Joy and the Fearless Heart

IMG_2910My hair went through a few changes last year. From spirals to straight and back again. No bangs to total bangs. And then last April, just when I was finally learning to embrace the curl and the fringe, without a second thought I chopped it all off.

There was a time when I believed that changing my hair would change my life. In my thirties I kept my hair in a graduated bob that would make Mary Crowley proud. And then, influenced by my new-found crush on all things Irish I took an electric razor to my head. I wasn’t quite brave enough to cut as close a shave as Sinead O’Connor but it was enough to turn a few heads – especially those times that I forgot to attach my #5 blade and carved random bald spots onto my pate.

Sigh. Those were the days.

Then there was the color. Various shades of red sometimes verging on purple. Dark brown leaning toward black. Platinum blond (just once for about ten days).

Not to mention the clothes. Vintage dresses layered with suit jackets and vests from the men’s section of the local charity shop. A cheap knock-off of the black Doc Marten boots I craved and fishnet stockings. Paisley with hound’s-tooth with plaid.

Those were, indeed, the days.

Each time I changed my hair or wore a new tattered treasure I thought, “If I look like this then I’ll be more like that.By ‘that I think I meant whatever quality I believed I lacked. In those years I hoped to be brave and confident, artful and hip. Those were the years I struggled as an artist and I hoped that if looked more like what I believed an artist should look like then I’d have a better chance at success. It didn’t occur to me that showing up each day and working hard, allowing my authentic voice to speak through my images and facing the world with a fearless heart would be more effective than a haircut or a pair of boots.

I’m thinking about my past and I’m thinking about how, from time to time, those same ideas rise up in me. About how I need to be a certain body type or wear a certain brand of yoga attire in order to look like what I think yoga teachers should look like.

Fortunately I’m older and maybe I’m a bit wiser, too. It’s not long before I remember all those things I wish I knew back when I was shaving my head with a #5 blade.   It’s not long before I remember my authentic voice and who I am as a teacher. It’s not long before I remember that who I am is someone who shows up to the studio with a fearless heart. It’s not what I look like that makes me a yoga teacher. If you asked me I think I’d say it’s the joy I feel when I teach. That’s what makes me a yoga teacher. The fact that I am filled with joy each time I walk into a studio. Even those days when my alter ego Snarky McSnarkington tries to take over. Joy still wins.

February was a fierce month. But now it’s March. I’ve settled into my new home and my new life. Those cravings and longings that I wrote about just a few weeks ago belong to someone else. Those couldn’t be my words. Those emotions, the desperation, they were all fleeting moments. But I moved through them. And I’m home.

Words, Walking and Making Art

One of the best things about my Spiritual Perspectives class are the projects we’re asked to complete. For example, on Tuesday I enjoyedAsh of a Lost Heart a three-hour walk as a meditation on the idea of ‘journey’. Today I began work on my spiritual autobiography. This project can take any form: song, essay, collage. We were asked simply to be authentic and inspired. I’m using the idea of reliquaries. I’m selecting one or two events from each decade of my life and creating an assemblage from found materials, text and photographs. The project is immensely challenging but creatively refreshing. Thinking in terms of symbols and images instead of words is a tonic for my brain.

It’s easy to look back on life and list by rote, “This happened and then that happened.” The challenge is to look back on life, remember the difficult moments and remember the astounding moments, too. And then contemplate how those moments transformed the spirit. Contemplate how those moments made you a better person. I’ve had so many stops and starts on the path – from a “Jesus-freak” in the 1970’s to a wannabe-atheist in the 1990’s. But in the past few years I’ve learned the lesson that so many of us have: that religion and spirituality are two very different things. I’ve learned that our journeys are intensely personal. I’ve learned that there is no one true path and that it’s all right to wander off the trail a bit from time to time.

I thought I’d share a bit of my essay about the walk I took on Tuesday.

Take ShelterThe wonderful thing about walking is that the rhythm of the foot falls become like a meditation. The chatter in the mind stops and the head suddenly has room to consider new ways of seeing. That happened to me around the two-hour mark. I remembered that, unlike all my other walks, this walk was different. This walk was not about non-stop movement. It was about a journey. A journey’s pace ebbs and flows, just like the tide. It slows down and it speeds up. Sometimes it even stops. And that’s what I did.

I stopped. Pedometer be damned I stopped right where I was. I looked across the water. I examined the banked earth for signs of burrowing owls. My eyes followed the small hawk who took off from the grass in front of me clutching her rodent lunch. And I took photographs of the bloated grey clouds blustering over the East Bay hills.

And nothing bad happened.

On our journey it’s fine to stop from time to time. To take it in. To witness from a fresh perspective. Today I was a witness.


Today, Music is My Yoga

Maybelle Carter

Image via Wikipedia

My music teacher in elementary school was a big, buxom woman with dark eyes and even darker hair that she kept piled in curls on the top of her head.  She’d go from classroom to classroom, tapping out rhythm, encouraging us to sing, rallying the boys in the back of the room.  I loved her.  I especially loved her on the days that she brought the instruments – a cardboard box full of triangles, tambourines and wooden sticks.  But the best instrument of all was the one that came in the odd-shaped box.  The Autoharp.  I always volunteered to play the Autoharp, and Mrs. Soldridge always chose me.  Maybe it was unfair to the other few who could manage to keep time, but I didn’t care.  I wanted that instrument.  I wanted it bad.  It was heavy and wonderful and all you had to do to make a sound like angels calling was press a button and strum the felt plectrum across the strings.  And there were so many strings they were impossible to count.

By the time I was in high school though, I’d forgotten all about Mrs. Soldridge and her Autoharp.  I was too busy failing in my attempts to play the opening of Stairway to Heaven on my guitar.  The Autoharp was old-fashioned and silly and so were all those traditional folk songs I loved as a kid.

Flash forward more decades than I’d like to count and enter Evo Bluestein.  Evo brings traditional folk music and dance to schools across the country.  His ability to charm even an introvert like me into believing she’s musical is legendary.  I could take a few pages to sing Evo’s praises but it would be easier for you to just click here.  On Saturday Evo offered an Autoharp Workshop at Gryphon Music in Palo Alto.  With my friend Sarah’s encouragement, I signed up.

The workshop began at 1:00 when I pulled a 21-bar Evoharp (Evo’s custom built version of the Autoharp) from its case.  By 1:15 Sarah and I were playing our first song.  Knowing he had two (cough) extraordinarily talented students in front of him he decided on a more accelerated course.   By 2:00 he and Sarah – a music teacher with a classically trained voice and her own 14-bar Evoharp – were playing exquisite melodies while I attempted to keep a steady rhythm (pick strum pick strum pick strum…).  Our voices rang out in three-part harmony.  By 2:30 Evo was introducing me to more complicated strumming patterns and by 2:45 my left arm was ready to fall off.

He ended the workshop by playing a Bessie Smith blues number.  It was unbelievable.

Music transforms you.  It alters the beat of your heart and the way blood spills through your veins.  I walked into that workshop a bit blue and more than a little nervous.  I left two hours later knowing there had been change on a cellular level.

Today music was my Yoga and every cell of my body was filled with joy.

I loved every single minute of that time spent with my friend, with Evo and with music.  I’m no Mother Maybelle, but damn that was fun!

My Weekend with Hermann Hesse

Siddhartha (novel)

Image via Wikipedia

When someone is seeking … it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything … because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal.

I have a stubborn streak.  I took me ten years before I saw the movie ET the Extraterrestrial.

And I knew only one thing about Hermann Hesse’s book Siddhartha:  It was the paperback tucked into the back pocket of anyone attempting to look more enlightened than the rest of us fumbling saps when I was beginning college in Nebraska.  Sure I wanted to hang with that clique, but I refused to fall for the hype.

So when a friend asked incredulously, “You haven’t read Siddhartha?” I had to sheepishly admit my literary and yogic faux pas.  He pulled the book from his shelf.  “Here.”

I took the book from his hands and thumbed the pages.  It looked thin enough.  Even though I had several books ‘on the go’, what harm would it do to take the weekend to read this one?

I opened the book and a bottle of Hefeweizen that afternoon.  Beautiful, lyrical prose.  I kept reading, the beer grew too warm to drink and the truth began to reveal itself.  Somewhere in the final pages I recognized my clinging, grasping nature.  More than that, I realized that what I was trying to grab hold of was an illusion.

There’s a part of me that regrets not tackling Siddhartha when it was suggested reading for my Philosophy 101 class.  But there’s another part of me that believes the book fell into my hands at the perfect moment.  My advice?  If the last time you read Siddhartha the Beatles were still together, consider reading it again.  And if, like me, you were waiting?  All I can say is, for what?

Just Say “Yes”


Image via Wikipedia

The “we love your writing but unfortunately we’re unable to use your work” emails were filling the inbox regularly this week.  Ok, none of them actually used the words “we love your writing.” But despite being letters of rejection, in most cases the author attempted to put a positive spin on things.

“We look forward to seeing more of your work!” 

“Keep writing!”

“We haven’t found a place for your work, but we know it will find a good home elsewhere.” (Note to editors of Le Petite Zine:  I’m not trying to re-home a puppy.)

These all beat one of my first rejection letters:

“I found the dialogue stilted and just was not compelled to turn the pages.”  Ouch.  That one hurt.

The messy business of rejection is part of the writer’s life.  Some days it’s easy to brush off.  On other days it requires a foot stomping, ‘f-bomb’ flying hissy fit.  But either way, after the initial sting and whether we want to believe it or not, rejection moves us forward.

Still, life would be much easier if I wasn’t compelled to write.  Certainly there would be less rejection.  More than that, however, I’d cease being an introspective recluse and become the life of the party. I’d see more sunshine and maybe trade my pasty writer’s pallor for a tan.  I would sleep in.

No I wouldn’t.

Even before I became addicted to the mad rush of creating a perfectly formed sentence I enjoyed the quiet reflection found in the company of a few good friends (even imaginary ones) over a crazed and crowded party.  My lack of a tan is somewhat intentional and that lie in?  Impossible.  My brain wakes up at 6:00 AM whether I want it to or not.  I’m a morning person.

So I might as well write and suffer the consequences.  I can’t stop now because one of these days there’s going to be a ‘yes’ in my inbox.  And when there is…

Rainy Mornings, Smoked Salmon and a Girl Named Turtle

The Bean Trees

Image via Wikipedia

I didn’t know this until today, but I love rainy June mornings.

Typically I tend to resent Saturday mornings.  I want to be like normal people.  I want the option of lounging about.  But my constitution won’t allow it. My body clock wakes me at six and I’m immediately consumed by the need to open my laptop and write.  What usually happens, of course, is that I leap out of bed, open my laptop and check emails.  This morning, with the rain tapping at my window, a miracle occurred.  I was convinced to keep my eyes closed for an extra ninety minutes.

When I did finally pull myself together, I was off to see my 90-year-old West Point graduate client for an hour of stretching and movement.  A widower, he’s typically quiet and reserved – except when I crack one of my notoriously bad jokes.  Although I really shouldn’t be encouraged, he’ll reward me with his hoot of a laugh.  Let’s just say there was a bit of hooting going on today.

After that I had brunch with a friend.  Ok, I’ll admit it.  It was with Mr. On Line.  What can I say?  I know this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be done – I think you’re supposed to treat online dating a more like a job.  I’m just not the type of person to set up coffee dates every free second.

To be honest, at this point I’m inclined to put an end to all the OKCupid stuff and consider myself lucky that I’ve made a friend and didn’t meet an ax murderer in the process.  Sort of file it under been there, done that.  Besides, I met Mr. On Line’s amazing cats today.  Any day that involves a cat NOT showing instant disdain for the strange, dripping wet  human standing in the living room is a good day.  It probably helped that I had the lingering odor of smoked salmon on my fingertips but all’s fair in love and meows.

Is this becoming one of those loathsome, tedious, drawn out blog posts that become mind achingly dull in their monotony?  Is it?  IS IT??  Great. Because guess what I did after I bonded with the cats?

I took myself to the Cantor Museum on the Stanford Campus and spent two hours there.  To see this.  Which was amazing.  If you’re in the area and appreciate books, typesetting, paper and etching – don’t miss it.

And then I went home to read.  For pleasure.  From 4:30 to 8:30 PM.  Just me, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees (loved it) and several cups of pu-erh tea.

In other words, with the exception of my morning client, I managed to experience the day without an agenda.  Without the need to cross things off a list. (Ok…I confess… there was a little of that.)  But still it was an extraordinary day for Mimm Patterson.

Ps…by the way, this whole reading for pleasure business is fantastic!  I don’t know why I never considered it before.  Now there are a slew of books in my queue – my next Kingsolver will be The Poisonwood Bible.  After that Steven Harrigan’s Remember Ben Clayton.  Tomorrow it’s Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven.  And then I’m on to all the books I said I’ve always wanted to read but never have…

Faith, Strength and Losing Control

On the Tuesday morning that I cried in the shower, something very freeing happened.  I let go of the rules I had imposed upon myself and gave myself permission to write about anything I wanted – simply for the joy of putting “pen to paper” as it were.  (Except, of course, it’s rare anyone actually puts pen to paper these days.  Maybe I should have said, ‘fingers to keyboard’).

I don’t believe I was aware of how immobilizing my good intentions were.  The truth is facing the tables I had created to chart my progress only charted failure.  I could never meet the high expectations I had set for myself. They had to go.

I know there are plenty of writers, teachers and life coaches who would suggest I’m making a terrible mistake.  That if I don’t have a plan – if I can’t see a clearly defined goal – then I have no chance of reaching it.  I’m willing to take that risk.

Besides, I do have a goal.  It’s simple: be a better writer.

You’re right.  It’s a goal that can’t be quantified.  I won’t be able to – in five weeks or five months or five years – announce to the world “I’ve done it.  I am now a Better Writer.”  It will require faith.  And it will require that I let go.  I have to believe that if relinquish control of the flow chart that took over my life and instead find the strength to build a deep and unshakable foundation of discipline – if I write every day, relentlessly, without fail, about anything I want – then I will learn how to write.  I will be a better writer.  Goal.

As much as I would like, someday, to have those other things – a book to call my own and an audience who want to read it – I must consider this time in my career as a writer a precious gift.  This is my time to explore, to make mistakes, to discover if I have an affinity for fiction or personal essay.  It’s my time to provide myself the space to discover who I am as a writer.

And that’s what I’m going to do.

Why Do We Write?

Why do we write?  Because we have a story to tell. Sometimes it’s a true story; sometimes it’s a story clinging to our heart desperate for liberation.

A friend says to me “You must tell your story” and I’m not certain what he means.  He says, “You have a facility for writing” and recounts the opening to a manuscript I’ve been struggling with since last year.  But that isn’t my story.  It’s just something I made up.  Something that has some tenuous association with the truth.

So why do we write?

Twelve days ago I stood in my shower and began to cry. The tears fell spontaneously.  They fell without warning.  I wasn’t sad.  In fact, I was standing on the precipice of happy. But still the tears spilled down my face, merged with Palo Alto’s municipal water supply and joined the wastewater on its way to be cured and returned to San Francisquito Creek.

I began to realize that my tears were a mix of elation for the decision my heart had made without my asking and mourning for the goals I hadn’t achieved.  I was liberated.  I was a failure.

It used to be different.  I wanted to write.  That’s all.  I didn’t think about writing a best seller, receiving a huge advance or being chosen for Oprah’s Book Club.  I wanted to write because it brought me joy. I wrote because it filled a void.  It was a way to clarify – an outlet.  And I loved the challenge.

I took a few classes and created a few blogs before I settled on the one you’re reading. I wrote a few articles for the local paper.  I wrote a manuscript that could, with a little polish, become a novel. No small achievement.

I dove deep and was amazed at how long I could hold my breath.  I charged into study and schedules and goals.  I wrote without thinking.  I wrote without feeling.  I dreamed of maybe, one day, having a book I could hold in my hand and saying, “I wrote this.”

And then things got ugly.  I forgot about the joy. I forgot about how crafting a decent sentence makes me giddy and the magic that happens when a character takes over and becomes the boss of these tired, typing fingers. I forgot about plot, structure and setting all in the race to be there first. But the truth is, I’ll never be there first.

That Tuesday, standing in my shower, finally craving air, I broke the surface and gasped for breath.

It wasn’t working.

The five o’clock alarms.  The word count goals.  The platform building.  The hollow dreams.  It wasn’t working.

I wanted to write.  This wasn’t writing.  It was micro-managing.

I put away all the tables that charted word counts, blogs posted and queries sent to magazine editors.  I closed the file on long-range goals, short-term goals and the list of forty-five writing goals I needed to achieve – today – while teaching classes and visiting clients.  I gave notice to my critique group – the six people with whom I shared every Wednesday afternoon for the past three years.

And I went back to basics.  I pulled out John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist.  I opened Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction.

And then, finally relieved of the burden of high expectations, I began.

I write.  I will continue to write.   It is how I will tell my story.

Free to a Good Home: My Brief Career as a Volunteer Journalist

Last month a local non-profit organization asked me to do a little ‘volunteer writing’.  You know how it is – we’ve all done it, right?  We’ve been writing for years – maybe decades – but because we don’t have the Pulitzer we expected by age twenty-five and can’t add ‘MFA’ to the back of our name, we consider ourselves ‘hobbyists’.  Out on a lark.  Playing around.

Two little 800-word biographies of a local artist and a local volunteer.  What could be so hard about that?  A cakewalk.  Of course I said ‘yes’.

Never again.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying “no” to volunteering – non-profits depend on volunteers. I’m just saying “no” to volunteer writing. Ask me to be a clown, to serve meals, to read aloud – I’m there.  But don’t ask me to write.

I’d heard this sentiment before (watch this video of Harlan Ellison) but I didn’t understand.  And I still didn’t understand when I sailed through the first biography without a hitch.  Then it was time to interview my second subject.  I had my first inkling things wouldn’t sail as smoothly when – unaware that it was I who was doing him the favor – my subject arrived fifteen minutes late for our interview.  A few days later, after sending him a rough draft of the article, his email reply opened with “thank you for your efforts”. My efforts?

For some reason, that bugged me.  It bugged me bad.

The individual had some suggestions, which – despite having my hackles up – I was open to.  Some of his suggestions added depth to the story and clarified a rambling anecdote. But the three-hundred word quote explaining his thoughts on a life well lived? Not so grateful.

Still, I made the changes and submitted both articles ahead of schedule.  And waited.  Not a word.  From anyone.  I waited five days and then sent another email.  And waited.  Finally, confirmation arrived that the articles had indeed been received and only needed minor editing. Oh, and by the way, thank you.

And thus ended my very brief career as a volunteer journalist.

Am I being too sensitive? Probably.

But here’s the lesson I learned.  I will continue to work for a good cause.  But I will not give away the very same talents I use every day to pay my rent and put food on my table.

As a writer or visual artist, how do you feel when you’re asked to give your talent away?


Fear Trips Us Up

I like WordPress.  Have done since the leader of a seminar I was attending encouraged all of us to write a blog as one step toward building a platform.  At the time – this was about three years ago – I was only beginning to understand how our lives were being impacted by the growth of social networking.  I’m certain I didn’t understand how to set up a blog (although I had fumbled around a bit with Blogger) and I hadn’t grasped the long-term influence blogging might have on my writing future.

But now, thirty-six months later I’m quite comfortable spilling my inner demons for the world to read.  I’m happy to share the struggles of an aspiring writer.  Let me correct that.  I’m not aspiring to be a writer.  I am a writer.  I’m aspiring to be a “successful writer”.  What is that?  How do we judge success?  Is it the first paycheck?  If it is – well – I managed that last year.  Or maybe it’s finding an agent.  Am I not a success if an agent wants to spend time selling the words I lay down on paper?  Ah yes, but I know it won’t be enough.  The book will have to be sold to a publisher.  And even then I won’t be happy until I’m on Oprah.  Or listed in the New York Times.  Or win a Pulitzer.

I dream – as the cliché goes – big.  I can see how long the road is, and, since that first and only paycheck just about filled my CRV’s gas tank – I can see how far I have to go.

So – getting back to wonderful WordPress:  as part of their commitment to the “post a week” concept they’ve been providing suggestions for topics.  I’m generally able to come up with my own – case in point my lambasting of the Yoga Journal Conference in my last two posts.  But today’s suggested topic intrigued me:

What’s the most important thing you’re putting off?

And why haven’t you done it yet? What do you need to make it happen?

I’ve been putting off making the kind of commitment it takes to be the successful writer I know in my heart I have to potential to be.  I blame my insane schedule.  I blame my raging hormones.  I blame my age – I really should have begun all this fuss earlier in life.  I blame the day of the week and the fact the sun shines on my computer screen at an awkward angle.  But none of those excuses are credible.  This is what it boils down to:


Not fear of failure – I’m had plenty of failures.  I know how to brush myself off and climb back into the saddle.  I’m talking about fear of success.  What do I do then?  What happens if I actually succeed?

In the past, when I’ve thought about what success looks like, it has always involved being over-committed, flying back and forth to New York, rushing about.  Having to find my inner extrovert.  The pressure of always being good enough.  That’s the picture I painted in my head of success.

What if I paint a different picture?  What if the picture includes being able to afford a home of my own and a secure retirement?  What if the picture includes a schedule that allows me to teach the yoga that I love but also gives me solid days of secluded writing.  What if the picture includes – wait for it – a yearly vacation?

I feel better already.  Now I’m motivated.  But the question remains, how will I make it happen?

By taking the first step.