Necessary Magics

"For me, the art of language, the heft and pull of literature, the act of attempting to craft something elegant and large are intrinsically tied to a conviction in something transcendent. When I stopped believing that this kind of beauty could exist, I could no longer work on my novel." - Lisa Jennifer Selzman 
I often feel guilty about the Hawaii Project: guilt for having taken so long to write it, guilt for taking the time away from my family to write it, guilt for even entertaining the notion that writing about postpartum depression is 'appropriate' material. These guilts come in little phrases like "It's been 14 years, how could you think it's timely?" and "You've got kids and a job. You should be taking care of them and not writing." Not to mention "Don't air your dirty laundry in public."   
Lisa Jennifer Selzman's column in the November/December 2011 issue of Poets and Writers,
Why We Write - A Necessary Magic, reflected what I feel every time I step up to the keyboard - writing while mothering a child in a hospital is nearly impossible; finding the strength to write when your child is home again takes recovery, not just from the trauma but from essentially a loss of faith. 
"Words, always until then my solace, were feeble. They meant nothing to me. They might as well have been black checkers on the page, or pennies, or cough drops." 
What does a writer do when that magic is gone for all the right reasons? Feelings of loss are doubled - your child is in danger: she no longer lives the happy, healthy life you hoped for. Your child is in danger: there is no time to do anything but exactly what needs to be done to keep her alive. Losing your writing seems a small price to pay for the chance your child will survive. 
"It wasn't so much that I didn't have time to write, although that was certainly an issue. It's true that I was drained, functioning for months without deep sleep...Plain and simple, I stopped writing because I didn't see the point." 
But the sacrifice takes a toll. The artist unable to express their experiences is like a person who has lost connection to their senses. Blindness. Numbness. Loss of hearing the music of words so long familiar before your child has become ill. 
"With her sick, I moved encased in a scrim that muddied colors, turned food chalky, shortened sound...The most dramatic adjectives -- words like desolation, agony, and torment, straight out of a fourteenth-century epic--suddenly become relevant and authentic."
Sometimes, no, often I struggle to dampen those impulses to write with words with Epic Proportions. Tell it simple, I'm directed, tell it straight. Let the moment speak for itself. But sometimes the abstraction pops up because the memory of all those details are just too hard to bear remembering again. The scent of disinfectant that cramps your stomach in fear. The sight of an examination light you shy away from, remembering a time when you could not look away. The certain smoothness of surfaces that remind you of hospital equipment. Cracking those abstractions open requires a trust that reopening those memories is worth the pain. 
"I hovered two inches above collapse, getting everything done...this is the world without art. This is the real world." 
Before Hawaii, I was a fiction writer too, and I hope to write fiction again once this memoir is completed. The Hawaii Project though is a story I am compelled to write and is the sole reason why I've thrown myself into learning how to write memoir these past few years. I want to tell the story right, to have both the art and the reality sit right next to each other just like they sit next to each other in my heart. 
"I wish I could say I had an epiphany, a moment of intensified certainty, but the way back to writing was subtle...I have to breathe. I have to write." 
Being a writing mother isn't easy, but it's who I am. So, it took me a while to get here, but that's because I was being the mom. Now I'm easing into being the writer who is also a mom. And having the faith to tell the tale.


The Hawaii Project

For a little over a year, I've been writing something I'm calling the Hawaii Project. I've actually been drafting this book for over a decade, producing a decent essay that's garnered some recognition. I've felt all along, though, that the story is a much longer one, taking on the breadth and depth I hope will make a good long memoir.

I've chugged along some 80 pages now, with another 20-30 pages in the wings waiting for development. My sense is that I've close to 1/3 of the book 'done' and that soon I'll transition from writing the first third to the second third. Like all my writing projects, the Hawaii Project has taught me more about myself, what I've fear and hope for, what I've dreamed and failed at.

It's a story that has endured like few in my life stories have, at times haunting me like a nearly forgotten song, at other times, a piercing memory. But always, always tinged with a feeling of great regret.

I lived for a year in Honolulu and it nearly destroyed me. That I survived is a testament to one man's love and my stubborn belief that to be a writer, I had to write. Writing, or even speaking, in such epic terms often solicits disbelief, questions that probe. Countless friends and family are amazed I dare to speak of Paradise in such dire terms. And sometimes their narrative of white sand beaches, palm trees, and sweet cocktails nearly overwhelms my narrative of sleepless nights with a colicky baby, persistent self-doubt about parenting skills, and bodily pains not covered in maternity books. And I feel guilty for suggesting that Hawaii could be anything else but Paradise, for clouding their dreams yet unfulfilled. Sometimes it's easier to be silent rather than risk feeling all those conflicting feelings again and again.

But writing memoir is about telling the truth and making art from experience even when that truth doesn't seem logical or when the art is shaded dark and forbidding.

I'm often asked what my book is about.

It's about moving from Moscow, Idaho to Honolulu, Hawaii. It's about my first child being born 8 weeks premature 8 days after we moved. It's about trying to hold all the shock and grief at bay, and doing all the things a new mom does to keep a baby alive, well-fed, and growing. It's about the slow madness of postpartum depression and the power of self-expression to heal. It's about leaving everything that kept me grounded, and thereby stagnant, and plunging into Pele's fire.

No wonder I came back singed.


An Encounter with Arjia Rinpoche

About a week ago, I had the chance to meet Arjia Rinpoche at a reception in his honor. He's currently touring the country, promoting his book Surviving the Dragon and raising money for a medical facility project in Mongolia. I'd heard about his visit from friends in the local Mongolian community - we've worked on the same arts events in the past few months and I performed at the Tsagaan Sar New Year's festival this year. I missed his talk because the time conflicted with a workshop I was teaching that same day, but I was invited to join he and the others at lunch.

Although I've read books by Buddhists such as the Dalai Lama, Ticht Nhat Nanh, and Pema Chodron, I had never had the chance met a Buddhist monk before, let alone a reincarnated person. Friends who had met the Dalai all mentioned his sense of humor and child-like approach to life. Arjia Rinpoche was the same - he radiated a sense of wonder and seemed genuinely surprised to hear that not only could I cook (my recipe for biko was used to make dessert, I found out) but I was a storyteller. He asked me questions about how I found the stories and how I performed them. It was strange because I knew he had been talking to my friend Doug Banner, my mentor in storytelling, just a few minutes prior. But Rinpoche's questions made me feel like I was the first person he had ever heard do such a thing. I don't think it was because he forgot or was trying to amuse me, but that he was trying to understand what I felt when I was Telling. He wanted to understand my experience.

This was in keeping with what I had heard from others. They said he spoke about how as humans, we are to practice Compassion and Wisdom. The barriers to the Journey are Ignorance, Attachment, and Hate. Our conversation showed me that he was genuinely interested in taking the opportunity to be compassionate and to gain wisdom from our encounter. I didn't expect that, I didn't expect that there would be anything I could offer that would be of interest to him.

I went to see him because wanted to ask to him about The Golden Tara of Agusan a golden statue from the Buddhist period of Philippine history. I had heard that before the US, before the Spanish and the Muslim, Buddhism influenced the governing and philosophy of the people. The Source material for this claim is scant, and based on archeological finds and the work of William Henry Scott, but still, the possibility of Buddhism in the Philippines intrigued me. I was unable to attend the talk given by Lama Choyin Rangdrol last Fall, and had little luck finding any other sources of information on the statue or the practices associated with the Golden Tara.

In conversations with Lama Rangdrol, I discovered that "Golden Tara" is something of a misnomer, since researchers aren't sure the image is of the goddess known as Tara among mainland Asia Buddhists. Lama Rangdrol was adamant that the goddess depicted should only be understood in relationship to the Philippine people, their viewpoint and understanding of compassion and wisdom. So who is She in the statue?

I wondered what Arjia Rinpoche might know of "Golden Tara." He didn't claim familiarity with the statue, but speculated that Buddhism in the Philippines came from the Pali branch - Zen and Tibetan Buddhism being the other two branches. All three trace their roots to original Sanskrit texts, but each translated the texts into the dominant languages later. It would make sense, he said, that Buddhism spread from Central Asia, through South Asia (Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, etc) then across the sea to the Philippines. Tara, though is distinctly Tibetan, he said, so he couldn't speculate on who the image was. He asked if perhaps it was instead Kwan Yin, but I mentioned that her mudras (hand positions) were not classic to Kwan Yin. In fact, her mudras were none I had come across.

He didn't seem disturbed by my questions, just curious and engaging as we puzzled it out together. I wish I had brought a picture of the icon to show to him, but just having the conversation has helped me feel more secure in the possibility of a branch of Buddhism in Pre-Muslim Philippines.

Why is this so important to me? I guess I need to see the concepts of Kapwa, the Self in the Other, in not just the indigenous peoples of the Philippines. That the concepts of Compassion and Wisdom were part of the island culture before colonization. That trade with the mainland also meant trade of thoughts, ideas, and philosophies. I shared with Rinpoche my limited understanding of Kapwa and again, he approached the topic with an open heart, linking my words with his own experience and beliefs. I think we both wished we could speak further on these things, but he had to leave after lunch to continue his travels.

I'm in contact with a couple of researchers of the Golden Tara and I'm hopeful to learn more of the statue's origins and the practices associated with the goddess.