talked to me about his poetry. His choices were in Hebrew, and constrained not only by the meter and rhyme of his verse, but by his dedication to purity of the language. (Words created for items that did not exist in ancient culture should, in his opinion, follow the traditional structural frame as to number of consonant sounds).

My experience of parents whose behaviors were often in contradiction with their words led to my dedication to accurate and clear communication. A lonely and isolated childhood built my desire for connection with others, and to the understanding that communication is a two-way street. I do not communicate when I talk (or write); I only communicate when what I say is heard and understood by another.

For others to hear and understand me, I need to understand them – hence my choice of psychology as a major in college, and my continuing interest in neurology now. Also my engagement with the several programs I lead or teach (including Alternatives to Violence Project and Chronic Disease Self- Management), both having to do with learning concepts that help one direct and control behavior.

Which brings me back to Ba Gua, teaching my body new ways of moving, and simultaneously reinforcing flexibility of mind. And back to the importance of just the right words – stillness and emptiness creating a vacuum which attracts energy, to be stored and contained until it explodes into action. So much more sustaining than to label my down time as idle laziness that should be filled with doing.

The first time I attended a feast day dance at one of New Mexico’s Pueblos, I observed a dancer carrying an old-fashioned alarm clock, the sort that is wound with a key, ticks loudly and has a clanging alarm. The dancer teased non-Native observers with the clock, shaking it in our faces, setting off the alarm suddenly and startling visitors with its discordant noise. Eventually, he tossed the clock away and joined the line performing traditional steps in a mesmerizing, repetitive pattern. Time did then disappear, as spectators and participants focused totally on what was happening in the moment.

I suggest that much that we like, whether a good book, a particular hobby, an activity, or a piece of art or music is liked precisely because it has the capacity to capture our attention strongly, and thus to eliminate our sense of time and ego. Being present in the moment with the object of our attention creates a satisfying energetic stillness, and an expanded sense of connection, of capacity, of self.

Those fortunate individuals who are able to combine such likes with their means of employment do not describe what they do as work. They are more apt to describe a career as pursuing a passion. Those less fortunate in the choice or conditions of employment go to work, and then try to find free time for pleasures to balance what they have sacrificed for the earning of income.

You may have noticed in previous posts that I have not called my new job “work”. For the past eighteen months, I’ve been able to live mostly in the present moment, doing what is in front of me to do each day. I really like this way of being. My intention is to continue in this manner, acknowledging that there will be more things in front of me to do, in many of the upcoming days, than there have been in the past ones. I have determined not to change my approach to the doing of them. I will find energy for the doing by assuring that I remain centered in being.

As my body improves its stability and strength through Ba Gua practice, so too my mind – and its use of words – expands its capacity to “hold the tension of opposites” and to achieve balance. For important external reasons, I am starting a new job. For vital internal ones, it will not be work. Activities required of me by the new job will be integrated into the pattern of observing, of writing, of being that has nourished me of late.

Please, if you notice that I’m falling away from center, alert me! If my words seem poorly chosen, my posts less reflective, give me a nudge. I need to know that I’m continuing to communicate with you, not slipping into a stress-driven rant.

Thank you for reading, and for feedback.

Life Patterns

July 7, 2013
At UWC-USA Graduation 2013

At UWC-USA Graduation 2013

Marker events in our lives – weddings, baptisms, graduations, funerals – don’t just bring us together in community. These rites of passage often also occasion a life review, or at least a review of that part of one’s life affected by the event being marked. Is my child growing in the way I would hope? Has my marriage turned out as I anticipated? Do I need to make changes to my diet, to live longer than friend John there in the casket? It is a natural human behavior, to make comparisons and to consider not just where one stands in relation to others, but where one stands in relation to one’s own life goals.

There is another type of life review, however, that does not arise so easily, nor so obviously. I’m referring to a bout of unsettledness that descends (or creeps up) seemingly out of nowhere. For me, a recent one definitely came as a sneak attack, catching me in the gut, triggering an upset digestive system not related to diet, illness or any other identifiable external cause. Only stress has, in the past, caused me this sort of physical response. There are no apparent stresses in my life just now, at least not recognizable ones off the widely distributed list of events (including happy ones) known for causing this pernicious dis-ease.

Perhaps that’s why it took me awhile to recognize that what was troubling my tummy lay deeper than a ‘bug’, or too much green chili on my tostada.

For much of the past year I have not known in what direction my life would turn. I left a position I’d held for twenty years, and experienced a huge easing of stress. I’ve gone forward with an open mind, following no pre-chosen path, but rather exploring each option that has presented itself, to see where it would lead. All of the possibilities fizzled out, until I came to writing, which is not a new interest but one that I have pursued in fits and starts over the past twenty years, too frequently allowing it to fall to the wayside as paying work and family demands took precedence. Now, however, I find myself able to give the writing precedence – and am very happy to do so.

I have recently recognized that my life pattern has been one of compromise – and of finding validity for my existence in activities that are of service to others. Teaching college in a prison, working for defense attorneys, running a home health agency and providing case management services to clients – worthwhile pursuits from which I gained as much in learning as I offered in care. The compromises lay in choices made regarding how and where I served – in the U.S. rather than in other countries, as I would have wished to do had I been single and free to go where I pleased. The compromises also lay, unrecognized until just recently, in the subtler realm of belief that I had to justify my existence by some form of service. How many of us are driven by an unstated, perhaps unrecognized, belief that we have no worth until we have somehow ‘earned’ our right to existence? I was startled to realize that until very recently, I did not feel entitled to choose a career on the sole basis that it is something I want very much to do!

I was still a young child when I first came across Robert Frost’s “Death of a Hired Man”, and the concept therein (stated by the wife, mind you) that home is “something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” By that criterion, I have been searching for a home most of my life, and am only just beginning to understand to what extent I have carried within me parental strictures about having to measure up, to prove myself, to earn the right to be thought ‘good enough.’ Finding home, and happiness, as I seem to have managed over this past year, means I have – finally – extricated myself from the tentacles of ‘deserving.’

In my former conditioned way of thinking, I could say that I have worked hard, done what was expected and required of me, for enough years that I now deserve to devote myself to the new career I choose – writing. But I recognize with some considerable surprise that the happiness I am feeling arises not from the doing of the writing, but from my freedom from the need to justify the doing of it. I think I have finally found ‘home’ – a state of being which is independent of the concept of deserving, within which whatever I choose to do with my time and energy will prove to be the right thing for me to be doing.

It isn’t surprising that a major shift in how I approach current activities could cause subconscious stress, and hence digestive upset. I do want to be careful that I don’t use my physical state of well-being (or lack thereof) as a measure of my success in making this transition, since I know that the physical takes much longer to change than does the emotional, which in turn takes much longer than the spiritual. What can be grasped in a moment of enlightenment can take years to fully manifest on the physical.

What matters is that first willingness to recognize that a shift is not only necessary but has in fact occurred. And to allow an unexpected welling of emotion, as well as the uncomfortable gripping of pain, to mark a happy transition from a limited state of (earned or deserved) being, to simply Being.

What Do I Know?

June 22, 2013

Many, many years ago when I was young and adventurous and poor, I earned money for my own art classes by modeling for a sculpture class. I took the same pose (stretched out on a sofa, my lower half prone but twisted at the waist so that my upper half was facing sideways, an arm bent to prop my head on my hand) for 90 minutes each week, over a six week period. During breaks (I wasn’t, mercifully, expected to hold the pose for more than 15 minutes at a time) I walked around the class, looking at the students’ interpretations of me. Quite apart from differences in their skill levels as sculptors, I quickly learned that how they saw me was directly influenced by their relationships to their own bodies. Heftier sculptors tended to perceive my body as longer and leaner than I knew it to be. One very slim woman with a boyish figure exaggerated my curves into a Rubens-like voluptuousness. And the male students revealed the areas of the female form most of interest (sexual attraction?) to them – breasts, thighs, buttocks – in the way they emphasized these aspects of their work.

The lesson – that who we are influences what we see – has stayed with me, and been reinforced in a variety of ways since those early days. It has become salient again recently, in the form of critiques I’ve received of my novel, Like Dust Devils Through a Card House. In particular, readers respond to my character Sylvie in ways clearly dictated by their own life experiences. One who has had a hard time overcoming anger was particularly disturbed by the way Sylvie clings to anger as a motivator. Another asked the reasonable – to her – question why Sylvie would seek out sex when she’s in pain or when feeling weak. I myself, writing the first draft, was somewhat dismayed to discover that of the three women in the story, the point of view and main character had to be Sylvie, the one I personally like the least. But I know her, I know too many people like her to not recognize her as a neighbor, a co-worker, a very real example of a set of choices about how to negotiate a life.

I appreciate the thoughtful critiques which question what I’ve created, because they push me to clarify, refine, or broaden my explication of Sylvie’s character. Adding detail that will reveal her motivations and enable these readers to understand (if not agree with or like) Sylvie, strengthens my story. This rewrite also requires that I get ever ‘more real’ with myself about the experiences and observations on which I draw to create character.

“That’s what actors do as well,” stated one of the reviewers whose comments were most helpful between drafts two and three. “We have to put what we know of ourselves into a role, to understand the characters we’re playing and bring them alive.”

Meanwhile, I continue to be amazed, sometimes dismayed, by the characters that appear in my stories. “Where on earth did she come from?” was my question about the lead in my most recent short story. I began with an idea about links in a chain mirroring the phases of a life and ended up with a young woman who experienced ostracism growing up, was orphaned young, now lives alone on a boat and experiences being assaulted. She is no one I’ve ever known, yet in the piling of cause upon effect upon new cause, she is every one of us. What I don’t know is why such challenged, tortured or difficult characters so often ‘take over’ my stories and demand to be heard!

If I reason from my premise above, I am presumably revealing aspects of my own view of the world. But I don’t see myself as having experienced such a painful, twisted life. Yes, there were difficulties, yes my mother had severe emotional problems that made for a dysfunctional childhood, yes I was uprooted and relocated repeatedly until I was in my late twenties – and yes I have read about many types of personality and culture, have studied psychology, worked in prisons, met a great variety of people in quite a wide variety of places. But I don’t see the world as hurtful, something to be afraid of or to fight against, nor as a place that creates and targets victims. So why do these types of characters appear so often in my stories?

I don’t know.

I do know the truth of “what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” Especially when that first practice of deception is of ourselves. Unexamined motives, ill-considered actions, un-reviewed decisions, unrepented errors pile upon one another into tangled webs not just of deceit but also of pain and loss. Observing life around me, I have learned that much of this tangle exists just below the surface, and that my choice to look for the good in others, to “seek that of God in every one” as the Quakers phrase it, does not prevent me from seeing the coils of deceit and misrepresentation into which too many people snarl their lives.

How I wish it were not so!

I would far rather live in a world of people who are aware of themselves and their needs, and who feel secure enough to express those needs and seek openly for their fulfillment. I am coming to realize that my choice of mysteries for light, escapist reading is largely the result of my wish for life in a simpler, more straightforward ethical world. And I also realize that my inability, at least up to this point, to write such a mystery is the result of my recognition that the world I live in, the world I know, is neither simple nor straightforward.

When complex, angry, or tangled characters emerge in my writing, I am in fact following the dictate to “write what you know.” Hmmm. Let me contemplate that fact. Because I also know loving and tenderness, and caring people who devote themselves to improving circumstances for others. So I should know, as well, how to write engaging, positive, “good” characters. I do hope one will spring forth the next time I start a story!

Forging Ahead

May 28, 2013

OK, so I have my new computer, running Windows 7, and I’m enjoying its speed, though it’s tedious reloading programs and learning how and where to shut off its unwanted bells and whistles.

I’ve set about having this blog. I’ve registered a domain name, Comcado, and am starting to plan a web site. And instead of using my time writing, I seem to be using my time undoing problems I create because I don’t know enough about online interactions to ‘get it right the first time’. Like how to link the blog to the domain when the domain isn’t being actively hosted yet. Or how to get pieces of my identity correctly reflecting me, and not the stripper with my name, who has already tried to appropriate my way of spelling my name.

I’m on a learning curve – or at least I hope I am! Some days it seems more like an unlearning curve, sloped sharply downward into a state of totally frustrated chaos. Then I have to turn off the computer, go for a walk, and try to remember that this too shall pass. Actually, the ‘help’ people at WordPress have indeed been helpful, as has the friend whose Bluedome business hosts my domain.

I wish the same were true of customer service in other areas. Because of a rotten attitude toward customers in a new subsidiary of my longtime propane provider, I recently chose to change to a new supplier. And now I have another frustration, trying to figure out how to make adjustments to the utility room where my hot water heater has been reliably and safely performing for 22 years. Because of the supplier change, I had to undergo a state building code safety inspection which revealed the room is too small (supposedly) to safely supply enough fresh air for the heater. Never mind that the room is so poorly insulated that air already comes in freely around the windows and door. The inspector was nice, and made several suggestions – and could understand that I was legitimately more concerned about the pipes and washing machine freezing in our 30 below winter nights if I add 4 inch outside vents, than I am about a hypothetical exhaustion of oxygen to the heater flame. Building codes have changed since the heater was installed in 1990, So now, thanks to my choice to eliminate dealings with a rude and uncaring business office, I have to obey dictates and endure expenses that ignore my circumstances.

The inspector recognized that I’d probably create the vents and then stuff them with insulation to keep the cold out of the utility room. “What you do to protect your pipes after I verify that you’ve drilled the holes is your business,” is actually what he said. Nice man, just doing his job, recognizing that rules that don’t make sense are unlikely to be taken too seriously.

Maybe that’s where my problems lie with online issues – rules that I don’t understand and that, therefore, don’t seem to make sense to me? If I learn the language, understand the difference between replying to a post and creating a new thread, figure out how to explain the problems I’m having in a way that experts can help me resolve them… if I find my center in a whole new world…?

Have you seen those lists of adages, paired to show how contradictory they can be? Like “The early bird catches the worm” but “Slow and steady wins the race”. Well, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” – but ”When you stop learning, you start dying.”

I’m not ready to die yet, not if I have a choice in the matter. So this older dog is learning new tricks as fast as I can. Please have patience with me while I do so!


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