Happy or normal?

IMG_0920I know now, after fifty years, that the finding/losing, forgetting/remembering, leaving/returning never stops.  The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are alive, till the very end, there is always another chance.

That’s Jeannette Winterson, in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? She is talking about her long-time fascination with the Grail stories and Perceval’s “twenty years wandering in the woods, looking for the thing that he found, that was given to him, that seemed so easy, that was not.”

Winterson’s book is a memoir.  Adopted at the age of six weeks, she has explored issues of identity through reading and writing, an endeavor I identify with strongly.  Her book elicits thoughts and memories for me related to my worklife, and this message in the grail stories reassures me as it did Winterson.  I remember that the same message comes through in The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong, another favorite of mine whose title is a reference to this process of departing and returning.

At one point in my life I worked for a magazine on a staff of creative writers as well as with people revisioning psychology, looking at the field’s intersection with spirituality.  Already a reader of Carl Jung, an observer of my dreams, and a student of Taoism, I couldn’t believe my fortune in landing this job.  The staff, which was young and inquisitive, attended plays and concerts after work, had stimulating conversations over lunch.  I was living my dream life.  Then the magazine folded, and most of us were faced with the prospect of reentering a more utilitarian, mechanistic work world.  Like Perceval, I’ve been trying to find my way back for a long time, and I haven’t made it, though I’ve found sure found some nuts and berries along the way.

Like teaching yoga and studying ayurveda.  Exposure to some incredible teachers and experiences through yoga.  Writing articles on Feldenkrais, Continuum, and qigong.  Studying Hakomi, or body-oriented psychotherapy.  Working for an herbalist and making tinctures from freshly harvested herbs.

Like living in a small town in Colorado and hiking in the mountains.  Working at a bookstore, meeting folks in the disability world.

Finding berries in the form of books and ideas from novels of all kinds to Kerouac to American history, to Buddhist psychology to yoga to Jung, Wendell Berry to David Orr and Terry Tempest Williams.

Work has been spotty, but I have grown, and I’ve had an incredible education.  I am ready to plug into a community, a project, an organization working for change in healthcare and education.  Think Parker Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal.  The Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota, Positive Futures Network, the Center for Mind-body Medicine.

Where do I come out?  Winterson writes that the “stories of loss, of loyalty, of failure, of recognition of second chances” related to the Grail continue to inform her life.  Right now they inspire me, for I have experienced loss of good and connected jobs.  I have remained true to my mission in many ways, but I have also failed by becoming lost in fear or alienation, but I am still here, and I recognize the second chance.  I come back to writing, yoga, and integrative medicine.  My “Perceval” question to the Parker Palmers, the James Gordons, the editors of Yes! magazine, is, can I work with you?

When who you are is what you are

This morning I cannot resist writing about Jack Kerouac the man and Jack Kerouac the writer.  He’s been read and romanticized for decades now, but I have to put my two cents into the mix.   I read On the Road years ago, and I didn’t understand it, but recently I read Dharma Bums and then a biography of Kerouac written by Gerald Nicosia called Memory Babe.  Last night I just cracked open the original scroll of On the Road.

In terms of work, the subject of my blog, Kerouac was a dedicated writer.  He felt compelled to live, feel, and respond, to be a conduit for expression of emotion and the grappling of his generation instigated by the atomic age and paranoia around communism.  He also felt a need to write in an honest and personal way, expressing his experience in the moment as an art in itself; he needed to create new forms of literary expression to respond to the world around him and record his search for meaning.  I am inspired by people so driven as artists to grapple, learn, express, to feel and respond to beauty and mortality. An artist in temperament and vocation, Kerouac’s work was to be a conduit for life.

The thing is, his way of being and working required an extraordinary openness and vulnerability and honesty, and he drank a lot to cope.  Maybe he drank a lot to numb out and hide.  I can’t speak to that.  What I respond to is his sensibility and honesty, his friendships and development as a man of ideas and art.  I believe in his biographer Nicosia’s perspective here:

How he was in life and work:

“He was observing a complete fidelity to the moment, changing colors like a litmus as impressions flowed through him, simply registering everything, and, like Whitman, unafraid to contradict himself.”

The difficulty in his life and work:

“He was able to resolve nothing because he was speaking directly from a genius whose locus was outside his personality—a genius that might be triangulated somewhere between Riviera du Loup, Hollywood, and heaven.  He was a hillbilly scholar and a hokey saint, with Japanese mezzotints and works by El Greco, Rouault, Picasso, Van Gogh, Rousseau, and Gauguin sharing his bedroom walls with little pictures of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph and the crucifix above the bed.  He was determined to blast out from his very heart all the garbage of his age, the processed shit with which fifties American was stuffed like a Christmas turkey—even if much of the time he was flipping or weeping, really weeping—and to give his tortured and grappling nation a voice, even though the job would kill him; and knowing that, he had taken it on anyway, and there was no reforming him now.”

What I want to say is that Kerouac represents the artist to me, a role and calling that has always spoken to me.  And this immensely gifted, very complicated man pointed so strongly to life and death:  He does not let us forget either, challenging us to not hide behind convention or routine or fear but to acknowledge how we feel.  He worked with discipline, with heart.  He read and experienced and wrote.  He loved and attempted to paint pictures of characters bursting with life and confronting a world that didn’t understand them, like Neal Cassidy.  He responded to loss; he responded to the disillusionment of his time; and he wrote.  At the same time he knew, as Nicosia wrote, that putting oneself in the role of great American Writer, such a role was a “shuck,” a fraud.

He was torn by contradiction, felt the pain of his vulnerability and loss of love and optimism, possessed a keen awareness of mortality and a belief that artists must suffer.  He did not have a regular home life, perhaps fearing that such a condition would deaden the artist in him.  And still he loved and experiment, reflected and WROTE.

I can’t think of anyone more dedicated to his vocation, anyone who had more congruency between who he was and what he was.  He did directly grapple with issues of identity, self-worth, and vocation, and ultimately, religious questions.  As Nicosia writes, he and other Beat writers took on the spiritual task of “ransoming the nation:”

“Both the beat and the beatific get their revelations from intuition. Both are pushed beyond the limits of the physical and the rational by the horrors of suffering and death.  In the case of the Beats, the urgency of vision was poignant with their sense that America had lost its soul.  Their homeland was being sold to the colossus of industrial materialism.  The holiness in America had been beaten down and covered over.  It could be ransomed, Jack believed, only by people who had learned to speak not of themselves but from themselves, who had learned to tap those deep sources that are the fount of all religion.  This was why he wrote as he did, in the very same manner as St. John of the Cross had written for the salvation of his fellow men.  ‘When God speaks,’ Jack told Gioscia, ‘just take it down.’”

Man.  What a calling.  What a way to live and work.  I almost understand why he drank the way he did.

To blog about facebook

I find Facebook to be a mild distraction for the most part. I like to see pictures of my friends’ kids, and I enjoy some of the witticisms folks post. I sometimes kill time (aiee, yes) mindlessly scrolling through Facebook. And Facebook informs me about events and programs I might like to attend (I never attend, but it’s nice to see what is happening). There is one thing about spending my time on Facebook, however, that I find satisfying.

It is reading the postings of a few friends who are self-employed (or independently provided for). Specifically, it is reading the postings of two acquaintances in particular—one is a writer and painter who is immersed in the Washington art scene; the other is a yoga teacher, personal trainer, and spiritual counselor who eats raw foods and engages in “realistic” workouts such as dragging weighted tires around the neighborhood.

Do I aspire to live as they do? Not exactly, particularly if it involves raw foods and dragging tires. But I love to be reminded, every day, that we really can design our own lives. I mean, we can’t always, but I do think we have more ability to choose how to live than we think we do. My fitness friend, for example, lives inexpensively. He does not own a car, he shares lodging with a roommate, and he does not have children. He loves to workout and guide others in their efforts to be more than fit; he loves to teach a gentle form of yoga. To do these things in his own way has meant making other choices and sacrifices that allow him to do so.

My artist friend, on the other hand, married into money. But even before gaining this cushion she lived a literary life: She composed poems, taught poetry, and worked for magazines. For years she has befriended other artists, musicians, and writers. She has written and performed in the theater and collaborated on projects with other creative souls. She too is childless.

Reading my friends’ posts reminds me of possibility and power. It reminds me that I am the only one standing in my way. Yes, it might be scary to take steps toward the life I want, but I have the option and perhaps the ability to do just that. If I want to write, and to teach yoga, I can do those things. I can shape my life to make these things central.

Basically, the presence of these two on Facebook inspires me. I can read about their thoughts and endeavors daily, and I am reminded that I do not necessarily have to slog away for forty hours a week at a job that drains my energy. Like these folks, I don’t have children, and I have kept my expenses down, aware as I was from a young age that I didn’t want material burdens to prevent exploration and experimentation in work. I too have wanted the freedom to work as a writer and yoga teacher, and being a technical writer or nurse was not an option for me, though I can see good reasons to do those things to earn money.

What would you do if you could do anything? My blog mentor, Penelope Trunk, would say that question, in relation to work, can set one off into mental confusion, and I think she’s right. Instead of posing this wide-open question, she recommends thinking of the life you want instead—the lifestyle, and what you want to be in it, whether it be a family, time in the outdoors, fitness, intellectual pursuit, or creative endeavors. Whatever it is. How then, do you construct your life? I want to teach yoga and write, so if those things don’t quite support me, or I also want another source of income, how do I set things up? I get a part-time position, and I teach and write. That is what I have done, and for the most part it works. I don’t make much money, but neither do the friends I mentioned. And yet they have found ways to live and work and eat what they choose. Might that be enough?

Each person must decide how they want to live this earthly life. Each may challenge fears or beliefs that say they cannot do what they want. They can try to fashion their own life. It doesn’t always work, but there is regrouping, checking in with the goals and needs, and trying again.

Maybe the universe really does support us when we follow our hearts. I do know the satisfaction of doing so is real: Whether we will continue to be able to support themselves, we will see. The economic downturn has created a situation in which fewer of us will be able to continue to support themselves as they have done in the past.

What is this life made of? I want to venture forth and see.

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