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beginnerdom

Set your writing free

The best gift I received this season was Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights. There’s lots about it that is, well, delightful (you did it, Ross!), but the element that’s inspiring me most this first time through is the simple fact that he wrote a short essay by hand in “smallish notebooks” every day for a year.

Ross admits up front that he let go of “daily” pretty early on, skipping a day here and there. He doesn’t [need to] go into detail or justification as to why he didn’t get to the page every single day. I suppose one reason is that he’s human. Also it’s my impression (this book leaves lots of space for impression, which is marvelous) is that the structure may have been a bit too forced and stringent and, since this is writing on what delights, he had to be freer to find his joy in it. And structure is often the surest way to find freedom. Maybe he found a gorgeous middle way. Who knows. This is all conjecture. All impression.

(Also, since we’re admitting things, I will confess that as of this writing I am less than halfway through the book, so it’s possible that what I say about it at this point might be addressed or refuted in later pages. I just couldn’t wait to say what I loved about it, and to share it with you.)

The spirit of the essays—a pared-down selection from among the hundreds he did write—is one of flow. The man didn’t have to rack his mind to come up with the day’s subject of delight; it was always right in front of (or in) him. Which of course is one purpose the book: pointing out that there is something delightful in every day, even if—especially if—the subject matter is intense. Often a noticing leads to a heavy truth (cancer, guns, accidents, alienation) that he writes with, if not always lightness, at least a movement and flexibility that transforms the notion, the memory, the reader.

There’s palpable healing in these pieces, though rarely a resolution, which I find wonderful. For one thing, if something is resolved, what’s left to write about? Plus generations of heartbreak and injustice aren’t going to be resolved any time soon, but breathtaking art keeps getting made—addressing, rewriting, reclaiming, turning horror into a kind of beauty. Quieting, maybe forever, a few pieces of a few hearts, a few hundred words at a time.

These essays are gorgeously imperfect, grammar be damned—or at least set aside in the name of delight, of play, of joy. One essay celebrates the very delight of writing by hand: the way, for instance, run-on sentences are allowed to exist without the temptation to edit, or liberation from the perennial condemnation of spell check.

The pieces vary in length, too. If Gay gets his incisors in something he may go on for four or more pages, but more often than not they cover no more than a single spread. A mercy—a delight!—for the reader, who may just want to dip in for a minute or two of richness and contemplation before turning to their own day’s delights. It reminds me that we don’t have to labor over a piece all day for it to have impact.

In these and so many other ways worthy of celebration, Ross Gay has compiled—readily, honestly, quirkily, and yes, delightfully—a book. A body of work. I was not in his mind during the publication process but get the sense that he released this thing into the wild in the same spirit: unattached, merrily, as an offering. Giving freely from his abundant garden (gardening a theme that crops [heh] up regularly throughout). There’s no possibility of, and certainly no point in, keeping it all for himself.

Just in this moment (I swear I did not plan for this, I simply wrote my way here this morning) I realize that I am committing to show up daily at the page and write my delight, or some other topic that wants my attention. Isn’t that handy, given that a fresh new January is mere days away now. I haven’t done this for a long time and a year is a lot to commit to, but heck, I write every day anyway, why not select some sacred prompt and devote myself to it?

Whether or not it becomes something I wish to offer the world, I hope to at least write it in that spirit: offering. Not showcasing, not entering into a contest, not presenting for viewing. Not writing with an audience in mind, but rather to see what the writing itself wants to become. And most importantly being in practice—for the sake of keeping my writing loose and joyful, staying unattached to outcome, and remaining connected to this art that I adore.

If it feels at all juicy to you, I invite you to join me. Pick a topic or a prompt—find one in the #prompts channel on the Soul Writing Slack workspace, or in a book, or anywhere in the world, really. Sit down at the page every day. Set a timer for ten minutes (or less, or more, whatever feels in balance), and write something. Share it here if you’d like, or email it to me at joy@beginnerdom.com. Regardless, know that you are creating a body of work that, even if it’s not out in the world, it’s out of you, on the page, and now you know you can do this.

What’s more delightful than that?

Letting it through

Being a conduit

My favorite word in English is conduit. There’s the beauty of the word itself (roll it over in your mouth a few times to get the picture… stretch it out, pronouncing each vowel on its own, or quick, like a whip, the “t” sound sharp at the end), as well as its meaning—one that for me has always been aspirational. 

In terms of being human, I’ve always thought of a conduit as a bridge between the unseen and the seen. Bringing into form what waits, unformed, in the mystery. Being a channel for the divine. For me it feels like the point of being alive.

It is, of course, what artists do, what trees do, what parents do. It’s what happens when you follow through on an inspired idea – or even a regular idea. It is creation: potential that every being has. It’s happening in, around, and indeed through us all the time. 

It is effortless—a surrender, a blending, an allowing. It can be blocked or distorted by will, by ego, by our inevitable snatching the reins away from life’s natural unfolding. Efforting does not help us be better conduits. On the contrary, it’s about freeing ourselves from what’s impeding the flow. 

Making the shape

Part of the intention and indeed the magic of Soul Writing is to practice being these simple channels for what needs to be created through us. At the beginning of each session the group goes through a short meditation that puts us more consciously into contact with our conduit selves. 

Here are some aspects of that shape. I invite you to try them on and notice if and how they support your bringing forth what wants to come through you. (I also encourage you to breathe lots through this … the air flowing through us keeps things moving and clears space in magnificent and necessary ways.) 

1. Grounded (connected to the earth)

This is very important. Think of a lightning rod, or electrical wiring. Without ground we’re staticky at best, dangerous at worst. Grounding is not the easiest thing for many of us… living fully on this earth is scary! It took me years to buy into the concept, let alone embody it. But it’s essential for being human and especially for being a creator. 

A gentle practice for this is to picture roots extending out of the bottoms of your feet, your tailbone, any part of you that is in contact with the earth. Let the roots grow; don’t force them. Allow gravity to do its thing, aided by your breath. The roots may go all the way to the center of the earth, or they might stay wide and shallow (plenty of plants and trees thrive this way). See what sort of system your body needs in this moment to feel connected here on this earth. 

2. Contained

Approximately an arm’s length all around you is an invisible [to most] egg-shaped field containing energy that extends from our body and makes contact with the world—just as much as our physical bodies do. Surrounding that egg there is (or should be) a sort of shell or membrane. This is an important boundary that lets us know where we end and others begin. 

Turns out containment is quite necessary for freedom, creative and otherwise. Without a boundary it’s far more likely we’ll lose contact with ourselves and/or take on other people’s stuff. It’s impossible to feel autonomous or create anything if we’re blurred into the scenery or dissolved into others. 

You can visualize or simply feel the edges around your space, noticing what helps you feel both safe and free. Perhaps it’s a matter of shoring up the edges, or, if you feel crowded, allowing them to become more porous. Maybe they move an inch in or out. Again, you are simply watching this happen – letting your body tell you what is needed here. Breathe and watch as your field brings itself into balance. 

3. Clean

I mean, sure, shower if you want. Most workshops are on Zoom so that doesn’t matter all that much. This is more about having a body and space that is free of energetic debris. It makes it much easier for creation to flow through and be realized when it doesn’t have to trip over the accumulated crap we don’t need, and that often isn’t even ours. 

Sometimes the junk is recognizable—memories, trauma, expectations, burdens. Other times it’s not; it’s just something that feels off, like it doesn’t match our vibration. We don’t have to know what it is, but we are well served to let it go. 

You can use your roots for this – flush the nonsense down into the ground. Or let it float away, dissolve, or simply disappear. No need to micromanage the process. If you get rid of something by accident it will come back (karma is great that way). As you breathe, you might notice your own energy moving into the spaces previously occupied by old or foreign matter.

4. Connected upward

Once we are a little more grounded, contained, and clear (all of these are ongoing processes – feel the movement in them, and trust that they’ll keep going without your conscious involvement), we bring our attention to the crown of our head and notice there’s a little cup or funnel there. (For those who speak chakra—and don’t worry about it if you don’t—this is the 7th). It’s where the words, the art, the inspiration, the love, the divine directive flow in. 

What we’re not doing is going out into the void, traveling to the realm of possibility. It’s delightful, this place of dreams and inspiration, but nothing actually happens unless we bring what’s there into our grounded, anchored selves to be made manifest in 3D. To begin this process, you might send a little signal flare out into the ethers – “I am here, grounded, clear, fortified and ready for you to start making your way to and through me.” 

5. A continual stream

Through is a key word here. The most powerful part of all of this is letting it flow. Words and ideas are not coming to us. They are not ours to keep forever—nothing is. They are entering our conduit selves, living here for a time, and then flowing on out. Some of the words, images, memories, notions make their way through our hands, our pens, our vocal cords, and are realized in the world. The rest, like electricity, like water, flows out into the ground, nourishing the earth with its beautiful potential. Perhaps it is eventually re-evaporated back into the void, becoming newly available to be formed into some 3-dimensional shape in the future. 

………..

Again (and again!) we must allow all this. It doesn’t happen otherwise. Our only job is to keep our spaces safe and clear for when divinity passes through. Allow it a place to rest, be nourished, indeed transform, before sending it on its way. This perhaps is one reason (if not the reason) for the invitation from wise folk to treat our bodies as temples: we are making space for holiness. We are stewards, we are monks, we are humble servants to the mystery. We are conduits for the divine.

With all this in place, you can imagine what comes through folks’ pens at Soul Writing gatherings. I hope you’ll join us sometime and find out what wants to be brought to life through you. 

Dismantle Grammar

Right now, much of the world is taking scythes to the hedges and corn stalks that have, for generations, trapped us all in a maze of excruciating conformity, very much including the arbitrary rules of English grammar. The way I’m seeing this necessary demolition show up in Soul Writing workshops is pretty cool. 

Conformity

Having spent my adult life in a torrid love affair with the English language—specifically the written word—I’ve remained blind to its flaws: namely, the way it, like so many tools of white dominant culture, serves to control and oppress. It has constricted many a brilliant voice before—or worse, shut it down before it’s had a chance to say anything at all.

At the tip of this awful iceberg are the otherwise privileged native English speakers who, for whatever reason, couldn’t onboard the rules drilled into us in school, and therefore don’t know when to use ‘your’ versus ‘you’re.’ Who the fuck cares? Is any of this not a reason not to write? 

Yes, for many, it is. It’s precisely what freezes us up. It’s where the self- or other-imposed label of “I’m Not a Writer” gets slapped on our little sweater, and the world is instantly deprived of a powerful voice, probably forever.

More tragically, awfully, evilly, there are folks who did not grow up speaking, let alone writing, ‘proper’ English. They either struggle and strain to learn and use it, or are dismissed and rejected if they can’t.

In her Huff Post article, Are You Asking Me to Talk the ‘Right’ Way or the ‘White’ Way?, Jolie A Dogget says, “Proper English elevates whiteness while reinforcing the inferiority of everyone else. Anything that deviates from that is wrong and needs to be corrected. This reinforces for privileged white students that they’re the default and that everyone else has to conform.”

By the way, I’m learning that whiteness doesn’t refer just to skin color. It is a vast societal structure designed to elevate some and oppress others. It has its own set of rules to which we conform or not, and therefore determine how successful we are. (One of those rules is actually termed “Worship of the written word.” Yiiiiikes.) This is the water we swim in, so distinctions like these can be jarring when we first encounter them, especially to folks like me who have benefitted from this system their whole lives. If you are feeling the quite natural discomfort that comes with wandering into this territory, I invite you to join me in getting curious and reading up about it.

Dismantlement 

Anyway, in part, Soul Writing is an attempt to dismantle this and repair the damage this has done to all of us, and the courageous folks who show up are doing just that, it in amazing ways. When we bypass the mind, the critic, and the rules hanging out in our psyche, the most unexpected and moving combinations of phrases come through. There is so much beauty in the sentence fragments and the made-up words, or when a writer’s inner eight-year-old suddenly grabs the pen. If we’re lucky, occasionally someone will gift the group a piece written in a language other than English. While maybe we can’t track the meaning of the words with our brains, there’s plenty that moves and impresses. Our hearts and guts follow exactly what is going on and have plenty to say by way of celebration.

This is ‘good’ writing. This is healing writing. This is the writing that frees us.

It’s an imperfect attempt at dismantlement, of course—I myself am very much in recovery. I made it through the merciless obstacle course that is the mastery of written English because I started from a place of privilege and, through a ‘fortunate’ combination of brain chemistry and desperation to conform, absorbed all those random rules right into my marrow. My mental and emotional bandwidth has been known to get clogged with trivialities like misused apostrophes and hanging prepositions. It used to be a point of pride—as though my knowing how to ‘properly’ punctuate a sentence was something that made me desirable, superior. (Shudder.) It gave me a leg up. Still does. But I see it now, at least. I see how ugly it is, how unhelpful, and how truly harmful.

A quiet reclaiming

As welcoming as the Soul Writing process is, I know there are lots of people who stay away from it because, for all the ways the world has effed with our natural flow, their “I’m Not a Writer” identity is so deeply embedded they wouldn’t go near anything writing related in the first place. 

Makes perfect sense. Still, I’m guessing there are things that want to be said through you. If you’re not ready to write or share in a group, maybe you can sidle up to the page on your own today. See what comes out when you’re letting the words fall through you. What language are they in, what order? How did you write (or draw, or dance, or think) before you found out there were rules to conform to? Before you understood that there was only one way through the cruel maze of our broken society?

Take up your own scythe, your pen, your sharpie, your spray paint can, and write just one sentence in your own voice. Dismantle grammar. Say what you need to say.

You are always welcome to join us to practice more.

Today’s the day

By Jan Martinez

I noticed something new this week. (What a boring way to begin—okay, let’s be boring.)  All experiences are one.

Let me start again. This week both my parents would have had birthdays if they’d lived. They’d have been 81 and 87, Mom and Dad, respectively. So I intentionally gave myself space, after a 40–hour work weekend, to allow life to show up as it would. And it did. Here’s what I mean, the whirlwind tour.

Wednesday—no Tuesday!—afternoon, I was sitting in the sunshine reading when I received a text showing my husband’s car crunched together with another on a major highway. He had taken the photo and sent it, so I let him call me. And he soon did.

Lots of back-and-forth, and I readied myself to pick him up as his vehicle wasn’t drivable. This became convoluted because he didn’t know exactly where he was and had started walking, declining to go with the tow truck. I eventually found him at the Detroit Zoo, which was nowhere near where he thought he’d been. Yes, that was Tuesday.

Wednesday was my mother’s birthday—peaceful and ease full. Thursday was my father’s birthday, a meeting with my teaching partners of The Wisdom WAY Master Class, and the beginning of my fast and purge for Friday’s colonoscopy. So it also invited me to contemplate my own death—by anesthesia, perforation, or a dreaded diagnosis. Of course I’m fine. A little “musical” as they say, which is typical.

So much story to say that there truly was one taste, one experience. A kind of structure underpinning all those varied, rich, purgative experiences of life and the inevitability of death. A steadfastness, a flow of something indescribable. And today was the day I got to see it.

Can you be a gentle reader?

I’m finishing up something I’m hoping to publish and, as part of the process, will soon send it out to a few folks to read. Thinking about how I’m going to frame it, a few requests come to mind. I’ll ask that they only point out anything that is glaring in its ignorance or obtuseness or confusion. That they don’t compare it to the great literature they’ve read (after all, I have no training, no degrees, no academic grounding whatsoever in what ‘good writing’ is—and anyway, this isn’t written in that spirit). Mostly I want to know how it impacts them, or if it does.

Above all, I’ll ask that they be gentle, please. This is a vulnerable new creation that needs to be handled with care. Naturally I will pick people who are likely to do this regardless of my requests. It is so essential to have safe people around our creations, at least to begin with.

This puts me in mind of those old-timey pieces addressed “Dear gentle reader.” Surely it was a nod of respect, referring to the reader as a gentleperson/woman/man. In this moment I’m moved to reclaim it as something more literal. I want to invite us all to be gentle readers.

Cultivating a posture of receptivity

There is room in all writing, all art, all the world, for scrutiny. It’s the posture most of us walk around in all the time, with which we approach everything: price tags, newspapers, social media posts. Attention spans are short these days. Not to mention how poised we all are to be offended. The metrics are “is it worth my time?” “Is it entertaining me?” “Am I pissed enough to respond?” If something doesn’t prove to be one or all of those things within the first few words, generally we move on. So in a way it’s natural that we’d approach others’ work the same way, regardless of context.

Part of what we’re doing in Soul Writing workshops is dismantling this automatic way of moving through life. We first encounter each other’s work by listening to the writer read it. We do this gently: energetically we’re standing back a few paces back from the piece and its creator, letting the words wash over us, and noticing what sticks in our mind, arises in our heart. What soaks into our skin and imperceptibly enters our bloodstream. What changes us.  

This wouldn’t be possible if we were hunched forward in our chairs, foreheads close to the zoom screen, eyes squinting, brows furrowed, pen clutched in hand, poised to capture the first inconsistency we hear and spit it back venomously at the writer as soon as we can.

To make sure there’s no trace of this, we shape ourselves differently to start with, beginning each session by connecting with ourselves, with our feet, our spines. Sitting straight in our chairs, shoulders dropped, attending to the space in and around us, observing how it shifts with our intentions for it. We do nothing, will nothing. We simply notice. And this carries through to how we write—often watching with wonder as words fill the page as though through us—and of course how we listen and respond to each other’s work. Through this practice we become trustworthy stewards of our friends’ vulnerable new creations.

Noticing

I started learning taichi recently and what struck me immediately is that the empty space surrounding me is not empty at all. It is palpable. There is a definite something I am moving through. There are molecules to visit with every millimeter of motion. It has me—even after just a handful of lessons—moving around with a new attention on the space immediately around me. Noticing how it responds, welcomes, even pushes back if I go too fast, try to breeze past it.

Can you shift your attention to this way of noticing? Can you assume a posture that allows you to simply behold the air you breathe, the writing you read, the people you talk to?

Granted, it would be naïve and even harmful to be this way with everything. There are things written and said that are wildly misleading, hateful, and ill intended. This isn’t an encouragement to look at everything through a lens of blind acceptance.

Still, I wonder what is possible when slow down and take a broad, soft focus of all that is coming in, all that we’re moving through. Maybe if we take a beat to notice how it affects us, we might even get better at discerning what is and isn’t ‘good’ – not objectively (there is no such thing), but for us. Regardless we become more generous in our lives, meeting with kindness what is offered to us, freeing the other to give more, express more, become more alive.

Help yourself

By Teresa Jacobs

The tablecloth flaps in the wind, threatening to upset the settings that sit on top. Each place is marked with a smooth white plate, a golden piece of square fabric, and a heavy fork. There are no place cards because the guest list is fluid.

She invites each person she interacts with in the days prior – store clerks, her children’s teachers, colleagues, and neighbors. Most folks think she is friendly and a little strange, and the combination causes the adventurous to accept her invitation at least once. Everyone agrees that the meal is always exquisite.

This week there is a small group assembled. Jim the bus driver, John from the store – he’s a regular – Patty from school, and her own family. The table is piled high with the bounty from her garden. There is a succulent late summer fruit salad spilling out of a deep ocean blue bowl. Her small hands hold the bowl gently as she passes it around the table encouraging the group to help themselves to seconds and thirds. The group talks softly with occasional swells of too loud laughter that happens when unfamiliar people endeavor to connect and please each other with story.

She moves slowly but with certainty as she works her way around the table. Her comfort is obvious – a person at ease with others. Her smile is genuine and her pleasure with the assembly of humanity at her table is a salve for the times.

Beside myself

By Hao Tran

I never thought that a singing voice could move me, but it did. I am a purist at heart and I have argued and argued that music is all about sound and sound only. Adding words to it is like adding weight to a cart and asking the oxen to carry more load. I practice music without words. I look for beauty in the chords and harmony between instruments. I deplore the puzzled look by people who wait for me to sing every time I lift the guitar. But, something happened.

Yesterday, I browsed the YouTube channels looking for guitar performances of a piece I am working on. So many good players, all playing brilliantly different versions of Historia de un Amor with the beautiful bolero 4/4 thumping beat. Oh, so beautiful.

Then I wandered off to the next and the next. A girl was in a contest. She lifted her voice and the words came out. There was something in her notes: nectar, honey, lemon. I heard pain, sweetness, longing, passion and love–something magical about the music with words that I had not heard before. Perhaps I had been wrong all this time? Perhaps I didn’t listen? Perhaps I had shut out the words? Her voice was the magic, the passion, and the feelings that only a human voice can show.

I was beside myself.

Beside myself

By Anna Bray

Beside myself in the sidecar of my life
Sits many other “me’s”
There isn’t just one
And why they need to be along for the ride
Instead of inside
Is a curiosity

There’s cautious Anna
Adventurous Anna
Protective Anna
and more

Sometimes they all cram in together as we zoom around the roads of life
Sometimes one wins out, calling “shotgun”, relegating the others to take a back seat

But make no mistake – the sidecar occupant is the driver
The one calling the shots
The navigator
Through the curves and tunnels, the mountains, and beach byways

It’s a wonder we get anywhere at all
With all of these new drivers taking over
When they feel bold enough
Or needed enough
To take charge

And “we”, the chorus of me
Is another curiosity
Why we? The many “me’s”?

The sidecar is blue, shiny, egg-shaped
With a thick white line and two think red lines slicing down the center

It thrums excitement when I look at it
The “we’s”, the many “me’s”, always want to be a part of it
– Inside
– Beside me
– Calling the shots 

If I just kept going …

By Jan Martinez

We climbed to the top of the bleachers. In our 60s, still agile as mountain goats, walking on the seats instead of the treads. Those seats, dusty, straw covered wooden planks.

Then the cows came in, each one led by a child or young teen often no taller than the animal’s shoulder. On closer inspection I could see they weren’t cows, but steers – aggressive, mid to heavy weight in class, grades one or two.

In the center of the barn stood a woman in boots, flared jeans, and a surprisingly frilly smocked top. The 4H judge. The cows paraded around her in a circle as the judge announced their merit. Or lack.

“I like this guy because he has a straight back,” she’d say. Or, “I have a problem with the way this guy walks.”

We went outside to see Bailey, Larry’s great niece, with her steer, a mean guy named Gatsby.

Mean or nice, Gatsby would be in the freezer by the fall. This was already a known truth. But did Gatsby know it? I wonder. I don’t think cows have awareness of self – something called theory of mind. Or is it the Mirror Test? This is reserved for primates, including children, elephants, and some crows – a personal favorite. And this means that they recognize a discrete self. Put any one of them in front of a mirror with the paint mark on their heads and they’ll likely try to clean their heads, not the mirror.

As I gazed into Gatsby’s enormous dark eyes, I doubted he had this awareness. If I just kept going I’m sure I could wonder some more. Instead I turned and went back into the barn.

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