Posts Tagged ‘Writing Life’

not the ending

July 8th, 2012    -    9 Comments

The beginning of Hand Wash Cold, because somewhere, for someone, the cycles are repeating:

By September everything was gone. Given away or sold, cheap. The entire living room to my sister, who hired movers to take it. Two garage sales to empty the shelves. My wedding crystal, still in plastic in the Lenox shipping box, for $35. The woman halfheartedly bargained, “Is this set complete?” before she laughed at her own question and handed over the bills. One Sunday night I invited the little guy from the rollerblading group inside and sold him the wine rack for $20. He’d wanted dinner and a date but he drove away with the rack standing up in the backseat of his MG convertible.

I kept what I needed and wanted. They’d become the same. The bed, desk, books and a chair, and about half of my clothes. I sublet one room, the smaller one, in a two-bedroom apartment from someone who seemed desperate for the company and the cash. Then I did what everyone else had already done from the big house on Avalon Drive. I left. And then it sold.

Hadn’t quite sold, but after two years in a falling market it was wanted, finally and fast, by a woman attorney new in town.

It was time to take care of the last bit of housekeeping. Just a day’s worth, a day in September.

There was stuff left in drawers and closets. The cabinets above and below the tiny wet bar between the kitchen and the living room with the blue-and-yellow tile counter. An understated spot that had made the house seem so authentic. This would make someone a lovely home, I often thought, realizing it wasn’t me. I surveyed the mismatched glassware and souvenir mugs, the army of half-empty liquor bottles my husband had brought home after doing beverage inventory at the hotel where he worked. We can’t use it there, he’d said. Never used it here either. I poured every bottle down the little sink and stuck the empties, like bones, into garbage bags. Dragged outside, the bags piled up behind the little white picket sanitation fence by the garage. Up and over the top, an embarrassing tower of unmade toasts.

Upstairs, I swept through the closets of empty hangers and leftover shoes, pausing over a stash of get well cards from the surgery five years ago, when the doctor said get pregnant now and, looking at my blank-faced husband, I knew I didn’t love him.

I pulled down the attic stairs and went up. In some ways, it was my favorite room. We’d bought the house from a surgeon, and that explained the precision of the place. No visible scars. The guy had actually done his own gardening and cleaned his own pool, installed his own sprinkler system and outdoor lights. Awash in aftershave, I imagined, with an aperitif in hand.

The attic was high-ceilinged and light. The span was clean and shadowless. The surgeon had put in a solid floor and neatly lain old doors and shutters across the rafters. In case someone could use them again. On one wall was a built-in shelf where I kept my small store of Christmas decorations. Not enough ornaments to cover a tree, but centerpieces and ceramics to set out in the years before I could no longer lift the sentiment. read more

ease

June 12th, 2012    -    4 Comments

And see the peaceful trees extend
their myriad leaves in leisured dance-
they bear the weight of sky and cloud
upon the fountain of their veins.

from “Envoi” by Kathleen Raine

In the Zen tradition we say of old teachers, “they planted trees.” It’s not just a metaphor. Planting trees is the activity of a buddha, an awakened being, and it makes perfect sense. For one thing, trees improve the scenery, and for another, trees guide the way.

A well-tended tree grows. My teachers, being grandfathers each in their own manner, planted trees. How noble, how worthy, how kind.

How to grow a tree is how to grow your life.

###

Inspired again by my cousin’s etegami art.

my favorite book of all time

May 15th, 2012    -    17 Comments

Because it is utterly, totally true.

 

Yesterday someone sent me a gift that proves it: wildflowers grow in profusion where you least expect them. And that brought me back to this treasure book, one that is so intimately meaningful that if I could, I would plant it in everyone’s home with a carefree toss from my open hand.

A gift to my baby when she was barely born, from a faithful and nearly lifelong friend, this book delivered a set of emphatic instructions for my own life.

Miss Rumphius
Story and Pictures by Barbara Cooney

“When I grow up, I too will go to faraway places and come home to live by the sea.”
“That is all very well, little Alice,” says my aunt, “but there is a third thing you must do.”

“What is that?” I ask.

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

“All right,” I say.

But I do not know yet what that can be.

My goodness! All the passion and discovery, all the trial and error, all the heart and truth and promise in that simple “I do not know.” It is my wish and recommendation for you.

This post originally ran as part of a series on children’s books. Other recommendations are found here, here, and here.

a little light

March 26th, 2012    -    18 Comments

Reading my friend Dan Barden’s  new book wasn’t altogether pleasant. It was a lot like trying to get around the borderless sprawl of Los Angeles. A contradiction, to say the least. Here you are, cruising under the blinding sunshine of an earthly paradise, and over there is a body under a blanket. Watch out for that sofa thrown onto the street. There’s a mattress in the middle of the freeway. The high-speed lane is stalled, and the off ramp is closed. Beautiful people drive by plumped up on collagen and hair extensions, and under the overpass is an invisible underclass. We must be in the wrong neighborhood. Let’s not get out of the car. I love it.

In the soft hills behind the beaches, everyone is hurting, and hurting each other, and trying to keep from hurting.

Barden wrote about that, in the form of a noir thriller, set in a place I know — Orange County — with people like us, people who have totally messed up and now are trying to do The Next Right Thing. You might think it’s strange for me to read a mystery, at least one with a lot of flying fists and f-words, but it’s no stranger than my real life. I love it.

 The Next Right Thing gives us a most unlikable kind of love. It ranges through the blight of addiction, anger, graft, betrayal and decomposing bodies in the basement, all to prove that the ugly underside is the incubator of goodness.

It’s thrilling, for real, and deeply wise, and I’m giving away a brand new copy. Leave a comment by this Friday to enter my giveaway. I’d love it.

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the girl can write

March 5th, 2012    -    60 Comments

About two years ago I read something on the web that I loved. I adore words, and I often admire other writing. But this was different than admiration. It was as if someone cracked open my ribcage and wrote the ache in my heart.

The piece by Joanna Brooks was called There is no Such Thing as Half, a courageous bit of outspokenness against the fractional religious classification of her children, born of a Mormon mom and Jewish dad. I read it and gushed blood, then immediately wrote a fan letter to Joanna. The similarities of our interfaith families, as all similarities, didn’t end there. It turns out she was a beloved professor to my next-door neighbor’s first-born. We both came of age on the suburban rim of the California orange groves. We shared the relative obscurity of all fledgling writers, figuring out how to woo readers, win publishers, and assemble the mythical “platform” that we’ve been told will yield access to the promised land of literary inclusion.

All I could offer her was encouragement. She went on and did everything by her pioneering self, becoming the go-to media girl for progressive Mormonism, a commentator at the frontier of politics, faith and feminism. Last month she published her memoir, and I recommend it to you here.

The Book of Mormon Girl is the story of deeply loving one’s faith, surviving its narrowness, renouncing its arrogance, and ultimately reclaiming the church. It is as smartly rendered as language can be, and it is beautifully, universally true. It gives me hope. Hope for our miscounted daughters, for our misunderstood grandmothers, and for the achingly faithful hearts, like mine, still beating and bleeding for peace, tolerance, and the seemingly lost cause of human respect. It gives me hope for our common lineage: love.

Comment on this post for a chance to win my copy of the book, to be drawn this Friday.

a memoirist’s lament

January 30th, 2012    -    8 Comments

“Too many notes.” — Emperor Joseph II’s criticism to Mozart

Truth is, I don’t consider anything I’ve ever written to be a memoir. I don’t even think I tell stories. I un-tell stories. I unwind plots. I silence my narrator. I do this by listening.

I’m not the virtuoso on the stage. I’m the emperor in the audience. Dumb, dull, and frankly, unimpressed by the racket.

When I write I call myself a diamond cutter. That sounds fancy until you realize that it’s usually just a hairy guy with a chisel. Perhaps I should call myself a sausage stuffer. Some days I’m more like an orange juicer. The point is, I have something in my hands, something we all have — blood, bones and guts — and my job is to turn it into something else. A gem. Or a healthy part of a balanced breakfast.

I start writing when I am sick of my story, sick of its sound, smell and taste. And so I cut it open, air it out, let it go, and then it turns into a larger story, one I hadn’t ever heard before, spilling across the page. It becomes everyone’s story, which we call the truth. And then it’s done.

I’m not even interested in other people’s stories, especially if by page 153 it’s obvious that they aren’t going to turn it into something else. These are the books I don’t finish. Nonfiction that makes itself sacred becomes a lie. Yes, I understand you are still very sad/angry/confused. Write back when you get work.

So imagine my surprise when I saw who’s visiting Butler University in Indianapolis on Feb. 15.

Zen memoirist Karen Maezen Miller
“Memoirs of a Zen Priest”
Talk and book signing
Wednesday, Feb. 15, 7 p.m.
The Efroymson Center for Creative Writing
Butler University, Indianapolis

Come anyway, come anyway! It’s free and open to the public. I’ll be talking about oranges, with sausages on the side.

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here because of you

December 19th, 2011    -    12 Comments

To the woman pulling out of the parking lot on Friday who rolled her window down and said, “Are you Momma Zen?”
To the ones who asked.
And the ones who came.
To the one who wrote, “If I’d known what your workshop was about I wouldn’t have come.”
To the people who traveled across states and south from Canada.
Who saw a sign that said, “turn here.”
And even though it was far they thought, “It’s not too far.”
For the airport rides and the spare bedrooms.
For the reunions and first meetings.
The coffee, the breakfast, the dinner, the talks, the tears.
For the last-minute cancelations.
For the names I didn’t remember.
And even the “constructive criticism.”
For not saying, “You’re older than I thought.”
For the sun in Asilomar, the rain in Pittsburgh, the old friends in Houston, the new ones in DC, the love in Georgia, and the stars in Colorado, oh the stars in Colorado.
For meeting your children. For bringing your mother.
For looking me in the eye.
And for sending me on my way.
To the man at the Zen Center on Saturday who said, “I’m here because of you.”
That’s only half of it.
I’m here because of you.
I’m here because of you.
I’m here because of you.

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swimming in joy

December 5th, 2011    -    40 Comments

If you want to keep me awake at night, ask me about my writing process.  (I haven’t ever figured it out.) So I took notice when my friend  Christine Mason Miller dropped by for no good reason during the last, mad deadline for her new book, Desire to Inspire. (Win a copy here.) Turns out she doesn’t have a writing process either. Hers is the process of no process. (Sounds Zen.) She likens it to surfing. (I haven’t ever figured surfing out either.) Read more of her guest post, and if  Desire to Inspire inspires you to desire, leave a comment on this post by the end of the day Thursday, Dec. 8 and you could be swimming in joy (without getting wet).

Before the ink began to dry on my contract with North Light Books for the publication of my next book, I made a decision. I declared that, no matter what, my work on the book was never going to take place in a space of stress, anxiety, worry, or fear. This book was going to be created from joy, and in order for that joy to flourish unfettered, I was going to have to trust – Trust with a capital T.

With five major deadlines, nineteen contributors, more than one hundred images, and ten chapters, there were loads of opportunities to lose my cool. Not to mention the usual creative hurdles that have the potential to throw the best laid plans into a rapid tailspin such as writer’s block, procrastination, or, in my case, an eight-week old puppy who joined our family soon after the book contract was finalized. I had my work cut out for me, not only as the author of the book, but as a self-proclaimed devotee of Trust in the Process and Commitment to Joy. Had I faltered on the latter, the book could certainly still be written, but then the experience of writing it and pulling together the stories of its nineteen extraordinary contributors would have been less akin to riding the perfect wave and more like being pummeled by the surf. read more

go

November 28th, 2011    -    6 Comments

It took a very long while. Thirteen years. It took a lot of people. Nine thousand or so. We had to travel a far way. From California to Florida. To wake up awfully early. Five a.m. We took a car, a plane and then a bus before we sat on the shore of Banana Creek in the drizzle of a gray dawn to watch the Mars Science Laboratory – NASA’s newest and largest rover – lift off from Cape Canaveral.

The rover will look for the smallest signs of life.

My husband had a role in its engineering for several years. I do not recall the stretch of time with particularity. In the heroic cause of ordinary life, the days do not shine with glory.

We sat in bleachers for two hours as the minutes and clouds passed. We chatted with our neighbors, compared stories of kids and colleges, and drank coffee and hot chocolate, our gaze focused lightly on the horizon, where a shiny sliver stood against all odds that time could yet stop, or the day turn disastrous.

As the count drew down, the flight director made one more audible poll of system flight controllers for a go/no-go call, a spoken ritual broadcast on loudspeaker. There was no no given. There was only go, and again, go, and again, go.

Go.
Go.
Go, and all accounted for, go.

Certain then that neither earth nor sky would intercede, we stood and crossed our hearts and sang an anthem, then heard one last benediction, one final decree, a dedication to all the men and women who had risen each day to this task, traversing their own long years and brave distance, in the split second before their work could be judged as success or failure, taking measure by each part, each step, allowing the greatness to be no greater than the small in each of us.

And I thought to myself: Could there ever be life more intelligent than this? The propulsion of human ignition, the momentum of life itself, the genius of the inevitable, irreversible, go.

small packages

September 13th, 2011    -    3 Comments

These days I feel as though the world doesn’t need one more person to say one more thing. And so I leave you these small packages to unwrap if you like, to use if you need:

What mindfulness looks like – a sweet reflection through the eyes of one participant in last weekend’s Art of Mindfulness workshop in Houston.

What Buddhism sounds like – Melvin McLeod, editor of the Shambhala Sun magazine and its numerous anthologies of Buddhist writing, updates the simple story of our tradition in this excerpt, his introduction to a new volume of teachings.

What your family is worth – Offering a new couples discount to The Plunge one-day retreat in Pittsburgh on Saturday, Oct. 1. Use and share with those you love.

I’m off this weekend to Shambhala Mountain Center in northern Colorado where a small circle of us will sit, walk, talk and wake up. I can’t imagine a heaven any greater than the one in your hands. Please take good care of it.

love stories

August 22nd, 2011    -    38 Comments

I have two books and one story to give away this week. Like all stories, they are love stories.

A few weeks ago I answered an invitation to read and review this acclaimed new book, To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal. Why am I suddenly saying yes to reviewing books? Perhaps because it’s summer; perhaps to avoid my own writing. That’s okay. When it’s time to take your time, a book is as good as a day on the lake. Here the author dips into a favorite well of mine: how we tell old stories to ourselves; how we salvage, refinish, embroider, store, and vainly, always vainly, try to relive the past. The book has a vintage feel to it, like its solid hardcover heft. The characters are old-school and middle-aged; they can ring false to one another and sometimes to the reader as well. But there is a beating heart here that is pure, placid and wide. It is romance: the romance we can only lose, since romance is by definition long gone. And then when I read that the author was 63 years old, with 12 years between his first novel and this, his second, and that he builds homes for a living, and has an orange grove on his California homestead, well, I loved all that even more than the fiction. You know I have a thing about orange trees: they hold the fruit for a long time before they let it go. McNeal clearly knows how to take his time and he knows how to spend it. I’ll gladly send this one to you so you can love time all by yourself.

The publisher sent me a crisp new copy of that book with a chapter of mine in it, Right Here With You: Bringing Mindful Awareness into Our Relationships. It’s got all the Buddhist regulars in it, and a few of us irregulars, and I’m sure it’s good because the Dharma is always good. I haven’t read it because I don’t read the kind of books that have me in them, but be sure to ask if it’s right for you now.

And finally, I’ll send you a second time to the online excerpt from my most recent magazine article, “Waking up Alone,” in the current issue of the Shambhala Sun. The issue focuses on the wisdom of love, and my article is about how we never know what love is until the love story ends.

Leave a comment on this post with the name of either or both books, if you want them. I’ll choose a winner next Monday.

Less than three weeks til The Art of Mindfulness in Houston.

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Leaving things be

July 21st, 2011    -    3 Comments

The dryer broke, the weeds are choking, the dust is piling, the heat is climbing, I’m leaving things be. Here are some other pursuits for the time being.

Right Here With You – A new book on relationships, with some of my stuff on marriage.
Relationship with Fear – Our first and last love.
A Gust of Wind – God breathing a reminder to let go.
The Body of Wisdom – Feets of faith.
Impossible Things Happen – This right here is your proof.
Shells on the Beach – The illusion of self.
Brain Drain – Nowhere to go, nothing to get.

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paw prints

July 9th, 2011    -    11 Comments

Book Review & Giveaway
by Georgia Miller

Since my daughter’s literary interests have long veered toward the furry four-legged, she was eager to share her latest book review. Read the instructions at the end of this post and you will be entered to win her own special giveaway.

A Dog Named Slugger by Leigh Brill is a touching true story about a young woman and her service dog.

Because of her cerebral palsy, Leigh was in need of a service dog. She had trouble walking and a dog would help her balance and walk up stairs. When she finally received Slugger, she had to go through several training courses. I learned that dogs can be used for more than companionship.

One day, when she was walking around on campus, Leigh met her future husband. They always loved playing Frisbee and catch with Slugger. When Leigh was interviewed for a job, they wouldn’t accept her because of Slugger. No matter how hard they tried to get Leigh to work without her dog, she wouldn’t give in. She was brave.

Of course, after the many years of helping Leigh, Slugger developed arthritis. It eventually got worse and worse, so Leigh decided to get another service dog named Kenda. Kenda was a young, fun-loving puppy. So she helped Leigh during the time when Slugger was sick and had to be put to sleep. That part of the book was so sad I didn’t want to read it at night before bed so I read it in the car on the way to gymnastics.

I thought this was a great book. It is absolutely perfect for the young dog lover, or a dog lover of any age. It’s good to read books about dogs so if you’re looking to get one, you can learn what they are like. This is now one of my favorite books. I loved it. I learned a lot about people and dogs, and it made me feel lucky.

If I could say anything to Leigh Brill it would be that you are really awesome and you are one of my idols. I hope you write a book about you and Kenda!

Now for my giveaway. Please leave a comment with your suggestion of more books I should read and review this summer. If I choose your name, I will send you a super cool duct tape wallet handmade by me!

It’s Kid’s Week on Cheerio Road. Check back frequently for guest posts on the darnedest things.

 

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