Posts Tagged ‘Writing Life’

The last 19 books I didn’t write

May 17th, 2009    -    76 Comments

stock-footage-colorful-books-stack-loop-colorful-books-piled-seamless-loop-with-copy-spaceAbout mid-way through this school year, my daughter started griping, I’m bored. I thought, whatever. She nagged me to volunteer in her class. I thought, no way.

When a four- or five-year-old uses the word, bored, it’s a safe bet they are playing with the word. But when they are eight or nine, it might be time to pay attention. When I did, it changed my life.

I like Georgia’s historic, charming, well-staffed, well-intentioned public school. She does too. This post is not about the shortcomings of her school. It is about the shortcomings of my attention.

My daughter and her classmates are being taught superlatively well how to write to rules and rubrics. But to write freely, for fun and without judgment? That’s a different story.

Stuck in my own nowhere of creative momentum, I plunged instead into a new adventure. I proposed to Georgia’s teacher that I lead a classroom project in something I’d never done, but that amounted to the only thing I could contribute. The magnificent teacher did her part: she said yes. Then, over a four-month period, she and I worked together with 19 third-graders to write their own creative nonfiction (and a bit of fiction) stories.

We tell our children stories. We read books aloud, and prod our kids to read for themselves. So they read about famous people, folk tales and legends, biographies, historical fiction and fantasies. But do they realize that their own lives are stories? That they have the experience and imagination to create and share stories that come entirely from themselves? Based on their own remarkable lives and the future they envision?

Well, of course, they can. Give them tools and attention and you will be amazed. I was amazed. I was encouraged. I was uplifted and transported. I was repaid a million times over, with the only payment that counts or lasts.

I want you to know that wherever your child goes to school, or doesn’t, whatever their age or grade level, they are brilliant. They are geniuses. They are authors. I am convinced already. I am their first fan.

I word-processed and printed out each three-chapter-long book on my computer. They drew illustrations and a cover design that we laminated. They wrote author bios and I snapped their photos and we put that together on the last page. We spiral bound everything together and then they went on book tour reading their stories aloud in classrooms of younger ages. We’re having a book festival next week where the kids will read their stories to their fellow authors and everyone gets a literary prize. An eraser. Oh how I prize my own, because the most important thing about writing is not that you finish. It’s that you start, and then start all over again.

What did they write? To keep it short, I assembled 19 lines from their work into this abridged life story. It gives you an idea of the treasure they handed to me.

My story is unlike any other.
I was born early because I wanted to go places.

My first smile wasn’t a real smile, it was my “about to cry” smile.

It was like being sad and happy at the same time.
When I was little I liked excitement. I put Cheetos in the microwave.

When people asked how many friends I had, I said, “It would take a long time to count them.”
It seems like I have friends all over the world.
Friends are magic, movies are magic and spelling is magic because people can read your writing.
Making people feel happy and safe is the most important thing there is.

Everywhere we went, we went fast.

I thought a lot about growing up, but my parents thought about when I was little.

That’s what parents do.

Sometimes you have to lose something to find something better.

What you love never really goes away.

I used to want to work in an ice cream store, but something tells me life will be more interesting than that.

The day you read this I may be 9 or 90.

Now my energy goes up in the daytime and down in the nighttime.
The funeral lasted three hours.

Somewhere I’ll be watching, and I’ll be happy if you are good citizens.

I could go on forever, but my heart is bursting, and I find I have some writing to do.

***

If you are a parent or teacher and you would like a copy of the lesson plan I created for this project, “My Life Story: A Creative Nonfiction Project for 3rd Graders,” just leave a comment with a way to contact you, or email me and I’ll gladly share.

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What to make of it

May 10th, 2009    -    11 Comments


Last night at a neighborhood party, my daughter and her nine-year-old friends put on a show that was shocking and lewd.

I was embarrassed and alarmed.

Frank Rich’s column in the Times includes this fact “more than 60 percent of Twitter users abandon it after a single month.”

I’m still afraid the future will sail without me.

On speakerphone so we could wish her a happy mother’s day, my mother-in-law asks, “What will your mommy do today?” My daughter says, “Exercise and write by herself.” My mother-in-law replies, “Doesn’t she do that everyday?”

I never know where she’s coming from.

Wish Studio posted this essay describing my creative process, which seems like a misnomer. My output is painstaking and small but I get a big kick out of looking the part.

Break the bottle, make a space and let it be.

No one you know

May 4th, 2009    -    4 Comments


After a short round of legal dodgeball, the story is posted again. Try the links, and thanks for reading.

Faith arises from mystery like the peppermints from the bottom of your grandma’s handbag.

Go straightaway and read this newest story of mine, which isn’t my story at all, but theirs retold.

Here’s what got me there. Some years ago the service liturgy at my Zen Center was appended so that when we recite the names of all the male enlightened masters in my Zen lineage (81 generations and counting) we chant the following dedication at the very end:

And to all our female ancestors whose names have been lost or forgotten.

Because, as a matter of housekeeping, we have lost or forgotten their names. That’s what can happen in patriarchal institutions of all kinds, which is what all kinds of institutions are. The women are no less integral or involved in keeping house, their names are simply lost or forgotten. Ahem.

When we first started to chant this invocation, at my teacher’s insistence by the way, I heard it as I suspect my own daughter hears the invocations I recite:

Blahblahblahyadayadaetceteraetceteraetceteracleanyourroom.

Then one day I started listening to the words. All. Our. Female. Ancestors.

What immediately came to mind was just that. All. Our. Female. Ancestors. The ones whose names I know and the ones whose names I don’t. Like my Grandma Tate or my Grandma Patschke, whose own given names I scarcely knew. Was it Irma or Erma? Cordelia or Cornelia? Alverno or Alvina? Heddie or Hattie? Did I know them at all when I knew them? Did I know anything at all of their lives of love and loss, betrayal and forgiveness, cynicism and faith? Do I know them yet?

Lately I’ve been drawn to the voices of women, voices unsung and voices unheard. I want to listen. I want everyone to listen to women of found faith and women of lost faith. Women of faith forsaken and faith restored. That’s what drew me to this story, her story, that I posted some months ago. That’s what drew me to this story, their stories, the one that runs today. Please read this one and share it, sing it, heal it, love it, as only we can. We have all waited so long for the listening.

And if you wonder or worry why I would place any article of mine in a magazine entitled Killing the Buddha (interestingly enough, it is based on a Zen teaching), the answers are easy. First, these open-eyed editors heard the deep timbre of an ancestral song and asked to broadcast it. Second, in a world of misguided institutions and ideologies, eradicating the false altar of a misunderstood and misappropriated Asian male deity is nothing other than the ultimate kindness. Like when grandma plumbed the recesses of her Sunday purse to proffer a peppermint candy, soothing your cough during a horrendously long sermon in the steam of a mid-summer Sunday in Central Texas. A miracle, I tell you.

That a group of wild-eyed religious iconoclasts would respond to this truth with such immediacy and sensitivity is evidence of the bottomless, benevolent mystery of God’s handbag. All my grandmothers have carried the very same bag. Whether you know it or not, so do you. From it, miracles come.

The squiggly wigglies

April 23rd, 2009    -    3 Comments

I’m off for a three-day retreat at my practice home starting tonight, because this silent spaciousness is where all stories begin and end.

Before I leave I want to share some recent inspiration.

First, the Shambhala Sun has reposted my piece on the Dharma of Barbie. Even after you think you’ve tossed her, the old girl never dies. And there’s always a new generation of parents for her to haunt. If you scroll down to the end of the story, you’ll see the announcement that I’ll soon be launching a blog on their site named after the stuff that is always near to my heart. Once I sort the lights from the darks, we’ll see what comes out of it. Leave a comment over there and let them know that I’m not just full of suds.

This column in the New Yorker snapped, crackled and popped my eyes open earlier this week. It’s a fascinating look that could leave you wondering about how much you’re willing to commit to yourself during troubling times.

Speaking of troubles, I was touched by this letter to fellow practitioners. Not just because the need is urgent and the time is now, but because of the sheer delight in seeing that, even to a Rinpoche, practice is just pretense. We must all pretend harder!

Lastly, I was so moved by Cam’s reflection on loss. It reminds me that the why that has no answer is the very why we keep going, and that love and loss are never separate.

And just for a parting grin, this snippet of conversation two days ago over a sleeping dog.

Mom, you know what I’ve figured out?

What’s that?

A well-trained dog isn’t that much fun.

Why not?

Because you don’t get to wrestle it, and have trouble with it. You don’t get to be mad at it.

I see.

So a well-trained dog isn’t the best kind.

You think?

If we ever get a new puppy can we name it Squiggly or Wiggly?

We are all Susan Boyle

April 15th, 2009    -    11 Comments

I know you’ve already seen this 5.9 million times, but this time, I want you to give yourself a “Yes” and go back to your own small village with your bad hair held high, blowing kisses to strangers.

Keep singing your song, and I will too. What else is a church volunteer to do?

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The mother at the end of my block

April 7th, 2009    -    4 Comments


Just a few months after my daughter’s birth, I saw another mother on the corner at the end of my block. – Momma Zen

Amy Tiemann’s second edition of Mojo Mom is born today. It is an updated compendium of thoughtful questions and resources about rebuilding a healthy life after you become a mother. I just read it for the first time, although it was the second time. That’s what I’m told the second birth is like: not like the first, which you can’t remember anyway.

There is a story about me and Amy that I’m not sure she knows. And the story is this: she is the mother I met at the end of my block. We all have this mother. Another mother that you meet in a jolt of recognition in those first desolate months, the other mother to whom you will reveal yourself in the mutual reflection of empathy and acceptance. The mother with an extra ziplock bag of Cheerios in her stroller when yours have run out just as you start the steep homeward climb.

Amy was that mother not for the birth of my baby, although our daughters were born within weeks of one another. Amy is the mother I met on my block for the birth of my book.

A few months before the birth of Momma Zen, I started casting a crazed daze about the neighborhood. I’d started and finished the project in a creative cocoon, oblivious to what was already out there, unaware of what anyone else had written first or best. I highly recommend cocoons for all transformative processes. It is nature’s perfect way and thankfully requires no recommendation from me.

I ordered Amy’s book, her baby, just to confirm that it was not my own. We can all envision the movie-of-the-week hysteria that would overtake us should someone else leave the hospital with our baby! I read her book to check for family markings: the ear lobes, the nose, the big toe, and came away convinced. She had hers; and I had mine.

In the years since I have confirmed that and more. Amy has her own inimitable approach to this bottomless topic of life as a mother. She has a scientist’s mind, a seeker’s eye and a mother’s heart. She is overwhelmingly generous, kind and reassuring. If I am the priest at your bedside, she is the doctor. Believe me, you want to see the doctor well before the priest arrives.

In her book, Amy asks the questions we may be afraid to ask ourselves. They are practical, not spiritual, but can seem quite impossible and intangible in the early years. Questions about work, time, space, money, childcare, self-care, power and politics. Mojo Mom will leave you energized and activated, not agitated and polarized, as so much mommy talk can.

As life would have it, as it always will, Amy and I have walked these blocks, these years, in each other’s continuous company. With mutual respect and humor. As life would have it, as it always will, we will soon be walking the blocks in my very neighborhood when Amy comes to visit me in June. She and I will host a Mother’s Summer Reading Salon at Sierra Madre Books on Tuesday, June 23.

Can you believe it? I can’t, but I can trust this life exactly as it unfolds, as surely as you can trust yours and everyone in it.

Buy Amy’s book for any mother on your block this Mother’s Day. The block is both bigger and smaller than you think, and no one walks it alone.

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Covering the ground

April 2nd, 2009    -    9 Comments


This Saturday I’ll be giving the dharma talk at the Hazy Moon Zen Center. Come and join our morning program of sitting. And if you don’t know how to sit, then take our beginner’s class. We will all be beginners on Saturday.

This weekend Georgia and I leave for Amsterdam where we’ll be seeing the sights and making some of our own at a Zen Mama workshop on April 8 co-sponsored by Lof magazine for working mothers. They are giving everyone who comes the Dutch copy of my book and a piece of cake. Come for the cake! I am already so deeply impressed by the hospitality and sincerity of my Dutch hosts. We have a saying in Zen, “covering the ground where you stand.” It is the signpost of self-mastery. I feel as though I can do this one lying down, and laugh my head off.

Laugh and the world laughs with you, I’m out to prove.

I’ll be popping in from time to time next week, especially to offer my up-to-now untold personal testimonial about Amy Tiemann’s fantastic new edition of Mojo Mom, debuting on April 7.

Kom voor de taart!

Photo by Denise Andrade

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Pointing you in the right direction

March 22nd, 2009    -    8 Comments


Attention, please.

I’ve made a couple of additions to the right sidebar and I want you to poke around over there. That’s right, to the right. Down a little. Then further down. Right there.

First, you’ll see a link announcing my first-ever hosted retreat, a one-day summer camp I call Mother’s Summer Plunge. This is a big step for me right off the deep end. A test of my faith and dog paddling skills. But after being asked the question many times, I decided to change my answer to “Why not?” (Some of you know that it’s my favorite question, I mean answer, I mean the question that is its own answer.) The retreat is on Saturday, June 20, a date I selected because it was staring me in the face, and because it is my mother’s birthday. And if the first thing you think is, “I can’t come,” because like most things it isn’t reasonable or feasible or some such, I want you to notice that you think like that and not think like that anymore. There! You’ve put your toe in already!

Farther down, after the book order advert, you’ll see I’m asking for you to plug your email into a newsletter list I’m putting together. The thing is, when you get into the retreat business and other assorted unreasonable and unfeasible activities it can be handy to have a list of all the people you want to invite to a birthday party in honor of your mother. Please enter yourself! I promise I won’t abuse the info. In exchange for your trouble you won’t just have to put up with me reading your mind, whispering in your ear, visiting you in your dreams or collecting dust on your bedstand, you’ll have to fish me out of your junk mail!

Buy the book

March 11th, 2009    -    7 Comments


I just put a gawd awful button on the right side of the page over there so you can buy Momma Zen directly from me. Why this took me three years to accomplish I do not know. I’m slow getting out the door.

I kinda thought there were rules, or at least simple courtesies, about this sort of thing. Like that the publisher wanted to sell it. Or like bookstores would stock it. Nah, not so much. Lately the book has been in short supply everywhere I go. Last weekend I spoke to 400 people in Palo Alto but the Stanford bookstore supplied only 30 copies to sell to the hundreds of folks in line. What?! Heck, Georgia sold ten times as many boxes of Girl Scout cookies without a backward glance. Now I see that Amazon has sold out twice in the last month, making people wait two weeks to get it. So forgive my cluelessness, but I’m taking matters of the heart into my own grubby hands.

Ask and you shall find. Knock, and the good old US Post Office shall open your mailbox and pop one inside.

And to think I practice mindfulness. It’s always a good time to start.

The artist formerly known as Mom

March 1st, 2009    -    14 Comments

My mother’s name was Artice. It was an unusual name, and it brought her unusual attention. Almost everyone thought, on first hearing, that her name was Artist. So she was an artist, and she was a mom. I am a mom, and it’s taken me a long time to realize that I am an Artist too.

A few months ago, the photographer Denise Andrade came up to my house and before she could knock at the front door I opened up a side door from the bedroom and hollered for her to come in. So she came in through the bedroom. I suspect that’s the way she comes in most places, through the hidden chamber, to the real you. She said something right off that she will not remember, but that I will not forget, since it is something that I would never in my right mind say about me. She said:

You have a cute figure.

I think that’s why she got pictures that looked like this. Like no one I’m used to seeing, but who must live around here off a side door to a hidden chamber.


Now I’m not supposed to be hidden. I make a point of being all up front and in your face. But even that pose, you know, that Zen pose can get stale and predictable. I’m so glad I didn’t fool Denise for one minute. She has an eye, you might say, that doesn’t sleep. That’s a big-time Zen compliment, but I’ll leave it to you to find out what it means.


I asked Denise to come over because I wanted updated author photos. Because I want to be up front and in your face. Because the last ones were taken three years ago, and because a lot can happen in three years when you get to be my age. So then Denise went and made me look about 30 years younger.

A friend I haven’t seen or spoken too in 15 years saw one of Denise’s photos of me online and said, “Is Zen the secret of ageless beauty?” Zen is ageless beauty all right, but Denise is the secret.


So if you’re an artist, like a writer, and you need a stunning author photo for a book jacket or something, even if there is no book jacket in sight, especially if there is no book jacket in sight, you should go straightaway to Denise and invite her in through a side door. Sometimes you have to get a photo first, and then the book jacket shows up. I know. This one here is the photo my Dutch publisher chose. That’s right, Dutch as in the Netherlands as in Amsterdam, where Georgia and I are going, courtesy of my Dutch publisher, in April, to celebrate the Dutch translation of Momma Zen.

Fan of the undergarments

February 25th, 2009    -    18 Comments

Please read this article I wrote about my favorite Mormon mommy blogger who isn’t a fan of the undergarments and other interesting bits.

Someone asked me if I didn’t also read that other Mormon mommy blogger, that ex-Mormon mommy blogger. The one who is drop-dead funny, skinny, blonde, rich and popular. Yes of course I do. Anyone who hasn’t yet dropped dead probably does. It’s alluring. Hers is an altogether better looking, smarter sounding life than mine. She has so many readers talking back to her that she has to close her comments. When that happens, it’s no longer communication; it’s entertainment. Damn funny entertainment. Entertainment is good.

And yet a long time ago I came to my own crossroads about my entertainment choices. I came to the spot where I learned, the way all hard lessons are learned, how far I could go by entertaining my own good looks and cleverness. How long I could last on my acerbic wit and abrasive tongue. How far I could fly on style and chemical highlights. One thing I learned is that too much chemistry can lead to the day your hair falls out! And so while I find entertainment entertaining, I do not find that it goes the distance on a daily basis. I don’t know about your daily basis, but my daily basis often requires a stronger salve.

Faith is what goes the distance. Not a certain kind of faith, mind you. But faith in action. Faith in trial and error. Faith that cannot always be trivialized or repudiated. Faith that is sometimes difficult and demanding and entirely unreasonable.

On faith alone, then, go and read whatever you like, but read the article too.

My pitiable little comments are open.

And she said

February 16th, 2009    -    16 Comments


I’m so honored to meet you. I’m so sorry I’m late. I love your book. It has helped me so much. I can’t believe I’m here with you. I haven’t been a very good mom. I need this so much. I haven’t even finished reading it yet. I’ve tried to meditate on my own but I can’t do it. I tried other books but they were so complicated. I love to hear you speak. Will you write another one? Will you write about marriage? I hope so. My friend met you and she burst into tears. This is really helping me. You’ve helped so many women. How did you become so wise? There’s no one like you out there. Let me ask you a question. I’m going to come back. I’m going to come see you again. I can’t wait to read your next book. I love you. You don’t know how much you’re helping me. Thank you for being here for me.

And I said:

I’m not here for you; you’re here for me.

In honor of Mandy who came to the beginner’s retreat yesterday and showed me how to begin again.

And to you, who do the same for me every single time you come here. You cannot know how much you help me.

Engulfed in meaning

February 4th, 2009    -    7 Comments

Montag felt the slow stir of words, the slow simmer. And when it came his turn, what could he say, what could he offer on a day like this, to make the trip a little easier? To everything there is a season. Yes. A time to break down, and a time to build up. Yes. A time to keep silence, and a time to speak. Yes, all that. But what else. What else? Something, something . . .

And on either side of the river was there a tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month; And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

– Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Found 165 pages in, seventeen words from the end, read in the fading light to ignite the dusty embers of our day.

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