Habit, Routine + Ritual.

Routine and Ritual

“We are what we repeatedly do. Success is not an action but a habit.” ~ Aristotle

Whenever autumn rolls around, I find myself drawn back into that back-to-school mode. Since I am long out of school, it’s a time of year when I turn inward and really look at how I am spending my time. By then, I’m coming off a summer of loose routines, fun and spontaneous adventures and I’m ready to dive back into a structure that feeds my creativity.

This year I’ve been thinking about the differences between habit, routine and ritual. Habits—good and bad—are those things we do automatically without too much thought: brushing our teeth, taking a shower, a walk after dinner. Routines are a set of habits that lend structure to your day. So a set of habits such scraping your tongue, drinking a glass of warm water with lemon, gentle yoga and meditation become a morning routine. Nighttime routine might consist of a cup of tea, turning off all electronics, setting the alarm, reading a book before going to sleep. I think of routines as safety nets to our days.

“You’ll never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.” ~ John Maxwell

I knew I had to change something about my morning routine. My habit was to eat breakfast while watching a show on Hulu that I had missed the night before. But that became a slippery slope and before I knew it a whole morning could be wasted in front of the TV and on my phone. So, my one change was to eat breakfast at my desk. I make some toast, fruit and tea, go into my writing room, close the door, light a candle, read an inspiring writing book while eating my toast then write my morning pages while sipping my tea. Then I set a timer for 30 minutes and work on my novel. I’ve started doing a freewrite based on a card drawn from “The Observation Deck” then I move onto my draft and start knitting together what I have, cutting what doesn’t work, asking myself question. I keep a writer’s notebook specifically for this project where I keep my freewrites, notes, questions, timelines. After the timer goes off I’ll go do some small household task like wash the dishes or put in or fold a load of laundry then set the timer again.

“If you want your day to be organized, develop a routine. If you want your day to be meaningful, create rituals.” 

This one small tweak of a habit—moving where I ate my breakfast—cracked open my morning routine and helped me create a ritual that sustains my creative process. Lighting the candle, reading an inspiring book, drawing a card from the “Soulful Woman Guidance Deck” all weave together to create a ritual to nurture my creativity. When I start my day immersed in the creative process, it sets the tone for my day, it adds meaning to my life.

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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.

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I’ve always been wary of poetry. Never feeling quite smart enough to get it. I think high school dissections of poems did that to me. Since I went to art school, I wasn’t exposed to poetry as part of my education. So, as part of my self-education as a writer and a human, I explored poetry myself. Not poems that I was told I should read, but poems that spoke to me, that lured me in somehow.

I remember being drawn in by the title of this collection and back then I had been devouring all of her novels. I skimmed through it and came across this poem at the end called “Six underrated pleasures.” Six pieces on folding sheets, picking pole beans, taking a hot bath, sleeping with cats, planting bulbs, and canning.

You could write about folding sheets? That was poetry? My world cracked open. Poetry didn’t have to be dense and impenetrable. Poetry was simply paying deep attention to what was right in front on you.

“Whenever I fold a fitted sheet

making the moves that are like

closing doors, I feel my mother.

The smell of clean laundry is hers.”

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.”

Big Myth.

In my Poses, Pens + Inner Peace class that I teach (where we combine writing with mediation and yoga) we’ve been working through “Warrior Goddess Training” by Heatherash Amara. We finished it this past week with a writing exercise devoted to what she calls the big myth.

“Your big myth is the big picture for how and why your unique,precious Warrior Goddess light arrived own the planet…Pick a big myth that makes you glow. Forget sensible or practical or real. Make it big, magic medicine that you incarnated with.”

I loved this and wanted to share my big myth:

Big Myth

I come from the ancient stardust of comets taking flight across the universe. My tribe stand barefoot in a circle around a fire and watch the comet that is me meet the fire that is my life here on earth.

The stardust mingles with the flames and the earth and the voices of them chanting me into existence. Smoke swirls and rises as the women sway and dance around the fire until I stand fully formed in the sacred center of their circle, their skin glowing, hands clasped, eyes lighting up at my birth among them.

They each take a turn welcoming me into their sisterhood, their words like breadcrumbs on the path to rediscover my true self for once the circle is broken the knowledge of who I truly am and where I came from vanishes becoming a test for me to go out into the world and deep within myself to unearth that gift once again. Each barrier I encounter acting as a Guardian at the Gate, demanding to know how badly I want it.

I let their words seep into my skin, my breath, my bones, my heart…

Do not shrink to make others feel comfortable.

Take time for silence, time to be.

Listen more than you wait for your turn to speak.

Sing and dance and laugh and play. Never be afraid of looking foolish or silly. Embrace joy.

Guard your heart fiercely but hold it lightly.

Speak your truth to others and to yourself.

Keep the door open.

Tread lightly yet with purpose.

Stay curious

I cherish their words, knowing they are my compass home.

Wednesday Writing Prompt.

In honor of the summer solstice…

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Image found via Pinterest.

She floats in the space where the water merges with the sky,

the horizon almost invisible, the sky becoming water, the water becoming sky.

The water cradles her, the sky supports her.

The water ripples below, the clouds undulate above.

Timeless.

Effortless.

Suspended between who she is in this moment and who she will in the next,

perfectly content to just be here,

in this moment,

her breath echoing beneath the water,

an ancient hum reverberating through her bones,

her shadow another presence beneath her,

reminding her of the dark that always exists

even under the brightest of suns.

The Power of Art to Stay Awake.

I’ve been watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu with equal parts fascination, fear and fury.

For those who don’t know the premise, it is based on the 1985 dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood. The former United States is now The Republic of Gilead. After extreme environmental devastation has left many women barren and men sterile, the new order steps in, sorting women into categories: young fertile women become Handmaids, some become Martha’s or maids, some are Aunts who are in charge of grooming the Handmaids for their new duties, while the rest are sent to work in the toxic camps where death is imminent. Cheery, so far, yes?

Handmaids are placed with a commander and his barren wife. Most of the commanders are sterile but that fact is no longer allowed in this society. (Dismissing of facts, sound familiar?) Only women are blamed for not being able to procreate. Their duty is to produce a child for the couple through The Ceremony which I find myself cringing through as I watch it.

One of the most disturbing aspects are the flashbacks which also greatly disturbed my 23-year-old daughter. In our current climate, setting the flashbacks in our time just makes the scenario seem not only possible but, at times, chillingly inevitable. Through the flashbacks we learn how women’s right were methodically stripped: firing them for their jobs, freezing their bank accounts so that only a husband or father could manage their money.

These are extreme actions that may, on the surface, feel completely unrealistic. We like to tell ourselves that would never happen here. But it already is. It comes down to how we value women and as a society we aren’t valued as much as men. We literally make less money for the same job just because are women. We are at the crux of a constant fight for control over our own bodies. We may be heading back to a time where our gender is considered a pre-existing condition and be charged more for our health insurance.

Beyond the issues of gender, another chilling scene was a brief flashback where men dressed in black with guns were throwing books and art into a fire. Why go after art? It is straight out of the dictator’s handbook. Go after the artists who use their voices to speak truth to power. Artists hold up a mirror to society—the good, the bad and the ugly. Once we see ourselves, we can’t unseen it. Therefore, it behooves a regime to not allow it to be seen or heard in the first place.

I’ve been watching as many artists struggle to find their voice in this new era of government where rights are threatened on an almost daily basis. Before the election, writer Julianna Baggott started a site inviting people to dedicate their no-Trump vote, sharing their stories about why they were not voting for him.

More than 600 American writers, including Stephen King, Dave Eggers, and Cheryl Strayed, penned an open letter against Trump.

Michael Moore reveals that he has been on a “creative tear” since last summer when he saw the inevitable train wreck coming at us. He encourages the use of satire and humor because it has been shown to get under the President’s extremely thin skin. What is a weakness in him becomes a strength for the resistance.

Many visual artists are turning to their work in this era of Trump to motivate action and educate the public on issues they are passionate about. As always, art is in the eyes of the beholder and there are consequences of expressing your views in such a public forum. For example, Ilma Gore’s painting of a nude Trump sporting a micropenis is currently on display at the Maddox gallery in London. She has been threatened not only by his lawyers but has received thousands of death and rape threats after posting the image online where it was shared over 260,000 times.

I find myself turning more to my writing than ever before. It soothes my anxiety, it helps me make sense of the chaos and it helps me discern what I think and how I feel within the chaos. Working on my novel five days week is often the one time of the day when I can block out the news and lose myself in another world. But I also find myself writing more political content in my journal, on social media and on my blog. I considered whether that would offend potential readers of my work and chose to use my voice. It is a gift I have and to not use it seems wrong. My audience is not huge but I have had people tell me over and over again how much they appreciate my words so I will keep sending them out into the world.

Ultimately, this election has been about waking up. Waking up to reality, to political action, to making myself heard whether through marches, town halls, calling and faxing my representatives or writing. Artists are awake to reality and they wake the rest of us up which is critical in these times.

I will leave you with the most chilling words from “The Handmaid’s Tale” so far:

Now I’m awake to the world. I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen. When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Consitution, we didn’t wake up then, either. Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.

~ Offred

Let’s stay awake.

 

The Practice of Tapas.

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“Life without tapas is like a heart without love.” ~ BKS Iyengar

One of the stories I’ve told myself over the years is that I am lazy. I’ve lugged that word around throughout high school, college all the way up to the present. Nothing I did was enough (according to me).

Then I discovered tapas. Not the delicious appetizers but the third niyama that calls on me to stoke my inner fire. Literally it comes from the root sanskrit word “tap” which means “to burn.” I take it to mean to burn away everything that holds me back from achieving what I want and being who I want to be. That means burning away the story that I am lazy.

As a writer, I’ve struggled with procrastination on an almost daily basis. My shelves are lined with books promising the secret to being a productive writer. I’ve tried many different tips from waking up early to writing late at night, from focusing on word counts to time spent writing, writing at home to writing in coffee shops.They all worked, for a while. Then I’d drift back into this wishy-washy limbo of wanting to write but never quite committing to it.

Last year I embarked on a year-long writing challenge based on Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t Break The Chain” advice. The theory is that you set up a system of marking an x for each day you  show up to write, the goal being to not break the chain. I sat up a dry erase board with 365 boxes for each day of the year. Dutifully, I showed up each day to write something, anything, no word count, no minimum time required and once I did that I could make my x. I did it. Every single day .

This year I decided to require a little more from myself. I still must write every single day but Monday -Friday I need to write at least 500 words on my current WIP. Saturday and Sunday can be for the WIP or Morning Pages or blog posts. I am using the same dry erase board as last year only I am coloring in the top triangle blue for the days I write at least 500 words, red for the weekends.

It’s working. I am up to almost 50,00 words on my novel. I wrote on days when I was crazy busy, when I wasn’t feeling well, even when we had a 72-hour power outage.The story is finding its way, the characters are finding their way and I am finding mine.

What I’m discovering is that practicing tapas in one area of my life is spilling into other areas. I’ve meditated every day since November 9. Some days it’s just been two minutes. Others it’s been thirty. I find myself with more confidence as I continually meet these goals I set for myself that nobody but me cares if I meet. If I can do this, what else can I do?

With this fire ignited, anything is possible.

Books Read in January.

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“Talking As Fast As I Can” a memoir by Lauren Graham

Some of the most exciting things that happened in my life took place before I turn six years old.

I don’t generally read celebrity memoirs, or any books really written by a celebrity. When Snookie came out with a novel? Well, let’s just say that might’ve been the last straw. I don’t believe in books as brands. Books are breathing entities filled with hope and they lessen the burden of loneliness. Before reading Graham’s book, the only other celebrity book I read was the story collection by Molly Ringwald and it blew me away. As I read I could tell it wasn’t just a piece of her brand puzzle. And she could really write. What she has in common with Graham is that they were both English majors. So, maybe I’m a bit of a snob but if you took time to study literature then I have a certain amount of respect for you and enough curiosity to see what you own writing is like.

I am a huge “Gilmore Girls” fan. I’m a huge Lauren Graham fan, I mean…”Parenthood”…right?I’ve already watched the Netflix revival “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life” twice and still wanted more. So, her book. Well, books, actually and I bought both.

This memoir is how I imagine she is when she’s not playing Lorelai or Sarah, but I feel there’s a lot of her in both characters. This book is funny, warm, charming and fast-paced (maybe the quick dialogue thing wasn’t completely Amy Sherman-Palladino’s call).

Not only do we get a glimpse of her childhood and her road to Hollywood success, she gives us a peek behind the scenes of each season of Gilmore Girls as well as the revival! Squee!!! I love seeing behind the scenes of anything, but two of my favorite shows? Well, it was heaven.

She also talks about writing and how she found it. Or, how it found her. And her timer trick to get the actual writing done? I can totally relate to that and it pretty much combines by own process that I’ve pieced together over the years through trial and error. It kind of combines the shitty first draft with a timer. It’s a way of getting and keeping your butt in the chair to get the work done.

So grateful that Graham (although I feel like I can call her Lauren after reading her book) found a process that worked for her to get this book written.

A sentence I love (and made me laugh out loud):

On  being a guest judge on Project Runway

“I can’t even stand giving feedback to the potato peeler I bought on Amazon—what made me think this would be any different?”

“Someday, Someday. Maybe” a novel by Lauren Graham

“Begin whenever you’re ready,” comes the voice from the back of the house.

This fresh, charming novel follows Franny Banks’ dream of acting. She gave her self a deadline to “succeed” that is fast approaching. Does she hang in there just a while longer or does she admit defeat and give up?

I became so caught up in the life of Franny that I forgot than one of my favorite actresses wrote it! One of the things I really loved is how the life of an artist, any artist, is explored. What qualifies as success? Once we achieve whatever milestone we set for ourselves, then what? What if you don’t? Then what?

I realized while reading this that I never set the same kind of deadline for myself as  a writer. Maybe because I have other means of income. But I know that even if I never sell a novel, go on book tour, have my novel optioned for a movie, I will still keep writing.

The advice that her agent, barney, gives her at the end about succeeding in show business can be applied to writing as well: Faster, Funnier, Louder. Read the book to get the details.

A sentence I love: 

(Referring to her filofax but it works as sage writing advice.)

“Just keep at it, like the fictional Franny, keep filling up the pages, and something’s bound to happen.”

“The Hidden Messages in Water” by Maseru Emoto

Understanding the fact that we are essentially water is the key to uncovering the mysteries of the universe.

I borrowed this book from a friend but it is so fascinating and life-changing that I will need to buy a copy for myself to re-read at least once a year to remind me how powerful our thoughts are.

The basic premise is that our words and thoughts have power to heal or hurt. By exposing ice crystals to different words then photographing them afterward he was able to show the physical effect words can have, not only on water but on our selves which are 70% water. Filled with beautiful photographs from his studies, this slim but powerful book lays out how essential it is that we take care with our words.

“Our emotions and feelings have an effect on the world moment by moment. If you send out words and images of creativity, then you will be contributing to the creation of a beautiful world. However, emitting messages of destruction, you contribute to the destruction of the universe.”

Once fully understood, it becomes deeply freeing while at the same time a sobering responsibility.

A sentence I love:

The relationship between love and gratitude may be similar to the relationship between sun and shade. If love is the sun, gratitude is the moon.