Beautiful jewels of wisdom

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The title of this post comes from one of my favorite quotes:

The more tranquil a man becomes, the greater is his success, his influence, his power for good. Calmness of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom. 

That’s from the British philosopher and writer James Allen, and I came across it during one of the more challenging times in my life. This was before I started my meditation practice and so I did not yet know my capacity for true calm. I understand it a little better now, though like most things, it is a work in progress.

My (second) cousin asked me, and several other people, to write a letter to her daughter who recently graduated high school and is off to college. She asked me months ago and it took me a while to compose something in part because I don’t write quickly and I edit obsessively and in part because, as I said in the letter, I don’t feel terribly wise these days. However, I managed to cobble something together.

I think many of us have a lot more wisdom than we realize. That wisdom may lie beneath the surface, but when we need it, if we trust that it’s there, we can learn to access it. A large percentage of our problems stem from our getting in our own ways, and more often than not we know just what we need to do to fix certain aspects of our lives. Of course there will always be things over which we have no control, but I do believe that most of us have far more control than we allow ourselves to acknowledge. Because having control over things is scary. Because if we have the power to improve our lives, does this also mean that when things go wrong we have ourselves to blame?

No, it doesn’t. It means that many of our challenges are in our control, and to me this is comforting. Again, there will always be plenty of things over which we have no control. How refreshing, then, that what we can do is learn to change our behavior, and our responses to our often messy (and always valid) emotions. That is where that beautiful jewel of wisdom comes into play. One can’t cultivate it over night, but with practice and determination, one can develop it. And learning how to better respond to our negative emotions is the cornerstone of wisdom.

The day after I sent my cousin-letter I was talking to someone whom I know casually. He asked how I was doing and I said, “I’m in a creative rut.” He said, “Okay—so get out of it. Set small goals. That’s how you win.”

And so I did, I decided to start working on a new novel that has been marinating in this (occasionally calm) mind of mine for the past month or two. I am not abandoning the other one, I am just stepping away from it for a little while so that I can get back to it with a fresher perspective. I told myself I would just set out to write 500 words, and I did, and then I wrote 500 more the next day, and then I had more ideas so I jotted those down. I’m going to take a very different approach to this project then I did the last, going to make every effort to bang out what Anne Lamott calls the “shitty first draft.” Perfectionism kills creativity. Or, to paraphrase a writer friend of mine, I’m going to write the first draft so that I can tell myself the story I want to write.

Will be spending the next week at the beach, thereby cramming an entire summer into seven days, and I hope to get more writing done there. I am also looking for some freelance work to support my book-writing habit; if you know of anyone or anything that needs writing, editing, copyediting, proofreading, and so on and so forth, please keep me in mind!

Namaste.

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Where the hot springs flow

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Someone mentioned the Land of the Midnight Sun on the news this morning, and I’ve had Robert Plant wailing in my head all day. I experienced the midnight sun in Norway in August 2007, where sun didn’t set until after 11pm. On more than one occasion this resulted in a frantic scramble to find a place still serving dinner. Norway had never been on my travel radar – not that I was opposed to the idea, but other places had piqued my curiosity more strongly. I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to visit; it was strange and beautiful.

Last night in my dream I spoke Russian – one of the 18 or 19 words I know. I said “спасибо” – spasiba – thank you. I speak bits of French in my dreams but this is the first time I spoke what I’d spent decades thinking was my grandfather’s native language. About a year into my autodidactic studies, I learned that Ukrainian was the dominant language in his household when he was a lad. Back to the drawing board.

I leapt outside of my comfort zone yesterday and took an exercise class at this place, thanks to an inspiring and encouraging friend. I prefer my fitness endeavors to occur in the presence of as few people as possible, but we got there early enough that I could sequester myself in a back corner. The first five minutes of this class consisted of “cardio dance” – if you know me in three-dimensions and have ever watched me attempt to walk down a street without tripping, let alone dance, feast on that visual. Still, I got through it and the remaining 45 minutes of limb-by-limb torture and I feel pretty good today. I think I’ll try again next week.

Excellent conversations about writing and the creative process yesterday, about being “surprised” by our characters (as overblown as that just sounded when I reread it) and about how they can get away with saying things that we can’t. I realize that writing in the first person would afford me a lot more freedom of narrative and observation, but it doesn’t make sense for the project I’m working on. There have to be differing points of view.

Today is the birthday of a dear, departed friend, who, to quote Shakespeare, “makes the face of heaven so fine that all the world [is] in love with night.” Happy birthday, sweet one.

Addendum: I have always depended on the kindness of strangers

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 So this one, obviously, is not a lyric. 

My good day was ruffled a few hours ago, and then it redeemed itself. I was running late due to a miscommunication – typed conversation breeds confusion – and when I got to the train I was asked repeatedly to swipe again; swipe again at this turnstile; too fast; swipe again. I don’t do “flustered” well and I walked in a circle, tried again, and got the same behests. 

Reply hazy, try again.

I watched helplessly as one train, then another, passed me by; I’m not the turnstile-jumping type. I went to the booth and handed the booth-gentleman my card; he did whatever it is he did and said, “This card hasn’t been used since September 19th.” I waited for him to go on, realized he was the one waiting, and said, “I haven’t used it since then!” “What have you been doing?” he asked. “I’ve used another card.” Another train roared through the station and he said something I couldn’t hear. “I’ve been traveling?” He shook his head and asked again how it is that my Metro Card hadn’t been used since the 19th. 

I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t use public transportation as often as I should. It’s not a hygiene or a safety or a mingling-with-the-masses thing at all. It’s that … actually, maybe it is a mingling-with-the-masses thing, but not because I don’t want to do so, because I’m not very good at it. I’m not good at rushing down the stairs, at balancing, at keeping a poker face no matter what’s going on in my head, at finding my way around my hometown. If it’s doable I much prefer walking, but truth be told I spend way too much money on taxis. 

So all of this is swirling through my head while the man’s admonishing me and trains fly past.

“You’re going to have to buy a new card,” he yells.

“Okay!” Another train is pulling into the station and he’s saying something else I can’t hear, though he must realize I’m getting agitated about my thwarted efforts to get to 34th Street. I could have burst into tears and probably looked like I was about to, out of frustration as much as anything else. A young woman who’s been watching for a bit snaps at him, “Stop being so hard on her!” and offers to let me use her card. “I can’t give it to you,” she says, “But I can get you through the turnstile.

By this point it had been about 15 minutes since I was supposed to be where I was supposed to be, and it was fruitless. I thanked her, cast what I’ve no doubt was a pitiful look at the man in the booth, and went home with my tail between my legs. 

Travel snafu and aborted plans notwithstanding, this young woman was lovely to me in a ridiculous moment when I just needed someone to be lovely to me. 

The point of all this: despite what our parents warned us, do talk to strangers if you might be able to make their day a tiny bit brighter. 

I’m going to make a concerted effort to become more comfortable with the MTA.

That’ll show him. 

The littlest things that take me there

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In case you’re wondering, which you probably aren’t, the titles of these posts are lyrics from songs I like that may or may not be pertinent to the writing that follows. 

Now then. 

A few months after I graduated from college, the summer before my freshman year of life, I was in a place of great uncertainty. Like most of us, I assume. I had gotten a Bachelor of Arts in the ultra-employable double major of English Lit and French. No, I didn’t want to teach. I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do. I’d sort of grown up around show business and had a brief flirtation with moving to LA to work at an agency that had just opened there, but I let that one go. I was living more or less alone in the house I’d grown up in in the suburbs, a house that was an albatross for my parents until it finally sold some years later. I commuted up and down the West Side Highway (I drove!) to a job as a production assistant on a short lived talk show hosted by Dr. Ruth. The show was called “Never Too Late” and each episode featured guests who had changed the courses of their lives well into their adult years. It wasn’t about sex, yet somehow it managed to often be about sex. My job entailed things like reading “People” magazine and tracking down the world’s oldest waterskier, babysitting Al Roker’s daughter in the green room, ironing Rue McClanahan’s skirt – it was a glamour job. It would be over at the end of that summer and then I had no idea what was next. I felt lost between a college I’d never really fit into and a completely uncharted life whose purpose was a mystery to me. 

A childhood friend hosted an annual end-of-August party, and that year I had a long conversation with the host’s college friend, who was (is) deaf, very smart, and excellent at reading lips. We talked about what we were doing now that school had ended and I expressed my fears and uncertainties – they hadn’t yet manifested in the bout of depression that would take hold a few months later. I remember this conversation well. The friend – Josh – told me his philosophies on life, one of which has stayed with me over the decades. He said, “I define good days differently than most people” – this was in part, he said, because he’d had more to overcome than many people he knew. He said, “If I have a good conversation with a friend, it’s a good day. If I get to be outside in the sun, it’s a good day.”

In the spirit of Josh’s wisdom, this has been a good day thus far. I finished a draft of my dark and weird short story. I set up a few work-related meetings. I got a response to a query I put out about a project I’m sort of working on (vague enough?). Louie and I took a walk and ran into an old friend and her 1 1/2-year-old son. I drank coffee and read the paper. I had a good conversation with my sister. I gave directions to a lost tourist (it’s the little things!). I did an important errand, and … I got a library card.

A library card! Remember those?!

I can’t recall the last time I had one, but they still give them out. The little branch of the NYPL on my street, the Muhlenberg branch, has about as many books as I do, but I found some good ones and checked them out FREE and I get to keep them for three weeks. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to do this, but I’m in a big reading phase right now so it makes sense. This is one of those things that the interns in my office probably have little to no concept of, like postage stamps, landlines, and albums — record and photo. 

This past weekend I climbed a mountain – to me it’s a mountain, to others it’s a gentle slope – and considering my lifelong fear of heights and of scaling cliff-like things, this is quite an accomplishment. I also went apple-picking, which I’d never done before (I know!). At the end of each calendar year, I make a list of things I did for the first time over the preceding twelve months. A few years ago the list including salsa-dancing in the street and snorkeling in the ocean. This year’s will include the aforementioned, as well as: attending a music festival, visiting Budapest, submitting a book proposal, keeping plants alive for more than a month, and making a quiche. Three more months to add to that list. Three more months of potentially good days. 

My sole intention is learning to fly …

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According to the internets I might have that lyric wrong, but the essence of the two versions is the same. Learning to fly, finding one’s bearings after being set adrift. It’s hard to do, and accepting this is the only recourse for beginning to heal a broken heart or beaten soul or combination of the two. The process is exhausting and there are regressions along the way, but if one has some semblance of determination, the powers-that-be will reverse what’s seemed like a spell of misdirected punishment and the world will be brighter.

Despite all my foibles and missteps and temper tantrums, I think the people who choose to stick around know that my love is boundless and my loyalty fierce. I do have a fair amount of people in my life, and this is because, for whatever crazy reason, excellent people have come my way. I’ve met plenty, plenty of toxic people along the way, some of whom have disguised themselves as knights in shining armor and all-weather friends, and as such I’ve had my spirit broken many times. But through it I’ve held onto a faith that comes from some mysterious source and I’ve not given up on the universe. I can’t. Otherwise, why am I here? I’ve accepted the fact that mine will be a hard-won happiness; I’ve walked through deluges and spent years in foxholes and I’ve raged and rebelled against a world that’s at times seemed hell-bent on watching me suffer through life. But I’ve gotten back up, licked my many wounds, and struck out again to make mistakes and continue to fight for light and love. Because, I think, you don’t get one without weathering the other. I guess I’d rather keep battling because the moments of beauty, tranquility, and bliss are brighter and more powerful than one thousand demons could ever be.

When I was a kid I thought the song “Torn Between Two Lovers” was “Torn Between Two Leopards”.

Third time’s a charm:

I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.

I do, and I mean that for all of you.

The band in heaven, they play my favorite song

ImageI’m learning that there is little that can be done when someone is hellbent on convincing you that they are inherently flawed, and therefore bad. Of course they are flawed – we all are – but bad is another story entirely. If someone we love turns on us, rejects us, this does not mean we are bad. This means we were not meant to be with that person, and tough a pill though that may be to swallow, it is a far cry from being a Bad Person. And really, you know this. It’s a cry for help, an excuse to spin your wheels, a reason to attach to everything that doesn’t quite go as planned. I’ve been heartbroken, betrayed, lied to, used, rejected – I’ve venture to say that everyone reading this has been through these things. We’ve also suffered disappointments on the work front and parents – or children – whom we can’t relate to. None of this makes us bad. This makes us human. However, worth is in the eye of the beholder, and so if you are feeling unworthy, please know that this alone does not make it so. Hard times cause self-doubt, but self-doubt needn’t perpetuate to the degree that it does.

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Today was difficult, so difficult. In the Jewish tradition we bury our dead quickly, which means we don’t have a lot of lag time to get used to the idea of someone’s passing before we ritualistically mourn them. It was difficult and beautiful to see so many people honoring Lily, speaking of her love of life and excitement over every new adventure, her utter devotion to her family and to her husband of many decades. Her children spoke. My father spoke. We buried her – quite literally, as is also tradition. It was so … final. I will take from my relationship with Lily the notion that love and life matter more than anything, that family and friends come first, that being generous has little to do with material possession, and that we dance on this planet once in this form, so we might as well turn the volume up loud. Lily was life – even if I didn’t think so before, there is no way now that anyone could convince me that physical death means the end of spirit. She is, still, way too vibrant for this. I’m sad, but I’m so much better for having known her all these years, and so much more comforted by the notion that she’s still around.

Why can’t we be ourselves like we were yesterday

ImageTraditions are good. Last night we sailed NY Harbor for E’s birthday, something we’ve been doing for … five years? Six? I haven’t updated that number, but it’s a lovely event whose guest list morphs with each passing year. I am honored to always be included and was especially honored to be given the opportunity to blow the captain’s conch this year.

No, that was actually weird.

In addition to not being able to ski or ride a bicycle, I don’t know how to whistle. I’m not sure that skill would have helped with the conch blowing, but I imagine it couldn’t have hurt.

Two days ago I had a meeting with a writer whose screenplay I’d read and critiqued. It was a little terrifying at first – I’d not met this man, though I know his husband for many years. The writer would be a hell of a poker player – as I went through my notes he watched me, almost expressionless, and his resting face is not one of joy. Because I doubt myself WAY more than I should, what ran through my mind was the notion that I’d completely misread his work and that he couldn’t believe he was having to listen to this blithering idiot who claims to be an editor missing the point entirely.

Not the case. He walked me out, thanked me profusely, and wrote a lovely follow up note about how helpful my ideas are and how excited he is to work on the next draft.

I suffer from the self-doubt my father has described as, “Every day I wake up and think, today’s the day they’re going to catch onto me.” I know that I’m a good editor, and that sometimes writers don’t like to be edited. I know that I’m a decent writer when I understand the assignment. But as B and I have discussed, we write because it feels like the only thing we can do, and we fear that every decent sentence we string together will be our last. That’s another reason this blahhhg has been good for me – I can string together shoddy sentences and I’ve no choice but to try again.

When I feel I’ve done something wrong, I have a hard time accepting forgiveness. This happened this week in a way that brought me back to big-long relationship with musician (not the wandering minstrel); I was told repeatedly in several ways that I was “ruining [his] career”, by not being involved, by being too involved, by making introductions and suggestions, by not making them … ultimately, it’s hard to ruin another person’s anything, I think. But having grown up (and you know how much I love my family, but I was not an easy little one – way too emotional) being reminded that I “ruined” every meal, conversation, vacation, celebration … it’s taken me a while to completely eradicate that mindset. And so I take criticism to heart in a way that is not at all productive. What I need to do instead is to get back on that bike I don’t know how to ride and carry on, because regardless of how I’m perceived, my intentions are almost always good. Some months ago I was the “victim” of rumours that are simply not true, and I flipped out. Not how everyone would handle it, but I can’t change the past. I’m filled with paralyzing regret about this incident, and I need to move forward. I’ve thought about apologizing to everyone involved; however, not everyone involved cares enough about me to see my apology for what it is, and so it would likely fall on deaf ears.

Need to keep moving forward – now and forward are all we’ve got.

Thanks for a lovely evening, Erika! Happy birthday and many more to one of the best friends a gal could have.