Dusk

My eyes are fixed to effects of light.

They way the fading sun makes the white fluff of a dandelion seem silver like it is a projection from another world.

Wheat becomes thin like thread, patterns like so many kaleidoscopes form and dust rises like the breath of a dream.

Dusk is the immortal time of day where it seems that all things are in concert and that light – pale and golden – shines not

on everything but

through

so you can see the bones of all things.

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Summit Sisters 2017

What a funny thing it is to travel in time.

I can’t really take credit for this concept. Amy Poehler, in her book “Yes Please!” said:

Time moves too slow or too fast. But I know a secret. You can control time.You can stop it or stretch it or loop it around. You can travel back and forth by living in the moment and paying attention.

She mentions that you can usually do this through people, places or things. I listened to Amy Poehler’s book in the car on the way to the Women’s Wilderness Institute’s Summit Sister’s retreat and I realized that Summit Sisters was a place where all three of these things converged.

You see, I attended this retreat last year and – while I was lying in my cabin too cold to even take my nose out from under my blanket – I travelled in time to lie next to myself from a year before. I turned and looked and watched her struggle to understand why she was so unhappy – just like she always seemed to be. I watched her convince herself to make changes in her life and I’m pretty proud of what she accomplished.

It’s hard to express the feeling that you’ve travelled in time, but it was there and I reflected on how much my life has changed in the past year – how much I’ve changed.

Frankly, I was lost beyond belief. I, like so many people, wanted to be literally anywhere but where I was at the moment. I was certainly trying to be present in my life, to learn how to find happiness and home wherever I put my feet down. In the next year, I wrote a novel, go a new job, started this blog, began writing poetry, found who I was and I can trace most of that back to the reality-smack that I got from being cut off from my life.

Now, a year later, I’ve experienced an utterly devastating ending and realized that the universe doesn’t care about your plans or your timeline. The world doesn’t appreciate when you use people as dams to hold back your own flood of fear and loneliness and the axe will always fall. Another excellent lesson from Poehler:

Don’t treat people like medicine.

I’ve come to understand a few things, and this beautiful experience of time travel that gave me the ability to see both the beautiful things I got out of Summit Sisters last year as well as the things that I missed offered me the following:

  1. You can do SO much more than you think you can. During the retreat, a group of 12 women gathered in the lodge to experience acro yoga for the first time. It was a sunny morning and we were all already a day into the magic of being at an all women’s wilderness retreat. We did all kinds of poses in which we lifted women into the air. Things that, when I watched the demonstrations, I was sure that I couldn’t do. Spoiler alert: I could do them and they were so much easier than I could have imagined.
  2. Don’t let others tell you what you’re capable of. During one of the sessions, we talked at length about following dreams and giving yourself permission to decide and have what you want. So many people think that they need and deserve to tell us what we can do. People use words like “practical” and “security,” but they are really only projecting their own fears onto you. Don’t let them. Do not ever let anyone else tell you what you are capable of.
  3. Be innocent in relationships and simple in the expression of your feelings. As we grow older, we complicate everything. We don’t tell our friends we love them, we don’t tell our lovers we want to them to stay and we don’t do the simple and everything affirmations that keeps us all feeling strong and supported. “I appreciate your friendship.” “You make me laugh.” “You are my friend.” As adults, we think that there is a proper time and place for these kinds of things, but children say what they feel when they feel it. We would probably all be better off if we relearned how to do the same.
  4. Live your life out of bravery and never out of fear. This is the most important lesson I took with me and the one that I will be committing to intentionally over the next year. So many decisions I make are made because I’m afraid of what will happen if I don’t do it or what will happen if I lose it etc. etc. I rarely make a choice because I know that it’s right or what I want. I rarely take the plunge and bravely make choices and it’s never served me. I want to be brave. As someone once said to me, “Fear will always be there and if it isn’t, then the choice you are making might not be important as you think.” I believe this is true, but no choice should ever be made out of a fear of loneliness or loss.

 

Writing is Easy.

Editing is the hard part.

Okay so it’s not easy.

It’s kind of brutal actually. There’s an honesty in writing that smacks you in the face sometimes.

You’ll be going along, maybe a little bored and then your fingers will move across the keys or push the pen across the paper and before you know it, you’ve voiced a feeling that you’ve been avoiding for decades.

It’s worse if it’s fiction.

You can hide behind your characters and write your thoughts into theirs effortlessly without ever having to admit that they’re yours.

I say writing is easy for that reason. I said there was an honesty to it and that’s true. There’s a naivety and freedom in letting the words flow without censoring them.

It’s editing that hurts and it rips you apart.

There’s a reason that National Novel Writing Month is all about getting the words on the page.

One of my favorite quotes that I came across during the time I was writing the first draft of the Librarians goes something like this:

The only thing a first draft has to do is exist.

I think Jane Smiley said it. Don’t ask me who she is. I honestly don’t know, but that thing she said made me feel like I had the wind under my feet and I wrote feverishly and completed a novel in a little over a month.

It was wild.

Jane and NaNoWriMo, however, did not prepare me for the pain of editing the kind of novel that comes out of that process.

I sat down to edit the first few chapters of my novel, The Librarians, with a plan.

  1. I would go through and edit style only

  2. I would take notes of thematic elements

  3. I would take note (but not change) anything that just didn’t work

This is working really well, actually, but I just didn’t realize what I would find when I took a critical and honest look at my character.

It’s not really Fin’s (the protagonist) fault. I love her, actually, and I cherish Senna and Elan and Aeron (all the main heroes of my story). They are special and feel kind of like real people that exist in my life. I think about them just about as often as I think bout any “real” person.

It’s not them that bother me, rather it is the way that I’ve written their journeys. Fin’s journey in particular.

I created her as many authors do, a healthy mix of myself and what I wish I could be.

She’s funny, curious, mischievous (which by the way is one of those words I can never spell properly), trusting, independent to the point of solitude sometimes and also warm in the most subtle way. She is the image of myself that I like. The bright side of my moon with only straw-man darkness that doesn’t hold up in the starkness of a critical eye.

She isn’t real and neither am I when I see myself in this way and that is what makes editing so destructive.

I feel that I must clarify here. Destruction isn’t necessarily negative. It just is. It happens in nature and it happens in our lives and sometimes we don’t wield the power to direct its course, but it’s always there nonetheless.

Editing this story – a story that I felt like I put so much heart and raw energy into – has been hard because that heart and raw energy was actually devoid of either of those things. I still haven’t accessed that place within myself where I am laid bare and neither have I given that place to Fin. And that is what makes great stories so compelling. It is the only way that we begin to see ourselves within the characters of stories written by another’s hand. They show us parts of ourselves that we love or parts that we hate and would rather not see.

Truths emerge, not from profundity or eloquence, but from the simple stripping down to the heart of human nature and we soar upon the wings of the pure air of that simplicity – in its beauty and in its ugliness.

The struggle now becomes ripping her apart – challenging Fin and allowing her to fail in completely un-feminist ways. I have to let her show her weakness so that she may gain her strength because there is no perfect way to be anything.

We all come to our truths through a journey – a struggle or suffering – and I’ll never find hers – or mine – until I let her go.

Clarity

Brought on by a T/F film, Still Tomorrow by Fan Jian.

This is a reflection I wrote on the spot with a pen and paper (so old-fashioned, I know) after seeing my first film of the 2017 True/False Film Festival in Columbia, MO. The film was called Still Tomorrow and you can read a synopsis below if that matters to you.

Yu Xiuhua was raised to hope for little from her life in the rural Chinese province of Hubei. At 19, Xiuhua’s mother encouraged her to marry a man nearly twice her age, fearful no one else would accept a wife with Xiuhua’s condition — cerebral palsy. But as her 20th anniversary approaches, Xiuhua’s poetry goes viral, and she becomes the voice of a rising feminist movement throughout China. Director Fan Jian’s deeply affecting portrait traces an empowered woman coming to terms with the complications of finding her own identity in the midst of becoming a celebrity. As she balances those in her family, including her husband, who expected too little of her with the pressures of newly found allies expecting too much, Xiuhua learns to define herself in her own words.


It’s strange to see a film in silence, walk to a coffee shop in silence and then process said film – which was largely about words – also in silence. It’s just not something that we do often, but there’s a clarity in silence. A clarity that can break through the noise of other people’s thoughts.

So few films or books are written about poets. There are many of poetry, of its form and styles, histories and champions, but few about the poets themselves.

And they are such strange people.

People who pry open their cages and turn their heads toward the sight of their own writhing souls, as if they had thought to find a wounded creature instead of a part of themselves to free.

When they do the unthinkable – show this treasure to others – most can’t verbalize what makes it so special, when it is.

I think I know.

I think there is a clarity there, pure and vulgar, confusing and mysterious.

Those of us who have seen our own creatures and set them free live in a strange world of contradictions. We see with open eyes, but it does us little good in the places where we live our daily lives.

We touch a divinity that is at the final depths of our reach and our eyes turn amber with the shadow of it.

Others read the words and catch a glimpse of something ahead, something they could still reach and they are inspired while all it can do for us is keep us breathing.

Who is she?

The woman with the spiders in her hair?

They weave slowly webs of dream and of vision.

She picks a spider away from its work and considers it in its ugliness.

She traces its legs and wonders at the eyes which reflect her own like a crystal prism.

She thinks if she doesn’t like what she sees that she will smash it there

on the table.

She could.

The spider trusts her so.

But she sees something in those kaliediscope eyes that is bound to her.

Indivisible.

Indestructible.

And so she places it back in its web

to weave another dream.

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How Many Years Does It Take for Me to Read a Book?

Almost 7 is the answer.

3rd_chimp1

I wrote the rather vague date of Aug. ’10 on the flyleaf of my copy of The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond almost seven years ago. The books is only 350 pages long and I read it at a pace of about 7 pages a day. In reality, I read 20 pages in a year, maybe 50 more about two years later and then revved up to a rather feverish 280 in 2016/early 2017 in order to skid to the finish line just a couple of days ago.

Don’t get me wrong.

I really enjoyed this book.

Maybe it took me a long time to read it because I started it when I was just a sophomore in college. I had so many other things to read and then I started Graduate School and I had even more. Maybe I was just a different person then.

Really, though, I think that is an excuse.

Once I finished grad school, I spent about a month being wildly unproductive and I was about as unhappy as I’ve ever been in my life. It’s not that I’m restless – I love silence and stillness – but I found that without a clear routine or set of objectives, I was catching up on a little too much Netflix and Hulu.

I began to read for 30 minutes at night before bed as a rule and I’m not sure if there is anything else that has changed my life as much.

I remember talking to one of my students one day. At the time, I was working at the University of Missouri College of Engineering and those students were so smart they were often incredibly bored. Because of that, they had a knack for finding some of the most interesting courses at Mizzou. Having been an MU student myself, I remember thinking how sad I was that I hadn’t gotten the chance to take a course on Indigenous Religions, as my student had. This spiraled into a reflection on all of the different academic paths I could have taken and I spent a lot of time lamenting on never being able to learn again for the rest of my life.

Formal schooling was over, so I assumed that I was finished letting the synapses in my brain fire anew.

After roughly 20 minutes of extremely dramatic desolation, I started making a list of all the things I wanted to learn about. This list included history, astronomy, astrology, physics, astrophysics, goddess worship, wiccanism, history of religion, herbalism, american history, native american storytelling, poetry form and on and on and on.

Within another 30 minutes, I had ordered ten books on Amazon.

I am suddenly reminded of Marx’s ideas of Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis. The basic idea of this is that an idea, ideology, etc. begins as one thing, swings in the completely opposite direction and then eventually balances out until that balance actually begins the cycle anew.

An example of this would be that I began in a state of learning very few new things and feeling that I could never learn again. I moved into a state of trying to learn all the things by buying all the books related to all the things. I then leveled out into a balanced state of studying the things that were of greatest interest to me by delving deeply into those particular topics.

Each time that I finish a book that really catches my imagination, I go into another antithesis state and the cycle starts again.

Anyway, the point is that I learned a lesson. Ultimately, our curiosity and learning is up to us. Even though our education system doesn’t really prepare us to know HOW to learn, that is exactly what we must figure out and it is one of the reasons it took me seven years to finish The Third Chimpanzee. There were so many points of interest that I could branch off into that I became overwhelmed and couldn’t find my way back to the place where I’d started.

We want so badly to be wild and free. It’s an archetype, maybe even better described as a stereotype, that women especially feel is the apex of our personal development. I’ve found, however, that to be free, you have to do a whole lot of boring planning and thinking and note-taking and routine-making. It takes a lot of parameters and self-defined boundaries to break down the walls that others build for you.

This is highly related to the second lesson I learned: sometimes passion alone isn’t enough to finish a project, it takes discipline and some forced dedication.

I already told you that I really enjoyed this book. Jared Diamond has a really great style of writing. He’s funny and has the unique ability to condense complex topics into layman’s terms without sounding dry, but it still took me seven years to finish this book. The simple explanation for this is that I let myself become distracted.

It’s kind of like when you’re trying to stick to a budget, but you really really really want a cold brew from Starbucks. It’s only $3. It’s a drop in the bucket, really.

This was my reasoning every single time I got distracted enough that I felt like I needed to start a new book for awhile just for a “change of pace.” What I really needed was to finish what I’d started, which was never something I was good at. I’m still trying to finish the main story line of Skyrim for god’s sake.

Anyway, the final lesson I learned wasn’t really a lesson but more of a reinforcement of something I’ve been working on for years. Meditation and mindfulness have become so important to me and they extend so far past formal sitting practice. I see mindfulness in everything and this is no exception because when we do not take the time to examine why we do what we do, we end up getting caught up in a lot of meaningless auto-pilot that has nothing to do with the goal we set out on in the first place.

In seven years, I passed by that book so many times. I pulled it off the shelf and sat it by my bed. I even read a few pages every once in awhile, but not once did I ever really wonder why I kept putting it – and every other book, project, etc. – down time and time again. I just never thought it mattered.

All of this can be summed up really well by some of Jared Diamond’s final reflections on the future of the human animal in the Epilogue entitled, “Nothing Learned, and Everything Forgotten?”

“We are the only ones creating our problems, so it’s completely our power to solve them…We don’t need novel, still-to-be invented technologies to solve [them]. We just need more [people] to do many more of the same obvious things.”

This is the same for many of us. We don’t need more books or more syllabi or more topics of study or whatever it is that has YOU distracted. You, I, we just need to focus, commit and get to work on what we’ve already got in our hands at the present.

The Wolf

I walk onto the lake at night when it is so dark that the stars seem bright to the touch.

The lake is frozen and I imagine the life underneath is frozen, too.

Cartoonish fish with air bubbles coming up from their mouths and ferns caught in mid sway.

Maybe even an otter stuck half in and half out – able to watch his world freeze over but unable to do anything.

The sparrows and hawks that fly, the bears who walk by do not a thing.

The lake doesn’t concern them. They have their own winters to survive.

What of me?

I travel barefoot in my nightdress, wanting to reach the other side of the lake, but my feet stick to the frozen surface and the going is slow.

I catch the eye of the wolf who must have been caught in the midst of sipping from the lake.

With her face half entrapped by the ice, she is fully aware and afraid of me, my skin shing silver-white in the starlight, her fur black as night.

She thinks I mean her harm and I feel her fear thick in the air as butter.

I think to break the ice – set her and the world under our feet free but her eyes bid me away.

We would both drown if I did and while I know she has a limited supply of strength and endurance left for our frozen world, I am cold and do not wish to drown for her.

I am fully topside, after all, and only need trudge back home to my fire to escape the cold.

This I do and my winter moves away from me while hers maintains its visceral grip on her life.

Mine will still consume me even though I believe my walls protect me from the fate of the wolf.

But my spirit lives and dies with hers.

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