No Shortcuts or Detours for Writing the Truth

Photo: Gus Moretta

You might have read my post about taking five deep breaths, inspired by the practices in a small but mighty book called “The Art of Stopping Time: Practical Mindfulness for Busy People” by Pedram Shojai. Many mornings, my wife reads me that day’s practice.

A passage from today’s really struck me, so I thought I’d come here to write a bit about it. Shojai writes:

“Your true self doesn’t exist in time; your true self sits on a perch of infinity and is in all the places at all times. This is the great secret of the mystics. Hearing it isn’t enough, though. So many people are infected by spiritual consumerism and go off thinking, ‘Okay, okay. I’ve heard that. Give me something new.’ That’s the mark of the beast. Having a slight intellectual grasp of a concept and thinking you’ve got it is a fatal spiritual flaw, one that’s infected the New Age movement and led to egotism and attitudes of spiritual superiority.”

He goes on:

“The experience of this timelessness is the most transformative moment of one’s life. Getting there takes lots of practice, and most New Age jargon is designed to sell you tricks that help cut corners. There are no corners to cut. The whole thing is round.”

We live in a culture of shortcuts and detours.

Consider these two lines I’ve always loved, from the Irish poet Paul Muldoon:

Where are you taking us? 
A detour on the shortcut.

The image of the soul sitting on a perch of infinity strikes me as quite beautiful. It’s also intuitive to the point of impossible if you’re trying to grasp it intellectually. And that is perhaps Shojai’s whole point here. Spirituality is not an intellectual exercise. And neither, I would argue, is the kind of writing that gets words on the page.

Writing that gets words on the page, you ask? Doesn’t ALL writing do that?

OK, yes, You got me.

I’m talking here about generative writing.

What is generative writing? Writing that gets things moving, helps you begin, and isn’t concerned with outcome — yet. Writing that pours forth possibilities you can later revisit and refine or expand upon. Writing that is not necessarily a thruway to a powerful conclusion but rather a roundabout with no corners to cut, no shortcuts to take, and no detours that will get you to the ever-elusive “there” any sooner.

To get really intellectual about this, writing and spirituality are the same thing. Or maybe a better way of saying this is that writing is a vehicle for spirituality, a practice that — like perching — can offer us a glimpse into infinity. A place that’s not a place at all, but an experience of presence, from which we can access something true and not informed by a gaping vortex of self-help myopia.

“Give me something new” is something that infects the creative process, just as it can be the engine that drives a person towards every program that promises inner peace under the sun. Our attention spans are so truncated and our desire for novelty so overfed that the commitment of a regular writing practice can feel lackluster, at best. After all, we want to write something brilliant! Something that will turn heads and evoke tears or spur a movement.

The thing is, this might happen. But it will  be a lot less likely if you rarely or never write. And the odds are quite high that much of what you do write will feel pointless at best and at worst, like complete and utter dreck.

Next time you sit down to write, imagine that sitting down on that perch of infinity.

There’s nowhere to go but now, here. Whether you’re writing a journal entry, a blog post, an essay, or a chapter for your new book, this practice will allow you to arrive more fully into the present moment.

Not very sexy, I know. And hardly a feast for the ego.

That is precisely the point. The ego has done enough damage, has it not? Sometimes, you take a class or join a group for the strokes; after all, who doesn’t crave approval and oohs and aahs at how amazing and talented we are. But to meet yourself on the page, to not go outside of yourself in search of the thing that will finally launch your dream of being a real writer — this is the place without corners or detours. And it can be pretty damn unflashy.

This is the place here you get to listen hard and go deeper and take risks bigger than anything you’ll ever pay money for. Don’t get me wrong — I make my living leading writing groups and coaching people towards greater ease in their creative process. Working with guides and mentors, joining groups and programs — these can all be deeply worthwhile and even transformative.

It’s not about how many “likes” or shares your words get.

Not the acceptance and rejection notices. Not even that anyone else gets what you’re up to (though I bet someone will — and reaching a single reader is worth the world).

At the end of day, how you meet yourself in the writing is what matters. How willing you are, to write towards what’s true. The only way to do it is do it. And doing it takes time, practice, and a deep well of compassion for yourself in the process. This last bit may be the hardest part of all.

Walking Thoughts: Why Bother Writing?

While Pearl was at her piano lesson, I went for a walk on the country roads around her teacher’s house. I’d been holed up all day against a wild wind, and although the temperature has swung a full fifty degrees since this time last week, it felt good to move my body.

After five minutes or so on Station Road, I turned onto a small side street with a view of the mountains that are really more like hills. The sun was getting low in the sky and my ears burned with cold. It was right about then that I heard it. The tinny voice of doubt. The swimming thoughts, so familiar, old and worn:

There are so many voices. What do I have to add? Why bother writing? 

If you look very closely and the light is just so, you can see the faintest blush of red in the treetops this time of year. It’s not even a blush yet, more like a tease. Easy to miss, and easy to doubt what you think you just saw: Color. As I walked, bare hands stuffed in coat pockets along with my wallet, keys, and phone, these lines came to me:

Oh, just love your restless heart. Love it the way the wind whips the craggy apple tree and the solemn birch. Love it like the light lowers before snapping you back to attention.

And it was then that I said hi to God.

(Some folks will stop reading now at the mention of God. That’s ok; it’s none of my business what “God” evokes for you. If it smacks of white patriarchy, I can assure you that’s not it for me. I could not describe God if you asked me to. All I know is that in that moment on my walk, I realized God and I have not been hanging out as much lately, and that’s exactly what I said. Out loud.)

“Hi, God. It’s me. We need to get together more often. Want to walk together?”

In the next part of the walk, a new series of thoughts came rolling in like waves. I looked at the still-bare trees, the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t hint of spring color, and got super existential all of a sudden. (Sometimes talking to God gets me way down in the microcosms, but today was the opposite.)

The sky I was looking up at, the ground where each footfall landed — none of this will be here forever. The word “forever” echoing into infinitude, impossible to grasp.

I took out my phone and sent myself a text.
Whirlpools in a vast ocean. The radical suggestion of not having to hurry. The suggestion of loneliness. A pull to stillness and movement and the paradox of these together. And the question of “why bother” now subsumed by wind, the kind that swallows even silence whole, like prey.

Earlier in the day, I had written a poem after Wind, Water, Stone by Octavio Paz:

WIND, SKY, SILENCE

Wind swallows silence,
sky lashes wind,
silence scolds the sky.
Wind, sky, silence.

Sky conspires with silence,
silence is a bowl of wind,
wind shapeshifts to sky.
Silence, sky, wind.

Sky keeps its distance,
wind moves carelessly,
sharp silence, deep slice.
Sky, wind, silence.

These refuse to be contained:
always becoming each other
and changing form.
Wind, silence, sky.

There really is nothing to figure out. In fact, as a phrase, “figure out” is a dicey one-two punch guaranteed to tumble me deeper into tiny whirlpools of even smaller thoughts. I could stir them with a stick from the woods all day long and discover nothing; all the really exciting stuff is happening out in the open waters where I live and love and work every day.

I’ve always gone through cycles with my writing, as well as with just about everything else in my life. I imagine we all do, in our own ways.

Clarity feels fantastic. It feels like power and momentum. Depression is a weighted blanket that makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning. The smell of thawing earth and warm rain makes my whole body want to run, like a dog in an open field. I favor periods when I’m focused, when ideas are flowing, and when I feel confident and loved. I’m still learning how to relax into and during times of relative quiet and calm. It’s easy to get addicted to emergencies or reliant on periods of prolific, if inexplicable, creative urges.

Here’s the thing: The internal landscape changes. The external landscape changes. The writing is sometimes an anchor, other times a buoy. It’s both a constant variable in my days and an ever-changing one. Kind of like God. Like love.

As a kid, one of my favorite books was Amos & Boris by William Steig. Amos is a mouse and Boris is a whale. They become the best of friends during an ocean crossing. They experience times both peaceful perilous. In the end, each saves the other’s life, and though one must live on land and the other at sea, they remain dear friends for all time. It is truly a love story.

What stays? Why bother writing?

Our time here is so short. Your voice — that singular vehicle for the stories only you can share and the thoughts only you can reveal — ripples like so many waves in this vast impermanent ocean of love.

I am sometimes Amos and sometimes Boris. Boat and water. God and walker. Silence and wind. Ocean and ground. When I’m starting to get swirled into questions about purpose and meaning, it’s usually a good time to just walk. To just talk to God. To not know. To settle into that, letting the questions rest and the answers come and go as easily as the wind, the light around the bend.

Finding Refuge in Ourselves and Each Other

sundownI know better than to say anything external can make my life a living hell, but when Mani was very, very sick, I thought just that: Maybe her being very, very sick was making my life a living hell. In some ways, this was true. It was also making her life a living hell.

There was this one time, when I was writing about looking at that situation from someone else’s perspective, standing in someone else’s proverbial shoes, that I finally stepped into hers. Mind you, this was at a time when even a feather touch to her feet could send her through the roof with pain. No doctor could say what the source was of this peripheral neuropathy, but it definitely fell into the “living hell” category. I wrote and wrote. I got out of my own head. I got over myself for ten minutes, and then read her what I’d written. And it was one of those moments, a turning point — she felt heard and seen in a new way, and I felt less imprisoned by my own selfishness.

I spent the morning in synagogue. Not everyone, but many people were wearing all white, as is customary on Yom Kippur. I remembered for once to bring a tallit, or prayer shawl; when Mani and I got married two years ago, we ordered a two-person one from Israel, and they accidentally sent us two. So I brought the one that is all white and linen-colored. When we arrived (Pearl came with me and we sat in a row with my middle sister’s family; Aviva slept in as she attempted to fast), I lifted the tallit over my head as I’ve seen many others do. I did not say the actual blessing for wearing a tallit (Jews have a blessing for pretty much everything), but I did hover underneath it for a good long minute alone. And you know? It was a kind of paradise in there. It really was.

Under the tallit, I felt sheltered. I remembered that that space is always available to me, and asked myself in that silent place why I don’t take refuge there more often.

Same reason I don’t take refuge more often in general, comes the likely answer. On the yoga mat. In the woods or a bathtub. On a chair under a blanket with a book. Even in the kitchen, making a slow-cooked meal rather than a quick and easy one. So many places to find that readily available sensation of peace, and yet — I take detour after detour and then wonder, as if it’s some great mystery, why I am (fill in the blank — exhausted, headachy, grouchy, overwhelmed, etc).

The next hours were spend singing. Alternately sitting and standing. We got there when the sanctuary was pretty much filled up, so I did not have a machzor, or prayer book. And this was ok. It was paradise, too. Nothing to follow along with, no page numbers to keep track of. Just my voice joining with the ones beside, before, and behind me, following some ancient rhythms of collective responsibility and second chances.

This afternoon, Mani had a doctor’s appointment with her immunologist; he was blown away by how well she is doing — no wheelchair, no cane even, no epipen for over a year, and she has weaned herself off of some of the most hardcore opiates out there. (Can I get an amen?) He also brought up politics, and told us he’s been asking all of his patients for the past month or so who they’re voting for. We joked that seeing as we Jewish gay women who would very much like to stay legally married, he could probably guess.

While we were in the waiting room, I saw a post from writer Lesléa Newman in my Facebook feed. It was a photo of Matthew Shepard — his young, beautiful face accompanied by her words:

“In Judaism, the number 18 stands for life. Today is the 18th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death. It is also Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This feels very significant to me. Matthew Shepard believed passionately in social justice. Let us carry on his legacy today and every day by working hard to make the world a more peaceful and kinder place for all.”

matthew-shepard
Seeing this the day after National Coming Out Day after spending the morning in communal prayer ushered me home to everything I hold dear: Being free to live one’s truth — and our collective responsibility to make sure doing so is safe and — better yet — embraced.

In fact, something Rabbi Weiner said this morning, while offering a blessing for those who rose with an intention to stand up and speak out for social justice in the new year, spoke to me so personally: Sometimes a thing has to be broken in order to be repaired.

Sometimes a thing has to be broken in order to be repaired. This was certainly true for me of coming out. And I can’t help but wonder — with a cautious tinge of optimism — if it could be true for our country, too.

And yet, for many people, coming out is not safe. There is no place of refuge for this emergence, one that so often requires breaking with one’s own past in profound ways. There may not be a welcome committee imagining life in your shoes, or waiting with warm cookies and a toaster oven. For many people, to come out — be it along the LGBTQ spectrum or in other ways, as artists, as activists, as women with stories we’ve never shared, as speaking in fierce opposition to power, as spiritual — is not only scary but unfathomable.

And that is truly a living hell: To have to wear a mask inside of your own life.

As Yom Kippur came to a close and I heated up a bowl of homemade chicken soup to break my fast, as the light began to go down over the blaze of October leaves, I considered the ways in which I want to seal the year behind us and welcome the one just now beginning. As an individual, yes, one who takes responsibility for my words and actions and their impact on others. And as a member of a community — the Jewish people, the American people — who is also responsibility for doing my part to ensure that ALL of us have safe spaces.

If my wife is in pain, I must step outside of myself to imagine her experience. If my fellow human must hide who she is, may my words and presence contribute some small dose of safety to her emergence. Refuge should not fall into the category of privilege or luxury. It can’t be bought, sold, or traded, nor are some of us more deserving than others.

May 5777 — and November 8 — bring evidence that we will uphold this truth not only as self-evident, but as sacred and civic duty, individually and collectively.

Angel Posse Meets Story Sisterhood

typewriter

They don’t mind my writing about them and I don’t mind risking sounding like a religious fanatic or a woo-woo nut job.

I just spent the last hour writing a story about my angel posse, for one of the prompts in The Story Sisterhood. This new membership group of The Inky Path will dive deeply into a single theme every three months. For our inaugural theme “Gotta Have Faith,” already a group of really wonderful women from around the world has assembled to explore our stories, one week at a time, alone and together.

Though I’ve written about my angels many times before, today I wound up writing something brand new, something I would probably not have sat down to write had I not had some reason to do so. While this itself is a gift for me, such a huge part of the writing is also in the sharing and the connections that opens up between me and other humans.

So many factors at play. So much responsibility to bear. The whole “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” thing? I wasn’t sure I was buying it.

So when I say things like “I hope you’ll join us,” it’s not an empty sales pitch. Whether I’m referring to the writing groups I lead privately or the ones I co-create over at The Inky Path, what you’re getting is my heart, my whole self, and an expression of my deep and genuine desire to share some of my stories with you and to get the deep privilege of reading yours.

What you’re hearing is borne of awe at the alchemy of memory, writing, and witness.

And they are tough as nails, too. They never back down and they always have my back. My angels are my best friends. I don’t know what I’d do without them.

I don’t know what I’d do without you, either. My writing posse. This beautiful and ever-expanding community.

If taking the time and creating the space to connect with your own stories inside of a truly supportive community of women calls to you, I hope you’ll join me and my inky partner-in-crime. Cigdem Kobu in The Story Sisterhood.

inkypath.com/story-sisterhood/

Registration is open through the weekend, then will close until late summer.

“This sisterhood is unlike anything I have experienced. It has unleashed many words that needed a meadow to romp in without fear.” – Terri Jackson