One day this Spring, my friend Nico Dauphiné posted a link to an article in the Boston Globe*. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of a women’s shelter, 40 women authors had each written a 40-word essay on the theme The Day My Life Changed. I commented that I found these tiny glimpses of people’s lives fascinating – and somehow disturbing in their radical editing. One change only? When our lives are so full? Nico replied, offhandedly, “Really, every day is a day that changes your life, if you’re paying attention.” Yes!
The number 40 caught my imagination. It resonated with Jesus’ 40 days & 40 nights in the desert – a bounded and sustained period of reflection. I won-dered: what would it be like to spend 40 days with the practice of 40 words a day on a moment that changed my life? It seemed like a very manageable writing goal, and also a way to work deliberately with honing experience & language down to essence. I found this was a desert I wanted to enter.
Re-posting a link to the article Nico had found, I stated my intention to try this 40x40 experiment, and invited friends to join me in the desert, if they wished. At one point, there were seven of us writ-ing & posting our daily 40 words. Accountability to a community of writers – and not just to myself – was a joyous & supportive part of this project.
These short pieces were written in no particular order. Some refer to moments in the distant past; others are very much of the day I wrote them. I let go of any attempt to account for the course of my whole life, and allowed whatever arose in each writing session to dictate the content of the work. As a result, there are significant gaps: I say little about my college years, for example, and make no mention at all of many people who have been important to me.
The Buddhist metaphor of Indra’s Net says we living beings are like the stars in the sky, and those stars are nodes in a net spanning the whole universe. Look deeply into any one node, and you will understand all the others simultaneously. Writing these 40 short pieces over 40 days, I came to see more deeply how inquiry into specific incidents leads towards recognition of the larger shape of this life. I practiced the same dual awareness I teach my drawing students: loyalty to what is being observed, paired with loyalty to what is being created in this moment.
For anyone out there reading this little book with even the tiniest inkling of wanting to try a 40x40 process for yourself, I say: do it! Find a friend to work with. Find a daily 40-word pause in your life of obligations & responsibilities. See what doors & windows come open, when you look again at solid mass & self-certainty. Be creator & destroyer.
This very life is our primary text & the way out is through.
* Alice Hoffman, Women writers on ‘The day my life changed’ Boston Globe Magazine, April 20th 2014.
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Knowing what to do when a project seems to end is, for me, a very important part of what Natalie Goldberg – in Writing Down the Bones – refers to as “artistic stability.” Everything that arises comes to cease, and working with that truth is as relevant in the realm of writing & art-making as it is anywhere. It’s part of the larger project of visiting the neighborhood of death & taking notes, so that we aren’t completely lost when death actually comes. In a conscious way, what is it like to experience an ending, an unraveling, no more for now? The time after the end of a project can be tinged with panic, depression, & fear that no further ideas will come, ever again. Gradually, as I have come to trust my own heart, mind, and body, this time has grown into something more like a sacred pause.
Do you know the They Might Be Giants song with the refrain that goes, “there’s only two songs in me, and I just wrote the third?” It’s a wonderful line, encapsulating both the fear of limitation & its surprising undoing from within.
I wrote Forty Days & Forty Words (the mother of this work)as a daily practice at a time of great upheaval & change. It became a lifeline: whatever is happening, whatever is falling apart, whatever I am remembering, I will find a way to honor it in forty words, today, sitting down, writing, whittling out what does not need to be there & polishing what does. I wrote side-by-side with my friend Nico Dauphiné, who was going through a similar process in her life.
When we reached the end of our forty days & forty nights in the fruitful desert, we agreed there was more to say about some of the stories that had appeared. Among the shifting sands, a tiny golden hand is glinting. Wouldn’t anyone want to spend a bit more time in the dunes, making the effort to uncover the whole figure & behold it? We did, anyways.
We agreed on a new structure: this time, ten of the forty forty-word pieces we’d written would be expanded into ten one-hundred-word sections each. The original piece would serve as a seed-syllable for the new writing. I wasn’t thinking this way at the time, but eventually realized that we were once again in the realm of resonant numbers – the ten thousand joys and sorrows of Buddhism – the vicissitudes of life – the gates through which suffering, compassion, and wisdom arise.
We wrote. Again nearing an ending, I reached out for advice and kindness to my friend Rae Gouirand – a brilliant poet & deeply generous advocate for writing. She affirmed my experience of falling apart, with charac-teristic humor and great heart: Welcome aboard the Destabilization Boat! Here's a lei. Be careful, you might need it at dinner if we run out of food. She suggested two changes: bring it all into the simultaneous present tense, and find a link to join the parts. I knew she was right.
The first suggestion was easy: I knew these writings were not a linear narrative, and so bringing everything to now (where it happened in the first place) made sense. The second one was hard. I knew litany was the link, but I did not have the form. I was thinking of a set of 108 mala beads, 108 names of the divine manifest, but I was stuck. Anyway, I needed to get to work on some new thangka paintings for an upcoming show.
Months later the links fell into place: the thangkas’ leftover scraps of bed-sheet fabric and gessoed muslin could be prayer flags. The flags could be stamped with heart-prints from another project, and handwritten with the paradoxical, gorgeous names of Kali. The painting & praying could go back to the writing, linking the parts together. I let it all go, and it all came back.
Today, looking up a source reference for the ten thousand joys and sorrows (I never found one, FYI), I stumbled on a book about a couple working together through Alzheimer’s as a shared life-process. Looking closer, I found to my astonishment that I knew this couple: Olivia and Harrison Hoblitzelle. I had been on retreat with them at Plum Village with Thich Nhat Hahn twenty years ago. Here (in 100 words) is that story:
We are re-scattering into the world after a month’s retreat. Olivia, Harrison and I are the only ones taking the Chunnel train to England, and so we gravitate together as the fast train from Bordeaux coughs us up in the Gare du Nord. Fragile & immeasurably strong, Olivia & Harrison are possessed of a tremendous pile of luggage. Walking, he falters. There is not much time. Laughing wildly together, we load a cart with all our stuff, install Harrison comfortably on top of my backpack, and take off running. We catch the train. Ten thousand joys and sorrows, on wheels.
I offer this writing with gratitude to all beings everywhere, to my parents, teachers, friends, and enemies, and to those multitudes who could care less, either way. I offer this to the wholeness within which nothing is missing, and nothing is too much, wishing:
may all beings everywhere grow into their true voices, and be heard.
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