Tools of Illumination.

illuminatd path

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I heard Dani Shapiro on a podcast this morning and she said that writing is a tool for illumination.

Yes.

Exactly.

And so is yoga which is why they work so well together. One illuminates the other.

Yoga shines a light into the dark, heavy corners of my body where I’ve stored rage and shame and grief. I move and breathe and unlock those old emotions, those old stories, releasing them.

Writing shines a light into my heart, into my psyche. I write my way into what matters, into what I am thinking or feeling on any given day at any given moment.

Through yoga and writing my path forward is illuminated.

I am illuminated and able to shine my light out into the world.

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The Practice of Practice.

practice

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Practice. It’s a word I used to hate. I didn’t want to have to practice an instrument or a sport. I just wanted to do things when I wanted to do them. And do them well.

Then I came across “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg where she introduced me to the concept of writing practice. Practice? I never considered needing to practice writing. You either wrote or you didn’t. It wasn’t like needing to practice the piano by doing scales everyday.

Except that it is exactly like that. Writers need to practice their craft just like a musician or athlete does. It keeps our fingers, heart and mind limber. Practice keeps the words flowing because there is no pressure to produce the perfect sentence or paragraph or scene. Writer’s block occurs when we think the writing needs to come out perfect. But practice implies, even relies on the concept of imperfection. Because we are practicing we are already admitting that we don’t know how to do something as well as we’d like to. Thus, we practice.

Once I committed to a yoga and meditation practice, the word took on another layer of meaning. In this context, practice implies a certain sacred intention. There is still the freedom to show up without needing to be perfect, but there is also this sense of a ritual that nourishes my soul. It carries an intention to stay present.

These days, my writing practice combines both. I show up to the page each day, free to write the worst crap in the world because it’s just practice, but I also come to the page with a deep reverence for this practice that connects me to my light and dark, my body and mind, my heart and soul. It connects me to this moment.

These days, my art is my practice and my practice is my art.

Thank you, Dani Shapiro.

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Jealousy. Envy. Not pleasant emotions. Personally, I don’t believe the two are interchangeable. To me, jealousy is about what somebody has, something that you want for yourself. Envy feels more inward. When I feel envy it’s because I want to be like that person. I want to have their qualities, not their things.

So, the other morning I realized I envy Dani Shapiro. I admire the hell out of her. I read all of her books. I listen to interviews with her. Every blog she posts feels like she is writing directly into my heart. So when envy came up I knew enough to pause instead of my usual MO when something uncomfortable arises which is to get the hell away from it. (Thank you yoga practice for teaching me to stay.)

Envy is an especially efficient mirror back to yourself if you stay with it. What you learn can act as a compass to your own truth north. I asked myself what I envied exactly.

~ All the books she’s written from memoir to novels to writing about writing

~ the way her days seems to be intimately woven around her writing life

~ she teaches meditation, yoga and writing retreats

~ she teaches in exotic locales like Positano, Italy

Then I ask myself what is exactly that I want in my life.

~ I want to explore different kinds of writing

I am taking notes now on a nonfiction book based on the class I created called Poses, Pens + Inner Peace while I continue to work on my novel and essays and blog posts.

~ I want to spend more portions of my days immersed in writing.

So, after meditating and a brief yoga practice to get all the kinks out my mind and body, I’ve begun taking my breakfast and tea straight to my desk where my first treat of the day is to dip back into Shapiro’s wonderful book on the creative life, “Still Writing.” From there I set a timer for 30 minutes and work on my novel. Then I do some mundane household task then come back to the novel or a blog post or some other piece of writing.

~ I already teach a class that combines yoga, mediation and writing.

It’s something I knew I wanted to do the minute I stepped on my mat. I feel the same energy on my mat that I feel in my writing—an energy that connects to deeper parts of myself. Holding space for a group as they release stories through yoga and writing and share with the class is an honor to me each and every week.

~ I want to expand Poses, Pens + Inner Peace beyond that one Thursday night class.

I envision taking this class as a retreat to different parts of the country, even abroad, bringing groups of women together in a sacred circle to heal, to reclaim parts of themselves they have lost, to celebrate their magnificent light.

So, really this is a thank you to Dani Shapiro. Thank you for living an authentic, beautiful, messy creative life that tugged at something in me and allowed to envision what kind of creative life I want for myself. Thank you for the example of your work ethic that I can admire and emulate to then take the steps to make that vision a reality. Thank you for the honesty of your words that pierce my heart. Thank you for sharing those words with the world.

List: Top 5 Books that Illuminated my Writing Path.

I love lists so each Saturday my plan is to share a list of some sort,                                    covering a range of topics

five books

These are the top five books that started me on the writing path and that I turn to again and again.

  1. “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg. This is the absolute first book that offered me a glimmer of recognition that perhaps I could write. Actually, that I must write.
  2. “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott She helped and continues to help me loosen the grip of perfectionism by taking it word by word, allowing myself to write shitty first drafts and writing what I can see through a 1-inch picture frame.
  3. “Ron Carlson Writes a Story” by Ron Carlson As he takes us meticulously through his process of writing one particular short story, Carlson reminds of the importance of doing the work, of staying in the room even when—especially when—I want leave.
  4. “The Writer’s Portable Mentor” by Priscilla Long This is a book about process and craft but it goes deep into all the layers of craft far beyond character, plot and setting. Never fails to get my pen moving again.
  5. “Still Writing” by Dani Shapiro I have read this gem at least three times, maybe four and am currently reading it each morning as I eat my breakfast and drink tea at my desk before plunging into my own writing. Her honest reflection of the writing life comforts me as I continue to show up to the page and to my own writing life.

What books illuminate the writer in you? Please share in the comments!

A Book I Love. #TBT

Each Thursday in honor of #TBT, I am going to feature a book that I truly love, that helped shape me as a writer, as a woman, as a human.

Still-Writing-by-Dani-Shapiro

I sat at my desk this morning with some toast and a cup of tea and began reading this book again. It’s at least the third time, maybe even the fourth. With each re-reading, I underline new passages, make new notes in the margins and feel like I am in conversation with her. I pick this particular book up when I need tender yet tough guidance back to my writing self, back into a space of compassion yet dedication to the work, to the process. I love how she calls it a creative life. It’s holistic and permeates her days not just the time at her desk or on the computer. Every page, every blog post she writes, every interview she gives, I feel like she is speaking directly to me. As we begin to ease out of summer (my girls are back up at college) I needed a gentle yet firm nudge not only back to the page but back to living a writer’s life and she provides it once again.

“The writing life requires courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness, and the ability to deal with rejection. It requires the willingness to be alone with oneself. To be gentle with oneself. To look at the world without blinders on. To observe and withstand what one sees. To be disciplined, and at the same time, take risks. To be willing to fail—not just once, but again and again, over the course of a lifetime.”

Books Read in February, March + April.

Feb-April Books

“The Exquisite Risk- Daring to Live an Authentic Life” by Mark Nepo

Before stories were recorded, what happened to the living was told and retold around fires, on cliffs, and in the shade of enormous trees. 

I underlined oh-so-many sentences and passages throughout this book. Many that just spoke to me, some that I want to use as themes in my yoga classes, some for the sheer beauty of the language.

I did find it hard to finish since I didn’t feel compelled to keep turning the page in spite of all the nuggets of wisdom I found there. Another reader said that is why she loved it—she could pick it up at any time and just dip into it and put it back down.

You can tell that poetry is his natural language. Such beautiful images and metaphors throughout. He weaves in his experience with cancer and other personal stories that helped him learn what he is now teaching in this book about living an authentic life.

It’s definitely not a step-by-step plan to lead that authentic life. It’s more a process of osmosis-—just sinking into the stories and wisdom he gifts us with and letting them percolate in your soul until they are ready to rise to the surface of your life.

A sentence I love:

That each time we take the exquisite risk toward being whole, toward living in the open, toward recognizing and affirming that we are, at heart, each other, we put the world back together.

“The Lifeboat” a novel by Charlotte Rogan

Today I shocked the lawyers, and it surprised me, the effect I could have on them.

It is 1914 and Grace has married Henry Winter, unbeknownst to his parents. On their way back to America from London on an ocean liner, the ship suffers an explosion and passengers and crew are forced into lifeboats. Henry arranges for Grace to get in a lifeboat without him. We learn of Grace’s experience in that lifeboat with over thirty others as well as how she met Henry. Not only do they face the relentless sea, they must deal with dwindling resources, leaks and choices that people should never be forced to make.

It’s an unforgettable story of perseverance as well as the pettiness and strength of being human in extraordinary circumstances.

A sentence I love: 

Unable to restrain my laughter, which kept lapping at my insides and bursting out of me like gigantic waves, I was not allowed to accompany the lawyers into the dining room, but had to have my meal brought to me in the cloakroom, where a wary clerk perched vigilantly on a stool in the corner as I pecked at my sandwich. 

“Milk and Honey” by Rupi Kauer

I basically inhaled these words in one sitting, letting the language and images and power of them just wash over and through me. I definitely need to read it again. Maybe many times. I love the structure of the book, how it is broken up into parts: the hurting, the loving, the breaking, the healing. I want to use each one as a jumping off point for my own writing. Then I love how each page is structured with so much white space so that the words and the story behind them have room to breathe. Words sometimes combined with simple line drawings. The words, the drawings and the white space all work together to give a certain urgency yet create an urge to pause and savor what we are reading, what we are seeing, what we are feeling.

A sentence I love: 

the first boy that kissed me

held my shoulders down

like the handlebars of

the first bicycle

he ever rode

i was five

“The Most Dangerous Place on Earth”  a novel by Lindsey Lee Johnson

Cally Broderick lingered in the doorway of the resource office, waiting to be noticed.

“Waiting to be noticed” is basically the calling card of every human on earth, but particularly for high school students. Johnson takes us deep into the social strata of of a wealthy northern San Francisco high school, where a middle school tragedy haunts the students as they struggle to live up to expectations from teachers, parents, peers and themselves. The inside jacket says it is told in a “kaleidoscopic narrative” which describes it exactly. We see the story from different dizzying perspectives that join in various designs to reveal new slices of the story. It’s a brilliant structure that taught me a lot about structuring a novel and finding the right voice(s). I am impressed that she was able to take a teenage drama and create such a dynamic story that kept this adult turning the pages.

A sentence I love:

Maybe Calista’s mind—maybe Molly’s own—was like this. An immense space, at once apart from the world and embedded within it, a secret place that was strange and dark and vast enough to make its own weather. 

“Ill Will” novel by Dan Chaon

Sometime in the first days of November the body of the young man who had disappeared sank to the bottom of the river.

I read everything Chaon writes from his stories to his novels. This latest one feels different. Not just the heft of the physical book (458 pages) but the psychological heft of it as well. Dustin Hillman is a psychologist in a Cleveland suburb. His wife died, older son is away at college and the younger one is home but drifting away from him. Or is he drifting away from his son? Dustin has a lot on his plate. Still processing his wife’s death, he gets the news that his adopted brother is being released from prison after serving 30 years for the massacre of Dustin’s parents. aunt and uncle. The case came to epitomize the  hysteria over Satanic cults that the the 1980’s spawned. On top of that, one of his patients has lured Dustin into a conspiracy theory involving the deaths of numerous drunk college boys in the area.

Chaon does an amazing job of weaving all of these threads together into a suspenseful thriller that kept me turning the pages. It is a master class in the power of using an unreliable narrator that explores all the ways memory fails us and we fail it, those around us and, most of all, ourselves. Brilliant.

A sentence I love:

But now,with my eyes opened in the dark, the clicks and hums of the house settling, the radiators stirring, the appliances doing their secret nighttime work, with my heart beating in an uncomfortable noticeable way, I couldn’t help but think: What if the dots are connected?

“Hourglass—Time, Memory, Marriage” by Dani Shapiro

From my office window I see my husband on the driveway below.

This is a beautiful, thoughtful and honest meditation on a marriage filtered through time and memory. Shapiro plays with time in a way that feels completely organic to the story, never manipulative or confusing. She explores the depths of her marriage, unafraid of exposing the cracks that inevitably arise out of a long term commitment. She is honest and the writing is beautiful. It feels like she is guiding you by hand as you both walk into the woods, unsure of what you will find but knowing what is there is better than not knowing. The trust she puts in the reader is only equaled by the trust I had in her to tell her story with a clarity that can only come from a commitment to seeing her marriage, her husband and herself as they really are. It is just stunning and I can’t wait to read it again in one glorious sitting so I can savor the entire arc of the story at one time.

A passage I love:

We know each other in a way that young couple couldn’t have imagined. Our shared vocabulary—our own language—will die with us. We are the treasure itself: fathoms deep, in the world we have made and made again.

“The Middlepause- On Life After Youth” by Marina Benjamin

I had always assumed that when the time came I would meet menopause with a certain dignity.

It used to be that menopause was never spoken about much less written about. But there is a whole new conversation being had between women and within an array of books on what it is like to age as a woman. What does it mean universally and specifically to this particular body. I, for one, am grateful that it is no longer talked about in hushed shame. With my yoga community I’ve spoken with women about hot flashes, mood swings, insomnia. We support each other, swap tips on how to deal with the changes. Mostly, it just feels good to know that we are not alone.

Middlepause is a perfect balm to the possible isolation a woman may feel as she enters middle age. Benjamin weaves her own story and experiences together with science, literature and philosophy to give us a new vision of what it means to age as women. I love the way the book is structured: Organs, Hormones, Skin, Muscle, Heart, Guts, Teeth, Head, Spine. Each chapter dissects with fresh candor her own sudden plunge into menopause and the myriad changes and losses and gains that middle age brings from aging parents to her teenage daughter mirroring her own cascade of hormones, from nostalgia to a brutal clarity about the present.

This is not a self-help book. She does not prescribe dietary changes or herbs or exercise. No, this an eloquent, intelligent, informed reflection of what it means to enter your 50s as a woman today. I found it much more valuable than any possible diet tips and tricks.

A sentence I love: 

And fifty feels heavy at some elemental level, as if dense with neurons.

And 1 more:

When you are young, a mirror is not so much a tool for self-inspection as it is a window onto a series of potential yous.

Five on Friday

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1. I get chills every time I watch this video.

2. Dani Shapiro on the writing life. “My inner life is an inaccessible landscape when I’m not writing, a foreign and unfamiliar place.”

3. Keri Smith on the cult of celebrity.

4. Establishing a small, non-threatening daily writing habit when is a great idea! Can’t wait for Gretchen Rubin’s new book on habits to be published.   

5. As a recovering self-help junkie, I can totally relate to this.