Keep the channel open

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.”  –Martha Graham

Dare to live differently

John Lennon Quote

Sometimes life has to get really, really uncomfortable before we are willing and motivated to make lasting change.

Debt has to become an unbearable weight before we alter our spending habits. Corporate life has to become so soul-crushingly miserable that we are willing to give up the regular paycheck. The pressure of not acting on a creative impulse has to become a bigger burden than actually sitting down and facing the unknown.

I finally started renovating my life when I became too uncomfortable not to change.

One key moment came a few years ago while reading an old journal from 2001. The moans of discontent in that old journal centered on the same issues I was still moaning about to friends and in journals all these years later. Did I want to wake up in another 10 years and still be moaning about those same issues?

Something had to give. Something about my way of living had to change. I’ve made too many decisions driven by a need for security, financial pressures, or simply whatever I felt like doing at the moment, rather than based on any long-term vision or deep understanding of what would ultimately be fulfilling.

I live very differently from how I lived 10 years ago, and each season brings new ideas, new discomforts, new change. Honoring the impulse to be free, facing my deepest fears, and living out of my truest self have become the essence of this fresh pursuit. This blog is my story, snippets and snapshots of the continuing journey.

Three months to live … differently

At the start of 2014, I drafted a series of ambitious goals, the SMART kind, which involve specific, measurable steps with corresponding deadlines. A few weeks later, I crunched numbers to find that two of my goals weren’t financially worth the effort, and letting them go was a welcome relief. Even if those projects had been profitable, their realization wasn’t quite realistic (the R in SMART).

Incidentally, planning and executing a three-month sojourn in Paris wasn’t listed among those ambitious goals, because I considered it a fait accompli. As the departure date approached, I started compiling a mental list of other goals specific to my time overseas–ways to capitalize on this unique opportunity.

Beyond the sight-seeing, long walks and French study, I hoped to blog regularly, sell travel writing articles, start a memoir project, and–oh yeah–maintain my freelance work. Three months abroad should provide ample time and inspiration to write and create all these things … so I thought.

Teach us to number our days

At an Italian restaurant near my studio in the 17th, while waiting on a plate of scaloppine al limone, I pulled out the little notebook in which I jot the day’s activities and experiences. Next to each date, I’ve listed the day of the journey and the corresponding days left, e.g., Day 1/83, Day 3/81, Day 6/78, and so on.

Since I’m visiting Paris more as a temporary resident than as a tourist, I knew it might be easy to fall into a complacent routine if I’m not careful. The daily countdown was meant to be a reminder of the brevity of this experience.

As I realized how rapidly this countdown was descending, I felt a kind of panic, a glimpse of what it might be like to have only three months to live. (Granted, an imperfect analogy, because if I really had only three months to live, I wouldn’t be in Paris at all.)

I’d spent several days after my arrival just trying to settle in–unpacking, getting groceries, wrestling with Internet and cellphone issues. Considering all that I wanted to see and do, suddenly I thought: Three months is simply not enough time. No, perhaps not–but an entire lifetime might not be enough to truly experience everything Paris has to offer.

So if three months is all I have, how then shall I live?

One reason I love big cities is that their energy and rhythm matches my personal pace. I love going to Manhattan and urban-hiking for hours on end. But I didn’t come to Paris to spend three months feeling frantic and desperate.

Slowing the inner inertia

Do you remember that childhood trick to test whether an egg was boiled or raw? You spun it on a table top, and then as it whirred, you tapped it with your finger. If it was boiled, it would stop; if raw, it would keep spinning.

High school physics taught us that the raw egg continued to spin because its inner matter was resistant to a change in its state of motion. That’s also why we wear seat belts, because inertia will take you through a windshield if something forces the car to a sudden stop.

Outside of egg shells and car frames exists a sinister kind of inertia–the unrelenting pace that defines modern life. Most of us have become so accustomed to this frenetic (and unsustainable) lifestyle that we barely register how fast we’re moving, until something forces a change of pace.

I most often sense this inner inertia when I try to sit still–to write or pray or meditate. If I’m at home, I may be compelled to go to a coffeehouse. Once installed in the coffeehouse, my impulse is to go back home and try writing from the couch. If I try meditative prayer, I feel anxious and impatient. My racing mind would rather ruminate or daydream.

Our whole beings–body, mind, spirit–synch at the same speed. Being still isn’t easy when your mind and spirit are still moving.

Sickness or injury are hard, fast (and unwelcome) stops to personal inertia. But we can also slow down incrementally, like gently tapping the raw egg until it stops spinning.

In the midst of so much movement, a security guard demonstrates the art of being still.

In the midst of so much movement, a security guard demonstrates the art of being still. (To be fair, he was guarding an empty animal crate–a promo for a zoo.)

Original intentions

Now that my first week in Paris is past–those mental goals hardly started, that panic hovering in the periphery–I realize this slowing of my spirit is just what I need.

The first gentle tap to my whirring spirit was to look that panic in the face: What do I need to do in order to feel, on that last day, that this trip has been a success? Do I need to have walked across all 20 arrondissements? Should I have completed the first draft of a manuscript? Be a totally transformed person with inner peace, serenity and heightened creative powers? A girl can dream, but no–remember that the R in SMART means realistic.

The second tap was to give myself grace: You don’t have to accomplish any particular goal–you don’t even have to have a big goal. Sure, an overseas sojourn is a great opportunity to write, but I became much more interested in writing once the pressure to do so was relaxed.

The third tap was to remember my original intention. I had to re-read my own blog post to remember why I’m here. Oh yeah! Relish magic, nurture a sense of wonder, refuel imagination. All rather abstract ideas, the kind that don’t fit well into a SMART goal template. How to you plan to “glimpse the glory of God” or to “be stilled by beauty”? You don’t. You have to be available. You have to pay attention.

The last, most important tap has been to speak aloud my deep gratitude, every day, that I’m here at all. This practice, more than anything else, attunes my spirit to the Giver. As I stroll the city streets, I think about where I was five years ago, and I give thanks. I think about where I could be instead, and I give thanks. (I smell the homeless man before I see him, and I’m instantly humbled by having worried about such grievously first-world problems. For all my hands hold, nothing but gratitude is even appropriate.)

Not every day in Paris will be a creative quest for glory and beauty. I still have to work, clean my apartment, do laundry, pay bills–normal life things. But I have three months to live … differently. As I continue to settle in, I hope to change my pace, even a little, even for just a little while. To do just that would be a gift indeed.

Eiffel Tower at night

In Paris, the quest for glory and beauty takes very little effort.

From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines.

–Walt Whitman, from “Song of the Open Road”

Photo by Sylwia Bartyzel

‘Paris is always a good idea.’

Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.- H. Jackson Brown Jr., P.S. I Love You

In September of 1992, I landed in Douai, France, a teenage adventurer off to spend a year of high school as a foreign exchange student–a year that profoundly influenced my character, my perspective, and my ability to stay put for any length of time.

In the two decades since that pivotal experience, I’ve visited some 16 countries on 5 continents, as close as Mexico and as far away as Australia, with so much more yet to discover. Traveling the world has been the utmost highlight of my life, though France has always held a special place in my heart: my first love, my only high school sweetheart.

I’d nearly forgotten how much I loved France–especially Paris–until I went back to Europe last summer for the first time in over a decade. One week in Paris reawakened all that fascination, but a week wasn’t nearly enough to relish the magic.

IMG_5838-copySo, I’m going back.

Whenever I tell people I’m headed to Paris to live for three months (the longest you can stay on a tourist visa), they ask me why I’m going. Is it for work? Missions? A sabbatical? No, not really any of those things, though I’ll work while I’m there. (As a freelance writer, I can work anywhere there’s an Internet connection.)

I’m going largely because I can. And because I desperately want to, and have longed to, since I was there last June.

One of the most important aspects of creativity is having a sense of wonder–the ability to see and be awed by even small things most people just pass by in the course of a day. In the past several years, a lot of my enthusiasm and vitality has been exchanged for cynicism and disillusionment. Very little wows me anymore.

When spring comes to Paris, the humblest mortal alive must feel that he dwells in paradise.- Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

The Louvre, photo by Renee Crosby

When I was in Paris last year, that long-dormant, presumed dead sense of awe was revived. And it happened not at the Eiffel Tower sparkling at midnight, not standing in the middle of the Champs-Elysees staring down the imposing Arc de Triomphe. It wasn’t while gazing up at the Winged Victory of Samothrace or smiling back at the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.

The moment of deepest delight happened while standing in the sanctuary of the Sacre Coeur. This white-domed cathedral was my favorite monument when I visited Paris as a teenager, still barely old enough to drive. As much as I loved the place back then, its cold stony interior stirred no great spiritual feeling. Last summer, however, I was overcome with a sense of the glory of God in a structure that had never before seemed so full of life and spirit. And that awe–that sense of glory–was like sweet water to a soul I never realized was quite so parched.

In this moment outside the Sacre Coeur, I was dreaming up a plan to return.

In this moment outside the Sacre Coeur, I was dreaming up a plan to return.

I sat on the steps to the side of the church entrance and sobbed to one of my travel companions out of the joy of such an encounter, but I also grieved the years such a joy has been so foreign. As we circled the church’s exterior, my mind started spinning, hatching a plan.

My return to Paris was inevitable.

The deepest reason I’m going back to Paris is to live out this hope I’ve been carrying, that a sojourn abroad–in one of the most magical cities in the world, a place that captured my heart during one of my most formative years–might nurture my calloused soul and refuel my imagination.

Travel of any kind has been the best jolt of energy and fresh perspective. So now, my belongings are in storage, my plane ticket is booked, apartments have been rented, and bags are being packed.

In the movie Sabrina, Audrey Hepburn says, “Paris is always a good idea.” And Paris just may be my best idea yet.

Author Sally Lloyd-Jones on storytelling

Sally Lloyd-Jones next children’s book comes out March 11.

In my last post I mentioned frequently reading interviews with writers who share their creative insights and daily work process. The International Arts Movement recently featured author Sally Lloyd-Jones in an interview on her creative process and insights. Below are a few of my favorite nuggets.

“For me it is key to keep things playful, so part of that is riding my bike, exploring, listening to playlists I can write to that put me in the right atmosphere in my head, tricking myself into believing I’m not working and sitting in coffee shops.”

 

“I experienced life first of all as an adventure and a story. When I’m in that place of wonder, my work becomes worship and I know it’s better and cleverer than I am.”

 

“I don’t try and give messages to children. That would make me a lecturer. My job is to tell stories, to get out of the way and let the story through, and to do that the best way I know how.”

You can read the full interview here. You can also follow Sally Lloyd-Jones on Twitter.

What the world asks of you is courage

OldtypewriteronturquoiseWrite everyday. Line by line. Page by page. Hour by hour. Do this despite fear. For above all else, beyond imagination and skill, what the world asks of you is courage. Courage to risk rejection, ridicule and failure. As you follow the quest for stories told with meaning and beauty, study thoughtfully, but write boldly. Then like the hero of that fable, your dance will dazzle the world.

–Robert McKee, author of Story

Someone, somewhere, right now, needs to read your words

Someone, somewhere, right now needs to read your words, your gift.Encouragement from a frient Someone, somewhere, right now needs to know that even if the words come out all wrong, they came out anyway.

They need to know that someone transcended their own insecurities, excuses and reluctance.

Someone, somewhere, right now needs to know that because you write you become closer to the person you were intended to be, giving hope to those of us who have yet to find out voice, our vessel …

Won’t you lend us your courage, and write?

(From my friend Jason, in a note sent along with a box of soup when I was sick with the flu.)

If you are embarking on any endeavor that steers you away from the mainstream, you need people on the sidelines, people who love you and believe in you, cheering you on. Find them, keep them in your sights, and listen to the good things they say. It will make all the difference in the world.