Permission to Make Art –Badly

sycamorecanopyHeaderWhen I was in graduate school, writing my thesis, (which ultimately became a memoir, LIFT) I found myself stuck. I don’t just mean that I was having a few bad weeks, stuck. I mean I seriously didn’t know what to write anymore or if I even should write any more.

I had a meticulous outline of the book. It was based on my first season flying a peregrine falcon, which I had thoroughly journaled online and in private. So I had plenty of material. I knew I wanted to write a story about falconry that drew the sort of parallels that A River Runs Through It drew from fly fishing. So I knew what the message was. I was halfway through the book and I suddenly just didn’t have the words anymore.

I had written three books before this, a romance novel and two reference books. So I knew I could finish a book. I knew how to start, follow an outline, work my way through the middle, and write the ending. I understood how books were written.  Until I didn’t.

In desperation, I finally met with my thesis advisor and tried to explain my predicament. I started the conversation by trying to logic my way around my problem. I swore I didn’t believe in writer’s block. I suggested I was just being lazy.

My thesis advisor, Chris Abani sat in front of me, a half smile on face, nodding, but saying nothing. He simply gestured for me to continue.

I wondered if I should drink less tequila …or maybe more.  I thought maybe I should sit in front of my computer and quit flying my falcon until I finally started writing. Any writing would be better than no writing. How hard was it just to write something?  Anything?

Now Chris looked sympathetic and clasped his hands like a priest taking confession, but he still said nothing. He just waited.

I finally cracked. “I can’t do this”, I sobbed. “I just don’t have the words. I don’t know what the words are… Where did the words go?!”

Chris smiled, shook his head and finally began speaking. Grabbing a notebook, he ripped out a sheet of paper and scribbled on it like it was prescription. “I want you to go see, Juan Felipe,” he said. “Juan Felipe will fix you right up.”

I took the piece of paper, but just stared at him. Juan Felipe Herrera was the poetry professor. My thesis advisor was prescribing… poetry??

I’m a horrible poet. The last poem I remember writing went something like this:
Once I had a kitten
He was small as a mitten
I couldn’t think of a name
So I called him cat.

Cat in the hat, my mother called him
Pain in the neck my father called him
He begged for milk
He begged for food
So my brother called him no good…

Okay, I wrote that in third grade, but you get the idea. This was not going to help me, but Chris shooed me out of the office before I could argue and I stood perplexed with Juan Felipe’s name in my hand. (Which I have no idea why I needed, because I knew Juan Felipe and he was just done the hall…)

Dutifully, though, I spoke with Juan Felipe who listened to me very closely, as if some single word in my story might reveal the solution to this quandary. Then he suddenly raised his hands as if the answer was obvious. “Bring me 12 photos of hunting with your falcon,” he said. “They can be on the way to hunt, in the field, on the way back, whatever. Just bring me twelve.”

I was still dubious, but I spent a week looking through photos and trying to choose the right ones. I didn’t know what Juan Felipe was going to make me do with them, but I’d be saddled with my choices. So I considered carefully. And as I did I thought about the day each of them was taken. There were good days, bad days, surprising days, and few funny ones. It was harder to choose than I thought.

When I brought selection of photos to Juan Felipe, he sifted through them quickly, as if they were from a tarot deck and he was picking the appropriate cards, sorting out six.

“Write a poem about each of these,” he said.

I started to protest, but one of the photos caught my eye. It was familiar the candy-colored sunrise over the clouded desert on a drive out to hawk at dawn. I found myself wondering what the right word for that color was. It reminded me of cherry 7-Up. Except that wasn’t quite right either.

So I took back my photos and wrote my poems. They weren’t great, but at least there was no rhyming of mittens and kittens. And after I wrote them, my mind unlocked. I never did come up with quite the right word for the sunrise, but there isn’t one. What I did was come back to my memoir with a fervor and passion for tiny details. And the details led me back into the story.

And Juan Felipe, by the way, well, he became the United States Poet Laureate in 2015, ten years later.

Poetry did so well for me that I took a couple classes. I didn’t get much better. Then I took undergraduate photography so I could learn to use the darkroom. I was okay. I also took screenwriting. I was phenomenally bad.

All of these things, however, brought me back to my own art fresh and at a different angle. Poetry, as horrible at it as I am, saved my thesis.

Adam Grant, in his new book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, says that a study by 15 researchers at Michigan State University compared every Nobel Prize scientist with the typical scientists of their era to search for delineating differences. What they found was that both groups obtained deep expertise in their fields, but the Nobel Prize winners were dramatically more likely to be involved in the arts than their counterparts. There were painters, sculptors, glass-blowers, fiction writers, amateur actors, and musicians. Another study showed similar results for entrepreneurs and CEOs. And you know what? I bet a lot of them were doing art badly, just like me.

And it makes me wonder why any of us set aside hobbies that make us curious. Why is everyone waiting to set up their woodshop and start tinkering until after they retire? Why can’t we take a stab at sculpting until we have more time and money? Why, don’t we make bad art when it could make us better at the thing we are best at doing?

While I know that pursuing new avenues of art is also a wonderful form of procrastination, (YAY! PROCRASTINATION!)  I also know that every time I try to edit this novel I’m wrapping up, my gut knots up. The words aren’t right and the right ones are there. So perhaps my new found fondness for coloring anything I can find with watercolor pencils might save it. Maybe I’ll even figure out that word for the particular color of my desert sunrise.

I believe in drawing lopsided birds, writing bad songs, destroying perfectly good recipes, and crafting falconry hoods that are useless because they don’t fit.

I believe in making bad art. Maybe we all should.

xxR

______________________

I am so very grateful for those of you who have been reading along faithfully and helping me with this journey to put into words the things that lift us, crash us, and galvanize us. Many of you have written to share your own journey and have thanked me, which means so much to me. But you probably don’t realize how incredibly impactful you have been ME.

So I made you a little something.

Perhaps doing some out-of-the-box art would be good for you too! Maybe coloring some birds?

I’ve put together three sets of five gray-scale coloring pages of my avian photographs:  Lyrical, Playful, and Fierce. I carefully curated them based on what I thought would create the best shading for coloring and meticulously worked with the black & white channels in Photoshop to get the best output.

This is what my first attempt at coloring one of photographs looked like:

2016-02-19 08.11.06

You can find the pages here on Etsy, where each set is $.99 OR just send me a quick email and I’ll send you the PDFs for free.

Print. Color. Relax. Imagine…  I only ask that you share any of your favorite creations so I can enjoy them and get some inspiration from you as well!!

—If you want printed packets, then you’ll have to wait just a bit. I’m still experimenting to find the best and most economical paper, which will work across a variety of art mediums. (I’ve been using watercolor pencils, but the sky is the limit…)  But these are coming too.

In the meantime, go make bad art!!  Who knows? Maybe it might turn out to be amazing art or even better, give you a fresh take on your own professional or artist discipline. What could it hurt?

The Hawk You Need

DreadDragonHeaderLast year, not too much earlier in the year than now, I was miserable. It’s a long story, but it’s one that’s often told—it involves love-gone-to-lies followed by a long extrication. It’s pretty standard, really.

The important thing is that I wanted to be happy. So I asked myself when exactly when was the last time that was brilliantly happy— a time that it shone through every memory. The answer was this: My first year as an apprentice falconer.

So I decided that to save myself, I would go back to my beginnings, that 20 years later I would trap a young red-tailed hawk and remember what it was like to be completely in the moment. The problem was that I picked the worst possible year to do this.

California was deep in a drought and even the red-tailed hawks, our most numerous raptors, were barely making it. When I was a kid all you had to do was throw down a trap pretty much anywhere in the open and you would have a willing participant. Last year, it took ten days before I even spotted a young red-tailed hawk.

I trapped the first passage red-tail I saw and immediately fretted about how subdued and willing it was. Hawks tame fast… like within a couple of days fast, but they are generally concerned about their change of venue for at least a minute. This hawk seemed far too happy to be in my hands.

I named him Needle, because he was a tiny little sword of a hawk.  I fed him what he would eat, treated him for every disease we had treatments for and watched him fail because that wasn’t enough. I consulted with veterinarians. I did everything I could. But I didn’t trap him soon enough to save him and he died a week later.

I sat on my porch steps staring at a quarter moon, the hawk that was supposed my new beginning wrapped in a favorite t-shirt and dead in my arms. And I cried. Not for Needle, exactly. He had a good ending compared to the possibilities of the wild, but mainly I cried because despite my humanity and my resources, I couldn’t save him. If I couldn’t save a hawk, then how could I save myself?

It was then in the middle of tears that I heard a voice as clear as bell, so loud that it made me jump. The voice said calmly and not without compassion, “Grieve tomorrow. Then after that, go trapping. You’ll have a hawk within an hour. It won’t be the hawk you want, but it will be the hawk you need.”

I’m a writer. I hear voices in my head all time. It’s annoying, but not unusual. However, there have only been a couple of times in my life when I heard such an unexpected and clarion voice. I suppose it could have been the falconry gods. Who the hell knows? It also could have just been my subconscious burbling up with a shout in an effort to save me. I just knew that I had no choice but to listen.

So two days later, as instructed, I drove back out with my trap and in forty minutes I spotted Dread. He was on my trap and in my hands ten minutes later. He too was a little hawk. His tail feathers were broken and his primary feathers ragged. And he had the worst attitude of any young red-tailed hawk I’ve ever met. I was slightly terrified of him the minute he came off the trap. But I knew he wasn’t hawk I wanted, just the hawk I needed.

Our first season was brilliant in its way. I’ve never had a bird before that was so untrusting, but so willing to see my value. He was a drought hawk and had no faith in anything but a meal. I created easy meals and therefore he tolerated me. He trained fast, but not any with real trust.  I was a means to survival, but in no way a friend.

So that season I learned how to face my fears. I mean… he scared me. And I learned how to accept that loss was inevitable, because he was never bound to me. And I learned that unwrapping a six-foot pissed-off gopher snake from a determined drought hawk was no small task. –Because I had to do it twice at the end of the season. Thanks, Dread. I’m over the snake thing now…

And this year, he taught me more. He came out of the moult, which is a summer vacation with all the food he could eat, a different bird. He had less food issues, more fondness for me, but the same badass attitude. And I learned that there is greater success in a hard-earned relationship than in one where you get everything up front.

But it wasn’t always rainbows and I made mistakes with him, mistakes he forgave. So I learned that even though I am unfortunately not perfect, there is always the potential for forgiveness and forward motion.

And learned to return this lesson when Dread killed Elsa, my Cooper’s hawk.

I had raised Elsa from a fuzzy awkward baby and she was much a harder project than Dread. I watched her learn to fly and hunt in my yard. I watched all 400 grams of her terrorize my 30 pound dogs. I shaped her into a huntress and she was entirely my responsibility.

Elsa woke me up in every morning at dawn, demanding the servitude I had promised. She was a constant puzzle that dominated my spare thoughts and my weekends. She was beautiful and fierce and a reflection of everything I poured into her.

Then one day in January, a year after I trapped Dread, I stared at the weathering yard where my two hawks were perched and wondered if Dread could somehow pull his perch out of the ground, drag the weight of it around the barrier between them and kill her.

I’m a supreme over-thinker. So, I dismissed this, because after 20 years of being a falconer (half of that as professional bird trainer hovering over yards full of hawks that might do damage to one another) I’d never seen anything like that happen.

Then later that day, I heard a songbird make an alarm call that put me on edge. So I jumped up to look out my kitchen window and I saw it happen. I saw exactly what I had imagined. And it happened too fast for me to stop it.

I pulled Dread off of Elsa and brought her inside. I wrapped her in a favorite t-shirt and then stood shaking in my laundry room, uncertain what to do. I stood there for a long while, but heard no voices.

Then I took a deep breath, gently set her down and grabbed some food to feed Dread.

I knew I was standing right at the ledge of despair and I knew that there wasn’t much time before I plummeted over. But I also knew that the fall was mine and mine alone.

Dread was a hawk.  He didn’t know. He wasn’t the hawk I wanted. He was the hawk I needed.

After I buried Elsa and cried for a few days, I thought about releasing Dread and ending my season. I thought about quitting falconry all together. I thought about what it is that we need.

And this is what I realized…we don’t really know what we need.

And I don’t think you ever get the hawk you want.

I wanted a gigantic female red-tailed hawk, sweet and malleable, a bird that would make me look like a kickass falconer who no one could disrespect. I wanted a white-picket fence and pristine house on a sprawling piece of property. I wanted a book that was a runaway best seller. I wanted… everything.

Thing is though, I don’t think we ever get the hawk we want.

What difference does the hawk make, really? What difference does it make when all that’s really worth a damn is what you find and what keep from what you’re given?  I don’t know whose voice that was in my head and I don’t know what it really meant. I just know that any hawk would have been the hawk I needed. All I had to do was embrace every moment, even the hardest most cruel moments and make them count.

That my friends, will always be the hawk I need.

 

xxR

 

OfCourseHurt

No Guarantee How This is Going to End

DreadSunset

I’m imagining that I’m going to spin you an enthralling story. It’s going to start with a hook that will convince you keep reading and then transition to a tale that reminds you of something that has happened to you as well.

I’m imagining I’ll say something that will make you laugh. Then I’ll craft this one perfect sentence that will make you pause, think, and rethink something important to you. And after all this brilliant craftwork, I’ll wrap this piece up with a satisfying and profound ending that you will find yourself reading three times. Then sighing with pleasure, you will forward the letter to a friend.

I tell myself little fairy tales like this every time I start a journey. It might be a book, a new hawk, or a romance, but I’m always imagining the ending — the gorgeous glorious ending where all the pitfalls and perils have been obliterated. And as they fade away, credits role across a scene depicting permanent perfection.

Then I shove the daydreams out of my mind. The perfect ending is the enemy. There is no guarantee how this is going to end. It might be disappointing. It might even end in disaster. The only thing you can count on is the journey.

Over the last 22 years, if anything has taught me this, it’s falconry. You have to love the ride. When I pulled Elsa from the nest last June, raised her, and then much as her parents would have done, set her free to explore the world that was born to her, I knew not to count on the ending. Every day she adventured through my neighborhood in the much wilder world at tree level, I knew she was at risk. Everything wild is at risk. Science says that at least 80% of young raptors don’t survive their first foray into the tree line.

Instead, I focused on the process. Every day was gift. Every survived terror was a triumph. I focused on our extensive daily routine, on building a relationship, on shaping behaviors, and on all the utterly foreign language I was learning. I became fluent in Cooper’s hawk and grateful for the joy of foreign love.

But, falconry is cruel mistress and eventually, I did slip. When we were solid partners, ensconced in our comfortable Klingon marriage, I started imagining the future and forgetting the moment. I started thinking the only thing important was the future. Next year was going to be so much better. When our credits rolled it was going to be epic.

And that was when Elsa was killed.

In my experience, there is nothing in my life that cannot be compared to falconry. There is nothing in my life that couldn’t be exponentially better if I treated it with the focus, resolve, and mindfulness that I normally give to falconry. Losing Elsa was every book I’ve written that ever failed me at the end. Losing Elsa was every relationship where I didn’t focus on the joy of the moment and crashed at the end. I had started to dismiss the journey for the ending and now I’m left with small regrets.

However, I also had, in all honesty, one of the most amazing falconry seasons I’ve ever had. I can’t wait for June, to fly Elsa’s sister from another clutch, to do this again, even if the ending tears my heart out. Because the journey is all that you ever get to hold on to. The ending is just a new beginning.

xxR

On Endings and Things Unfinished

cattleegretHeaderEverything ends. I know this and yet, sometimes it’s so hard to walk away from things I know are over but haven’t given me a satisfactory ending.

This is life. I cling to things lost. I hope to fix the unfixable.  I try to explain the unexplainable to myself.  I want an ending that makes sense.

I hear my friends do the same and I feel their pain. Everyone deserves a finite and understandable end so that we can grieve and move on.

This sounds like a discussion about relationships. And it kind of is, but mostly what I want to talk about is bad relationships with art.

I feel the pain of unresolved endings most especially for my artist friends and their unfinished projects. I hear so often… “I have this other novel, painting, quilt, carving, this project I can’t wait to work on, but I have this THING I’M DOING THAT I HAVE TO FINISH first.”

Why is it that we feel beholden to everything we start as an artist just because we were in love at the beginning? Look, it’s no different than any relationship. No one benefits from a partner staying after it’s over.

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, she talks about ideas as if they were living beings of energy floating about the universe, bumping against us, and looking for the right partner. I love the thought of this. It’s as if art is actually the prototype for online dating.

Imagine this: You are looking for THE ONE. And you find an online profile that intrigues you. The two of you have this spark, this one thing in common. You banter in the ether and then you try to make something work in real life. It looks extraordinary for a while. It looks like this is your future and everything you’ve ever wanted.

Then it doesn’t.

Because, sometimes that initial spark isn’t enough.

Maybe it’s not working. Maybe the idea fell out of love with you and checked out. Maybe the idea is a fantastic one, but not really in your wheelhouse. It’s possible that someone else could rock that idea’s world and that’s what this idea deserves. Maybe once you had the idea solidly in your grasp you stopped being interested in it. You want to love it. You want it to work. But for whatever reason, it isn’t working anymore.

It’s over, man. Let it go. Pack your bags. Leave.

I think there is no place for this kind of love affair in art. You only have to look in my drawer of abandoned manuscripts to affirm my belief that art has finite endings. I have 14 published books, but also have 6 manuscripts from the last 20 years which have been abandoned half- and even three-quarters of the way through.

Every project is a love affair, you just have to find the strength to love it as best you can while it’s working and have the honesty to admit when it’s over.

Over is okay. It isn’t a waste. You were lucky to love while you loved. You learned. You lived. And whatever is next will benefit from what you accomplished, even if it was never finished. Because seriously…  I’m certain my family takes great comfort in the fact that I haven’t married most of the guys I’ve dated.

Life is too short to write novels you don’t love, to keep adjusting paintings that won’t match your imaginings, or to keep trying to love anything that doesn’t love you back.

What are working on now? What should you be working on? Is the love mutual? That’s all I’m asking you, and for that matter, myself.

xxR

cattleegret

Our Symphony of Grief

bWI#8

I grew up in Southern California with a swimming pool in my backyard and an hour from the beach. When I was a kid, I was certain that everything you needed to learn about the world could be taken from the water.

So as a teenager and a woman in my early twenties, I took every opportunity I could to make it to the beach. I had body-surfed the Pacific for years and the ultimate surfing was at The Wedge. Twenty years ago, this place was word-of-mouth among surfers. Today, according to the Internet, it’s well known. There is a rock jetty at The Wedge that makes for singular waves–but they are also notoriously unpredictable.

Most days when I arrived at The Wedge, I watched an ambulance drive away a surfer. As I tugged on my winter wetsuit, I would shake my head. That was never going to be me, but I could see what had happened to “them”. Not me. Them. The best and most thrilling waves were in this place and I was a strong and fearless swimmer.

I have a crystalline memory of the day The Wedge schooled me about life. The waves were maybe six feet and predictably formed. I slipped into the curls, convinced that I was one with the heart’s blood of the world.

Then the waves shifted.

With no warning, I was swimming into a twelve-foot wave, torn between diving or trying to ride it. I went with it and found myself tossed on the crest, staring below. There was nothing but a shallow sweep of water across sand and I was about to meet it.

I hit the floor and didn’t know how to swim up. For the first time in my life, I didn’t know sky from salt water. And when the wave caught up with me, I rolled, sand abrading my cheeks and I begged to get to a place where I could breathe. Spun and disoriented, I imagined my goodbyes and then somehow fought my way accidentally to the surface.

I stumbled through the surf, back to my towel, and then stared unbelieving at the ocean. I stripped off my winter wetsuit next to my Pontiac Sunbird, drove away, and never body-surfed again.

The Wedge had betrayed me.

But looking back now I know that’s not quite right. The Wedge was inevitable. She is the ocean. The Wedge taught me everything I needed to know about grief.

I lost Elsa, my Cooper’s hawk on Wednesday. She was killed after eight months of a hard won relationship. I know that falconry is cruel, because nature is cruel. If you choose to be a falconer, you choose to eschew the laws of civilized life. I chose to be at the whim of destruction. I chose to have to face my grief.

But none of us want to face our grief. It is the ocean of life.

At first I did what we all do. I attended to the busy work of death. I found a favorite t-shirt and wrapped her small body carefully inside. I removed empty perches and bath pans and crates, not wanting to face a blank expanse in unexpected moments. I made phone calls and texted and kept talking so I could convince everyone else that I was just fine.

I pretended like there wasn’t a 12-foot wave coming, because one wants to grieve. But when the phone calls were over and there was nothing left to do, I folded into myself and couldn’t come uncurled.

Elsa was a blow, but that wasn’t why I didn’t want to face my grief. I’ve come to learn that grief is cumulative. Our life’s losses are a symphony that we conduct, every performance more rich and beautiful when we have to pick up the baton.

I own this requiem. It is the grandparents who raised me. It is my first dog. It’s my dear friend Andy. It is Morris, Needle, Bentley, Elsa, friends who have moved and broken relationships. Every little loss is in the swell of 100 instruments.

Grief is the thing that we fear the most. We want so badly to bury our grief with our dead, but our losses are as loud as the life in our blood. Our dead never stop talking. You can choose to ignore their voices, but then you have to shut out the living as well.

And if you ask me, this is far too much to lose. My symphony is not an easy listen, but god damn it’s beautiful.

I promised myself when I started these letters that I would be vulnerable and honest about failure. I told myself that I would be honest about when I got knocked down. I’m knocked down. Not because of a hawk, but because she was mine, a metaphor and a story that is over now.  But I’m going to get back up because all stories end.

My loss is small compared to some, if not most. But we all grieve the same and in this, our losses make us equal.

And how can we stand strong for those we love if we cannot believe that what we feel is what others feel? We are all of us travelling on the waves of our cumulative grief.

So I guess what I want to say is that even if I haven’t heard it, even if you don’t want to share, your symphony is a masterpiece. Loss is for the living and it is born on unpredictable waves. We are all of us surfing The Wedge. The ocean is cruel, but it’s beautiful music. Embrace the waves.

xxR

The Art of Sitting in Cactus

ThrasherHeaderI fell in love with thrashers and cactus wrens while I was hunting with my hawks in Kingman, Arizona last week. They are beautiful birds, but that wasn’t why I fell in love. I was smitten by the enviable way they nestled into the cholla, navigating the pervasive thorns and making what I thought of as inevitable pain look like a cozy home. Desert birds are bad ass.

Living as an artist is like being a desert bird in a cholla, I think. It looks dangerous from the outside, but it’s all about experience and what you know. Everyone is afraid to embrace being an artist or of being an entrepreneur because the cholla looks so daunting. Really though, life is nothing but cactus. You just have to figure out how to manage it.

I’m not saying that being an artist for a living is easy.

The year has barely started and it’s already being irascible. This happens in an artist’s life. It’s what practical people with steady jobs and inflexible responsibilities most fear. The bonus I was promised from a part time writing job didn’t happen, leaving me scrabbling for how to pay the mortgage (which quite frankly is already in a very precarious position). The slew of press releases I killed myself to write over the holidays for a client at the last minute were received with silence and then an admonition that they had done major rewrites in house. The work calendar looks bleak and I would love to buy a cord of wood, get my brakes done, and take the dogs to the vet for their checkups and overdue shots. I’m just going to have to push this all aside and wait for a better week.

I’m not telling you this for sympathy. I’m telling you this, because it is the sort of thing artists never speak about. We don’t talk about money, because we are so very lucky to manage to live on our art. Still, my life is nothing short of navigating cholla.

So here’s the thing. I do live on my art. I AM in an admirable place.  I make it work. Every month I find a way and every month things work out somehow. I have freelanced full time for four years now. I have food, a house that is mine, time to fly my hawks, space to write what I want, flexibility, and a vast expanse of possibilities for what is next.

Here’s what I don’t have. I don’t have security. I could be financially or emotionally devastated at the world’s whim. I don’t have all the things I want. I can’t buy everything that would be helpful to have when I want it. I have to find workarounds for life’s challenges. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
And you know what? Even if you happen to have a secure corporate job, are a trust fund baby, have a steady retirement fund, or have just been fastidious about your finances and your family’s future – I’m pretty sure that you are in the same boat.

So what’s stopping you from living the life you want?

I’ll tell you what’s stopping you. It’s called resistance and it’s a very real and very tenacious enemy. Resistance is the spines on the cholla.

How do I know? I face resistance every single morning. Every day I get up and don’t want to face a blank page, don’t want to face another empty-handed falconry hunt, and don’t want to have my writing rejected by agents and editors yet one more time. I want to stay in bed where it’s warm and binge watch bad sci-fi on Netflix and when five o’clock rolls around and the day seems wasted, I want to ease my anxiety with tequila and a long phone call with a friend.

Some days, this is exactly what I do. Most days though, I do what makes this life possible. I do my work.

Steven Pressfield in The War of Art says, “There’s a secret that real writers know that wanna be writers don’t and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is resistance.”

If you haven’t read The War of Art … well, you must. It will help you face whatever it is that really want to do and haven’t. It’s simple, really. You tell resistance to go fuck itself as often as you can and do the work. Pressfield will kick your ass and remind you to find the discipline to do the best you can or shut the hell up and stay in your corporate cubicle.

I am not opposed to cubicles. I yearn for one sometimes.  I’m just assuming that you are reading this because a cubicle isn’t what you want. And if it’s not what you want, I’m telling you right now, you don’t have to trust in leaps of faith and luck of the draw. You only have to believe you can do the work and then make yourself do it.

I’ve published 14 books. I’m not sure how. Most days the hardest thing I do is just to start typing. And some days I don’t even manage to start. But I always try again.  Despite anxiety and heartbreak and unexpected personal tragedies, I try again. And I bet that YOU are already doing that too. So what’s stopping you from the rest of it?

So whatever your resistance: lack of faith, an admirable sense of responsibility, sex, drugs, rock and roll, or falconry, it’s no excuse not to try. We’re all doing the best we can and just showing up is what turns the world. Showing up and doing just a little adds up to a lot in the end.

For the record, after three hard days of days of hawking, my red-tailed hawk Dread caught a rabbit in a stand of cholla the last day I was in Kingman. In my haste and inexperience, I ended up with a rear full of the beastly bits of that evil plant. Fortunately, I had girlfriends willing to pull them out of the embarrassing places I couldn’t see. And you have friends like that too.

So do your work, Dear Readers. Do your work.

Will I go back to Kingman to hunt again? Hell yes. Screw you resistance. I now know what the cactus wrens and thrashers know. You just have to understand how to navigate the cholla — and if you misjudge your path, the spines don’t hurt that bad – but it’s best not to sit in it.

xxR

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Holidays, Aliens & Cookies

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There are things I love about December.

I love the smell of cinnamon and pine.

I love the haphazard visual cacophony of other people’s badly hung Christmas lights.

I love it when the air turns crisp and tense, allowing my falconry birds to cut through the December sky hard and full of heart. I love snuggling beneath a mound of blankets and a couple of dogs in the drafty chill of a 1925 house. I adore the sound of bells. And Christmas cookies. I really LOVE Christmas cookies. All kinds of Christmas cookies. Pretty much ALL the Christmas cookies.

I hate the holidays though. They have never met my expectations and I’ve never met theirs. The warm gestures, perfection of the human spirit, and magical mysteries of the season have never arrived perfectly timed to the season and at my doorstep – not on accident or by my design. My family celebrates Christmas and I can’t remember a single one in 40 years that wasn’t a disappointment, if not a disaster. (In fairness, I don’t remember the first four. They might have been perfect, but I doubt it.)

Even though I continually tell myself that I’m not expecting anything special, I somehow get let down. Some years it’s a family fight over dinner or just an accidental unkind word in my direction. It’s a dissatisfied look at what I thought was the perfect gift. It’s the silence of my cell phone when I’m hoping for someone I miss deeply to reach out and think of me. It’s that moment when the falcon misses the duck I was hoping to bring home for dinner, because, well Christmas. Come on, falconry gods! It’s not like I asked for a pony!!

I think most of us aren’t really expecting that much, but I’m willing to bet that almost all of us are quietly discontent, if not miserable about the whole ordeal. There is always something missing during the holidays – a person, a promise, or one of those annoying fantasies that every ounce of media insists will soon be ours. ‘Tis the season. You only have to believe!

I think we all have stealth expectations.

Brené Brown in her book Rising Strong describes stealth expectations as those things we expect from ourselves or others, but don’t ever honestly tally. We expect them, but never actually give a thought to whether or not they are possible. And without a reality check on our expectations we are likely to be hurt or even resentful. Christmas is the season of stealth expectations.

In fairness, Christmas isn’t the only event I learned to face with a sense of dread when I was younger. I always felt the same way about my birthdays. No matter how much I hoped, hinted, and wistfully opened the door on my darkened home, no one ever yelled “SURPRISE!”  Someone always forgot to call. Boyfriends oddly seemed to manage a breakup right before the next birthday. By the time I was 24 I wanted to burn my birth certificate and ban any reference to it. Instead, I decided to take back the day and make it my own.

When I was 24, I started a ritual that I’ve held vigilantly to this day. I start fasting at sundown the night before my birthday. (So, you’re welcome to forget my birthday cake. I’m not eating it anyway.) Then when the sun sets, I find a quiet private place, light a candle, sip from a goblet of milk, and list all of the year’s most wonderful moments, the ones I want to take with me into my next year. When I’m done, I blow out the candle, leave all the year’s disappointments in the year that made them, and then I go pig out on pretty much everything good I can think of to eat or that happens to fall on my plate. Sometimes I feast with others. Sometimes alone. It doesn’t make a difference. The only thing that matters when you are that hungry is that you feast. So I haven’t had a disappointing birthday in 20 years. I made it my own. I know exactly what the expectations are. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it…

I don’t know why I’ve never done something like this for Christmas, which is an inherently more difficult season. I mean, they don’t bombard me with advertisements for my birthday. I don’t have to feel guilty that I barely made my mortgage and for the fourth year in a row no one is getting presents. I don’t spend a lot of time trying not to think about who will never again be sitting at the family table. The whole world isn’t pressuring me to smile, be cheery, and grateful. And blessedly, there are no mythical beings passing judgement and deciding whether or not to bring birthday magic.

I don’t believe in the holiday season, but I’ve seen the commercials, the magazine ads, and the billboards. So, I feel the same way I feel about aliens and ghosts. I don’t believe, but I really really want to believe. You see, apparently I’m going to get a boyfriend, quite possibly an engagement ring, a festive family, no new life disasters (not during the holidays!), a big unexpected gift that makes me feel loved (probably a new car—that seems standard), a flood of love from strangers, at least five new reasons to be joyous and hopeful, and maybe even a Clydesdale.

Except that I’m not. In fact, where would I even PUT a Clydesdale? And why would I want my wonderfully imperfect family and friends to suddenly be absolutely picture-perfect examples of humanity. I’d be wondering if it was Christmas —or an intervention. (Or perhaps if they’re actually those aliens I want to believe in, but those aren’t the sort of aliens I’m hoping for.) And I’m pretty sure that those Hallmark-movie Christmas boyfriends who ask you to marry them in three days’ time, actually end up being the serial killers on next year’s Lifetime movies.

So this year, I’m taking back Christmas and I’ve been carefully considering my expectations.

Here’s what I’m expecting… cinnamon, pine, other people’s badly hung Christmas lights, falconry birds against a winter sky, cold nights with warm snuggly dogs, the bright jingle of copper bells, and cookies, maybe even ALL the cookies  –even if I have to make them myself.

May your holiday expectations be realistic, merry, and bright!

xxR
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But YOU Were the One in the Ring

BWI#3

Two months ago a relationship ended that absolutely broke my heart. Mostly no one knows about this.

I loved this man. He’s a good a person. I believe he truly cared about me.  We had three months of intense phone conversations that lasted for hours. We had private jokes. We had shared dreams. It was long distance, but he came out twice and spent the better part of a week or more with me both times. We cooked. We flew hawks. We schemed. He quickly became my best friend. Then he had a family tragedy.

A few months ago he drove away from my house to deal with this family tragedy after an incredibly awesome week together that included some big plans for the future. When he left he promised he would be back and that everything was going to be okay.

And then he stopped communicating with me.  He ghosted. I imagine he was doing the best he could with his horrible situation, but after being mostly incommunicado for weeks, it was obvious that what we had was over.

He broke my heart in a way I didn’t know it could be broken.

He broke my heart with silence.

This brought me to my knees, but I kept flying hawks and doing my work when I could manage, and just tried to be present with the heartbreak. Then one afternoon, while I was at lunch with “the girls” they asked me about my love life. So I gave them the cliff notes on the breakup.

One of my single friends looked up at me from her salad and asked with awe, “How are you even getting out of bed?”

I said, “If I was in bed right now, I wouldn’t be enjoying this insanely delicious salmon and brie sandwich. I wouldn’t be laughing with you. I’m just trying to be present.”

And I felt like shit for saying this.

A few days ago I finished Brené Brown’s amazing new book, Rising Strong. At the heart of this book is a clarion call for failure stories. Not just for the thrill of the train wreck or the inspiring bit where we rise up and conquer, but for the part of the story we gloss over, the part where we’re on the mat and watching the ref count us out.

**

When I was 23, I was a kickboxer. I don’t mean I went to aerobics classes. (Which is honestly probably about all I could manage to do these days.) What I mean is that I trained several hours a day for five days a week, had an amateur license, and fought in real matches.

I trained hard. I ate tuna most meals because I had to lose 5 pounds to get into a better weight class. I dehydrated myself before weigh-ins. I once went a few rounds with Tommy “The Hit Man” Hearns’ sparring partner in training.  (He totally schooled me, but that’s another story.) I was very serious about it all. Unfortunately, being serious didn’t make me a particularly talented fighter.

I’ve been thinking about kickboxing a lot lately because I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to fail and how to get back up. In kickboxing getting back up isn’t just a metaphor. It’s something you physically do or do not. There are no points for “try” when you’re on the mat. (Hat Tip to Yoda)

And it’s not just you who hits the mat sometimes. You watch friends, foes, and training partners get knocked down or out. You watch how some people get back up humble and determined, while others get up with a fierce anger that eventually burns them up and how some people simply quit. You watch people manage their fall in a dozen different ways. You have a front row seat to the mysteries of getting back up.

I have a vivid memory of the first time I fell, at my first real match at a casino in Los Angeles. The place was packed with people and my trainer kept suspiciously eying my pallid face and shaking hands. I’ve always had stage fright, but going five rounds in front of a crowd of screaming people? Holy Bread and Circuses. What was I thinking?!

In the end I was simply thinking too much. The girl I fought was much better than me and I couldn’t get out of my head and into the fight. In the corner of the ring, my trainer Lorenzo rinsed the blood out of my mouthpiece and said, “Mija, get your hands up and get in this fight. Don’t make me throw in the towel, not when I know you can do this.”

And I could do it. I stayed in the fight, but I certainly didn’t win. I was relieved when it was over though and more relieved that no one had to throw in the towel. I had lost, but it could have been worse. I consoled myself with the thought that I had done the best I could. Thank God I hadn’t hit the mat.
After the fight, my boyfriend, who also trained with me, found me in the green room. I smiled openly at him expecting encouragement, but he shook his head.

He said, “That was embarrassing. You can fight so much better than that. I’m so disappointed in you.” And then it was if I WAS on the mat with the ref standing over me. This wasn’t the fight I had prepared for, but it didn’t make a difference, I had failed. All of the bruises and blisters, all the watching my boyfriend eat guacamole and chips while I stabbed at a can of tuna, all of that determination had gotten me nowhere but straight to failure and disappointment.

What the hell was the point of anything anyway? Why did I even try?

Our best friend Dave found me later. I was out of my ring clothes and now swaddled in sweats, but with my hands still wrapped from the fight, and quietly crying in a corner. He consoled me, saying that hey, it was your first real fight in front of a big audience.

And I told him what my boyfriend had said. Dave’s face twisted into a look of distain and dismissal that even after twenty years I’ve never seen anyone do so effectively.

“Yeah. But YOU were the one who actually got up in the ring. Fuck him.”

This was my best first lesson about failure and getting back up. I was never a great kickboxer, but I came to understand that failure was inevitable. That anyone who retires undefeated has most definitely quit too soon. That what matters is that you were in the ring. (Hat Tip to Teddy Roosevelt and Brené Brown)

All the same, I’ve never quite mastered the art of getting back up. This, my friends, is a lifetime affair. We should all be talking about the view from the mat.

 

At lunch with my girlfriends, talking about my breakup, I sounded like a champion.

My single friend sighed and said, “I wish I could be like you. I wish I could just put the hurt away and be so strong.”
I winced. And then I opened my mouth to tell the truth. I wanted to say:

“Oh, but I hurt. I hurt so bad I have to remind myself to breathe. The first thing I do after I wake up is cry every morning. Sometimes in these moments I text and beg him to talk to me. And then when he doesn’t, late at night, after a few shots of tequila, I text something bitter and angry. Then I delete the messages out of my phone because I’m embarrassed of both. I suck at this. I’m terrified it will never end. I wonder what is wrong with me – if I’m irrevocably broken.  I’m a hot mess. Don’t take any advice from me. I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. I’ve hit the mat and I can’t get back up!!”

Instead I serenely said, “I had three amazing months. A couple weeks of heartbreak seems like a fair trade off.”

I did a huge disservice to my friends by not being honest about how hard it was to be flat on my face on the floor. Yes, I was back on my feet, but it would have been more helpful to honest about how my legs were so wobbly that I’d be back down shortly and that the battle was still being waged. I should have told them I was fragile and human and asked for a hug. I should have given them a front row seat to the ring and let them see the struggle, help if they could, and more importantly see that it wasn’t just them. It’s all of us.

So to make amends, I’m telling you.

It sucks on the mat, my dear friends. And the ref may very well count you out. And the worst part is that you’re going to have to decide whether or not you’re in for the next fight. But just so you know, it’s not just you. It sucks on the mat. It hurts. It’s disorienting. It’s humiliating. And most people don’t just bounce right back up. If they say they did – well, they are lying.

All the same every time you hit the mat, you learn something new about yourself while you’re sprawled there. And I believe that as ugly and distasteful as the struggle to get back up is, it is truly one of the most beautiful things that humans are capable of doing.

And it DOES get easier. If you tend your wounds, grieve your loss, reflect on your weaknesses, strengths and strategy, then you are going to get to your feet faster every time. If you do this, then it is SO worth scheduling the rematch. It is SO worth being in the ring. It actually IS worth the broken heart.

LearnedtoRise

Surely You Can Get Back Down

BWI#2

 

A couple of weeks ago I found myself staring off a bluff straight down into my favorite phobia.

Dread, my red-tailed hawk came into my home late last January with beat up feathers, wild as the wind, and a nasty temperament. He saw my value pretty quickly though, and we were hunting together within a month. We have an agreement. I provided better opportunities to hunt, water when he was thirsty, a warm safe place to sleep, food when hunts went badly, and therefore he would let me tag along while I set him loose to do hawk things.

Logically, I know he has the better deal. However, I know that I get fresh air, exercise, mental challenges, and that I get to see and experience things that most people don’t even consider. Philosophically, I have a much better deal. Dread makes me a better person.  And so when we are in the field, I am completely in, no matter what. After all, I might catch a quick glimpse of something akin to magic.

Which leads to why I ended up in a precarious place with no good options on how to get down.

Dread was high up on a bluff, watching below as I tried to scare up a cottontail and potentially, his meal for the next several days. Our communication is limited to hand signals, a few agreed upon words, and a lot of trust, but we understand each other as best as two rather incongruous minds can manage. However, I know I’m not the boss of him. So when he suddenly disappeared, I realized that he had stumbled upon an agreed upon exception.

Anything involving food is an agreed up on exception.

I got out my receiver and verified via the transmitter on his tail that his was still not far from where I’d last seen him, but most likely out of sight above the rise and surely with food.

Now I had a job.

He’s in my care and therefore I needed to get to wherever he was as quickly as possible. I am his first line of defense against another more aggressive red-tailed hawk, a coyote, or anything else that might damage him and take his meal.

I didn’t even look at how steep the climb was, I just used my hands, dug in my toes and made my way up. I found him with the biggest wood rat I had ever seen. Despite my haste it was mostly eaten, but it as also fairly won. So I hopped him onto the glove with it, and let him finish, knowing our outing was over. He was too sated and pleased to continue with any more hunting.

It wasn’t the ending I wanted. I don’t enjoy killing things, but larger game is a bigger bounty and hawks need food. It would have been more ideal to have a bigger reward. It would have been more exciting to have seen the hunt. All the same, the hawk didn’t care. He was happy. I was happy for him. This was a good morning. Until looked down.

Climbing up is a lot less daunting than the realization that you somehow have to safely descend with a hawk hooded and balanced on your glove.

Let me expound on this a bit. Steep inclines take my breath away. Maybe it’s that I fell down a flight of concrete stairs when I was three years old. (No, really, I still remember it.) Or maybe it’s that I’ve watched Wesley and Princess Buttercup roll and bump down that endless hill one too many times. Whatever it is, climbing down.  No. Just no.

I shuddered and squeezed my eyes shut. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. I wasn’t going to climb down that bluff.

Then I opened my eyes and looked at the view.

This wasn’t where I imagined my morning would take me. It wasn’t the hunt I was hoping for, but down below me there was a beautiful stretch of native California, swirled into motion by flocks of mourning doves and set against a winter blue sky. I stood above a Sunday morning world that was mostly still sleeping and probably not even dreaming of things this beautiful.

You got up here, didn’t you? Surely you can get down.

Standing with this gorgeous hawk sitting comfortably if not blissfully, on my glove, I remembered his first begrudging step to my glove, his first free flight. I recalled his first successful hunt. I remembered our many failed outings and our gradual friendship. I thought about the fear and hope and magic that is involved in befriending a wild hawk that would catch its own meal and happily return to your glove.

I thought about the journey up this hill. That journey was surely worth every slow and precarious step I was going to have to make to get us safely back down.

It was definitely worth it. It was worth the slow embarrassing slide on my butt and the thorns in my palm. It was worth it just like the autumn relationship that broke my heart. The finished novel on my desk that didn’t wrap up into the beautiful poetic package I wanted it to. It was worth it — just like life.

So when you accidentally climb up that precarious place representing your most revered fears, don’t forget to pause and remember how freaking awesome the climb was that got you there. You’ll get back down just fine.

xxR

 

IfThePath