Saturday, June 23, 2018

Letting Go and Working on Self While In Service of Others

Taking the leap involves making a commitment to ourselves and to the earth itself –making a commitment to let go of old grudges, to not avoid people and situations and emotions that make us feel uneasy, to not cling to or fears, our closedmindedness, our hard-heartedness, our hesitation. Now is the time to develop trust in our basic goodness and the basic goddness of our sisters and brothers on this earth; a time to develop confidence in our ability to drop our old ways of staying stuck and to choose wisely. We could do that right here and right now. 
–Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap

I typed up this excerpt from Pema Chodron’s book Taking the Leap a few days ago. After reading the first couple of chapters, I felt moved to write an essay on letting go. I wanted to explore my own relationship with this idea of letting go, of non-attachment. I knew that it was very much a work-on-progress. And then my attention got pulled away to a different direction (for one, towards the insanity of migrant children being torn apart from their parents). But here’s what’s interesting: the universe works to conspire with you. You set your intention and the universe puts everything in place to fulfill your request. At that point, it’s just a matter of you recognizing it. This is not news to me, but I got to experience this magic, once again, first hand.

My residency here at Millay Colony for the Arts is coming to a close soon. A handful of days are left. And, uncharacteristically, I feel calm. I’ve got my equanimity. Which feels like a miracle in and of itself! Normally, I’d be freaking out around this time, thinking about how much I still have yet to write, or how much I have yet to accomplish. Normally, I’d put this pressure on myself to have something “completed”, even if it’s a single poem that’s been through a few revisions and feels more polished. But this time? This time, I feel okay. I feel at peace, actually.

How did I get here?

When I first arrived at the Colony, I set up my studio right away. I unpacked my books, notebooks, sketch books, file folders of poems, printer, paper of all kinds, stacking letter trays, arts supplies, mugs, hot pot, mug warmer, snacks, and the ever-important white Christmas lights, which I strung up immediately. Environment, ambiance –whatever you want to call it—is everything for my creative process. At least when I’m at a residency. (Apparently, this is a Taurus trait? Resident conversations inevitably turn to astrology every night at dinner. No idea why but it’s quite amusing.) At home? My writing locations/environments vary. Anyway, after I set up on that first day, I told myself, Tomorrow, we begin!

And then the sun rose. And I didn’t know where to start.

So, I picked a book out of the stack I brought and began to read. I was hoping for some inspiration, some spark to get me to write.


I started to get a headache.

Great. Just what I needed.

The next few days were a bit of a struggle. I was forcing something to happen when I very well knew: this is not how it works. But I got myself all rigid anyway and tried to make something, anythinghappen. (Hello, Ego. Nice to see you. :p)

Because I’m very much an earth-driven sign (yes, I’m talking Taurus again), I thrive on tactile things, on interacting physically. (Sometimes I wonder why I’m not a visual artist. Then I try to draw something and suddenly it all comes rushing back. Haha!) So, I made a physical rendering of my book-in-progress: a list of poems, divided into sections, and tacked up on a wall. I needed to get a visual overview. That felt like a first step towards being “productive”.

As the days went on, I decided that I would fill the creative well during the first half of the month and then get down to the writing business for the second half (how very Type A of me to plan creativity – heh heh). I visited Mass MoCA two days in a row (I love that place!!). I went to yoga. A lot. Even took a workshop on handstands. (Physical, remember?) I went to my first kirtan. I hiked to the top of a mountain. I lay down in a meadow. I knitted in a gazebo with eight strangers, eight fellow knitters. I ate amazing Indian food, and later, wandered into a small-town stationery store, where I bought my first fountain pen! (The physical feeling of the fountain pen is something else! What kinds of things will flow forth? Stay tuned!) I fed my yogic & spiritual self with a day at Kripalu. I visited a glass blowing studio and gallery. I baked. (I joked that the kitchen was my second studio.) I took (and am still taking) a lot of photographs.

Boy, have I filled that well.

Then the halfway mark came.

And you know what? Things started happening.

If you know anything about the creative process, you know that it’s not predictable. But, patterns can be identified. I know my patterns, so I knew that the creative flow would really get going at this point. But it doesn’t always mean the flow is fast.

And this one is not fast.

Here’s the thing about creating art: it’s an intangible process. Even if one is a visual artist working with physical, tactile media. Its source is very much anchored in intuition. The process itself: anchored in experimentation. And if there’s anything that calls for letting go, it’s this.

Creating art really requires that the artist be mindful, to be aware, to pay close attention. And then to try to translate what’s within, without. To translate the inner to the outer. But if I force the ways in which the inner manifests into the outer, it ends up being more difficult a process than necessary. And more often than not, the result ends up being something less than stellar, something that might come close to resembling the inner, but misses the mark.


Yesterday, I spent some time in the afternoon at the Chatham Bookstore, perched on a chair out front with my typewriter on a stool. A pop-up Poetry Booth. Poems-on-demand. This was an idea planted long ago when I first read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bonesas a very young poet. She did it at a state fair. There have been no state fairs on my radar. No opportunities to do something like this. Until now.

After making arrangements with the bookstore last week, I shared this plan with a fellow resident –a playwright. He said, “That sounds terrifying.” Haha! I hadn’t thought of it that way. I told him, “Nah, it’s just like a writing exercise. Poems-on-the-fly.”

At this point, I had been thinking about poetic form. I could sense that some poems were calling to be written, but I didn’t know how to get them out. Poetic form has always been helpful. And freewriting wasn’t working right now. So, I was tinkering. Testing things out.

It was hard.

It wasn’t even the good kind of hard. It wasn’t fun.

If anything, it was excruciating. 

One night, I stayed up until 1am testing out a couple of forms, playing with word choices, word variations –and that was just to set up the form! I hadn’t even written anything yet! (One was a sestina, which works with an intricate pattern of six words. Those six words had better be good ones if I’m going to use them over the course of 32 lines!) 

I was exhausted.

Enter: Poetry Booth.
Enter: Regular folks strolling Main Street of a small town called Chatham.
Enter: Magic.

Me & my typewriter, a Smith Corona
It was slow-going at first. Folks who walked by didn’t want to look directly at me or my typewriter, for fear that I’d pull them into some kind of sales pitch. So, they side-glanced. Skimmed the accompanying chalk sandwich board. They still didn’t get it. If they slowed down their pace with that puzzled look, I’d just say: “Poems-on-demand – I can write a poem for you about anything you want.” Some would respond, as if just attacked by the fragrance girl at the department store cosmetics counter: “Uh, no thanks! Maybe next time!” and quickened their pace. They stilldidn’t get it.

Others would smile and laugh, say “How neat!” but didn’t want a poem.

Those who were curious enough to stop would ask: “So how does it work?”

“Well, tell me what you’d like me to write about.”

And they’d give me something. Sometimes it was really vague (“The end of the world.”). Sometimes it was specific. (“Our four vizslas” – to which I was bewildered. What the heck is a vizsla? Oh, it’s a breed of dog.) From there, I just talked to them. Asked them questions about the thing they wanted their poem to be about. For the dogs, I could tell by the way the woman talked about them how much she adored them. “Regal,” she corrected when I made a comment about them being cute. That said it all. When her husband read the poem (he returned before she did), he said: “Oh my, she is going to love this.” When she arrived and read the poem, she put her hand to her mouth and started to tear up. “Oh.” She said quietly. “Oh, this is beautiful. This is really them.”

The guy who wanted a poem about the end of the world talked to me about energy, about how everything is energy and that there really is no end of the world. To which I said: “You’re trying to challenge me, huh.” He smiled and left me to my devices. I felt a little pressure but then remembered: you’re never going to see this poem again, so just write it. Write whatever comes to mind.

And that’s when things really got cooking.

One woman, accompanied by her sister-in-law, talked about how she and her husband just moved to the area (Hudson Valley) from the city, where she was born and raised. I made a joke about City Mouse moving to the country. I asked her to tell me a little bit about the house and we talked a bit about the spaciousness of being here versus the city. When she came back to pick up her poem, she read it out loud and as she read, her eyes filled with tears and her voice started to crack. “Oh my God,” she said, pausing. “Yes. This is it.” She finished reading and then gave me the biggest hug. Her husband’s birthday is on Monday. She’s going to frame the poem and give it to him as a birthday present. “He’s going to love it,” she told me, smiling through tears.

A man named John, came up with his dog, Eddy. “A Wheaton Terrier?” I asked. “Why, yes!” he seemed pleased that I recognized the breed. “I have one, too,” I said. We talked a little bit about Eddy, how Eddy was John’s son’s dog but really was his dog –they know who takes care of them, who loves them best-- about how John lives in the city but comes up on the weekends. I watched the way John talked about Eddy. He told me how Eddy, in his advanced age of 13 years, has taken to putting frogs in his mouth. Not to eat them, but just to put them in his mouth. Unfortunately for the frogs, Eddy isn’t so gentle and thinks they are his toys. But it brings Eddy joy. So, John puts up with it. As I write this, I kinda wish I had taken a photo of that poem – I really liked that one. After John read it, he said: “Yes, this is totally Eddy. Thank you.” I could see a few tears well up.

Ben, a friend from Supersoul Yoga (a place that has now become community for me), happened by on his way to dinner with his wife. We chatted a bit and when I asked “what would you like the poem to be about?”, “Dinosaurs!” was the answer. I laughed, already thinking about children stomping through a toy city like Godzilla. But then I heard the story behind it, which was the story of how they met. So sweet. And so, I sent them off to dinner and banged away at the keys (let me tell you, you need some force to get those typewriter keys down! I think my fingers got a good workout!). When they came back and read their poem, they laughed and said, “Yes, this pretty much sums it up. It’s exactly what happened.” How in the heck did I know??

A man, John Paul, strolled over from across the street. A man who reminded me of some old kats on the spoken word poetry scene from back in the day. He said, “I was sipping my beer over there,” pointing to People’s Pub, “you can see it in the window from here—and I saw you here, typing away and thought: well, let me go over there and see what that’s about.” He told me all sorts of stories –about how he taught himself how to type properly (notthe hunt-and-peck method), how he works with the dying –a hospice caregiver. He even spit a few verses (see? I knew he was some kind of spoken word kat!). I sent him back to his beer and told him I’d bring over the poem when I was done since I was wrapping up my “shift” anyway (I was actually an hour past when I was supposed to end). He came back before I was done, told me about how, just then in the bar, he told a joke to get into this group of people he didn’t know except for this one guy. As he told me this, I pulled the sheet out of the typewriter and handed him the poem. He read it aloud, a little mumble under the breath, and said, “That’s it. You got it. You got me.” 

My final poem was requested by Christopher, the owner of my favorite food spot here in Chatham: Main St Goodness, home of Pieconic NY. I mean, he’s got All. The. Pies. He’s got other baked goods and breakfast served all day! (I mean yeah, lunch, too, but lunch has got nothing on breakfast!) I asked him what he’d like his poem to be about. “Perseverance,” he said. “What about it” I asked. And he pointed down the street to his place. “Ah,” I said. Perseverance is what it takes to run a food-service business, for sure. He told me that he used to be a Weekender and got fed up with the corporate world, moved here permanently, and opened up his business. He just opened in December. I told him I’d bring the poem over when I was finished. After I closed up shop (because Nicole, the bookstore owner, was also closing up shop, but not before I could write a poem for the bookstore), I walked over and delivered the poem. He read it aloud, right then and there, for everyone to hear (two employees and one last customer as it was closing time). And then immediately he framed it (a frame just happened to be nearby) and put it up on the shelf for all to see (photo coming soon!). He was so happy. I was so happy. The employees were happy. The customer was happy, too! She said, “You wrote that?” “Yeah, just now.” “Wow.” The poem was titled “The Goodness of Pie” and while it was about making pie, it’s also about what is needed when you want to persevere. To be gentle. To be still. To be aware. And that the results can only bring you joy.

"The Goodness of Pie"
I am my own worst student, I’ll tell ya. Hahaha!

Here’s what I’ve learned but didn’t see until now, until the writing of this:

Poetry Booths are a great way to learn how to let go. Not only did I feel unattached to the writing of the poems (I often hem and haw over a word choice here and there. This time, I just went with whatever word came first and kept going), but I also felt so liberated when I gave them away. The poems were not precious to me (as in, attachment rather than degree of delicateness) but they were to those to whom I gave them. That, in and of itself, was a gift to me.

There was no time for the mind (aka Ego) to come in and say, hey, you sure that’s how you want to say it? You sure that’s what you want to say? What if it’s wrong? What if it’s terrible? Or worse yet: what if it’s cliché???

And the results were so touching. I had no idea.

And you know what else I didn’t know? I had no idea that I could see people for who they truly are with such ease. I’m quite beside myself.

But you know what’s even better? That I did this thing with my heart wide open. And that is what enabled me to see these folks, to really see them. Their gratitude for this acknowledgement was really humbling. I am ever grateful. For this. And for the immense lessons I have learned during this amazing month here.

Let go and let be.
And the rest will shine.
(That last part is mine.) 
(Hey, look, I rhymed! Haha!)

Sending out big love to alla ya’ll—

Writing make me hungry. Thanks for the fuel, Christopher!

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