Saturday, May 30, 2009

Like Seeks Like: Daydream Believers

Those of us of a certain age may remember a Monkees hit called, "Daydream Believer." Backstory trivia - it was written by John Stewart who became part of The Kingston Trio (talk about showing one's age) when Dave Guard left... I swear I won't go any further into the backstory. What the mind retains and what it leaves behind like a game of Drop the Hankie is one of the great mysteries, at least to someone who has never been a neuroscientist.

Having written repeatedly about the way music resonates in my life, this reference is really just to open the door. Daydreams. I think, nationally, Americans are afflicted by the Puritan Ethic. In my family, at least on one side, there is direct linkage to hardy settlers and fighters for the revolution, combined with, from both sides, a nearly paralyzing dedication to plain, hard work. As far as I can tell, the drifting, mooning about and imagining started with my parents who most certainly did not have it modeled for them. The poetry-writing, science fiction magazine producing farm boy meets the movie-dazed young beauty who had a portfolio filled with ideas for Rose Parade floats and a children's book about giraffes. I know my father's parents were neither impressed nor understanding about writing as a life goal. At least my mother's family approached their children's futures with more open minds; they just wanted them to be happy.

So we have what is likely a predisposition to the wandering mind - a head more connected to the clouds than to concrete. Added to this as a genetic trait is the fact that mine was not a harmonious home and retreat into fantasy was also a survival tool. It became a place where I spent so much time that I would sometimes be shocked that what I had experienced in my imagination, the scripts I'd written for everyone so they would say what I wanted to hear, matched nothing I encountered when pulled back from my reverie.

Over the span of many years I could see that this escape still provided a refuge but allowed me to set myself up with unmeetable expectations...there is no wayI have found to force anyone to repeat the dialogue you have just written for them in your mind. As a coping skill, I can't say whether the balance leaned more toward helping or hurting. Based solely on the fact that I'm still here, I'd say let's go with helping. But unlearning the habit of expectations - based on nothing other than wanting - is a slow business. Determining to be present and not swooning along in another time and place is a version of getting sober, Be Here Now. And discover eventually that much of what was unbearable no longer exists, that Now has joy and substantially less disappointment, that imagination and perhaps life-saving escape are different fish.

A pivotal moment for me was having a friend describe training she had completed with a spiritual master on the subject of our unhappiness and how it comes from wanting. She took me through a simple exercise using something from my eternal list of wishes and instructed me to let go of wanting it but rather feeling it as already existing in my life. It gave me the sense that by wanting we drive our dreams from us; in becoming willing to let go of those desperate needs or what we percieve as needs we can find peace. It also restored to me my daydreaming, not as some enchanted cave to which I could retire to hide from what was happening in the moment, but as a movie, a diversion or entertainment of which I could watch as much or as little as I chose, clear in the knowing it was just that - entertainment, but one from which I might extract ideas for future projects, revisit mellow times, imagine situations and then release them.

I feel challenged to find the exact words to explain the differences between the dreamy states. The closest I can come is that one is mind candy and the other is a place we enter in desperation and exit to find disappointment and pain. Could we ever know how many great ideas have come from daydreaming? Over time, will it be possible to sustain the purely enjoyable state and not accidentally slip back into futile wanting? Yes, I think it is not only possible, it is a natural progression. It is still a long way from what we've been led to believe about our no-nonsense ancestors, yet I can - by imagining - picture the farmers, the miners, the New England tradesmen staring unseeing toward the horizon or the wild Atlantic and conjuring for a moment the heat of a long-ago kiss, a vision of what waits beyond the mountains, adventure for its own, pure sake.

Kermit The Frog (he accents "The") has been a kindred spirit for a long, long time. As he sings "The Rainbow Connection," the here and now remain, stationary and fine, while we glide off toward the sound of a waltz, a siren song not meant to doom but rather to empower us, the lovers, the dreamers and me.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

We are still golden

Recently I read that during the anti-war activities of the late 60s, or thereabouts, a group gathered and attempted to levitate the Pentagon. This may or may not be true, but I love that even as a rumor it has been carried forward so that teenagers 40 years later can understand the sense of wonder, of power, that we once felt was in our grasp. In my mind I hear the words to Joni Mitchell's song about Woodstock, telling us that we are "...stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden."

A book which has great resonance for me is Thomas Moore's "The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life," for in it he (I greatly oversimplify) reminds us that we lose what is most valuable in ourselves when we lose touch with magic, or enchantment. The fact that the Pentagon, in all likelihood, did not levitate is not the important part; what is important is that people came together and shared their belief in what was deemed impossible to see if it might happen. What if it actually lifted an immeasurably small distance for the shortest recordable amount of time? We can't know that it didn't.

What becomes of a society that abdicates its sense of wonder? We are in what are being called hard times; for some among us they are intolerably hard with no respite in sight. But without wonder, how do we find hope? In 1968, to name a year that holds enormous significance for me, I really believed we were in the midst of revolution. I see us wearing our peace symbols, a universal talisman, dancing by candlelight to The Doors and Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix in a way that could have been called tribal (which I guess was what the musical HAIR attempted to tell us). We knew the world could be different.

We need to resume our practices of simple magic. We need to accept that much of what is truly real remains mostly unseen and it will take intention and energy for us to regain that sight. We need to perform or witness impossible things every day. Our greatest challenge is to live not from our heads but from our hearts; to listen to the voices that urge us toward love and creating and healing, unfamiliar though they may be. In doing so, we will receive assignments that make no sense, that our so-called logical minds will hurry to argue away. With attention, it is not difficult to recognize the intense suggestions that come from hearts connected to other hearts, connected to source, to our divinity. For today, I say the larger, immovable objects can wait. For today, shall we see if we can levitate our spirits, find joy and peace and mystery in what appears to be the ordinary world?

I think of Dr. Lizardo from BUCKAROO BONZAI, a poster child for those seeking the miraculous outside themselves, and want to be sure that I end up with my head and my ass in the same realm, this one, magic enough for any of us once we know where to look.

Monday, May 11, 2009


The Sept/Oct issue of SOMERSET STUDIO ran a collaborative feature called "Black Cat Moon," in which the following was included in greatly abbreviated form as part of a story about childhood Halloweens and one particular year. My intention was to post it before Mother's Day as a way of acknowledging my artist mother and how many of her obsessions became mine. Some things don't change. There is no longer a garage with a magical dresser but there are stashes of fabrics, ribbons and trims, new and used, waiting to be called to active duty. Thank you, Barbara. All holidays will always belong to you.


At Valentine's Day it was, of course, about the cards we took to school and maybe pieces from her artist's stash of doilies, papers and ribbon that would add to the splendidness of our class Valentine mailbox. We wheedled for construction and crepe papers and glue to make our pretend fireworks at the Fourth of July. The Christmas whining escalated as we became more and more dizzy with dreams of our presents and started to argue over who got to lick the frosting bowl, who got to put the sprinkles on the decorated cookies, that kind of thing. But Halloween brought out our most demanding and bossy character flaws as we each told Mom, down to the tiniest stitch, just exactly how our costumes HAD to be.

There were three of us. I was the oldest, 12 for that Halloween of 1957. Mike was three years younger and Laurie two years younger than Mike. The fact that our mom was an artist, with a college degree and everything ( the shelves next to her favorite reading chair were filled with her art books on any topic from tole painting to Goya) was not a gift we took for granted, exactly, but one we did try to exploit for our own purposes. I can't remember Mom ever saying, "No, that's too complicated," or "I'm too busy." In fact, the years in which any of us picked a simple costume, she'd try and talk us into a more complicated, more challenging interpretation. Once she even tried to sew me a pair of tights for a dance recital and I knew she was disappointed when the available materials let her down. She imaginatively put in zippers at the ankles for a more snug fit. They were a disaster, the only costume I knew that got the best of her.

If I had known 1957 would be my last year of trick or treating, that by the next October I'd be more interested in a boy-girl party with a scavenger hunt and the possibility of making out, would I have picked a different costume, something more glorious, showy, something more take-a-final-bow? No, probably not. I was very clear that I wanted to be a black cat and, because I too liked a creative challenge, I had figured out that I had almost everything I needed to do it myself - black ballet slippers, tights, leotard, an eyebrow pencil to draw whiskers on my face and a plastic headband onto which I could glue ears. I really didn't give much thought to a tail, it didn't seem that important. In fact, I figured I was doing Mom a favor. She still had to make a turtle costume for Mike and a one-of-a-kind princess gown for Laurie.

As background, let me tell you our house was small. My sister and I shared a bedroom which was remodeled - carpentry only - a couple times, which made more space for bookshelves and a closet with storage drawers underneath, but left even less floor space so we had bunk beds until I moved away when I was 18. The same carpenter who was kept busy adding bookcases to every possible part of the living room and my parents' room also built a storage island/eating space in our tiny kitchen. It was one of the areas that was just Mom's, home for art and craft supplies. Her only other storage was an old dresser in the garage. That is where she kept patterns and fabric - deconstructed formals from Eastern Star rummage sales, buttons and bits saved from other cut-down clothes, yardage from sales, things that were given. She kept a wooden box of sewing supplies, needles, threads, snaps, hooks-and-eyes and a ceramic doll figure, smooth and shaped like a bowling pin, which she called a "Darn It" for it was used to give form to a sock while it was being mended. My sister and I loved the Darn It, a piece our mom had painted and glazed when she worked for a ceramics manufacturer after I was born. It was from this chest of drawers that sequined gossamer would appear, unfaded black cotton for Zorro or a cat costume, a length of lace for a Spanish mantilla, fringe by the yard, felt, millinery flowers, vivid Hawaiian prints. The reality was that the chest had just the four drawers but they seemed to hold so much more than could rationally have fit into such a space. As I think of my mother in this light, I wish that words like rational, ordinary, sensible and linear could have left my life and vocabulary sooner. That they have left at all, no matter the years, is a miracle, I have no doubt.

And so the designing began. Mike's turtle outfit took considerable engineering, research and a few prototypes. He had chosen that costume for he loved turtles and tortoises, being allergic to furry pets yet having such a tender heart for other creatures that we did have three desert tortoises as pets. They lived in our patio: we packed them in a large box of dry leaves so they could hibernate during the winter. They ate strawberry ice cream at birthday parties and would run, the tortoise version of run, when Mike called them. Laurie's princess gown, with tiara and scepter, was more a matter of fitting. Mom loved finding acres of old formals which she could take apart, cut down, and put back together in completely new ways. She didn't ever remake them into formals, but oh, the mileage they provided as costumes. There were gowns in three different shades of blue that became a satin bodice, layered net skirt with taffeta underskirt and puffed lace sleeves. I believe we had a real rhinestone tiara, another treasure pulled from a Masonic jumble sale. Instead of a mask, Laurie wanted to wear makeup, which Mom applied while I arranged her princess hairstye. Mike and I had turtle and cat headgear from the same patern, a sort of bathing cap shape that tied under the chin, his was green and earless, mine black with ears lined in pale pink felt. A full-body cat suit with a stuffed and wired tail replaced my simple leotard vision. As Mom sewed it, my cat even had a bit of white tuxedo shirt on her chest like Poe, my grandmother's cat and likely inspiration for my disguise. White gloves worked for Poe's white front paws. The only thing we kept from my version were the ballet slippers. I became a not furry but definitely cat-shaped being, whiskers and all. And when all the parts of the holiday were over, components and remnants of what we wore were returned to the dresser to await future transformation.

As Mike's turtle shell took form it became clear that, beloved as it was, it would not be especially comfortable, sitting down would be a challenge and he'd need help at school to put it on, but that was true for most of the elementary kids. Discomfort didn't matter. His cardboard and paint shell was transforming him into his favorite animal. Thinking back on it, I wonder that we never wanted to be anything or anyone scary. I can imagine the fun Mom would have found in creating the Creature From the Black Lagoon or the Mummy or the green-skinned witch from THE WIZARD OF OZ. She told us the story of attending a high school costume party as a pack of cigarettes, which had been her own creation. I imagine her hoping we'd come running up, shrieking things like, "the Empire State Building," "Mount Rushmore," "a submarine!" Serious challenges. My brother recently shared a story of the year he wanted to be Zorro and how, in his memory, he had been so demanding about the mask and how it needed to be perfect. I remember such moments on other occasions, wanting to go back and do it over, being more thankful and having, somehow, a more mature appreciation of our mother's remarkable creativity and the happiness it brought her. I have to trust that she knew our gratitude, that she had some sense of the power of those experiences to stay with us and that as we aged, we would come to value even further the gift she was.