Saturday, February 21, 2015

each day has its own little story, but, is it true?

last sunday
I visit my mom. We sit outside commenting on the beauty of the sky and the warmth of the sun while Josie works like a vacuum inhaling palm nuts off the ground. Later, I walk with my two sisters along the Pacific Ocean. Coming up in conversation, Byron Katie.

The world, upside down.

Josie and I on our small sofa watching TV. From the kitchen arises such a clatter, then a puffed up Elliott flies by. He stops abruptly on the far side of the room. Josie struggles to get free from under the blanket, succeeds, takes a half second, bounds over to Elliott, sniffs, spins, tears through the room, the kitchen, straight outside, all business. I follow, just a tad less dramatically, stand on the deck.

Josie is hopping around the darkening yard; it is evening. Stars appear. Through the dusk I see in the neighbor’s driveway a cat, Mr. Black and White. He stands still and alert, keened on Josie, who now sees him. Josie tears, flat out, toward Mr. Black and White who bounds away, leaping atop the brick wall at the edge of the yard. He stands there in the gathering gloom looking down at Josie who is now investigating the ground below, back and forth, to and fro, snorting and grunting until he looks up, sees old Mr. B-and-W. He leaps and barks. Mr. B-and-W walks along the top of the wall, not slowly, not quickly, just walking, out of sight. Josie runs and bounces around the yard, first nose to the ground then nose high in the air, barking and boofing. A few more turns and spins and he barrels inside, straight to Elliott, sniff, spin, barrel back out. Eventually, all is secure. I trust Josie. I give him a treat. He wags his tail. We settle back down, watch TV.

Everyday yard reconnaissance.

I look up Byron Katie on the web. Ah, “The Work.” Those four questions designed to bust your self-defeating, negative thoughts, designed to let in peace and light, let in happiness. Ask: Is it true? Are you sure about that? Is it absolutely true? What if you turn it around? And around again? Around and around again and again inside and out like shaking out a freshly laundered shirt, snapping it free of creases before hanging it on the line to dry in the sun, to blow in the breeze.

All you need to do “The Work” is right there on the web. And there is this: Beginning March 2015, Turnaround House, Ojai, California. Geez, Ojai’s just up the road. I was there once. Very picturesque, hotter and drier as it’s off the ocean, in the foothills, a little swanky as I recall. I click on “Turnaround House” just to see.

A 28-day program to turn your life around.

First, a description on who can turn their life around (everyone and anyone who wants to) and then, how: Do “The Work.”

I click on “Learn more.”

Yes, anyone can enter Turnaround House and do “The Work.” The accommodations look lovely. And the environment is free of all that stuff like tobacco and alcohol and drugs and … uh oh … caffeine. No tea?

No mention of pets.

The meals are “healthy and sane.” I wonder about ice cream. Is ice cream sane?

I read the testimonials.

I see the fee: $20,000. Wow. Per day that comes to $714 and a little spare change. I try to imagine spending 28 days with a group of people who can afford to spend $20,000 on 28 days … Well, who am I to judge? If you can afford it and it works for you, why not? I try to imagine spending 28 days without tea or Josie or Elliott or the option of indulging in ice cream—TV?—opting instead for the company of wealthy women (why do I imagine they are all women?) who spend their time questioning themselves about what is and is not true. Turning things inside out. Finding peace. Finding happiness. Are there scholarships to Turnaround House? Do they do “The Hokey Pokey”?

I fill out my profile on the website for my high school class which is holding a reunion in October. One of the questions is what have you done since graduation, which translates to: So, what have you been up to these past 40 years? I let that one go. For occupation I put down “independent business person.” There were something like 861 people in my high school class. I knew maybe 17 of them.

On watch, taking life seriously.

I find out that it is 77 degrees warmer right now right here where I am than back home where I am not. The country is in a deep freeze and we are not. Josie snoozes under the blanket. Back home we will need many more blankets.

I am reminded of home by a blog post by this guy I’ve lately found interesting. He advocates for not following your passion but rather working hard at something, anything; it becomes your passion. He offers skills to help you get to work, get down to work at something, anything, and I’ve been most interested in his methods for organizing and planning one’s time. As an easily distracted independent business person, sometimes it is hard for me to get to and focus on those non-imperative-but-yet-important tasks and as well to go beyond what is necessary, get to some of those grander ideas, put in the time, the work, see what comes of it.

His post today was kind of a conundrum, being about spaces, creative spaces some people have made in which to pursue their work, because it reminded me of that one split-second a few years ago which seemingly sealed my fate, caused me, ultimately, to buy and live in that crazy, bare-bones cabin nestled in the abandoned farm fields of Pelkie, Michigan, where right now it is 77 degrees colder than here and snow, well, snow deep enough so I may never get back home. But back then it was a mild August evening and while gazing from over by the river at this cabin I had not yet bought I had a vision: I saw myself in that cabin, and I was writing, and that was all I needed.

I go back to Bryon Katie, find this article, an example of “The Work” with actress Jane Lynch. Boy, that’s confusing. Makes my head spin. So many questions asked but so many questions not asked. I email Turnaround House asking about scholarships and such, if there’s ever help with payment. I get a response: No. After all, all this stuff is free on the web—there are workbooks and apps and a hotline to call if you need help with your workbooks and apps. That’s a’plenty for those of us who can’t afford the luxury of a 28-day intensive self-inquiry in Ojai without caffeine or pets.

I can’t help myself. What they do there in Ojai? Who are they? Not only those who attend but those who attend to those who attend. Who are they? Who are those guys? And how many are there? What are their stories? And what has brought them to squirrel themselves away for 28 days in March in Ojai to do “The Work” that might just help them change their thoughts, turn their lives inside out, upside down​? To do “The Work” that might just make them happy every day, every minute, for the rest of their lives? That might just help them see the negative as positive, the bad as good, the unacceptable as acceptable? What will these people do each day? Will each day be the same? The same four questions over and over? Will they ever get out? Go for coffee? Shop? Take a hike? Or must they stay at Turnaround House eating only sane food while spinning those same damn four questions? Will they study philosophy or religion? Will they be allowed to pray, speak to God, attend a religious service of their choice? Come up with their own questions? Will they attend a lecture on neurology? Explore the brain, how it works, how it doesn’t work? Are they allowed phone calls? Books? Email? The Internet? Can they surf the web? Have they left behind jobs? Families? Spouses? Partners? Pets? I want these stories, these answers, not testimonials.

Oh my gosh. Turnaround House sounds like the perfect setting for a murder mystery. Has it been written yet?

It is total immersion in self-inquiry.

I am lucky. I cannot imagine wanting to leave my life for 28 days in order to delve into it via someone else’s structure, someone else’s methodology, someone else’s truth, at my expense. Yes, I am lucky. Of course I did leave my life going on six months now, but I dragged much of it with me and can eat ice cream whenever I want and ask not only four questions but four thousand if I so please. I think of the many ways I delve into my life—like right here, right now—and come out with mere kernels, a little something to chew on, to turn over, to turn inside out. Yes, I am lucky. Epiphanies and revelations come and go and vanish only to return, perhaps, at a later date, maybe dressed up, acting differently, but hinting at connections, revealing nuances. I did leave my life, didn’t I. Part of it, anyway. Searching for … happiness. Peace. Don’t mistake me for altruism.

I walk with Josie through the vacant lot; the mind wanders. I work at something—anything—and the mind disappears. I talk to someone—anyone—and there is a different reality. I work on a jigsaw puzzle (of all things) and it is like meditation, like getting high: the mind floats, scans, wanders, focuses on tiny details. And I know what it is like to become obsessed with a negative, self-defeating thought. And I know what it is like to have it clench your heart, squeeze it like a snake. And I know how the thought sounds like a jackhammer hammering away at your brain and your sanity until you want to scream or just die. And I know how it crumples a soul.

From my mother’s sketchbook.

Sometimes I feel as if I have been cleaning out my parents’ house for 20-some years now. Of course, what is true is that it has only been off and on, now and then, for 20-some years now. Today I look through a box of stuff that came out of my sister’s shed just before Christmas and a top drawerful of stuff that was dumped in the drawer just before I hauled the chest out of the second-to-last place that my mother may ever live. I am taking the chest home to Michigan. The stuff in the top drawer … ?

Prior to marrying my dad, my mom spent a couple of years in Chicago doing social work. She was a Case Aide in the Home Service department of some unknown agency. I have her performance reviews for 1945 and ’46 and they are excellent. Each year she earned a $10-a-month raise. In 1945, that boosted her monthly salary from $145 to $155. At the time she lived with a group of women at 7343 S. Ridgeland. I’ve got some pictures. For the 1941-42 school year my mom was hired as a Teacher of Mathematics and Library Supervision in her hometown of Aledo, Illinois for a 9-month salary of $960. I have the tattered blue slip of paper titled Teacher’s Notice and Contract. This came on the heels of her graduation from the University of Illinois with a Bachelor of Science in Education. I have the diploma. I also have her sketchbook from a couple of years back, two or three very old, small, tattered Bibles, a plastic Santa Claus, some nail files, her and my dad’s high school yearbooks, their marriage certificate, some stray cough drops, notebooks of notes and quotes and information, old letters, this and that, photographs. Some of this for years my mom kept in a desk drawer or somewhere stored away. This is the stuff that survived every move, no matter where to or by whom. This is the stuff that could not be thrown away. So now I will keep this picture of my mom swimming in Lake Michigan in the mid-1940s, perhaps at some South Side beach. But I will not keep the cough drops.

My mom on the right.

This evening a beautiful crescent moon with Venus nudging gently nearby.


  1. To think that there is someone in Pelkie who is interested in Byron Katie and the turnarounds. I do them over here in Aura, sometimes, across the bay. I wonder how many people in Baraga County ponder these things? Probably more than we suspect.

    1. I'm wondering if asking those questions -- or any set of structured questioning -- works on calming (or confusing) that part of your brain that loves to churn through negative thoughts, or any thoughts that tend to loop over and over. In essence disrupting the thinking in that brain area, derailing the train of thought ... ho hum. Just thinking!