A Tale of Cataclysmic Stagnation

I just clicked on a blog post for writers wherein the author listed the most popular books to read if you want to write. Scrolling the article, my mind responded to each suggestion as follows:

Got it

Read it

Hated it

Loved it

Borrowed it

Just bought it. Returned it.

Then I wondered, when did my inner dialogue begin to sound like Grumpy Cat (God rest his soul)?

Last night I was sitting in the chair where I sit and think quietly, one of my favorite things to do. This is an activity completely different from meditation, wherein one tries not to think, utilizing all manner of tools and techniques to invoke the serenity of the infinite within the confines of the human condition. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

That is not what I do when I sit and think quietly to myself. I stare at a wall and ruminate. I allow the flotsam of past failures to froth the edges of my mind like filth and foam on a shoreline. I tilt my head and remember an idea I once had and quickly forgot, resolving to write it down so I’ll remember this time. I don’t write it down, I forget it again. It must not have been that good of an idea.

Last night, whilst sitting and thinking quietly to myself, I remembered a day in the fourth grade, upon which I hear my favorite and most loathed sentences within one directive; “Class, we’re going to do a creative writing exercise.” Oh yes! Thank you Mrs. Glisten! “And we’re going to break up into small groups of four.” Also Mrs. Glisten, go f*ck yourself.

The fact  that I remember that teacher’s name and the kid who ruined my school year should give you ample information about the fourth grade. Kerry, long silky black hair and chipmunk cheeks that are not as endearing as the chubby nut cubbies adorning the visage of her rodent counterpart. Her eyes are so dark brown they are black and she has an earnest expression that won her the title of Hall Monitor. I imagined her taking the special hall monitor sash home each night and ironing it before lovingly hanging it on the coat hook beside her monogrammed book bag.

Just to get you up to speed, I didn’t have anything monogrammed, my cheeks weren’t chubby – I was just fat, and I was the kid the Hall Monitor monitored being late to class because even in the fourth grade I didn’t do mornings.

Alas, she was one of three other kids in my “small group” writing exercise. We turn our desks to make a large square with two pairs of children facing each other over the hieroglyphic-like carvings in the pseudo wood surface beneath our open notebooks. I am ready. I’ve dealt with PE, science, dehydration, the indignities of math including the insult of fractions I may never get over, an inedible lunch and a remarkably delicious juice box containing no less than ten percent fruit juice. I have earned this moment.

The school store sold those mechanical pencils with the stacks of re-loadable lead so there is always a sharp point. I relish the clear, smooth lined paper and the glittery cylinder of the pencil gleaming in my plump hand. I am already thinking something in a rain forest setting, as I look at the white board and regard the brainstorming outline with dubious curiosity. I’m not sure it’s going to be helpful, but the assignment is kinda based on using it, so there is that.

I am not kidding, it looked almost exactly like this:Image result for bubble outline brainstorming

Seriously, where did Mrs. Glisten find a brainstorming map on the internet in 1990?

I do not remember the other kids in our group. I think they were boys and participated at the level Kerry and I were willing to allow had we not gotten ourselves locked in a cataclysmic stalemate. You see, I think a rain forest would be a great setting for our story and she has become stricken with writer’s block. She is holding her head in her hands. Her rosy lips, shaped like two skis leaning against each other under her nose, pout in such a way that begs for drool. Her black eyes glisten as she stares at the page beneath her. This is the first time I have ever seen a person go into a trance.

I’m like, “Whaaat?” If you know me in real life, you should know the face you might recognize as accompanying this question has not changed since I was in the fourth grade.

“I have writer’s block.”

My ears go back. “What?” The “t’ is hard now, like I staunched the flow of more words behind it.

“I have it. I can’t think of anything. I’m blocked.” You know, you must be a writer to have writer’s block. The little smart ass, showing us all what a good writer she is with her block, before we even have a chance to begin our story.

“Well, I thought of opening our story in a rain forest…” I thump my unmarred eraser on the blank page.

All for naught my friend. Kerry is so committed to this writer’s block that she stares at her paper the entire time and the boys act scared, like this is one of those feminine hysterics they heard about in the opening monologue on The Arsenio Hall Show.

I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was in the fourth grade. I actually wanted to write as soon as I knew that there are people whose job is to compose those things I loved so much; books. On this day in the fourth grade, I learned I do not suffer fools well (unless, clearly, I am dating one) and that my well for bullshit must have dried completely up back in the first grade when Mrs. Jordan made a great big stinking deal about differentiating the enunciation between “pin” and “pen”. I can still hear her, god bless her Yankee heart, every time one of us chillen from Alabama said “piyun”. I think she should have been grateful we could differentiate between a pen and a Q-tip… but I digress.

That day I wrote something about a rain forest; there was a monkey and a unicorn and I wrote about the sky. I remember Mrs. Glisten taught me a new word that day, vast. It was a more interesting, more writerly, word than the one I’d used. I liked it. I allowed the boys some input and Kerry shrank and withered beneath the weight of her writer’s block. As always, I was just glad when the school day finally ended and I could get on with my life.

I do not have writer’s block. I have had moments in which self-doubt stalled work so dramatically there are still skid marks across my laptop from the speed with which my story came to a halt, but that’s just getting too much in my own head. I have ideas, but implementing them isn’t my strong suite. This, I believe, is genetic; I’m working on it. If I were a smart cookie, I’d do some writing practice a la Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones. I’d go for a walk, I’d write anyway, if I may borrow from the now famous advice of Stephen King, “Writing equals ass in chair.” Sometimes I just stare at the wall. Eventually I make my way back.

Of all the books on writing I have read, some of which were pretty good, those are the two bits of advice that help me the most, and not just in the realm of writing. You must practice writing with the same focus, and mad devotion that you approach spiritual practice (Natalie Goldberg) and you must show up for it every single day (Stephen King).

These authors are nothing alike, as far as I can tell. I don’t actually even read Stephen King’s work aside from his book, On Writing (as far as horror goes, I’m more of an Ann Rice girl myself, but to my knowledge she never wrote a book for writers). Their success doesn’t look the same, either. But they are both unquestionably professional writers, which by my estimation means that writing is their only job – my litmus for success BTW. Writer’s block be damned.

 

 

 

 

The Azalea Sutra

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The sun came out for a little while on Thursday, just long enough for me to think about going for a walk. By the time I cross the street to walk by the privacy fence with the forever barking dog behind it, the sky was cloudy again and a brisk wind reminded me it is still only early Spring.

My mood is elevated by the hints and touches of Spring peeking out at me. A pink magnolia tree, with petals strewn around its base like the red carpet at a wedding, sparks little shoots of green from its branches. The moss clinging to magnificent oaks is freshly saturated by the recent fog and is thoroughly audacious in its greenery. My sycamore out front is still bare, but tall and winding skyward. The camellias are still going strong, if not a little heavy on the trees, like they grow weary of all the wet weather and wish for sunlight to dry their faces. And then there’s the damn azaleas, pink and white in turn.

For every rose bush, oak tree, hibiscus –  the sago palms and gardenia bushes, there seems to be a hundred azalea bushes. I’m walking along with this light springy feeling in my chest, something like one might feel at the sudden arrival of a pastry stuffed with a light cream, and I wonder why those god awful azaleas are making me feel so happy.

It’s the pink azaleas that draw my eye the most; they’re a shade between bubblegum pink and the fuchsia that was so popular in the eighties, just a tone darker than what Sheena Easton used as her choice color of blush. The blooms congregate on these massive bushes, their green showcases the passionate blooms like the black night illuminates the stars. The white azaleas remind me of swans swimming among gentle waves of leaves, little handkerchiefs adrift of the hands of nature.

Whilst I power walk in my neighborhood, I take a stroll down memory lane. I remember the Azalea Trail painted in a pink stripe down both sides of the street where I lived in Mobile. To be honest, I have no idea what the purpose of the Azalea Trail is, other than to designate the rout that the Azalea Trail Maids must follow in their parade through Mobile. I’m not sure what their purpose is, either, but I bet it’s some kind of southern society I want no part of, especially the part where you have to wear a dress that looks suspiciously like those damnable Azalea flowers.

NationalAppearances

I remember finding leaves that got painted in the Pepto Bismol pink that missed the hue of anything natural by a few shades. Sheena Easton’s cheeks looked more natural in 1981. These leaves intrigued me, by either their misfortune or good luck, I’m not sure. I also scratched out rocks from the street’s pavement that were painted the same shade by a truck that drives for the city, painting streets, while all around my house the azaleas blazed.

Azaleas are synonymous with this time of year. The end of that interminable Mardi Gras and the start of Lent, for you heathens who don’t know what that is, don’t worry, neither do I. The distinct feeling of the the wind’s touch in the month of March whispers optimism, renewal and a touch of delirium from vitamin D deficiency. There is a promise at this time of year that is more Earthy than some far off mystical experience or promise of salvation or enlightenment. It’s the promise of life, to be exhilarated and frustrated with daily existence, to be disenchanted by feelings of monotony while holding in heart and mind the ability to enact the drama of your wildest dreams and most creative aspirations. We are reminded of the simplicity and audacity of life when flowers bloom, kittens open their eyes, the sky changes from sunny to overcast, a sudden thunderstorm appears overhead, sunlight breaks through the clouds. In an instant things can change, a small green sprout will surprise a branch with its happiness.

I love the Spring almost as much as I love the Fall, but I’ve hated azaleas for as long as I can remember. I round a corner in my neighborhood and must contend with seeing a massive wall of azaleas, white and pink and green. They are taller than I am, and I notice this sensation of happiness in my body, like bubbles or butterflies dancing. What the hell am I doing with this happiness while there are azalea bushes vexing me with their presence?

A green shoot of awareness juts from this barren branch of habituated loathing and I recall that for as long as I can remember, my mother has hated azaleas. Every single Spring she would disdain the blossoms unfurling their petals in abundance all over the damn place (admittedly, I use significantly more profanity than my mother ever has, expletives are my own). With that whole mysterious Azalea Trail business afoot in the Spring, there were plenty of azaleas to hate. She was reminded of her dislike around every corner, and she reiterated it often. Ironically, my mother loves every other flower. She can recognize different varieties of the rose, can root anything that has been alive within a decade; she adores the scent of magnolia, cuts plumes of ginger blossoms for me to put on my altar, violets stay alive in her possession. She once resurrected an aloe plant that died immediately from being given to me as a Christmas gift.

I am startled to discover I don’t hate azaleas at all. I think I might even be fond of them, if I’m to listen to the sensations I feel rather than the impressions I’ve adopted. When I see these bushes I think of being a kid in Alabama going to see my great-grandmother on Easter. I remember Spring breaks, cosmetology school, all the miles I ran in all the neighborhoods in which I lived. I think of this neighborhood where I live now and feel grateful.

This accidental little experiment made me wonder what in the hell other inherited opinions I carry I’m not yet aware of. As I make deeper inquiries of myself, my power walk slows to a pace more conducive to contemplation. After another block or so, I am heartened, because being able to discern the mental impressions and entrenched nature of thoughts is one of the purposes of yoga (and by yoga I mean meditation, not handstand in a bikini).

The mind can be such a tyrant. It knows who is right and what is wrong. Azaleas are bad, hibiscus are good! As someone who practices meditation with some level of regularity, sometimes the best I can hope for during a practice is for the grip of my mind’s opinions and judgement to loosen up, admit to being wrong, or sometimes harder still – admit to just not being right.

This moment feels like a little, but important, wedge between my incessantly thinking mind with all of its preferences and determinations and the mind that is a tool for care and creativity. I recently increased my daily meditation time, not by much and that whole “daily” part yet remains to be seen, but this insight came at such an opportune moment, bolstered by the bird song and other cliches of Spring. This stuff works, and I might add even more time to my sitting meditation practice to find out exactly how well. It might even become daily.

Image result for azalea

Lightning Bug Lessons

I like twilight noises. I especially like the raspy lilting of cicadas and the throaty welp of frogs happy at night fall. As I sit in a quiet house on a quiet street in Atlanta, I can hear the steady cacophony of creatures beneath a twinkling urban sky; it’s early for night creatures but all the day walkers on the street seem to be sleeping. It’s just me and the alley cats, the crickets and rain.

After I arrived and unpacked, I went to the front porch to watch the day fade into that time when the landscape is in sharper focus because it doesn’t have to compete with the brilliant light of the sun. With my journal on my lap, I write a page about the marvel of a room in which I’m staying at the ashram during my trip to see my Teacher. I am in the room of a long time resident who is not currently home and the blessing of this is the photos, art and sacred objects in this cozy space. If I don’t have a dream about Jesus in this room, I can give it up forever, I’m just saying.

While I twirl the pen around my ear, a message winks at me from my phone. A car passes. A bird lands on the sidewalk then walks across the narrow, car lined street. I love this street and I love this ashram. As the stars come out and quiet descends, I feel the pangs of homesickness, like the twinge in leaving a lover at the airport.

To my left there is a twinkle in the bushes. It is a slow pulsation of light in midair.  I’m not ready to start having visions, yet I see it again; a yellow light, hovering and blinking on – off – on – and I see the silhouette of the bug it belongs to.

A lightning bug. I’d forgotten all about those. They are a relic from childhood, a legend like dinosaurs. We know they existed once, but don’t think about them so much unless they’re in a book we read or show up in a memory. But there it is, like a velociraptor tiptoeing down the street, like coffee with a dodo.

My phone blinks less artfully than the bulbous butt of this bug, and without thinking I open the screen and reply. While I text touchscreen letters onto a sleek mirrored screen the lightning bug maneuvers over to the porch, blinks again, then disappears into the magnolia bush. I look for him, my phone screen face down on the wood planks. There’s a twinge of regret that I might have missed befriending him while I was screwing around with my phone. As the shadows lengthen around me and streetlights come on, I know reality is never found on technology. It is in the myths of nature, the turning of time, and the breath of light we must pay attention to.

I stare at the street. I think of my cats, of getting to see Swami tomorrow, the novel I intend to finish editing and who I might con into reading it. I contemplate the Cats of Ancient Egypt exhibit at Emory I’ll see while I’m here and delicious vegan hotdogs with my friend. There is no order of importance to the catalog of my mind, it is ambling like the lightning bug in the bushes. Twilight turns darker and the night creatures grow louder. These sounds are comforting, like the noise from an air-filter while I sleep. The buzz and chirp of the street relaxes my mind.

I gather my journal and phone, but before I lift myself from the stoop I see that yellow breath of the lightning bug, brightly floating and friendly. He is the only one I see, and I wonder romantically if he is the last of his kind and what he does with himself. How long will he live, how will he carry on his lineage?

I’m in my comfortable, borrowed lair still thinking of that lightning bug. He offers the message not to become distracted from what is real by the murmurings and winks of the modern world; otherwise we might miss the sudden flash in the magnolia bush, the spark of realization in the heart. The lightning bug says we don’t have to flash too quickly, a slow steady pulse will do. And if someone isn’t giving you the attention you want or need, pass on by and keep doing your own thing.

I looked up the symbolism of the lightning bug. I figure if an animal crosses your path suddenly after a 30 year absence or repeatedly in a short span of time, it’s interesting to investigate what they’re trying to tell you. That sparky little guy brings tidings of illumination and the message not to underestimate marvels and miracles just because  they may have an uninspiring appearance during daytime hours. The breath is intrinsically linked with Light – the lighting bugs flash bulbs are created by a chemical reaction between certain enzymes in the presence of magnesium ion, ATP and oxygen. This is not very different from humans; deeper breaths = more Light.

“That which is night for all sentient beings is like day for one whose senses are controlled. That which is the time of awakening for a sentient being is like the night for the introspective sage who sees.” The Bhagavad Gita chapter 2.69