Friday, October 26, 2007

Is it a Sign?

I'm over my embarrassment enough to explain what happened.

I was trying to apply to a writer's retreat. In order to do this, I needed to prepare a ten-page original writing sample, and two essays. I started at least six weeks before the deadline. I know myself, I know how family life goes, I know that everything creative takes at least three times longer than a reasonable person would expect.

Still, I found myself down to the wire, and struggling. You would not believe how hard I worked on this application. I haven't done that much soul-searching about my art in...well, maybe never.

The night before I was to send out the packet, as my ancient printer slowly choked out the writing sample, I gathered the rest of the materials for the application. I wrote the date on the check for the application fee: 9/25/07. I glanced at the application checklist, where the deadline was printed in bold: ***Applications must be postmarked no later than Sept. 25, 2007***.


I glanced at my watch. Midnight. Midnight of September 25. Which meant that, technically, the date was now September 26. Which meant...

***All applications bearing postmarks after September 25 will be returned unopened***

...which meant I had just fucked myself.

I sat at my desk and stared at nothing. Was this for real? How had this happened?

My brother-in-law, a manic-depressive painter, happened to be in the same room, working feverishly on his own project on another computer.

"Tim," I said. "I missed the deadline."

"What?" he said. "You mean all this work you've been doing is for nothing?"

"Um, yeah, I think so. I can't believe I did this. How could I not notice the date? Oh my God, I'm a moron."

Tim, across the room, turned back to his computer screen. "I've done that many times," he said flatly.

"But I can't apply for another year," I whined.

"I've missed deadlines where I couldn't apply for another two years," he said.

How could this happen? Everyone knew my deadline! Even my husband, upon whom I rely to remember dates and deadlines. He's Rainman-like about these things. Had he not been so obsessed and focused and stressed out over his stuff that week (multiple job interviews), I feel certain that he would have corrected me that Wednesday was actually the 26th, not the 25th.

It is frustrating in the extreme that the first time I've abandoned myself completely to a creative project in a few years, I screwed it up by not knowing the date. I worked my ass off. I didn't cook or clean or walk the dog or play with the children or practice yoga for a week straight because I was so busy with this. I really had to set everything else aside to get continuity. It worked, at least creatively speaking. My tether to reality snapped, but the creative part worked. I stand by my old assertion (made cavalierly before I had children) that it takes at least six hours per sitting to write anything. (Blogs appear to be an exception, thank the Lord.)

I refuse to take this whole experience as a sign that I just should give up. Here's why: 1. I've already tried to give up writing, and failed repeatedly. 2. The triumph of finishing the writing, and the joy of doing the writing, and the pleasure of being lost in it for days and days, is better than anything else, maybe even sex. 3. I can try it again next year. 4. I fucking finished! I am a star just for that.

My dad is an artist and most of the time he doesn't know his phone number or whether or not he put on underwear that day. My brother and I like to joke that it's brain damage from a lifetime of chemical excess. Maybe it is. But there's something to the fact that he lives his life in his right brain.

Now I just need to make my own retreat happen.


It's been a dicey month. I won't go into details, because most of it's private. I will share that we've had two visiting relatives, a child's birthday party, four job interviews, and one massive writing project disaster.

The writing project disaster is far too embarassing to discuss. Let's just say that the combination of the maternal mind and balls-to-the-wall right-brained living are (a) fundementally incompatible, and (b) disastrous.

What's balls-to-the-wall right-brained living? That's when an artist is immersed in her work and can't quite surface into the real world of food and clocks and calendars. What's maternal mind? That's when the mind is stuffed to capacity with a list of small tasks to be completed, school schedules, and all the other basic shit we moms live our lives having to remember. Either right-brain or mom-mind can land a person locked outside the house without keys or shoes. For two weeks, I found myself alternating between the two. This was no fun for anyone. And, ultimately, it was ineffective for the purposes of actually making the deadline I needed to make.

It's been hard for me to write a word since. It just feels pointless.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Renunciation

As a tethered bird flies this way and that
And comes to rest at last on its own perch,
So the mind, tired of wandering about,
Settles down in the Self
-from The Chandogya Upanishad

Friday at noon I started yet another three-day yoga training immersion. This is my tenth in the past year. I was tired. I was also deranged by some personal iss-yews which my mind resisted relaxing about. I dragged my carcass to class, and submitted to my teachers' direction, and by and by allowed myself to step into the goodwill of my beloved tribe of yoga people.

A little. It's not easy to let go of some problem or thought that has become part of my recent identity. I can get pretty invested in it. Oh, I think, I've done all this work to get to this state of obsession! I would hate for it all to go to waste. Maybe if I obsess a little longer, I will solve my problem.

So even though I was noticing some pretty strong indications that it was time to lay down my burden for awhile, I continued to grasp it. I thought, I won't let myself be pulled into this squishy, goody-two-shoes, everything-happens-for-a-reason BULLSHIT. Never mind that it's probably true. I'm enjoying my torture. Anyway, I'm just going to end up right back here, because, hello, the problem has not been solved.

By the beginning of day two of the immersion (hour seven, but who is counting), I started to think, well, maybe I'll let it rest just while I'm in yoga class. We talked about the idea of renunciation. Denise, my teacher, asked us all the question, What happens when you think of renunciation? Several people said they felt a huge sense of relief. I said the same thing. It was true. I felt relief when I thought about giving up about half the shit I own (even my house!), my many consuming desires, and smoking, to name a few things. Just for a start. What if I didn't have to argue with myself about these things anymore? How glorious and free would I be?

Denise told us that the way the Buddhists talk about renunciation can be described thusly: Release the grasp. YES! I thought to myself. What a wonderful, uncomplicated, non-wordy, non-esoteric way to think about it. This will work for me. I scribbled into my notebook:

Release the Grasp!

"Susie," said Denise. "What is your relationship to renunciation?" I looked up at her, my pen still scribbling. I started to laugh. "There's this one thing I really don't want to give up," I admitted. "I can't get my head around it."

She nodded. "Try to observe that moment of grasping that arrives when you think of having to let go of something."

Uh huh.

"Consider the difference between gratification and fulfillment."

Okay, I know, I know. But is it so wrong to want to take the low road sometimes? Is it so bad to immerse oneself in the baser pleasures of life every now and again?

The Upanishads say that once you release your grasp on all things, you will be prepared to meet your true self, which is to say, God.

"Reaching the state of Self is 5,000 times better than any of the sense pleasures," said Denise.

All right, fuck it, I thought. Maybe there is something to this. (The fact that wise and transcendent people have been practicing these ideas for 4,000 years just isn't a good enough reason to buy into it, apparently.)

By the time we practiced yoga for 75 minutes and had reached the pose of savasana, I had undergone a subtle shift. I lay in the dark, spread out like a corpse, covered by a scratchy wool blanket. Around me, 40 or so people did the same. My teachers sang us the Gayatri Mantra, which is the most beautiful song I have ever heard. By the time they rang their little bells to signal us to start stirring again, I felt such fullness in my heart. I felt grateful, really, for the whole human experience.

I went home, ate dinner with my family, played a game of Go Fish with the kids, and put them to bed.

Maybe I am going to be ok for awhile.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Surrender Now, Obsess Later

In yoga class ten years ago or so, I felt for the first time the earth beneath me. I was lying in the dark with a blanket over my prone figure. My teacher said, "Let the earth support you." I thought, okay, if you say so. I noted the floor beneath me as it met the points of my shoulder blades, vertebrae, sacrum, elbows, heels. I relaxed into it until I could feel gravity tugging at my skin, my muscles, my deep heavy bones.

By some miracle, I was not immediately swallowed up by a sinkhole. Nor was I left to scramble at some post or floorboard like the doomed passenger of a sinking ship. Nothing tilted, nothing moved, nothing hurt. I was just spread out heavily and the ground held me. I kept breathing. And that's what it was like to feel solid ground. I realized that I usually walked around as if I were about to fall through a trap door.

No wonder I was so tense.

This is what savasana does for me. And as far as I can understand, this is what it is supposed to do. Now, much of the time I struggle to quiet the shopping lists and plans for dinner and thorny conversation I need to have with some person later. After class, Honey, I tell myself. You can go back to thinking about all of this after class. It will still be there!

Sometimes, this is about as far as I get in savasana with my mind. If it's a missed opportunity for real integration of mind and body after a hard practice, well, that's what it has to be today. (Really, though, spiritual teachers say there are no wasted efforts and no missed opportunities so long as the intention and awareness are there. So if I notice that I'm having a hard time letting go of my daily mental hamster-wheel marathon, then I am more conscious than I was five minutes ago.)

Lately, my life feels disorienting and relentless. Savasana has been one of the most challenging yoga poses for me to perform. The strong, muscular, pushing-the-edge poses of yoga practice feel like a great release and something solid to master. But when I come to a moment of quiet, when I am invited to "relax", I feel that old sense of sliding off the deck of the Titanic.

Yesterday when it came time for savasana I found myself right back on the mental hamster-wheel. I realized I was trying to solve a problem for which there is no solution. I knew there was no solution, but I couldn't seem to abandon the effort, however fruitless and exhausting. I remembered that savasana is my chance for a wee vacation from that. I promised myself I would be allowed to continue obsessing later. So I felt the points of my bones push into the floor. And then my skin, from the back of my head to my heels, spread out a little. And then my deep muscles fell downward, too. I surrendered.

I floated in the quality of surrender for about five seconds. Then I thought, Right! This is what I am supposed to do with my life right now. Surrender! I can surrender to this situation, and that situation, and then maybe x or y will happen...

Soon I was obsessing again. But I had contacted a quality that I could remember, that beautiful sense of not being in charge. Chances were good that I'd be able to contact it again. Practice, practice, practice.

This kind of mental training is not unlike training of the body. The muscle must be built. The memory must be made. Then you can come back to it, recognize it the next time, have something to work toward.

I will try again today.