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Ten Minutes Instead of Three Hours

The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls. ~ Pablo Picasso

5:26pm

Pearl at the pool

Do I wait to have a three-hour chunk of time to write? No, I do not. I sit my ass down right here in the middle of it all and begin. The washer and dryer are both spinning — I’m halfway through six loads of laundry. Aviva and her friend are watching The Office in the living room, having just returned from town where they got fries. She’s at that age, where you go to town with friends and you get fries, with your own money, in an actual restaurant. I hope she left a good tip. Pearl’s at a friend’s house; I dropped them both off after a post-camp swim at the town pool. I’ve been alternately working and doing life things all days long — the kind of stuff that’s easy to put off day after day until days have turned into months and the oil change is 1,000 miles past due.

5:28pm

Something is wonky about my body today. It feels kind of like I’ve had 15 cups of coffee. I took an Excedrin Migraine this morning for the first time, and I’m pretty sure that’s the culprit. It’s not a good sensation and I want it to be over. I know it will pass, so I’m just kind of hanging out, noticing that vaguely weak, shaky, jello-y feeling. The heat and humidity index may not be helping matters.

5:30pm

I had that itch earlier to write. For hours and hours. To figure out where I’ve been and pull all the different colored ribbons together in a big bright bow. Alas. That is not this. This is more like lurching towards the writing, like driving a stick-shift when you’ve only ever driven an automatic. I insist that when the time comes — and it’s coming fast — I want my kids to learn how to drive a stick. Learning how to smooth the lurching, how you are closer to the whole experience, a bit more coordination and body awareness is required… God, I sound like a stick-shift snob, don’t I?

5:32pm

Showering in the summer feels extra good. Something about washing off the sweat and and how my skin is browner than I should let it get but oh, I love it, and the way the droplets of water cling just a little to whatever sunscreen residue clings after soap, pulling on a tank-top and skirt made of India cotton, something I would’ve worn in, say, 1987. I love all of it. I love slipping on sandals and walking outside without a thought as to coats or sweaters.

5:34pm

So many doctor appointments this week. An orthodontist here, a physical there, a bout of poison ivy, a specialist, teeth cleanings. I think I had a dream the other night that our insurance had changed and the cost had skyrocketed. It was truly frightening. Like many — most? — families, we have things that would be prohibitively, astronomically expensive without the coverage we currently have and can afford. It makes me crazy to contemplate.

5:36pm

Ten minutes have passed. There’s an odd, off-kilter feeling in my mouth and jaw. I am going to keep tabs on it while ignoring it at the same time. Is that possible? So much death lately, so much loss. My heart aches. I love being alive. Writing — even for just 10 minutes — is one of the ways I stop and take it all in. All the daily life that can seem like so much dust settling on our souls. Writing is my quest to invite my soul to surface, like a mother whale. Have a look around, I tell her. And she does.

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“In the Clutches of Destiny” (Playing with Fiction on a Rainy Afternoon)


I sit here in Starbucks. Mani sits across the table from me. We brought our laptops, just for a change of scenery. I remember coming here on my lunch break from work when I was still at Hampshire. I’d get a drink and smoke a clove (or two). I’d squeeze in reading new posts in my writing group, which was still a side gig.

Back in the days of moonlighting, I would’ve done anything to sit in a coffee shop at 3:30pm on a Wednesday with my wife, each of us writing. Now that I’m here, I don’t take for granted that this is my reality. Also now that I’m here, I’m looking out the window and wondering what to write about. When you’re not writing something — a specific essay, a memoir, something where you know basically what you’re plugging away at — it can be very difficult to write anything.  This is one of the reasons I like prompts when it comes to just getting started. A prompt is nothing more or less than a portal — a way in. From there, anything can happen.

Today, though, I have no prompt. I have only this moment. I notice the voice in my head poo-poohing me, telling me there’s nothing the world needs to hear about the ubiquitous comings and goings of Starbucks customers. Behind me, a middle-aged woman sits with an elderly man in a wheelchair. I hear him talking, his voice low and growling. I’ve seen them here before. I imagine that she is his full-time caregiver. I wonder how long they have known each other. Is he of sound mind? Does she have a family of her own?

Last night at Kirtan, which we go to most Tuesday evenings, a young woman caught my eye. She looked about Aviva’s age, and I had never seen her there before. She arrived with an older man who’s a regular. As we chanted, she sat against a wall, legs outstretched, ankles crossed. She didn’t sing.

Her father — the man I imagined as her father — got up to stretch occasionally, and participated wholeheartedly in the singing. In my head, they’d had a rough go of things. He’d lost custody and struggled with addiction. She’d refused to see him. After he got out of rehab, they began again — tentatively, as if one of them or the precarious relationship could easily break.

He had rediscovered Kirtan in rehab from a fellow addict who chanted every day in the common area. Back in the 70s, he’d criss-crossed the country following Ram Dass, going to as many talks as he could. Our protagonist  knew he was in the presence of something, someone, truly groovy. He could feel the reverberations of the Maharajji’s teachings in his soul. He could also feel the hands of the many groovy women he met on the road all over his body and the drugs in his veins.

He swore he’d never have kids, to protect the planet from its groaning population. He swore he’d never settle down with one woman, either. Why choose when there were whole fields of wildflowers? That was what he told himself. But the traveling grew tiresome and by the early 80s, he was ready for something he’d never dreamed of wanting: Stability.

He was only 20, but the urge to stay in one place for a while suddenly felt like the most enlightening thing in the world. He would shave his beard, get a suit jacket and tie, and go back to school. He’d rent an apartment and hold down a job at the local typewriter repair shop. He’d meditate every morning for two hours and every night for two more. He’d quit drinking and everything else except pot, which he rationalized didn’t really count as a drug.

For twenty-five years, our friend did quite well. He established himself as a landscape architect with his own small practice. He bought an 1850s Victorian and spent his spare time fixing it up, one room at a time. He became a runner and chose a different city marathon every year. The sacred books of his wild youth sat on a bookshelf next to contemporary fiction and mystical poetry, and he remained an avid reader. By all accounts, he was a man with a successful life.

In 2001, he met L. He saw her at the spot where he always went at 11:45 for an early lunch (he was such an early riser that he was always ready for another meal before noon). He was such a regular that folks referred to him as the Mayor. He knew everyone by name, and was the first to notice any changes — be they to the menu, among customers, or in the landscaping out front. In the summer, window boxes spilled out pansies; morning glories climbed up alongside the door, and two or three outdoor tables graced the sidewalk. By noon, these seats were always taken.

L. sat in one of the deep wooden booths, clearly not realizing that these were unofficially reserved for the stay-at-home moms who came with passels of toddlers and babies in backpacks.  Strollers blocked the stairs to the bathroom downstairs. The place became mayhem for about 50 minutes each day, and clearly L. was from somewhere else and had no idea what chaos was imminent.

He stole glances of her as she sipped her rosemary lemonade. Her long hair was tied up in a heap on top of her head. She had a look that was so familiar to him, he couldn’t stop looking over. Had they met? It seemed unlikely, given what he guessed was a significant age difference. She didn’t look more than 25. He’d been celibate for so long and was so accustomed to his lifestyle that the surge of sexual energy that shot through him caught him completely off-guard.

In the clutches of something he’d later come to see as destiny…

* * *

Well, I didn’t see THAT coming! And I legit made myself laugh out loud with that last bit.

Fiction is fun. I’m not a fiction writer, but every now and then I’ll get on a roll. Part of why I enjoy it is because I have absolutely zero stake in being any good at it. Is this a story you want to keep reading? If yes, I’ll tackle the next installment soon.

Here’s to writing in coffee shops, playing outside of our comfort zones, and seeing what happens.

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Fifteen Minutes

8:33pm
I just read a book to Pearl — an old favorite we hadn’t read in ages called “Mrs. Katz and Tush,” by Patricia Polacco. Just when I think Pearl — who turned 11 in April — is done with me in all of the appropriate, growing-up ways, she surprises me and asks if we can read a picture book. Sure, I said, and that is the one I chose from the shelf. As I reached for it, a smattering of dust floated from the neglected shelf. When the book was over, I turned out her light and kiss hered cheek. “Love you,” she said quietly, as I left the room. “Can you come check on me in 10 minutes and whisper, Pearl!“? I told her I would, then came to the kitchen, got a bowl of ice cream, and sat down to write.

8:38pm
This kind of thing used to be a cornerstone of my writing time. I’d get through another day of life and work and kids, then go to my blog to sort it all out (or not, as the case often was). To sift through the pieces and see what could be named. I wrote to find out where I was. A lot of the time, it even worked.

8:40pm
Over the years, this practice has shape-shifted more times that I can count. Facebook has taken over my blog to some degree since it’s entirely possible I have more “readers” there than I do here at this point. But I didn’t start writing for any readers at all. Not a single one. I started — and kept going — because the writing itself, the very act of sitting down to say hello to myself, to find out where I’d been all day, sustained me. It was like an old friend I’d reconnected with after so many years — you know the one? The one you think about every day but for some reason never pick up the phone to call, secretly hoping you reconnect before one of you dies, then wondering it that’s a weird and morbid thought that maybe you shouldn’t say out loud.

8:42pm
One paragraph every two minutes. Already I am remembering something, a language I learned but stopped using on a regular basis. Was I really fluent once? I find it hard to believe. I sit down here, in the space between saying goodnight to Pearl and going back in to her dark room to whisper, “Pearl!” just as she asked me. There’s a bowl of nectarines on the table and a cool breeze after the heavy rain we waited for all day.

8:44pm
Aviva just graduated from 8th grade. When I started blogging, she was four. In September, she starts high school at the same school I graduated from 26 years ago. I can’t even tell you what she’s like because she’s so… herself. This morning in the car, we were talking about her resemblance to me. I told her all those years of sun and smoking didn’t do me any favors in terms of my skin and aging, but didn’t suggest I’d have changed a thing, either. How could I?

8:46pm
I don’t believe in looking back and thinking about changing things. I don’t ask myself questions like, if you could say anything to your younger self, what would it be? She had to experience all of it — moments of utter rightness, when laundry was hanging on a line in the backyard and the light was just so, and moments of wretched loneliness and pain, when every choice seemed impossible. What could I possibly tell her, when she ended up here, when we ended up as one?

8:48pm
This blog has always been a space of a single word: Hineni. I am here.

I see now that it still is.

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The Art of Allowing: A Guest Post

Lynn Bechtel is a current participant in the Jewels on the Path, a 12-week online intensive for women writers who are seeking accountability, support, ease, and momentum in the creative process. 

Preregistration is now open for the summer session — there’s a 12-person maximum. Learn more and sign up today, or feel free to contact me with questions!

The Art of Allowing
by Lynn Bechtel

On the wall facing my desk at work is a piece of art created at a staff retreat many years ago—we used watercolors to make colorful strips of paper that our graphic designer then wove together. The title of the piece I’m looking at is “The Art of Allowing.” I don’t know if any of the strips used in this piece are strips I created. It doesn’t matter—the beauty and meaning live in the collaboration, in the whole that is greater than a sum of its brightly colored parts.

The art of allowing. I study those words the way I might study a painting, shifting perspective, moving closer, stepping away, tilting my head right then left. I’m drawn to the words, hearing something I need to remember.

To make these art pieces we worked in groups of three or four gathered around a table supplied with strips of paper, water colors in color palettes carefully chosen for each table, and brushes of various sizes. Some of us were eager, some reluctant, complaining that we weren’t artists, couldn’t draw, would make a mess. But we all soon realized that there was no right way to do this, no competition. With the support of the pre-determined palettes, it would be hard to create an ugly strip, and so we all relaxed, let go, allowed the process to unfold.

I had a similar experience once with music, in a workshop on vocal improvisation. We’d been singing together every Tuesday evening for a few weeks. On this evening, five of us sat in a circle on folding chairs. The teacher dimmed the lights. “Time to sing,” she said.

I closed my eyes and waited. Someone bravely stepped in and began to hum a low rhythm line, so soft I felt the syncopated vibration rather than heard it. I began to sing a high melody line. Another person punctuated my melody line with his own riff and then someone provided a counter point and another filled in around the edges and finally we were moving, literally moving as we each swayed to our own rhythm until we surrendered to the group’s rhythm.
Someone tugged gently at the melody line, pulling my major key curve into a minor key, and I eased into my own rhythm riff while another voice took the melody line, soaring up into high rolls and turns.

I don’t know how long we sang like this, weaving in and out around each other—five people who allowed the music to emerge, who became one voice.

The art of allowing. I tilt my head again. The art form that I’ve worked at for years and that sustains me is writing. What is the art that allows words to emerge, take shape on the page?

Over the years I’ve tried various things to open that door, allow the words to enter. I’ve given myself mini-writer retreats—a borrowed apartment on a Maine beach, a friend’s house in the country, a cabin on a snowy Vermont hilltop—but inevitably the isolation works against the writing.

Solitude is essential for my writing but so is community, connection. I’ve found community in face to face writing groups where someone throws out a prompt and we all write then share. Sitting in that space with only the sounds of pens scratching on paper or the click of keys I feel the cumulative juice of creativity and often, although not always, words come.

Lately I’ve participated in online writing groups, facilitated by Jena Schwartz. Although we’re scattered around the world, knowing that we all are engaging minds, hands, hearts with words and then sharing the results buoys us. Our words—in our own writings and in our responses to each other—nourish each other and allow the spark of creativity to flicker.

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Lynn Bechtel is a writer, editor, gardener, reader, occasional knitter, shower singer, and novice meditator. She grew up in Ohio but has lived in New England for most of her adult life. She writes essays and short stories and blogs at www.athomeharlow.com.

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Necessity Is the Mother of Invention

“When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back.”~ Paulo Coelho

I’ve noticed something. The more time I spend online, the less I remember what it fully feels like to be me. And when I do have a spell of time away from the computer and less plugged into the apps on my phone, something shifts internally. It’s a shift you can’t really put into words, kind of the way someone could explain swimming to you but until that moment where it’s your body moving through water, it will only be a concept, divorced from experience.

I’ve noticed something else. I have created a monumental story in my head about the time I spend online. The biggest, most dire of the plot lines is this: If I spend less time online, I won’t earn a living.

Let me explain.

I led my first online writing group in December, 2014. Not three months after marrying my beautiful wife, her health had begun to unravel, slowly and mysteriously at first, and then rapidly and at such a precipitous pitch that it felt like we were sliding right out of our lives, the lives we had really just begun together. Nothing was what we’d expected. I had a full-time job at a local college, but with Mani’s ability to work quickly eroding, my income became barely sufficient to carry the four of us. Winter solstice was approaching; it was dark when I left for work in the morning and dark when I got home. I was lonely and scared. She was playing private investigator to her own deterioration, eventually self-diagnosing (accurately).

It was in this context that I wrote my very first 10 prompts and opened the doors to a secret Facebook group for 12 people. Some I knew already, others had found me through mutual friends or old-fashioned serendipity. What happened during those two weeks I could never had predicted. We wrote like crazy. For 10 minutes a day, we put pens to paper or let fingers fly over keys. It was terrifying and exhilarating and liberating to just write after a long dry spell without words, without expectation, without judgment (from others, at least). In the safety of this container, stories poured out.

The resulting writing was funny, heartbreaking, surprising, wise, ridiculous, wry, and real. The writing was not a means to an end. It was simply itself. Nobody had to perform or compare or compete for airtime or worry about who was better (though oh, how we do).

It was, in a word, magic.

So I did it again. Another 10 prompts, another two weeks, another 12 folks — many returning, many new. And again. And again! It was thrilling. I had no idea what I was “doing.” All I knew was that I loved it, it came naturally to me, it felt effortless and like the thing that threaded together the strands I’d been trying to combine for decades: Writing, connecting, coaching, creating, and community building.

By May, I was leading two groups at a time. By May, I was squirreling away money in a PayPal account. By May, I was planning my first in-person retreat for June.

And by May, we were reaching a crisis point.

She was living on water and white rice. She could no longer tolerate any other foods. And she had developed neuropathy in her feet and lower legs so severe that she barely slept, cried in pain at a feather touch, and listened to Jon Kabat-Zinn meditations on chronic pain literally on loop. We had been to a dozen specialists, and not even her immunologist who was familiar with her rare disease — Mast Cell Activation Disorder — knew what was happening. We wound up at the ER several times, but she didn’t go on pain medication since we didn’t know if she’d react to it.

I went on unpaid medical leave from my job as it became clear that I needed to be home full-time. Mani could barely stand to walk to the bathroom, much less cook or drive or do anything for herself.

By the time I led my first Unfurl retreat, the people in my writing groups had become not only a creative community but a support network that seemed to appear as if on some kind of crazy cosmic schedule. We fell into each other in the best sense, spending a weekend freewriting and sharing, alternating between cathartic laughter and cathartic tears, and consuming copious amounts of chocolate. Within days after that, Mani and I were checking into the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. I extended my medical leave from six to 12 weeks. Friends — many of whom I’d only met in the previous months through my writing groups — donated money and meals alike. The generosity was breathtaking.

This was never about building a business for me. This was about survival. This was about need. This was about love and devotion and fear and not knowing what to do but doing it anyway because what is the alternative? This was not about “being brave” or “taking a leap of faith” or 10 steps to following your dreams or how to quit your day job in six months flat. This was about learning to ask for help and just taking the fucking donuts.

It was all and none of those things. It was real life unfolding in ways that threw both of us into roles we never imagined and frankly, didn’t favor. Contrary to what many might assume, being nurturing — as opposed to being nurtured — triggered all kinds of stuff for me that I had no choice but to confront. And for her, being so dependent was about as identity-stripping as things could get. We were both in limbo, holding on to each other for dear life and determined to get through.

My leave from work came to a close and I gave my official notice. Going back was not an option; Mani was taking heavy-duty pain medication and her climb back to health would be steady, but long and slow and steep.

Two years later, here we are. The wheelchair she needed at one point to even leave the house for a short trip to Target sits getting dusty in the garage. She is up to nearly 30 foods and beverages and adding more every week. We just got back from a long weekend, where I co-taught a writing + art workshop Saturday morning. We go to Kirtan on Tuesday nights and read books together and say “I love you.” A lot.

My writing groups continue to fill up and have evolved into a variety of offerings, from quarterly intensives to poetry workshops. I have coaching clients again for the first time since I closed the doors on that work seven years ago, and I love my clients so much I can’t stand it. I pinch myself every day. I keep experimenting and growing. Some things fly and others flop.

And. I worry.

Maybe this just comes with the territory. In many ways, we take ourselves with us (as Kabat-Zinn writes, “Wherever you go, there you are”). I worried about money when I had a full-time job with a predictable monthly paycheck. Now I worry other things:

What if this is the month when everything just… ends? What if this is the month when everything just… ends? (This one is on repeat.)
Then we will figure it out, Mani reminds me.

What if people decide they are bored with me?
This is not about me entertaining people or being liked, I remind myself.

This is about genuine connection, safe space, and room to enter or re-enter writing practice and a creative process — something I know many of us don’t make time for. Or if we do, it’s under such relentless and vicious attack by self-criticism and perfectionism that we’re lucky to write three sentences before we erase or edit the life out of the rest.

In other words, it’s out of my hands.

Facebook can be such a mindfuck, like a hall of mirrors that meets a high-school reunion. It can also be a miracle. I love it. And I feel beholden to it. I’m trying to find my way with this and for the first time — maybe this is a gesture of trust — I am writing about it. After all, writing is how I find my way. It always has been and now is no different.

There is a proliferation of writing groups out there. I cannot and will not get sucked under a dark current of competition. I don’t want to and it feels awful and I’d sooner throw in the towel altogether. But that doesn’t mean I’m not susceptible to it, especially on days of self-doubt.

At the end of my groups, after a few days to collect our words, the space goes *poof*. I’ve done it this way from the very beginning. It was an intuitive decision that has continued to feel right; the energy of the words and connections like soap from inside a bubble, like sand from a mandala, go out into the world, though their forms will never again be the same. Impermanence is not an accident; it is a fundamental component of practice.

Impermanence is all we have for sure. In this work, in this life, in our writing, in our relationships, in our health, in our friendships, in our communities. That doesn’t mean there aren’t real, lasting things. In fact, I think it’s the opposite: Impermanence deepens my awareness and appreciation of just how precious these are. It has also helped me through some of the hardest and darkest times in my life.

I love what I do for work. I love that I have learned that I am capable of so much more than I ever imagined. And every time I can catch myself in the worry, I take a breath, acknowledge it, and say a thousand thank yous. In this moment, we are ok. In this moment, my wife is next to me adding more books to her library holds. In this moment, the right people will find me and choose to write and practice with me. In this moment, I get to be here. If we could get through the past few years intact, we can get through anything.

I want my work to continue to grow in ways I can’t necessarily yet envision fully. All I know for sure is that I want to keep connecting with people in ways that are real and deep, in ways that heal and don’t harm, in ways that foster community rather than divisiveness.

As I come to a slowing-down point for an outpouring of words I didn’t see coming this evening, I realize that this isn’t really about how much time I spend online. It’s about integrity and authenticity and continuing to live and work in ways that feel deeply real and genuine.  These happen both online and off; it’s the intention that matters.

Lately one of the things that is calling my soul is the desire for more unplugged, unstructured time. That’s why my next group is not a writing group per se, but a group where each day for two weeks, we’ll practice different ways of not doing. We start a week from today.

If spending a minimum of 15 minutes a day doing things like sitting on a bench, lying on the floor, listening to music, and eating mindfully make something in your soul stir a little, please join me. Our secret group will be a place to share our discoveries, experiences, surprises, and struggles.

Feast On Your Life
June 5-16 :: Register Now

We are all in this alone, but I am so, so thankful that we also get to be in it together.

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Other Upcoming Groups

Dive Into Poetry
July 1-30 :: Register

Jewels on the Crown (Summer Session)
July 3-September 22 :: Register

The Unspeakables
July 10-21 :: Register