Thursday, September 27, 2012

A short writing practice: Night falls on the edge of Taos Pueblo, August 14, 2012

     Just now: the crickets are chirping, the kitchen staff are banging dishes around cleaning up after a delicious dinner, the class and Natalie (Goldberg) have gone to slow walk out to the battered cross made famous by the painter Georgia O'Keeffe, and for the first time since I began coming here in 1999, I've stayed behind, mindful that my pace needs to be slow and steady, mindful that if I crash,  my mind won't work, that I'll lose language, a commodity as precious as rain here in Taos, land of high desert.  The wind is blowing steadily through the cottonwoods, a friendly low roar to keep me company, as I sit on the bench outside the zendo patiently waiting for my classmates to return.  The Tibetan prayer flags are waving as if to say hello--squares of yellow, green, red, white, blue.  The sun is going down, and the sky is pale blue, the low clouds grey--spread wide across the horizon.  A motorcycle rumbles in the distance.  Yesterday, I flipped through a book of photos called The Monks Return To Mable's.  It was winter when they were here, their robes a flash of orange against the snow.  I studied the stunningly beautiful mandala they built using piles of colored sand.
     I'm glad I warned my new husband not to expect phone calls from me once the silence began on Tuesday morning, happy that he trusts I'll call only if I need to.  I can't wait to show him just where I've been coming all these years.  I don't know if he will get why I love this place so much, but it doesn't matter.  He knows that writing has held my heart since I was fourteen--the poems rising up out of me like bubbles when I began journaling all those decades ago in that Ohio bedroom at the top of the stairs at my grandmother's house, putting pen to paper to keep myself sane as my mother's core family died around me--first my grandfather to old age, then my aunt to wet brain from alcohol, then my grandmother from stroke--all gone, leaving no one in the house but my anxious, grieving mother, my alcoholic uncle, and me, a seventeen year old girl whose only solace was music, books, and the pen, that magical tool that would take me on amazing journeys of my mind.
     The darkness has settled, the staff all departed, the drumming and singing echo from Taos Pueblo. I don't know exactly how long I've been writing out here in the chilly night air, but like my black shawl circling my shoulders, I'm wrapped in deep gratitude that I felt well enough to come.  Ahh, the crunch of tires on gravel, small beams of light pierce the black. They're back.  Welcome home, I've been waiting.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

How I became a Natalie Goldberg student

     So it is 3:05 a.m. and as usual I can't sleep.  I'm wired and tired.  I have taken the medication and the supplements hours ago and am still awake, so what to do, what to do. Well write, of course.  It is what I always do.  I turn to the page, pull out the virtual pen or the physical pen and off I go.
   Yesterday was a little nerve wracking because I posted my first blog post and it was pretty darn revealing, but since I am an old student of Natalie Goldberg's, and I have been taught by her to go for the jugular, I am fearless in what I feel comfortable revealing to readers.  Readers want to know how writers' minds work, and we all hunger to know each other.  Natalie taught me that.  Thus my Wild Mind blog title.  I got it from my favorite book by her: Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life.  I first tracked down Goldberg's books way back in the 1980's when she came out with her best selling book Writing Down the Bones. I vaguely remember reading it and sticking it on the shelf.  I was a cocky poet then in my twenties, thought I knew everything. Ah the arrogance of youth.  I didn't "need" a book on writing.  I was a poet.  
     After I graduated with my Master of Arts in English in Creative Writing/ Literature (poetry) from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program, I managed to a secure a full time community college teaching position at Lone Star College-Tomball in Tomball, Texas a small country town (back in 1989) outside of Houston. The one thing I feared the most happened, something that I had been warned about after graduating from a writing program: I stopped writing. My teaching load and grading load took over. So to remedy that I began reading books on writing, convinced the college to allow me to teach an intro to creative writing class, and found her book Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life and read it, but still didn't think I could apply it to my poetry. 
     In this seven year span of no writing, I contacted one of my poetry professors from U of H, Edward Hirsch and told him what was wrong. Writers who aren't writing are miserable. I was miserable.  I decided I needed to continue my studies, so I applied to the only two low residency MFA writing programs in the country at the time: Vermont College of Fine Arts and Warren Wilson.  The competition was stiff.  That never stopped me before.  I was accepted at Vermont.  I remember panicking after the first twelve day residency ended in Montpelier.  I came home with the assignment to write and send in at least five poems and three short papers on any poetry books from my new reading list. I had exactly five weeks.  Seven years is a long time to not write, and now I was teaching five sections: three freshman comp classes, two literature classes, and one creative writing class.    
     I was stuck.  So I pulled down Wild Mind and read how to do writing practice. I thought what the hell. It was easy enough:   Start with a topic, such as I'm thinking about or I remember or I don't remember.  Time your writing practice and follow these seven rules:  1. Keep your hand moving  2. Lose control.  3. Be specific   4. Don't think. 5. Don't worry about punctuation, spelling, grammar.  6. You are free to write the worst junk in America  7. Go for the jugular.   After each short chapter, she had a "Try this" assignment.  
     My back was against the wall; I was now in my late thirties and not quite as cocky about using books on writing for help.  Amazingly, poems began burbling up on my hand written pages. The Muse was back.  I got that first packet of poems sent off in time. And the feedback was positive.  I built up my writing muscle and got up to over an hour of writing by hand.  This little book had saved my ass. I wrote my second manuscript (unpublished) of poetry titled Survival and graduated from Vermont College in 1997.  But still, I didn't have the courage to try creative nonfiction.
     In 1987, I was brutally attacked in a parking lot, stabbed in the throat, and left for dead by a crack addict.  I am lucky to be alive.  I had only a fifty fifty chance of surviving. The trauma surgeon at Hermann Hospital was extremely clear about that when he came to see me in the intensive care unit.   I knew I wanted to write a book about that some day. I didn't know how.  I was a poet.  Memoir and creative nonfiction was a genre that was just beginning to heat up in the market.  I remember going to a writer's conference in Louisiana with a friend.  I got a ten minute pitch session with an agent from the Writer's House in New York City.  She was all fired up and told me she would help me. She gave me her card and encouraged me to write to her. I didn't know what I was doing.  Stupidly, I went home and never contacted her.  Now I see I wasn't ready to face writing about the attack in prose.  I could write poems about it, but I didn't know the first thing about writing a memoir. It was overwhelming. I was a poet and my "monkey mind," that internal critic told me I couldn't do it.
     So I graduated with my MFA in 1997 and kept teaching.  I began using writing practice in my creative writing classes. My students loved it. I formed a writing practice group in my home, but something kept pulling at me. Who was this Natalie Goldberg?  At the back of her books it said she taught writing in northern New Mexico.  Back then she was hard as hell to find.  She had no website. So I began researching and I don't remember what I did, but I was determined and I finally found out that she taught week long writing workshops at a place called the Mable Dodge Luhan house in Taos, New Mexico.  In 1999 or 2000 (I can't remember) the college let me go using professional development funds plus some of my own money.  That trip changed my life. Natalie became my third and most important writing teacher.
     Over breakfast, on the second day at her workshop in Taos that July, I timidly went up to her and told her the story about the agent and how I ran away. I told her how stupid I felt, but also that I wasn't ready.  She looked straight at me and said, "Oh don't worry. That's what agents do.  They fire you up.   Just go home and write the book.  Poets do very well writing memoirs." I needed to hear just that.
     At that first retreat, I screwed up my courage, wrote the opening scene about the attack, and at the end of the week got up and read it (feeling terrified) to the other sixty students.  There is no commenting on writing practice which really frees writers' minds. But Natalie broke that rule with me. She walked up to me afterwards and said quietly, "Do you realize that no one was breathing in the room while you were reading?" I shook my head. I was stunned. She poked me in the arm and said, "That was hot. Go home; write this book. You can do it." I have been studying with her ever since.
     I am now one hundred and seventy odd pages into my memoir and in my third round of a long distance writing course called Write to the Finish taught by Sean Murphy and Tania Casselle, two other writers I met at the Goldberg writing retreats.
     After a three year break I got to finally go back to do a week long silent writing retreat with her.  I wasn't sure I could pull it off because of the me/cfs, but I did it. 

Thank you, Natalie.  Three deep bows (as in the Zen Buddhist tradition) to you. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

This is Invisible Illness Awareness Week 9/10/2012


1. The illnesses I live with are: Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) also known as Chronic Fatigue Immune Disorder Syndrome (CFIDS); Fibromyalgia (FM); Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) also known as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome or CRPS.

2. I was diagnosed with it in the year: RSD/CRPS in 2001; ME/CFS and FM in 2010

3. But I had symptoms since: 1999 for RSD and 2009 for ME/CFS and FM.

4. The biggest adjustment I’ve had to make is: Not working;

5. Most people assume: I just need to get out more  (trust me if I could, I would)  and that I will get well (there are no cures for  ME/CFS, or FM or RSD/CRPS).  One can only manage the symptoms.

6. The hardest part about mornings are: Getting up

7. My favorite medical TV show is: Grey's Anatomy and House

8. A gadget I couldn’t live without is: my computer. It keeps me connected to the world.

9. The hardest part about nights are: Ironically ME/CFS comes with a horrible sleeping disorder, so sleeping is a huge battle. Many nights I am exhausted, but not sleepy.  We call it unrefreshed sleep or being wired and tired.  

10. Each day I take _15_ pills & vitamins. (no comments please  )

11. Regarding alternative treatments I:  explore everything, but I check with my doctor.

12. If I had to choose between an invisible illness or visible I would choose: a visible one.

13. Regarding working and career: I miss working more than I can say. I miss my students every day.

14. People would be surprised to know: How much I grieve over my illness and what this thief (ME/CFS and FM) stole: my career, my social life, my energy, traveling, dancing.

15. The hardest thing to accept about my new reality has been: Staying home after a college teaching career that spanned 30 years.

16. Something I never thought I could do with my illness that I did was: Continue writing my memoir and poetry

17. The commercials about my illness: There are no commercials about ME/CFS or RSD/CRPS

18. Something I really miss doing since I was diagnosed is: Being with people on a daily basis.  I love people and have been forced to become a semi recluse.

19. It was really hard to have to give up: Traveling, dancing, working.

20. A new hobby I have taken up since my diagnosis is: I'm working on that.  A good friend has suggested water color painting.  

21. If I could have one day of feeling normal again I would: crank up my stereo and dance.  The old Katherine was a whirl of energy, and I miss her.  

22. My illness has taught me: That going slow teaches me to see, really see. I treasure each moment in my backyard with my dogs when the weather is good.  To pay attention to what  I can do rather than always focusing on what I can't do.  Oh I still get furious on some days, but I believe life is a classroom and this lesson is hard. 

23. Want to know a secret? One thing people say that gets under my skin is: You need to get out of the house more, or you need to exercise, or have you tried xyz??  Trust me I have spent literally thousands of hours researching this horrible disorder.  I want to get well.  If it's out there, I've tried it.

24. But I love it when people: Ask me how I'm feeling and really believe that I'm ill.   The National Institute of Health has deemed ME/CFS a serious and life threatening disorder. 

25. My favorite motto, scripture, quote that gets me through tough times is: "Be here Now",  "Do not compare today to your old life.  Compare today to yesterday." "Any day above ground is a good day." "Remember just breathe."

26. When someone is diagnosed I’d like to tell them: To be gentle with themselves and practice loads of self compassion. Do your research, find a doctor who believes you are ill, and never give up, ever.  This disorder is not psychological; you are not crazy; you are really ill.

27. Something that has surprised me about living with an illness is: How hard it is just to take a bath and wash my hair when I am in a crash, and how when I am in a crash my mind just doesn't work, period.  I can't follow a t.v. show, I can't read, I have trouble following conversations, I lose vocabulary.  All I can do is be patient and rest (which may or may not include sleeping) and wait for it to pass. It always does.

28. The nicest thing someone did for me when I wasn’t feeling well was: Brought me a book on Buddhism.

29. I’m involved with Invisible Illness Week because: I believe firmly in raising awareness for all of us who are sick no matter what the disease or disorder.

30. The fact that you read this list makes me feel: happy and validated