The Writing Life/1

Writing down My Bones, Sao Paulo, Brasil, 1990; photo by Mev

At My Wake, Someone Will Hear Someone Else Say…

“He was always telling me to share my writing…”
“You, too? He said that to me, like… weekly!”

“Weekly? He’d badger me daily for a fortnight until I gave up.”
“He was relentless.”

“Verdad. Yep, he could be a pain, but when I think about it now, he was on to something.”
“How many times did he quote someone the scripture, ‘Don’t put your light under a bushel basket’?”

Seven people within a earshot raise their hands…

One-Liners Randomly Culled from My Marked-up Copy
of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing down the Bones

I have taught over 100 courses since 2001, and I assigned Writing down the Bones in almost all of them. I never tire of hearing the students read aloud her chapters, which contain lines like the following…

We were willing to commit ourselves to a whole day of writing each week because writing, sharing, and friendship are important.

Many of us don’t know, don’t recognize, avoid our deep dreams.

To begin with, write like you talk, nothing fancy.

… the way your mind first flashes on something before second and third thoughts take over…

“Natalie, this book is done. You will write another one.”

Often, as I write my best pieces, my heart is breaking.

Yet it is good to know about our terrible selves, not laud or criticize them, just acknowledge them.

In the center of chaos, make one definitive act.

Make a list of everything ordinary you can think of.

Go for the jugular.

You want a place that lends a human atmosphere, not everything efficient, stiff, and bright orange.

Make a list of all the stories you have told over and over.

Katagiri Roshi says, “Our goal is to have kind consideration for all sentient beings every moment forever.”

Art is the act of nonaggression.

I feel very rich when I have time to write and very poor when I get a regular paycheck and no time to work at my real work.

Basically, if you want to become a good writer, you need to do three things[:] Read a lot, listen well and deeply, and write a lot.

Our task is to say a holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist—the real truth of who we are…

Go further.

In the ability to connect with one people lies the chance to feel compassion for all people.

Reach out of the deep chasm of loneliness and express yourself to another human being.

When you select a café to write in, you must establish a relationship.

I’ve had students who said they decided they were going to write the great American novel and haven’t written a line since.

A friend living upstairs from me once said, “Natalie, you have a relationship with everything, not just with people.”

Do not be tossed away by your achievements or your fiascoes.

In Japan there are stories of great Zen poets writing a superb haiku and then putting it in a bottle in a river or nearby stream and letting it go.

This is a new moment.

The Last Few Pages of The Poetry Deal
by Jessica Flier

Jessica was in my fall 2018 Diane di Prima class, and posted this at our class blog. She gave me permission to share with whomever I wished. Enjoy!

The last few pages of The Poetry Deal are enchanting, filled with so much truth and wisdom, DiPrima captures the essence of the meaningfulness of art.

Reading this part of the book inspired me to share a poem, which I composed in my head one day on a hike. My weekly hikes are a spiritual practice for me. They center me, offer me refuge in the life-giving, healing presence of trees. I enter an enhanced soul-state, my mind cleared after another week of feeling mostly like a mind-numbed hamster-on-a-wheel.

I’m tempted to choose a selection that is my favorite from those few pages and include it here, but it’s all so damn great that it’s impossible to choose. So I’ll share with you the passage relevant to my reflection here:

“When spoken, the poem cuts a shape in time, when written it forms itself in space. It often dwells there in paper or parchment before you pick up your pen. At those times all you have to do is trace what is hidden in the page. At other times you may hear the poem broadcast, spoken like a radio in your head & you can write it down like taking dictation.”

Aye – there’s the rub! Poems come to me at the most inconvenient times. So do story ideas, or even just musings about my life that I’d prefer to write down into a journal. They come to me while sitting in a meeting, listening to some blowhard who knows nothing about my work tell me how to do my job. They come to me while I’m sitting in traffic or speeding down the highway, when it would be dangerous and careless to attempt dictation into my phone. They come most often to me as I wind my way through the rock and forest of the hiking trails, when I don’t have any free hands much less free sheets of paper, as both hands are tasked with keeping my beast of a dog from eating squirrels or rudely interrupting some innocent other dog’s walking meditation.

In other words, I am most inspired exactly when I am most unable to record. And my sieve of a brain lets it fall right through as soon as I’m in front of a recording device (paper, laptop, phone).
I know the broadcast Diane speaks of, because it is loud in my brain at every most inconvenient moment of my life! But I don’t lament that; maybe it’s my process. It is, what it is. Maybe I need to investigate ways to unlock them, make them less afraid of the paper!

ANYWAY! I wrote this after a hike filled with would-be poems and short stories some months ago and wanted to share, because Diane reminded me of it.

Dozens of novels
thousands of short stories
millions of poems
INFINITE haikus.
So many writings
that will never be
because they flood the mind
as I cruise down
44 East
between Arsenal & Jamieson
on my way to visit a friend
the words flow without effort
it’s all stored up there
always to vanish
at the sight of a notebook.

Facebook Wall Post from Christopher Hesh, 11.20.2008

“I saw a composition notebook
and The Book of Mev
with a college student attached
yesterday night
at the Gelateria.

Mark ‘Omnipresent’ Chmiel”

Out West
by Carol Becherer Wright

on the road

late summer afternoon
surrounded by eroded hills, shadowed badlands,
thin stalked grasses and rocks
on a slight rise of the land
Nebraska or Wyoming, just could be about
anywhere this side of the Rockies.

a gas station on this rise fuels
a long sigh of relief as the
empty signal draws close.

out of the car the wind hits like a mother
who can live here? such arid desolation

and then
from an old pick-up truck, pale green and white
patined by the drifting dust
rust bordered wheel wells
emerges a brawny, sun-burnt red-faced man
old ranching clothes – jeans, faded cotton shirt
not completely buttoned over his belly
rough around the edges sort of guy
trimmed close by this boldered land and wind gusts

I watch, my fear mercury unsteady
as he continues across the dusty concrete

a long, seemingly endless silence
then —
“Ma’m, could I help you pump your gas?”
blessed relief, broad smile,
a good heart in the heart of the world.

“Cowboys are trustworthy. They won’t hurt ya.” –Sarah Mackay

Local Spirits
by Lauren Sharpe

“So easy in the woods to daydream and pray to the local spirits and say “Allow me to stay here, I only want peace.”
–Jack Kerouac, Big Sur

Listen here.

If you find yourself laying on a prehistoric-feeling rockface while the waves not so far below you crash ruthlessly into the stone, the seaspray tickling your face while your eyes are closed in a moment of true peace, just know that you’ve found the answer you’re looking for.

If you wake up late in the morning after sleeping in, in a home that is not your own, and you hear other members of your family crying out whales whales! and you rush up the stairs as quickly as a half-asleep person does, into the kitchen and up to the wide window to scan the sealine for any sign of the majestic mammals and yes, yes, out there in the distance, you do see the spray shoot up into the sky from the blowhole of a creature that lives out there in the deep, then you, sweet friend, are really living.

When you follow the path that’s been pounded into hard dirt by so many other feet, hiking feet, bare feet, sandaled feet, sheep’s hooves, when you follow that path into the thicket of a small forest, a trickling brook, the footbridge, the pines, some brushy flowers, a hidden sloping creek where salt and freshwater mix, when you take this path, and on your walk you see not one, not twenty three, not fifty, no, more like hundreds and hundreds of sea lions bobbing along the coastline, and are they looking at you? Yes, they are definitely looking at you, right at you! from hundreds of feet away, but they see you and you see them and there is a link between you and these animals, their dark eyes knowing you, readily, up there on that cliff, please know that there is an invisible line of silk connecting you to them, them to you, so you know the truth is that there is no separation between you and the sea lion, you and the sea, you and the rock, you and the urchins in the tide pool, you and the grass, you and the whipping wind that tangles your hair endlessly, you belong, you are a part of this, this wild abandon is yours and you belong to it.
But you can’t take it with you. You have to leave it. This is difficult with all the rainbows and whales and stuff. But you have to leave. If you stayed, what would you do here?

A Time of Sacred Confusion
by Michèle Shimizu-Kelley

My house is
a thin-feeling place
I sit
witnessing the fog roll in on
a time of Sacred Confusion.

I’ve been reading
The poems,
The prayers,
The mantras of
The wisdom-speakers
Reminding us of the truths
That in some terrible and terrific ways
This virus is going to help us
To slow down,
To reconnect with the humus of our humanity,
To remind us of how interdependent we all are
On this Earth
Our Common Home.

There will be another sunrise
When I wake up and appreciate this
As a time for conversion, rebirth, new growth;
But today I am simply sitting
Simmering in a state
Of Sacred Confusion
Of amorphous anger for the deaths caused, insecurities created, and anxieties amplified
Of pain and sadness and tears in making heavy decisions taking into account worst-case scenarios
Of self-centering gratitude for having what I need here under my roof
Of comfort I take in knowing the ones in my inner circle are safe today
Of the new freedom inhabited by more time in my hands with less to touch and no where to go
Of the privileged guilt, conflicting solace, and naked hope I feel when
Thinking of all the people
In all their houses and temporary dwellings
Told to shelter in place

Houses of quarantine
Houses of belonging
Houses of exile
Houses that have been emptied
Houses that are filling up
Houses of one
Houses of ten or more
Houses of adobe brick
Houses of concrete
Houses of ivy-covered stone
Houses of sugar cane and tin roof
Houses of cardboard and tarp
Houses of trees
Houses of ice
Houses of love and tenderness
Houses of abuse and neglect and trauma
Houses of the sick and their caregivers
Houses of play and laughter and crayons and bubbles
Houses of painting and guitar and piano and sing-a-longs
Houses of beer cans and bongs and video games
Houses of plants and pets and love-making and bread-baking
Houses of rhythmic toes and swaying hips dancing reggaetón and hip-hop and samba and salsa
Houses of old mattresses, dirty clothes, a broken washing machine, an exposed barrel of standing water and a lone bag of rice uncooked

This pandemic at once both jeopardizing and galvanizing
The enterprise of solidarity-building
I do not feel as much fear of the virus invading my own body
As I do feel fear when thinking about the collective price
We may end up paying

As our spaces of community
Our spaces of worship
Our spaces of learning
Our spaces of art and music and theatre making
Go dark and bodiless
The ambiguous loss of “postponed to a future date”
Or “closed for an indefinite period of time”
When to hug or kiss another
Becomes a perceived life or death choice in our psyche
When our breath becomes threatened
Air, face masks, hand soap the new currencies
While governments distract us with free, worthless money…
Clean air!
Clean water!
Healthy lungs able to breathe!
And honorable harvests to sow and reap
And share beyond the boundaries of bartering
Is what we’ll need to survive
These days
Of Sacred Confusion

And to resist fear
To keep taking risks!
To live with compassion
To step out and step in
To continue caring for one another
To forge on with our endeavors
To build and re-build from the rubble of broken solidarity
To practice giving and receiving
Embracing and letting go
Walking with and staying home for
Being with and being without
The risks worth dying for
Have been and will continue to be
The risks worth living for

My friend wrote me yesterday
Their curfew began at 2 PM
No one allowed on their streets
Police trucks lined the airport runway to keep the planes from landing
I told her we had to send the volunteers home
That they wouldn’t be visiting her house anytime soon
That I wouldn’t be making a trip anytime soon

A pause
A Sacred Confusion

“Ok, amiga…”
She responded,
“Cuídate mucho.
Mañana hablamos.
Esperemos pasar pronto esta enfermedad
Sin pérdidas de seres queridos…
Y que Dios nos proteja a todos. Besos. ”

When emoji kisses cannot supplant the warmth of lips to cheek,
but will be enough to sustain us
In this time of Sacred Confusion

This page is part of my book, Dear Love of Comrades, which you can read here.

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