Strike Your Note

“Pathmaker, there is no path. You make the path by walking. By walking, you make the path. ”

— ANTONIO MACHADO

At the end of 2017, I made a promise to myself that I would join a conversation I’ve been listening to for 30 years, a conversation between writers who have the temerity to put their words on pages and their pages into our hands. I admire professional writers more than almost anyone on the planet, because they have the courage to be publicly wrong, and to but their insides on the outside for us all to judge. And to do so, in perpetuity.

I owe an immeasurable debt to writers who have lit the path. It’s time to pay.

In a recent interview, David Whyte suggests that when we escape into our work, we think that through “the armored professionality of a vocation, we’ll be held immune from the heartbreaks of life.”

But of course, in art, it doesn’t work that way.

Like most of us, I have professional and personal selves, which I prefer to keep separate. I understand the rules of engagement in work relationships, and I’ve grown skilled in navigating them. But I still struggle to gauge how much vulnerability is appropriate in personal relationships, how to pace the disparate needs for connection each person craves, and how to vary the rhythm as people move in and out of spaces of desire.

In art, there are no such boundaries. Whyte says that if you’re “sincere about your work, you should not know how to precede at times. You should not know how to get from here to there. And that puts you into a relationship with the world, because you have to ask for help. You have to make the invitation to the people who will help you create the conversation which will help you follow the path of vulnerability into the world and give your gift to others along the way.”

 

Cont…

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Women of the Resistance

img_1197Jehan is a scary feminist. If you don’t believe me, ask her. She’ll be happy to explain why.

An athlete, artist and producer, Jehan Izhar, 32, owns a studio called Jypsy’s Performing Arts, where she teaches exotic forms of yoga, dance and healing arts. Her stage name is Modern Jypsy, but most of her friends and clients call her J.

J was raised Muslim with her older sister in a nuclear family of mixed heritage: her late mother was from England and her father is from Pakistan. She identifies as a business owner, performer, feminist and Muslim-American. Jypsy’s caters to women of all ages and backgrounds and is a safe space where you can “better your body and express yourself creatively.”

Below is the first half of our recorded conversation on August 3, 2018:

https://www.michelledowd.org/selected-works/2018/8/4/women-of-the-resistance-jehan-izhar

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The Personal is Political, Part II

Betty Reid Soskin is the oldest national park ranger in the United States. She began her career as a national park ranger about 10 years ago, when she was 85. When Lisa Congdon asked her what keeps her going to work every day, Betty replied, “My first eight decades were spent collecting dots, and now I’m connecting dots. I’m in what I assume to be my final decade, and so everything I’ve ever learned, I’m using now. I’m still having first time experiences at 95. I feel like an evolving person in an evolving person in an evolving nation in an evolving universe.”

https://www.michelledowd.org/selected-works/2018/7/27/the-personal-is-political-part-ii

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The Personal is Political (Part 1)

 

When asked why she is still working, 79-year-old photojournalist Paola Gianturco replied, “It never occurred to me to stop. What for? I can’t imagine not using what I know and what I can do to try to change the world. It would be a waste. I just can’t imagine, if you still do important work, why would you stop?”

https://www.michelledowd.org/selected-works/2018/7/23/the-personal-is-political-part-1

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Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down

“The reward for conformity is that everyone likes you except yourself.”

— RITA MAE BROWN

https://www.michelledowd.org/selected-works/2018/7/16/dont-let-the-bastards-grind-you-down

MichelleDowd.org

“How do we proceed when there is actually not meant to be a plan, because we are working a way of being, a slowly building conversation between what we want for ourselves and what we are most afraid of?

— DAVID WHYTE

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Please visit me at michelledowd.org

I have failed at more things than I have achieved. I have made nearly every mistake self-help experts warn you not to make. I am kind and loyal and I have an intense work ethic, but I am also messy, impatient, passionate and unpredictable.

Why should you trust me?

You shouldn’t.

But I want to encourage you to trust yourself.

Because curious people always have more questions than answers, and we don’t always need to know exactly where we’re going to appreciate the climb. If we can learn to navigate by our internal compass, while filtering out the noise of conformity, we can curate a life that inspires us. For me, that means showing up daily for my practice, both on and off the mat. Whatever I get wrong, no matter how many times I fail, I come back to my mat. I show up and do the work. I breathe, get grounded, re-center. I apologize, make amends, learn from my mistakes, re-direct. I forgive myself and others. I invite myself back to the practice.

I created a literary journal several years ago. The phenomenal team I work with is currently curating our 17th volume. From the beginning, our motto has been, join the conversation.

And so I do.

I grew up in a small, conservative, isolated community and escaped to Pitzer College when I was 17. Iquickly married a boy I grew up with, earned a degree in English and World Literatures and moved to Boulder at 21 to teach at the University of Colorado and work toward a PhD I didn’t quite finish. I gave birth to 4 children in rapid succession, began a newsletter/magazine called SmartKids, taught at numerous colleges before earning a tenured professorship, and bought and sold several houses before finding home. I have loved and lost and been so sad, I thought I couldn’t continue. But I was committed to the profession of teaching and to being present for my children every day of their lives, so I showed up for these two commitments with everything I had in me.

I am immensely proud of the young adults my kids have become and of the students, former and current, whom I learn from daily as an adviser of college media.

I am a professor, yogi, writer, aerialist, runner, hiker, mother, sister, friend and lover.

But mostly, I am a student of life.

We’re all just trying to figure out how to build a solid airplane to take off in. We begin again.

michelledowd.org

 

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Wabi-Sabi

1t5a1264
–Photo by Andrija Bloom

 

You remember too much,

my mother said to me recently.

 

Why hold onto all that? And I said,

Where can I put it down?

 

–Anne Carson

I’ve had a lot of strong feelings this week. I’ve tried to allow myself to feel them, to feel the full extent of them, to let it hurt as much as it hurts. I haven’t distracted myself with any of the things that can typically provide escape–exercise, work, food, substances, texting, relationships, touch. I’m not running away. I’ve sat alone with the pain and the darkness. It started with hours. It’s turned into days.

I had no idea how many layers of strength this would take. I had no idea the pain went that deep. Each time I thought I had hit bottom, there was a trap door that opened and there was more underneath.

Maybe there is still more. Maybe I have not yet hit bottom.

But I am staying here until I do.

The Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, rooted in Zen Buddhism, is exemplified by the custom of celebrating cracks rather than discarding the cracked object. If a container is old and worn, cracked and leaking, an artist fills the cracks with gold, showing the broken places, rather than hiding them. In so doing, the container is made distinct and useful again. In this tradition, over time, the vessel takes on a new beauty, and is honored and prized because of (not in spite of) its obvious flaws.

The culture of wabi-sabi celebrates the beauty of imperfection and the wisdom of the experiences that break us. When the cracks are filled in with gold, they are highlighted rather than hidden, celebrated rather than denied. An untrained eye might think such an object is garish or embarrassing, but there is a perverse beauty in dramatizing imperfection. Wabi-sabi embraces this.

I am broken and scarred, but my cracks are where the light gets in.

I like being prepared, so everywhere I go, I carry bags to compartmentalize the clothes and tools I need for the numerous jobs I do. I am a person who over-schedules, over-exercises, over-plans, over-commits, and I have a messy car that dramatizes this. When I’m working on something I believe in, I go all in, focusing so intently, I forget to eat, forget to rest, neglect my friends, push people away, lock myself in a sort of solitary confinement. Sometimes I get physically ill.

But I am more than my worst traits, more than an amalgam of my annoying flaws. Most of the time, I give people my undivided attention, even if it messes with my overbooked schedule. Most of the time, I practice yoga and meditation and peace-making, slowing down, becoming present. I send handwritten notes to loved ones, tend a garden, share the harvest. Most of the time, I follow my heart over my head and actively defy the social barriers of religion, class, gender, ethnicity and age, loving boldly and courageously. I stand up for what I believe in, especially when it’s threatened by something more powerful, even when I know I can’t win. And if what I’m fighting for requires me to go up against something stronger than I am, I step into the ring anyway, and go down swinging, to the very end.

When I lose, sometimes someone will reach down, take my hand, and sit with my brokenness.

Maybe this time, that person is me.

I am loyal, loving, chaotic, dramatic, and broken.

“The world breaks everyone,” Ernest Hemingway said, “and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”

 

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Integration, Part III

1t5a10051Photo by Andrija Bloom

 

Gayle died when we were fourteen. We were roommates in the Hematology/Oncology ward in Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles the spring of our thirteenth year, both theoretically in the eighth grade, though neither of us actually went to school.

We kept up a constant chatter about blood counts and needle marks, bone marrow tests, cafeteria menus, diet soft drinks, jealous siblings, and the trials of our wayward hair, even as hers fell out daily in clumps, while mine grew curly and unkempt. We discussed what our chances were of ever growing up, whether we would get to go to high school, whether we would ever get to kiss a boy.

People said we could be sisters, twins even. We kept our window shade open, grateful for our tiny corner view of the mountains, the television conspicuously off, our dialogue dramatic, until one day, after multiple blood transfusions and an experimental splenectomy, I was discharged with high hopes of a full recovery. We waved goodbye, said our girlish goodlucks, and I tucked her picture into my wallet, her cursive writing wide and smiling on the back, dotted with purple hearts: here’s to a happy high school.

We wrote to each other with devoted regularity, until she died nine weeks later. I secured her letters and picture in the back of my makeup drawer and moved on. I didn’t like to think of her in the months or years after that, of why God apparently wanted her next to His side, certain that she was more of an angel than I would ever be, but not daring to question that line of reasoning. I closed that chapter definitively, turned away from the memories, tried desperately to acclimate to a life where people didn’t talk about white blood cells or platelet counts. My drive to be normal (fueled by what I now recognize as survivor’s guilt) kept me from contacting her parents, from offering her letters to them, from ever acknowledging their perpetual grief. I left her and them behind, sprinting toward what I assumed would be an early finish.

Here is her picture. I still look at it from time to time, at the frozen child she will always be in a world I have long since outgrown.

photo

I remember her blonde wig, designed to look like Farrah Fawcett. I remember Gayle’s father kneeling at her bedside, his trembling prayers to our Heavenly Father, uttered aloud, prayers that ultimately would go unanswered. Can I still be angry at that God, even now?

I spent so long repressing anger. 

When it comes to hospitals, I have no idea what is normal. But I know what is true.

I didn’t earn my life. Gayle and I were interchangeable. There was no method to the madness of our illnesses, no reason why I got better, why she did not.

We didn’t kiss, but the first boy who held my hand did so in Children’s Hospital when I was 16. Since the veins in my inner wrists and the inner creases of my elbows were blown out, he curled his fingers around the needle taped onto the back of my boney hand. I let him, because he was the only one there.

In the hospital, we were a number. Our wristbands dictated what could and couldn’t be done to us. Gayle and I had no agency, no ability to rebel. We weren’t integrated into a school or class or pop culture. We thrived on imagination and hypothesis. Gayle talked of love and I told her we would have it. We wanted out of those lonely twin beds. We wanted someone to love us enough to invite us into their world, to be introduced to their friends and family. We wanted to know we were real.

I am still fighting to be real.

During my first year of college, I received a registered letter in the mail from Children’s Hospital, suggesting I get my blood tested immediately. The blood donated in the eighties was not screened for AIDS. Some children from those months in those wards were now HIV positive. The letter informed me about testing options and recommended I seek appropriate counseling.

This didn’t frighten me in the least. As a virgin, I felt no stigma. I went to the clinic with barely a thought of the past or of the future. If my luck had run out, I had lived more years than I had once hoped for. I had made it out of the hospital, into college, and I trusted in all my youthful naivete that I had already lived a bigger life than Gayle.

Now I know how finite life is. Now I know there are things I haven’t done, things I hope to experience before its my time to leave this earth. There are things Gayle and I talked about that I still haven’t done. There are ways I still want to grow.

As grown up as we thought we were, I know now that our lives had barely begun, that the decades since have changed everything we once knew. I see my son and my daughters and my heart crushes the air from my chest for Gayle’s parents.

I have four adult children older than I was when I got the call to get tested.

I answer a new call, now. And no matter what the outcome, I know my death would do more harm to them than it would to me. There are milestones in their future that would be tragic without the presence of the woman who bore and raised them. I may be easily and immediately replaceable as a lover and life partner, but I am not replaceable to them.

Gayle has no children. Gayle has an eternal adolescence looking back at me from her angelic photo. Is this any consolation to her father and her mother, for whom she will always be a child, their beautiful and innocent teenager, stuck in a dated hairstyle, without even the luxury of hair?

I don’t know what my next hospital stay will include, or whether I will ever have the integrated life she and I dreamed of. But I know the memory of Gayle will be with me, and I know if she were in the room, she would hold my hand until the very end, and she would say, with her sweet demonic smile, “at least you got to kiss a boy.”

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