Yearly Archives: 2006

Sweetgrass and salt water

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I woke up this morning to a brilliant sky, cold and clear. When Vince and I stepped out for our morning walk, I caught a whiff of something on the wind that it took me a moment to recognize. It was familiar but strangely out of place; something not quite a perfume yet a grassy smell, not quite an incense yet it made me think of blessingways. Finally my nose caught on: sweetgrass. Pungent sweetgrass hung low over the street like it had just been harvested from the fields, or lingered after burning for hours in some temple nearby.

But there are no temples on my street, no crops to speak of, and no one burns sweetgrass to stay warm in the bayside frost. The town is not that big, there was no accounting for the sweet smell that accompanied me halfway up the hill and down again. Heading home again I gazed out as I do almost every day across the bay, beyond the headlands, to the wild ocean. A filmy gauze of high clouds bent like the arm of a long spiral whose center was far out over the Pacific, and the crazy thought crossed my mind that maybe the sweetgrass smell had blown in from very far away.

I have now spent a full year living on the edge of the mighty Pacific. Like a new neighbor I have been courteous and friendly, happy to talk but not overly probing in our acquaintance so far. Getting to know the ocean is something I imagine is fundamentally impossible within the span of a human life, so I am content to approach it slowly and savor the moments of closeness as they come, letting them gradually pile up and take shape. Merely having an affinity for the ocean does not make me presume familiarity.

Still, this morning I had the distinct impression of the ocean as a bit of a trickster, picking up scents from around the Pacific Rim and depositing them at random points on the opposite shore. Maybe a fisherman in Japan woke to the aroma of chocolate from Ghiradelli Square. Maybe someone in Juneau felt certain she smelled hot curry on the wind. That long, spindly arm of cloud has a large wooden mixing spoon in her hand, and those of us on the edge of the bowl get the first taste of all her new flavor combinations.

At the turning of this new year, I am standing on the edge of the world breathing in deep. It is not just the sweetgrass, harbinger of new beginnings, that I smell. There is salt water for purification and cleansing, not brackish but full of life from the swelling moon. There is an earthy, slightly green smell from the dark soil heavy with rain. Not a spring green smell but a winter green, wet and chill, a placeholder in the air for the pungent, sprouting smell of new growth we will get in a couple months. Above it all is a skittish, flitting scent of burning tobacco. Maybe someone out of view is greeting the new day with a prayer, or a morning smoke.

Pipe dreams, that’s what all our New Year’s hopes and wishes are. We hope for the best at the beginning and work the rest of the year on accepting whatever comes. We are audacious and bold, setting forth with our best foot forward as we walk off that cliff with all the other fools. Because what better move is there? The future will always be uncertain, and we are grand mammals with even grander dreams and visions. In this year, may the best of them all come true.

Some thoughts on chaos

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How close outside the door chaos dwells. And closer still the faster we race, the more details we leave to chance, like stitches dropped in a daisy chain. It is crazy season out there. The rain drives everyone into the ground, we are drenched before we reach the car, and there is never enough time to dry out by the fire before going back out again. It is a time custom-made for chaos.

A few days ago I dashed into the post office to collect my mail, then dashed out again, slipping the box key into a jacket pocket instead of its rightful place in my shoulder bag. Yesterday at the post office I searched the bag and found no key. I couldn’t collect my mail, and couldn’t recollect either what I’d done with the key, besides having a vague muscle memory of slipping it into my pocket. But it wasn’t in my jacket. Stumped, I walked more slowly out of the building and brooded on the way home.

Later I sat on my couch and mentally retraced my steps. Yes, I remembered putting the key in my jacket. Yes, that was the same jacket I wore today. No, the key was not in the pocket. The pieces should have added up, but they didn’t. Where was the flaw? At which step had my memory failed?

Loss, even trivial loss, is surreal. It kicks us back into a sort of pre-verbal incapacity. We think we have things figured out, we have a plan, a way forward. And then a stitch gives way, the door opens a crack, and chaos slips back in. Chaos, that which gives birth to all things, is both our inspiration and our demon. With its promise that anything is possible, we create. But when it shows up on opening night, all hell breaks loose.

All of our creations are constructs shielding us from that source out of which they have emerged. Our families, our careers, all the familiarity of friends and routines that make us feel secure, stable, supported. What a very thin wall they are between ourselves and the forces of chaos.

Yet creation is what we humans do. It is what we are made for, a primal urge, and we are good at it. In moments like these, who can resist the impulse to go over our steps once more, searching for the stitch we dropped, seeking a way to make our picture whole again?

I am tired of loss, tired of setbacks, deaths, and near-deaths among those I hold dear. My circle of friends has been hard-hit by chaos this year, as has much of the world. It is an act of courage some days to just stand up, to get out of bed and move forward with our plans, our visions of what is possible. But the cardinal rule of life in a world run by chaos is: Never ask, “What next?” for you will surely find out.

The only antidote I know of for chaos fatigue is gratitude. Chaos comes to remind us of how fragile life is. We would be spurning its gifts if we did not give thanks, then, for the life that we have. So at a certain point last night I just had to give up my puzzle of where I put the key, and accept the fact that I did not know, and could not explain things. It was okay, I would survive, it was a very trivial loss. I let it go.

Then, just before bed, a breakthrough: I had been wearing a different jacket that day. It was the wool jacket with the deep, smooth pockets, still resting on the back of a chair where I’d left it to dry. That moment of discovery was so sweet, but I did not jump up immediately and try the pocket. In fact, I went to bed without checking, without knowing for sure whether the puzzle pieces would all fall into place. Having worked so hard to be at peace with not knowing, I wanted to savor for as long as possible this feeling of happiness that had come from gratitude, not from accomplishment. I slept contented, and this morning I woke, gave thanks for the day, and slipped my hand into that jacket pocket. The key was there.

This is the season of chaos. Be careful, be mindful. Move slowly if at all possible. Sleep deep, and on waking give thanks for rising warm and dry in the very dark of the year. Blessed be.

Reality-Based Blogging

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I spent last evening with magazine pictures spread all over my dining room table, sifting through them, cutting and rearranging my favorites on a big piece of black paper. Also at hand were scissors, glue stick, clear contact paper, and a brand new spiral-bound journal. I was assembling a collage to cover my new journal, an act I perform every few months as the old one fills up.

It is a practice I adopted from Jeremy Taylor, whose journal covers are quite awe-inspiring. I am skilled at plenty of things, and visual art has never been one of them. For this reason alone, I torment myself by toiling over pictures and placement, letting the part of my brain that is unused to coming out to play take over and call the shots for a change. Sometimes the collage comes out really nice, sometimes I am completely frustrated from beginning to end. Either way, I live with the finished product for the life of that particular journal, and try again the next time.

All this is part of my effort to practice what I preach, namely that those of us who make our living teaching need to remember how to be students, too. Mastery in one area doesn’t mean we get to stop being beginners. On the contrary, particularly for people who profess to have some spiritual wisdom, it is essential that we regularly practice something that we’re not good at. Without the reminder that we’re just bumbling humans like everyone else, it is so easy to fall into the lap of hubris, and from that position begins our downfall into the hell realms, as the Buddhists would say. If it were just ourselves who suffered the ill-effects of our inflated self-importance it would scarcely be worth mentioning, but the sad fact is that the more influential or charismatic we are, the more people will be hurt as our downfall proceeds.

If you have been paying attention to political commentators lately you will hear lots of them saying that a giant collective bubble of self-delusion is in the process of popping in this country. They speak happily of a return to reality-based decision-making in government. And they worry about how many thousands or even millions will be hurt by a president who surrounds himself with a (shrinking) circle of supporters who help to keep him from facing the things he is no good at.

It is easy to see this drama being played out on the national stage. Harder to spot are the ways we keep ourselves from stepping out of our own bubbles of self-delusion. Here’s a quick tip on entering a reality-based lifestyle that we can all attend to in the new year: cultivate old friends. If you have some, get back in touch and stay in touch. If you don’t have any, make some new friends and do what you must to keep them for a long time. They are your best insurance against leaving reality behind.

Only someone who has known you for a long time will be able to spot the ways you’re repeating old patterns when you think you’re doing something new. An old friend is someone who has earned your trust and respect, someone you will listen to if they say you are deluding yourself. If you think you have found The Answer, you would be well-advised to consult with at least three people you trust and respect, and listen to what they tell you. Then notice: are these people I have met recently, who might be as starry-eyed about The Answer as I am? Or have these people known me for a longer time, and can offer a more objective perspective on my current pursuit?

This has been a hard year for almost everyone I know. Difficult times make us turn to our comfort zones and just try to endure. There’s nothing wrong with that; everyone needs a little respite. But they only help us if we can also stretch ourselves to meet the challenges life presents us, painful as they may be. I can guarantee that we’re not going to like all the things we have to do this next year, either. But if we’re lucky, some nights our biggest challenge will be to sit at a table and struggle to bring disparate bits of color and image together, into something that might even pass for beauty.

Poetry and Dreams

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Back when Bowen and Lyra were about 5 and 3, I was a frustrated songwriter. I had several songs under my belt from years past, but not as many recent ones as I would have liked. There were two or three half-finished songs I was trying to pull together, and somehow I thought it was a failure on my part that I couldn’t find the time with two little kids to finish them. When I did take time from everything else to work on my songs I found I had nothing to say, or rather was too full of things I didn’t know how to say. Not understanding the cause or the cure, I called it writer’s block.

Since I had writer’s block where my songs were concerned, I thought maybe if I took a creative writing class it would warm up the engine, so to speak, and I could ease back into songwriting through the side door of poetry. So I signed up for an evening class once a week, and started writing again.

The class was stimulating, we had a great teacher, and I loved the challenge of coming up with a new poem each week. I especially loved the process of compression, where you go over each line of the poem searching for words that can be cut. We looked for the shortest and most powerful way to say something, making each word in the line hold as much weight as possible. It was a fascinating and highly satisfying practice. Condensation for dramatic effect. Compression for metaphoric richness. Brevity for power.

I worked at it week after week. When the semester ended, I signed up for the course again along with several of my newfound poet friends. As the new semester began, I had a dream:

I am writing a poem. It is beautiful. The surprise and delight of writing a new poem makes me realize I am dreaming. In my lucid state I start reading the poem in order to write it down once I wake up. It makes sense in the dream, but I realize that this dream poem is so tightly compressed it would not make sense in ordinary speech. If I were to transcribe it I would actually have to add a considerable number of words in order for it to be understood. I see that there is a continuum of language compression in which poetry lies squarely in the middle. At one end is casual prose, at the other the hyper-compressed imagery of dreams.

The only thing in waking life I have to compare this dream poem to is a hallucinogenic experience. Each word in the poem was fully alive and resonant with its own story. Saying one word was like speaking an entire phrase full of subtle effect, and the words were unlike any I had ever heard or tried to speak.

I think about this dream a lot, particularly when teasing out the meanings of dreams with clients or friends. I am aware that each moment of a dream is like one word of a dream poem: weighted with meanings, many of them hidden by the moment’s position in the apparent dream narrative. The flow of a dream story now has the sense of being more like a Rubic’s Cube than a simple tale, full of images that can with the flick of a wrist create a different story altogether.

The dream shifted my perspective on writing as well. I can’t say that it made writing any easier; nobody who tells you that is ever telling the truth. But it put what I was doing into a broader perspective, and seeing that big picture even for a moment brings benefits. Mostly it taught me patience. It made me realize that my prose writing was actually too compressed, that I needed to slow down and give each idea more room to breathe. Any dependent clause probably needed its own paragraph. Most sentences deserved their own sequence of paragraphs. And the thought I was trying to squeeze into a single paragraph of an essay really should be its own chapter. In fact, writing itself wanted to take up far more room in my life. The dream was like a polite knock on the door before it moved in and made itself at home.

The dream had a touch of prophecy, like a self-expanding file that activates as soon as we dream it. Writing and working with dreams were what I considered recreational dalliances squeezed in between childraising and whatever I did for money. Over time, they have become the core of what I do. What began as a plaintive songwriter’s lament has turned into several book projects, a blog, and a busy private practice. I’m still incredibly slow at writing songs, but it doesn’t feel like a problem at the moment. I’m just too busy writing other things that I love.

The Weirdest Time Ever

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At last, tonight, our months of suffering as a nation will be over. I refer not to a Democratic takeover of Congress but to the cessation, at least for now, of election year campaigning. Tonight I am at home, alternately watching TV news, checking the blogs and websites, and catching up on some magazine reading. I am steeped in the media culture of our nation, and it feels very uncomfortable.

The ever-tightening races are a spectacle to behold. The growing suspense as the percentages rack up is almost as hypnotic as the point in the movie where the scary music starts very softly and you just know, before you know how you know, that someone is going to get creamed. Or maybe someone will come to the rescue and the town will be saved. Except that in politics no story line is that simple. You have to pay to play in this country, and that means that everyone is serving a corporate master of some sort or another. The trick is to vote for someone with backbone and integrity, and those seem to be in short supply these days.

Caring passionately about politics leads directly to indigestion, sometimes heart failure. It’s a dog-eat-man world out there, the competition is vicious, and hardly anyone holds the best interests of the country as their primary concern. This is in stark contrast to what they tell you when you run for student council.

Student council is like a giant school-wide civics lesson with a dash of Miss America thrown in. Its purpose is to get kids interested in taking leadership among their peers, and to get said peers to buy into the idea that voting for a leader is a good and useful task, and that they should do it regularly. It is also an attempt to channel those raging hormones into something useful for a change, getting kids to think beyond what they’re having for lunch to the larger issues that matter to their generation.

The result, all too often, is that hormones win and the election becomes a beauty pageant, with the most desirable young man or woman winning whatever post they ran for, and the smart kids, the ones most prone to cynicism in the face of beauty contests, losing every time. This does not seem like the best way to prepare kids to become active participants in a democracy, but perhaps it is the only way we’ve figured out so far.

I have been interested in politics ever since being class secretary in second grade. Growing up in a conservative family during Watergate, I knew without having to know it that Nixon was a liar, and that my parents and all their friends were being duped. It broke my heart to see this spectacle play out, and I am not sure I ever fully recovered from that sense of betrayal by my supposed leaders. I really believed what I had been taught about this being a special nation that stood for liberty and justice for all. I guess I still believe that is possible, which is why every election season I practically have to take to my bed when the suspense builds to such a pitch. I can’t stand the disappointment.

This year is the worst I’ve ever seen it. After a devastating six-year slide into fascism brought on by an administration we knew was corrupt from the start, the hope of change is in the air. It has created this fragile expectancy among all of us starving for honest, accountable leadership. But the suspense does not just come from the hope that the Democrats will control Congress. It also comes from the fear that if they do, we still will not have honest, accountable leadership.

Taken all together — the horrors of the Bush administration, the constant parade of corruption felling politician and preacher alike, and the fear that even if there is change it will not be enough to slow our descent as a nation — it’s quite a toxic brew here in media land tonight. I’m managing to face it for once, even just now after learning we have re-elected Schwarzenegger as governor. It’s a brutal world out there, but it is the only one we’ve got. May we all keep fighting for what we believe no matter the odds, and may this strained and difficult time be the start of real change for this country.

Problem Child

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Yesterday I went to collect my mail at the post office, and one envelope stood out from the stack. It was a plain business envelope with a slight bluish tint to the paper and clear cellophane windows. On it was written in bold letters:

Please tell us what to do about Deborah Cooper
I looked at that for a while, and found myself unable to toss it into the recycling can. It was obviously a mass mailer having to do with magazine subscriptions, but it seemed too perfect an entreaty to throw away. I stuck the envelope in with the mail I would take home with me and went back to my car.

I have no idea what to do about Deborah Oak Cooper. I have known her for nearly twenty years now, and count her as one of my closest friends. She is irascible, funny as all hell, has a nose for trouble and a gift for magic. I mean, anyone who answers her phone by saying, “What fresh hell is this?” is someone worth knowing.

Deborah has gotten into her share of scrapes over the years. She’s had run-ins with lots of people, has stood up for righteous causes, made lots of mistakes, and always made an effort to publicly admit both her screw-ups and those of others. This has won her enmity in some circles, but also lots of admiration. Plenty of people over the years have thrown up their hands and sung some version of the chorus to “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” when talking about Oak and her latest escapades. With this mass mailer, was it possible that the Universe was now getting into the act?

Or was it just Vanity Fair, who in their rating of the King Mixers of the country have finally (and accurately) decided that Deborah Cooper is a force to be reckoned with? It was, after all, Deborah who first introduced me to Vanity Fair as we were travelling on a plane to some witchcamp one year. She declared it the perfect airplane reading fare, so I gave it a try and found that I had to agree. Then when my marriage started coming apart and life became very stressful, I decided that perhaps VF wasn’t just for airplanes anymore. I bought myself a subscription (so cheap! thank heavens for all that advertising!) and proceeded to shock people with the fact that I actually read the magazine.

Last year they offered me a free gift subscription for one of my friends if I would only re-subscribe, so it was a no-brainer to send a magazine surprise over to Deborah who started it all. Now they were coming back to me as though together we had caused a problem of national import. Were they regretting last year’s offer? Had they received letters to the effect that Deborah Cooper was a potential liability? Were they offering her (or me) a column in their magazine?

I have not opened the envelope to find out; I prefer it to stay as a koan. I think it deserves to be framed and laughed at for years to come by those of us who love Deborah and couldn’t imagine trundling through this life without her as a friend. She will egg you on, stands by your side, and give mostly good advice, all the while being as honest about her own foibles as it is possible to be. She is a stand-up witch and enormously fun company. I have no idea what to do about that, but this does seem like the right time to set the record straight.

Phrases to Die (four)

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(in which I come alarmingly close to sounding like Andy Rooney)

Don’t get me wrong, I love technology. I am a big fan of living in the industrialized world in the early 21st century. I like gadgets, I like whiz-bang graphics, I like spending endless hours sitting in front of a computer being productive while not having to move any of the major muscle groups.

BUT. Things have gotten out of hand, and here I am pointing the finger at marketing departments of every major company and editorial departments of every technology magazine. What started out as trumpeting a genuine ability to do stuff we couldn’t do before has turned into a farcical exercise of touting imaginary revolutions. Back in the day, yeah, we needed computers that could run faster. We needed software that could balance checkbooks and do page layout. Color screens were a nice step forward. But now we’re pretty much good to go.

Every so often some new gadget comes along that is useful, even cool. I don’t need any of them, though. Maybe one gadget every couple years. I used to jump just like Pavlov’s dogs every time the latest something would come out. I’d think and scheme and plan how to leverage this and sell that so I could afford the other. The other would arrive and I’d plug it in and set it up, and it would work pretty okay. But sooner or later it lost its glamour and became just another Thing, and things break. Things have problems, they have bugs or incompatabilities with other things that you don’t realize until you use them for a while.

After watching enough glamorous purchases turn into mere things, I finally learned to look at a product as a thing beforehand, while everyone is supposed to be entranced by its supernova looks and packaging. This cool-headed technique has saved me literally thousands of dollars so far. I can also take pride in doing my part to slow down our alarming trade deficit with all those gadget-producing nations.

The really annoying thing is that while every economist knows that people are buying fewer gadgets, no one in marketing seems to have realized that it’s time to cool the hyperbole machines. Page after page keeps getting cranked out with ad copy that literally compares you, the consumer, with the Master of the Universe once you buy the next great gizmo. This stuff is uninformative and boring to read, for starters. But more than that, people know (or they learn) that the more you buy something based on glamour, the bigger the let-down will be once the gizmo becomes just another thing in your house.

So here are my top four contenders for meaningless hype phrases that I never want to see again. Which is not to say that truly useful or exciting things shouldn’t be advertised as such. But really, we’re all tired of the bullshit, so let’s just stop it. Starting with these:

Unleash the Power of (fill in the blank). You will never again catch me reading any article that exposes how to unleash the power of anything. What possible good can this do? Why can’t Product X be powerful while it’s still leashed and under my control? I walk my dog on a leash. When I unleash him, he runs away. Why would I want your product to run away? And if you’re trying to say that without your product I may never tap into my inherent capabilities as a human being, that’s not just silly, it’s offensive. I never want to hear about Unleashing the Power of anything, ever again.

In a similar vein, I do not wish to Take Control of my desktop, my email, filing system, washing machine, or sewer connection. I am happy with the control I already have by virtue of being able to unplug or toss out anything that no longer works. I may or may not explore how to use more of the buttons on my remote. I might never learn more of the commands or hidden features of the software I own. If I do, you’ll be the first to know. But let’s call it what it is: Learning. I already am in control. I made a decision to buy something, and maybe someday I’ll make a decision to sell it. That’s control. All the rest, it’s called learning, and it’s what ordinary people do every day. If you’re telling me I can become a superhero, I’ll give you thirty seconds to make the pitch. Other than that, just treat me like an adult.

Giving You the Tools You Need. (more a blast at education, but marketers also take note) In August I went to help my daughter get settled at her new college. At the orientation we sat and listened for two and a half hours as the president, the CEO, Dean of Undergraduates, and a couple department chairs gave their spiels. Not one of them talked about giving my daughter the tools she needed to succeed at anything. I nearly wept with gratitude. I don’t think I have been to an orientation or graduation from pre-school to college in the last twenty years where some poor drone hasn’t waxed poetic about finding somewhere in that institution the tools needed to succeed. Rule of thumb: Skills are useful. Tools can be bought. Neither guarantees success. When graduates use this language, they don’t know what success is. When administrators use it, neither does the school. Proceed accordingly.

We Sell Solutions. No you don’t. You sell products, or services, or a combination of the two. A solution is a strategy or plan to solve a critical problem, for instance world hunger. Anything I buy that comes with an instruction manual is not a solution. It is a product. If I figure out how to configure your product it might help me solve some problems, but it is not in itself a solution to anything. Moreover, anything that requires me talking to somebody in Malaysia is not a solution. If you want to sell me a $100 upgrade next year and the year after that, you are not even selling products. You are selling packages of problems which only the next upgrade will fix.

Still not sure what you are selling? Then please, do us all a favor and go home early. Get some sleep. You’ll feel better in the morning, and maybe after a shower and a hot cup of coffee, you’ll discover something genuinely unique and valuable that has yet to be written about your product or service. When you figure out what that is, I’m all ears.

On Dreaming a Song

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It happened again recently, that most rarefied of dreams: I am performing a beautiful new song spontaneously as I compose it. The dream wakes me up, and on waking I remember part of the haunting melody and lyrics, and am able to transcribe them.

There are many ways to tell what condition our psyches are in. Sleeping soundly and waking refreshed is a reliable indicator of all-around health and well-being. Of course the stress of our crazy schedules means that this doesn’t happen every night, but even if we achieve this only a few times a month we can probably assume that we’re doing okay.

If we want to do better than that, though, we have to spend some time tending to the soul’s needs. Thomas Moore has written beautifully about that in Care of the Soul and his other books. Our dreams point to this deep desire for soul nourishment in a number of ways. Sometimes we will dream of a favorite activity we’ve been neglecting in our daily life and the dream reminds us how much we love it and how good it makes us feel. If we are paying attention, it is always a good idea to take the hint and make time in our lives to do whatever that is.

I think of soul health in terms of what I call “indicator species.” In order for me to be healthy in mind and body, for instance, I have to write. If I let other work take over and neglect my writing, I will start to feel depressed. If I don’t catch on right away, I’ll soon have a dream in which I am either forced by circumstances to write, or am desperate to write and am being denied by some nefarious force. Either way, I wake up and know, “Uh-oh, I have been neglecting my writing. Time to get down to it.” Balancing my inner need to write with all the other demands on my time is just a fact of my life. I need to write like I need to breathe. You can probably think of something in your own life that functions in the same way.

Usually dream directives are not ultimatums. They don’t tell me, for instance, to write at the expense of everything else in my life. They want writing to be turned up in the mix of things I do, but they know I still need to spend time doing those other things. Dreams, and the soul, are not interested in us being perfect. But they want us to put out a reasonable effort, and to try and achieve what I think of as a “zone of success.”

Being in the “zone” for me looks like taking a deeper look at those moments of transition when I’ve completed one set of tasks, say packing up a bunch of music orders, and am ready to move on to another task. I could just look at the to-do lists scattered on my desk, close my eyes, and point (I have indeed used this method, with mixed results). But unless there is something on those lists that is an urgent priority, I can remember my dream and take a couple moments to consult the internal mix. Is there something I’ve been neglecting? Are all my indicator species relatively well-fed? If the answer is no, I can take an hour or even a half-hour and write, and come out of it feeling more centered and with far more energy than I had before.

This is not to say that satisfying those indicator species is always fun or easy. Writing is hard work, and I have devised several excellent strategies for being at my computer intending to write, yet cleverly managing to avoid it (reading other people’s blogs is high on my list). Sometimes I have to write about really hard stuff, and it is not at all pleasant. But dreams know the difference between mere intention and actual effort, and they reward us for the latter.

This is part of how I read my dream of a new song. Sometime this summer I realized I had come to the end of the stories in a series of predictive dreams from earlier in my life, and that I was at a very rare life turning point. It was time to show up, pay attention, and put some effort into starting the new stories right, so I did. My completely exhilarating dream of the beautiful new song feels like a “two-thumbs-up” sign from the dreamworld. Even if my new direction is still unclear to me and there are a lot of unknowns, I’m off to a good start.

Of course, there is also a bit of compass-pointing in the dream, too. Anyone who knows me probably knows that playing and writing music is my core indicator species. It’s one of those elusive beasts of the forest that only comes out when conditions are just right. This is true in my waking life, where making music is a luxury (and also a creative challenge I am skilled at avoiding). I can go without it for a while and think things are fine, but then I experience it again and think, “How could I have thought that breathing was enough?” Clearly breathing is not enough anymore, and even though things are going along just fine, this dream is poking me in the belly a bit, saying, “Here’s the beginnings of a new song. Now play it.”

Chance and the Prepared Mind

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Serpentine Music Productions is now entering its fifteenth year. This modest-sized home business has now outlived many of the stores and music distributors who used to be my customers, and even my one competitor (who was also ultimately a customer, too). When I started this business, being a Virgo-minded person I took a small business start-up course where we did some market research and wrote up a business plan. For my market research I phoned up a lot of distributors I hoped to sell music to and asked them what they thought of the chances for a Pagan music business. The most honest of them said right off the bat, “You can’t make any money from Pagan music.”

Turns out he was right, in a certain way. You can’t make big money from Pagan music. But you can make small money from it, and sometimes that is the best outcome. For me that has been true, even though like all entrepreneurs I had dreams of “making it big.” After many years of hoping for big money and ending up with small money, it dawned on me that I probably wouldn’t be having much fun with the business if it made big money. I’d have to have employees. I’d spend all my time distributing music, and never have time to make any of my own.

So a couple years ago I sat down and figured out what was still fun about running Serpentine Music. I like having a music label. I like keeping up with the music industry, releasing titles when I feel like it, selling music I believe in, and filling orders on a part-time basis. I don’t like keeping track of too many titles, spending all my money on advertising, or working every day at it. So I whittled down my catalog from 250+ items to around 60, decided to let word of mouth be my primary marketing tool, and stopped worrying about making it big.

The results of that crash course in reality-based business planning have been very good, I am happy to say. I love having a niche business that allows me to have other niche businesses as well. My customers are great, the albums I sell are great, and the other parts of my career — writing, teaching and dreamwork — now have the breathing room they need to thrive.

“Fortune favors the brave,” said the Roman poet Virgil in the first century BCE. This pretty much describes the philosophy of most courses and books on business. You must be fearless, you must put yourself out there and give it all you’ve got if you want to succeed. Of course this is true, and half the battle in building a business is doing things you are afraid of but must do anyway. It is a great way of overcoming fear.

Then in the 19th century the scientist Louis Pasteur added his own spin to the prevailing wisdom: “In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” I love how this quote craftily conjoins Fate and free will. He is saying that the lucky break, the chance observation that changes everything, comes most often to those who have done everything they can to prepare for it, and far less often to those who have not worked toward it at all.

It may be that both men are essentially saying the same thing, and I am misconstruing their words in translation. Yet preparing one’s mind is quite different than being brave. Bravery implies bold, decisive movement whereas preparation encompasses both action and receptivity. If I were still proceeding valiantly according to my original big money plan for Serpentine Music, I wouldn’t have made the observation that a small money business was the more desirable outcome. Being open and receptive after having followed my plan is what enabled me to shift my perspective enough to realize what I really wanted.

Do I still have a desire for “big money”? Sure, you bet. But other parts of my career are much better suited to that task. Meanwhile, I am very happy to have this little gem of a business to rely on. It continues to serve me well, and I am so grateful for the chance moment where I realized that I was actually winning by not getting what I thought I wanted. In this confusing time of eclipses, reversals, and general angst, may we all be so well prepared, and so lucky.

O wild angels of the open hills

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Let us all bow down to Black Oak Books in Berkeley, where on a chance foray this afternoon I came up for air clutching gold in my stubborn hand. And the gold reads like this:

O wild angels of the open hills
Before all legends and before all tears:
O voyagers of where the evening falls
In the vast August of the years:
O halfseen passers of the lonely knolls,
Before all sorrow and before all truth
You were: and you were with me in my youth.

Angels of the shadowed ancient land
That lies yet unenvisioned, without myth,
Return, and silent-winged descend
On the winds that you have voyaged with,
And in the barren evening stand
On the hills of my childhood, in whose silences,
Savage, before all sorrow, your presence is.

— Ursula Le Guin, Wild Angels, 1975