Whereupon responses to a meme get me up at 2 A.M. to say things that have long been on my mind.
It started with this meme that I posted on that big social media site:
Which generated the following comments (and my internal responses):
Father Of My Daughter (FOMD): How about we ban them both?
Father Of My 7-year-old Grandson (FOMG): Both can be considered terrorist. The worse part is the Democrats like both.
(What. The. Actual…?)
My Very Good Friend (MVGF): Nicole, do you know this ignorant twerp? Oh, sorry…was that a personal attack?! My bad.
(Aw, shit, Joe.)
FOMG: Oh you’re such a mean person Joey. Makes me want to cry like Chucky Schumer.
FOMD: Nicole do u know this ignorant fucktard joe?
(Well, that escalated quickly. Perhaps I’ll go to bed early and figure out how I want to respond while I sleep.)
And, indeed, I woke up a little after midnight with this unfolding in my mind, which it continued to do for two more hours, until I got up and gave in. So, onto those introductions.
FOMD, FOMG, meet MVGF, also known as a member of my family of choice. Why is he My Very Good Friend? Because he cares very much about things like basic human dignity, social justice and human rights, including accessible health care for all. To my chagrin, he did lead into the comment stream with a personal attack, but I dare say that this is something being modeled several times a day by the foul leader of our torn country—who keeps getting passes to do so! Incidentally, MVGF is also pretty hip to our Constitution. If you look real hard, you’ll see that freedom of speech and the press, and freedom from religious persecution are kind of a big deal where the law of the land is concerned, as are the checks and balances designed to keep rogue individuals from taking them away. But I digress…
MVGF, meet FOMD. He had something to do with that awesome young woman you know, the redhead who looks kind of like me. When he met me, I was a rabid conservative with a strong Bohemian streak that mystified my rabidly conservative parents. (I am ashamed to admit that I voted against Obama the first time, and kept silent when my dad said inane things like, “He’s a halfwit who can’t even talk without a teleprompter.” And much worse things.) Still, FOMD and I remain connected on that social media site because, despite our differences, we have remained civil and are both invested in seeing our daughter grow up and navigate the world.
MVGF, meet FOMG. He and his wife adopted the son of aforementioned daughter, when she was a 20-year-old Marine who knew she was not equipped to raise a child. There is no doubt that they love him dearly, and provide for him well.
FOMG, given some special needs, I am always perplexed to see you decrying the Affordable Care Act and the like. And I marvel that you would support someone so base, and wonder whether you think your president is the kind of man you hope your son turns out to be, or whether you’d be comfortable leaving your wife alone with this man. I also wonder what you’d think if someone else were in charge and signed an executive order banning all Christians because Fred Phelps.
Now, I am going to turn the lens back on myself, say more about my bigoted upbringing. and make some apologies.
A year or two ago, my cousin M posted pictures, on that social media site I keep mentioning, of herself and friends at a winery a few miles from my house. I was hurt, because I had not seen her since I moved away from Southern California, in 1991, and even after I noticed that she was practically in my back yard, and I offered to meet her somewhere for coffee, she said she didn’t have time to see me. A few months ago, I mentioned the memory to my dad, and this conversation ensued:
Dad: Well, she doesn’t like me, so maybe she has extended that to you.
Me: Why do you say she doesn’t like you?
Dad: Because she thinks I’m a bigot.
Me: *crickets* and dumbfounded stare (You ARE a bigot!)
Dad: I’m not a bigot. I just hate Mexicans. *belly laugh*
To fully appreciate the depth of the vulgarity of this statement, readers need to know that my cousins (my dad’s sister’s three daughters) are all half Mexican.
I continued to stare at him, silently, with my mouth agape, and then I went into the bathroom and sobbed. It has haunted me ever since.
M and C and L, if you are reading this, I want you to know how truly sorry I am for any times in your life that my dad tried to make you or your mother feel less than with his ugliness, or any times that I might have been blindly complicit in same.
I also want to apologize to my other cousin M, who bore the distinction of being the lesbian until I came out a decade ago. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t even come out to myself until I was 30, because I could still hear the derision and bigotry, but said nothing to call him out on it, except maybe, “Yeah? So what?”
What I have said to my dad, several times in recent years, is, “This isn’t what you taught me! You taught me that kindness matters!” It is, and it isn’t. He did, and he didn’t.
Kindness does matter. So does speaking up about injustice, and fighting hate, and those who would promote it. Which brings me back to this:
I’ve charged my unconscious with changing my life completely in the next nine months, opening doors to outrageous success and the bliss of living a wholly creative life. Waking me doesn’t know what that looks like, and must trust the process, which is why I am out of bed at just after midnight. It may be interesting to note that I have always considered myself a night owl, and that I have long believed I’ve done my best creative work after 2 a.m., but have gradually reformed myself into she-who-goes-to-bed-by-eleven-so-as-not-to-fall-asleep-on-her-morning-commute.
This afternoon, my wife found a matching pair of dead birds on our back patio. They were beautiful and unfamiliar to me, with shiny fawn-colored bodies, wings tipped with brilliant crimson, and a distinct yellow stripe at the end of their tails. I consulted the weathered Field Guide to North American Birds I’ve had for more than half my life, and determined they were cedar waxwings. We had speculated the birds had flown into the rolled-up awning on the roof above our sliding glass door, as there was no indication they had struck the door itself and would not have likely have landed where they did had they done so. According to the book, the birds travel in groups of about 40, and have what sounds to be a very spirited flight pattern. I imagined these two traveling with their flock, darting here and there like daredevils high on adrenaline, or motorcyclists cutting traffic on a busy interstate, risking the final exhale that follows a miscalculated moment of breathtaking exhilaration.
I felt sad when I picked up their lifeless bodies, and now, hours later, my eyes are tearing up as I write this, despite feeling certain the birds did not suffer. I imagine 38 cedar waxwings sharing a wave of grief over this sudden loss. Or perhaps these two slipped away unbeknownst to their flock, their disappearance forever a mystery to the others. It is not for me to say that birds don’t grieve or ponder the unknown. Humans certainly do. And being one of those meaning-seeking creatures—whose species also tends to egocentrism—I am curious about what this event means to me. Ultimately, how I process it will have everything to do with how I frame it.
I can point to the obvious: existential fear of my own mortality. It also occurred to me, after I had used the motorcyclist metaphor, that I lost a dear friend to his love of the open road, nearly seven years ago. And even as his memory brought a few more tears, I remembered, with the same certainty that I felt about the birds’ untimely end, that he had gone out exactly the way he would have wanted.
Finally, I recalled hearing that some believe finding dead birds to be an omen. A cursory Google search revealed that some cultures believe it portends a death in the family, while others believe it signifies life, or that it represents the end of a personal struggle. I also came across an article written by Christopher Moreman, an associate professor at CSU East Bay, On the Relationship between Birds and the Spirits of the Dead, that specifically mentioned the very type of birds we found:
The waxwing…is called strebe-vogel (death bird) by the Swiss due to its association with the arrival of winter and its perceived habit of voraciously gorging itself on berries that might otherwise feed people during the barren months.
As if this weren’t enough synchronicity, my meaning-seeking brain also plucked this out of the article:
The North American Osage describe various spirit worlds, the highest of which is populated by birds embodying human souls.
Because—Hey!—I have Osage roots!
And then there is synchronicity, itself: much of Moreman’s article had to do with the collective unconscious and Jung’s concept of the archetype. I am in the process of writing my final paper, or personal integrative project, for my graduate program in transpersonal counseling psychology, and it appears that Moreman’s work might point me toward some relevant references for that.
It is worth noting that I almost did not include the opening paragraph, as I was not aware it was connected to the blog post I set out to write until I wrote the paragraph that precedes this one. When I scrolled back up to read my reference to my unconscious, I was struck by how it had made the leap from former night owl to the pair of dead birds I didn’t even know I wanted to write about. Even after I noticed that the opening related to the writing that followed, I nearly edited the ambitious, meant-for-my-eyes-only reference to radical transformation. Except that the next sentence said I must trust the process. A little clarification for those who aren’t reading this with my eyes: my wife and I are moving back to my hometown in about nine months, and while that doesn’t sound like much time to make lasting changes, it occurred to me that I grew an entire person in exactly that amount of time. And all I want to do is change a thing or two about my already-existing self.
What about you? What could you do with the time it takes to grow a person?
As for what it means to find two dead birds on the patio—that’s what it means. Or nothing. Or everything.
Image credit: Cedar Waxwing 2 by rctfan2 (CC BY-SA 3.0 US)
I have never liked the Harry Potter series. There are two key truths related to this admission. One is simply about timing: for legitimate, if not rational, reasons, the theme of the first book reminded me of some then-recent trauma; thus a kind of guilt by association led me to hate the entire franchise. The second truth is this: I have never read the books. Nor have I watched the movies, despite being trapped in a houseful of relatives who were marathon-watching the DVDs on some Christmas past.
I am not proud of this. It makes me the worst kind of critic, declaring my disdain for an artist whose work I have never actually seen.
Sometimes I exhibit a stubborn resistance to hype, refusing to see the latest blockbusters, even if they interest me. I am usually willing to watch those movies later, when I can watch them via Netflix or Amazon Prime, rent the DVDs for a couple dollars, or borrow them, free, from the library. I even allow myself to enjoy them. (One notable exception is “Titanic.” I’d gladly pay full ticket price to have those three hours back.)
But hating Harry Potter was neither a product of bitter envy nor a rage against the Hollywood machine; it was something that anchored itself in my worldview as immutable. And a fixed worldview is a dangerous thing.
I have been working—or rather, not working—at allowing myself space to create, giving voice to whatever inspiration shows up, in whatever form. The strongest desire is usually to write, though I have been doing precious little of that, as I always seem to have at least one foot in the quicksand of self-doubt. However, once I begin keeping appointments with my muse, perhaps by writing a blog post without worrying whether it will move anyone but me, I find myself curious about the process. Not about my process, but about the process itself, which means I become curious about how other people show up at the page, and more importantly, how they keep showing up.
Eventually, this curiosity turns to wondering how long one must appease the muse before the magic shows up. And last weekend, as I wondered about the magic, I thought about how I might be able to learn a thing or two from J. K. Rowling, if I could allow some flexibility in my worldview.
I stealthily retrieved my wife’s copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone from our family room bookcase and carried it into my office. Still resisting the idea of reading it, I placed the book on my desk, next to my computer, with the intention of typing the first few paragraphs of the story, to see if it evoked any kind of somatic response.
The book sat there, untouched for four days, but not unnoticed.
SUZIN: Harry Potter? Really? (grinning) Huh.
This afternoon, after meditating on the creative process, I picked up the book and sat down in a comfortable chair to discover how it all started. Except the last line of the first paragraph—which, incidentally, I did not type (until now)—was, “And he also happened to be a wizard.”
I knew enough about the story to know this was not how it started, so I flipped back to the cover page: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third book in the series. It was in the wrong book jacket! Recalling that one of the Rowling books on our shelf was missing a jacket, I returned to the bookcase. The naked copy was book six, which sat alongside books four, five, and seven, each in its respective jacket.
Unbelievable. I am finally open to the possibility of Harry Fucking Potter, and I can’t find it. Perhaps this is the message from J. K. Rowling: “Tell your own story.”
After deciding there was no way I was going to the library to check it out, I headed to Yountville to satisfy my craving for an almond croissant from Bouchon. And since the bakery is just up the street from the Yountville Library, and I had never been to that branch…
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was not among the 273 books in the Yountville branch, but Patricia Ryan Madson’s Improv Wisdom was, and I had been meaning to pick it up again. Madson’s first maxim is “Say yes.”
Say yes to everything. Accept all offers. Go along with the plan. Support someone else’s dream. Say “yes”; “right”; “sure”; I will”; “okay”; “of course”; “YES!” Cultivate all the ways you can imagine to express affirmation. When the answer to all questions is yes, you enter a new world, a world of action, possibility, and adventure. (p. 27)
When I got home, I asked my stepdaughter if she happened to have Harry Potter on the bookshelf in her room. She brought it to me, and I said, “Yes.”
Did you have opportunities to say yes today? And did you?
We spent Saturday afternoon in Davis, because it is worth the 45 mile drive for a bowl of soup and the F.M.L. cocktail from Red 88 Noodle Bar. Davis became a place I go, in 2007, the first year I attended the annual California Conference for the Advancement of Ceramic Art (CCACA), an event hosted by the John Natsoulas Center for the Arts.
After lunch, as we walked through the Natsoulas gallery, I was captivated by some surrealist paintings. I asked an employee who the artist was, and when she began to gush about Avery Palmer, I was full of envy, for artists everywhere who are doing what they love, and for the art collectors who promote them. I mumbled something to my wife about how nice it would be to be a patron of the arts, forgetting, until I began writing this post, that I had pronounced myself just that the day I purchased the piece pictured here, at the 2013 CCACA.
The odd little figure, created by Humboldt State University student Clarissa Pezone, called to me, much like the incense burner had the previous day. I even used the words “visceral response” when I explained the purchase to my wife and stepdaughter. (Incidentally, Humboldt State produces a lot of talented artists, including the aforementioned Palmer.)
Envy without action has nothing to do with waking up famous. If envy itself catapulted the envier into the experience of the envied, it would be nothing more than drafting off another’s fame. It is not the 10,000-plus hours of hard work that make us wistful, it is the results of that work. When the green-eyed monster shows up, as it did for me in the gallery, we envy the having done, not the doing. Grammatically speaking, we long to exist in the present perfect tense, “I have created,” instead of the present, “I create.” According to the Write Place at St. Cloud State University:
Present tense expresses an unchanging, repeated, or reoccurring action or situation that exists only now. It can also represent a widespread truth.
Alas, as the ubiquitous they say, there is no time like the present.
Allowing your present tense to represent your widespread truth is the way to wake up famous. And, like breathing, it is a practice.
So tell me: How do you practice?
My wife bought me this cat in Japantown tonight, because I rushed to the shop window, pointed, and said, “That one!”
The figurine evoked a visceral response in me that seemed excessive, even if it did remind me of our cat, Sydney. And it turned out to be an incense burner.
I am allergic to incense.
For weeks, my emotions have been simmering over a flame stoked by fear and doubt, diagnostics and diagnoses, and today, I felt a steady rage that I could barely contain. I have been unwilling to speak it, afraid to let it interfere with my professional responsibilities, worried that I will break and be unable to reassemble the pieces. And then, in its strange and poetic way, the universe handed me this little gift of a Sydney-shaped incense burner, so that I could bring myself to say:
I am incensed.
And sometimes there isn’t any sense to be made, no real resolution to whatever it is we are handed. Thus I begin 2015 with but one resolution: to remember that numbness is no better than pain.
Last night, I watched The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I liked it. A lot.
Tonight, I read writer Stephen Chbosky’s bio, and wailed about all I haven’t done since his book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, was published in 1999. In Moonstruck fashion, but without the slap in the face, Suzin told me to snap out of it. “You were teaching kids! They needed you!”
I whined about the royalties I wasn’t collecting while I was teaching said kids. And then it occurred to me, I have reaped many emotional royalties: the perks of being a public school teacher for 12 years instead of a best-selling author, I guess.
A few days ago, author Jodi Angel told me, “You can’t revise what isn’t there.” Okay, she didn’t actually say it to me, but I was in the room, and it stuck like an earworm. But in a good way, not in an It’s-a-small-world-after-all kind of way. It made me want to replace what isn’t there with something.
The green-eyed monster can be nasty and destructive, or it can point us toward where we’d like to go; it’s our job to choose the path.
Your turn: What have you learned from your green-eyed monsters?
I started this blog on May 14, 2009. The general concept had been floating around in my head since 2003, when I wrote the phrase “waking up famous” on a list of possible short story titles, none of which I’ve ever written. But I latched onto the idea that waking up famous was a choice, and that fame wasn’t about the perceived glitz and glamour that so many people associate with the word; it is about being the best you can be in any given moment. A few months later, I bought the domain name wakingupfamous.com, and did a whole lot of nothing with it for four or five years before releasing it back into cyberspace.
In 2009, when I decided it was time to start a blog, I tried to purchase wakingupfamous.com again. Alas, it now belonged to a young woman in Singapore who refers to herself as “a blogger with an eye for aesthetics [who is] fascinated with social media.” I beat myself up for about three minutes, and then looked for an alternative. When I discovered that wakeupfamous.com was available, I realized that I liked it better because: (a) waking is a noun, and wake is a verb (in this context), and verbs are all about action; and (b) it didn’t matter if I didn’t like it better, because my original choice belonged to someone else. (Never use the previous phrase with regard to intimate relationships; it won’t end well.)
After I made a few posts, I fell into the I-have-a-blog-what-now? syndrome, which kept circling back to the word monetize, as in, “You are a complete fool if you don’t monetize your blog.”
Okay… add the “Books I Liked” widget from Amazon.com.
Yes, they were all books that I read and liked—all six or seven of them—but I always felt funny about its being there, as if I’d invited friends over for a dinner party and casually left a table of yard sale items in the dining room just in case they might want to buy something.
The truth is, I wasn’t sitting around hoping my blog would be the new Pet Rock. I did—and sometimes still do—browbeat myself about not posting more often, or not being disciplined enough to write something every day or every other day, or whatever it was I wasn’t doing but thought I should be doing. I show up at the page when something or someone moves me to write. It might be the same night, or it might be a month later, but it meant enough to me to release my thoughts or experience into the world, without thinking, “Gee, I hope this goes viral!”
I finished reading Chris Guillebeau’s book The Art of Non-Conformity on February 13, and signed up to be an affiliate moments later, because I have always been moved by the genuine, no-nonsense, I am NOT your guru writing style on his blog. Again, my thought was not, “Ooh! This might make me rich!” I had simply found someone whose ideas I was eager to pass along to friends and to anyone who found his or her way to my blog, for whatever reason. Even then, I did not rush off and throw a new widget on the wall. I wanted to take the time to explain why I was placing an affiliate link on my blog; I just didn’t expect to take three months to do it.
What brought me to the page tonight began as an intention to send a “Thank you” email to Chris Guillebeau, because he sent me a copy of his new book, The $100 Startup. Getting a package that you were expecting because you ordered something online is nice. Getting a package that you weren’t expecting—and finding that it contains something you really wanted but had not yet ordered—is very nice. And, it reminded me why I “affiliated” myself with him in the first place. Because he’s that guy. He has created a life that feeds his spirit, and he has tirelessly gone about encouraging others to do the same thing—not the same thing that he is doing, necessarily, but to create lives that feed their spirits.
I read a negative review of The Art of Non-Conformity on a web site called Bicycle Touring Pro. The author, Darren Alff, who claims to be living an unconventional life of his own design, wrote:
My fear with Guillebeau’s “The Art Of Non-Conformity” is not so much that the book contains few original ideas, but the fact that those who read the book are likely already converts of this particular way of living. Essentially, Guillebeau is preaching to the choir, when in reality, the people who need to hear his message most are probably the people who don’t read books at all – or at least not books like this.
The overall review wasn’t hateful or caustic—the author says he is “still a fan of Chris Guillebeau and his work…and [he will] continue to read his blog”—but I couldn’t fathom why anyone would go out of his way to dissuade others from reading something. Calling it “less than motivational” except, perhaps, to anyone “living under a rock for the past ten years” sounds an awful lot like sour grapes or subscriber envy. Recommend books you like, don’t recommend books you don’t like, but don’t try to prevent people from buying or reading something just because it didn’t strike a big enough chord with you. Or because three of the five people who reviewed your books on Amazon.com told people to save their money.
With that, I am shamelessly placing a link to Chris Guillebeau’s work on my blog. If you click the link, like what you see, and decide to buy something, I’ll get a little love in my virtual tip jar. And that’s okay, because I sincerely believe that you will be richer for it.
I’ll check back in with my thoughts on The $100 Startup.
What are you reading?
I am a little—no, a lot—ashamed to say that after having lived in the Bay Area for almost eight years, tonight was my first visit to Book Passage, the premier independent bookstore in Corte Madera. I have been meaning to go, in much the same way that James Garner was forever “basically on [his] way to Australia” in Support Your Local Sheriff. And there was the time in 2007 when I crashed the Poetry for Water fundraiser at The Lark Theater after seeing it on the calendar of my SoMa Literary Review email a few hours before it started, not knowing that it was an event for people who had gotten tickets from Book Passage, because I thought it would be really cool to hear Peter Coyote read poetry in person. (It was really cool, and so was listening to Anne Lamott read one of her humorous essays and watching Nina Wise perform an interpretive dance, and I know this because the kind Book Passage staff member found a person in line with two extra tickets and gave them to us.)
So, what drew me into Book Passage tonight for a virtual stamp in my imaginary literary passport? None other than Jenny Lawson, also known as The Bloggess. If you are not one of the gazillion people who became a fan when her post about buying a big metal chicken named Beyonce went viral, you need a little more whimsy in your life. I had felt a bit smug as the link to And That’s Why You Should Learn to Pick Your Battles… rocketed its way across Facebook and beyond; after all, I had bookmarked The Bloggess in my Favorites, in 2009, after designer Jamie Varon told me she had designed the web site. And I lurked and loved her posts for a good two weeks before I stopped reading blogs altogether, because they reminded me that other people had developed good writing habits, which reminded me that I had not.
Jenny Lawson, who is on tour promoting her book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir), is positively delightful! That she inspired me to sit down two hours later and write, when I have built a wall of writer’s blocks that would put Pink Floyd to shame, is truly saying something. Flanked by Copernicus-the-Homicidal-Monkey and Juanita Weasel, Lawson started by recounting how she might have inadvertently insulted Lisa Loeb this morning when she walked into “hair and makeup” before a live television interview, saw her with large curlers in her hair and—not realizing it was Loeb—exclaimed, “Bitch stole my look!”
Lawson is self-deprecating to a fault, proclaiming that she is proud to be a “misfit,” and she is grateful to her many fans who may or may not be misfits in their own way. She is at the same time candid, outrageous, and humble, tearing up with almost every “thank you” directed at the audience, and in response to the boy who did not ask a question, but said, “My abs hurt from your sparkling personality.”
Jenny Lawson wakes up famous every day, whether or not she is able to get herself out of bed—or the bathroom. She is an inspiration to writers and other misfits, and anyone else who would take “You can’t say vagina on CNN” as an invitation to find a colorful euphemism.
As an aside, in February, after a comedy show at the Impala Lounge in San Francisco, comedian Rachel McDowell told me that I was her “happy place,” because I was clearly enjoying her show and I exuded “positive energy.” So, Jenny, if you are reading this, I was the woman with sunglasses on her head in the seat that was perfectly aligned with the center aisle of the front group of chairs, about 35 feet from the lectern, sitting behind and just to the left—your right—of the guy wearing the black watch cap despite its being 85 degrees today. I hope I was able to be your happy place.
But not in a weird way.