Now I wanna be your dog

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Yesterday, I had the following conversation at the vet’s office.

The scene: a man was encouraging his dog to “say hi” to Louie.

Me: Oh—he’s not great with other dogs!

Man with other dog: Are you sure? He was sniffing mine before.

Me: No, he wasn’t—I think it was that guy (pointing to third dog).

MWOD: Well let’s just test it out. (releases more slack on leash)

Me: Oh trust me, I wouldn’t—he’s not great with other dogs.

MWOD: So you don’t socialize him?

Me: Actually, when he was-

MWOD: Because you really should socialize them

Me: I know, and I used—

MWOD: The vet says it’s very important..

Me: Yes, of course it is, but—

MWOD: How old is he?

Me: 15.

MWOD: Well that explains it. Have a nice day.

Me: You too.

My reaction brought you by the makers of Transcendental Meditation. There was a time when it would have been super important for me to interrupt the interruptions and reassure this man that yes, I socialized him from the time he was a few months old and he used to be quite social, then he had a bad experience with a couple of dogs but was still okay, then he got injured in the dog park and needed surgery, so we stopped going to the dog park, and his tolerance for other dogs faded. But since he’s turned 15 he seems a bit more tolerant, though as it’s not something I can depend upon, it just seems easier to say that he’s not great with other dogs, even though I feel badly saying so because that verbiage makes it sound like it’s a deficit on his part and it is not that. But sometimes it’s easier to just smile and nod and say, “You’re right, I should have socialized my dog.”

When you have a dog in this city people like to tell you how you should have a dog in this city. My dog has arthritis and his back legs shake; therefore, people assume he is a) cold and I’m not dressing him properly or b) scared, and I’m not comforting him properly. In fact my dog is warm, brave, has arthritis and is not great with other dogs.

Last night I dreamt that I was going on vacation and I stayed over at Tom Petty’s house because it was closer to the airport, natch. It was a bit of a mess but who was I to complain? I commented to Tom that many of his songs are quite literal, that he doesn’t use a lot of metaphor, at which point my mother walked in and said, “What about ‘Last Dance with Mary Jane?'” and I was impressed because I didn’t know my mom knew that song.

I’m trying to get back to this 500+ words a day in the new book by way of plowing (or  plodding) my way through the “shitty first draft.” Must resist the urge to edit and must doubly resist the urge to give up. Got another “I like the premise and the voice but just didn’t connect enough with the story” email today from a literary agent about my first book. I’m not sure at this point if I should keep sending it out or if I should, once this other one is a bit more under way, go back over the first one and do another round of revisions. Or the third option, which would be to tuck the first one on a shelf and forget about it for a while. If anyone wants to weigh in with advice, I’m open to it.

I’m currently taking a beginner’s American Sign Language course and it’s very interesting. It’s intense—we are learning a fair amount of material in a short amount of time. And it is a lot of body language and facial expression, which I hadn’t realized but yeah, of course it is. I’m learning it because it’s something I’ve always been curious about and because one night, when I couldn’t sleep, an ad popped up on my computer for inexpensive ASL classes. I’m learning tiny bits of many languages, mostly self-taught through some of the many programs available online, and I wonder if I should pursue any one of them more thoroughly? Focus is not my strong suit. But every where you turn these days you hear about mindfulness and the power of now (and The Power of Now) and all evidence points to doing one thing at a time and not multi-tasking. I can’t recall the last time I did one thing at a time for any extended period of time … which is why writing is a good exercise for me because I can’t really do anything else while I do it, can’t listen to music or eat or pet that freezing, anti-social dog of mine. So if I write more every day perhaps I’ll get better at Doing One Thing At a Time.

I would like to end this post on a note that is either profound, witty, charming, or thought-provoking, but I got nothin’. One of my goals for autumn is to write in this more, too, so if the muses allow, I’ll regale you soon with profound, charming, thought-provoking wit.

Until then, au revoir, arrivaderci, adios, auf wiedersehn, tchau, Прощай*.

*I actually hadn’t yet learned how to say it in Russian. The More You Know!

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.

Let’s get together and feel alright

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“Wherever you go, there you are.” Somebody said this to me recently while I was talking about an issue I’m having, and how I will address it once x, y, and z are in place. At first I dismissed it as one of those hollow, placeholder clichés, akin to “sounds like a plan” and “at the end of the day.” But then he elaborated and I realized, shit, he’s right.

He went on to say “the one thing all your problems have in common is you.” Right again. Then he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear.” No, he didn’t. That part’s not true. But the rest of it is … I often fantasize about living somewhere other than NYC, because NYC can be a tough place to live on many levels (she says, scrounging through her purse for five dollars so that she can get an iced coffee). It can also be an easy place (she adds, realizing that she can keep writing and order a cup of coffee in*), but there are much calmer, more beautiful, kinder parts of the world. However, for many reasons, it does not make sense for me to live elsewhere right now.

And so I am instead working on what I can do to be more comfortable anywhere, to make “wherever you go, there you are” a positive thing. One of the ways I’ve been working on this is by getting back to my meditation practice.

I was a skeptic for many years, had tried various forms of meditation here and there, and decided it wasn’t for me, that I wasn’t the right kind of person for the job. Then two years ago, thanks to a generous birthday gift from my mum (one that took me seven months to get up the nerve to use), I went through the Transcendental Meditation training program. It was easier than I’d expected, and I felt like I was getting benefit from it, though I wasn’t really sure what that benefit was. I was fairly consistent with meditation for a while, then I forgot a couple of times and then I fell completely off the wagon. Got back on toward the end of last summer, then November 8 happened and the last thing I felt like doing was being alone with my thoughts for 20 minutes, twice a day. Because, unlike other forms of meditation that I’ve tried, in TM you are allowed to acknowledge your thoughts. And my thoughts were dark in those days. They are slightly less so today, a day that many of us woke to very good news (it’s not about celebrating a victory, it’s about being relieved that people we know and people we don’t know will be protected if they get or are sick or pregnant or take medicine or are human). But I digress.

I had a bout of the blues in early June and decided to throw myself back into TM, as well as to work more with essential oils, which are wonderful for mood support—if you want to know more about this, message me. At the same time, a VIP in my life expressed interest in learning TM, and I highly supported this idea. So I started practicing regularly again and this time around I am absolutely aware of the positive impact it is having. It is making me calmer, lighter, better able to focus. It is helping me creatively, as I gear up to begin a new chapter (ha HA!) in my writing life. It is making me more patient, less irritable, less reactionary. I am very grateful that I decided to dive back in. Sometimes we need to take a break from things to recognize their worth. If I could, I would gift this practice to many people in my life who I think would benefit from it. But as I can’t, I will say this: do good things for yourself. Whatever issues you are facing, approach them from as many angles as might be helpful. Realize the strengths in yourself and in your circumstances and build on them. If you are reading this, I can almost guarantee that something you possess is the one thing that someone else on this planet thinks, “If only I had ____, my life would be so much better.” A job, a home, a loving partner, an enriching hobby, willpower, musical talent, perfect skin, physical strength, intuition, a sense of humor, intellect, empathy, wit—if you possess any one of these things, you have a foundation that others aspire to.

Speaking of aspirations, here’s something nutty—I’ve been taking voice lessons for a couple of years, basically because I like to sing and wanted to get better at it, and I’ve kept going because I love my teacher. However, the idea of singing in front of others makes me want to evaporate. I have tremendous stage fright, as well as paralyzing fear of public speaking. My lovely teacher informed me a few days ago that she is having a recital sometime in the fall and that she’d like me to prep for it. Holy smokes. This would involve singing in front of other people. In semi-public. But it’s good to have a tangible goal, and so I will focus my efforts with this in mind. Stay tuned. No pun intended.

*I didn’t order a cup of coffee in.

 

 

Keep calm and carry on

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I woke up around 5AM the other morning having just been told by someone in my dream that I needed to write this down and start a blog with it:

If anyone ever says here’s what to do if a bear starts to crawl out of the sand, listen to them.

So there you have it, folks, sound advice from the dream faeries.

Perhaps this was my subconscious reminding me that it’s been a long time since I’ve written in this thing. It has. I’ll probably write something on Friday, the 11th, as I do every year; I need to do something to acknowledge that day, many things, actually, and this is one of them.

My dreams have been very interesting since I started my meditation two months ago (two months! I’ve missed one session, by accident, and have not adhered exactly to the 20-minute mark on some, but for the most part I’ve been surprisingly consistent with it.). Oh … I finished a draft of my novel … absolutely just a draft, and a very rough one at that, but it’s a milestone. And in the days that I was working on the last couple of chapters, which are very strange ones, I had a lot of vivid dreams that related to them. I also experienced this odd coincidence: I was writing a scene that takes place on a block of West 9th Street and had just mentioned the address when my phone buzzed. It was a message from a friend I’ve not spoken with in years, who used to live in the same building where my story takes place, and she said, “Just heard a Leonard Cohen song that reminded me of you.”

Coincidence? Sure. But a cool one.

I was speaking with someone recently who said, “I wish I had a slightly less scientific mind, so I could leave a little room for magic.” Maybe I leave too much room for magic, I certainly could use a more organized, logical mind at times, but I appreciate my ability to embrace the unknown and believe in things beyond what we can actually see and hear and touch.

I’m working on cultivating a stronger sense of calm and clarity in my day to day life and in my relationships, and for the most part it seems to be working. I find that approaching things from a calm place makes the day-to-day crises less intense – makes them glitches, rather than crises. It’s like when you’re looking for your keys or your phone or whatever it is and you become frantic because you can’t find it, it will very likely take longer than if you take a deep breath, give yourself a few seconds to collect yourself and think … try it, it works. Chaos begets chaos; calm begets calm.

This is epitomized in a quote I found some years ago and have always loved, particularly the second sentence:

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 by the British writer/philosopher James Allen.

I’ll be back, Friday.

Close the door, put out the light

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I had the loveliest soundtrack for my morning meditation today — the pouring rain. Within the past year someone asked me what my favorite sound is, and that was my answer. I don’t have favorite anythings, really, but pouring rain is in the top few.

The lyric above is, of course, from “No Quarter”. However, my introduction to Led Zeppelin came in the form of a handmade copy of “Houses of the Holy,” and the bomber jacket-clad underaged bouncer who made it for me wrote the song list incorrectly. For years I thought “No Quarter” was “The Rain Song,” and since many of the band’s song titles — and most, if not all, from that album — bear little resemblance to the lyrics, I dwelled in ignorant bliss until someone-much-cooler-than-I-am corrected me.

When I was a sophomore (wise fool) in college I was friendly with a group of gals on my floor — they were most definitely cooler than me — and one day we were sitting around in someone’s room talking and listening to music. A song came on and someone said, “So-and-so had never heard of this song before!” to which everyone replied with astonishment. “I mean, everyone knows this song, right?” she continued, and we all murmured in assent and nodded. She looked right at me and asked, “You know it, right?” and I nodded with great fervor and a look of incredulity that so-and-so had never heard of this so very knowable song before.

Every now and then I remember this, and I wonder, still, what song it was.

This meditation thing continues to be a very interesting process. They say that one thing that can occur during practice is that long forgotten memories will emerge. In some cases these can be unresolved sources of stress, and that has absolutely happened in the past week. But during one of my sessions it wasn’t specific stress, I just couldn’t get out of this one room in my childhood home — the sunroom, for those of you who know my childhood home. I pictured aspects of it I hadn’t thought of in years — the sunbleached green carpet, the pale yellow radiator, the little shelf that shared an opaque, frosted window with the powder room off the kitchen. The curtained cupboard where we stored our board games. The clock on the ceiling.

Why was there a clock on the ceiling?

I got an out-of-the-blue apology via Facebook mail from someone I de-friended years ago, someone I’d never really friended much in the first place and so hadn’t thought about since the inciting incident. Apparently, and now it’s vaguely familiar based on the exchange that had taken place five years ago, he tended to respond to my optimistic posts with extreme negativity. This was a very specifically difficult time in my life, a time when I was dealing with a serious health issue in my immediate circle, and I was terrified and I had to be strong and I was falling apart on the inside but putting on a brave face and playing an active supportive role for the person whose health was compromised. And so I guess I was posting positive statements akin to “This too shall pass” “From great suffering comes great wisdom” “Brightness follows every squall” and other saccharine dreams … and he was responding to them with comments akin to, “Yeah, but if it passes there will only be more horrible things ahead” and “nope, suffering begets greater suffering” (he’s not articulate enough for that one), and “actually, extensive flooding usually follows squalls, and with that comes poverty, disease, and more destruction,” and so on and so forth. And I guess I asked him, publicly, to stop raining on my one-woman parade (which is really just a walk) and he told me to “fuck off” (that’s an actual quote) and I defriended him.

Wow I’ve had a lot of caffeine this morning.

Anyway, so I got an out-of-the-blue, five-years-later note from him that read: “If I was a dick to you in the past, I apologize”.

Twelve step program, table for one.

I responded with, “Apology accepted, we’ve all been dicks at one point or another”.

I don’t really know what my point is in sharing that. Maybe it’s that there is no statute of limitations, in my opinion, for apologies. And that, even though I do very much love the rain, I do not like having my spirit dampened.

Life is hard for all of us; that’s the nature of the beast. But to me, the more connections we can make to one another, the richer and more beautiful it can be.

Many people in my life are going through challenging times — breakups, financial troubles, health issues, family challenges — and for these friends, and for me, I wish many moments of reprieve, however temporary, from the pain. If you’re reading my words, I promise you you are not alone. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain in reaching out if you’re going through dark times.

This post took an unexpectedly somber turn. Kittens! Baby sloths! Sea otters holding hands!

Living is easy with eyes closed

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Namaste.

I started Transcendental Meditation last week. I was very generously given a gift certificate for my birthday and it took me a few seven months to finally use it.

I was daunted by the whole thing, daunted by the notion of having to practice something, in theory, every day for the rest of my days. Twice every day. I was daunted because I’ve tried meditating in the past and have never been able to clear my mind or focus on my breathing with much consistency. And I was daunted by the notion of change — positive change, sure, but change nonetheless. Like many of us, I am very adept at holding onto things long after they’ve stopped serving me well.

In the days leading up to my first lesson I did some research — there’s tons of material on line about the practice, medical studies done at reputable institutions, celebrity testimonials, and so on and so forth.

Turns out you don’t have to clear your mind or concentrate on your breathing to practice this. At the orientation we were told that TM is not something you need to believe in, because it simply works. It’s not a religion or a philosophy or a cult … it’s a very simple technique that, they say, “Anyone can practice.”

Here’s how TM works: you sit for twenty minutes twice a day with your eyes closed, silently repeating your mantra as effortlessly as possible. Well, first you go through your four days of training, which is where you’re given your mantra, taught the technique, taught the mechanics of stress release and the physiology of the whole thing, where you watch charming, very 70s videos of the Maharishi (who emerged from the Himalayas in the 1950s to teach TM to the rest of the world), and where you can ask every question you might have, e.g. What time should I practice? What if the phone rings? What if I miss a day? Can my dog watch me meditate? What if it doesn’t work? What if I think while I’m doing it?

You’re allowed to think while you do this. In fact, you’re supposed to and to acknowledge your thoughts — you’re just not supposed to actively follow them. Whatever pops into your mind is fine; they say thoughts are the release of stress, which is one of the goals of this practice.

The cost of TM is, essentially, a lifetime membership to the club … you can go to as many followups and work with as many teachers as you wish to, and you’re welcome to visit any TM center in the world. You can attend group meditations and lectures and guest speakers and all the rest.

However, it does cost money, and that’s an obstacle for many of us. I certainly wouldn’t have done it were it not for my gift certificate. But I think the very basic mechanics of it all might be effective without the formal training — I told a friend about it and she’s going to try it on her own, albeit with a mantra of her own choosing and without someone who really knows her stuff guiding her through the beginning.

I already feel some positive results in the week+ I’ve been practicing. David Lynch, who is a huge proponent of the practice and who has a foundation that offers scholarships for learning the technique, says in a video that he had a lifetime of depression and anger before he started practicing — anger, he says, that he would take out on his first wife. After he practiced for one week, his wife commented, surprised, at how much his anger seemed to have dissipated. He says he wasn’t even aware this had happened, but then yes, he realized he felt a lot calmer, a lot less stressed. Despite the fact that nothing external had changed.

Harvard Medical School did a study in which they took a group of students, taught them the technique, and then strapped them to all kinds of devices to check heart rate and brain waves and red blood cells. The students who thought they weren’t doing it right, because they were distracted by a breakup or a failed test or some other life event, or that they just weren’t “good at it” — had the same positive health results as the others, the ones who nailed it.

In this week+ I have definitely been sleeping better and waking up earlier. I’m feeling the effects of the things I consume and the exercise I do more readily. And I’m calmer, better able to listen to people, more sure of what I need to do. I’m a fairly self-aware person to begin with, but I am very good at numbing that self awareness and sabotaging my productivity. At giving and receiving less than I deserve. I feel stronger, emotionally, and I am so very grateful that I do.

Still daunting to think this is the new normal for me, this daily practice, but it is definitely something I will try hard to practice consistently. If you have to skip a session, the good isn’t undone. The twice daily twenty minute session is the guideline for optimal results. Apparently once daily for twenty minutes is better than twice for ten — it takes about twenty minutes (fifteen according to some of the literature) for the mind to really settle as it’s meant to.

The mantra they assign you is a Sanskrit “sound” — not a defined word — and you are meant to keep it to yourself. You are also meant to not concern yourself with how it’s spelled, which is challenging for a writer … the idea is that the less you attach to it the more it can function as it’s supposed to, to bring your mind into a deeper, more reflexive state of calm. My teacher described the mantras as “charming sounds” — and it’s funny to think that this charming little sound is now an integral part of my daily life. The first few days I felt oddly maternal toward it.

I had a conversation earlier about the mythologies we grow up believing about ourselves, mythologies based mostly on external factors — our role in the family, the mistakes we’ve made, the things, positive and negative, we’ve been told over and over about ourselves. It can be hard to break free of these fabricated identities and it is very important to be able to do so. This is, I think, one of the positive side effects of things like meditation — as we become more in tuned with ourselves and our essences, we access a more pure version of ourselves and can move forward accordingly, less susceptible to the negative influences of external forces.

I am in transition these days, and this is a historically challenging place for me — for many of us — to be. But as my lunch companion said, transition is necessary for positive growth. And that is my mission.