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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Karma Is an Echo

"Deserted Farm" by David Schwab
Let me tell you a story. 

Years ago, while listening to past life regression tape, I found myself in another body: a heavy, morose farm woman. I wore long skirts and my dull hair was pulled back in a loose bun. It was a hot day and the blue sky was big bowl overhead. The grain was yellow, the farm house a weathered gray. I saw myself walk toward the barn and  into its cool darkness. A shaft of light flowed in from the upper window and lazy sun motes drifted through the funnel of golden air. I stepped in further, behind ruffled tails of the whinnying horses. I startled one, there in the darkness. It kicked back, caving my head, and I died.

That's all I remembered of that life. The tape prompted me to identify where the scene took place: Kansas. I didn't know the year, but the clothing looked like about 1890. Why was this life important? It taught me that I had to ask for more, do more with my life, not just let it happen. Interesting, but not fascinating. I was not Cleopatra or Catherine the Great.

Later that same year, I moved back to the West Coast from New Hampshire after a four year stint in graduate school. While I'd been away, younger members of the family had grown up and didn't know me. Except for one: my 8-year-old niece Micah, who from the time we re-encountered one another began to call me "step-mother." When I asked her why, she said, "Well, you're my real mother, but if I called you 'mom', my mom now would get hurt."

"What happened to me?" I asked.

"A horse kicked you in the head and you died," she told me.

True story.

I have believed in rebirth ever since I could talk and begged my mother to take me to see my "other family," my "other sisters" who lived in the woods. Eventually, whatever memories I had faded as I grew into more mundane beliefs. Still, from time to time, a young relative would reel me back with a shivery statement: "When's grandma going to come back and be a baby again?" "I was a pirate with long red hair. I was killed in a battle, but not by a cannon ball. The splinters from the deck killed me." "A long time ago, I used to be a diamond girl."

Yes, I believe in rebirth. It doesn't matter if it's true or not. What matters is that it helps me live my life. We come back here to grow and to learn. We remember past lessons in the form of talents and disabilities, immediate attractions and intuitive distrust. If we "owe" someone from the past--or if they owe us--we come back in such a way that our paths will cross and we can balance the scales through forgiveness and compassion.

These beliefs helped me this week when I received an email that hurt my feelings, sent by someone I haven't seen in almost twenty years. Even though I believed I had brought that chapter to a close, done my forgiving and wished this person well in every way, I snapped into immediate sorrow -- and rage. The rudeness, the childishness, the pomposity! I craved revenge. I wanted to send a response that would make me feel better by blackening his name to the "all" who had been copied. Where was my spiritual growth now?

Earth is the place souls go to school and the curriculum grows out of karma, the spiritual law of cause and effect. We never know when we're going to get a pop quiz on all those areas we thought we'd mastered. Deepak Chopra calls karma, " echo from the past."  If the forgiveness is incomplete, as mine must have been, it keeps on echoing. It's an ache, a tremor, a lingering scent.

Newton's Third Law of Motion teaches us that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is as true for spirit as it is for motion. If I respond with anger, I must turn it to forgiveness before I permit myself to act. Otherwise, only harm will come of it on one level or another, and maybe not even where I can see it. I know that if I kick the wall, I'll end up with a sore toe, but if I swear at another driver, does a child's balloon burst on the other side of town? And what if karma isn't limited to the individual, but drives the world as well? Look at our media, our politics, our attitudes toward those who think differently from us: What if our ill will, cruel humor and prejudice cause tsunamis and plagues? All those things our ancestors and some today see as the punishment of an angry God. What if we are punishing ourselves?

Annie Besant said of karma, "It is the law that binds the ignorant but frees the wise." Once we believe in karma, we can control its effects through love and forgiveness. Out in Fairfield, Iowa, there are more than 800 visitors from India -- pandits who practice Transcendental Meditation for hours a day in the name of world peace. They believe that it would affect the well-being of the world if the U.S. were a more peaceful nation, and here they have come, giving up their daily lives for two to three years, devoting their lives to this practice, trying to mitigate karma.

Aside from not answering that email with anger, what else I can do to heal karma, my own and the world's? I look at my list of grievances and grudges -- Rush Limbaugh, my fifth grade teacher, the way I gain weight on my hips -- and wonder what would happen if I just let them go. That would be a start.  Not everyone's lives allow them to meditate for years out in the cornfields, but I begin to believe that even small things done with enormous intent can contribute to the healing: planting flowers, picking up trash, smiling at strangers, leaving a penny... 

All these acts demand of us is being present to the opportunity to do good. Present, not past. That's gone, except in the ways we allow it to stay.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Writing What You Don't Know

Beginning fiction writers are often urged to "write about what they know." That may be the single most useless, misleading, dangerous piece of advice anyone ever gave a writer. Aside from the surety that most of us don't know anything to begin with, the fact is that we don't write fiction in order to document what we know, but to discover what we don't.

Most of us who write fiction do so in order to find out why a new character is hanging around on the threshold of awareness, what a new obsession means, why we're drawn to a locale or historical period, and what would happen if we put them all together. It's possibility, not certainty, that drives us.

Fiction writing comes close to mysticism. Sometimes, especially in the early stages of a book, I feel as if I am channeling. I started writing The Fool's Journey because of a random image that came into my head: a woman is walking through the clogged aisles Seattle's Pike Place Market. A hand reaches out from the crowd and cuts off a handful of her long red hair. That was it -- to start with. I didn't know who she was, whether she was a random or deliberate victim, or what she was doing in the Market, but I started writing anyway and the ensuing years of writing the book revealed everything.

John Fowles writes of a similar experience:
 The novel I am writing at the moment [provisionally entitled The French Lieutenant's Woman] ... started four or five months ago as a visual image. A woman stands at the end of a deserted quay and stares out to sea. That was all.
Alice Walker says,
If you're silent for a long time, people just arrive in your mind.
 Sometimes a "what if" moment starts a story, as Roald Dahl jots in his notebook:
What about a chocolate factory that makes fantastic and marvelous things--with a crazy man running it?
Fowles, Walker and Dahl clearly did not find their way into their stories by writing what they knew about.  Each was led into a mysterious realm where nothing was known, but everything to find out. Writing what we already know is an assignment. Writing to discover is a quest. I am working on two books right now. One, a serialized sequel to Pride and Prejudice, came about because I have always wondered what became of Mary and Kitty Bennet. I am writing to find out.

The other project, my next paranormal mystery, was triggered by a question a woman asked me at a party about fifteen years ago. I had tagged along with other friends and, as they were showing me around the beautiful old craftsman, we came upon the darkened nursery where the hostess was putting her baby to sleep. The walls were lined with old toys, many of them antique dolls. As I began to look more closely at them, the hostess came up to my side and asked, "Do you think a doll can be haunted?" There's more to this story, but it was her question that stayed with me and finally found its way into a story. So far, I've discovered a little about two characters, I know there will be a haunted doll and I sense that reincarnation will play a part. I'm well ahead of the game on this one.

Well, fiction writers are odd people. We all know that. But does "writing what you don't know" work for non-fiction as well? Let's see what the writers say:
Rachel Carson: The discipline of the writer is to learn to be still and listen to what the subject has to say.
V.S. Pritchett: I write to clear my own mind, to find out what I think and feel.
C. Day Lewis: We do not write in order to be understood, we write in order to understand.
I am constantly surprised by what I write in this blog. That's what makes it fun. I start with the germ of an idea that's been echoing in my brain, like one of those songs you can't get rid of -- ear worms, I understand they are called. Perhaps these are "thought worms," boring their ways from our unconscious through subconscious to consciousness until we're either driven to find out why they're there, or something more pressing -- or catchy-- displaces them.

I ask myself whether this all means writing teachers should stop giving their students "prompts" for story writing or structured assignments that focus on character development and scene structure. Do they produce anything readable? Not in my experience. Do they enlighten the writer? Unlikely. Instead, students should have the opportunity to pursue writing as if they were writers rather than monkeys.

We write to find out what we don't know. With pen or keyboard in hand, we enter our strange minds not knowing what's up there, and step into a sprawling Winchester Mystery House of memory, desire, fear and delight. We'll find nothing we're looking for and everything we're not.

Let's follow the hall to the upside-down window, climb the stairs that lead four ways, rattle the bars that fly away like owls into the night -- and write without fear, without guidance, and without expectation.

All quotes plucked from my friend Donald M. Murray's remarkable Shoptalk: Learning to write with writers.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Taking the Long Way through a Short Space

Amazing what a Google image search will turn up.
I've always wanted to meditate. Cranky as I so often am, I think I need to meditate. I have the time, I can be physically still, but I've never succeeded in quieting my mind. Most people, I understand, seem to push past this point eventually, but not me. I hardly get a minute into the practice before some inappropriate thought like "Damn, I wish I had some Cheetos" intrudes, followed by images of day-glo orange fingers and musings on the possibility of using chopsticks to avoid this embarrassment.

 I can pull myself back, but before you know it, I'm reliving an episode of The Simpsons or recalling some childhood grudge. I've tried using a mantra, but before you know it, I am that I am becomes I yam what I yam and that's all what I yam says Popeye the sailor man. I know this is supposed to happen at the beginning of one's efforts, but this has been going on for over forty years.

And so, until recently, the restless mind has prevailed. And then, I found my way to a new practice: walking the labyrinth. Anyone who paid attention in high school -- or who has read Mary Renault's excellent novels, The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea, -- will recall the story of King Minos and his wife, Queen Pasiphaë, who, rather inexplicably infatuated with a bull, gave birth to the Minotaur, half human, half raging beast. Well, these things happen in the best of families. King Minos called on Daedalus to build a labyrinth under the palace to contain his less-than-presentable step-son, and later, his daughter Ariadane, whose attraction to Theseus was more understandable than her mother's whims, revealed the secret of the labyrinth to him, allowing him to overcome the Minotaur. Happy ending -- to the extent that myths allow.
Labyrinth at Chartres

The labyrinth, as a tool of meditation, goes back to at least the early 11th Century, the approximate date of the famous labyrinth of Chartres Cathedral, although there are much older examples whose purposes are more obscure. Archaeologists suggest they may possibly have served as traps for malevolent spirits or defined paths for ritual dances. The word comes from the Minoan, meaning "double-edged axe," which might refer to the axe as a sign of royalty (viz. King Minos), but also, I believe, to the route of the path which characteristically doubles back on itself, taking the walker in two directions.

Pansaimol, Goa, India

Meis, Galicia, Spain

Tintagel, Cornwall
Blå Jungfrun, Sweden

As these images illustrate, there are labyrinths of ancient and recent origin all over the world. There is also one in my neighborhood.

The Mission of the Atonement is about a mile and a half from my home and I've driven by it several times a week for fifteen years. I am curious about it, but have never attended. The sign reads: A Community of Roman Catholics and Lutherans, intriguing in itself. The word atonement gives me pause as well. Its connotation smacks of penance, an aspect of Catholicism that has distanced me from the faith I was raised in. Still, atonement is an important concept in A Course in Miracles, in which I have immersed myself for some time. So, as I say, I was curious -- but distant.

I don't even remember how I first became interested in labyrinths, possibly when I was in chemotherapy several years ago. I've used the World-wide Labyrinth Locator search engine from time to time in hopes of finding one near me. And then one day, out of the blue, Mission of the Atonement popped up on the search.  Synchronicity gathers the threads of awareness and intention unseen. While I had been searching for a labyrinth, they had been planning and building one.

So one rainy day this February, I turned off Scholl's Ferry Road and entered the Mission's parking lot for the first time. I found the labyrinth's winding path in a sunken courtyard and stepped onto it without expectation.

Staying on the narrow path and making the sharp turns took all my focus -- I am not a precision walker -- and there was no reason to wonder how much time had passed: the path kept time for me and would end when it ended.   I was done before I knew it. There were no breakthroughs or deep thoughts. Almost no thoughts at all. There didn't need to be. I felt peace, the inner stillness, I'd been seeking in meditation.

Peace. Is this why we find evidence of labyrinths throughout the world? Is this how our ancestors transcended the wearing cycle of fight or flight? Set aside the fear of plagues and pillaging? Is this how monks and nuns overcame their cloistered sorrows?  Even today, each step becomes a physical mantra, displacing the  If onlys...or What ifs?...that drive our days and shape our sleepless nights.

This small walk is a good practice for me: keeping my feet on the ground and my mind nowhere at all, no purpose, no destination except the center, and then back into the world again. .A long way through a short space.