I’ve been writing one book in particular since about 2014. First, it served as my MFA Nonfiction thesis. When it was accepted by the committee, I chose to embargo its academic publication. I wanted to give this little book a chance to be published before it became fodder for future academics and scholars. But the question of who would publish it grew tough. Who would read a story about a woman in the early twentieth century who becomes a medium for interesting voices, through automatic writing? A woman who, unlike Sarah Winchester, did not become famous. And unlike Jane Roberts or Sylvia Browne, did not publish her writings for a commercial audience. My book seemed to be too much of a family story to be literature, but too lyrical to be a straight-up biography.
While I hunted for publishers and agents, the entire book had to be overhauled anyway – the academic tones rinsed out, and new transitions inserted. Pieces I loved all the way to the last draft had to be ruthlessly axed, while other items from an early draft marched back in.
From 2017 through early 2020, I alternately cast it down and took it back up. I hated myself when I wasn’t writing, a common writer trait. I began to bargain with my Higher Power. ‘Show me what to do,” I demanded. “Make it really obvious!” The first break in the mist was an email from my uncle, saying he’d help me publish the book for the family. I began to realize that this was an offer of real freedom – I would not have to change the book to fit the agenda or category for an agent or a publisher.
Then the pandemic arrived, changing my daily routines -- no more commute, no movies, no restaurants, no gatherings. Many people talk about how they are cleaning their closets and gardening during this COVID era. I don’t have a garden and in 2020, most of my worldly goods were in storage. So I came back to the book. I kept coming back until one day, it felt done.
Then a good friend decided to self-publish using an online behemoth you all know – and she told me how easy and straightforward the process was. She was right! Within two weeks I had a cover design, a formatted interior and an ISBN number. Thanks to my uncle, I was able to order about 50 copies of that little book and gift them to family members. Sending all these good people a book that I wrote about channeling spirits through automatic writing was a bit like going to a big reunion and taking my clothes off. I wanted to go into hiding for a few months until I felt safe again.
But I finished the book, and I made it the very best I could. The response has been warm and positive. Writing the book grew me as a writer and as a historian, and as a member of my communities. And I am pleased to realize that, whatever good readers can find in it, by bringing their own spacious minds to interact with the page, that is a little bit of good that would not otherwise have existed in the world. That scrap of good is my legacy.
Helen and the Masters: A Portrait of a California Mystic is available as a paperback on Amazon.
“Eat the butter,” a friend joked when I posted a photo of sweet, buttery cookies that I’m “giving up” for Lent this year. She thoughtfully linked to a news story in which Pope Francis recommends that we consider giving up indifference to others this year. I very much appreciate the wisdom, and that brief exchange made me want to delve deeper into the mechanics of Lent and other religious practices – Ramadan, Yom Kippur – that offer opportunities to pray, repent, fast, and do good works or give alms. Because of the universality of this practice, I’m removing Lent’s religious coverings to get a better look at the biophysics and metaphysics of these four exhortations.
In my part of the world, it’s early spring, and all sorts of agitations are afoot. The weather is changeable, windy, and wet; it can be hot one moment and very cold the next; the light is bright against black shadows. Baby lambs, children, teenagers and adults alike experience growing pains. In the university where I work the students are in the “grind” part of the semester: the gloss of starting has worn off, and the fruits of their work are still months away. This season goes so much more smoothly when I add a daily session of quiet and meditation. While an ideal diet of quiet could be a half hour in the morning and another in the evening, I’m convinced that even five minutes a day is a good start. The benefit of sitting quietly, perhaps focusing on my breath or on a positive thought, is that it gives me a chance to come back to center in the midst of all the external agitation and change. Blood pressure drops, breath can deepen. A prayer of gratitude generally arises from that quiet.
To repent means to rethink something, and to try to do better. When I repent, I let my mind jump out of the track of an old habit and give it a chance to start a better habit. This year, I’m trying to cure myself of unconsciously using (and throwing “away”) single-use plastics. I’ve also been wanting to get back to public transportation. Baby steps work best for me, so I’m jumping on the light rail every Friday, and bringing my mug with me to coffee shops.
Like so many others, I have a sneaky part in my brain that sees Lent as a chance to lose weight. This year I’m facing that head-on. Lent is not about losing weight, but in a funny way, it could be. Think about how it used to be before planes flew produce around the world all year long. In the Northern hemisphere Lent is the season in which our larder of last fall’s potatoes and apples grows thin – we’ve been eating roots and heavier foods all winter and treating ourselves with sweets (Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day) as a spark of brightness in the long night. But now the ground is giving forth lettuces and young dandelion leaves, a tonic of sweet and bitter greens that fortify our livers. So the period of Lent has corresponded with eating less. But the call to fast is also the call to sacrifice something and to take that energy and pour it into the next practice, which is giving generously. Energetically, these two practices are both sides of the one coin; less for me, that I may give more to you. So this year I am abstaining from what I call luxury foods, and also not eating until I am actually hungry. This clarifies my relationship with food (I’m one of those emotional eaters) and frees up my energy for the next practice.
Do good works/Give alms
I hope I’ve established that quitting something without giving to others is not the point of the Lenten or Ramadan or Yom Kippur practice. It’s not just about me – it’s about having a loving heart and helping to create stronger social ties and heal our world. When we intend to do good, at least in my experience, the opportunities come thick and fast. This year I’ve been working with a committee to alleviate student hunger in my school, but then the flood in San Jose arrived and I can do something there, too. Lent is also a great time to write encouraging letters to others. There’s no shortage of opportunity.
Finally, this is a season with a beginning and an end. We are human; we need discrete practices that approach and recede. This chance comes every year; this year I strive to do my best, and accept that it will be imperfect. Six weeks is a good length of time to practice new habits, and maybe my meditation and public transportation habits will stick around even longer.
But give yourself a fighting chance at this—it’s not enough to just decide what to do on Ash Wednesday and then hope for the best. Track the progress. Find a small notebook and give a sheet to each of your practices. Ignore the failures—take failure out of the equation. Instead, every time you have a success, make a tick mark. I said no to pastry twice yesterday, and passed the bowl of chocolates at the counter. It was a secret delight to whip out my notebook and make three marks. See how many marks you can amass in the next forty days. Build the good habits, and allow openness and the curiosity to see what other thoughts arise about yourself, about creating a better world. And be prepared for joy to arise -- not at the end, but all the way through.
In January I went to a silent retreat for the first time.
There I sat on a cushion on a mat, facing some other soul in a room of about sixty, feeling my poor, overstretched knees go numb yet again. How did I get to this wretchedly uncomfortable place? Before coming I could MAYBE meditate for 20 minutes, a few times a week, and had always felt positive that more than a day of silence would be intolerable.
We had been kind of tricked into it, you see. My mother had met a teacher of zen koans in New Mexico, and now he was offering a winter retreat in Santa Rosa. I explored his web site and I'm pretty sure that nowhere on the site were the words, “You will sit thirty minutes, walk fifteen, sit for thirty more, walk fifteen, sit for thirty more, walk for ten, and then have breakfast. Then start the whole thing over from breakfast to lunch, from lunch to dinner, etc.” Had they been there, even a hint, I probably would not have signed up.
But here we were. The first two days were hard, hard, I’m not going to lie. My brain was not used to this and screamed at me all night long with crazy rhymes and bits of music and chatter. But then it got better. By the fifth day I felt stable, spacious, and integrated, the way I used to feel before adolescence. All through the week I noticed the sounds of silence:
6 a.m., many people in a dark library lit by candles. We've all had a sip of green tea and, here and there, stomachs growl.
The shaft of morning light lengthening as it finds its way down the wall.
A barefoot teacher walking very, very slowly across the carpet and bowing to students.
The collective silence of people eating, eyes downcast to preserve everyone’s privacy. In this space, I discovered the miracle of how extraordinary simple food tastes when you are not busy chatting about something to someone.
The warm silence when a morning fills with birdcalls, and then they all cease.
The peace of one's tiny room upstairs, very different from the meditation hall.
Students pondering a koan late at night by the fireplace. Space to hear the cracking and snapping of a lit log.
Within that mysterious palace of silence, my spine grew and my senses sharpened. Gladness grew in my heart. Was it that simple? We carry our breath wherever we go.
I walked into the garden one morning. Across an expanse of brown twigs, the tangy coral of crab apple blossoms shouted out to me.
One of my heroes will arrive soon in my metropolis. Actually, she is also bringing several of my heroes with her.
This is not a paid announcement; Oprah and her extensive staff have no idea of my existence. But the fact of her coming to what we still call “The Shark Tank” in downtown San Jose—and that I am going to spend an evening and a day as part of the audience--seems so mighty as to be blog-worthy.
I came to Oprah late. You can find all kinds of stories about her success in television: the boundaries her show pushed, her rise through multiple glass ceilings. Not much of a TV watcher at the time, I first found her while sifting through the library’s free magazine box for collage materials. I judged O Magazine to be an excellent source of colorful images and paper (it still is. So is Martha Stewart Living).
Over time, my issues of O magazine grew too full of relevant articles and pithy wisdom to cut up. I bought a subscription. Oprah had already started building an academy for girls in the Gautang province of South Africa; she produced movies; the episode where she dragged a wagon of lost fat onstage was already legend.
She graduated from her TV show and began to tackle the huge issues of running a network. That's when my love affair with her "Super Soul Sunday" program began. I record the shows and dip into them while I make dinner of weekdays.
With the advent of her interviews with people whom I can only describe as "awake," I realized Oprah herself ha become one of my strongest spiritual teachers. She delights in wisdom, refuses to stick to one dogma, and broadcasts what she finds. She's creating and maintaining a world-class interfaith seminary, freely open to anyone with access to a television. I hold her in a category with Joseph Campbell, Carl Sagan, and Dr. Matthew Fox. She walks her talk and puts her money behind these lofty goals. I want to do something good in the world like she does.
My other heroes who might be there: Elizabeth Gilbert, Dr. Deepak Chopra, Iyanla Vanzant, and Rob Bell.
The show is titled “The Life You Want,” and I feel blessed to be already leading one, so I don’t plan to change course radically. But I am drawn to these beautiful souls, and want to absorb as much wisdom I can.
This is the outside of Oakland's amazing Cathedral of Christ the Light. When I wandered inside and meditated for a little while, I remembered how my own spiritual pilgrimage began.
My early childhood Sunday mornings were spent reading the funnies while the grown-ups padded around in robes, drinking coffee, perhaps cleaning the aquarium or getting sun in the garden. The only intimations of religion I remember were from television: Sidney Poitier visiting some stubborn nuns and building their church, and Sally Field as the disarming Flying Nun.
Then, around age ten, I detoured one day from walking home from school (my house key on a string around my neck) and headed instead to old grey St. Bridget's a block away. They didn't lock their doors then. I slipped inside and sat down in a pew, awed and excited. My solitary experience that day was of sweet silence, light through colored windows, the faint smell of sweat and incense. I asked my father that night if I could be a Catholic.
Dad, embracing Unitarian and Humanist fellowships after a Jewish and Christian Scientist childhood, managed to hide his surprise. "You can be baptized anything you want," he said firmly. "Once you are eighteen."
Suddenly, becoming baptized seemed tremendously important to me. Dad showed me a book called "The Church Down the Street." "Look at all these religions you can choose from," he said, leafing through the chapters. Baptist. Jew. Muslim. Buddhist. "I recommend you study them before you make up your mind." My work was cut out for me.
Over the next seven years, I attended a session of Catholic summer camp and two years of Jewish summer camp; six months of Wednesday night youth group at my Mormon friend's church; yoga and meditation classes at the stuffy top-floor studio of the Iyengar Yoga Institute; zen meditation at Green Gulch; informal but thorough lessons in Wicca and Tarot reading from friends; services and summer family camp with Unitarians, and some quiet time sitting with Friends. Oh, and a ten week course in Episcopalian history.
As I turned eighteen, I had the usual mix of blustery bravado and intense shyness, idealism and cynicism. I was living with a boyfriend by then, waitressing, writing poetry. Dad mentioned that he was worried about me-- so many young people were flocking to the Hare Krishnas, to Jim Jones, to Reverend Sun Moon. "No way, Dad," I said. I had already proven to myself that, with my freethinking ideas, I did not fit in anywhere.
The previous summer, I had baptized myself by a splashing snow-melt stream in the high Tuolomne Meadows. The bright sun was nearly swallowed in vast blue sky, and the banks of the stream were a riot of Indian paintbrush and purple lupine.
I am packing up my woolly long-sleeved things and getting ready to head down the Pacific Coast to take a five day workshop around spiritual practices.
See this photo? That’s what I’ll be looking at, unless Divine Humor sends fog and rain instead.
I’m trying not to interfere with life’s grand unfolding by inserting expectations about how it will be. Still, I am giddy with excitement. A retreat! And not a silent retreat, and not a retreat where I have to sit much longer than an hour. My desperate needs to move and talk would make me a lousy Trappist.
Why this now? I think I am hoping to bring something home in my pocket. I want to bring home a more solid prayer-and-meditation practice.
When I worked in a corporate environment the regular hours lent themselves better to a daily practice. But in grad school, writing another book and attending meetings upon meetings, Monday looks nothing like Tuesday. Last week is different from this week, and in several weeks the schedule will change again.
In this environment, attaching practices to a specific hour is a misguided venture. I take heart from swaying grasses on the sides of a swift river. The stems bend to wind and water and it doesn't matter; their roots hold firm.
I know by now that I like to split the practice itself into two parts. The rhythm two parts is both restful and productive. There’s the beginning of the day, where the essential action is to connect to my power source. It doesn’t have to be fancy. But I do have to be willing and active about it.
The second part might be called, “How did I do?” In remembering the day I get a chance to relive all the good parts--that's double the joy! And I can ask for help around the not-so-good. Without this afternoon/evening part, I’m on permanent forward thrust without a rudder.
And would it hurt to add a couple of sun salutations every day?
Maybe a stronger, more solid yet easily portable practice will emerge from this workshop, maybe it won't. At least I've spent some time thinking about my intention for going, and later this evening, if I remember to remember, I'll get to relive that little piece of joy.
Here are some thoughts about weddings, writing, and the world. Enjoy.