Thursday, July 28, 2011

Writing My Voice

The other night I was sitting in a meditation class led by Kris Cahill, a psychic who works in the Los Angeles area. She asked us to imagine our life as a movie. Easy enough, right? Nope. Just as I began to create my movie, it got tricky. Kris asked us to identify the writer and director of the movie. I was shocked by what came up. Although I was surely the director, I was not the writer. Whatever could this mean? I'm a writer, but I'm not writing my own life story. Really? Who, then, is writing my story?

That night when I got home, I stayed up for a long time processing that piece of information. But when I sat with it, it became obvious. No “one” has been writing my story. It's been a collaboration between all the voices I have ever encountered. They have had more to say about the writing of my story than I have because I'm still looking for her. I'm still looking for the writer of my story. It's not that I haven't taken the reins every once in a while and written some beautiful scenes, but I don't have the confidence to take full hold of the story. Why? What holds me back from writing the story that is mine?

Writing my own story implies great creative and destructive power. What if I start to write the story and I find out that I am truly powerful—that I really can manifest what I desire in the world? What do I do with that? What do I do if I find out that I am not what I have presented to the world—that I am not generous or kind or good? What if the story takes me away from all the people I thought I loved? What if I fail? What if?

Photo by Kathleen Keagy
I've been sitting looking out at the sea every day since our move, and every day I hear laughter rising from the waves. That great big mama ocean is laughing—laughing at the meekness, laughing at the fear, laughing at all the worry I have let others write into my script. Laughing, not judging, because then she would be the writer of my story. Because hasn't it been the judgments of others that have had more to do with my story than my own desires?

So it is with her laughter ringing in my ears that I step in front of the typewriter because, yes, my story is written on the old electric typewriter that sat in the basement of my childhood home—back when I wrote stories and put on shows with abandon. With the gentle, encouraging voice I used to foster every writer who stepped into my classroom, I entice myself to become the writer of my own story: "Don't worry about getting it right; you can edit later.” “The story is already there, you just have to get it to paper.” “Just write." I had no preconceived notions of what their stories should have been, but sat open to what showed up. I focused on process, not product. And celebrated their journeys.

So with the encouragement of my inner teacher, I'm going to try it. I no longer want to be on the sidelines watching the pages go by. I want to be running alongside those pages typewriter in hand, laughing at the spray splashing in my face. And lying down on the beach every now and then to catch my breath.

l'll see you out there.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Eight-Legged Love

The move to our new home has eaten into my writing time this week, so I am calling up an older piece to stand in for my regular blog. Since it was inspired by the home we just left, it feels appropriate to share it now as a way to say thank you to the place that nurtured my family and me for the last four years.  

I have grown to love spiders. They are creatures of immense fascination for me. I used to cast out their webs with abandon. I used to cast them out as intruders to my home. I didn’t yet understand what they could teach me about the creative work I do every day.

It started in college when I lived in a first floor dorm room with a wall of windows overlooking an arboretum. My bed ran along those windows, and on occasion, a majestic daddy long legs would make its way across my bed and sometimes my pillow. It was a little startling to have this visitor, but since it was back east in New Jersey, where there are no poisonous spiders, I had little to fear.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I discovered the black widow spider. She was first introduced to me as she climbed the leg of a chair in which I was sitting. My husband, having grown up hunting for lizards and snakes as a child in California, identified the predator immediately and saved me from my foe. I became leery of spiders after that and had my most panic-filled encounter when I discovered a black widow on the wall of my bedroom as my daughter (then 7-months-old) played nearby on the bed. Without any sense of calm I removed that spider from the house with a pair of plastic-wrapped tongs, killing it in the process.
Photo by Kathleen Keagy

When we moved to our home in the Village Green, I discovered that it was not only a grassy, tree-covered oasis, but also an amazing spider playground. I began a quest to identify the spiders in my yard. I learned that the glossy black spider that lives under the leaves in the corner of my patio is a false black widow, a harmless, non-native spider that is thought to be driving down the population of black widow spiders in the area. She looks like the black widow but without the trademark red hourglass. I learned about the cellar spider with its slender body and long legs. These spiders like damp spots and reside under my kitchen and bathroom cabinets. And my favorite, the wolf spider, a creature who doesn’t spin a web but catches prey using its great speed.

My research led to a fascination, and I began to befriend my eight-legged friends, leaving them under my kitchen cabinets or safely transporting them out of the house if they made my daughter uncomfortable. I began to joke with myself that they were telling each other about our home, a place they would be allowed to stay for awhile in safety.

In the weeks prior to Halloween an orb weaver spider took up residence just outside my front door, spinning the most exquisite web between the door and the hedge beside it. At night his web would shine in our porch light, and by day we would squeeze out our front door so as not to disturb the handiwork. After weeks of watching I found the place my orb-friend would hide when not on his web. At the back of the hedge, he had done a little spinning around a leaf and retreated to that spot during the day when his presence would have given away his webbed trap. He and his web were our Halloween decorations, and he stayed with us until just after Halloween, as if he knew his work was done.

In the spring, Charlotte visited us. Outside the jam of our dining room casement window, Charlotte, a cobweb spider, made a small web and was spinning a nest. My daughter and I would watch Charlotte from inside the window. One day we found the outside of the nest covered in hundreds of baby spiders so tiny they were like grains of sand. Days later they were gone. But we protected Charlotte making sure that we didn't spray the window when watering our plants, and she rewarded us with yet another nest and yet another scene of springtime renewal and birth. We never asked her to leave, but I assume that after her role as mother was complete she, like Charlotte of the famous story, moved on.

One of the things I learned in my research is that traditionally spiders are symbols of creativity. Intensely fragile and resiliently strong, spider webs are works of art. And when their webs are broken by life, spiders recreate or create somewhere new. Their work reminds me so much of the creative work I do every day. I cook; the food is eaten. I clean; the floor, the table, the pair of pants are dirty within minutes. By the end of a day there is often little physical evidence of the creative work I have done; and yet, the work has fulfilled the most basic needs of my family. Most days we walk right by spider webs or get annoyed when we accidentally walk through them. Every once in a while, though, we take the time to stop and admire the immense creative effort and functional beauty of their art. So now when I see spiders, I feel different. Their amazing webs remind me that my domestic work is a vital creative art. And so, I have grown to love spiders. Together, we make art to survive and survive on our art.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Emotion in a Box

I am surrounded by boxes. We move to our new place in two days, and all around me are boxes of things that define me. My books, my clothes, my kitchen gear and hidden away in a brown leather box is my past. Letters—written to me, and written by me and never sent—from a time before I hid myself behind layers of efficiency, organization and reliability. Most of the letters are from elementary and high school, and at times are embarrassing to read, but the letters are also honest and courageous. Back then, I didn't ask for permission to feel or to say what I felt.

In college, I found a haven for my feelings in literature and theater. To be successful, I had to dive into the emotions of the characters that showed up on the page or the stage. Then I entered the working world and found that although there was a lot of talk about feelings, most people didn't really want anything to do with them. Feelings are unpredictable. They are confusing and they take time to sort out. So I started teaching, a profession I found more welcoming to feelings. And I burned myself out on feeling. I treated my students like they were my children. I burned myself out on feeling responsible.

Photo by Dennis Keagy
I remember when I put her away—the girl that felt so much. A relationship had gone south—deep south—and I started questioning whether I could trust my emotions anymore. So I decided to take that part of me underground. All those feelings were beautiful and powerful, but not ready to be worn on an everyday basis. I packed her away because I didn't know how to feel and function at the same time. And survival being paramount, I focused on function.

It's not that the years since have not been filled with emotion—I met my husband, I moved to Los Angeles, I taught at a great school and I gave birth to my daughter. But with the emotion came fear. Fear that I would open the valves measuring out my emotions too wide and destroy everything I built in the flood. The unexpressed emotions took up residence in my body, and when the weight became too much to bear, they would manifest themselves as illness. Illness allowed me an acceptable way to withdraw from the world to go live in the world of that brown leather box for a while. Sometimes I would actually open the box and read something from it, but most times it was more about giving myself time to feel, to cry, to be.

When I first started packing for this move, I thought about getting rid of that box. Getting rid of the past. My past. But now I see that the box has been holding a piece of me that I did not feel safe wearing on the outside until very recently. And I have nothing but gratitude for that box and its faithfulness. So the box is coming with me. But I look forward to the day when I no longer need it. When I can own all those feelings out in the daylight.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Rewards of Showing Up

On Tuesday morning, I went to my weekly yoga class. This would not be significant except I'm in the middle of moving. I'm sure I could have used the extra time to pack, but after spending the holiday weekend in a flurry of cleaning out, packing, selling items, shopping for new furniture, and worrying over silly details, I was sleep deprived, drained and spinning like a top. The old me would have skipped the class. I would have skipped the class because I wasn't really prepared to do the class well.

It's an old habit, but an entrenched one—walking away from experiences because I won't be perfect at them. Go ahead and laugh. I laughed as I wrote it. It all stems from caring too much what other people think. When I look back, I feel a wave of regret for the times I decided that unless I could show up prepared, I wouldn't show up. And for all the times I deprived myself of sleep or the company of friends and family to get it right.

Photo by Michael Guidice
The idea that someone else is keeping a scorecard on me seems ludicrous, but not so ludicrous when I put it in perspective. The world works that way. Someone was always keeping a scorecard on me at school. I was much happier before I entered first grade. That's when it all changed. Instead of enjoying learning, someone was judging my learning. I responded by ensuring that there were few holes for anyone to point out and kicking myself for any imperfections that slipped through. And then, of course, there was my good Catholic upbringing. I took the whole sin thing way too much to heart.

It continued in my work life. Holding my breath, hoping no one would see what I had not been able to accomplish. And it continues in my life as a parent—in the way I wonder if I am any good at this mommy thing when I lose my cool and scream at my daughter. Or when I see the look on another parent's face when my daughter does something true for her, but not in accordance with what others think is appropriate.

Tuesday morning I went into my yoga class wondering if I would spend the entire time in child's pose, but I went. I showed up, assuring myself that I would get something out of it even if I did spend the entire class curled up on the floor. And I got a present in return. I had a great class. I left energized, centered and relaxed.

Too many years I have not shown up for myself. But here, in this blog, I am. I am showing up every week, and I am not doing it for the grade. Last week I almost didn't get a blog written, but I just kept showing up to write it until an idea arrived.

So go show up for something you don't think you're up to this week. Go knowing that you don't have all your ducks in a row and that there is no way it could work out well. And let me know how it goes.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Power of a Picture

If you paint a vivid picture in your mind for long enough, can it become a reality?

When I was twenty-five, I got on a plane and flew from New York to San Francisco. I was figuratively lost, and I decided to get literally lost. I wanted to leave behind all the baggage of my identity and be someone else. My plan was to drive down the coast to Los Angeles and on to Las Vegas. I never made it more than forty miles south of San Francisco.

Photo by Kathleen Keagy
I got derailed by an enchanted home in the town of Half Moon Bay. It was an old train depot that had been nurtured back to life by a physicist and an artist who had propped it up on stilts and replaced its foundation. I spent a month taking care of the two dogs and the cat that resided there while their owners traveled in China. The house sat on top of a bluff overlooking the ocean, the kitchen sink where the old train depot ticket counter used to be. I watched the sunset each evening while doing the dinner dishes. I walked with the dogs every day on the bluffs. My time in the train depot helped me to find my footing again and to repair some cracks in my own foundation—something I had not been able to do back home in New York.

In a few weeks, we are moving to the beach here in Los Angeles. I feel like I am going home. When I left Half Moon Bay, the realist in me didn't think I would ever get the chance to live that close to the ocean again. But I never stopped watching those sunsets. I never stopped painting the picture in my mind. In two weeks, I will be able to watch the sunset over the ocean while standing at my kitchen sink.

If you paint a vivid picture in your mind, can it become a reality?  Yes, I believe so.