A Dirty, Wonderful Time

A Dirty, Wonderful Time

It helped that I was dirty, that I hadn’t showered in three days, and that what we called “shower” meant standing naked in the sagebrush in the late afternoon sun, in the middle of nowhere New Mexico, and lifting a hose over our heads. It was the miracle of clean water every few days, how there’s nothing like being dirty to have you appreciate your innate smell, your skin. It was the early mornings, so cold that all I could do was pull a pair of jeans over the long johns I’d slept in, then a sweatshirt on top of a t-shirt, a jacket and a beanie, and the way I wore those same clothes all day, every day, for days. It was living out of a small suitcase; a couple of t-shirts, a pair of jeans, long sleeves, enough underwear to get me by, and a sweater, that kept things simple, eliminated choices, kept me less distracted and connected to something more essential, instinctual, more animal, more trusting of what was coming through me. It was the way we cooked, keeping a pot on the stove for days, heating, re-heating, adding stock, a few more vegetables, an egg. And those mornings – coffee, a fire and music – that woke something up inside of me, something clear, something more close to the bone. It was also the mountains, and that endless New Mexico sky, the sagebrush, and the hawks overhead that had me pick up a pen and write without worry, without self consciousness, without the critical editor that can often accompany my task. It was a rare...
Notes from the kingdom of light …

Notes from the kingdom of light …

(1) When the llama, who looked to be my age, maybe younger, said he’d been diagnosed with bipolar and depression in his 20’s, he said it so sweetly, so softly. He’d heard about depression, but until he experienced it, he said he had no idea. And because he didn’t have medicine, he relied on his mindfulness practice, separating what was real from what was not. “It was very hard,” he said, looking down and then looking away as if remembering that time. “Very, very hard.” (2) He’d come to the monastery at 9 years old because his father had died. He said families collapsed after the death of the father, so his mother walked with him through the mountains for eight days, arriving at the monastery in Kathmandu for an education. “I cried every day,” he told us – he was close to his father, and it would be a year until he saw his mother again. The monks, feeling for him, excused him from class to go outside and play. (3) At the Nagi Gompa nunnery high in the mountains, it was Ani, the abbess, the head nun who greeted us with a tray of cookies as we entered the monastery, later standing behind a picnic table in the field, ladling yellow Dahl into our bowls for lunch. “Time to eat,” she sang, in the few English words she knew. And when Jeff couldn’t hold his plate, his walking stick, and the banana Ani offered him, she tucked it into his pants pocket for later. “I don’t know anything,” she told us through an interpreter, but we leaned...
Start With What You Love

Start With What You Love

If you find yourself with a pen in your hand, but you don’t know what to write. If you mean to put down a few lines, but you’re speechless, and you don’t know what to say. If you find yourself staying in your pajamas for hours, promising yourself that you’ll get up, that you’ll make something happen, but then the day spins away. If you’ve been unusually down, even though you don’t live near Maine or Gaza or Israel, and you’re not even Jewish or Palestinian, but you’ve noticed a deep grief, and you wonder whether its one thing or many things and whether you can shake it. If you find yourself refreshing the news app on your phone every five minutes, as though you’re waiting for something to happen, but you don’t know what. Even though you know better, even though you know your phone doesn’t have the answer. Maybe you burst into tears for no reason. If so, you’re the third person who’s told me that this week.  Maybe you’ve distracted yourself, as I have, with games of solitaire and a TV show about ranchers in Montana who fight over land and cattle, a show with beautiful panoramas of golden valleys and wild horses. Or maybe you saw a show about 20 women in their 60’s and 70’s who are vying for the love of one man who hands out roses to some, but not to all.  Maybe you swim, as I do, counting laps, wondering what I’ll have for lunch, or how my mother is doing in L.A., or If I should buy that land in...
Why I Don’t Clean My House

Why I Don’t Clean My House

The house didn’t get cleaned because I was going after the anxiety, playing a lot of solitaire, re-writing the list, looking ahead at the calendar, considering my next move, wondering if I’ll need hiking boots and a rain coat for New Mexico, wondering what it will be like to sit on the poop bucket in the middle of the sage brush on Mark’s property, letting the wind come through me, letting it all go. The house didn’t get cleaned because when you repeat a habit it becomes a pattern, which is why I’ve started noticing the comfort as well as the whisper of worry when I peel back the bed covers at night and slip in on my own. How after a pandemic and a true break from the world of men, it’s possible you can forget what it’s like to share a bed with someone, a bed that suddenly looks too small to share with anyone except a child, or my mother or a friend – someone who won’t expect anything but simple comfort. How did I used to do relationships? What was that dance move like? Is the life of contorting myself over? The house didn’t get cleaned because I’m on the move and have needed to keep the list short: pens, paper, poetry, and to write things down like, find the notebooks, don’t forget to collect driftwood at the beach for the art project, make some notes for that class of post menopausal ladies in the UK, run by a woman named Pip* – and which was really wonderful because even though I didn’t know any...
Presence Over Performance

Presence Over Performance

“They don’t have to be good,” said my friend, Rosemerry, “but they do need to be true.” This is the bar my friend, the poet, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer set for herself when she set out to write and publish a poem a day in 2011, which was 12 years, and roughly 4000 poems ago. They don’t have to be good, but they do need to be true. Before that, if Rosemerry’s work wasn’t good, she wouldn’t publish it because why would she want to put out anything into the world that wasn’t good? She used to be like that. But since making the commitment to write and publish one poem a day, she had to change the bar to make it happen. She had to hone for the truth. That changed a lot for her. The perfectionism, for starters, and allowing herself to be seen publicly in a less than perfect manner. That alone. Huge. And since she had to come up with something to write about every day, she found herself moving through her days with her eyes and ears peeled for anything that might speak to her. And that became a noticing practice, which slowed her down and made her more present and aware of where she was. And the more present she became, the more the world spoke to her, and the hungrier she became for that conversation with the world. So what started as a need to write a poem, became a practice in staying present, and the poem was more of a byproduct of that; icing, but not the main meal. I know it...
Welcome to the Department of Make Believe

Welcome to the Department of Make Believe

When I was starting out as a writing teacher over 20 years ago, I remember talking with my friend and mentor Mark Dahlby who ran writers.com, where I taught writing to adults for many years. I must have been going over the classes I was teaching, and at one point Mark interrupted me and he said, “Laurie, you just need to love the students.” Love them? But hadn’t they come for all my jazzy classes on memoir and personal essay? Wasn’t that what they were paying me for? What could love possibly have to do with that? In the beginning I leaned on the content of my classes – waving it in front of the students’ faces as evidence of how hard I was working for them, how much I cared – but over time I started to understand what Mark was talking about. Writing is personal and it can be vulnerable. While I was trying to do a good job editing their stories, my students wanted to be seen by me, to know that I cared about their work, and cared about them. My teaching was good enough, like a hearty pasta that any chef could stand behind, but without the hot bubbly sauce of love, it lacked something. Over time I think my teaching changed. I started to see that my attention to students mattered more than what I was teaching them in some cases. They wanted love. I thought about Mark’s words last week when I visited Chapter 510, a nonprofit in downtown Oakland that offers free writing classes, bookmaking, publishing and podcasting classes for black, brown...