Hitler's primary rules: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.
F A I T H ~ (my intention word for 2014, i thank you!)
HAVE A LITTLE FAITH
by Anne Lamott
I was hanging out at the library with two old friends, comparing notes on our lives. All three of us had experienced the usual losses that time brings, yet all of us felt more blessed than we had when we first met. Yes, sometimes the safety-deposit drawers at the memory bank get jammed. Our backs ache, and nothing has become higher, or firmer, in the past few decades. But we were all so grateful for how our lives had turned out that we laughed until the cranky young librarian glared at us.
Age had deepened and widened our sense of faith—and by “faith,” I don’t necessarily mean religious conviction. I’m talking partly about belief in the existence of a divine intelligence but also about faith in goodness, in life, in things mostly working out. And let’s not forget faith in ourselves—the conviction that we are loved and chosen—which is such a component of the spiritual life. The theologian Paul Tillich famously said that the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty. And I can vouch for that—I think. Getting older has given me more comfort in not knowing the answers. I throw up my hands more often now; I shake my head in wonder at how inscrutable life is. I have finally figured out that “Figure it out” is not a great slogan. My new slogan is “Who knows?”— which leads quite easily to “Who cares? But isn’t it something?” The God of the Old Testament says, “Be still, and know that I am God,” i.e., “Put a sock in it—you are in charge of very little. You could help the dogs at mealtime, as they have no opposable
thumbs. But you’re going to have to trust me with the big things.”
thumbs. But you’re going to have to trust me with the big things.”
Sometimes faith looks like myopia: I don’t see everyone’s faults so clearly as I used to, let alone my own. The God of my later years is not interested in my pores, or cellulite, and hopes that I will stop noticing yours. My vision has blessedly blurred. This is a great advantage when you’re trying to live more spiritually, more expansively, more like Zorba the Greek and less like the Church Lady. For instance, when I sit on my bed now writing on my iPad, the top roll of tummy sometimes creeps over onto the screen and starts typing away. In the old days, upon noticing this unsought collaboration, I would have decided to start a new diet, or to end it all. Now I think, “Who knows? Maybe it’s got something interesting to add.”
I finally have faith that no matter what happens to me, I will never be beyond help, because I have seen parents, friends and acquaintances live with catastrophe and illness. They were beautifully cared for by those who most loved them.
Twenty-nine years in a tiny church has proved to me that when two or more are gathered who believe in Goodness, they will take care of those in their community who are suffering, cared, lonely. So what are my closest people going to do when my time comes? Will they say, “Sorry. We draw the line at horrible Annie. She’s on her own”? No, they will show up, keep me clean, fed, calm, with reruns of The Good Wife, M&Ms, the latest copies of the New Yorker and People. They will help me come through to whatever awaits. I’ve learned that, unless we’re all swept away by hot lava, as my grandson frequently imagines, we can bank on this. Graciousness almost always bats last.
I thought when I was younger that faith was about the confidence to say the great Yes to my own deepest desires, and that is true, as far as it goes. But a deepening faith has also shown me that it’s OK to say No. It has also shown me that the word “No” is a complete sentence. This realization led to the single most important life lesson of all: No one over age 55 ever needs to help anyone move again if they don’t want to. Our job now is to help younger movers, with their strong backs and SUVs, by bringing over sandwiches and Cokes. Period.
One of the most important gifts of spiritual faith is forgiveness, and I have grudgingly tugged this gift open over many years, and many hurts, until empathy for the other person has become almost a reflex. I have also grown better at recognizing when I’m the one in need of forgiveness. Most surprisingly, though, I have finally learned to forgive myself for most of my disappointing character traits and iffier decisions. I know now that I am never going to be a gym rat or an eater of cottage cheese. This side of the grave, I will be absentminded. I always was, and menopause did not bring with it enhanced acuity. Only a few weeks ago, a friend stopped by to borrow a jacket just as I’d started my car. So I ran into the house and got the jacket. Then she asked to use the bathroom. Of course! I thought about turning off the engine, but instead I started to pick up the living room. You know the rest. She came out, we said goodbye, and I went back to straightening up the coffee table. An hour later, the neighbor’s gardener knocked on the door to see if I knew my engine had been running all that time. You can’t really make that seem like something you meant to do. But God knows I tried. Laughter leads to more loving feelings. And as we age,we laugh at ourselves more sweetly.
Yesterday, for instance, my left eye suddenly began to hurt for no reason. I instantly assumed I had inherited my mother’s glaucoma, or ocular shingles, and that it most certainly would lead to a glass eye and a guide dog. And this was all in the 40 seconds before my eye just as suddenly stopped hurting. I sighed. Then I patted myself gently, as I would a friend, and said, “There, there,” and went to make myself a cup of tea.
Why Sleep Is Precious
You really are harming your brain when you don't get enough zzz's ...
As told to Gabrielle Redford by Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy
"Night owls, take note. That sleep deficit you've been accumulating has real and dangerous implications for your brain, and not just because it makes you sleepy during the day. Sleeping less than seven or eight hours a night has been linked to cognitive decline, memory loss and possibly even Alzheimer's, new research shows.
Dr. Doraiswamy, a brain researcher at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, explains what your brain does during sleep.
Clears out toxins
Most people think that when you sleep, your brain goes to sleep, too. But it turns out that parts of your brain are several times more active at night than during the daytime. One of them is a newly discovered drainage system called the glymphatic system, which is kind of like your city's sewage and recycling system; its job is to clear out and recycle all your brain's toxins. One protein very actively recycled during sleep is involved in developing amyloid plaque, the hallmark of Alzheimer's. No one is saying that Alzheimer's is all caused by sleep deprivation, but it may be a factor.
Repairs daily wear and tear
New research indicates chronic sleep deprivation can lead to irreversible brain damage. A University of Pennsylvania animal study found that extended wakefulness can injure neurons essential for alertness and cognition — and that the damage might be permanent. Short sleep may also be linked to shrinking brain volume, though it's not clear whether the lack of sleep causes the brain to shrink or whether a smaller brain makes it harder to sleep. Other studies have led scientists to conclude that chemicals secreted during the deeper stages of sleep are crucial for repairing the body — including the brain.
Makes order from chaos
As you go about your daily activities, your brain is exposed to thousands of stimuli — auditory, visual, neurosensory. And it can't possibly process all that information as it comes in. A lot of the tagging and archiving of memories occurs at night while you're sleeping. It's a bit like what goes on in a library. All the books dropped off in the book repository during the day are dusted off and cataloged at night. People who think they've adapted well to sleeping just four or five hours a night are often wrong; memory tests show they are not functioning optimally.
One of the chemicals involved in creating memories — acetylcholine — is also involved in sleep and dreaming. What happens in people who start to develop Alzheimer's is that the brain cells that produce acetylcholine are destroyed, so people stop dreaming as much. Interestingly, a side effect of the most commonly used drug to treat Alzheimer's — Aricept — is its ability to induce vivid dreams."
"I'm on mobile devices all day long. I feel like I could go through an entire day and not be present. It's exhausting."
~ Anderson Cooper
(read about how a mindfulness practice changed this for him)
To my daughter's stepmom: I never wanted you here, but thank you
by Candice Curry
To my daughter’s stepmom:
I never wanted you here. You simply were never part of the plan. Growing up and dreaming of my family I never included you. The plan was for my family to include me, daddy and our children, not you.
I doubt you ever wanted me in your life. I doubt you planned to mother a child that you didn’t give birth to. I can bet that your plan for your family included you, daddy and your children together, not me or my daughter. I bet that when you dreamed of becoming a mother, you thought it would be the day you gave birth and not the day you married your husband. I’m pretty sure you never planned on me being here.
But God has plans that far exceed our own. When my little family dissolved to form two families, I knew you would be coming.
In my mind you would be a terrible beast and my daughter would not want you to mother her at all, ever! I was hoping that you would be semi-unattractive and prayed my daughter wouldn’t look up to you. Her daddy would know that he was settling for second best. I did not want to face the fact that another woman would mother my child in my absence.
Then you arrived.
You weren’t what I had in mind. You were supposed to be hideous, remember? But you weren’t, you were beautiful. You were supposed to be a mean old hag, remember? But you weren’t, you were a sweet, young woman.
My plans were foiled.
I realized from the look on your face that meeting me was just as hard for you. My heart immediately softened. Dang your kind smile! I was planning on really hating you. Why were you ruining my plan?!
I wanted to resent you but you made it impossible, and I quickly grew thankful for you.
You’ve accepted our daughter from the very start and have unconditionally loved both her and her daddy, and that’s a true gift to all of us. You’ve included our daughter in everything you do and make her feel loved and accepted. You put her relationship with her daddy above yours, and only a brave and courageous woman knows how to do that with such grace.
I knew when her daddy and I decided to divorce and live in separate homes there would be times when she would need her mommy and I wouldn’t be there. I’m so thankful that you are there in my absence. I’m grateful that you have mercy on her teen years and never reject her. She needs a mommy at your house and you’ve done an amazing job being that for her.
You’ve respected my position as mom from the very start. I appreciate that you check with me when you question if you are making the right decision with her. I know our situation is rare. It’s not often that a mom and stepmom text to remind each other that they love and respect each other. You are a gift.
Our daughter will grow up with more love than I could have ever imagined. It wasn’t her choice to have divorced parents, and even though I wouldn’t wish that on any child I am so thankful that she now has four parents who love and respect her and each other. She’s compassionate because of it, and understands that a failure in one area can turn into a blessing in another.
She’s excited to call you and tell you her stories when she’s at my house, and that makes my heart want to jump from my chest with joy. I fill with pride when you wrap your arms around me and squeeze for a genuine and loving hug each time we see each other.
I know what it looks like when a mother cannot accept her child's stepmother in their life. Gratitude pours from me that we are able to do what is truly right for our daughter. Thank you for being mature enough and respectful enough to co-parent with me.
I promise to always respect your input for our daughter. I promise to never minimize the position you hold in her life or make you feel like you are not her mother. I promise to raise her to be grateful to have two strong and brave women in her life who have the courage to mother her together. I pray she is never in our situation — even though it is peaceful — but if she ever finds herself here, I promise to set an example for her of what co-parenting should look like.
Precious woman, you are a rare and beautiful gem. God bless you and I love you.
(photo: The author's daughter with her new stepmother at her father's wedding.)
"Sometimes people walk away from love because it is so beautiful that it terrifies them. Sometimes they leave because the connection shines a bright light on their dark places and they are not ready to work them through. Sometimes they run away because they are not developmentally prepared to merge with another- they have more individuation work to do first. Sometimes they take off because love is not a priority in their lives- they have another path and purpose to walk. Sometimes they end it because they prefer a relationship that is more practical than conscious, one that does not threaten the ways that they organize reality. Because so many of us carry shame, we have a tendency to personalize love's leavings, triggered by the rejection and feelings of abandonment. But this is not always true. Sometimes it has nothing to do with us. Sometimes the one who leaves is just not ready to hold it safe. Sometimes they know something we don't- they know their limits at that moment in time. Real love is no easy path- readiness is everything. May we grieve loss without personalizing it. May we learn to love ourselves in the absence of the lover."
~ Jeff Brown
HOW TO WORK WITH PLEASURE AND PAIN
In Tibetan Buddhism there’s a set of teachings for cultivating compassion called mind training, or lojong. One of the lojong teachings is, “Whichever of the two occurs, be patient.” This means if a painful situation occurs, be patient, and if a pleasant situation occurs, be patient. This is an interesting point. Usually, we jump all the time; whether it’s pain or pleasure, we want resolution. So if we’re happy and something is great, we could also be patient then, and not fill up the space, going a million miles an hour—impulse shopping, impulse talking, impulse acting out.
~ Pema Chodron
Cultivating Presence and Intention
through Applied Improvisation
End 2014 with presence, intention and receptivity. Using techniques from Improvisation and Applied Improvisation we will engage in various activities that bring forth qualities to build your confident vision for the new year. Applied Improvisation is a modality that uses practices, philosophies and methods from improvisational theatre to better develop areas of your life that are not performance based. Rooted in principles of acceptance, spontaneity, generosity, presence, collaboration and creativity, this transformational modality unlocks surprises at every turn. Come enjoy an afternoon of fun, depth, laughter and inspiration with master teacher Barbara Tint. No performance is expected or required.
1:00 - 4:00
Special Renewal Offer:
Soft Stretch with Laure Redmond
11:30 - 12:30
includes Improv workshop
2. 503-780-4964 (text or call)
HOW TO BUILD INNER STRENGTH
You build inner strength through embracing the totality of your experience, both the delightful parts and the difficult parts. Embracing the totality of your experience is one definition of having loving-kindness for yourself. Loving-kindness for yourself does not mean making sure you’re feeling good all the time—trying to set up your life so that you’re comfortable every moment. Rather, it means setting up your life so that you have time for meditation and self-reflection, for kindhearted, compassionate self-honesty. In this way you become more attuned to seeing when you’re biting the hook, when you’re getting caught in the undertow of emotions, when you’re grasping and when you’re letting go. This is the way you become a true friend to yourself just as you are, with both your laziness and your bravery. There is no step more important than this.
~ Pema Chodron
Illustration from the 1970 satirical book:
It’s not a question of getting over it or healing. No; it’s a question of learning to live with this transformation. For the loss is transformative, in good ways and bad, a tangle of change that cannot be threaded into the usual narrative spools. It is too central for that. It’s not an emergence from the cocoon, but a tree growing around an obstruction.
~ Meghan O’Rourke
Richard Gere: My Journey as a Buddhist
by Melvin McLeod
I suppose it’s a sign of our current cynicism that we find it hard to believe celebrities can also be serious people. The recent prominence of “celebrity Buddhists” has brought some snide comments in the press, and even among Buddhists, but personally I am very appreciative of the actors, directors, musicians and other public figures who have brought greater awareness to the cause of Tibetan freedom and the value of Buddhist practice. These are fine artists and thoughtful people, some Buddhists, some not, among them Martin Scorsese, Leonard Cohen, Adam Yauch, Michael Stipe, Patti Smith, and of course, Richard Gere. I met Gere at his office in New York recently, and we talked about his many years of Buddhist practice, his devotion to his teacher the Dalai Lama, and his work on behalf of the dharma and the cause of the Tibetan people.
~ Melvin McLeod
Melvin McLeod: What was your first encounter with Buddhism?
Richard Gere: I have two flashes. One, when I actually encountered the written dharma, and two, when I met a teacher. But before that, I was engaged in philosophical pursuit in school. So I came to it through Western philosophers, basically Bishop Berkeley.
Melvin McLeod: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it really happen?”
Richard Gere: I have two flashes. One, when I actually encountered the written dharma, and two, when I met a teacher. But before that, I was engaged in philosophical pursuit in school. So I came to it through Western philosophers, basically Bishop Berkeley.
Melvin McLeod: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it really happen?”
Richard Gere: Yes. Subjective idealism was his thesis—reality is a function of mind. It was basically the “mind only” school that he was preaching. Quite radical, especially for a priest. I was quite taken with him. The existentialists were also interesting to me. I remember carrying around a copy of Being and Nothingness, without knowing quite why I was doing it. Later I realized that “nothingness” was not the appropriate word. “Emptiness” was really what they were searching for—not a nihilistic view but a positive one.
My first encounter with Buddhist dharma would be in my early twenties. I think like most young men I was not particularly happy. I don’t know if I was suicidal, but I was pretty unhappy, and I had questions like, “Why anything?” Realizing I was probably pushing the edges of my own sanity, I was exploring late-night bookshops reading everything I could, in many different directions. Evans-Wentz’s books on Tibetan Buddhism had an enormous impact on me. I just devoured them.
Melvin McLeod: So many of us were inspired by those books. What did you find in them that appealed to you?
Richard Gere: They had all the romance of a good novel, so you could really bury yourself in them, but at the same time, they offered the possibility that you could live here and be free at the same time. I hadn’t even considered that as a possibility—I just wanted out—so the idea that you could be here and be out at the same time—emptiness—was revolutionary.
So the Buddhist path, particularly the Tibetan approach, was obviously drawing me, but the first tradition that I became involved in was Zen. My first teacher was Sasaki Roshi. I remember going out to L.A. for a three day sesshin [Zen meditation program]. I prepared myself by stretching my legs for months and months so I could get through it.
I had a kind of magical experience with Sasaki Roshi, a reality experience. I realized, this is work, this is work. It’s not about flying through the air; it’s not about any of the magic or the romance. It’s serious work on your mind. That was an important part of the path for me.
Sasaki Roshi was incredibly tough and very kind at the same time. I was a total neophyte and didn’t know anything. I was cocky and insecure and fucked up. But within that I was serious about wanting to learn. It got to the point at the end of the sesshin where I wouldn’t even go to the dokusan [interview with the Zen master]. I felt I was so ill-equipped to deal with the koans that they had to drag me in. Finally, it got to where I would just sit there, and I remember him smiling at that point. “Now we can start working,” he said. There was nothing to say—no bullshit, nothing.
Melvin McLeod: When someone has such a strong intuitive connection, Buddhism suggests that it’s because of karma, some past connection with the teachings.
Melvin McLeod: When someone has such a strong intuitive connection, Buddhism suggests that it’s because of karma, some past connection with the teachings.
Richard Gere: Well, I’ve asked teachers about that—you know, what led me to this? They’d just laugh at me, like I thought there was some decision to it or it was just chance. Well, karma doesn’t work that way. Obviously there’s some very clear and definite connection with the Tibetans or this would not have happened. My life would not have expressed itself this way.
I think I’ve always felt that practice was my real life. I remember when I was just starting to practice meditation—24 years old, trying to come to grips with my life. I was holed up in my shitty little apartment for months at a time, just doing tai chi and doing my best to do sitting practice. I had a very clear feeling that I’d always been in meditation, that I’d never left meditation. That it was a much more substantial reality than what we normally take to be reality. That was very clear to me even then, but it’s taken me this long in my life to bring it out into the world more, through more time practicing, watching my mind, trying to generate bodhicitta.
Melvin McLeod: When did you meet the Dalai Lama for the first time?
Richard Gere: I had been a Zen student for five or six years before I met His Holiness in India. We started out with a little small talk and then he said, “Oh, so you’re an actor?” He thought about that a second, and then he said, “So when you do this acting and you’re angry, are you really angry? When you’re acting sad, are you really sad? When you cry, are you really crying?” I gave him some kind of actor answer, like it was more effective if you really believed in the emotion that you were portraying. He looked very deeply into my eyes and just started laughing. Hysterically. He was laughing at the idea that I would believe emotions are real, that I would work very hard to believe in anger and hatred and sadness and pain and suffering.
That first meeting took place in Dharmsala in a room where I see him quite often now. I can’t say that the feeling has changed drastically. I am still incredibly nervous and project all kinds of things on him, which he’s used to at this point. He cuts through all that stuff very quickly, because his vows are so powerful, so all-encompassing, that he is very effective and skillful at getting to the point. Because the only reason anyone would want to see him is that they want to remove suffering from their consciousness.
It completely changed my life the first time I was in the presence of His Holiness. No question about it. It wasn’t like I felt, “Oh, I’m going to give away all my possessions and go to the monastery now,” but it quite naturally felt that this was what I was supposed to do—work with these teachers, work within this lineage, learn whatever I could, bring myself to it. In spite of varying degrees of seriousness and commitment since then, I haven’t really fallen out of that path.
Melvin McLeod: Does His Holiness work with you personally, cutting your neuroses in the many ways that Buddhist teachers do, or does he teach you more by the example of his being?
Richard Gere: There’s no question that His Holiness is my root guru, and he’s been quite tough with me at times. I’ve had to explain to people who sometimes have quite a romantic vision of His Holiness that at times he’s been cross with me, but it was very skillful. At the moment he did it, I’m not saying it was pleasant for me, but there was no ego attachment from his side. I’m very thankful that he trusts me enough to be the mirror for me and not pull any punches. Mind you, the first meetings were not that way; I think he was aware how fragile I was and was being very careful. Now I think he senses that my seriousness about the teachings has increased and my own strength within the teachings has increased. He can be much tougher on me.
Melvin McLeod: The Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism puts a strong emphasis on analysis. What drew you to the more intellectual approach?
Richard Gere: Yeah, it’s funny. I think what I probably would have been drawn to instinctively was Dzogchen [the Great Perfection teachings of the Nyingma school]. I think the instinct that drew me to Zen is the same one that would have taken me to Dzogchen.
Melvin McLeod: Space.
Richard Gere: The non-conceptual. Just go right to the non-conceptual space. Recently I’ve had some Dzogchen teachers who’ve been kind enough to help me, and I see how Dzogchen empowers much of the other forms of meditation that I practice. Many times Dzogchen has really zapped me into a fresh vision and allowed me to see a kind of limited track that I was falling into through conditioning and basic laziness.
But overall, I think the wiser choice for me is to work with the Gelugpas, although space is space wherever it is. I think the analytical approach—kind of finding the non-boundaries of that space—is important. In a way, one gets stability from being able to order the rational mind. When space is not there for you, the intellectual work will still keep you buoyed up. I still find myself in situations where my emotions are out of control and the anger comes up, and it’s very difficult to enter pure white space at that point. So the analytical approach to working with the mind is enormously helpful. It’s something very clear to fall back on and very stabilizing.
Melvin McLeod: What was the progression of practices for you, to the extent that you can talk about it, after you entered the vajrayana path?
Richard Gere: I’m a little hesitant to talk about this because, one, I don’t claim to know much, and two, being a celebrity these things get quoted out of context and sometimes it’s not beneficial. I can say that whatever forms of meditation I’ve taken on, they still involve the basic forms of refuge, generation of bodhicitta [awakened mind and heart] and dedication of merit to others. Whatever level of the teachings that my teachers allow me to hear, they still involve these basic forms.
Overall, tantra has become less romantic to me. It seems more familiar. That’s an interesting stage in the process, when that particular version of reality becomes more normal. I’m not saying it’s normal, in the sense of ordinary or mundane, but I can sense it being as normal as what I took to be reality before. I can trust that.
Melvin McLeod: What dharma books have meant a lot to you?
Richard Gere: People are always asking me what Buddhist books I would recommend. I always suggest Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind to someone who says, “How can I start?” I’ll always include something by His Holiness. His book Kindness, Clarity and Compassion is extraordinarily good. There’s wonderful stuff in there. Jeffrey Hopkins’ The Tantric Distinction is very helpful. There are so many.
Melvin McLeod: You go to India often. Does that give you the opportunity to practice in a less distracted environment?
Richard Gere: Actually it’s probably more distracting! When I go there, I’m just a simple student like everyone else, but I’m also this guy who can help. When I’m in India there are a lot of people who require help and it’s very difficult to say no. So it’s not the quietest time in my life, but just being in an environment where everyone is focusing on the dharma and where His Holiness is the center of that focus is extraordinary.
Melvin McLeod: When you’re in Dharmsala do you have the opportunity to study with the Dalai Lama or other teachers there?
Richard Gere: I’ll try to catch up with all my teachers. Some of them are hermits up in the hills, but they come down when His Holiness gives teachings. It’s a time to catch up on all of it, and just remember. For me, it means remembering. Life here is an incredible distraction and it’s very easy to get off track. Going there is an opportunity to remember, literally, what the mission is, why we’re here.
Melvin McLeod: Here you’re involved in a world of film-making that people think of as extremely consuming, high-powered, even cut-throat.
Richard Gere: That’s all true. But it’s like everyone else’s life, too. It just gets into the papers, that’s all. It’s the same emotions. The same suffering. The same issues. No difference.
Melvin McLeod: Do you find that you have a slightly split quality to your life, going back and forth between these worlds?
Richard Gere: I find that more and more my involvement in a career, in a normal householder life, is a great challenge for deepening the teachings inside of me. If I weren’t out in the marketplace, there’s no way I would be able to really face the nooks and crannies and darkness inside of me. I just wouldn’t see it. I’m not that tough; I’m not that smart. I need life telling me who I am, showing me my mind constantly. I wouldn’t see it in a cave. The problem with me is I would probably just find some blissful state, if I could, and stay there. That would be death. I don’t want that. As I said, I’m not an extraordinary practitioner. I know pretty much who I am. It’s good for me to be in the world.
Melvin McLeod: Are there any specific ways you try to bring dharma into your work, beyond working with your mind and trying to be a decent human being?
Richard Gere: Well, that’s a lot! That’s serious shit.
Melvin McLeod: That’s true. But those are the challenges we all face. I was just wondering if you try to bring a Buddhist perspective to the specific world of film?
Richard Gere: In film, we’re playing with something that literally fragments reality, and being aware of the fragmentation of time and space I think lends itself to the practice, to loosening the mind. There is nothing real about film. Nothing. Even the light particles that project the film can’t be proven to exist. Nothing is there. We know that when we’re making it; we’re the magicians doing the trick. But even we get caught up in thinking that it is all real—that these emotions are real, that this object really exists, that the camera is picking up some reality.
On the other hand, there is some magical sense that the camera sees more than our eyes do. It sees into people in a way that we don’t normally. So there’s a vulnerability to being in front of the camera that one doesn’t have to endure in normal life. There’s a certain amount of pressure and stress in that. You are being seen, you are really being seen, and there is no place to hide.
Melvin McLeod: But there’s no way you actually work with the product to…?
Richard Gere: You mean teaching through that? Well, I think these things are far too mysterious to ever do that consciously, no. Undoubtedly, as ill-equipped to be a good student as I am, I’ve had a lot of teachings, and some have stuck. Somehow they do communicate-not because of me, but despite me. So I think there is value there. It’s the same as everyone: whatever positive energies have touched them in myriad lifetimes are going to come through somehow. When you look into their eyes, when the camera comes in for a closeup, there’s something there that is mysterious. There’s no way you can write it, there’s no way you can plan it, but a camera will pick it up in a different way than someone does sitting across the table.
Melvin McLeod: How comfortable are you with your role as the spokesman for the dharma?
Richard Gere: For the dharma? I’ve never, ever accepted that, and I never will. I’m not a spokesman for dharma. I lack the necessary qualities.
Melvin McLeod: But you are always being asked in public about being a Buddhist.
Richard Gere: I can talk about that only as a practitioner, from the limited point of view that I have. Although it’s been many years since I started, I can’t say that I know any more now than I did then. I can’t say I have control over my emotions; I don’t know my mind. I’m lost like everyone else. So I’m certainly not a leader. In the actual course of things, I talk about these things, but only in the sense that this is what my teachers have given me. Nothing from me.
Melvin McLeod: When you are asked about Buddhism, are there certain themes you return to that you feel are helpful, such as compassion?
Richard Gere: Absolutely. I will probably discuss wisdom and compassion in some form, that there are two poles we are here to explore—expanding our minds and expanding our hearts. At some point hopefully being able to encompass the entire universe inside mind, and the same thing with heart, with compassion, hopefully both at the same time. Inseparable.
Melvin McLeod: When you say that, I’m reminded of something that struck me when I saw the Dalai Lama speak. He was teaching about compassion, as he so often does, but I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if he spoke more to a wider audience about the Buddhist understanding of wisdom, that is, emptiness. I just wondered what would happen if this revered spiritual leader said to the world, well, you know, all of this doesn’t really exist in any substantive way.
Richard Gere: Well, the Buddha had many turnings of the wheel of dharma, and I think His Holiness functions in the same way. If we are so lost in our animal natures, the best way to start to get out of that is to learn to be kind. Someone asked His Holiness, how can you teach a child to care about and respect living things? He said, see if you can get them to love and respect an insect, something we instinctively are repulsed by. If they can see its basic sentience, its potential, the fullness of what it is, with basic kindness, then that’s a huge step.
Melvin McLeod: I was just reading where the Dalai Lama said that he thinks mother’s love is the best symbol for love and compassion, because it is totally disinterested.
Richard Gere: Nectar. Nectar is that! [In vajrayana practice, spiritual blessings are visualized as nectar descending on the meditator.] That’s mother’s milk; that’s coming right from mom. Absolutely.
Melvin McLeod: Although you are cautious in speaking about the dharma, you are a passionate spokesman on the issue of freedom for Tibet.
Richard Gere: I’ve gone through a lot of different phases with that. The anger that I might have felt twenty years ago is quite different now. We’re all in the same boat here, all of us—Hitler, the Chinese, you, me, what we did in Central America. No one is devoid of the ignorance that causes all these problems. If anything, the Chinese are just creating the cause of horrendous future lifetimes for themselves, and one cannot fail to be compassionate towards them for that.
When I talk to Tibetans who were in solitary confinement for twenty or twenty-five years, they say to me, totally from their heart, that the issue is larger than what they suffered at the hands of their torturer, and that they feel pity and compassion for this person who was acting out animal nature. To be in the presence of that kind of wisdom of heart and mind—you can never go back after that.
Melvin McLeod: It is remarkable that an entire people, generally, is imbued with a spirit like that.
Richard Gere: I’m convinced that it is because it was state-oriented. Obviously, problems come with that, with no separation of church and state. But I am convinced that the great dharma kings manifested to actually create a society based on these ideas. Their institutions were designed to create good-hearted people; everything in the society was there to feed it. That became decadent—there were bad periods, there were good periods, whatever. But the gist of the society was to create good-hearted people, bodhisattvas, to create a very strong environment where people could achieve enlightenment. Imagine that in America! I mean, we have no structure for enlightenment. We have a very strong Christian heritage and Jewish heritage, one of compassion, one of altruism. Good people. But we have very little that encourages enlightenment—total liberation.
Melvin McLeod: Looking at how human rights violations have come to the forefront of world consciousness, such as in Tibet and South Africa before that, the work of celebrities such as yourself who have been able to use their fame skillfully has been an important factor.
Richard Gere: I hope that’s true. It’s kind of you to say. It’s an odd situation. Previously I’d worked on Central America and some other political and human rights issues, and got to know the ropes a bit in working with Congress and the State Department. But that didn’t really apply to this situation. Tibet was too far away, and there had been extremely limited American involvement there.
I found also that the question of His Holiness in terms of a political movement was very tricky. It’s a non-violent movement, which is a problem in itself—you don’t get headlines with nonviolence. And His Holiness doesn’t see himself as Gandhi; he doesn’t create dramatic, operatic situations.
So we’ve ended up taking a much steadier kind of approach. It’s not about drama. It’s about, little by little, building truth, and I think it’s probably been deeper because of that. The senators, congressmen, legislators and parliamentarians who have got involved go way beyond what they would normally give to a cause they believed in.
I think the universality of His Holiness’ words and teachings have made this so much bigger than just Tibet. When His Holiness won the Nobel Peace Prize, there was a quantum leap. He is not seen as solely a Tibetan anymore; he belongs to the world. We were talking before about what the camera picks up—just a picture of His Holiness seems to communicate so much. Just to see his face. It’s arresting, and at the same time it’s opening. You can imagine what it would have been like to see the Buddha. Just to see his face would put you so many steps ahead. I think a lot of what we have done is just putting His Holiness in situations where he could touch as many people as possible, which he does every time with impeccable bodhicitta.
I keep saying Tibet will be taken care of in the process, but it’s about saving every sentient being, and as long as we keep our eyes on that prize, Tibet will be all right. Of course there are immediate issues to deal with in Tibet. We work on those all the time. Although we had reason to believe a more open communication with the Chinese was evolving, the optimism generated by Clinton’s visit to China has not panned out. In fact, the Tibetans, as well as the pro-democracy Chinese, are experiencing the most repressive period since the late eighties, since Tienanmen Square.
Melvin McLeod: I’m always impressed with a point the Dalai Lama makes which is very similar to what my own teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, presented in the Shambhala teachings. That is the need for a universal spirituality based on simple truths of human nature that transcends any particular religion, or the need for formalized religion at all. This strikes me as an extraordinarily important message.
Richard Gere: Well, I think it’s true. His Holiness says that what we all have in common is an appreciation of kindness and compassion; all the religions have this. Love. We all lean towards love.
Melvin McLeod: But even beyond that, he points out that billions of people don’t practice a religion at all.
Richard Gere: But they have the religion of kindness. They do. Everyone responds to kindness.
Melvin McLeod: It’s fascinating that a major religious leader espouses in effect a religion of no religion.
Richard Gere: Sure, that’s what makes him larger than Tibet.
Melvin McLeod: It makes him larger than Buddhism.
Richard Gere: Much larger. The Buddha was larger than Buddhism.
Melvin McLeod: You are able to sponsor a number of projects in support of the dharma and of Tibetan independence.
Richard Gere: I’m in kind of a unique position in that I do have some cash in my foundation, so I’m able to offer some front money to various groups to help them get projects started. Sponsoring dharma books is important to me—translation, publishing—but I think the most important thing I can do is help sponsor teachings. To work with His Holiness and help sponsor teachings in Mongolia, India, the United States and elsewhere-nothing gives me more joy.
The program we’re doing this summer is four days of teachings by the Dalai Lama in New York. August 12 to 14 will be the formal teaching by His Holiness on Kamalashila’s “Middle-length Stages of Meditation” and “The Thirty-seven Practices of the Bodhisattvas.” That’s at the Beacon Theater and there are about 3,000 tickets available. I’m sure those will sell quickly. If people can’t get into that, there’s going to be a free public teaching in Central Park on the fifteenth. We’re guessing there will be space for twenty-five to forty thousand people, so whoever wants to come will be able to. His Holiness will give a teaching on the Eight Verses of Mind Training, a very powerful lojong teaching, one of my favorites actually. Then His Holiness will give a wang, a long life empowerment of White Tara.
I’ve seen His Holiness give bodhicitta teachings like these, and no one can walk away without crying. He touches so deep into the heart. He gave a teaching in Bodh Gaya last year on Khunu Lama’s “In Praise of Bodhicitta,” which is a long poems Just thinking about it now, I’m starting to crys So beautiful. When he was teaching on Kunu Lama’s “In Praise of Bodhicitta,” who was his own teachers whooosh! We were inside his heart, in the most extraordinary way. A place you can’t be told about, you can’t read about, nothing. You’re in the presence of Buddha. I’ve had a lot of teachers who give wonderful teachings on wisdom, but to see someone who really, really has the big bodhicitta, real expanded bodhicittas.
So those are the teachings that I believe His Holiness is here to give. That’s what touches.
What You Learn in Your 40s
"PARIS — IF all goes according to plan, I’ll turn 44 soon after this column appears. So far in my adult life, I’ve never managed to grasp a decade’s main point until long after it was over. It turns out that I wasn’t supposed to spend my 20s frantically looking for a husband; I should have been building my career and enjoying my last gasp of freedom. I then spent my 30s ruminating on grievances accumulated in my 20s. This time around, I’d like to save time by figuring out the decade while I’m still in it. Entering middle age in Paris — the world’s epicenter of existentialism — isn’t terribly helpful. With their signature blend of subtlety and pessimism, the French carve up midlife into the “crisis of the 40s,” the “crisis of the 50s” and the “noonday demon” (described by one French writer as “when a man in his 50s falls in love with the babysitter”). The modern 40s are so busy it’s hard to assess them. Researchers describe the new “rush hour of life,” when career and child-rearing peaks collide. Today’s 40ish professionals are the DITT generation: double income, toddler twins. The existing literature treats the 40s as transitional. Victor Hugo supposedly called 40 “the old age of youth.” In Paris, it’s when waiters start calling you “Madame” without an ironic wink. The conventional wisdom is that you’re still reasonably young, but that everything is declining: health, fertility, the certainty that you will one day read “Hamlet” and know how to cook leeks. Among my peers there’s a now-or-never mood: We still have time for a second act, but we’d better get moving on it. I think the biggest transition of the 40s is realizing that we’ve actually, improbably, managed to learn and grow a bit. In another 10 years, our 40-something revelations will no doubt seem naïve (“Ants can see molecules!” a man told me in college). But for now, to cement our small gains, here are some things we know today that we didn’t know a decade ago: If you worry less about what people think of you, you can pick up an astonishing amount of information about them. You no longer leave conversations wondering what just happened. Other people’s minds and motives are finally revealed. People are constantly trying to shape how you view them. In certain extreme cases, they seem to be transmitting a personal motto, such as “I have a relaxed parenting style!”; “I earn in the low six figures!”; “I’m authentic and don’t try to project an image!” Eight hours of continuous, unmedicated sleep is one of life’s great pleasures. Actually, scratch “unmedicated.” There are no grown-ups. We suspect this when we are younger, but can confirm it only once we are the ones writing books and attending parent-teacher conferences. Everyone is winging it, some just do it more confidently. There are no soul mates. Not in the traditional sense, at least. In my 20s someone told me that each person has not one but 30 soul mates walking the earth. (“Yes,” said a colleague, when I informed him of this, “and I’m trying to sleep with all of them.”) In fact, “soul mate” isn’t a pre-existing condition. It’s an earned title. They’re made over time. You will miss out on some near soul mates. This goes for friendships, too. There will be unforgettable people with whom you have shared an excellent evening or a few days. Now they live in Hong Kong, and you will never see them again. That’s just how life is. Emotional scenes are tiring and pointless. At a wedding many years ago, an older British gentleman who found me sulking in a corner helpfully explained that I was having a G.E.S. — a Ghastly Emotional Scene. In your 40s, these no longer seem necessary. For starters, you’re not invited to weddings anymore. And you and your partner know your ritual arguments so well, you can have them in a tenth of the time. Forgive your exes, even the awful ones. They were just winging it, too. When you meet someone extremely charming, be cautious instead of dazzled. By your 40s, you’ve gotten better at spotting narcissists before they ruin your life. You know that “nice” isn’t a sufficient quality for friendship, but it’s a necessary one. People’s youthful quirks can harden into adult pathologies. What’s adorable at 20 can be worrisome at 30 and dangerous at 40. Also, at 40, you see the outlines of what your peers will look like when they’re 70. More about you is universal than not universal. My unscientific assessment is that we are 95 percent cohort, 5 percent unique. Knowing this is a bit of a disappointment, and a bit of a relief. But you find your tribe. Jerry Seinfeld said in an interview last year that his favorite part of the Emmy Awards was when the comedy writers went onstage to collect their prize. “You see these gnome-like cretins, just kind of all misshapen. And I go, ‘This is me. This is who I am. That’s my group.’ ” By your 40s, you don’t want to be with the cool people; you want to be with your people. Just say “no.” Never suggest lunch with people you don’t want to have lunch with. They will be much less disappointed than you think. You don’t have to decide whether God exists. Maybe he does and maybe he doesn’t. But when you’re already worrying that the National Security Agency is reading your emails (and as a foreigner in France, that you’re constantly breaking unspoken cultural rules), it’s better not to know whether yet another entity is watching you. Finally, a few more tips gleaned from four decades of experience: Do not buy those too-small jeans, on the expectation that you will soon lose weight. If you are invited to lunch with someone who works in the fashion industry, do not wear your most “fashionable” outfit. Wear black. If you like the outfit on the mannequin, buy exactly what’s on the mannequin. Do not try to recreate the same look by yourself. It’s O.K. if you don’t like jazz. When you’re wondering whether she’s his daughter or his girlfriend, she’s his girlfriend. When you’re unsure if it’s a woman or a man, it’s a woman."
"is a heartache and difficult to achieve because strangely, the act of forgiveness not only refuses to eliminate the original wound, but actually draws us closer to its source. To approach forgiveness is to close in on the nature of the hurt itself, the only remedy being, as we approach its raw center, to reimagine our relation to it.
It may be that the part of us that was struck and hurt can never forgive, and that forgiveness itself never arises from the part of us that was actually wounded. The wounded self may be the part of us incapable of forgetting, and perhaps, not meant to forget ... stranger still, it is that wounded, branded, un-forgetting part of us that eventually makes forgiveness an act of compassion rather than one of simple forgetting.
Forgiveness is a skill, a way of preserving clarity, sanity and generosity in an individual life, a beautiful question and a way of shaping the mind to a future we want for ourselves; an admittance that if forgiveness comes through understanding, and if understanding is just a matter of time and application then we might as well begin forgiving right at the beginning of any drama, rather than put ourselves through the full cycle of festering, incapacitation, reluctant healing and eventual blessing.
... At the end of life, the wish to be forgiven is ultimately the chief desire of almost every human being. In refusing to wait; in extending forgiveness to others now, we begin the long journey of becoming the person who will be large enough, able enough and generous enough to receive, at our very end, that necessary absolution ourselves."
Excerpted from ‘FORGIVENESS’ from the upcoming book of essays CONSOLATIONS: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. ©2014 David Whyte
(Véra Nabokov, 1902–1991; art by Thomas Doyle)
"There is something quite wonderful about witnessing one human being selflessly bolster the creative achievement of another. For many people we've come to celebrate as geniuses, such human capital was precisely what made their achievements possible – a vital aid rather than a detractor of their greatness. The most frequently recurring roles of these silent supporters are of wife and mother, who doubled and tripled and quadrupled as assistant, caretaker, editor, publicist, and a great many more utilitarian and creative duties. As an example, Véra Nabokov dedicated her life to bolstering her husband, Vladimir Nabokov's genius, in which she believed resolutely and which she felt honored to nurture and protect. She was the first reader of all his work and his lifelong inspiration. The inscription on every single one of his novels reads, simply, "To Véra." So intense was their psychic bond that they even shared an uncommon neurological condition called synesthesia. When Nabokov's obituary stated that "their dedication to each other was total," it was a statement of simple fact."
~ Maria Popova
"Once you have glimpsed the world as it might be, as it ought to be, as it’s going to be (however that vision appears to you), it is impossible to live compliant and complacent anymore in the world as it is. And so you come out and walk out and march, the way a flower comes out and blooms, because it has no other calling. It has no other work."
~ Victoria Stafford
I was thrilled to come across this Q&A today between my friend/author Priscilla Gilman and my former fitness student/author Dani Shapiro. Both women inspire me in countless ways, I love the questions Priscilla asks and the potency of Dani's answers ~ enjoy:
Priscilla writes ~ "I’d heard about Dani Shapiro for years, but didn’t actually read her work until the summer of 2013, when I was sent a copy of her newest book, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, in galley, and then devoured her other books. I reached out to Dani to let her know how much I loved her writing, and we became email friends. It was such a privilege and joy to do this conversation with her, and I found each of her answers to be a little gem of exquisite writing and profound insight."
Q: Still Writing opens with a bold claim; in its first paragraph, you declare: “everything you need to know about life can be learned from a genuine and ongoing attempt to write.” Give us a few examples of how the practice of writing has taught you important life lessons.
A: When I think of what it mean to face the blank page each day, I think of tenacity, courage, persistence, doggedness, faith, and the willingness to make a leap into the unknown. These are all traits that I’ve cultivated in order to do my work, and at the same time, I think they serve me well in my life. I liken facing the blank page with the feeling – if we really think about it – of getting out of bed every morning. We can’t know what the day holds. Our lives are at the mercy of so much randomness. There is chaos, chance, luck. Unexpected sorrow, unexpected grace. And yet, if we were really to focus on that randomness, we wouldn’t be able to put one foot in front of the other. What writing has taught me (here’s another bold claim) is how to love in the face of all the consequences of love – because after a lifetime of hurling myself into the abyss of the unknown in my work, I also have become more willing to hurl myself into the abyss of the unknown in my life.
Q: At one point in Still Writing, you say that writing is practicing “the art of waiting.” Can you elaborate on that suggestive assertion?
A: When I’m between books, I become a crazy person. Even though I’ve written eight books, I believe, absolutely, fervently, every time, that I will never write another book again, that the muse will not visit me, that I’m stuck forever, done, finished. I’ve learned, however imperfectly, to live with this feeling by cultivating the practice of waiting. Of patience. Or, at least, attempting patience. When I’ve tried to force something –– begin a project that’s only half-baked, or jump at an assignment just to have the deadline, or drive myself forward based only on a flimsy or tenuous idea, I always regret it. And I always end up throwing mountains of pages away. Better to wait. To ponder, mull, to live. To cook, walk, travel, take care of children, or partners, or animals, or whatever. To make the space. It’s only when that inward space is there that we are able to witness our own creative process, and give birth to something new.
Q: As someone who studied piano from age 7 to age 18 and sang, danced, and acted extensively throughout my childhood, I was especially intrigued by your claim that “piano was my training ground- at least as important as any writing workshop.” How did your studying and playing piano influence and shape you as a writer? What are the similarities and the differences between writing and making music? What does your experience have to teach us about the benefits of arts instruction and enrichment for young children and in our schools?
A: Oh, how wonderful! I hadn’t known this aspect of your background. What I meant by piano as my training ground, particularly, is the musicality that those years of study brought to my prose itself. I needed to hear sentences, not just read them. The lines must have a certain rhythm to them, and if they don’t, I work until they do. Though there was an underside to all that musicality –– which was pointed out to me by one of my professors in college, a great writer named Jerome Badanes. Jerry said, “Dani, you know how to write a very beautiful sentence. You’d just better make sure it means something.” I have taken that lesson to heart. Musicality isn’t everything. Beautiful language, on its own, isn’t enough. As for the second part of your question, arts instruction and enrichment is where our children access the power of their own empathic imaginations and their ability to create –– what could be more beneficial than that? Especially in this high-speed, disconnected age we’re living in.
Q: I don’t do yoga because I can’t exercise barefoot due to severely pronated feet, but I have practiced TM since my early 20s and feel it’s essential to both my productivity and my creativity. Tell us about how yoga has influenced your writing life.
A: I’ve practiced yoga since my 20’s as well, and much more recently, have developed a meditation practice. These are my tools of self-knowledge. If, as writers, we are our own instruments, these practices sharpen (and soften!) and hone these instruments. My best work comes from a quiet mind. And that quiet mind does not come naturally to me. I need to unroll my mat. If I remember to unroll my mat, the quiet mind reappears, like a mountain from behind cloud cover.
Q: I see you as a demystifier, and I really admired how Still Writing generously and honestly works to lessen the sense of distance aspiring, young, or less successful writers feel between themselves and established writers. Writers never feel confident or secure, you insist: “It never gets easier” and “there is no magical place of arrival.” I couldn’t agree more! Given that we never arrive, how can we best recover our equanimity and faith in our work as we struggle, labor, doubt? What is your best antidote for writerly anxiety?
A: I like that you see me as a de-mystifier. What a lovely thought. I think it’s important for writers early on in their writing lives to understand that these feelings are normal. Not only are they normal, they’re necessary. Insecurity is part of the process. I would worry if a writer felt too secure. I mean, this thing we’re doing is unbelievably hard. I think that the abject fear we feel when we sit down to work is absolutely appropriate, and keeps us honest and focused on our attempt. Because we mostly spend our time alone in our rooms, we lose sight of the fact that this insecurity and self-doubt is part of the job description. I think it helps to be reminded that writers all over the world are feeling precisely the same thing.
Q: You dispatch unhelpful clichés with peremptory force: no late-night writing jags for you, no writing only when inspiration strikes. For you, good writing is the result of rhythm and routine. You credit your success to sheer plod, and a little shine of “fairy dust.” Can you describe your routine for us, and can you suggest helpful tips for setting up a routine?
A: Well, I’ll describe a good day. A good day would first begin following a good night’s sleep. I’d wake up refreshed, stay offline, have my first cappuccino of the day (one of several from my little machine) and I’d continue to stay offline. No email. No internet. No phone. My teenaged son is away at school, and my husband is also a writer, and he has an office outside of the house, so in this “good day” I’d be alone at home with my dogs. I’d get to work by reading a few paragraphs of beautiful prose. A bit of Virginia Woolf, perhaps. And then I’d begin with the pages I’d written the day before, and which I would have revised by hand. I’d input those revisions, and by doing so, get myself going. I’d get a foothold on the day’s work, and then, at around noon, I’d unroll my yoga mat and do my practice. The afternoon would be spent getting more writing done, and then, after I’d gone as far as I could, taking care of the business of writing, and of the rest of life. By dinnertime, I’d stop for the night. But this is a fantasy of a good day – more like a perfect day. It almost never happens. It’s more likely that I will find myself sidetracked by one thing or another, and have to “begin again” multiple times during the course of the day. The most important advice I can give for establishing a routine is to stay off the internet. The internet is crack cocaine for writers. And to find tools that allow you to bring your mind back to the work. Think of the mind like a puppy you’re training. Say heel to the mind. Gently tugging the leash. Heel.
Q: I love how you let us in on the backstage business of publishing, dismissing the subtitle of your memoir Slow Motion as “marketing-speak,” giving a copy editor credit for discovering infelicitous repetitions in your manuscript. Can you share another telling, funny, or instructive anecdote about the behind-the-scenes goings-on?
A: Oh, lord. How about my author photo from my first novel, in which the publisher spent thousands of dollars on a glamorous photograph of me, rather then send me on book tour? I didn’t know any better. I was just so grateful to be published, and felt that they knew best. I spent years living down that glam shot. And I make it my business to try to steer young writers in good directions, ones that, with any luck, they won’t have to eventually live down.
Q: You tell us that writers should read good writing every day so they can “fill [their] . . . ears with the music of good sentences.” What are some especially good books, poems, or passages that you’ve read recently? and what are some of your favorite sentences, either from recent books or from old favorites?
A: I’ve been reading Louise Gluck’s new collection of poetry, which is magnificent. There is also a beautiful and instructive interview of her in the current issue of Poets & Writers. I’m also reading Anthony Doerr’s magnificent All The Light We Cannot See. Tony and I are going to be teaching together at Sirenland, the writers’ conference I direct in Positano, Italy. Also, Rebecca Solnit’s The Far Away Nearby. And Jenny Offill’s beautiful novel, Dept Of Speculation. And I just read Jane Gardham’s Old Filth. What a novel.
Q: You and I are both passionate quotation collectors, and Still Writing is studded with wise and beautiful quotations from others, including many of my favorite people/writers (anyone who quotes and approvingly cites Ted Solataroff, John Gregory Dunne, and Andy Sean Greer has my undying loyalty). If you had to pick one quotation to summarize your approach to writing, what would it be? your approach to parenting? your approach to life?
A: I can only answer this question by saying that I have so many favorite quotes, and here are a few recent favorites:
For writing: “As the mind is engaged and anxiety suppressed, some imaginative work in some recessed portion of the being is getting done. Not to say that every moment is contributing to a book or a poem, but you can’t know in advance what will. Don’t prejudge your stimuli. Just trust where your attention goes.” — Louise Gluck
Parenting: “We still counted happiness and health and love and luck and beautiful children as ‘ordinary blessings.’” — Joan Didion, Blue Nights
My approach to life: “The health of an eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.” — Emerson
Q: Still Writing serves as a salutary corrective to the pervasive belief, endemic in the literature of self-help, that success is the result of having a shrewd plan or a well-honed strategy. So much is accidental, so much is luck, so much is outside our control, you remind us, from the twists and turns of plots that unfold in ways we could never have predicted to the surprising disappointments and inexplicable triumphs of our careers. You cannot plan it, “you cannot force it,” you cannot make it happen. Openness to the unexpected and “embracing uncertainty” are crucial, you suggest, if we hope to write, and live, with equanimity and grace. How can we make ourselves more open to the unexpected? How best to embrace uncertainty?
A: This question is quite possibly the central question of my life, and the focus of my memoir Devotion, as well as thematically at the core of most of my fiction. I have no answers to this profound question. Only that if we hew to our own dharma – if we steadfastly force ourselves to work, in the words of the artist Anne Truitt, “along the nerve of (our) most intimate sensitivity,” then we have the chance to be alive to all of it –– to face into the wind –– to understand that life is precious and its very unpredictability is what makes it precious, and that to be born, to be alive at this very moment, is such a rare, extraordinary, unlikely thing. If we have this deep awareness, and if we are able to wear it lightly, I think we have a greater chance to embrace it all –– the whole human catastrophe. Just this morning I was reading a piece in the New York Times about the Siberian tiger that Vladimir Putin set free in the wild, and there was an amazing photograph of the tiger’s face at the moment of his liberation. The tiger doesn’t know that there are potential poachers awaiting him. He doesn’t know that he’s going to cross the border between Russia and China. He’s just moving steadily with such blazing light in his eyes, being everything he’s meant to be. I’m not sure why I’m telling you this story, but there you have it. I want to be that tiger.
Q: In a lovely and generous moment, you gently remind your readers that “to allow ourselves to spend our afternoons watching dancers rehearse, or sit on a stone wall and watch the sunset, or spend the whole weekend re-reading Chekhov stories—to know that we are doing what we are supposed to be doing –is the deepest form of permission in our creative lives”. Why do you think we find it so difficult to find the value in or to justify spending our time in the ways you describe? How can we give ourselves permission both because such wandering, watching, or immersion in art help us with our own creative endeavors and because reading, noticing, and way-finding are valuable in and of themselves? What’s a recent experience like this that was especially restorative for you?
A: To go back to Louise Gluck’s advice to “trust where your attention goes,” I think this is so hard for writers –– hard for all of us. How can we know when we’re creating the space we need within us, and when we’re just procrastinating? Earlier today, I went to the market and got the ingredients for a chicken stew that I planned to make in the slow cooker. The whole exercise took a couple of hours. The marketing, the chopping and dicing, the simmering. I even took a photograph of the dish and posted it on Instagram, with the pithy question: “Chicken with pancetta and peas? Or procrastination?” But in truth, I knew that I was simmering. As I write the answer to this question, I’ve been home alone all day. I’ve cooked. Shelved some books in my library. I’ve taken a bath. I’ve read. This is a day of creating space in my mind, even though it could be argued that I haven’t accomplished much. For me, all I know is that, when I’m between books as I am now, I need a lot of time to meander. When I meander, I discover. Or, as in the epigraph of Still Writing, a quote from David Salle: “I have to get lost so I can invent some way out.”
Q: What is the greatest peril of a creative life? The greatest pleasure?
A: The peril: Failure of nerve.
The pleasure: To quote Thoreau, it is the “fearless living out of your own essential nature that connects you to the divine.”