L.A. Inspiration

The L.A. freeway system should be one of the marvels of the modern world. As I spent some quality time sitting on the I-10 a few months ago, the magnitude of the system impressed me.

Think what happens on L.A.’s freeways every day. Millions of individual units travel to work, to the doctor’s office, to the grocery store and home largely without incident. They’re not required to follow a certain path. Rather, the system’s design allows them to take any route they can dream up.

It’s not surprising that there’s gridlock; it’s surprising that people get anywhere at all. Movement happens because we created this incredible system in which each highway connects to all the other highways and to the main artery roads that connect to all the surface streets. None  of the streets got missed! None of them end in the middle of the block!

Last weekend, I drove past the San Diego docks, home to a collection of gigantic cranes for lifting containers on and off ships. These massive machines inspired the same thought as did sitting in traffic in L.A.—if we can create this, then surely we can create something better. Think of the years, probably lifetimes, of mental and physical work that people have poured into this infrastructure—the planning, the engineering, the sheer creativity. There didn’t used to be freeway systems, and now there are—look what we are capable of!

Whether these cars and machines are the answer to our woes or one giant mistake, they point to an encouraging truth: our potential is vast.

Strike Anywhere

Wouldn’t it be nice if our mental, emotional, and spiritual lives required no activation energy?

Activation energy is the energy you have to put into a system to start a chemical reaction. Paper doesn’t burn on its own—you have to provide the match or the lightning bolt. Applying this concept to life in general is a brilliant idea I am stealing from a biology professor I recently interviewed.

Activation energy in life is the oomph it takes us to force ourselves to begin things: go to the gym, do our taxes, write a blog post, bake a cake. Even when I know the result will be enjoyable—cake!—beginning is often difficult. Lying down on the couch seems like a better idea. Sometimes, I really need to lie down on the couch, but oftentimes, activation energy appears to require the power burner on a professional gas range when a match will do.

The problem is that I don’t usually recognize the illusion. Whatever I’m avoiding appears to be a long and arduous journey fraught with peril when really the first couple of steps are just a little muddy.

I think being more conscious of this difficulty with beginnings will help me remember that my resistance isn’t as powerful as it seems. Instead of telling myself, wow, this is way too difficult, I must lie down on the couch, I can say, oh, that’s just the activation energy talking; I only have to take a few steps and then the reaction will continue on its own.

Love One Another

This week I was reminded that life pretty much boils down to one thing: love one another. I didn’t make this up. I heard it at church on Sunday.

The priest didn’t make it up, either. Jesus said it a few times. And he didn’t make it up—he learned it from the Jewish tradition. I don’t know all the world’s wisdom traditions backward and forward, but I’d be surprised if any of them didn’t at least mention this idea.

I don’t always remember to love, though, and even when I do, I don’t always practice it. It’s not a complicated teaching like algebra or a foreign language, which can be hard to learn and easy to forget. Yet I don’t spend the majority of my day thinking, “What would be the most loving thing to do in this situation?”

Or maybe “love one another” is hard to learn and easy to forget. Hard to learn because we’re taught that other things—wealth, success, physical beauty—matter more; easy to forget in the constant barrage of daily messages advertising any number of things that are supposed to make us feel loved, none of which include loving one another.

On top of that, there is this whole problem of being human. For reasons I don’t understand, we have a lot of fear and failings built in. No one had to make up greed and envy either, we do those unprompted.

But we also love unprompted and maybe we just need to practice more. It can be daunting if we start with the equivalent of the quadratic equation or irregular verbs, so we could take some guidance from David Roche, who leads the Church of 80% Sincerity. In the Church of 80% Sincerity, as Anne Lamott puts it, “everyone has come to understand that unconditional love is a reality, but with a shelf life of about eight to ten seconds.”

And miraculously, that is enough. The priest said one other thing: only love will change the world, not policies, not wars, not this cause or that one, only love. Amen.

Words to Live By

It’s National Poetry Month! Some of you may object to that exclamation mark and think that National Poetry Month is not far removed from National Root Canal Month, but I beg a couple paragraphs’ worth of your indulgence to convince you otherwise.

National Poetry Month April 2018, poets.orgSometime before we were taught that only English teachers can understand poetry, I believe that everyone loved poetry. “Humpty Dumpty,” after all, is a poem.

In grade school, poetry is often taught first as if it were mainly a question of counting syllables and later as if it were written in a different language. Shakespeare and Chaucer wrote some amazing verses, but here are the first two lines of the prologue to The Canterbury Tales:

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote.

In the midst of your years of teenage angst, unless you were a future Middle English scholar, that might not have spoken to your soul. Imagine how different your relationship to poetry might be if, instead, you’d gotten a few lines of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Poetry is as close as we get to saying the unsayable. It’s the language to use when you most desperately need to be understood, when your heart is broken seven different ways and in the middle you find either unending despair or astonishing hope, when the beauty of a rain drop on a blade of grass has taken your breath away or reminded you of your own mortality or both.

If you like music, you like poetry. If you like the psalms, you like poetry. If you like Paul Simon, you like hard poetry. Here are a few lines from “Obvious Child” whose meaning is far from obvious (punctuation is mine):

I’m accustomed to a smooth ride,
Or maybe I’m a dog who’s lost its bite.
I don’t expect to be treated like a fool no more.
I don’t expect to sleep through the night.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, give me a month. I’ll post a beautiful and accessible poem every few days in addition to the regular Tuesday night entries. Here’s one of my favorites to start:

The Magical Eraser
By Shel Silverstein

She wouldn’t believe
This pencil has
A magical eraser.
She said I was a silly moo,
She said I was a liar too,
She dared me prove that it was true,
And so what could I do—
I erased her!

Awed and Amazed

It’s been a cup runneth over kind of summer on the Central Coast.

A couple of weeks ago a friend and I met by the beach to talk about writing and ended up bird watching. A swarm—yes, a swarm, as in way beyond a flock—of sooty shearwaters had turned a large patch of ocean brown. They couldn’t have been more than 100 yards off shore.
thousands of sooty shearwaters on the water
At some point, we figured we’d had our evening’s worth of magnificence and turned away, only to be lured back by the number of birds, their closeness, the constant splashes of pelicans fishing. I felt both the desire to and the impossibility of taking it all in.

At the same time, a few whales took up residence in Avila Bay and were kind enough to let the human world know about it by sticking their heads out of the water to feed, breaching, and jumping. I didn’t see the whales, but I did see some phenomenal pictures. A friend who did see them spoke of trying to leave several times and being pulled back to watch some more, much as we had been with the birds.

There’s a lot in life that’s just too big or too wonderful to absorb. Part of my brain wanted to hold onto and process all of those birds, to sort them or comprehend them. But what kept us watching wasn’t the possibility of comprehension.

Knowing exactly how many birds there were or understanding why the fish they were after had come so close to shore wouldn’t have improved the experience. If you measured every detail and understood every interaction at every moment, all that knowledge would not add up to the sense of sheer magnitude and wonder those birds inspired.

I’m blown away by nature on a fairly regular basis, but occasionally she pulls out the stops and reminds me that, when it comes to awe, she has an almost infinite repertoire.

As We Are

I seem to be retreat/relaxation challenged. I spent a long weekend at a cabin in Yosemite, and the first two days were reminiscent of my monastery experience.

I worried that I would break some complicated apparatus, such as the stove, or that I would need to ask the neighbors to help me fill the water tank and they would hate me, which as everyone knows is how most rational human beings react when someone asks for help. Mind you, I hadn’t even checked the tank.

wildflowerAt this point I did the only sensible thing and went for a walk. (For those of you who are plot-driven, the tank was full and the neighbors brought me chocolate chip cookies—the best of all possible endings.) On one hillside, I saw a wildflower that starts life curled up like a fern. A few of the blossoms had just begun to poke out into white spikes.

The flowers reminded me of one of my least favorite phrases in the whole world: Let all things be exactly as they are. Unfortunately, they argued in favor of it.

Some reasons to hate this saying: war, poverty, mass species extinction, etc. But wildflowers have no control over whether they happen to spring up on the posh hillside or on some less desirable slope, and what good will it do them to try for spiky, white petals before springtime?

Did the other half of Half Dome want to remain in place, or did it strive to break off before the ice age? Either way, hard to argue with a glacier or lack thereof.

Part of me still resists things as they are, but part of me says, trust the glaciers. The water tank may be full. The neighbors may bring cookies. We will bloom or break when it’s time, and either result may be unexpectedly beautiful.

Let It Be

If authors did risk assessments, no one would ever begin a book. I’ve been working on a new novel for a little while and have only pieces of the world my characters inhabit, pieces that may never coalesce into a whole. I could spend five years writing this story and still not discover the crucial turn in the plot.

Considering how little faith I often have in simple things, this uncertainty should unhinge me. For example, I will check and double-check all the letters in a mail merge, as if the name field goblin might infiltrate Microsoft Word and match Joe’s address with Sally’s salutation. Given that impressive paranoia, I have a surprising amount of faith in this emerging novel, even though it still refuses to let me get too structured about things—no outlining allowed.

Established relationships are more comfortable, more familiar. In my already completed novel, I know the characters and the terrain—both emotional and geographical—intimately. I’m fond of the people and the place.

But this void of beginning offers a paradoxical peacefulness. There is nothing to do but wait for the novel to reveal itself. The usual poking and prodding and futurizing I engage in with the other aspects of my life will only shut the door this book-to-be is entering through.

Maybe all beginnings have this openness to them only we don’t realize it. We are too focused on getting to where we think whatever it is—our life, our relationship, our dinner—should go. We hardly even realize we’re participating in the creation of something new because we’re so focused on the completion of it.

It might help to watch more parts of my life unfold like unwritten novels that I can’t force ahead of where they are. It would help with the fretting.