Write Like a Champ

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You may wonder why I haven’t posted a blog in over a month. Well, dear Reader, I was wondering the same damn thing, so here we are. I’ve been screwing around with that book, the one mentioned in my previous post more than a month ago.

The truth of it is that the first draft, which I thought kicked my ass plenty, was just the start of it. The second draft is harder because I have to keep the good stuff, get rid of the bad stuff and add new stuff to fill in the gaps. I’ve decided that the wish to be a writer is like having a mental illness; you don’t choose it, it manifests at inconvenient times and never shows itself when you need it to.

I decided that the stages of writing a novel really do follow the Rocky franchise, and I’m about to tell you how.

During the first draft, I was slumming. I hadn’t written in a while, and when I did I sent stuff to small-time gilt edged literary journals with a pay entry for competitions. I don’t write for the love of it alone, it’s more like a driving madness. Suddenly, perhaps it’s in a turn of phrase I overheard at the Olive Garden or the galactic shock of Michael Jackson’s death, but I have an opening line for something more substantial than a haiku. I think I’ve got a shot at a best selling title and I sincerely want to go the distance.

That’s the heart of the first draft – I want to finish it. I (pretend like I’m gonna) wake up early or stay up (really) late but I attend to it with the same care that Rocky drank those gross raw eggs. Going ten rounds with Apollo Creed is not unlike how I felt when the first draft was finally done. I felt kinda punchy but I made it.

The synopsis of Rocky II is that Rocky and Apollo fight again, then become friends. This is the stage where I went back and read my book like a regular reader from start to finish. Sure I made notes, but I didn’t make many changes. I noticed discrepancies and added commas where necessary. There were secrets kept from me in the first draft that are apparent to me now as I read thru. Characters developed during the writing and I can see them more clearly. I did get lazy in writing discipline while I let the manuscript rest, so I had to go back into training so I could make it another ten rounds. Training includes deep breathing, reading good writing and turning Netflix off. It also helps to write everyday, even if its long-hand

In Rocky III the tables are turned. The Stallion is now in the position Creed held in Rocky I. Clubber Lang is thirsty like Balboa was back in the day. After I made friends with my novel during the re-write I started to feel like I could be a real writer, one with a career and not just a notebook in my purse and a desperate look in my eye. I felt over-confident from my many triumphant wins during the read through, like witticisms I forgot I wrote or off the charts shenanigans that are brilliant. Rocky III takes me down a few notches, when the notes I made during the reading have to be instituted. This is the cutting room floor, y’all. The re-write beat me down. This is where I am now. I pity the fool!

Rocky IV is perhaps my favorite. Though I’ve seen this installment more than the others, I am far from its equivalent in my writing career. This is where I imagine dealing with the publishing industry. The cold, hard tundra of business and negotiations on behalf of something that could’ve taken eight or so years to write. I can clearly see the tiny Balboa looking up at that giant blond Russian played by Dolph Lundgren. That is how I feel about this stage of my career. When the agents and editors say, “I must break you” I mustn’t let them.

Rocky V is the one I pretend didn’t get made. This is the equivalent of what should end up on the cutting room floor; where the files of bad ideas, false starts and sketchy backstories I might think of resurrecting later for a sequel land. I suggest skipping this stage, and this movie, and go straight to Rocky Balboa.

This installment of the Rocky franchise came later. I saw Balboa in the theater with my grandmother. When Rocky I came out in 1976 I wasn’t born yet. Rocky Balboa shows a much older Rocky back on the old block. He owns a restaurant now, he’s a mostly happy widow with a jerky hitch in his step like he could walk into a hay-maker on his way out of the kitchen. We can still see The Italian Stallion in this old guy, we know he’s in there. Writers have that same stalwart psyche; it’s part of who we are, and if properly provoked we’ll come directly out of retirement swinging wildly. This is where I admit that I’ve considered giving it up, the angst and uncertainty of a writing life is so not glamorous, but sometimes you’ve just got to show ’em what you’re made of.

Creed, the most recent installment had me like….. hold on, I need a minute.

Apollo’s son shows up on Rocky’s door hoping the champ will train him. Rocky is old, y’all, they didn’t even try to make him look good, but he still has that slow brown eyed sincerity. And of course he trains the kid, and this is the stage of writing known as mentorship.

Let me tell you something, right now you don’t want me as your writing mentor. I haven’t done anything but self-published content on a blog I bought and, also, hammer out a few first drafts in typical genres. I also fill notebooks with beautiful handwriting that is as easy to read as classical Sanskrit.

My mentors are Stephen King, who wrote the manual for us would-be authors, On Writing, and Natalie Goldberg because she is so damn consistent about writing for a writer is as necessary as coffee and peanut-butter. It’s part of our well-being. I should add that I’ve never actually met these people, so if you see Stephen King and tell him, “Oh, I read a blog post written by your protege, it was wonderful.” He’ll have no idea what you’re talking about and I’ll probably get a cease and desist order in the mail.

When I’m feeling really lost about the business side of writing I go look at websites for authors I admire. I also read books that create for me what I aspire to give my Readers. Currently Drums of Autumn performs this task for me, but so has The Mists of Avalon, Clan of the Cave Bear and Ann Rice’s The Wolf Gift.

When Apollo’s son went into the ring Rocky was right there by his side, just like Micky was there for him. That’s what a trainer is supposed to do and that’s how mentors work. The thing with Writing is that it’s a job in which the fighter must be in their own corner, which is sometimes the hardest part of the craft. Certainly we have friends who support us, a mentor we rely on, a Teacher we trust. But in the midnight hour, they’re all asleep! Writing is a solitary career, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s a worthy one, like anything you put your heart into.

rocky

 

 

 

Moon Hand Sun Hand

On Friday I went to Atlanta for a workshop called The Yogic Teachings of the Moon. Who wouldn’t want to go learn about all of that?

We may have been learning about the cooling light of the moon, but my Swami was on fire all weekend. She walked in Friday night with Shakti blazing and it was all Celestial from there. I wouldn’t begin to give a synopsis of the teachings, so this isn’t what the post is about. It’s about left and right, my friend, and my relationship with it.

The right side of the body is associated with the sun, brilliance, intellect and the masculine. The left side of the body is the moon, creativity, and the feminine. There are pranayama (breath practices) one can use to bring the left and right sides of the brain into harmony, so neither dominates the other. This leads to a stillness in the mind that helps us enter into deeper states of quiet and meditation. It is a point of balance so brilliant and illuminating that it is comparable to the sun and the moon.

I often think of the left and right side of the body, being a yoga instructor I deal in one side at a time. I am also intrigued with handed-ness. I quickly notice if I am dealing with a left handed person; one of my managers at the restaurant, the tattoo guy who put Bastet on my leg, the students at Uru Yoga and Beyond who sign their name on the clip-board, having to turn their bodies just so to the negotiate the pen on the straight line.

As a kid, my first urges to retrieve a Crayon or a fork was with my left hand. At the same time, I had a wonderfully well-meaning great-grandmother who wasn’t having any of that. Her name was Honey and she worked with me all the time. She taught me how to spell and write when I was very young. This is, in part, why I am so advanced to this day. I also credit her with my love of writing and books of all kinds. Granted, this love has sometimes become a bit of an obsession with reading materials, but also it is still a blessing.

While she was teaching me how to write my name and other important things like colors and animals, she insisted that I use my right hand in spite of my left handed tendencies. She was superstitious and believed that left handedness was a sign of witchcraft and other devilry that we didn’t want around. And so, my left hand was abandoned for the more wholesome right hand.

Well, it seems that left handed people are known for their creative brilliance. They are wildly innovative and successful like someone born under the sign of Leo without a single malefic planet buggering their aspirations. This is the left handed person. The right handed person, infinitely more common, is analytical and thinks ‘like the rest of us’.

Here I am, in handedness purgatory. I feel cheated. I am not ambidextrous. If I tried to write something with my left hand the entire appendage would look something like a writhing turtle chewing the eraser end of a pencil. However, there are some things I do like a left handed person, like when I went boxing I stood like someone who’d used their left hand their whole life.

I have often wondered if this little well intended change to my handedness didn’t hinder my ability to fully harness the creativity I feel coursing through me like currents of good ideas grounded too soon, like lightening with poor depth perception. I have wondered if my brain didn’t fire the way it was supposed to and so, I didn’t fire the  way I was meant to.

Last Saturday, after we learned about the Moon and Her Yogic Secrets, me and a whole bunch of ravenous yogis went to an Indian restaurant and ate our weight in delicious food. While I am scooping up some spicy brown sauce I notice the woman across from me eating with her left hand. She is a stroke survivor and now teaches yoga to other stroke survivors. I am compelled to ask, “Were you right handed before your stroke?”

She was right handed before her stroke. I was interested in the process of changing one’s handedness as an adult and due to such an intense circumstance at that. Changing her dominate hand was not a choice but a fierce act of healing. I felt a little ridiculous when I told her about Honey and my obsession with hand dominance in light of her life and death ordeal.

This woman has large brown eyes swimming in smooth, dark skin. Her hair is very short with a shock of white near her hairline, which makes her youthful appearance look very wise.  When asked about her experience, and my reason for asking, the space between us felt very quiet, held  in the silent grasp of her clear gaze.

She moves her food around with the fork as we move into a conversational tone on this topic, other friends nearby chime in here and there. While she is talking to me, I notice her right hand resting tranquilly in her lap. Then she says, “Maybe this change helped you somehow.”

I feel my head turn to the side, like a dog who isn’t sure if its human asked if it needed to go outside or if it wants a treat. She says it again, in a slightly different way, but I just hold my breath in this novel idea’s wake.

What if being forced to use my non-dominate hand during early development was somehow a boon to my thinking processes. Perhaps creativity has flourished in distinct and unprecedented ways because of my superstitious great-grandmother?

Let me tell you something, Reader, this never occurred to me. If I hadn’t been sitting down at the table, I would have had to sit down for a minute under the weight of this implication. What if my effervescent personality, quirks and all, are the product of the way my brain adapted to changing from left to right dominance when I was two? Maybe this is why I am good at mirroring a fitness class when I teach it, perhaps this is the reason you like my writing, I can draw really good horses, I make such fine malas and understand the language of cats.

This was a lesson not in handed-ness but in the thinking mind’s processes and its gravitation towards the negative. I had not even thought there could be a positive to this and so never believed in it.

This year, with the same Swami I just went to see, we are studying the Yoga Sutras. This is the instruction manual for yoga practice, and unlike my previous post I ain’t just talking about downward facing dog. In this text there is a lot of talk about the mind and its ‘fluctuations’. In this study is the invitation to choose one’s thoughts, which I think is a really seductive practice, perhaps even more appealing than floating between handstand and scorpion pose. The ability to choose my thoughts, and recognize that I am not my thoughts, is one of the wildest and most healing benefits of yoga.

I see that I was creating separation between one side of myself and the other; the left and right at odds with each other and my ability to be in the world as my fabulous self hinging on the outcome of this battle. However, if my left handedness and right handedness combined to work on behalf of  the still point between the sun and the moon within me, then I empower that unity by dis-empowering the negative mind.

This is real wild territory. Perhaps uncharted territory, but a landscape that is rich with the potential to be free from the barrage of negative thoughts. This feels like the landscape of the Cosmos, the very same one that spins within each and every heart on the planet, not too hot like the sun and not too cool like the moon, but just perfect as it beats in time to the rhythm of life. Who wouldn’t want to go learn about all of that?

 

Schedule Cha Cha Cha Changes

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Seven and one half years ago I decided to each yoga. I remember the cold, bleak December in which I wandered around the house like a sad and forgotten wolf, locked in some cave out of the sunlight. I would put in a fitness DVD and not press play, but instead amble onto something else. I’d make food and eat it then go out for Chinese. I’d make a pot of coffee and drink it all just to help wash the wine down.

This period of time was brief, like any Florida winter. It was cold and dark and I desperately wanted to feel warm and bright. I was waiting on something but unsure as to what it might be. Maybe an agent will want to see my full manuscript, perhaps I will meet a new man.

On a dark night between Christmas and New Year’s Day my mother suggested I could teach yoga classes, like she was trying to find a hobby for an elderly parent. As a longtime student, the idea of teaching slopped across my mind like a dirty water logged mop, “Absolutely not.” I said, and not because the idea didn’t have appeal.

The idea didn’t have grit. Way back then, there was not a YTT (that’s muggle for yoga teacher training) in Pensacola. If I wanted to pull it off the closest school I knew of was in New Orleans. After about a year of this idea scratching against the inside of my skull, I decided to go to teacher training – New Orleans or bust!

On a sunny day in the Spring I was at the yoga studio inquiring about logistics behind this New Orleans training, a mere three hours away. My local instructor and studio owner never got up from her desk, she just swished her hand in front of her face like she was shooing a gnat from her nose and said, “Go meet Laura at Dragonfly. She’s great and just in Fort Walton.” Fort Walton is a much closer forty-five minutes away.

So I go out there and meet my new teacher at Dragonfly Yoga Studies where I learn how to teach yoga. I realize right off that I have no idea what in the hell I’m doing. I am practiced by about seven or so years when the training starts (a person must have a minimum of one year of study to learn to teach at this studio) and I realize how very little I know. I am exhilarated. I soak it all up and realize, about halfway through, that I have potential to be a very good instructor.

I am going to teach all of the yoga all of the time. This is, in fact, going to be my new job. I’d already quit my job at a salon to go to teacher training, serving tables when not busy perfecting my pronunciation of Sanskrit words.

I made all of the vision boards. I bought a tri-fold piece of cardboard that my five year old nephew could stand straight up behind without fear of being seen. I glued snapshots of all sorts of yogic imagery; postures, mala beads, rivers, the logo of my local yoga studios (and the Atlanta ashram, come to think of it) the sun, the moon, and God. Many aspects of God, most especially Shiva and The Mother.

I pasted new age platitudes on these vision boards, four in total though only one is so large as to be tri-fold. I include the all important Do What You Love and Follow Your Heart and Live the Dream and more of the Do What You Love variations. I began teaching yoga classes at Dragonfly the October before I graduated, right about five and a half years ago. I had a new career. I was doing what I loved.

I have taught up to eight classes a week plus workshops in that time, in addition to mentoring other teacher trainees. I still have a day job, which is really a nights and weekends job, that keeps me in plenty of high end cat food and allows me to travel to the Atlanta ashram often enough that half the people think I’m a local. I do some hair at the salon and occasionally a make-over or two.

It is not the busy-ness that has made me withdraw from teaching yoga. That is how I have explained it because that is how I have been able to understand it until, perhaps, this very moment.

I have not been able to explain it to myself, Reader, but maybe I can explain it to you. Teaching for a living made the impersonal something personal. I found it hard to be in the midst of a rapidly changing yoga community, a rapidly expanding yoga community, and remain unattached to my professional life as a teacher.

After five and a half years teaching yoga I realize this is not a business I will ever be able to reply upon for my sole support. At some point this translated into feelings of failure. The business of teaching as I have known it will never be the only thing I do for a living and also  keep the cats in their high end food and luxe treats and, at the same time, afford me to go see Swami as much as I want. That, dear Reader, is all I really want.

I have trimmed my teaching schedule down to one class a week at Uru. I am teaching Kali Natha Yoga, the style of yoga that I study with my Teacher, Swami Jaya Devi, in Atlanta. I am also teaching at Chip’s in Gulf Breeze twice a week. I just sort of opened my hands and let my teaching schedule fall through my fingers and these three classes are all that remained. During the weeks and months leading up to this decision I realized that doing what you love for a living might make you love it less. I learned that doing what you love for a living can make that love conditional.

If I had a nice big class and the stereo worked then that was a good day. Hooray! If two people showed up, one of whom was twenty minutes late to an hour and a half class wherein the stereo played only static and bass, a roach crawled across the floor and I was expected to kill it and the prenatal teacher popped her head in during savasana to complain about the air-conditioner, then I just wanted to crawl out of my skin and put in my notice. On more than one occasion I wanted to exclaim “I resignate!” in the middle of up-dog to down-dog.

I have learned that teaching yoga is like the moon. A regular teacher cannot burn brightly like the sun all of the time, and I suspect those that do were trained to the teeth and are skilled beyond measure. We are lucky to have those Teachers. For the rest of us, there are times when we must follow the cycles of our own energy and capability into the shade where we can rest and drink deeply of the teachings we so ardently share.

Sometimes teaching is an inspiration to one’s own practice and interactions with students is like seeing a reflection of eternity. Sometimes teaching stretches and teaches the instructor, bringing them face to face with their own tensions, hopes and beliefs about the practice. Sometimes, teaching is draining like a reckoning of the spirit and there isn’t anything left but to withdraw the way the moon, every month, escapes into the inky depths of the night sky.

I intend to teach more in the summer, but in a different approach to the practice of giving instruction. I would like to teach pop-up classes, I would like to sub more to get to know different students and different locations. I would like to teach outside  more, in the park, at the beach (twilight yoga anyone?) and I have even had fantasies about teaching at the library. I have successfully taught classes for fundraising and have my eye on the large space at Pet Supermarket to raise money for the humane society.

For now, I am going to visit my Teacher. I’m going to finish the second draft of my novel and practice – at least a little bit – the art of being rather than doing. I look forward to exploring how this changes and enhances my own practice, which I am sure to share with you here, since I’ll have some extra time and evenings at home.

I would like to add that though my love of teaching might seem to wane with my schedule, my devotion to Yoga burns brightly as ever. Besides, who could ever really diagnose devotion but perhaps one whose inner vision was quickened by the very sun? Aside from those few, who can really know another’s heart? And who would dare to say?

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Like Buttah

“The Buddha’s message was simple yet profound. Neither a life of self- indulgence, nor one of self-mortification can bring happiness. Only a middle path, avoiding these two extremes, leads to peace of mind, wisdom, and complete liberation from the dissatisfaction of life.” ~Bhante Gunaratana (from “Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness”)

I have been thinking quite a lot lately about practice. My schedule at the yoga center is changing in February. I am going down to one day a week at Uru and will continue to teach my regular schedule at Chip’s. I spent no little time hunched over my journal while I made this decision. In the course of personal essays written in mostly illegible script I noted that spiritual practice and discipline are kinda like the process of making ghee.

Ghee, clarified butter, is a main ingredient in the 10 Day Yoga Detox we do three times a year in Kashi Atlanta. It’s a very dignified process by which you get to stabilize blood sugar, re-set the metabolism and sort out any habits around which you’d like to bring a little more awareness.

Ghee, as part of the diet, is lauded for its health benefits*. It is golden in color, a little yellow and smells like the backroom of a bakery. Its texture is glossy and slick and it leaves a nice sheen on vegetables. In the morning during the detox we drink it. We only drink it in relatively small portions which grow incrementally during the detox week. Sounds crazy, I know, but with a little almond milk and a dash of ginger powder it’s like liquid birthday cake – almost.

During one of the detoxes last year my slippery hands dropped the ghee jar, whipping most of its content across to kitchen floor. I didn’t know you could just go to the store and buy more so I learned how to make it on the internet.

It’s simple, really. You take a pound of unsalted butter and cook it down for about thirty minutes. It makes this little popping sound that sounds like fat raindrops landing on a low roof. To know if the ghee is ready you have to listen; you can’t look at it and tell. The popping becomes almost inaudible and there comes a point when there’s almost no sound. That’s when you take the pan off the stove and let it cool. There are three layers in the pot when it is cooled and this is where I started thinking about spiritual practice and in particular the path of yoga as I have experienced it.

The top layer is this frothy foam that you skim off the top. It is called “catch” and in India it’s sometimes mixed with sugar and is a sweet treat. This top layer of ghee that you have to scrape off is like the euphoric phase at the beginning of one’s love affair with yoga. This is the rainbow and unicorn stage, wherein everything is wonderful and happy and if it isn’t you better suppress it until no one is looking, because that shit ain’t yogic.

It is here that it serves us well to remember that unicorns are massive magical creatures with a sharp protrusion from their foreheads. I’m just saying, if you met a unicorn in real life it would probably be a little terrifying, even if it was friendly. Rainbows are often products of stormy weather and are a combination of sunlight and the shadow of a fine mist combined. But still, rainbows and unicorns it is.

It is best to scrape this layer off sooner rather than later but we get caught in thinking that this layer is the product of our efforts, like the rainbow and unicorn phase is where it’s at. This foam is not the goal, it should be scraped off, preferably with a hand strainer.

On the bottom of the ghee pot there are lactose solids. It’s heavy and brown and reminds me of the skillet my great-grandmother used to cook bacon in. She’d save this grease like it was gold to cook everything else with it. Dear Reader, you do not want to save this portion of the ghee making process, just leave it there. Better yet, pour it down the drain.

This heavy sludge at the bottom represents the opposite end of rainbows and unicorns. It is the this shit ain’t working phase of practice. If you have been at it long enough, if you have sat for meditation for more than five minutes ten or so consecutive days in a row you might know what I’m talking about. This is the heaviness, the unworthiness and the same old repetitive thoughts that will fall away if we let them go. The pound of unsalted butter has no problem letting this stuff go. It takes heat and the willingness to stay in the pot, which is why yoga practice and spiritual discipline are referred to as tapas which translates “to burn” or “fiery discipline”.

Between the froth and the sediment is the ghee. To get at it you scrape crap off the top and then, carefully, pour the clarified butter into a nice container. You have to angle the pot and hold your mouth a little crooked to keep from pouring any of the sediment into the pretty little jar with your clarified butter. With a little practice you’ll get the hang of it.

I think this is the part that represents the real, essential being. The space in the middle is buoyed above the featureless solid hunks that we think is who we really are. I thought about listing examples but decided to let you fill in the blank with anything that holds your heart down or keeps it closed. That’s the stuff that can go to the bottom of the pot. Your only job is to cook it long enough and then, when it is boiled down, to let it go.

I think we spend a lot of the first years of a spiritual discipline focusing between these two phases. There comes a time when, perhaps for just a second, we catch a glimpse of space between thoughts. The first handful of times I heard my Teacher talking about the space between thoughts I didn’t quite understand what she was talking about. After a few years of looking for that space I have come to think of that as an access point to our smooth, golden essence revealed from the heat of our discipline and devotion.

I don’t think we need to torment ourselves for being in one space or another, either. If I am stuck in a sunshine and lollipop stage I just try to remember that it isn’t the goal and to just keep practicing. When I’m happy I must practice. When I’m sad, pissed, confused or elated also I must practice. I think this is how we arrive at clarity and taste the space between thoughts – which is delicious, like buttah.

“This atman (Self), resplendent and pure, whom the sinless sannyasins behold residing within the body, is attained by unceasing practice of truthfulness, austerity, right knowledge and continence.”  – Mundaka Upanishad

*From the Yoga Detox Daily Email – 10 health benefits of ghee

  1. Flushes old bile from the body.
  2. Stimulates the liver to make new bile, so 94% of old toxic bile is not re-absorbed.
  3. Scrubs the intestines of toxins and bad bugs.
  4. Supports the primary source of energy and immunity for the cells of the gut.
  5. Supports the health of the beneficial bacteria in the gut that make butyrate, a short chain fatty acid (SCFA) that the intestinal tract thrives on, as it helps to protect the integrity of the gut wall, and then some!
  6. Lubricates and softens the hardened tissues of the body.
  7. Pulls stored fat-soluble toxins and molecules of emotion out of the body.
  8. Encourages fat metabolism and weight loss.
  9. Supports stable mood and energy levels.
  10. Supports the body’s natural defense mechanisms against bad bacteria and overgrowth.