If you’re staring out to sea, you might miss the harbor seals hauling out on the island. They blend in, until your eyes adjust. They’re wary, until and unless you approach their habitat with a quiet reverence. Then, and only then, you’ll notice the harbor seal pup, propelling its bulky form across the rocks at mid-tide.
It rests for a while on a silky patch of surf grass–a nap mat that expands and contracts with the tides.
Mammal and mammal, you breathe together the salty mist, watching and learning from each other. In that moment–or maybe later, when you’ve had time to reflect–you realize just how sacred and special these encounters really are. And that’s when your stories begin to take shape.
All that to say: I’m turning the page on the book I’d originally planned to write about Freckles. I’m not yet sure how this new chapter might unfold, but I’m ready to go exploring…
A roadrunner came right up to my back door this afternoon–first time I’ve ever seen one in my garden! He sped away before I could hop on my knee scooter & grab my camera, BUT! If you look in the area where the orange flowers are growing, you’ll see him beating a hasty retreat. Headed for the hills, no doubt, where Wile E. Coyote lives.
I’ve always found a quiet comfort in the 23rd Psalm, memorized in Vacation Bible School and carried into adulthood like a glowing candle.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…
The imagery is beautiful, at once joyful and serene. To my ears, the King James version is especially lyrical, probably because it’s what I grew up hearing. In troubled times, we look for the light, seek the familiar.
That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate other translations. In fact, someone recently posted a modernized version to social media:
…He prepares refreshment and renewal in the midst of my activity by anointing my mind with oils of tranquility. My cup of joyous energy overﬂows…
Written in the mid-1960s by a Japanese woman named Taki Miyashina, it felt to me like an affirmation–as refreshing as sea spray, calming as the ocean’s lullaby.
I sent it on to a special friend, who responded in a flash: “Very pretty word pictures that sound a little new age-ish to me. For me, it doesn’t fulfill the original meaning.”
Well, that ruffled my feathers, I’ll tell you what!
I pushed back on what felt to me like a purity test. We made nice, of course, and I’m sorry now that I didn’t respond more graciously in the moment.
I don’t think it’s for any one person to say, “This is the only way to write something, now and for all time.” Our ears aren’t always attuned to the same sounds and rhythms. Cultures vary; times change; vantage points differ. That any text should be considered inerrant, infallible, and indelible…that’s what I grew up hearing, but it’s always rung false to me.
Several of my writer friends posted like-minded messages to Facebook: “I have no words,” they said, though many found their voices in the conversations that followed.
I echoed their sentiments; added emoticons and cryptic hashtags, marveling all the while about the new-fangled ways in which we now express these age-old sorrows.
I don’t know why my mind works this way, but a Bible story came to mind. (Do we ever really outgrow the lessons we learned in Sunday School?)
Forgive me if I leave out any key details, but as I recall, the basic storyline goes something like this:
After they’d wandered through the wilderness for 40 long years, God told Joshua to march the Israelites around the walls of Jericho–seven long days, in absolute silence, after which they’d blare their horns and shout. To his weary, disgruntled charges (After all this time, you’re making us wait?), this edict must’ve seemed an outrage. Maybe, too, they questioned Joshua’s judgment. But that silent marching was, in fact, a blessing in disguise. It forced the Israelites to quiet their minds. Little by little, they turned their gaze in the same direction. Their footfalls settled into a synchronous rhythm. Their spines straightened, bolstered as they were by the shared belief that they’d soon find themselves in the Promised Land, which lay on the other side of those formidable walls. And on the seventh day, so the story goes, the rabbis blew their horns and everyone shouted, loudly and in unison. And just as God promised, those walls came crashing down.
I’ll leave it to scholars to argue the historical accuracy of this story, and maybe its religious significance. You might have a bone to pick with me for the way I’ve told it. But for today, I’m just ruminating on the value of getting quiet–especially during these dark nights and difficult days–and drawing from our collective stories whatever courage and comfort we might find there.
I learned phonics from my mother, on a cross-country trip from California to Baltimore. I devoured the messages on billboards, and then graduated to books like this one.
CAN YOU TELL ME? (Copyright 1950, Zondervan Publishing)
I have vivid memories of those magical moments, can easily recall the shivers that ran up my spine when block letters first translated themselves into sounds and syllables, and then sentences that leaped off the pages.
I developed an insatiable appetite for books, and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
Perspectives shift. New discoveries challenge old beliefs, and textbooks are rewritten. But at the tender age of three-going-on-four, I believed everything I read.
When I enrolled kindergarten that fall, my world expanded by the number of books I was able to check out from the library at any one time. Two, same as the animals on Noah’s Ark. But when the bookmobile rumbled down our street one day, the entire universe was delivered to my doorstep.
The librarian pulled books from shelves I wouldn’t otherwise have considered. We flipped through the pages together and talked about their contents. Teacher to student, friend to friend. Thanks to her gentle guidance, I learned to ask the deeper questions and challenge the pat answers.
And that, my friends, is what eventually led me to write my own story, Can I Get a Witness?
Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck. –Dalai Lama
Three friends and I were among the 18,000 people who flocked to the Honda Center in Anaheim last Sunday, in celebration of His Holiness XIV Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. We paid big bucks for center-front seats, a worthy trade-off for the privilege of seeing firsthand the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who embodies Tibetan Buddhist values and the art of happiness. Creative souls that we are, we thought it serendipitous that program featured a panel discussion with the Dalai Lama about “awakening compassion” and “the transformative power of creativity and art.”
Artists put the finishing touches on a giant mural, in the final hours before curtain call.
You know me: I’m a spoonful-of-sugar kind of writer. But I’m gonna give this to you straight. Global Compassion Summit, Day One was more glitz than substance, accessorized as it was with frothy celebrities, a fluffy hashtag, and Styrofoam cake. As a local resident (in any capacity, really), I was well and truly embarrassed. #WithCompassion
In an emotional opening, Venerable Lama Tenzen Dhonden attempted to set the stage. “The Dalai Lama does not want any physical gifts. For him, this birthday is just like any other day, but if we can help to create a more compassionate, kind planet, that would be the most beautiful gift of all.”
I’m guessing the event coordinators handpicked the performers, measured each act against a set of objective criteria. No doubt, they asked the finalists to be mindful of the Dalai Lama’s very specific birthday wish. They probably choreographed everything beforehand, too, as organizers are wont to do. But you know what they say about “the best laid plans…”
Some presenters wove their personal remarks into the overarching theme, if only tangentially. “Meditation alone will not change the world,” Jody Williams told us. “We have to have action.” After the applause faded, she added, “The Dalai Lama is my favorite action figure.”
Jody Williams, founding coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, sings a few stanzas of “Happy Birthday” to “the most rocking, compassionate simple Buddhist monk I know.”
Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi spoke directly to the Dalai Lama. “”Whenever I get tired or I lose hope, I remember you. For 60 years, you have been fighting for the rights of the people of Tibet without becoming tired and without losing hope.” I teared up, right here.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi speaks in Farsi, in honor of her compassionate mother.
The oceans are signaling their distress, this team of bespeckled scientists warned. We must respond with a shared sense of urgency, or face together the dire consequences of our inaction. Believe you me, I would’ve signed any petition they put in front of me, would’ve appreciated a very specific list of action items. Even the most compassionate among us are prone to inertia…
Desmond Tutu’s grandson made a brief appearance, as did a couple of philanthropists. At several points in the lengthy ceremony, the lights dimmed and pre-recorded birthday wishes flashed across the Honda Center’s Jumbotrons. It was a parade of luminaries whose names I didn’t recall and whose faces I didn’t recognize. Putting aside for a minute the Archbishop’s charming songfest, the repetitiveness became a source of irritation for an increasingly restless crowd. “I didn’t come here to gawk at celebrities,” someone said. “I came to hear the Dalai Lama.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his wife, singing to the Dalai Lama.
By and large, the panelists seemed unprepared for the discussion du jour, so they talked instead about the subject they knew best. That is to say: themselves.
Comedian George Lopez made a self-effacing joke about language barriers. When it fell flat, he turned it into a political jab.
Recognize the guy on the left? Hint: Harem pants, gold lamé, and‘80s hip-hop. It’s Hammer Time, and MC’s upgraded himself to designer shades and a suit! In a bit of revisionist history, MC described the lyrics of U Can’t Touch This is “an exultation” to God. Note the panelists’ reactions. They were mirrored by the audience.
Julia Ormond (patterned skirt, blue shawl) started out well: “An important part of acting involves hearing other people’s stories and then evoking their emotions in your performances,” she said. But she stayed too long in the spotlight, prompting someone in the darkened balcony to shout, “Let His Holiness speak!”
Through it all, the Dalai Lama remained calm and observant. At times, he seemed amused by the outsized personalities that flanked him.
“The source of contentment and happiness lies within our selves.”
When the children’s choirs marched in, we saw his tender side. During the Agape Choir’s performance, for instance, a caucasian child was holding the only mic. Standing behind that soloist: a diverse group of smiling, swaying, clapping children who seemed just as eager for attention. The Dalai Lama’s smile was inclusive, and his embrace encompassed all.
Randy Jackson bellowed, “Whasssupppp, Los Angeles?”
Duuuude, you’re in Anaheim. But yeah, whasssup. Or whatever.
When Josh Radnor and Wilmer Valderrama took the stage, Ann Curry introduced them in the context of their TV series, now cancelled. “Your Holiness,” the moderator said, “You probably saw that popular TV show…”
Hit shows or not, I’m pretty sure he hadn’t.
Notables and not, the panelists sat together on the lengthy white sofa, chatting among themselves and occasionally addressing the Dalai Lama in their remarks. Ticket-holders gathered their belongings and headed toward the exits. More’s the pity, because when the Dalai Lama eventually fielded Ann Curry’s question about being compassionate in the face of criticism, his answer was golden.
His Holiness recalled for us–with twinkling eyes and make-believe horns—the time he’d been called a “demon” by a high-ranking Chinese Communist. Our critics can be our best teachers, he said. But if there is no truth to what they say…he waved a dismissive hand. His comments were so self-effacing, his laughter so infectious that we found ourselves chuckling about the accusation, maybe also rearranging our thoughts about the absurdity of it all.
He was just as mirthful about the gigantic birthday cake that was eventually wheeled onstage. Carved from fondant-covered Styrofoam, the 8-foot confection was painted a high-gloss silver, and then festooned with saffron and maroon flowers that matched his monastic robes. From a hidden compartment in the back, someone pulled a smaller, edible cake: lemon-vanilla chiffon with strawberry filling. The Dalai Lama ate a pretty big forkful, and then let loose his trademark belly laugh. “You should visualize yourself taking a taste,” he teased.
At last, Ann Curry presented to the Dalai Lama his ultimate birthday gift: an aerobatic performer, female, gyrating above a spiritually symbolic lotus. I wasn’t the only one who cringed, by a long shot. No telling what the Dalai Lama was thinking, because his chair was positioned at stage right, and his face was cloaked in shadows.
The pink lotus is a symbol of enlightenment, associated with the Great Buddha himself.
When the symbolic metamorphosis was complete, Ann Curry accompanied the Dalai Lama again to center stage. Again, the belly laugh, as His Holiness took notice of the artists’ flamboyant costumes.
I later realized that, in these singular moments, the octogenarian monk was exemplifying some of the values we hold dear, as storytellers and visionaries. Beauty that comes of authenticity. Lightness of being. Diversity. Objectivity. Transcendence.
The Dalai Lama also said many lovely things about peace, education, happiness, and spiritual connectedness–variations on previous talks that you can easily find elsewhere. Now that I think about it, they weren’t all that different than his remarks at UCI, back in 2011 (my write-up). But on the occasion of his 80th birthday, I came away with two important observations. Gifts of insight, if you will. 1) While compassion fuels creativity, ego is its arch-nemesis. 2) When we explore our compassionate, creative sides, we find the secret compartments in which the tastiest cakes are hidden. While I’m at it, maybe I should also add a third. 3) It’s difficult to write a fair but critical piece about something so subjective, and to (paraphrasing storyteller Ron Carlson here) “stay in the room with the story” for as long as it takes to discover the deeper truths.
Judy Blume strides across the stage at Aratani Theatre, flashes of teal polish visible through her peep-toed pumps. Her voice is strained by a lingering cold, but at 78 years young, she’s nowhere near ready to slow down. Her hands flutter, and she talks a mile a minute. She’s ready with an answer, quick to laugh.
Judy Blume at Aratani Theatre, as part of ALOUD’s author series
The audience basks in Judy’s energy, mirrors back to her that radiant smile. It’s ladies night out, with a few exceptions–fans of all ages who’ve come to hear about her latest book release, and to reminisce about her prior works.
It’s hard to pigeonhole the author who helped give birth to the Young Adult genre; and by no means would I want to understate the importance of any one of her beloved characters, all of whom helped redefine what it means to live a ‘normal’ childhood. But here are five things I learned about the inimitable Judy Blume last night (and the one thing I wish I’d learned but didn’t).
1. Judy kept a diary as a young girl, same as the main character in her quasi-autobiographical novel, ARE YOU THERE, GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET. And now that she’s a writer, she creates what she calls “security notebooks.” Chock-full of research findings, character traits, and setting descriptions, they keep her from feeling alone when she faces a blank screen.
2. About the inevitable setbacks, Judy says, “I was devastated by my first e—um, rejection.” She claps a hand over her mouth, as if to stifle a giggle. “Oops, I was going to say erection.” There’s a short pause, to comedic effect, and then she recites that Highlights Magazine refusal, word for word. “Does not win in competition with others.” The audience erupts in laughter, and Judy grins. #delicious irony
3. Judy’s latest novel, IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT, is based on a trio of plane crashes that occurred in her hometown (Elizabeth, New Jersey) during the 1950s. Inspiration struck her in an unlikely setting, complete in concept and out of the blue. She was listening to author Rachel Kushner talk about her mother’s childhood experiences in Cuba during the 1950s, and boom! There it was. Plot. Structure. Characters. Setting. She knew the storyline, beginning to end. “It was a magical moment,” Judy says. “It never happened to me before, and I don’t know that it’ll ever repeat itself in my lifetime.”
4. Judy Twitters up a storm, famously so, but pangs of nostalgia sometimes hit her. “I still have my IBM Selectric typewriter, “ she says. “Sometimes I open the closet door and whisper, “I still love you.”
Judy Blume, in conversation with Alex Cohen
5. About IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT, Judy says, “ I think this is the one I was meant to write , and that maybe all the other books leading up to it were just practice.”
My only regret, as an avid fan who now shares her profession, is that we didn’t get any deep insights into Judy Blume’s writing process. Successful (and beloved) as she is, surely she could spill a few secrets? The moderator asks, as do several audience members. But true to her belief that “writing is a skill that can’t be taught,” Judy doesn’t proffer much advice. ““Dialogue is what I do best, but I honestly don’t know how it happens. It’s whatever works.”
An aspiring author approaches the mic, asks the same question from another angle. Judy seems genuinely perplexed. “You sit there, get the critic and censor off your shoulders, and just write…And you read, read, read.” When pressed for a more detailed answer, Judy explains that she sits at her computer for 2-3 hours, takes a two-mile hike and then treats herself to a tasty breakfast.
“Just a bread crumb more?” someone wheedles. Judy’s response: “You have to have determination… just sit there and try to let it happen.”
It’s not much to go on, but hey, it’s the inimitable Judy Blume! So we cling to every word in the moment, scribble them into our notebooks for later reflection, and honor her wildly successful, singular process by creating one of our own.
NOTE: This program was sponsored by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. Flash photography was verboten, but we were allowed cameras in this venue. Hence, these pictures, all my own. Judy’s words, which I’ve placed in quotation marks, aren’t verified against official transcripts, but they come as close to her original statements as I could possibly remember/write.
My hydrangeas are coming into bloom–neither blue nor pink, but a paler shade of each, and the leaves are getting crispy at the edges. That's what comes of being planted in hard-packed soil, of seeking shade but being subjected, instead, to harsh sunlight.
There's a lesson in this for me. Barbara Kingsolver says it well: "“Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer.”
"Consider the wizened man in India," my yoga teacher said last night. "Day after day, he spends long hours chopping tree bark into tiny pieces, so as to extract its essential oils. The work is arduous, but the old man doesn't suffer. With oiled muscles loose and fluid, he invites the axe to do its work."
Thank you, Megan Lurie McCarver, for this beautiful parable. It's a glowing candle at my writing desk, gently guiding me forward.
Ticket-holders sat shoulder-to-shoulder on long wooden pews, flanked by stone walls and arched doorways in the cathedral-style sanctuary. We’d dressed for the occasion in our Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes–which, translated loosely for SoCal residents, means anything on the fancier side of beachwear.
In walked Anne Lamott, instantly recognizable for her scarf-tied dreads. Her eyes twinkled when she smiled. “I tend to talk about myself a lot,” she began, with the barest hint of an apology. “I’ll share myself in a way that’ll make you feel comfortable… but not for long.”
Sunlight streamed through stain-glass windows. Heads nodded, and shoulders relaxed. We smiled back at her, as if to say: We’ve read your books; we’re ready…
Then she shared some loosely braided stories from her own life. She talked about dancing and sobriety, the writer’s life and faith. Each experience was a teacher, Anne said; the lessons, interchangeable. [See also: The miracle of “Me, too,” below.]
I’ve paraphrased much of what she said about writing, and I’ve also included a few Grace notes. Hope you enjoy these gems as much as we did!
You say you want to live a richer, deeper, childlike existence. Guess what? You get to do that!
Stop the train of unconscious living and mindless multi-tasking. Ask yourself: How alive am I willing to be?
Do what you’ve been putting off, what you’ve been dreading for so long. Be afraid of not finishing the work.
Silence your self-loathing. Transform it into a thing of beauty and service. Hook yourself to something bigger–that’s the path to world peace.
You can fill your mind with stuff: acre upon jumbled acre of rusty car parts, and/or alphabetized rows of planted vegetables. Or you can simply wade into the tide pools of Breath.
A good time to write is never, so begin at the next available time slot. How about 10:00 this evening?
Progress comes of rough feet and rage, of boredom and a butt gone numb because you’ve sat so long in your writing chair.
You need friends who’ll tell you, “I’m going to love this. It’s not perfect yet, but it will be.” And you also need that One True Friend–someone who’s willing to say, “This isn’t going to work,” even (especially) when all you want them to do is clap and pet you.
When you're writing from a place of consciousness and intention, your work becomes a source of light and truth–a remedy for despair and isolation. That’s the miracle of “Me, too.”
“I don’t understand the mystery of grace,” Anne said, “But absolutely all I need to know is that it’s an unmerited gift…the unexplained help that gets you out of extreme stuckness.”
Grace is the sliver of light that peeks through the redwoods. It’s a glass of cool water from the flow of the Beloved. It meets us where we are, and does not leave us where it found us.
Grace is fresh air that sneaks through the cracks of our imperfections. It’s WD-40, a solvent for things that grind against each other. And grace is water wings, made available to you at the very moment you feel yourself sinking.
Our afternoon with Anne Lamott was grace, personified. She met us where we were, and did not leave us where she found us.