Thursday, December 31, 2009

I am finishing Gwen Bell’s December blogging challenge with a whimper.  As a recovering perfectionist, this is an opportunity to practice a little messiness (I suppose. Grudgingly.)

I appreciate anyone who may be reading these hastily written words at the end of what I imagine is a very full month for everyone.  I have to get to sleep as I am going to ring in the new year with a full day of meditation.  Hurray!  I hope to come back to some of these questions in the following week, as I've been blogging them in my mind the last ten days as I've been immersed in holiday fun, travel, and a little holiday trauma too.

December 21 Project. What did you start this year that you're proud of?
So many things... This was a year of starting and finishing.  One of those things is still a secret, but it involves a pact to actually make money writing, as well as an opportunity to collaborate with some brilliant women, and to (I hope) write something that helps people.

December 22 Startup. What's a business that you found this year that you love? Who thought it up? What makes it special? 1)  Emc2 Emmett McCarthy see 'best shop post'.
                                      2) Grand Street CSA (my CSA) Community Supported Agriculture.  So grateful to be a part of this movement to eat slow, local food.  It isn't a fad.  Its an enormous improvement on the grocery store for my health, the health of the planet, and my wallet too. 

December 23 Web tool. It came into your work flow this year and now you couldn't live without it. It has simplified or improved your online experience.  Thanks to a good friend, I now have technology  that is up to date for 2006!  I have a phone that is also a blackberry type device.  No more bulky filofax.

December 24 Learning experience. What was a lesson you learned this year that changed you?
Someone tried to take credit for my work.  I stood my ground and got the credit I deserved.  Don't mess with a Taurus.
December 25 Gift. What's a gift you gave yourself this year that has kept on giving?
Through meditation I've been developing the witness self.  This is the best present ever ever ever.

December 26 Insight or aha! moment. What was your epiphany of the year?  Too many.  Today's insight was that I have looked at my writing as something that people sometimes admire (really-- it isn't all choppy and full of awkwardly constructed sentences when I write more than a first draft), but I had not seen it as anything that could have the potential to be truly healing, even though I've written things (especially poems) that people have expressed thanks for receiving.  Its time to look at my writing as  part of the medicine I have to offer.  It can be that.  Why not?

December 27 Social web moment. Did you meet someone you used to only know from her blog? Did you discover Twitter? Yes I discovered Twitter.  I discovered it-- or more like I chose to join in-- because when my dad's secretary had to leave suddenly he was left completely helpless, having stubbornly refused to learn basic things about technology over the years as a private practice lawyer now in his 60's. He used to refuse to 'learn how to use the google'.  He is learning now, but its a steep curve.  So basically I was frightened into jumping into the fray for fear of being left behind, and I'm very glad I did.

December 28 Stationery. When you touch the paper, your heart melts. The ink flows from the pen. What was your stationery find of the year? Danielle LaPorte's cards are gorgeous.  They are even more beautiful in real life than they are online, as the paper is thick and luscious, and the fonts are just so big and juicy.  I gave the fanfuckingtastic card to a friend starting a new business.  My friend cannot swear.  She says that she'd like to, but her mom put a curse on her and she can't get the words out.  She put the card where she can see it every day.'This is IT!' she said when I gave it to her.  'This is THE CARD! I'm putting it on my altar.' I love cards, I give them to friends all the time, and I've never gotten a reaction like that before.

December 29 Laugh. What was your biggest belly laugh of the year?  I have heard that jokes are some of the hardest things to remember.  I can remember laughing until I was screaming and pounding the floor on many separate occasions with three beautiful people.  What we were laughing about I can't tell you.  But it was very funny.  I'll have to do better next year with remembering these things.

December 30 Ad. What advertisement made you think this year?  I'm a fan of AdBusters magazine, and was fascinated by their corporate logo/ leaf shape test.  There are two black and white squares on the page, one filled with corporate logos, the other with leaf shapes, all just in outline.  I was able to name most of the leaves, but also all of the corporate labels.  Most of the people I showed it to could name all of the labels and few of the leaves.

December 31 Resolution you wish you'd stuck with. (You know, there's always next year...) I'm pretty good at sticking to resolutions.  I think it is the confidence that comes with being an ex-smoker.  Somehow, doing that made me feel that I could do anything I set my mind to.  This year I stuck to my writing every day resolution, which was major, as well as some smaller ones.  I did say that I wanted to have more parties, and I had exactly one, which was one more than the year before.  This year I'll be taking a page out of Gretchen Ruben's book and have more 'laid back gatherings', which are less overwhelming.

Happy New Year.  I'll be blogging again at least twice weekly starting next week.  It has been such a pleasure discovering great writers and fascinating people through this community that Gwen Bell has been fostering.  Yay Gwen!  Yay bloggers!

Monday, December 21, 2009

My Young Heros

Post inspired by Day 20 of Gwen Bell’s December blogging challenge:

 Who is your unsung hero of 2009?

I'm smiling right now, looking at this picture of two of the kids I mentor in a children's garden in New York City.  They are planting tomatoes we grew from the seeds of the previous year's crop for our communal 'pizza' vegetable garden.  

When I tell people about my work with the kids, the reaction is often something like, 'Oh, that's great. What a good thing you're doing for those kids, etc.' While I truly appreciate the cheerleading, because its unpaid and often unnoticed work that takes precious hours away from my business and writing, I want to tell people, 'No. It isn't what I'm doing for those kids. It's the other way around. Those kids save me.'  

The two little girls in this picture love the earth.  They worry about what's happening to it the way I worried about nuclear war when I was growing up.  The older one told me that when she sees trees that are being 'mistreated' she cries.  She said that she cries at night sometimes thinking about what's happening to the planet.

The kids feel incredibly proud when they plant trees, make compost, watch the seeds they planted grow into sunflowers.  They are delighted by worms, by dark rich soil, by finches nibbling crab apples and mason bees dozing on coneflowers.  Their delight is infectious to anyone who is open to it. 

They are learning how to be advocates for the earth, and they inspire me every time I see them.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Best of 09 Catch Up Post

These prompts are from Gwen Bell's December Blogging Challenge.  I'm playing catch up after a very full week of artistic output on my play, energy spent on my herbal biz, dancing in a performance, and in case that sounds like too much fun, really thrashing out a tricky situation.  Here online  I was getting carried away with reading everyone's amazing posts and noodling around on twitter at all hours of the night.   I had to chose between blogging from midnight until 4 AM or sleep, and sleep won out.  But maybe I can learn to both sleep and blog.  Yet to be determined.

Rush of the year: 
Hearing the play I worked to complete for five years read aloud for the first time by an actor.

Best Packaging:
Glass milk bottle.  Elegant.  Completely reusable. The milk tastes infinitely better.    There used to be one type of milk that I could find in a glass bottle here in NYC.  Now there are two kinds readily available in my neighborhood,  Ronnybrook Farm and Milk Thistle Farm.  My hope is that the glass milk bottle craze will sweep the nation. It tastes so good, the reusable bottle gives you a happy feeling, and you can pretend you're on Mad Men.

Tea of the Year:
I'm an herbalist, a.k.a. a tea-ologist.  I'm known for my tea blends, and I own 4 teapots of various sizes and actually use all of them regularly.  My very favorite tea isn't a blend, though, its Linden flower I gathered myself from the trees in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.  You know in June when all of a sudden the air smells like honey as you pass under these enormous shade trees often buzzing with bees?  That's linden.  I love it so much that I named my dog after the tree Tilia, the Latin name for Linden.  Its not cultivated in the U.S., though its highly medicinal (studies have found it lowers blood pressure) and is also relaxing, as well as simply delicious.  You can buy it from Mountain Rose Herbs, though its imported from Eastern Europe, where it has been a beloved tisane for centuries.  Proust writes about Linden tea with his madeleine in Swan's Way.

Word or Phrase:
2009 was... transformational.  9 is a number of change. After a run of some (10) entropic-feeling years I finished my play, wrote 30 poems in 30 days, started a novel, danced a solo in front of an audience, began the process of founding a not-for-profit, expanded my business, and finally made homemade mayonnaise. 

Best Shop:
EMc2 Emmett McCarthy
Emmett McCarthy's designs are timeless, current, sophisticated, and a little tongue-in-cheek.  What Holly Golightly or a young Elizabeth Taylor would wear today.  Michelle Obama has caught on.  Emmett uses beautiful fabrics in both neutrals and deep jewel tones, with exquisite tailoring done right in New York City where his boutique is located.   One of his winter coats boasts a silk lining.   Those kinds of luxurious details make me feel both dressed to kill and also completely comfortable.  I have one of his gorgeous coats now, and plan on adding another piece to my wardrobe just as soon as I can.

Best Car Ride of the Year: the subway.

I  understand driving a car really fast.  Driving makes more sense to me as a sport than as a mode of transportation.  For the latter I'd rather walk, snowshoe, ride a horse, a bike, or in the city take the train.  I love the fact that if you live in Manhattan you don't have to own a car.

This summer I took a long road trip with my partner, and we drove through bizarre little towns north of Highway 2 in Minnesota.  It was a glimpse of what driving must have been like before highways.  We got a feel for which towns were wealthy with their freshly painted Scandinavian inspired gingerbread moldings on the buildings, and which were not: 'Spooner Blows!'.  We drove through brat days and past spaghetti dances.  We goofed, laughed, listened to good jazz, but unlike when we're sitting by a lake having a great time, or at our kitchen table, I felt slightly queasy and stiff from immobility. So ultimately I left the car knowing that I'll always need to live somewhere where I don't have to drive because no matter how much fun driving can be, its still driving.

Even though the MTA has been really shady lately with their fare hikes and service cuts, I'm so grateful for the New York City Subway System. 

Here's my favorite ode to the train:  Duke Ellington & Ella Fitzgerald, Take the A Train.

Monday, December 14, 2009

What's the best change you made to the place you live this year?

Post inspired by Day 13 of Gwen Bell’s December blogging challenge

I live in a very small apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  Its not the smallest apartment, that would be this one, but it isn't a lot of space for two people, two dogs, and frequent house-guests.    I have to purge about twice a year, or I'll go insane. 

 I've been inspired by the great de-cluttering posts on Communicatrix's blog, as well as her book recommendation, Clutter Busting by Brooks Palmer.  I also love Karen Kingston's Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui.  Both books give insight into what goes on emotionally when we hoard stuff. 

The often arduous process of finding new homes for my underused things has made me more conscious of my purchases, and even of the gifts I accept.  I've pared down a lot.

The deepest purge I've ever done was this last one.    I took a look at my bookshelves and thought, 'I can't possibly get rid of one more book.' But I didn't have space on the shelf for the box that stores the first handwritten draft of a novel I'm working on.  I was subconsciously telling myself that my own writing didn't belong on a bookshelf.  A bunch of books found new homes.

The moment I started this purge, my outworn relationships began to shift too.  I found myself letting go of some people, reconfiguring my relationships with others.  The process is still going on, and is likely to take awhile, but the new found clarity in my relationships feels even more freeing than the extra three feet of space available for yoga asanas.

How about you?  What was your best change in the place you live this year?  If you are part of the Best '09 challenge, I'd love it if you'd leave a link to your blog, and if not, write your answer in the comments.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Goblin Fruit

We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
their hungry thirsty roots?....

'Nay, hush, my sister:

I ate and ate my fill,
Yet my mouth waters still...

~ Christina Rossetti from Goblin Market: a Tale of Two Sisters

I adore this ballad by Victorian poet Christina Rossetti.  Much has been written about the meaning behind Goblin Market.  The author herself said that it was meant as a simple fairy story, though not for kids.  I think it has many layers, like dreams.   The words and images are as rich and sensuous as almost anything I've ever read.  If you don't have your own paper copy, I suggest printing it out and reading it when you are lounging and eating delicious fruit.  Maybe in the bath.

Post inspired by Day 12 of Gwen Bell’s December blogging challenge: What was your favorite new food 09? (still haven't tried goblin fruit, but know I'd love it.)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Reimagining Home

Go where you will.
Take the long lashes
that guard your eyes
and sweep a path
across this earth....

there is no fixed place
on earth for man
or woman...

Alice Walker from Revolutionary Petunias

There is no place called home. 

The place where I spent many years growing up still exists.  My mother still lives there.  The land she's been cultivating for over twenty years is mature now with tall trees shading her moss garden, accented by purple flowering hostas and lacy white hydrangeas. Large fuchsia rhododendrons put on a show every Spring.  There are vistas of  Black Eyed Susans in the summer, and roses that bloom from April till November.  One night this year I dreamt that the garden was gone, that I would never see it again.  On my next visit I crept outside at night and hugged every tree, thanked every corner of the garden for being there.

Soon after I'd gotten back to my apartment in the city, my mom called to tell me the apple orchards at the end of the block had all been cut down. A new subdivision was being built.   My mother's boxwood has been browning.  Box is very sensitive to air pollution.  We know this story.  Its the same all over.

In her heartbreaking book 'The Place You Love Is Gone' Melissa Holbrook Pierson writes about what it means to grow up surrounded by nature, and then to have it destroyed by development.  It takes a toll on us psychically, even after we've moved away.

I live in Manhattan now.  I volunteer in a community garden designed to help city kids connect with nature. Its threatened by development, and I've spent countless hours organizing to save it. 

I've dreamt of having my own garden, a place I don't have to fight so hard to keep from being destroyed.  But I hope that when I'm finally sitting in the garden of my dreams I remember that it is really always all around me:  the parks, the street trees, community gardens, dandelions in the cracks in the sidewalk, rain forests, glaciers, wetlands, orchards.  They are all my responsibility, to a smaller and larger degree, to protect and to tend. Everywhere is home.

(above photo is of purslane, a very nutritious wild plant growing on Delancey St., L.E.S., Manhattan)

Post inspired by Day 11 of Gwen Bell’s December blogging challenge: What was your favorite place in 09? (the earth)

If you like this post, you might also like this one.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Instant Eternal: 5 Peace Band

Day 10 of Gwen Bell’s December blogging challenge: What album rocked your world in 09?

This year I got to see John McLaughlin and Chick Corea play together at Jazz at Lincoln Center, forming the group 5 Peace Band with Christian McBride, Kenny Garrett, and Brian Blade.  McLaughlin and Corea hadn't played together since Miles Davis' Bitches Brew back in 1970.  They are masters and innovators whose contrasting compositions made for an exciting night.

Saxophonist Kenny Garret's playing blew the roof off of Lincoln Center, sending some subscription holders fleeing, while the rest of us talked in tongues as we rolled on the floor.  (Not really, but almost.)

5 Peace Band is nominated for a Grammy in 2010.   Eventually I'll check out the CD.  Sometimes when I see live music that shakes me to my core I can't listen to anything recorded for awhile.  For days after the show I just wanted silence and the memory of the performance. 

I wrote the following poem for a friend I hadn't talked to in ages who would have loved to hear them play.  I was thinking about the way we can be altered forever in an instant, while at the same time some fundamental part of us, the most sacred part, never changes.  That's what the music brought up for me.

Instant Eternal

I must shoulder stones
to connect with this old friend.
The years form a cairn
between our doors.

So much has happened since even this morning.
I woke up vibrating still from the concert.
The union of sacred geometry
and raw divine love twining between masters,
spiraling from Fender to Steinway to alto sax
created a flying cathedral
that oscillated through the cosmos
on wings built from the heartwood
of an ancient forest.

My friend has a child I have not met,
though I imagine every moment spent with such a creature,
wise eyes starring at the undulating drapes
on the first warm night,
produces a cellular shift.

When we knew each other
we were full of dissonance
bouncing off of hard parallel surfaces
booming with echoes.

Now the liquid self
laughs at an absence
as timid as the flick of an eyelid.

He would know the sound
of that saxophone,
the Beloved round inside every note.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Defeating My Red Knight: Best Challenge 09

Day 9 of Gwen Bell’s December blogging challenge:  Best Challenge 09

In Terry Gilliam's film The Fisher King, Robin Williams plays a homeless man named Parry who cowers in mortal terror at the sight of an imaginary red knight, the embodiment of his fear.  The film consistently blurs the line between imagination and reality, suggesting that the line is not that important.  It doesn't matter whether or not the Red Knight really exists, it matters only that he be defeated.

My greatest challenge of 2009 was imaginary.  It was all in my head, and it was as real to me as the Red Knight was to Parry.  2009 hasn't been the easiest year.  There were deaths of people I loved, break ups with friends, job losses, but nothing was more difficult for me to handle than this:

After much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth, on a sweltering day in August with my back sticking to the leather desk chair, I proofed my script one last time before dripping through streets radiating with thick white haze blooming with sulfur, to get to Kinkos.  Then I handed my packaged script to a kind Fed-Ex worker after checking the address one last time.

That was it.  Red Knight defeated.  Heavy iron armaments fell off my body and clattered onto the concrete.  It was the first piece of writing I had sent out in over fifteen years.  It didn't matter whether or not it was accepted.  I had sent it out.  I would send out more work in the future.  I was free.

If you like this post, you may like this one too.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Finding Moments of Peace and Presence Through Dancemeditation

Day 8 of Gwen Bell’s December blogging challenge: Prompt: What was a moment of peace for you this year?

I don't need to fly to a beautiful tropical island to find peace, as Gwen Bell convincingly argues in her post on the subject.  But time spent immersed in meditation has made it easier for me to find peace everywhere, even on the streets of New York City.

One day I was walking up Sixth Avenue on my way to my Dancemeditation class, quietly chanting the Peace Prayer, 'Let me be an instrument of thy peace, where there is hatred let me sow love...' when everyone on the sidewalk froze as a man punched another man in the face, hard, and the other man swung back.  No one moved or spoke.  In a deep, authoritative voice, I found myself saying, "Quit it."

The men paused.  One turned and began to walk away. The other ran after him.  "You!"I said. "Stay there. You.  Go."  They did as they were told.  After the first man had disappeared into the subway I went on my way.  A small woman in a ruffly silk skirt, I'd taken charge in the moment because I was fully present.  I have my Dancemeditation practice to thank for that.

I’m a long talker, but when I get back from my yearly two week Dancemeditation Movement Monastery in June and friends ask me how it went, I tend to respond, ‘great.’ Period.  I don't have the desire or the ability to say much more.  If they ask for details I tell them about the simple food, the  Victorian mansion where we sleep, the old mill where we dance, the rushing waterfall behind the mill.

Its a rare gift to have two solid weeks to focus on embodiment, to sensing, moving, and breathing; exploring the space of the body, the space around the body, the space inside the body.

Going into this deep inner place with a supportive community is like paddling out to sea on a big raft.  We can go farther when we navigate through the waters together.  We get to places we could never find alone. 

By the end of the retreat I stretch like a cat, enjoying every sensation.  I'm learning anatomy and physiology from the inside out, articulating movement I wouldn't have thought possible several years ago.

There are usually some hard parts,  times when my brain won't shut up, or my dancing feels leaden, or there is some drama about kale.  Sometimes painful emotions surface.  But the hard parts are forgotten after periods of oneness….. of actually getting to leave the experience of my ego/story for awhile…. These moments are sustaining.  They shift me in subtle, fundamental ways, and they support me when I'm back in the hectic world. There are typically all sorts of little personal epiphanies along the road too.

These words feel entirely inadequate.

Here’s a poem I wrote on my very first retreat in an attempt to capture something I couldn't express through prose.  Incidentally, it was the first poem I had written in years after a long block.

I am in the sea
sinking under Love
past razor junk fish
through light and shadow.
I have begun to understand gratitude.

No words come for it. 

I can say only
that it feels right
to push my head and heart
to the sea floor.
It feels right
to take off my face
and let the water seep inside,
shifting my organs with the sand.

Blood and lymph
bathed in salt tears
become thresholds
for spirit to slip
back into my bones.

Waves lift me,
 rock me,
press me into crevasses,
fold me over myself
until there is nothing
but the folding,
motion creating space between the cells.

I want to become these waves,
foaming into coral,
sliding through the sand,
rising up inside the sky
to shudder down again.

For now I breathe through them,
chest under the blue green water,
head above their purled crests,
until they send me,
charged and weighted,
to the shore.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Best Blog Finds '09

Day 7 of Gwen Bell’s December blogging challenge:  Best Blog Finds '09

Its the end of the first week of this blogging challenge and I can't believe how much great writing I continue to find.  Its inspiring.  I'm happy to have the chance to share three of the blogs I'm always grateful to read.

My friend and fellow Dancemeditator*** Karleen Koen, author of Dark Angels, Now Face to Face, Through a Glass Darkly, and the upcoming Before Versailles, writes an exquisite blog called Writing Life, making small observations about the world around her that have reverberations far and wide. I look forward to each short entry.

I have also been deeply moved by the writings of playwright Callie Kimball (@calindrome) on her Deroraroo blog, specifically the pieces entitled This is Not a Memoir about her journey with depression.  The disease has been a part of my own narrative, and I've gained an enormous amount of insight from reading her stories, as well as simply taken pleasure in her words.

***I'm lucky that my meditation teacher Dunya McPherson is also a talented writer.  Her posts provoke, encourage, and guide me back to my practice.  Her poems are jewels.

What Costume Does Your Fear Wear?

Day 6 of Gwen Bell’s December blogging challenge:  Best Conference/Workshop/ Jam Session '09

The other day a friend of mine told me that she's trying to scrub this phrase from her mind forever:  'Its nice to be important, but its more important to be nice.'  Its humbling to recognize that this bon mot has been lodged in my gray matter too, because I've been a strident feminist from the time I was a little kid in my Annie Oakley costume twirling my two b-b gun revolvers.

But looking at the life I've chosen thus far, its fair to say that I've worked harder at being nice than I have at being important.  I started taking a closer look at that hard truth after the group firestarter session with Danielle LaPorte in September during which about 20 women and 1 man were inspired to pursue our entrepreneurial dreams and plans.  Over on A Design So Vast the author writes that part of Danielle's core message is: 'You have to ask for what you want.  You have to meet grace halfway.'

Recently I learned that in all the years former Fortune editor-at-large Patricia Sellers worked at that publication, not one woman asked for a raise, though plenty of men did.  I'd like to think I would have bucked that trend, but it probably isn't true.  I work for myself, and when people ask how much I charge I tend to squirm and apologize.    

Although I love what I do, up until now I've been happy laboring in obscurity.  I had tricked myself into believing that this was somehow the way to be authentic.  That doesn't make sense.  Lots of the people who have touched my life through their teaching or art have been outwardly successful.  If they hadn't been I would never have found them.

The unexamined belief: 'to be noncommercial, anti-commercial in fact, is noble and produces the best work' was really a mask for fear to hide behind.  But what is the fear? 

I realize that, as much as I hate to admit it,  I've wanted to be loved more than I've wanted to risk being shunned for standing out, because being loved and standing out are mutually exclusive. Obviously. 

Before asking for what I want, I've had to allow myself to want it in the first place.  The next step is working with the fear of actually getting it.  I don't mind if the fear is in the room, as long as it isn't blocking the door.

Have you dealt with the fear of success?  How do you work with it?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Naked Man's Naked July All Free

Day 5 of Gwen Bell’s December blogging challenge:  Best Night Out '09

I’m sitting on an inflatable bed with a bunch of strangers.  Some are blindfolded.  We are eating stringy black seaweed from a pile in the center of the bed that a dancer has recently been wearing on her head enclosed in an amorphous turban.  The dancer, in spiked heels, black ribbon, and little else, has taken off the turban, simulated birthing it, unwrapped the seaweed, and placed it ceremoniously on the bed, nibbling it a bit before pulling people out of their seats to join her feast.

I had no idea that this would happen tonight, and as it’s happening I’m thinking to myself, ‘I feel oddly comfortable.’  The salty seaweed tastes good, the moaning, angsty, seemingly endless song the rock musicians are playing is relaxing.

Earlier in the night I was with my husband and his family from out of town.  My husband’s aunt and his fresh faced blond haired, blue-eyed 18-year-old cousin are from North Dakota, now living in Florida.  This is their first time visiting New York City.  They have crammed into the front room of our tiny one bedroom tenement apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for… five nights.  Exhale.  Yes, five.

They are excellent house guests:  kind, excited to be here, and not at all put off by our humble accommodations via another inflatable mattress and an over-sized chaise.   An iphone minimizes the amount of hand-holding they need in order to maneuver around the city.

But the cousin wants to explore New York: the T.V. Show.  She makes a pilgrimage to the Seinfeld restaurant, then to Carrie’s stoop from Sex in the City.  I can’t get her to pay attention to our neighborhood, the East Village, until I mention the Life CafĂ© from Rent.  Its not her fault.  New York is a living t.v. and movie set. But the movies and t.v. shows never quite capture the city's raw, living heart.    Spontaneous strangeness is what I love most about the city.

So this is what happens.  We go out to dinner on Clinton Street, Frankie’s 17.  My husband’s aunt requests the plainest thing on the menu, linguine with garlic and oil.   She loves it.  I taste it.  Its delicious. We leave full and happy. 

Next-door is the new home of the Living Theatre, a downtown institution.  We gawk at people wearing flat, Dali-esque masks sitting by the theater door.  They hand us flyers that read: Come right now to  Naked Man’s Naked July with optional naked audience members.  All Free!

Before anyone has a chance to think, I pull them down a narrow flight of stairs into the black box theater.  Disappointingly, no one is actually naked.  There is a rock band, a chanteuse type singer moaning into a mike, and lots of projections on the walls that profess to be about filtering reality, the way things get filtered through the television news, how we see things in a commodified way, how we are told to see them.

The audience and the stage are evenly lit.  Projections wrap 365 degrees around the space.  There is no real off stage.  Audience members roll into the playing space and start to dance.  A camera person films the audience in their chairs from the center of the space.

My husband’s family is uncomfortable.  They fidget.  They look bewildered, then frustrated. The performance goes on.  People start to leave, and in a fit of boldness the family stands up and rushes out through the curtained door, projections rippling in their wake.  Its a dramatic exit.  There is no other choice.

I stay.  My husband will take care of them.  The performance ends when everyone in the audience has walked out or is sitting on the bed full of seaweed.  Somehow this feels like home.

Scrumtious Sentences: Best Book 09

 The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

This was one of those books where, after reading a few sentences, I thought to myself, 'I'm in love. In love.  Where have you been hiding, Angela Carter?   I mean, there must be a road named after you somewhere, right?'

While reading The Bloody Chamber, her book of short stories based on famous fairy-tales, I wanted to eat her words, smear her beautiful sentences all over myself and lick them off one by one. 

If you love Thomas Hardy, as I do, you'll love Angela Carter.  Like Hardy, she writes prose with the exactitude of a poet.  Her stories are full of vivid imagery, but they are also plot driven.  There is nothing flowery or excessive about them.  They keep your heart racing. Most of the stories in The Bloody Chamber are recognizable but twisted up in all kinds of fascinating ways, probing at the psychological and mythological depths of fatal attraction.  The title story, based on the Bluebeard tale, is chilling with a bit of wicked humor.  Puss-in-Boots, in contrast, is a naughty romp. 

Angela Carter died of cancer in 1992 at the height of her powers, which might at least partly account for why she is not more widely known outside of Great Britain. 

Salman Rushdie was a friend and huge fan.  Here's a link to Rushdie's tribute, which gives a nice overview of her entire body of work:

Rushdie suggests that Carter's fame might snowball after her death.  I hope it's happening.  She deserves it, and the world needs her tremendous gifts.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Spider Alchemy

Day 3 of Gwen Bell’s December blogging challenge:  Best Article '09

The earth is sacred.  I remember this when I'm standing on the street at dawn under a Bradford pear tree bursting with birdsong as the sky slowly turns from silver to peach or I'm watching a rose bloom in the snow.

But what about when I'm running late for someplace, talking on my cell phone in the back of a fossil fueled cab?  Do I remember then?  When my life seems to be speeding out in front of me, racing away from the natural world, sometimes a dramatic reminder of the profound beauty and alchemical power our earth possesses can bring me back into a state of wonder.

This really exists:  Golden silk threads that are 5 to 6 times stronger than steel and as soft as cashmere, created by large spiders in Madagascar.  The shimmering golden silk would make Rumpelstiltskin proud.  Scientists have been trying to emulate the material for use in NASA, and have failed to be able to do it thus far. 

Fishermen in Madagascar have been using the thread to weave simple nets for centuries, but the silk webbing is too time consuming to extract (painlessly and harmlessly) from the spiders to consider using it commercially. 

Still, two European men became obsessed with the idea of weaving with this spider silk and, with local women doing most of the real labor, they spent 5 years creating a large tapestry, which is now on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City until February ‘10. 

The men spent half a million dollars of their own money to do it.  They were called crazy.  Maybe they are.  But it is a crazy that I understand.  To me, the tapestry is like a visual poem, a ballad from and to the earth.  It is singing, ‘Look how amazing the earth is, the creatures of the earth!  Just look!’  It takes my breath away.

Here's the link to the fascinating New York Times article that inspired me trek to the museum and then wade through all of those old dioramas to see it for myself.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Oh, and I'd like a side of bigotry with that too, please

Day 2 of Gwen Bell’s December blogging challenge.  The prompt for the day was ‘Best restaurant experience ‘09.’  I was going to write a post tonight about a cavernous, Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome type restaurant in New York City.  I had avoided going to this place since its opening several years ago because I’d told myself that I don’t like big flashy restaurants.  I like intimate quiet ones.  I live inside the spectacle that is Manhattan and don’t crave more of it.  But then one night the stars aligned and I found myself there in the middle of fashion week no less, packed with designers and models in neon stilettos. 

It was an amazing night.  My friends and I joined a birthday party full of Londoners on holiday at a long communal table, and ate delectable dumplings dripping with exotic sauces while being expertly cared for by friendly staff.  There was none of the cool, sneering attitude I had expected to find in a place designed to see and be seen.

Then I remembered that I knew the guy who had probably made most of the restaurant's final hiring decisions.  I had worked with him as a waiter years ago.   He had the rare ability to bring up both the morale and the efficiency of an entire crew of jaded, exhausted performers, misfits, and immigrant restaurant workers.   He'd thrown me several life rafts of encouragement during my first wobbly weeks of working at a big midtown restaurant fresh out of school and freshly dealing with being just another waiter/aspiring artist in the city.

Kindness was clearly valued in the staff here.  Wow. (I hadn’t let on that I knew any managers, so the kindness couldn’t be chalked up to deferential treatment).

I'd cut myself off from ever going to this big restaurant before because in a blanket statement I'd decided, ‘I don’t like restaurants like that’.   This is what I was going to write about, but then the news of the New York Senate’s vote 38-24 against the gay marriage amendment came in, and after dinner tonight I crawled into bed and turned out the light.  My body felt weighted down by lead balloons.

I had stupidly thought that my beloved New York recognized the immense contributions of its gay and lesbian constituency.  Doesn’t every straight identified person know a gay couple, a gay family? The anti-gay rights people are cutting themselves off from hundreds of thousands of loving families.  It's like my bias against the restaurant that turned out to be my “favorite restaurant experience ‘09”.  I had assumed that I knew what it was all about without ever having set foot in the door.  The no voters and the people they represent are stuck in straitjackets of rigid beliefs.

Over time, the 38 no votes will be seen to be on the wrong side of history.  But in the present, there are families who are denied health and life insurance from their partners’ employers, and there are citizens and commitments that are not being honored with the respect they deserve. It just so happens that the manager of that great restaurant has a long-term same-sex partner, and they have a child together.  Today New York has said to them, and to countless others, ‘we don’t care about you’.   This has to change.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Carolina In My Mind

I am stepping up to the Best of  09 blogging challenge put out by the wonderful social media maven & yogini Gwen Bell. Each day in December she gives a prompt.  It is a great kick in the pants to get into the habit of blogging more frequently, as well as a way to give thanks for some amazing experiences, people, and things that have been part of my life this year.  My goals: 1. Don't bore people who might read it. 2. Answer each prompt. 3. Inspiration--give it & get it.   December 1st is Best Trip 09. 

I tried writing a prose piece about this trip, but the experience didn't lend itself to it.  So, in a really surprising move for me, here's a poem-y kind of a thing.

an island somewhere off the coast of South Carolina

no t.v.
no cellphone
no laptop
no ipod
no commercials
no catalogues
no billboards

salt air perfume
bones melt into warm sand
the waves steady exhale
an invitation to do the same.
pick up a book
or put it down
read poetry or gossip
stare at the shifting clouds
lie in a hammock
sit in a grey cedar rocking chair
and watch the sunrise
listen to someone play the guitar
or walk silently through the surf under the moon

laugh with loved ones
beloved conspirators.
stirrers of inspiration.
acolytes in the church of beauty.

share simple food
fresh tomatoes
fried okra
boiled shrimp
caramel cake
about important things:
dreams especially.

ride the waves
play like otters
or runaways

sit on the dock at sunset
creekside lowtide
the green grasses deepening
against the fuchsia sky.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Dead Days

release of what is not
was not
could not be
what is over
get down into the dirt
back to the earth heart
the worm core
that center place
where all things blossom
blue fungi blooms
around the heart wood

there is life inside of death
the spider creeping over white eyes
terrifies because it is so gentle
the way the rain is gentle
as it seeps into the mud
creating momentary sculptures
mud people first people
a frothing pulsing hot birth
bursting through the carapace.

It is not the birth we expected.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

lovedrunk freewrite in which I do something that scares me

I have no idea what I am going to write about.  None at all. I am writing about the blank page.

The last hour or so has seen me flitting around on twitter, peeling at my cuticle, reading the New York Times Sunday magazine, and thinking about working on the novel.  A procrastination snarl.  I am fairly famous for them.  They feel usual.

This is unusual, though, this blogging 'off the cuff' about nothing when I have at least 10 blog ideas in my mind.

What is really interesting me right now is my novel, and the play I am getting ready to workshop, and the opera I am dramaturging.

And this.   I've been thinking about my spiritual path.  I'm a Sufi.  To me, this means a seeker who is lovedrunk-- not just with the Divine, but with the world.

It has taken me four years of deep practice to define myself as Sufi.  A novice.  Learning slowly.  Its great, this slowness, learning something that takes many years to deepen into instead of something I'm supposed to 'master' after some six week course.

But  I'm not very comfortable with labels, and I'm even less comfortable discussing my spirituality.  That said, something has shifted and it feels innate.  Permanent, somehow.  A part of my core self.

To be lovedrunk is just what it sounds like.

Let's say I find myself holding a grudge.  For example, a woman I respect belittles a child in a crowded room.  I'm too shocked to respond before the moment passes.  I want to forgive her, but I simply can't.  She's made me feel powerless.  I can't shake it.  I want to shake her instead. 

Then one night I have a glass of wine, and another, and maybe one after that.  My heart is like a singing bird.  I happen to think about the person and find that the grudge is gone.  The love has returned.

Tipsily I dial, the phone is miraculously answered, I gently tell her how I felt and we make up.

Sufism finds ways to get to compassion, forgiveness, and love without the actual wine, and eventually embody those feelings not just in ecstatic states, but always.

The process is not always pretty or pleasant.  It can feel tough, though it can also be blissful.    I am a Sufi.  I needed to say that. 

Now to work on the novel.

*painting by Pakistani artist Shafique Farooqi

Friday, October 2, 2009

A Fabulous Hat or How Limitations Can Increase Creativity

I used to tell myself, 'I'll write when I have more time'. The opposite is actually true. The less time I have, the more feverishly I work. There is no time to second guess myself. Deadlines are genius. I love other constraints, too. They push my creativity in directions I wouldn't think to go.

The hat in the picture recently won first prize in the Garden Club of Virginia's 2009 rose show, category creative. The constraints were: make a modern creative arrangement using roses as the predominant flower and involving a hat. Take inspiration from the life of Richmond philanthropist Grace Arents, 1848-1926.

There is a haunting, ghost-like quality in arrangement's use of negative space. The choice to use a metal mesh hat form with a cloche shape evokes a bygone era, but the sweet pink roses and silvery leaves hint at something enchanted and hopeful. This hat tells a story.

It was made by my mother, Rosanne Temple-West Jones. She says that she wanted to invoke a sense of spirit and memory.

I'm giving myself one week to make some art involving this hat. I invite anyone else who feels like it to do the same, or make up your own constraints.  Write a story, poem, painting, etc. and I will post it on the blog. Thanks for the inspiration, Mummy!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Rilke, Limbo, & Snakeskin Leggins or: How Do I Make a Living Doing What I Love?

I want my job to pay my rent and a plane ticket to a meditation retreat in Bali. I also want it to be ecstatically satisfying, and this desire has had me holding every failure, success, regret, and thought pattern up to the light for scrutiny.

I’m getting there. I love what I do, but I’ve been trying to incorporate more of my artistic self into my herbal business because bringing out people’s creativity is a core piece of who I am, I’m great at it, and many of my clients tell me that they want help in this area of their lives. However the mystery remains; how to make it happen?

Rilke says that we need to love the questions themselves. I’ve been a Rilke fan since 14 and he’s always been right. But with my burning question searing a hole in my head, I decided to sign up for a group firestarter session with Danielle LaPorte, the author of Style Statement, and White Hot Truth, a blog that has been helping me get to the heart of the matter. Danielle is genius at inspiring entrepreneurs to fuel their businesses and lives with true passion.

About 19 women and one relaxed man gathered in the beautiful home of novelist and blogger Aidan Donnelley Rowley, to learn how to capitalize on work we love. I walked in fairly terrified, intimidated by thinking of entrepreneurs leap years ahead of me, but mostly made sleepless and queasy by the feeling that I was on the precipice of some deep change. Change is scary to me. It helped that everyone in the room radiated excitement and warmth.

Danielle was reassuring without being cloying. She spoke of the Bardo, the Tibetan Buddhist word for the liminal states of being: in-between places, limbo. I relaxed then. I reminded myself that I’m fairly comfortable with limbo. The first prize I ever won was for limbo queen when I was three. The one I’m experiencing right now in my business is normal. Deep exhale.

Danielle, like Rilke, believes in questions. Here’s a sampling:

  • If you dropped acid and wrote your business plan, what would it look like?
    Write that first. Then write your business plan.
  • What are people interested in when you talk?
  • What do people thank you for?

Danielle was also very full of practical advice about how to increase your blog’s subscription list, how to budget time efficiently, etc. Her attention to the aesthetic and spiritual aspects of business (i.e. truth and beauty are as important as the bottom line) resonates with me deeply, so she’s a perfect teacher. And if (the boss of me) artistic self would rather hear it from a dread-headed philosopher in a grey cashmere sweater dress and green snakeskin leggings, then I’m very lucky such a one exists.

By the end of the three hours, with the help of some of the other wise ones in the room, I began to see where I’m headed.

** Awesome image found on Max "Bunny" Sparber's site

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Evesdropping at the Theater

I love going to the theater alone because I don't have to wonder whether or not someone else is having a good time, and I get to eavesdrop on strangers. On most recent solo trip to BAM's Next Wave Festival I was typically running late, and didn't have to apologize to anyone as I breathlessly took my seat after sprinting from the subway.  

After the show it was fun to listen to audience reactions without having to participate in the debate myself. I wrote down my thoughts (not what I do when I'm with friends), and was probably clearer in my writing than I would have been if I'd been talking.

The show was In/I, a dance theater piece starring Juliette Binoche and Akram Khan. I loved it. You can read my review here.

Friday, September 4, 2009

A Book That Will Get You In The Mood... to Birth Freaky Brilliant Brain Children, a.k.a. Lynda Barry Rocks!

Last fall my fantastic friend Simone and I went to the New Yorker Festival and listened to Matt Groening and Lynda Barry chat about the artistic process. Simone and I walked away high on ideas, clutching our newly signed copies of Lynda Barry's book, WHAT IT IS, to our chests, clicking our heels all the way home.

Barry is an acclaimed comic strip writer and novelist, best known for Marlys from Ernie Pook's Comeek, as well as a playwright. I hope that sooner or later she will be just as well known for
What IT IS, because it is one of those rare books I want to give to everyone I meet.

What excites me about the book is Barry's understanding of the interplay between visual creativity and writing. Like other mammals, humans tend to think, imagine, and remember in images, and yet when we write, we often forget about that. Playing with images helps us remember. The book is part graphic memoir, part creativity workbook, part exploration of the nature of art. It is impossible to read the book and not feel inspired.

After reading it for a bit I wanted to pick up a glue stick and some images and dance a little jig and then do some writing. It reminded me just how much fun the creative process can be. Whenever I open it, it feeds my desire for stories and fresh ideas while my eyes feast on Barry's deceptively simple ('I can do that too!') artwork.

It feels wrong to flatly state the shimmery ideas inside the book, presented like treasure in a child's pirate game. Here is something from my journal that I was inspired to write in watercolor, without stopping to think, on Barry's suggestion.

'I bought a blue rose on Avenue A today with Eve.
It was expensive, but I was thinking about...making friends with death.
How to do that?
'Blue roses' reminds me of Tennessee Williams, of course,
and my grandmother
who lit her hedges with blue lights
in honor of Mary, goddess of the sea, at Christmastime.
It is clearly unnatural, this blue rose.
I carried it with me,
poking out the top of my green shopping bag
unconcerned, like it was somehow tougher than other roses.'

Here are some of the questions Barry asks in the book:

When images come to us, where do they come from?

Does your imagination know what year it is?

What is the past made of?

When we imagine things we don't want to imagine, why can't we stop ourselves?

She expresses many of her ideas obliquely through her graphic memoir, suggesting fun games to strengthen her readers' imagistic powers in the fourth quarter.

Lynda Barry has a website that has said it is 'coming soon!' for at least a year. There are some great images of
What IT IS on her myspace page, but I find that format really difficult to navigate.

She typically teaches writing classes at least a couple of times a year, and I hope to have the chance to take one sometime for the hit of inspiration I know I'll receive.

And yes, I know I'm frothing at the mouth about her, but she and
What IT IS are worth the froth.

Monday, August 17, 2009

An artist who is infusing your world with beauty, whether you know it or not.

My celebrity heartthrob is a man who died before my parents were born. Federico Garcia Lorca, in addition to the eye candy, is arguably Spain's greatest playwright and poet. I was lucky to be introduced to him in 5th grade Spanish class where I first fell in love with his poetry.

When I'd get drunk in college I'd start scribbling letters to Lorca on bar napkins, shutting out the rest of the world unless they wanted to listen to me recite his poems. He has that effect. In Spain he is rarely referred to as Garcia Lorca. It is usually just Federico.

Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, and Leonard Cohen are some of his devotees, cultivating that elusive, fiery earth spirit called
duende that Federico passionately describes in his brilliant treatise on the subject. It is a must-read for any performing artist. L. Cohen talks about how he first discovered Lorca in a bookshop in Montreal when he was a teenager. He says, 'I stumbled on a book by a great Spanish poet and in this book he invited me to enter a universe of ants, crystals, arches, minnows and flies that slipped away like herds of tiny fish. I entered that world, and I am so happy to say I never left it.'

Federico was also a talented composer, actor, theater director, and visual artist. The worlds he created are full of music, imagery, and raw emotion. They envelop. He is as much a great teacher (he would hate to be called a muse) as he is a writer, inspiring important works of music, dance, poetry, film, theater, and visual art in his time up through the present day.

Federico set Spain on fire for flamenco, heightening the prestige of this homegrown gypsy art form so that it could be seen as a jewel of Spanish culture throughout the country and around the world. He was a champion of the rights of gypsies and women, coming from a place of privilege and power, even as his open homosexuality may have cost him his life.

I spent a couple of months in Spain making a pilgrimage to all of his beloved places, as well as a somber trek to the dusty little town outside of Granada which contains what is believed to be his unmarked grave.

On August 19th, 1937 at the age of 38 he was murdered by 'nationalist militia' during the Spanish Civil War. The details of his murder are still obscured, and his death is an open wound. But while the anniversary of his death is a reminder of how much we lost that day, his writing and spirit are bathing the world in passion and beauty every minute.

Casida IX (translation below)
De la palomas oscuras

Por las ramas del laurel
vi dos palomas oscuras.
La una era el sol,
la otra la luna.
Vecinitas, les dije,
donde esta mi sepultura?
En mi cola, dijo el sol.
En mi garganta, dijo la luna.
Y yo que estaba caminando
con la tierra por la cintura
vi dos aguilas de nieve
y una muchacha desnuda.
La una era la orta
y la muchacha era ninguna.
Aguilitas, les dije,
donde esta mi sepultura?
En mi cola, dijo el sol.
En mi garganta, dijo la luna.
Por las ramas del laurel
vi dos palomas desnudas.
La una era la otra
y las dos eran ninguna.

Qasida of the Dark Doves

Through the laurel's branches
I saw two dark doves.
One was the sun,
the other the moon.
Little neighbors, I called,
where is my tomb?
In my tail, said the sun.
In my throat, said the moon.
And I who was walking
with the earth at my waist
saw two snowy eagles
and a naked girl.
The one was the other
and the girl was neither.
Little eagles, I called,
where is my tomb?
In my tail, said the sun.
In my throat, said the moon.
Through the laurel's branches
I saw two naked doves.
The one was the other
and both of them neither.

(trans. Catherine Brown)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Pop Culture Loss that Stings

I was startled by the appearance of a pretty English boy dawdling at a green market stand in NYC recently.

He was so pretty that he looked like an alien. His eyes radiated blueness and his blond hair gleamed. His teeth were so white that they made the sound of a struck metal triangle when he smiled.

As it turned out, he had recently been hired to act on Guiding Light, the oldest running television show in existence, which had just been canceled. The hearty gal at the farm stand had little sympathy for his despair over the lost gig, but I did, because I am sad to see the show go.

I remember watching it with my mother and grandmother in my grandparents' place when they
still got away with calling me 'wee Kate'.

I'd sit on a little embroidered stool drinking tea out of a porcelain cup and eating smiley faced cookies (the best, which also don't exist anymore) while we watched Phillip and Beth's impossible love unravel as evil, evil Roger schemed.

I remember flipping on the T.V. in college to learn that Beth was coming back from the dead yet again. The storylines recycled themselves infinitely.

My family was made up of British ex-pats, and as Guiding Light came on at tea time that was the soap we watched.

My great grandmother had listened to it on the radio whenever she was in the States. My grandmother had picked up the habit, as had my mother.

I guess I dropped the ball. I got complacent. I didn't watch. I thought that it would always be; like the sun. But the show's symbol was a lighthouse, and lighthouses are always being torn down.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

El Hai

After my meditation retreat ( I have fewer thoughts in my head.

I care for the slightly licorice taste of basil and the pungent salt smell of ripening tomatoes.

My deepest fears feel somehow like surface patter in comparison to the heady summer scents washing over me.

My home is full of fresh chamomile and drying linden, blooming gardenias, yellow sweet clover, with an undertone of Paul’s tobacco and the dogs.

Earthy, moving smells rich in their beings.

That is how I feel.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Best Advice Ever

With that Moon Language

Admit something: Everyone you see, you say to them, love me.
Of course you do not do this out loud,
Otherwise someone would call the cops.
Still, though, think about this,
This great pull in us to connect,
Why not become the one who lives with a full moon
In each eye that is always saying
With that sweet moon language
What every other eye in this world
is dying to hear.


Saturday, May 30, 2009

Collage for creativity and self-understanding

I love to collage.  Its a way that I get unstuck creatively.  I don't consider myself a visual artist, and so collage isn't something I do for 'work'.  Its all just fun, and so I can love my collages in a way that I find I can't love my writing-- that is, completely uncritically.  My collages are like letters sent to me my by my subconscious. 'This is what you're into right now', they tell me. Sometimes startling patterns emerge.

The key for me is not caring how it turns out. The collage doesn't need to be pretty, or sophisticated, or even interesting. Its a game.

When I'm feeling miserable about something, the images help me to discover what else is happening in the murky backwaters of my subconscious. It may be that a part of me finds the situation funny or exciting, and I am not as pathetic as I'd assumed I was. Collaging helps me to break out of feeling habits by scratching beneath the surface.

I find words and ephemera from old magazines, newspapers, books from the street, whatever flotsam is lying around that grabs my attention. The only rule is that I can't stop and think about why I like a word or image until the collage is finished. (Although I'm always breaking that rule.)

I collage when I can't write, when I'm raging, overwhelmed, confused, depressed, elated, blissed out, flummoxed. I explore my dreams, ideas, or stories I'm creating when the writing feels tight and airless.

I collage often. After taking words and images and pasting them on paper, I can usually make my way back to the pen or the keyboard. I've listened.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Green Angels and Jabberwocks: Overcoming Fear

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms my beamish boy!
O Frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!
He chortled in his joy.’
--Lewis Carroll from ‘Jabberwocky’ in Through the Looking Glass

A woman who is an actor, screenwriter, ex-cop, and lesbian once told me that she had no fear. ‘Really?’ I asked, trying not to sound too incredulous. ‘Nope,’ she answered.

This made me think. I’m not afraid of rats or snakes or spiders, and when I was held up at gunpoint I was able to focus on the robber’s scrawny shape, wide-set eyes, and large ears so that the cops got a good description. But I do have fears, deep and strange ones.

At one point I was writing a story about a woman who becomes unhinged. I used material from my own nightmares, family traumas, skeletons in the closet, hauntings. The first draft was difficult. I found myself experiencing the emotions of the character as I wrote. I know that suffering for art is a silly notion, but my pain seemed to prove that I must be doing ‘real’ work.

The despair and hopelessness that had racked me as a teenager began to resurface raw. I confided in a close friend, who later told me she was so worried that she had almost called my family; afraid I might take a dive off a high pier. I put the story down for a few months. In the second draft I glossed over those scenes, working instead on the less emotional material.

I wasn’t sure how to approach the piece. I wanted to do it maturely, with my center intact. I thought of a successful, grounded novelist I know through meditation work. She must have a method, I figured. ‘Maybe I should ask her’, I thought one night before bed. Then I went to sleep.

My novelist friend showed up in my dreams that night. She read two poems. One was about her cat, entitled ‘Green Angel’. It felt like an exhalation, an unwinding. The other was about some past trauma. I remember colors: bruise purple, jaundice yellow and cut red, a water color of pain that was rich but contained. I woke up feeling like I had a plan.

A mutual friend of ours had recommended a book by Alice Hoffman several years prior to this dream reference entitled Green Angel. It is a young adult novel written in simple, elegant prose that chronicles the journey of a girl named Green after she loses her family and the world as she knew it in an apocalyptic event.

I had picked it up in a bookstore once, putting it down again quickly because the subject matter seemed too depressing. But the day after my dream I found a copy and devoured it. The story is an inner map for healing the psyche written as a modern-day fairytale. The girl Green must find a way through her grief or else die of despair. She gradually begins to grow again after taking in a thin white greyhound who becomes her guardian.

That was it. I remembered that the ‘Green Angel’ poem in my dream had been about my writer friend’s cat. The dream’s message seemed to be that I couldn’t go into the nightmare realm alone. I needed a guardian. Luckily, I have a pack of dogs. There are the two bright-eyed waggers who whine for their dinner every night, and then there are other beloveds from earlier times who still show up in my dreams when I need them.

I know something about the special ability of animals to nurture the soul. Mired in my own depression soon after September 11th 2001, I found a ghost white, ancient, starved down dog in the New York City subway system who led me and my life partner slowly back to daylight.

I named the dog Beamish Boy from Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky because though his frail body and thin white coat revealed battle scars, he had made it through his ordeal, triumphantly snuggling into our arms. The three of us lived together for almost four years before Beamish passed away, very well loved.

I put a picture of him by the computer as I began the task of tackling my scary (to me) story. I asked my two waggers to watch over me too. The dogs sat on the overstuffed chaise, studying me carefully as I typed. I was able to write that difficult material without being overcome by emotion, feeling instead a flood of compassion for my character. With the help of my guardian dogs I had slain my Jabberwock.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Lost Tribes of New York City from Carolyn London on Vimeo.

I love animation and NYC street inspiration. This seems to be a riff on Nick Park's brilliant Creature Comforts. If you haven't seen that and like this, check it out.

I live for spontaneous street parties. When I was a kid growing up in the suburbs I would stare out my window into the empty cul de sac, listening to 'Feel the Beat and the Rhythm of the Night...' on the radio, and imagine the quiet dead end street transforming into a giant dance party. I thought that was what New York City must be like all the time.

Friday, May 15, 2009

I'm Still Standin (yeah yeah yeah)

What do I think I’m doing,
staring at a computer screen late at night
watching Elton John cavorting by the sea
with men dressed in rainbow body paint and loin cloths?
This is what it has come to.
This is how I find my inspiration
when it has been set down, casually, on the street outside a taco shop.

You’re not a
real poet, she said.
You haven’t attended a poetry workshop at a Seven Sisters school,
or been published recently in a prestigious literary journal.
You haven’t won a Slam or even dared enter one.
You are just like me, she said.

I’ll admit it stung.
My inner sixteen year old,
clutching her pencil,
writing about spiders and death
and the twisted way sex is represented in culture,
buckled her knees and sucked in her breath.

But-- I –will—still—write—a—poem.
I will find my poem inside Elton’s jaunty cap.
His cane comes flying out of the sky
to land in his hand like the wand of a b-movie wizard.
Fawning dancers with their Fosse-for-dummies choreography
jut their hips and snap their wrists;
take synchronized smooch sessions under beach umbrellas;
float their balletic bodies through each others arms across the sand.
How could I have missed this splendor all my life?

I used to be serious.
Loved songs about the apocalypse.
Attended the right protests.
Read the New York Times
but often skipped the arts section
unless there was a review of End Game or Homecoming,
some play about life in a dustbin
or the inherent violence underlying all human exchange.

Now my protests are in the form of ecstatic dances
and peach trees grown with children out of garbage dumps.
I wear pumpkin socks and stretch in frog pajamas.
I read cartoons when the newspaper words swirl and blur.
Swine flu rhymes with Xanadu.
Strategic strike with baby dyke.
Missile defense with swingin gents.
I say things like thank my lucky stars, as I do thank them,
for beaming Sir Elton,
sauntering in a white suit and boater on the Promenade des Anglais,
into my computer when I needed him.
And I don’t care,
not really,
whether I'm a real poet or not.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Deadly Shoulds

Let them go
All of them
Do not let
one shadow
of the shoulds
the deadly shoulds
Scrap them
Burn them
Trick them
Vomit them up and out
They will try to snare you
with their wheedling whining pleas
their antiseptic perfume
their weighted compliments
their prickly handshakes
They will grey your flesh
Cover you in dust
File you under undone
They will rifle through your dream machine
Put red rubber stoppers on all your gaskets
Plug up the exhaust system
Chase out the fairies
Choke out the magic plants
and leave you trussed
and full of lists.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Painting Pumpkins and Bananas

I am having trouble letting go of the play I’ve been working on for a few years. It is the play that has taught me, finally, how to sit at a desk for hours and write.

I tell myself that it doesn’t matter if it is any good. What matters is that I started it, and I finished it all the way to the end. But I want it to be good. I want people to like it. I am afraid that they won’t; that it isn’t.

I also fell in love with my characters. Right now their world is my own secret realm, shared with no one except for one loan, steadfast writing partner who keeps her comments brief.

So it is time to paint some bananas. Actually any vegetable or fruit with a hard fleshy skin would work, but as it is spring not many things like that are in season. I learned this trick from the kids in my local community garden who paint sugar pumpkins at our annual Halloween party every October. They ornament the pumpkins with wild strokes of electric blue and hot pink and canary yellow non-toxic tempra paint, embellishing with poofs and squiggles of glitter glue.

We try to send the kids home with their art, but when they are finished they clamber onto the see-saw or line up to have their fortunes told. They forget about the pumpkins, leaving them to wash clean in the next rainstorm. Then the bare gourds are cooked into delicious late fall soups.

It is good for me to remember the pumpkin's journey when I am finished with a project and trying to let it go. I don’t want to put my pumpkin at the foot of my bed, staring at it every morning until it begins to rot. No. I will eat my pumpkin. Or in this case, my banana. And by this ritual I hope to gently remind myself that the fun part is in the doing. So it is on to new pumpkins, or bananas, or plays. Soon.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Poetry in Hell

I used read my poems, the ones I wrote incessantly, at a bar in Adam’s Morgan, Washington D.C. called Hell. It was in the basement of a club called Heaven, which I never visited. The walls and ceiling of Hell Bar were painted red with Halloween zombie hands sticking out of the light fixtures. The place felt safe: part womb, part pirate hideout. I made certain to be there every Sunday night.

The bartender would turn off the heavy metal screaming from the speakers. I would sit at a tiny round table nursing a beer and let the poems wash over me. 

A rumpled balding man played the dulcimer every week as he recited long poems about herons. A Capital Hill type guy in pressed khakis and shiny loafers read acidly funny treatises in the persona of Wile E. Coyote. 

I nicknamed a Courtney Love-esque punk girl the cum poet because she recited her opus on cum at least once a month. I’d smirk in a dark corner as she spoke, clutching my Sam Adams, a grown-up beer, something a teenager would never order, I calculated, because I was in high school and there illegally.

I usually kept to myself. I listened to the poets, read one to three short new poems that, to quote the founder Greg Gerding, I ‘soberly, painstakingly, worked on’ during the week and left as soon as the heavy metal resumed to catch the last metro train back to Northern Virginia. 

But I felt connected. Over time the hell poets became my congregation. Greg’s poems inspired me to write on bar napkins. We were all there for the love of the word, small w. Clapping at the end, no heckling, and a generous time limit for each poet were the only rules.

When I got to New York to continue my study of theater at NYU, I went to the Nuyorican and was lost. Some of the poetry was phenomenal, but it was all so…. DECLARATIVE! I didn’t see a place in the Slam world for depressed middle-class suburban girl verse full of gentle sadness and a love of the small.  Where was the equivalency of Poetry in Hell? The anything goes kind of place? My studies took over; I never found it. I stopped writing poetry.

This lead in part to a toxic writer’s block which leached beyond poetry into everything else I tried to write. Poetry had been my first church. Time unwound; meanings were illuminated; my deepest self was given voice. Without it I was silenced in ways I hadn't anticipated. 

The block lasted from age 19 to 29. I twisted, cajoled, bullshitted, wept and fasted, wept and prayed my way out of it, along the way finding new congregations of actors, dancers, seekers, gardeners, and herbalists. But I think that I may have bypassed years of struggle if I had simply sought out other people who wrote poetry. ‘They’re doing it. I can do it too.’ I need conspirators. I know this now.