Naropa Buddhist University: What is the Summer Writing Program?

When I arrived in Boulder, the journey of several days was over. I had opened up to change, to challenge and to creating a new future for myself. The journey was about releasing fear, bodily tension and watching the anxious, limiting thoughts arise.

Every time I passed a semi-truck, I talked to myself about how wide my lane was, how protect I was by universal energy. I thanked the driver for safeguarding me and being aware of the presence of my 2003 golden Nissan with the Buddha on the dash board.

“Drop your tongue down,” I would tell myself. To release the energy in my jaw, to keep my face from clamping shut in fear, the tongue drop works beautifully. “Soft hands, ” I would tell myself. My hands upon the wheel would loosen and I noticed the tension in my neck and back would lessen. The car engine, the universal field were the power and it wasn’t my grabbing instinct that was keeping me safe.

The tomtom got me to Naropa and from there I asked directions to Snow Lions. The mix up was amazing. I had been assigned three different room numbers over a few weeks. But I got the contract to fill out for my room and was told to come back after three.

Moving my suitcase into my room seemed rather awkward. It was full (because I am always packed for survival on the moon, after a nuclear war or stranded on an island). So I left the suitcase in my car trunk as a chest of drawers and stuffed underwear, makeup and jewelry into my back pack. Vital survival items. Oh and the four dresses and three pairs of shoes. Also very important for a Leo.

The Snow Lions was not an up to date, meticulously clean environment; however, my university friends tell me this is typical. My OCD started kicking in right away. Walking past the two large white lions at the entry way, I thought about where I could get glue to reattach one of the corners that had been knocked off. I eyed the central patio area and wondered how long it would take me to sweep the area clean. I had to quell the OCD fairey’s voice.

“Just do what you came here to do, ” I told myself. “Let everything else go. Let it go.”

I was in the dorm for two days before I figured out how to use the magnetized fob thing to get me in the door. I tried making one of the room keys work. So for the first two days, I stood outside the door and waited for someone else to open the door until I could observe how to work the gizmo on my own. What a metaphor for the last two years. Standing in front of a door and just not being able to figure out how to work it. Yes. That is it!

The beds were small with a thin mattress but I didn’t care. The classes were inspiring. The people that surrounded me were creative spirits who had made a voyage out of their lives. Some were from small towns in Alabama, Texas, California. Some had grown up with racial discrimination with learning disabilities, with an angry household and yet each of these people had kept writing, had kept learning and had honed his or her skills. I felt as if my entire body was on fire.

Tracie Morris was the instructor for my section and when the short, fit African-American woman walked into the room we were in for a surprise. Her power revealed itself over the week. She was unfailingly kind and sensitive to each of the students in our group. There was no attempt to establish status. Her knowledge of writing, of performing, of the academic background of all that she presented simply poured out of her as she answered our questions. Twenty minutes into class, I felt as if I were in an Alice in Wonderland experience. Tracie’s stature just kept growing. At the end of the week, I captured some pictures of her and was astounded at the fact that she is fairly short. We lost that sense of her early on.

Her compassion and commitment to others is what most struck me. She genuinely wants to best for those around her. In my thirty years as a teacher, I can honestly say that I was blessed to be in a class with such a natural excellent teacher. She informed us that her meditative practice had taken much of the “edge” off of her personality. However, one knows that if it is needed she will step up and defend her beliefs with whatever it takes.

What did she teach me? She taught me that stature, status, reputation are irrelevant. She taught me that what is most important is to network with other souls on the same path as myself. Being open to working closely with others with an attitude of humility, is the quickest way to become better at the skills I have been given. Leave the ego behind and edit that sucker. Slice and dice. Go for the gut. Punch it out. But at the end of the performance, don’t leave them bleeding. Offer an after dinner mint with sweetness on the lips to complete the experience.

Be there for others, Tracie showed through example. Be fully and completely in the moment. Listen to others. Take classes. This woman has many prestigious degrees and yet she is constantly taking classes. Learn. Sit at the feet of others. Be open.

She taught us about breathing so there is power behind our words. She taught us about breathing so there is a strong connection to body passion in our words. She taught us about breathing so we can hear what our bodies are experiencing.

One of her exercises was to connect with an organ and talk to it. Many in my class connected with the liver: seat of anger. seat of stored grief. seat of unfair treatment. Poets…. yes it makes sense. Poets are called to speak out the grief and beauty of life. It makes sense.

My pancreas talked to me. According to Louis Hay the Pancreas is affected when life has lost its sweetness, when one is rejected. I have been like a Victorian heroine these last two years. Trailing through mind fog trying to find my purpose, passion and power, I picture myself in wafting gowns locked in a stone fenced territory. My pancreas I envisioned as a kind of meat baby, curled in fear under my heart.

This was a very powerful exercise and surprisingly clear in the message that we all experienced. After the visualization and breathing exercise we each wrote a poem message to the organ that was “talking” to each of us. The poems were powerful, lucid.

Tracie completed her lesson to us through her performance later in the week. Her rendering of “I’ve got you under my skin” with the voices of those sexually abused at Penn State was electrifying. She brought us to our emotional knees. I kept thinking it was more than I could take and yet it went deeper. She was merciless in her mercy.

Another influence on all of us was to spend the afternoon listening to panels or presentations by other artists. There was never a sense of the usual academic hierarchy. And I noted how incredibly effective it is to have someone stand before me who had simply made a choice to be who he or she wanted to be. To strike out into the world and make the heart’s statement without waiting for validation had been a choice. Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth put together his band and ruthlessly toured the world. Find others, say what you have to say, keep moving!

Laurie Anderson was so simple, direct, unassuming in person as she stood on stage in front of us. And then she performed. It was watching a kitten become a dragon. Her power and presence was transformative. She had one number in which she described her obsessive experience with a ouija board. In her first life…. pause… she was a raccoon. In her second life…. so gentle the voice…. she was a hat. The people in my row were laughing together. We looked at one another, we bent over with laughter. It opened us up. It opened us up to saying whatever came to mind, to standing on a stage saying whatever came to mind, to one another, to the flow of energy in the audience, to and from the stage. Laurie is a catalyst. She creates magic. Period. Period.

The other teachers each took the stage: Caroline Bergvall, Toi Derracotte, Jena Osman, Bhanu Kapil, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Brad O’Sullivan, Claudia Rankine, Roberto Tejada, Anne Waldman and Matvei Yankelevich. It was like watching the Olympics of creatives. They each made it look so simple.

The ability to take the gifts that the universe gave to you, find shelter in friends/networks and feed your flame was demonstrated for the students. Skill. Pushing through. Listening to your inner voice. Seeing setbacks as lessons. What better way to encourage students than to be authentic and open about your own journey?

I was filled with energy. I felt as if I had been hit by lightening, light en ing. When I read out my poetry in front of the school, teachers and other students came to me to tell me they liked my work. I sat in the audience with tears pouring down my face.

I was so grateful for the encouragement. I was so grateful to feel as if I was in the right place, with the right people doing what I was born to do. The stimulus was challenging and overwhelming but for the first time in almost three years I felt fully alive.

Finally, the message that Amiri Barake delivered stayed in my consciousness. Make it happen. Get out there and witness for a better world. Speak your truth. Be who you are without fear. Passion is a gift. Intensity is a gift.

Thank you Anne Waldman for creating and sustaining this transformative haven. Thank you fellow Naropa students for your diversity, your imaginative genius and your loving kindness. A creative center founded on compassion and keeping oneself humble is exactly what is needed as a “spark” in today’s world. I was lucky enough to be a part of that for a short period. Gratitude.

Where Am I Now?

Washington State passes

The question of where I am in life keeps popping up in my head. It is the result of linear thinking, three dimensional floating in my own waters of delusional aquarium life existence. “Where am I?” “How am I doing?” “What next?”

The sense of not knowing has been hanging in the air like some heavily laden perfume. The smell of repressed depression has lingered in the environment for almost three years.

The journey this summer has caused a sharp break in that sense of constraint. Driving across the states of Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado through the haze of smoke nestled on the horizon was an adventure.

The flat land stretched out for days. One night I was listening to the University of Utah’s jazz program that runs for several hours. Darkness, stars, flat almost deserted highway and beautiful Cab Calloway pieces were surrounding me. The show told me stories about the history of jazz and its great musicians.

Travel is so much a metaphor for life. The assumptions that I make about the next stretch are usually in error. Sitting in the heat inching along in Vancouver, B.C. because there were accidents on all three major egresses is good practice for patience. I put on my favorite CD and sang along. The thoughts peeking out from the back of my mind was, “Oh no. This will go on forever. It will take hours to get out of here. Now I will be late for the entire journey.” But it was a small voice.

My bigger voice was telling me, “You are here.” Period. Who knows what conditions will exist in an hour, in a day, or tomorrow. The mountain pass was challenging with the rapacious, semi-suicidal semi-truck drivers jumping one another, cutting in, passing on impossible curves. I thought about the economic downswing or more accurately the depression and how much these drivers had riding on each trip. Their very desperation was obvious in their driving.

So it is now dark. It is now road construction with the lanes winding in unpredictable loops with the orange toy-like markers directing where to swoop next. How long will this go on? As long as it does.

The sky in the flat states is stunning. Blues so intense that they made my eyes sting. The clouds become the landscape. The clouds become the geography in these planed horizons.

My cell phone was reassuring. I texted both of my children to tell them where I was on the journey. “I am approaching Boise now,” I would indicate to my son and my daughter. The cell phone and the Tom Tom embolded me. I felt supported.

Because I was unused to driving and it is difficult to predict travel time, I stopped only for what I called liquid in or liquid out. I would get gas, use the washroom and replenish my water. My meals due to my financial straits were usually almonds and grapes that I could eat as I drove.

Bathrooms, washrooms, rest stops. Well now that is an entirely different issue. Some places were clean and welcoming. Others I had the urge to go to a local emergency room to have my nethers disinfected by a surgeon. The rule of thumb seemed to be the further away another service station was, the less the proprietor had to do to maintain the facility. Only show in town mentality rules.

I was very excited when I saw the first outcropping. Climbing a hill somewhere (I frequently let tomtom make the decisions and had no clue which state I was crossing) I saw a big of greenish earth and rocks jutting out.

As I stepped on my 2003 Nissan Sentra’s gas pedal and she jumped into charge mode, I saw a young man with a woman on the back of a motorcycle coming up behind me. She had black hair tied back on her neck and a white peasant off the shoulder blouse. Her feet were barely clothed in minimalist sandles. The sleeves on her blouse whipped around her arms. I smiled and envied her freedom. She rode in the open air, up a pass without protection. (Also, what crossed my mind was the fact that a daughter of a friend had spent her life recovering from a motorcycle accident whereby she had her leg sliced and experienced multiple operations.) Both thoughts rested in my mind at once.

The real sense of accomplishment came when I saw red. Finally, the beautiful red earth of Colorado began to show up in outcroppings along the road. Getting there. I was getting there.

Driving along the highway to Boulder was challenging. I got off the road and got lost early on but found a way to circle back. Tomtom was furiously trying to correct me but I refused to listen. I was a bit frightened and would only double back on tracks I know I had laid down. Too insecure to break off onto a new road, I ignored her voice.

By night fall I was well and truly exhausted. It had been a long day, a long three days and I just wanted to find a place to stay. I got to Boulder with the kindness of stranger. Three different times cars behind me laid on the horn and came close to hitting my rear end. It was dark. I was lost. And the exits were just coming too fast for me to process.

Exiting in Boulder, I drove around in circles. Finally, demoralized I pulled into a parking lot next to Chucky Cheese and laid down in the backseat. I thought to myself just stay here until morning. I had tried two motels and been told that a state wide Baseball tournament had every single hotel/motel in the state filled up. The rooms had been reserved a year ago. I texted both of my kids that they could find me at Chucky Cheese and laid down.

Then the voice started.” You deserve better than this. What are you doing woman?
Just take a few minutes to rest and calm down. The universe supports and cares for you. Trust.”

I locked up the car and went for the first time in my life into a Chucky Cheese at 10 pm at night after an eleven hour day of driving. The noise was blinding. The colors were deafening. But behind the counter was a small, dark haired obviously gay kid who was an angel. He looked up the hotels, called the first one on the list for me and I ended up with a reservation.

My previous rooms had been under $70 a night with a free coffee in the morning. My gluten free cereal was in plastic refrigerator dishes and I added milk or coffee cream to them and ate them in the morning. This time the room was $135 but it was better than being rousted in the night by a security child in a dark uniform.

So I followed the “loosey goosey” directions from the desk clerk. On the street he had indicated, I got out at the first motel and discovered that was not the place. They had a $150 + room still available but not my reservation. I walked over to the next motel. A young, efficient woman at the desk told me ‘everyone’ came there by mistake. What I was seeking was around the bend.

Well, yes!

So on the third try, I scored the motel room and thankfully went to sleep. I was glad I had decided to leave Boulder and go up or down (Lord only knows) to Louisville to find this haven. The next day I headed to the Snow Lion dormitory only to discover that once again life is always fascinating.

The first room assignment I received changed early on. However, I was sent an email calling me Bob Hanson and moving me in with two “other” men. I replied that it was very generous of the dorm to provide me with two men when I had been around no men at all for the last 28 months. Perhaps, I should mention that I wasn’t Bob.

So a third room assignment was emailed to me. I printed out the email and included it in my documents before the journey. When I arrived at Snow Lions in Boulder at noon, I presented the paper.

No, the Resident director informed me. No that isn’t your room. It had been changed yet again and I had to wait until after 3 pm to get into the room because it hadn’t been cleaned. So I filled out the required paperwork and went away.

I walked around Naropa campus, going into rooms, moving in and out of various buildings trying to get a sense of the place. Finally, I ended up sitting upstairs in a large space looking like it was set aside for meditation. I sat quietly for an extended period of time grounding myself, dropping the anxiety from last nights three hours of driving in circles, being lost and releasing frightened thoughts as they came up. I was here now whatever that meant.

I had crossed the mountains, climbed the passes, driven the plains, found motels and gas stations. My body was not sore. I was not feeling depleted. Whatever happened next, happened next. And as I sat in the room with pictures of Buddha, I thanked my spiritual practice for being a home for me, no matter what happened in the outer world, I was safe, protected and fascinated by the journey. Gratitude arose and I sat in it.

A Bigger Life

Fear has kept me small. To give myself credit, I have been doing a great deal of work on myself. Shamanic Practice, reading and study and deep grief exploration. My house has been my cave, my hermit crab shell, my tiny Victorian sanctuary. The sense of isolation and loneliness has diminished from the howling I could die from the pain wounding when my marriage broke up to a sense of being a survivor on a space ship. I had the plant to care for. The plant of my body. The plant of my house. My garden kingdom needed care. And, of course, my plants.

A shelter with blooming walkways

I wrote and published five books, read prodigiously, hesitantly began to connect with other people. The Centre for Spiritual Living provided me with a surety of social contact when I joined the choir. The director Barbara Samuel encouraged my growth and risk taking. From the first session when she said, “Lean into it, baby. Lean into it” I started to find a place to stand, on a stage, singing, in front of others.

It helped me to claim my expressive self. It helped me to find spiritual sisters who are also intent on dropping victim dialogue and living in a more vision out manner.

my books on
And on the 18th of July I made a large commitment to myself. After nearly two decades, I drove alone in a car for long distances.

To fully understand the level of challenge this was for me, let me explain that during the past decades when I drove alone to go to Whiterock to visit a friend, I invariably ended up in the far reaches of North Vancouver. I became accustom to just ending up somewhere on a beach and circling back. It was the path of least resistance.

The last time I drove to Vancouver, B.C. for a visit and stayed alone, I turned around and dove back home crying most of the way. Just too overwhelmed and confused by the city, not being able to find where I had parked my car, feeling fragile.

So I got in the car, drove to Vancouver, negotiated the passport office and headed out across Washington State, Idaho, Montana, Utah to Colorado a distance of 1743 kilometers or 1083 miles or 941 nautical miles. I had my golden laughing Buddha on my dashboard, my tomtom nagging at me from the next seat and my handbook for Naropa Buddhist University Summer Writing Program in the back seat.

The journey across mountain passes, through accident sites, negotiating construction zones whereby the lanes where capricious, passing and being passed by semi-trucks crowding the long stretches of road left me chanting, “You are safe. You are protected. You are in the flow of love.” I found myself talking to my body frequently.

My main emphasis of conversation was to be aware of my physical response. “You don’t need to tense up body. Let go. You are fine. Let go of your neck. Let your hands be gentle on the wheel. Let your shoulders relax.” And it worked! Some days were 18 hours long. Some days I was behind the wheel for 12 hours due to accidents, work zones and various other normal anomalies. But each night as I found a $70 motel, I lay down without any sore or aching parts on my person at all.

First came negotiating the streets of Vancouver. Watching the people standing in groups talking in East Vancouver with their lurching, skeletal forms changed to students with the golf hats, technology wired to their bodies outside like surface veining and then the hearty tourist people in North Face climbing gear exploring the wonders of Canada Place. Finally, business people who were all seriously late. I think they were already three days late when they woke up on Monday. Heel clacking, rushing the lights, texting with head down charging down a street with remarkable peripheral vision on display marked the successfully rapacious.

But the one thing I noticed was that the moment when a smile broke out, the time when people seemed most alive was when they stood together in groups. It didn’t matter what social strata they represented. Three or four gathered on a corner and their faces lit up. Addicts, students, tourists, business people. A shared human pleasure.

Driving through the border was interesting. I said I was going to Boulder, Colorado to go to school. The ten year old looking skinny blonde guard asked for my keys, opened my trunk and went through my suitcase. Lots of books and writings. Notebooks and shoes.

He asked me again where I was going after he shut the trunk. I repeated my destination. He inquired if I had rented out my house and if so for how long. He asked to see my plane ticket back to Vancouver. I very quietly took a breath and swallowed all of the smart ass remarks that immediately arose and I said, “I am driving.”

“Yes,” he said, “you are driving down. But how are you getting back?”

“I am driving down. And I am driving back,” I said evenly. I was thinking….. hence the car.

He narrowed his eyes and looked at me again. My age on my passport doesn’t jive with the way I look. I am wearing too many bracelets. I have a Buddha on my dashboard. Just too many strange things but nothing concrete. So he waved me through.

Later I discovered an apple had slid under my seat so I was smuggling in contraband.

Making my way through Seattle to the exit was a two way conversation. Tom Tom was telling me to shift lanes, to take exits. I was telling my body, “You are safe. You can just relax.” There was a flurry of words as I moved from one lane to another.

Ellensburg. Made it to Ellensburg. When I was attending college at Western Washington College in Bellingham, I thought the Ellensburg, Yakima area a blighted place. The thought was that it looked like a site where an astroid had hit and left a crater of featureless desert. But now returning forty years later, I found it beautiful.

I wondered how many other judgements I had made in my life were too quickly formed and made from a place of prejudice.

Driving over the high mountain pass in Washington under a nearly full moon, I gunned the gas pedal to pass the endless trail of semi-trucks. I saw one truck run a car off of the road and not even slow down. They wanted to make time in the darkness so they were aggressive. I kept trying to get far enough ahead so I didn’t have to deal with them in both lanes, jockeying for position, scooting past one another, cutting into the lanes.

I was proud of the fact that I just did what had to be done and for over an hour pushed to get beyond the mess of competitive giants.

I was growing. I was stepping up to challenges. I was keeping myself calm and not asking, “what if?” Just do now. Just do now.