> jumping into life.


In college, I took a class called Opening the Creative Mind. The class involved a lot of silly exercises and attempts to connect us with our "source" and our "muse" and our childhoods, which were supposed to have been full of carefree creative energy to which we could return.

We were encouraged to revisit the joy of climbing trees, of playing, of freedom from others' opinions and ideas. "Become your eight-year-old self," the teacher crooned, "and let that self guide you to unfettered creative delight."

Look: My eight-year-old self had an ulcer. My eight-year-old self carried a little bottle of mint-flavored Mylanta in her backpack to take before every meal. My eight-year-old self was seriously stressed out.

I did not climb trees. I was afraid to hang upside down on the monkey bars. I was a clumsy, shy kid who started reading at age three and from then on preferred reading to most human company. I had a few close friends, and enough social skill to avoid being much picked on, but I was not exactly what you'd call unfettered.

My childhood wasn't unhappy; don't get me wrong. I remember lunch hours filled with elaborate and wonderful make-believe--underwater explorers, settlers on the prairie, or Native Americans, the perennial favorite, always preparing for an impending winter--and I read a lot of books and loved them. Like I said, I wasn't picked on, though I certainly felt well outside the realm of cool even then. Thinking back, I have no idea what my classmates thought of me. I can remember no particular cruelties paid me, with the exception of a pair of boys who used to hassle my best friend and I, and trapped us once behind the obstacle course wall for a kiss.

In Opening the Creative Mind, I recall nothing said of work or habit. We spoke of flow and inspiration and how the great masters thought that God worked through them; we did not talk about how hard they worked.

So I started reading early. Started talking earlier still--before I could walk--started counting and multiplying and writing long before those things were taught in school. Before I was in school. In first grade we had a number of the day, and we sat in a circle and tried to think of ways to make that number: 4-1=3. 2+1=3. 1+2=3. And I said: 6รท2=3. -2+5=3. In second grade we each had a bookworm, a segmented insect made of construction paper, and for each book you read, you got another colored circle to add to the body of the worm. Books over a certain length garnered two circles. They hung on the back wall by the cubbies. Mine reached the floor early in the year, full of segments for the Lord of the Rings and Anne of Green Gables.

So people told me I was smart. People were proud of me because I was smart. I could barely ride a bike, I couldn't catch a ball, I wasn't pretty, but I was smart.

(Mom, I know you think I was pretty.)

At eight, I wasn't doing poorly in school, but I was worried. I was worried because for the first time, some things I was being asked to do required effort. I remember the first word I got wrong on a spelling quiz. (It was "probably" which I spelled "probly" because I that's what people actually say.) I had long ago conflated my grades with my intelligence and my intelligence with at least a portion of my worth; at eight, or maybe a little before, those grades no longer always came effortlessly. Smart meant effortless. I hadn't had to work to be smart before--do you see?--and now I did. So maybe I wasn't smart after all.

I recently read a great article about praise and self-esteem. The article claims that a child praised for her intelligence will tend to have a lower self-esteem and a lower chance of future success than one praised for her hard work. Because you can't control smart. And once you've been seen to have such a prized and elusive quality, you are constantly in danger of losing it. Any failure negates it.

So at eight, I self-identified as a smart kid. I was in the special after-school program for smart kids, in the advanced math class. But I felt--not consciously, but quite clearly just the same--that a) smart meant effortless and b) that I was going to be found out. Sure, homework often was easy, but not always. And sometimes I failed. (Failure meant anything other than an A.) Deep down I knew I was just masquerading as a smart kid, and that eventually I would encounter a problem that couldn't be solved easily, and I would have to work at it, and everyone would see that I had to work at it, and they would know I wasn't really smart. (And then no one would love me.)

Until I read that article, I had never really identified those feelings. Or that the whole thing plays out over again with the idea of creativity. I used to write and paint and draw, and people said I was creative, and I thought that creativity came from some magical source and that if I had to work at it, I wasn't really creative. So I would sit with paint and pencils and wait for inspiration to strike, for creativity to descend. Which sometimes worked, but mostly did not. And I began to feel that maybe I wasn't so creative after all. I stopped painting, stopped drawing. Stopped writing stories. Stopped writing mostly altogether.

Occasionally, I took an art class, and always I surprised myself with the work I produced, even without that evasive muse. Not phenomenal, but consistent, and pretty good. But then the class would end, and without the pressure of having to create, I would slip back into passive mode, waiting.

In my writing group last night, we briefly discussed Malcom Gladwell's book Outliers, and the now-mildly-famous idea of 10,000 hours: that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. Or, put differently, that 10,000 hours will make you an expert at anything.

Someone in the group asked if it was a self-help book, and I scoffed. A self-help book would tell you that it takes ten minutes a day for six months. 10,000 hours is two hours a day for thirteen years; nobody's got time for that kind of commitment. But think about it: no mention made of talent, or inspiration, or intelligence. Nothing innate or elusive, nothing handed down from God. Just work. Just lots and lots of practice, lots and lots and lots of work. The only popular cultural affirmation of that idea I can think of is Edison's quote about genius and the ratios of perspiration to inspiration. But still: the lightbulb did not become a symbol of a strong work ethic.

Much can be (and is) made of special formulae and materials for successful writing. A room of one's own and a Moleskine and a MacBook, all of that. But I think that all successful writers share only one common habit: They write. They put their hours in.

I still self-identify as smart and creative, and I still have that slippery feeling that eventually I'll be found out as fraud in both arenas. What I am only beginning to believe about myself is that I am a hard worker. And that hard work suggests growth, not defeat.


Yesterday we moved into our house.

Wait, let me rephrase: yesterday, we moved into our house!

Also: my brother came home safe and sound. Thanks to everyone who sent us their thoughts and good wishes. I think I want to ask him to write something here about his adventure. What do you all think?


I woke up this morning thinking of my brother. He'd emailed me the latest draft of his life plan earlier in the week; he said he signed up for classes at the community college and was really hoping to land a good job he'd interviewed for. Previously, he'd been trying to sell his car to fund a trip to Europe, but had been struggling hard over the balance of exploration and freedom versus stability and responsibility. Had been trying to decide what path would greater serve his life and his conflicting needs for exploration, freedom, stability, and responsibility. My response to his email had been, No Europe, then?

I woke this morning thinking of that response, of his struggle, and regretting my flippancy.

How to know when you're on the right path, or off of it? How to know which glows with the promise of satisfaction, and which sparkles with fairy-lights and fool's gold? And, god, the urgency of it. The feeling of your life unreeling, a river passing inexorably by while you who should be master and conductor flail about, muddying the water. The feeling of your power lurking, waiting, knowing that if only you could find the right goal at which to aim yourself, you would be unstoppable. The feeling of that power being wasted.

Yesterday I finished reading The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. It is a re-telling of the Biblical story of Dinah, whose father was Jacob and whose brothers murdered a whole city in its sleep. The story focuses on Dinah, on women, on giving them the voices that the Bible gives only to men. We follow Dinah and her mother and aunts through the daily movements of their lives: gardening, weaving, baking bread and brewing beer. Giving birth and raising children.

Perhaps because I have found that I love the tasks of a country housewife - gardening, baking, packing crocks of vegetables to preserve, darning socks and hanging laundry on the line - something of that life appealed to me. I do not think that I could be happy in a world where I may not speak if a man is in the room, a world bounded by my hearth and my husband's goodwill, no. Not now. But if I was raised to it?

Years ago I worked for a few long days with a pair of Hopi elders. In the frosted sunrise they told us a story about the place of men and women in the world. Though not the same as a Caananite's as imagined by Anita Diamant, a traditional Hopi woman's life has similar boundaries, and those boundaries are similarly clear. Each task in the running of a life has its proscribed author: Men do the farming, women the cooking. Always. At the time, and before I'd learned my country-housewife ways, I felt a dim yearning towards the structure they described.

What would it be to know your place in the world? To know it from birth, to be taught its mastery by your mother and your mother's mother, to have a clear passage from girlhood to womanhood marked by corn pollen and a revelation of secrets, or by scented oil and the earthen figure of a goddess? To spend your life in one place that you know, in the company of a tribe of family and friends. To have no one ask you, ever, what you "do" or what you want to be when you grow up.

We have gained in exploration and freedom, there is no doubt. I love science, calculus, and mechanics, in addition to the darning of socks; do not mistake me. My husband has the stated wish of being a stay-at-home dad when that time comes, and he loves baking and the tending of soil as well as I do. When we argue we are on equal terms. Nor do I wish to disrespect those men and women constrained to lives that do not suit them, lives that may even crush them, whether that constraint be by veil or poverty, ignorance, tradition, or force.

But The Red Tent was wildly popular amongst women friends I had in college, and I still do not know my place in the world.

But this is about my brother. My brother who recently awoke to the infinite possibilties of this life and was, I think, utterly overwhelmed. And of course; it is impossible to be sure that you are choosing your toothpaste correctly with so many choices. How is a person supposed to choose a life? And not just any life, but a life of spiritual significance, of generosity, of uprightness and passion. How? How do you know which choice is the right one, how do you know which path to take? How do you cope with the crushing feeling that you are wasting time, precious time, that you should be doing something amazing by now, that you should be doing something by now that is more than working this crappy job, but what? But what and how? And oh, what if you make a mistake? What if you should have gone to Europe?

From the great height of my twenty-five years, some of that sense of urgency has waned. I have found the right path, for now, and I no longer worry that it must be the only path I ever tread. I have lost my terror of choosing wrongly, though perhaps that has something to do with the incredible relief at having chosen. I have a goal. I am unstoppable.

My mother and father and I tried to guide my brother's searching. He wanted to be independent of my parents and their finances; he wanted to renounce; he wanted to travel, to follow the tug of spirit that had been calling him; he wanted to stay home, save money, and work hard; he wanted I am sure more than he told any of us and perhaps more than he understood himself.

Here is something I have learned: There is a sense amongst at least some people in this culture that when the "right" path is found, it will lay itself at your feet with all hinderences removed. You will glide down it with effortless happiness and this is how you will know that you have chosen rightly.

Perhaps this is so; I do not believe it. My goal has made me unstoppable because I will work until I achieve it, and I know I have chosen rightly because the work - right now I have a job on-call at the bottling plant, moving cardboard boxes from one conveyer belt to another for nine hours a day - because the work is hard and stupid and worth it.

I suggested that my brother get a job with the National Parks or something similar, get out of the house and into the wilds where lives the only spirit my family has ever acknowledged; and make some damn money while he's at it, rather than stay suckling at my parents' financial teat. (Full disclosure: my parents still pay my health insurance and phone bill; my self-righteousness is unearned.)

I don't know what they suggested to him. I don't know what conversations he had with friends or my sister or God (by all accounts he's been talking often lately with God). I don't know if any of what I've written here actually applies to how he feels or felt. But he has chosen something.

Yesterday my brother disappeared. Left a note - written with an old family code so that there could be no mistaking his hand - and all his belongings save a backpack and some clothes. He's on a journey. I am proud of him and afraid for him, glad that he has found a direction and sad that he did it in such a way as to scare my poor parents half to death. There is a long tradition of young men taking a walkabout, a vision quest, or a road trip to seek out the lives they want to lead. I am curious to see what he finds. I think there is a crucial difference between comfort and safety, and I think even that safety is mostly an illusion we prop up with fear. Still, I hope he is safe. And I hope he finds something.


What I Learned in the Zen Monastery

Sex is not power. Except
that it can be. If you want it,
if you take it. Sex is powerful,
no denying that. I learned
how it had been a weapon, a thing to wield,
how I had wielded it, what damage I had done. I learned that
I did not know what to do with my hands
when I set that weapon down.

I learned to walk without the weight it,
to meet new people without the shield of it.
Learned new reflexes that did not reach for it.

(It is only later
that I am learning that perhaps not all power
corrupts. That perhaps there is a place
for swinging my hips.)

Mindfulness is no-such-thing.
Even after two hours a day - even
after sixteen hours a day of zazen,
even after I had touched my true heart and the open center of oneness,
had constructed and deconstructed the ten thousand dreams of self,
wept for a full week,
walked for a whole day alone,
sat once for an hour without moving a hair,

I still forgot my water-bottle every time I set it down.

Love is power. Not power-over,
not power-from. Not even power-to.
Power like sunlight is power,
like truth is. Love is not what we think it is.
Love is hard, like a cocoon is hard,
like truth is, but harder. Because love is truth,
and more than truth, for truth at least
has a beginning and an end.
Love, once loosed from the cage
we strive so hard to keep it in
(For to what end do we fill our lives
with comfort and distraction,
but that of keeping love at bay?)
- once loose, well.

Just look what happened to Siddhartha:
poisoned on his own goodwill.
Power like that can't help but destroy.
(The caterpillar does not grow wings.)
Power like that, it can't be controlled.
(The caterpillar dies, don't you see?
All that which is caterpillar, dies.)
Once loose, power like that, power like love,
it isn't what you think. You can't turn it off.
No picking and choosing,
remember? It doesn't matter
if the coffee is sewage or saintly. Don't you see?
If your life is blessed or bothersome.
You have to love it just the same.

I didn't learn how to love, not really.
I still have an appetite for leaves.


While J works eight and nine and eleven-hour shifts at his new job, I'm supposed to be finding employment of my own. I'm trying, don't get me wrong, but the options are few; at any rate, I've only been able to consume two or three hours of each day with the pursuit. When I was house-hunting as well, I managed to make it nearly a full-time occupation, what with the going to see of apartments and the having of only one car and so therefore walking for goodly distances to get to said apartments.

But now we've found a house, but we aren't there yet so I can't spend my time making it beautiful and cozy and perfect and home; and I don't have a job. It's the perfect time to be doing some serious writing, but I seem to have misplaced my muse.

I want to take advantage of the time I have until I actually do get a job (which hopefully won't be long). So I'm asking for some help. What should I write about right now? Is there something you've always wanted to know about me or farming or fritattas? Some subject you can't believe I've never covered, or one I mentioned in passing that piqued your interest? A pet monomania that you need each person in the world to be somehow involved in? I promise to write at least something about every (not-completely-awful) suggestion I get.


So far, every time I've been looking for a place to live, as soon as I've found the right place, I know it. (There is a possible exception for Philadelphia, but I did know the right roommate as soon as I met her, so that counts for something.)

In Prescott, the very first place I looked at was the one. It hadn't even been listed officially, if I remember correctly - just pure luck that I found it. We looked at five or six more apartments, just to be sure, but came right back to the first one. We'd had a number of failed attempts before we found our house in Burlington, but almost as soon as we stepped in the door we knew it was ours.

So as I've been apartment hunting over the past week, I've been (mostly unconsciously) waiting for that same thing to happen. And I've seen a lot of places in the past week, several of which were quite nice. But none of them were home. (Several of which were not quite nice and emphatically not home.)

We had two appointments on Sunday. One was for a three-bedroom with garage (our grouchy diesel makes that a priority) about 20 minutes out of town, in our price range; the other a two-bedroom without garage, five minutes out of town, on the extreme outside edge of our price range but with a garden space. The first was emphatically not nice, and not home: no light, no counterspace, really no kitchen space, generally dingy and all three bedrooms too small to fit our bed in. We left discouraged, and I made a call for a second appointment with one of the nice-but-not-home apartments, because at least it was nice.

But then we got to the second place. And - it was perfect. Just enough space for the two of us, a gas range (hard to find in this neck of the woods), good windows, a workshop area for J's homebrew and other projects, and garden space - an acre's worth! And we can get chickens! And we can get pets if we want! And the landlady has a policy of deducting $100 off the rent in May so you can buy flower and vegetable seeds! And she suggested we could barter landscaping/building a woodfired bread oven/other awesome projects for rent. And the place just felt good.


(We don't get to move in 'til March, but once we do I'll finally have somewhere to put all that nesting energy!)