Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Tell Soulful Stories #2: A Full Book

"Every person is born into life as a blank pageand every person leaves as a full book." Christina Baldwin

How did it happe
n? I really did not intend to write a children's book about my grandmother.

Instead, I was quite sure that my story would gently tug at a knotty dilemma I was noticing among little kids (especially girls) who one day suddenly hate the name given to them by their parents.

if the name was old fashioned (read: not cool), the name of a relative (read: ancient) rarely seen, or worse, not even living. A name sometimes worn with embarrassed sighs or impatient eyes. A name like Stella.

My story also meant to glance at celebrity worship, which so many kids (and adults!) fall into, a quicksand of media-painted appearance, pedestaled performance, and ego-driven behavior—none of which remotely resembled my grandmother Stella.

Stella never won (or competed for) celebrity babe status. Never performed for anyone—unless feeding freshly baked bread/cakes/pies/donuts or myriad cooked dishes to anyone who crossed her home's threshold qualified as performance. As for ego driven, she was too busy spotting even a smidgen of appetite in visiting family and friends, no matter what time they arrived, to care about something she could do for herself, such as relaxing for ten minutes.

To my surprise, the story I began writing about unwanted names and celebrity veneer also became a story about my grandmother, Stella Kowalski Szaj, who died some eighteen years ago. A story beyond the facts (Oct. 12, 1895 - June 30, 1992) of her to the truth of her.

Decades ago, I used to tell my high school students that we need stories whenever we want to tell a truth that is bigger than fact. (Huh? Bigger than fact? Aren't stories just harmless fantasies?) I told them that a story tells truths that facts can't begin to touch, often about love or its opposite, fear. I wanted them to know something I finally knew: Story is for close-encounter truth.

Since then I've learned that telling close-encounter truth about a beloved family member or friend takes paying awesome attention, which kicks us out of orderly, chronological fact-land and sweeps us into the territory of entangling relationship. Truth, formerly the only child of Either/Or ("Either it's true or a lie," we often tell children), now multiplies into triplets: True, Truer, Truest.

And for me, telling the truest stories about our people especially means revealing how they unwrap their deep gladness gifts—and nourish the world, hungry to receive them.

True: my grandma offered food whenever her family and friends visited.

Truer: Grandma enjoyed watching us eat up her offerings.

Truest: Grandma
's feeding us, me, was her language of "I love you." I learned and now speak "Stella," sometimes with food, often with words.

In my story, Stella Means Star, a little girl named Stella, who hates her name, experiences close-encounter truth about her great-grandmother—a "meeting" that begins adding tiny sparkles of pride to her name tag.

To my delight, Stella Means Star also tells the truth about my grandmother: the essence of who she was then, and how she still lives now...in me.

Come, cross this threshold. You just might remember someone gone or far away who still, in truth, lives...soulfully in you.

Story is the narrative thread of our experience
not what literally happens,
but what we make of what happens,
what we tell each other and what we remember."

Christina Baldwin

Stella Means Star

When I grow up, I'm going to change my name.

Or maybe I'll change it when I'm nine.

Then, when my mother says, "Stella, please come set the table," I'll have to stay sittin
g on my chair, reading my book, because I won't be STELLA anymore. Then, when she says, "Stella, please set the table" again, I'll have to finish my story because STELLA isn't my name anymore.

When Mommy says, "Stella, didn't you h
ear me? I asked you to set the table now," I will have to tell Mommy that (I am sorry to say) STELLA didn't hear her, because STELLA doesn't live here anymore.

Of course, I COULD chang
e my name when I'm eight.

Then, on the first day of school, when my new teacher calls the name of everyone who's supposed to be in my
class, no one will answer when she calls, "Stella? Raise your hand, please. Are you here?"

Everybody knows you shouldn't raise your hand and say "present" for the wrong name. I suppose that's when I'll have to tell her that STELLA doesn't go to this school anymore.

I might change my name tomorrow, on my birthday, when I'll be seven.

Then, when I meet that new girl I saw who is moving into the apartment building across the street, I will say, "Hello, my name is Cassandra. Or Belle. Or Jasmine. Or ArielLouiseSuzanne. What's yours?" (Her name WON'T be STELLA, either.)

This morning, my daddy found me copying names from some books for older kids that have lots of good names in them. I practiced writing some name I like: "Paloma"..."Guinivere"..."Amelia."

Daddy asked me if I was writing one o
f my super stories. I almost said, "Yes, I am," even though I really wasn't. I didn't want him to know that I didn't want my name anymore. I didn't want to hurt his feelings. So I said very fast, "No-I'm-finding-a-new-name."

Daddy asked me if the new name was for a school project. "Not exactly," I said.

For one of my dolls or stuffed animals then? "Not exactly," I said.

A pretend name for me or one of my friends? "No, Daddy," I said, "A real name...a new name for me."

Daddy looked at me without saying anything for a long time. I looked down at the names I wrote and wished I were invisible.

Daddy asked me if I knew
why he and Mommy named me "Stella." I said, Yes, because it was the name of his grandmother, which means she was my GREAT-grandmother. He said Yes, and that he had loved her a lot. I said, I know that, but....I stopped talking. I didn't want to tell him.

But Daddy waited and waited.

I took a big breath and said I didn't want the name STELLA anymore because nobody almost seven years old had that name...and because kids at school were always saying stupid things like "Stella Stella, Let's all yella, Stella Stella..." and because it's not a beau
tiful name like "Paloma" or "Natasha" or a special name like "Guinevere" or "Indigo" or a brave name like "Amelia" or "Pocahontas"...and because even though Stella was Great-granny's name, she died before I was even born.

Daddy looked surprised, like people do when they find out they're accidentally wearing two different socks.
Then he said Thank you, and that now he understood. He asked me if it would help to have my very own picture of the other Stella. I didn't think so, but I said okay.

He aske
d Mommy to please bring that picture of Stella when she was a bridesmaid a long time ago.

Mommy did and gave me this photograph with no color. I said thank you and stared at the la
dy in it.

She had curls in her hair that covered only one ear and
touched her shoulder. She wore some kind of fancy dress, and was holding some flowers, and smiled a little.

I told Daddy and Mommy that Stella looked kind of pretty, and maybe a little bit shy, but not really beautiful or special or brave. Mommy said, Oh, but Stella was all of those things.

She was special because she was gentle, kind, and generous. She never said anything awful about anyone, and she was always feeding lots of friends and family who dropped by her house, no matter what time of day or night they came.

She was especially
brave when two of her sons, who were only a little more than twenty years old, died in the same horrible war, one right after the other.

And all of these things made her very beautiful, Daddy said.

I didn't say anything else because I knew I had to think about Stella some more.
* * *
Tonight, I put Stella's picture on the table next to my bed.

I peeked at her just before I took my bath to see if she looked beautiful, like Daddy said.

I peeked at her again while I put on my pajamas to see if she felt special to me yet.

I peeked at her once more just before I climbed into bed to see if I could tell how brave she was.

She was still
giving me her little smile.

THEN, I remembered something very important.

I jumped out of bed, ran to the den, an
d took down our huge dictionary from the bookshelf. Mommy was always saying that a dictionary could tell you lots of interesting things. But could it tell me about "Stella"?

I turned the pages as fast as I could, past the G's, the S's, and the Z's. Past the names of American presidents, faraw
ay places, and famous artists. Then I found the names of people. There it was: "Stella"a name that means "star."

STAR! I'm Stella, but am I a star? My teacher said we all have little bits of stardust stuff in our bodies from sky stars that lived before there were people.

And everybody says stars are very beautiful people who act or dance or sing very well.

But now I think maybe stars can be people who have kind and generous and brave bits shining in themeven if they're NOT in the movies or on TV.

I'm Stella, and I'm a star.

Maybe I'll sing or dance or act someday.

Maybe I won't.

I hope that when I'm a grownup I can be a beautiful Stella-star, like my great-granny was.

Maybe I will start practicing tomorrow.

"...In the midst of overwhelming
noise and distraction,
the voice of story is calling us
to remember our true selves."

—Christina Baldwin

P.S. Christina Baldwin's
Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story is a rich, beautifully written book, combining personal stories (her own and those of other individuals) with those belonging to larger communities, including the human family itself.

Bonus: the author offers memory/story prompts for writing and conversation at the end of each chapter to become a "storycatcher." Plus she provides free storycatcher resources online on her Storycatcher Network page.

P.P.S. Yes, the photo of the demure bridesmaid is indeed my grandmother Stella, around 1918. And the the picture of the little girl with her grandmother? Uh-huh, me. Roughly the same age as my story's Stella-star.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Pay Awesome Attention #2: Counting on Ten Zen Seconds

"How come you're always so slow?" my 7-year-old friend asked me, leaning on her scooter. "I got here long time ago."

A slight exaggeration. She had zipped ahead on her Razor, hair flying, one foot dipping and pushing, dipping and pushing, arriving at the front of the stairs leading to the sprinklers near our apartment complex only forty-five seconds before.

"I like taking my time," I said. "I'm a writer, and that's what writers do. We notice things."

She fired off one of her looksnarrowed eyes that say, Uh-huh, whatever you sayand scooted on ahead again.

That's what writers do? We notice things? Uh-huh, skeptic-self muttered. Well, we do, argued writer-me.

Except when we don't...when I don't.

Like when I'm chasing so many thoughts in my head while showering that I can't remember where I washed and where I didn't. As a result, I've had lots of sniffing practice: where do I smell like soap? Right arm? Check. Left arm? Check. (As for the parts I can't reach with my nose, well, let's just say a little extra washing never hurt me yet.)

Or when I'm walking down a New York City street, mentally whirly-gigging at high speed while doing errands. Notice things? Suddenly I look up: how did I get here? I don't remember seeing the blocks I know I must have passed.

Yes, I'm glad I'm capable of sustained thinking, focusing so intently that sometimes I hardly notice New York's wailing sirens and screeching bus brakes. (Yet on other days, not noticing the City's clamor is just not on my menu of possibilities.)

But the non-stop thought crankingwhich Zen Buddhists call "monkey mind"can't be a hospitable host to my favorite guests. Understanding. Insight. Connection. Creative breakthrough. Peace. Wisdom.

Instead of paying awesome attention, listening to what my life and Life itself want to say, I'm pulled into a parade of thoughts marching, marching one after another, a few demanding ones pushing rudely to the head of the line.

The problem is, the parade doesn't know when to quit, circling right back to march again and again, nagging: What do I do about ___? When do I ___? Should I ___? How much ___? When did I ___?

The problem is, anxiety, worry, distress, stress are conducting the parade music.

Round and round we go.

Fretting, fuming, fussing: I'm not getting enough done, not finding enough time or good ideas, not being enough, period. A thought hamster running around and around a "not-enough wheel" in my head.

How to stop, nobody knows.

As for what I really want: seeing, listening, creating, and writing in flow...? Where are they? Hiding, of course, waiting for the hideously squeaking thought wheel to halt.

Wait... I just remembered: I DO know how to stop this ride and that parade. Hallelujah! Just by switching to a simple, few-minute practice that always quiets me. Even in the midst of rushing, crushing New York City.

Ready to climb aboard? Good.

Then please, take a seat on the "Ten Zen Seconds" tour bus about to depart.

I picked up the book and read the back cover. I would find "instant calm in only 10 seconds" by reciting "12 incantations...?"* That's what therapist/creativity coach Eric Maisel's book, Ten Zen Seconds: Twelve Incantations for Purpose, Power and Calm, promised.

Uh-huh, whatever you say.

Sure, I'd worked with slow deep breathing and saying positive statements as separate experiments, with the former producing far better results than the latter. But how could combining the two make an appreciable difference? I shrugged and bought the book anyway. Might be fun to try someday.

And then, one day, after a disastrous teaching experience, I found myself in enough desperation do-do that any doubts about Ten Zen Seconds no longer mattered.

On that gray, late winter day, I had stood in the conference room, leading the first session of a two-part corporate writing workshop. Accustomed to cooperation from and, often, enthusiastic participation of my students during many years of teaching, I was shocked to be the recipient of obnoxious, resistant behavior from the employee participants. Clearly, they did not want to be in that room with me, doing that workshop. I was nearly ready to grant them their wish.

We survived the session, but for days afterward my mood swung like a pendulum, from how-dare-they! anger to how-can-I-fix-this? determinationand back again. I grabbed the Ten Zen Seconds book. A survival manual for the upcoming second session...?

At minimum, perhaps working with the incantations would release enough stress steam so that I could get through the workshop in one piece.

I didn't receive my hoped-for minimum.

Instead, a breath-taking maximum took hold and brought me back...to paying awesome attention.

Early in the morning of workshop session two, I climb aboard the bus that will take me to my client's corporate location. The vehicle hardly pulls out of its Manhattan bus terminal slot when I begin to say the dozen Ten Zen statements, following the directions: recite 1/2 of each statement while inhaling for five seconds, followed by the statement ending as I exhale for five seconds.
I am completely / stopping.
I expect / nothing.

Inhale, exhale, moving through all twelve incantations.
I am / doing my work.
I trust / my resources.

(Yes, I still doubt. But I have nothing to lose, and a great deal to gain.)
I feel / supported.
I embrace / this moment.

I check in with myself after the recommended one complete round. Okay, I feel a bit better, but not enough to sustain me for the next eight hours. I begin repeating a second round of all twelve statements, as before, splitting each into two parts, five seconds breathing in, five seconds breathing out.
I am free / of the past.
I make / my meaning.

Then, a third round.
I am open / to joy.
I am equal / to this challenge.

The miles move past my window, and still I inhale and exhale, now speaking each sentence from memory.
I am / taking action.
I return / with strength.

Suddenly, I know it's time to stop the process. I feel completely calm and relaxed, all tiredness and anxiety gone. I test the results. I deliberately imagine the participants, including the most resistant ones. I recall the pain of the first session, looking for a leftover "ouch." No reaction. I remain serene and quietly assured of my skills. Best of all, I am sweetly unattached to any specific workshop outcome. I no longer clutch the customized workshop notebook I'd worked such long hours to create.

Soon after, I stand in front of the participants, recapping the first session's main content points. Now I am seeing them with different eyes, eyes that recognize the "bad behavior" of the first session simply as fear. Not of me, but of their jobs (which, I learn, many do not like), workload, and yes, in half of the group, inadequate writing skills.

I have not contracted to work individually with each participantwhich requires hours of private one-on-one assessments and suggestions. But I accommodate the apologetic organizer's request anyway. Easily. Smoothly. Energetically. With awesome attention gladly given to each participant.

Early evening. I am sitting in the bus again, homeward bound. An imaginary bouquet of many real thank you's and several requests for a return engagement accompanies me.

I breathe in and out, slowly and deeply, this time in gratitude.

I am a writer and teacher who, at my best, takes time to notice things... including when my thought wheel is frantically spinning, and the frenetic parade can't remember how to stop.


"Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it,
I must listen to my life telling me who I am."

Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

* Here's the complete list of Eric Maisel's twelve Ten Zen "incantations" with breathing in /breathing out breaks. Try the process the next time you need to turn off stress and turn on awesome attention. And yes, please do let me know what happens.

(Small confession: though the author suggests using the wording as given, I tweaked two of the twelve statements for a better personal fit. Hey, I'm a writer!)

I am completely / stopping.
I expect / nothing.

I am / doing my work.

I trust / my resources.

I feel / supported.

I embrace / this moment.
I am free / of the past.

I make / my meaning.

I am open / to joy.

I am equal / to this challenge.
I am / taking action.
I return / with strength.

(Incantations printed here with permission of author Eric Maisel.)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Nourish This Awakening World #1: Wake Up, My Love

Yoo-hoo...anybody there?

Yes, you with the eyeballs scanning this page.

Wait...don't flit away.

Stay a while...please.

Take off your to-do's
stretch your gotta-get-going
make yourself comfortable.

What can I get you:
Some reflections to ruminate on?
A story to slowly digest?
A snippet of poetry or prose to savor later?

Come in, stay a while, enjoy your visit.

Um, but first, could you please wipe your feet a few more times on the welcome mat?
(You won't take it, when you leave...right? Welcome mats cost so much these days.)

Oh, and one more little thing: if you could just put your hand on this inkpad..? The fingerprinting won't take long. I promise.

No, really, I mean it. Come in. (Just don't take what's not yours.)
Stay a while. (Just don't steal anything that's mine.)
Oh...you're leaving so soon? (Make sure all my words are put back where they belong, okay?)

Fear is an awful host.

Ah, but you're just being realistic, you might tell me.
This is how the world is, you might advise.
People steal stuff, defraud, make a profit from what belongs to someone else. The news proves this everyday. You gotta protect yourself. That's the truth.

Except that for me it's not...the whole truth, that is.

Sure, daily doses of names, dates, and deeds factually document the dangers of those who turn over their savings, creations, hearts to others. Suckers. Wise up, people. Don't show anyone (except maybe your family) anything valuable without first padlocking it, copyrighting it, or attaching an alarm. People will steal your stuff, you know, given half a chance.

Well, yes, they might.

But here comes the whole-truth part: if I don't freely give what is deepest in me, dearest to me, I can't be received—by you or anyone.
And if I'm not received, I can't fully unwrap the gifts that I am.
I remain securely bound by wrappings and decorations. Boxed in. Safe. Intact. And unopened.

Like Ebenezer Scrooge, before the night of his ghostly visitors—and his eleventh hour rescue from his smallest, fearful self.

In Charles Dickens's 1843 classic, A Christmas Carol, Scrooge—"a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner"—clings to his Midas-touch for conducting business and making money. Piles of it.

No welcome mat lies at Scrooge's door. Only misery. A mother who died in his childhood, an indifferent father who sent him away to school, a loving fiance who broke her engagement with him—all stockpile Scrooge's fear of personal relationships and stoke his fierce determination to lockbox massive amounts of money. All chain his heart, imprisoning him. He can't give to those who need his generosity, and can't receive from those who want to love him.

Enter the chain-clanking, moaning ghost of Scrooge's dead partner, Jacob Marley. Jacob Marley, former excellent businessman who learned too late that humankind was his true business. Jacob Marley, a zombie forever condemned to walk the earth helplessly witnessing human suffering without being able to help in any way. Jacob Marley, who tries to save Scrooge from the same hellish fate by arranging three hauntings from Christmases Past, Present, and Future.

The Scrooge story has a happy ending, of course. After seeing a vision of his own grave and no one to celebrate his life or mourn his death, he throws off his smallest, fearful self, deliriously dancing and whooping his glee. Freely and lovingly sharing his wealth, himself. Forevermore.

Nice story. But what's wrong with making lots of money, especially if you're fantastically good at it? Nothing. It's just that making money isn't Scrooge's deepest, dearest gift—which remains unwrapped and unopened until the hauntings scare him awake.

What is? A heart-singing trio.
And giving these gifts with no strings attached, in turn, saves him.
Not just because the eventual recipients of his wealth are healed (Tiny Tim), grateful (the charitable men and Bob Cratchit's family), and joyful (nephew Fred).
Because their gratitude, joy, and willingness to receive the real Scrooge, despite decades of mistreatment by the former skinflint, heals Scrooge.

Unless I am received, I remain unclaimed, unwrapped, uncirculated. Alone. Miserly. Miserable. Sort of dead.

Money, words, hearts: all need to circulate, "to follow a course that returns to the starting point." When circulation—whether within an individual body or among billions of people—slows, clogs, ceases, we become ill. And what if no one loves us enough to awaken us from our grasping, scraping, clutching little selves to be the gifts we already are...? We shrivel and die.

So does the world, a little at a time, each time you or I shrink into our smallest, fearful selves, holding back the awesome attention and deep-gladness gifts we were made to offer to each other.

I'm seeing and listening to more and more good news lately. The world is yawning, slowly waking from a centuries-old comatose belief that what I do "is none of your business." That if you are not in my family or other approved tribe, I am separate and unrelated to you. That stockpiling my fame and fortune at all costs is "job #1."

Little by little
we're stretching into a heart-singing knowing
and connecting with
and celebrating
that we, everyone of us together, are job #1.

Look around:
See us standing on welcome mats
holding out minds, hands, hearts
with money, words, ourselves
ready to be received
by a world that deeply needs us.

I have heard it all my life,
A voice calling a name I recognized as my own.

Sometimes it comes as a soft-bellied whisper.
Sometimes it holds an edge of urgency.

But always it says: Wake up, my love. You are walking asleep. There's no safety in that!

One day, I am sitting at a children's book fair, with two of the books I wrote stacked on the table in front of me. A mom walks into the room with her daughter, who is about seven years old. Surveying the books on the tables nearest the door, where I am located, the mom spots my first children's book, I Hate Goodbyes.

"Oh, look," she says to her daughter, "the author has written another book. We'll have to get this one too, won't we?"

Her daughter nods eagerly, taking the book from her mom, beginning to read it.

The mom looks up, noticing me. "Are you the author?"

I nod that I am.

"I have to tell you. We moved here recently, which terribly uprooted and upset my daughter. She didn't like her new school and didn't want to learn. Then we got your book, which I read to her many times, at her request."

I am pleased; I know my book must be hitting an emotional home run with the little girl. Exactly the kind of reception an author wants.

The mom glances at my nametag. "Kathy, there's more. My daughter learned to read with your book. It's the first one she ever read by herself. Now she's doing fine at her new school and loves to read."

Her daughter looks up at me, smiles shyly, then returns to reading my—her—new book.

I swallow, trying hard not to cry in front of them.

Show me how you offer to your people and the world
the stories and the songs you want our children’s children to remember. And I will show you how I struggle
not to change the world,
but to love it.

Yoo-hoo...anybody there?

Ah, there you are.

Please come in
take off your smallest, fearful self
and stay a while.

What can I get for you?

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Good-news goodies:
* poem excerpt from
The Call by Oriah
** poem excerpt from The Dance by Oriah