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Monthly Archives: March 2011

Photo by pcephotography

My manuscript for The Power of Love will arrive in the hands of an agent today.
Putting it in the mail felt like sending my child off to school on his first day of kindergarten.
Should he wear a coat? Have more fruit in his lunchbox? Will the teachers like him?
Will he like them?

These were some of the sentiments I expressed to the agent who comes highly recommended from a friend who has worked with him on two of her books. My narrative non-fiction book is an account of attacking the Dow Chemical office in DC in 1969 (while a nun) to try to prevent and expose their sale of napalm for the Vietnam war. While it is not the usual genre that this agent shepherds to publishers, he was interested in the spiritual journey of a nun turned federal felon. What moved me to do such a radical action? Knowing that it might carry as much as 40 years in prison. What transformation took place inside me? How did my decisions affect my religious order, the private girls’ school where I taught, my family, my life? What universal messages emerge in the book that will speak to hearts searching for courage and purpose?

The invitation to read the manuscript came as I was leaving the house for a weekend retreat, from which I emerged with a bad case of bronchitis. However, as soon as I was able, I devoted my daily dose of energy to one last read-through/edit before sending out the manuscript. I hope he has time to read some of it before departing for the London Book Fair.

My conversation with him convinced me that my little one is in good, kind hands.

Have you experienced sharing your creations with the world?

We just received pictures from our women’s retreat in February on the Mannatee River, south of Tampa, Florida. Memories flood back of the beautiful mornings doing Qi Gong at sunrise together under palm trees hanging with Spanish moss. What a wonderful way to greet the new day, in silence, moving our bodies with the warm breezes. Some people have difficulty being completely still, just observing the breath coming into the body and going out. While I love sitting meditation and do it every day, I also incorporate Qi Gong and other forms of moving meditation. I suppose the ultimate delight would be to live in mindful awareness of our breath, our body, feelings, mind and actions every moment of the day. Most of us need both concentrated periods of mindfulness and also reminders, mindfulness bells, during the day that help us become aware whatever we are doing.

Yoga, Tai Chi and Qi Gong are all forms of mindful movement, ways to focus on and be as fully aware of our breath and the movement of energy in our body as possible. The gentler forms appeal most to me now, as arthritis reminds me that kneeling, certain bends and stretches are no longer helpful. So, my husband and I usually do about a twenty minute session of movements together, varying them and ending with a “word for the day” written in the air in large calligraphy with our arms and imaginary ink flowing from our fingers.

The most ideal conditions existed at this retreat – to do Qi Gong together in a beautiful setting in the morning sunrise, bringing the energy of earth, air, water and sun into our bodies.

Good morning, sun. I know you are there behind the clouds, giving us life and energy.

This past weekend the world celebrated the coming of spring with a dramatic full moon, closer to the earth than it has been in decades. My husband and I attended a beautiful retreat with Ahn Huong and Thu Nguyen on a farm in W. Virginia where the moon shown brightly over the barn on Saturday evening. We stood beneath its light, holding hands, stunned by its beauty and closeness. The next morning, we learned a song, “The River is Flowing” that contained the verses

“The moon she is waiting
waxing and waning
The moon she is waiting
for us to be free.

Sister Moon, watch over me,
your child I will always be.
Sister Moon, watch over me,
til we are free.”

In the sangha, I experienced the truth that “healing is always collective, never individual.” Much suffering was expressed after the morning meditations – family members dying, children struggling with drugs, conflicts with loved ones. We were aware of the continued suffering in Japan and the bombing in Libya. As we meditated, ate mindfully in silence, walked slowly, smiled, hugged one another and shared in small groups, we felt the community strengthening, uniting. We came together from many parts of the country, from different socio-eonomic, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Yet, the sangha we formed was real, safe, powerful to heal much suffering in the light of the full moon and the love in our hearts.

The light of the full moon was able to reach the entire world. With all our hearts, we united with its light and beauty to send peace and a transformation of suffering to all the people on the planet.

In work hours when I am not actively re-editing my book or writing query letters, I continue to read fiction. Novels are my favorite genre and have been most of my life. Ideally I would love to have my memoir read like a good novel. I work on the flow, the sense of the story, the narrative arc, dialogue, setting, cutting anything that doesn’t move the story forward.

A couple of months ago, when I was revising the fourth draft of my book, I was especially inspired by a second reading of Walter Mosley‘s The Man in My Basement to make scenes more present and believable to the reader, letting go of rhetoric that was so much a part of my thinking and language in 1969. His language, dialogue and plot structure make an unlikely situation and philosophical discourse believable and real. I hope my work of non-fiction will be able to hold and challenge the reader in the way a well-crafted novel does.

The last three books I read inspired me in different ways: The Gathering by Anne Enright immediately grips the reader into her tale of her Irish family, her brother’s death, the “clean, white bones” of her stories and night thoughts, slowing unveiling its central core. Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat captures the generational suffering and colorful dialogue of four women of Haiti in their search for wholeness and love. The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing (winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature) is such a depressing story of a woman’s isolation on a South African farm that I almost gave up on it before the tragic ending, which is foreshadowed in the first chapter. Through enormous skill in revealing the suffering of women, each of these books compels the reader to stay, to travel deeper into the human heart.

Each of us has stories, suffering, a voice of our own, something special to share with the world. May we continue to learn from those who have mastered the art of the telling.

Feelings come, feelings go. I feel sad and worried for the people of Japan and Libya, suffering from natural disasters and war. I have friends struggling with confusing diseases that cause much emotional pain. Sometimes I have vague feelings of discomfort that have no discernible cause. Why? I don’t know. Especially in a weekend that has also been filled with so much joy, sunshine, stimulating music, laughter with family, the comfort of our spiritual community.

What do I do about feelings? I try to let myself feel them, at least briefly, stop and look at them, name them. Is this sadness or anger at my helplessness to stop an earthquake or civil war or disease? Am I rebelling against my powerlessness rather than accepting it? Disliking the “daylight savings” time change? Tired?

Whatever the cause, even something so simple as a routine change, I can’t afford to wallow in any negative feeling for long. If I feed it, it will grow. So, I look to tools that gently change my mood and attitude and bring me back to going with the flow of nature and life. Meditating, allowing my mind to expand, enlarge, become as big as the sky, as vast and endless as all of life. Resting with the many realities of life, as my feelings about events and people change and flow.

Am I such a creature of habit, with need for large spaces of “alone” time and feeling I am “controlling” my day, my routine? I guess so. Age does that, they say. Most of my weekdays have much alone time, much silence, time to meditate, write, exercise, work and meet one on one with suffering people. But the weekend was really all good, a very full, happy time, even with the distant and terrible physical and political events in the world. I was immersed in two high priorities of my life – family and sangha. That is the mystery to me – how anyone could feel discontent, even for a short time, having the wonderful life I have, the beautiful people I love.

I just had to consciously look at my feelings and attitudes and change them to a mode of acceptance and openness, allowing the many events to flow, allowing myself to be carried happily on the river of life. Then I enjoyed each moment thoroughly. I could be present to my precious loved ones and to myself.

To the publishing industry. In an earlier blog, I used a rather global comparison to dictators holding onto former wealth and power. Opps. The old dualistic, black/white, sometimes extremist me coming out. An entire industry could not be Qaddafi-like. Sorry. The more investigation of agents and publishers I do, the more normal and decent the individuals seem to be. Isn’t that true almost anywhere? Good people abound. Stop me the next time I make any statement that contains the hint of an “always,” “never” or “all,” even in the subtext.

An article I read in the Writer’s Yearbook 2011 by Linda Formichelli – “2010: The Year in Review” – gave some factual and analytical perspective that helped me soften my tone and raise my hopes of getting my book published. She maintains that “the publishing industry is slowly struggling out of the recession” and that major publishers are seeing leaps in operating profit over the last two years. Some types of magazines have taken a serious hit, but sales by major publishers – including those to e-readers – are up. One survey also showed that e-readers buy more magazines than the average American.

So, less fear….more hope, more courage to just keep “shipping,” generously putting out our gifts to the world, knowing that there will always be readers, people who buy and read books in many forms. In that spirit, I sent out yet another query letter to a local agent.

In one day, I experienced the exquisite joy of finishing my fourth draft of The Power of Love and later the upset over a dear friend’s conflict with her agent. So many days and moments are like this – joy and sorrow, triumph and disappointment intertwined in the same heart at the same moment.

Somehow amidst traveling to Florida for a meditation retreat and organizing another upcoming retreat, I managed concentrated time writing (I love my laptop that goes with me everywhere) and polished off the last four chapters on Monday! I was also given the timely opportunity to join a writers’ group at the exact moment I need readers. Now I face the more difficult task of searching for an agent and publisher.

Later in the same day, I heard from my friend that her new agent had attempted to slash one of the most beautiful and moving novels I have ever read. My happy heart felt the arrow with her. The agent is so wrong, so misguided. Yet I know that my friend will do what she needs to do to preserve her own voice, to find an agent and publisher who appreciates this important work as it is. I see how disappointing and vicious the publishing world seems to be right now. Like the desperate dictators fighting to the death for their former wealth and power, the industry clings to what they think will make them a fast buck. But they underestimate you, readers waiting for great books.

I so deeply believe that there are millions of readers – like me – in the world who long for enlightenment, real literature, moving, powerful writing that can take us into worlds we don’t yet understand and find there our own lives, our own struggles, our own suffering and redemption.
Yet, to get my book into your hands, will I also have to experience the same conflict, disappointment, mistrust and abuse that I see much better writers experience? Probably so.

Then I will use the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh as I do today to work up courage to approach a new agent myself. I pluck off my shelf his book of poetry, Please Call me by My True Names and turn to the end of his poem of that same title:

My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth
My pain is like a river of tears,
So vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
could be left open
the door of compassion.

This poem (much longer in its entirety) was written in 1978 while Thay was rescuing boat people from Vietnam in the Gulf of Siam.

Do you feel your joy and pain as one?

See a video of this poem at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6y-Ik3HB6fQ.