Last week, for my birthday, I took a few days off from my paid work to relax and do things I enjoy. I wanted to start work on my memoir. I was wracking my brain about how I could begin the kind of practice writing I used to do, hand scribbling and typing bits and pieces that would become chapters for books. Back then, writing political history and analysis lent itself to linear thinking. Writing a spiritual memoir does not.
I got a Facebook birthday greeting from an old friend who wrote something about the gratitude of “facing our required departure.” She has had more than her share of death and loss. I wrote back, quipping that we’re “always getting there and always departing,” and I knew she’d know what I mean.
That’s when a light bulb went on. “Always getting there and always departing” is a great writing prompt.
A lot of my stories, if you’ve been reading this blog lately, are about departures and endings. I write a lot about loss because loss, well digested, is often the fuel for learning something. When some person or situation falls by the wayside, there’s a big, open space to consider: now what?
In my gloomier moods, I can dwell on departures. In my dreams, I am often leaving a place, bags packed, car ready. Sometimes I’m fleeing, sometimes I’m concocting an elaborate escape, sometimes I just can’t wait to get out on the open road and get somewhere else. These dreams reflect a certain dis-satisfaction with where I am, and they also reflect growth. Departing, I am also “getting there.” Without the willingness to depart, there would be no arriving elsewhere; this goes without saying.
As a writer, or any other type of creative or adventurous person, getting there is what has to be done. We’ve got to get from the scary, blank screen or scratch paper, to something that doesn’t just fill space but that makes sense and is beautiful.
“Getting there” is also what personal and spiritual growth are all about. At the level of an ego and personality, when I think about my worst characteristics, I remember that I’d be even worse if I weren’t making effort to improve.
The spiritual culture relies heavily on metaphors about “getting there” on a journey, a path. Some schools define a particular destination. I’m more comfortable with a non-dual view of an endless path.
The Heart Sutra ends with an often-chanted mantra: “Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, Bodhi svaha,” which can be translated as: “Gone, gone, really gone, gone beyond the beyond, hail the enlightened one.” There is no ultimate, prescribed destination, nor a fixed beginning. There is just the going.
This awareness of always getting there and always departing is a good frame for understanding life and the creative process.
With this frame as a starting point, I realize I can begin the writing practice I need to do.
I also recalled a practice called “morning pages” from Julia Cameron’s well-known book The Artist’s Way.
The instruction is to take blank paper and, by hand, write out three pages every day. Anything. Just keep the pen or pencil moving. The practice is best done first thing in the morning and best done by hand as the tactile connection between hands, eyes and brain gets the juices flowing.
I’m modifying the practice to do it on computer because I often cannot read my own writing and because I can type faster than I can write. I am also modifying the practice by having the writing prompt, “always getting there, always departing.” The point is to just go. Writing and writing, the content will eventually reveal itself. It’s messy and it can all be sorted out later.
As I’ve done this practice for about a week now, I observe flashes of memory popping into my mind. I can write those as scenes. I can write how it felt to be in that scene, how it felt to not know what the hell was going on at the time. I can write what I see now.
I think this frame has enormous potential, not just for the writing process but also for coming to terms with difficult passages.
A few weeks ago, I heard on the radio about the death of a long-lost colleague, a woman who was an activist and magazine publisher, among other things. I admired Ellen greatly in the 1980s and considered her a journalistic mentor. We had a mutual friend, A.
A was a trust fund baby who had never worked for a living. He claimed to be aligned with the “working class,” as he shuttled between two homes, a fancy Park Avenue penthouse and an estate on Long Island. He seemed disturbed by his wealth, tossing tips to the penthouse doorman, using pseudonyms to prevent his mega-corporate father from learning of his activities.
I met A when I was starting to travel around the country attending right-wing conferences. We had some great adventures. One time, we crashed a Pat Robertson for President party in Washington, D.C. A year later, we sweet-talked a fundraiser for the Nicaraguan Contras into giving us “secret” photos of himself meeting with Reagan aide Oliver North. Another time, while we were in New Orleans for a charismatic revival conference, we took a bus out to the suburban home of a retired MD who was also a Klan leader. We just knocked on the gentleman’s door, told him we were in town for the conference, and he invited the two Jews into his living room. I expected him to serve us mint juleps, but all we got was a glass of water. We chatted about the doctor’s fight against the “communist conspiracy” while A had a tape recorder rolling in his back pack.
A was a great pal and one of the few people who understood my work.
He was also irrationally jealous and sectarian. At some point, A started a smear campaign against Noam Chomsky — who didn’t even known about it and wouldn’t have cared – and turned on Ellen and any of us connected with any of Chomsky’s publishing outlets. (I had a book with South End Press and was a contributor to Z Magazine.) Then, A got himself appointed as head of a research outfit that promoted a distorted view of right-wing movements. My work became one of A’s targets.
One morning, I was sitting on my living room floor sorting newspapers when a total stranger called to say that A was phoning people around the country spreading false rumors about me. There was nothing I could do about it but, boy, did I spend a lot of time fretting.
It was all ultimately meaningless. But for two decades, I have recalled my dealings with A and others like him on the Left as an embarrassing waste of time. That’s one way of looking at it.
The other way of looking at it is that throughout those years, I was working through a very long departure. In order to get to a place where I could be more discerning about my time, my associations, and my independence, I had to slog my way through a whole lot of slime.
For years, I felt I had failed as a competent adult because I’d been involved with the likes of A. Now I can view it differently. I was leaving one set of circumstances and getting to somewhere else.
Did I learn my lesson once and for all? Not exactly. I have had to learn big lessons more than once, with variations on themes of naivete, misplaced trust and betrayal.
These were not failures, any more than any loss or death can be termed a failure.
These have been milestones on a long and winding road.