The Very Human Need for Experience

Good and Evil

Good and Evil


I wanted to shelter my son from the world. I prayed away my foul mouth, hid my tears and played happy family with gusto. I wanted his world to be flowery, fun and fantastically clean. I didn’t tell him about my childhood unless I was telling a funny anecdote about a pet or a friend. I socialized him, took art classes with him and enrolled him in a co-op preschool where I could play perfect with other perfect mothers. Right out of preschool we enrolled in a perfect private school where I was sure he would bloom into the perfect prep school boy. In my search for perfection I lost something integrally important to the development of a well-rounded human. That important missing element was a well-developed sense of reality.

As time passed I began to see the holes in the world I’d worked so hard to create. I wasn’t being myself, my friends were drearily superficial and my son was unhappy in his school. Desperate for answers I turned to a book I stole from my high school, an ancient, dog eared copy of Herman Hesse’s, Siddhartha. I love this book for so many reasons. Like many other great inspirational books I can just open it to any page and find a piece of wisdom that will help me with whatever it is I’m facing. That day I opened the book at the beginning. I read of Siddhartha’s mother, her love for her child and her tragic early death. I read about the prophesy, proclaiming Siddhartha to be the greatest teacher of the age. Then I read his father’s reaction to this prophesy. Having just lost his wife and then faced with the loss of his son to a religious life, Siddhartha’s father created a perfect world in which pain, suffering and old age had no place. He imprisoned Siddhartha in a false utopia and robbed him of reality in order to keep him safe. How did Siddhartha react? He ran away in search of answers to the questions his father could neither pose nor answer.

Child in the Garden of Good and Evil

Child in the Garden of Good and Evil

Setting down the book I began to see the holes I’d identified in my parenting open into rather worrying chasms. I remembered the perfect children I’d known growing up, the ones who’d summered at the country club, vacationed in the tropics with their perfect families only to go slumming as drug using collage kids. I started remembering other sheltered kids who’d gone wild with sex and drugs the moment they’d found freedom from the suffocating control of their perfect worlds. Slowly I began to think that maybe by keeping our children in ignorance of pain and suffering we create a vacuum in their experience which will only propel them into a deeper need to experience the very things we try to protect them from. We cannot limit our children’s experience on this earth by sheltering them from a world they will someday have to live in.

So what is a frightened conscientious parent to do? I still only have a vague idea. In my heart I think a parent’s job is to guide a child through the world but not to shelter them from it. I feel that we must discuss even the small details of their day and how their different interactions made them feel. Most importantly we must validate their emotions with empathy, compassion and a willingness to hear while we admit our own feelings, failings and frustrations within the discourse. In other words it is very important that our children see us as loving, fallible humans whom they can trust with their secrets. We live in a tumultuous world of opposites. As much as we hate to admit it good lives in balance with evil and both must be experienced in order to be understood. We cannot end suffering any more then Siddhartha the Buddha did because suffering is a necessary part of experience and experience is the only true teacher. No matter how hard we try, we cannot recreate heaven on earth because that isn’t why we’re here.

Making Peace with Experience

Making Peace with Experience

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

A Wealth of Choices

I own the choices I’ve made; the dark ones, the wicked ones, the wrong ones and right ones. No one said do this and forced me into it. I walked, eyes open, into my life choosing the safest path again and again until I came to this place of quiet repose. I have a house I love. It’s too big but I like the way the sun pours in. I have a husband who adores me. He works a lot but the money is good. I have a child I love. He’s loud and noisy but he makes me laugh. I have a cat to snuggle. He’s big and beautiful and keeps me company.

It’s easy to look back on the choices I’ve made and think: If only I’d stayed in school I could have had a career. If I’d stayed in that city I might have learned independence. If I’d traveled when I was younger maybe my life would feel bigger. It’s easy to let go of free choice and blame others for the twists and turns our lives have taken. It’s also easy to settle into a rut and let the dust settle.

My life is now half-lived. A wealth of choice lies before me, waiting to be made. I’ve lived hard and I’ve lived easy. I’ve basked in the sunlight and labored in the rain. I could close my eyes right now and fade into duty, schedule and the comforting rhythm of time or I could make a choice to change this happy groove into something even greater; life can be too soft, too smooth and too insufferably sweet. Sometimes it’s good to let the rain in. Sometimes it’s good to turn the world on its ear. Sometimes you need to step on a cold sharp rock just so you can remember to be grateful for warm plush carpet and the comforts of home.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Locating your Authentic Self

Locating your Authentic Self is an important step towards relational intimacy. It is impossible to experience deep sustaining love if you are hiding behind a role. In life we misplace our true identity behind labels and ideas that obscure the person we really are. Removing the layers of pretense and fear driven identity can be an intimidating undertaking. Only through authenticity can you find freedom, joy and true love.

Fake identities manifest through fear, loneliness and a need to please, protect or be accepted. These labels come from parents, siblings, society, educational titles, or they may be self-applied. Labels start small but they quickly take on a life of their own, crippling their host’s ability to live authentically in the process. False identity states: I am not a whole person until you know this fact about me. Or, I wouldn’t be good enough for this moment if you knew the real me.

My most destructive false identity came with childhood. I was told that I was, drifty, irrational, difficult, bossy, too sensitive and controlling. These labels grew into, Bitch and finally Crazy Bitch, a title I took to with zeal. I wore it like battle armor, ready to shred my life and my family. Being Crazy Bitch, offered me a way to escape the permanent victim hood I was raised in.

When my husband first asked me out I said, “You don’t want to date me, I’m crazy.” Was this my truth? At the time I thought it was. After years of being labeled, of rebelling, and of being labeled again, I developed an identity that said I was crazy, untrustworthy and mercenary. He looked into my eyes and said, “You’re not crazy.” I remember how sad I felt for him. I knew that at some point I would shred him, break him, hurt him the way I had my family. I overcame my destructive false identity and have a healthy authentic marriage because of his love, trust and support.

In my book Magdalena’s Shadow, I introduce my audience to Coco, a girl who struggles with finding her true identity. Her story begins under the labels: idiot, unlovable and crazy. As the story progresses her labels grow to encompass: model, single mother and whore. Coco could succumb to these labels but like so many of us she strives to overcome the labels she was branded with. Guided by a strict code of personal integrity, Coco begins a compelling search for personal freedom, self-worth and lasting love.

Freedom is yours when you rise above unwanted roles and other people’s beliefs about what you should be. Sit down and list out the roles which you identify with and ask yourself, “how does this role make me feel?” Question, “who would I be if I didn’t believe this about myself?” Listen carefully to your heart’s answers. Be still with your authentic self. Take time to bond with the feeling of just being you, even if only for a moment. Stripping away the layers of false self can feel scary. It helps to understand that the false self has no integrity, is incapable of lasting love and lives wholly outside of intimacy because intimacy cannot be achieved in the presence of a lie.

The Importance of Relational Intimacy

Society is centered on money and prestige. It’s that simple. Even if you were born a happy hippy kid raised on granola and kisses, by now you know that money=prestige=success in western culture. Our cultivated egos value expensive cars, big houses, designer clothes, and exotic destinations. From the moment we mature to the moment we die, the framework of our life is corrupted by the idea that material achievement is a necessary component of happiness.

We are the wealthiest society in the history of creation. This fact alone should ensure our happiness, and yet we are stressed and depressed because we place our values on things that will never love us back. We cultivate riches instead of enriching the relationships that heal us.

Western culture’s definition of mental health coincides with the dominant values of our culture: autonomy, independence and wealth. We are raised in this isolated society to stand alone, be rugged individuals and to be capitalist ground-breakers.  A healthier way of being productive would be to move, work and create within relationships. I am reading the book Silencing the Self, Women and Depression by Dana Crowley Jack and I agree with Dana that it is natural, not needy, to look for intimacy in relationships; to cleave to a lover, friends, family and community for support.

Women are far more injured by our western role models because a woman is raised to seek intimacy in relationship, to communicate her feelings, to trust in and nurture others. A man is raised to strike out on his own, to keep his feelings subdued, and to be strong, decisive and courageous. This male role model does not mesh well with the intimacy seeking communicative female model. The sad truth is that men need intimacy just as much as women do; they just aren’t raised to know it.

All of my manuscripts are based on the importance of relational intimacy. As a writer of woman’s fiction, I am constantly looking for new ways to show the beauty of deep sustaining love; between friends, lovers, brothers-in-arms, or sisters of a common cause. Nothing we do in life is more important than the people whose lives we touch with care. Intimacy unearths pain, supports healing and is more valuable than any amount of gold. You cannot take your riches with you to heaven, but you can take the love and compassion you’ve invested in others.

Literature Changes Lives

You are what you read. What a powerful statement! When you lose yourself in good literature, you are doing more than reading an excellent novel, you are sympathizing with the character; you are melding your own thoughts and self-identification with theirs, even if just for a moment.

Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby of Ohio State University found in a study that readers bond with protagonists to such a degree, that for a time, the reader takes on the emotions and beliefs of the protagonist. This process is called “experience taking.”

When I first began reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s, Eat, Pray, Love, I couldn’t stop crying. There was something so raw and gutting about her depression, entrapment and lack of self-awareness that I could no longer separate my own pain from hers. There was something about Liz’s character that made me confront my own long hidden suffering?

My heartache stemmed from the reality that I had let my most cherished dreams slip away. I was a wife when I meant to be a scholar, a mother when I’d planned to travel and a depressed shut-in when I’d meant to find my feet and lead a full life. I felt pain because of all the things I hadn‘t done. Two chapters into the book and like Liz, I  wanted a divorce. Four chapters in and I ended a long held friendship. By the time Liz arrived in Italy I was crying through every sentence because I felt trapped, suffocated and alone. If it were not for Liz’s distinct voice guiding me on I may have remained stuck in that place of regret and misery forever.

I cannot easily describe the evolution that took place within me but for some reason I began to heal somewhere between India and Bali. Somewhere during that mental trip my eyes opened to the reality of my life. In Bali I found peace for the first time. I saw where I stood and began to value all that I had accidently achieved in my mismanaged life. I had a husband, a son, and a home where I was unconditionally loved. So what had been so wrong for so long? The answer is…me. My thoughts and behavior, my idea of what life should have been, got in the way of what life was.

Eat, Love, Pray changed my life because it changed the way I saw my life. Now I am on track to achieve my dreams while I love and appreciate the life I’ve built. Could I have made my fresh start without Liz Gilbert? I really don’t know. What I do know is that literature is powerful. It gives a writer the chance to open minds or close them, to take their readers on a life altering journey for the better or for the worse.

So I ask you fellow writers to please be careful with the minds you handle. Words are powerful and they can bring light to a shadowed consciousness or just heap on more darkness.

Literary Betrayal

There is no rule which states that a novel or short story should end happily. Many of the greatest literary works left their audience in despair with their closing sentence. Life is a story and often times that story is so rooted in pain that a happy ending is not an option.

I recently read a trilogy so steeped in tragedy that by the end of book three I felt emotionally gutted. I’ll let you guess the name of this trilogy. What troubled me most about this trilogy was not its despair based premise or continual sacrifice of innocence and decency but the shock and awe tactics used by the author in order to maintain the high octane pace the writer had naturally achieved in the first book. This blatant use of shock brought forth the question: “What does a writer owe her audience?”

We as readers depend on authors to see main characters through to their natural end. If a well-developed character should happen to die that death should be noted not disregarded as if it were only the death of inconsequential extra. The blatant brushing aside of a beloved characters life is cold and cruel because it destroys the readers faith and trust in the writer. A well-developed sympathetic character who is killed without the necessary pause for grief and reflection leaves the reader feeling injured and betrayed. At no point should shock value replace the need for plot and character development.

Perhaps it is our lack of attention span which has led so many popular writers to gut their audience and tear away the fabric of the plot in order to keep modern readers reading. Nevertheless, a compelling book should have strong well defined characters, a sweeping plot with many twists and turns as well as description and flow. Characters should not act, “out of character,” and plot should not be sacrificed in order to build a path from one disturbing scene to the next. We as writers owe it to our readers to take them on a journey. The journey may be harrowing, grief filled and agonizing but it is the duty of the writer not to victimize her reader with one shock after another just to keep them hooked. As your guide we writers may lead you to the edge of the chasms of emotion but we should never toss you over indiscriminately just to see you fall.

Characters that Live and Breathe

How do you write a Character that lives and breathes? Study, listen and feel. With these three directives you can create a character just as alive and glorious as any composed by the greats. As I’ve stated earlier, my characters come to me, usually at night darn them, as a feeling etched in shadow, a grief, a loss, a short-lived joy or the fear of lack. This I build into a life by listening to the feelings around them, by seeing their color as it were in order to create a shape, a body to house them in. That is part of the feeling, the listening is more to do with taking in every element of the world around you, other people’s stories, movies, books, histories and compiling a mental map of the worlds you want to explore be it Imperial Russia or the 50’s in L.A.; be in it and with it, travel if you can to get a sense of the place. Writing is often about putting your own experiences on paper seen through the eyes of someone else. So in a haphazard and erratic way I think I’ve covered the feeling and listening part, now for a more in-depth view of study.

Become a lover of words, not the words that get you from one side of the page to the other but the words that describe a tulip opening to the sun in five hundred words or more, don’t be a miser with words, squander them across the page, use twenty when you could have used five. You can edit them out later. I say this because we have lost so much of the art of writing in our modern brevity, you have the right to write and not be brief: expound, describe your imagery and bring vibrancy to your scenery. Listen to the classics read unabridged and dramatized as you move through your day. Study Jane Eyre not for the plot but for the phrase. The opening scene when she talks of cold walks, Chilblains and frost is enough to make my toes curl and the more I listen to it the more I fall in love with the magic of this style of writing. Decide who your writing is most similar to and study them. Study and perfect your style by reading, listening and write, every day, day in, day out. Words are alive so use them.