When did the universe begin—or did it? And what are we doing in our little piece of it? And …

Click image for larger photo and more info

Two galaxies colliding.
Credit: Debra Meloy Elmegreen (Vassar College), et al., & the Hubble Heritage Team (Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy/Space Telescope Science Institute/NASA)

Theoretical physics doesn’t come easily to me, but Sean Carroll manages to put more of it across than I’d have thought possible for someone whose math education stopped at intermediate algebra. His book From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time asks the question: Why does time only move in one direction?

The answer, says Carroll, is connected to the phenomenon of entropy, which also goes only one way: it increases. Exploring this connection leads him through some of the deepest questions scientists ponder: relativity, spacetime, quantum physics, the nature of the universe, and, ultimately, the meaning of human life. Why are we here? Is it by design of someone or something? Carroll rejects the argument from design. He sees us “not as a central player in the life of the cosmos, but as a tiny epiphenomenon.” Meaning and purpose don’t arise from any “laws of nature” created by a divinity; they’re for us to determine. And he takes pride in the scientific struggle to understand those laws.

But I have another question: should we even be asking?

It turns out that these same grand questions were hot philosophical topics during the Buddha’s time. Many people wanted him to answer them, but he refused. There is a list of 10 of these “unanswerable” questions (14 in some traditions), including:

  • Is the universe eternal or not?
  • Is it finite or infinite?
  • Are the soul and body the same thing or different?
  • Does an enlightened person still exist after death?

And so on. The Buddha explained that trying to answer these questions doesn’t help end suffering but actually increases it, and furthermore doesn’t lead to awakening, or enlightenment. The questions are only a distraction.

Nor is he the only sage to take this position. A very highly realized teacher I was fortunate to see several times—said to be enlightened himself—was asked, “When did the universe begin?” He responded, “The question is meaningless: there is no time and space.” When someone else wanted to know, “What is the meaning of life?” he said, “You can’t ever know the answer to that, so why think about it?”

Click image for more info from HubbleSite

Never before seen galaxies that existed shortly after the Big Bang, billions of years distant, photographed by the Hubble telescope. Credit: NASA, European Space Agency, S. Beckwith (STScI), and the HUDF Team. Click image for more info from HubbleSite.

So why did I want to read the Carroll book? Because I would like to know the nature of the universe, especially since that might shed light on the nature of the self, another of those unanswerable questions that interests me even more.

I’ve struggled a bit with this desire to know, and concluded that my interest isn’t just metaphysical; it’s practical. That is, I don’t want simply to define the self in absolute terms, but still more to understand how the ways we conceptualize it affect us, as individuals and as a society. We may aspire to the realm of the absolute, but we also lead everyday, relative lives, and on this plane how we define our self is important, because it determines how we live, and our impact on everyone around us.

No doubt knowing the answers to the unanswerable questions would enable us to construct an absolute definition of ourselves. But since we can’t, best to admit that all the definitions we have made are relative. So perhaps the best answer to the questions in the title of this post is: Who knows?

My house is my castle

Many old houses in Brooklyn’s brownstone neighborhoods have beautiful ironwork enclosing their yards. For example:pretty fence 1

pretty fence 2






(Click the photos to see the details more clearly.)

First-floor windows, easily accessible from the street, often have iron grilles to prevent break-ins. These too are often quite handsome. grilles 2

Years ago I played host to a group of visitors from a small town in Ohio who laughed merrily when they saw similar grilles on houses on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They couldn’t get over the idea that all these people were putting themselves behind bars. Imagine living like that! I’d gotten used to seeing them and remember feeling rather defensive.

But not long ago I came across the house below, and found myself in the same position as the giggling Ohioans.


I don’t know who lives here so have no idea when or why the current owners (or earlier ones) put up this structure. At the time the neighborhood was likely unsafe and prone to break-ins. Just last summer, a couple of blocks from this house, I noticed some damage to rose bushes planted in tubs along the sidewalk. A homeowner told me that a bunch of kids had come through the night before and turned all the tubs over. There was nothing to steal, they just wanted to ruin something.

Still, this stockade sticks out on its block, since the other houses have the customary low fences. From a bystander’s point of view, it looks pretty unfriendly.

So I let my imagination weave itself around those bars. I’ve long been interested in the powerful current of individualism in this country and how it shapes our character, politics, art, and economy, and in particular contributes to the way we define our sense of self. To me this fence evokes a self that wants to close itself off and clearly demarcate the boundary between itself and everything else. Is that a healthy sense of autonomy—or is it like living in a cage?

Where does writing come from? (part 1)

Angelica Kauffman painting

Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807), The Artist in the Character of Design Listening to the Inspiration of Poetry. The painter is at left.

I’ve been mulling over some journal entries by Flannery O’Connor, written in 1946–47, when she was twenty-one and a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The entries show her struggling with the tension between her ambition to be a successful writer and her desire, as a devout Catholic, to think about God “all the time.”

You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. … what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by this shadow that is nothing. …

What I am asking for is really very ridiculous… at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. (New Yorker, 9/15/2013)

She wants success but she’s also afraid it will give her a swelled head, which will get in the way of being able “to love God all the way.” So she keeps reminding herself of things that will keep the shadow from growing.

When she produces a story after a dry period, O’Connor notes that it wasn’t really she who wrote it. “Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine.” Then she begs him to make the story a “sound,” good one because she doesn’t know how to do that herself.

Some time later, she cycles back into discouragement. “If I ever do get to be a fine writer, it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me. Right at present this does not seem to be His policy. I can’t write a thing.”

I am not a mystic, much less a Catholic or even a Christian, but this strikes a chord for me. If you disregard the specifics of her terminology, she is simply talking about where the inspiration to write something comes from. In my experience, that’s a mystery: the ultimate source isn’t one’s self and isn’t under one’s control. (I felt this most purely with my own two books, which I wrote from the greatest depths I was capable of. But even in collaborations, when I’m setting out other people’s ideas, I often find solutions to problems of structure or expression arising in intuitive leaps out of “nowhere”—not quite the same, but close enough.)

In the early stages of conceptualizing my first book, The Women Outside, I remember sitting on my knees on the floor and suddenly having a sense of a column of energy—or something—streaming upward from my head and mingling with some larger entity “out there.” Or maybe the energy from out there was coming down into me. It’s been so long I don’t recall. But the feeling that I was connecting to something larger than myself was clear. It never happened again, but as I worked on this and my other book, Slaying the Mermaid, I felt quite distinctly that they were coming through me from somewhere else, entering in the region of my solar plexus, then traveling upward to where my brain could operate on them.

I wouldn’t call that larger something God, but there are other options: the collective unconscious, universal mind, nondual awareness, the unconditioned,  Buddha-mind, rigpa, consciousness with a capital C… and those are just from traditions I know something about.


Nicolas Poussin, The Inspiration of the Poet (1630). A poet writes under the inspiration of Apollo, who is accompanied by a muse and two cherubs.

It’s quite literally inspiration, which comes from a Greek word meaning God-breathed and a Latin word meaning blow into. That is, a divine being is breathing something into you. The ancients spoke of the muses, O’Connor speaks of God. I don’t know what to speak of, but I know what it feels like.

And I agree with O’Connor that it’s good not to get a swelled head, but rather to remember the mystery.

The writer and the archetypes

In the late 70s–early 80s I volunteered in a shelter for homeless women run by nuns. It was the era of “shopping bag ladies,” women who lived on the street and carried their possessions around in bags. To the non-homeless they were mythical figures; no one knew where they came from or why they “chose” to live that way. Theories abounded, and their contradictions intrigued me. I decided to discover the reality.

doll radios

Doll radios from the 1970s. Click photo for better resolution image.

It turned out to be pretty prosaic. The largest single factor in making these women homeless was a political decision: emptying the state mental hospitals without making adequate provision to support the ex-inmates in the community. Personal events, like the death of a husband who took care of business, also played a big role; many women who were middle-aged at that time had been raised to be good wives, which meant not knowing how to manage a checkbook and pay bills. (My book The Women Outside: Meanings and Myths of Homelessness is based on my experience at the shelter.)

But people in extreme situations lose their grounding in the realm of the ordinary. Their minds are invaded by myth. The women I met acted out vivid archetypes of femaleness that feminists were then just beginning to analyze. Deeply influenced by Jung at the time, I found myself plunged into a world where the archetypes walked around breathing and speaking in symbols. One incident in particular comes to me now.

The mission of the Franciscan nuns who founded the shelter was to follow St. Francis’ example by serving those in need, which to the sisters meant the homeless women they saw on the streets of midtown Manhattan. So the nuns and the women of the streets came together in a single household—a four-story brownstone in an area then known as Hell’s Kitchen. To the nuns, each woman was a precious soul whom they welcomed into the community of spirit they created there. But other people perceived only the archetypes. I remember making a phone call to the VA to see if I could get help for a homeless woman who had served in the army. The nice lady I spoke to couldn’t understand why I was calling about someone old enough to be a veteran; when she heard “homeless women,” she assumed we were all young and pregnant.

The first “bag lady” to show up when the shelter opened was a woman I’ll call Dora. Probably in her 50s, she walked bent over, shuffling along in sneakers and white socks. Her voice was deep, snuffly, nasal. She soon moved into a nearby hotel, but dropped in frequently for meals and company, always toting a couple of bags. Dora was gregarious, and what she said was generally sensible and often quite penetrating.

Like many women at the shelter, Dora was much concerned with her own femininity and sexuality. She told me about her boyfriend, who had died ten years before (“I’ll never see a man like him again”), and pondered her prospects of getting another one. She grilled me about whether I was married, why I had gotten divorced, and whether I had a boyfriend now.

That Christmas she gave Sister Elizabeth a present: a transistor radio in the shape of a sexy doll, blonde and naked, sitting on her folded legs (I had seen the same one in a junk store nearby). The doll had enormous breasts with huge red nipples; one was the on-off-volume switch, the other the tuner. The radio itself was in the bottom.

It was totally characteristic of Dora’s perceptiveness (and her streak of malice) that she chose to give this grotesquely vulgar object to Elizabeth, the most “nunny” of the sisters, the one whose sexuality was least in evidence. (These were post–Vatican II nuns, who lived uncloistered and wore jeans instead of habits.) The radio was a reminder of something that, in Dora’s mind, the nuns were getting away with forgetting. In a way she was speaking for all the women at the shelter—victims of rape, their own desires, unwanted pregnancy, abuse and desertion by men, society’s condemnation and indifference—coming face to face with the five sisters, toward whose deliberately nonsexual lives they felt (I sensed) an obscure hostility. Dora was sending a telegram:


Sexy Linda doll radio

Vintage Sexy Linda “Radio Doll” Novelty Transistor Radio, Made in Hong Kong. Photo by Joe Haupt

I don’t know whether Elizabeth got the message, but I drank it in. That place was so fruitful for a writer’s imagination: I didn’t have to invent images, a cornucopia was offered me every day. The danger, though, was falling into the archetypes myself—but that’s another story.

Between the Door and the Street: the stoop, and a conversation

Between the Door and the Street: conversationSitting by a stoop in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, with three other women, discussing gender politics—as an art form. The yellow scarves signal that we’re part of Between the Door and the Street, a work of socially engaged art by California artist Suzanne Lacy. We were among 84 groups on stoops along the block, “performing” our unscripted conversations for a large crowd that strolled the sidewalk, stopping and listening at different stoops as they chose. We stoop sitters represented a huge range of local activist groups.

Suzanne Lacy, Between the Door and the Street

Photo by Matt Weinstein.

My own group’s subject was second-wave feminism—how it changed us, how it changed society—and what didn’t change. Women still earn less than men; they still take on more responsibility for house and children. Rape remains a huge problem. These facts tell me that even though women now take on roles they rarely had before—CEOs, elected officials, and so on—the underlying power structure remains intact. Moreover, despite all advances, women as women remain deeply problematic, for their sexuality and ability to generate life frighten men. This is no less true today than it was centuries ago when the witches were persecuted in Europe. It’s why feminists have asserted that rape is primarily an issue of power, not of sex (I wrote about this fear in my book The Women Outside).

The four of us on the stoop had a great time talking to each other, but except for a couple of moments when we got a laugh, I had no idea how people were responding. It was really supposed to be performance, and we’d been told not to break the fourth wall, so I tried diligently not to look at them. When at the end we were cued to go out into the street, we did talk to a few people, but those who had listened earlier and moved on were gone. I think this fluidity is a signature quality of Lacy’s work—very Buddhist.

Interesting phenomenon: so many women there looked fabulous, incredibly attractive.

Scarves! Photo by Matt Weinstein

Scarves! Photo by Matt Weinstein

It wasn’t just that they knew how to put themselves together (although the scarf-tying creativity on display blew me away), but that they knew who they were. Beyond mere self-confidence, I saw a sculpting of their being, a refinement that showed in their features—a chiseled look arising from experience and the wisdom gleaned from it. Look through this portfolio of photos by local photographer Matt Weinstein, and you’ll get a sense of what I mean.

In the same way, when someone is a dedicated meditator, their practice often shows in their face, which appears both well defined and quite open—undefended, since the person has no need to feel defensive. There is no hiding, the full being shines out.

Such people have digested experience into something that nourishes spiritual health. The clothes, hair, and makeup on the women last Saturday all looked good because they knew who they were and weren’t trying to be someone. Not surprisingly, the real stars in this respect were middle-aged and older.

EGGxercise: movement and inspiration

You might think a choreographer wouldn’t have much to say to writers, but you’d be wrong. Twyla Tharp has been creating dances for a long time, and from what I can tell has fought and won all the battles involved in making something out of nothing. Her book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life absolutely nails the issues any creative person faces.

For example: “Writer’s block means your engine has shut down and the tank is empty. Being blocked is most often a failure of nerve, with only one solution: Do something—anything.”

Then she gives a bunch of exercises to “do.” What’s key for me is that most involve moving your body. One more quote: “I can’t say enough about the connection between body and mind; when you stimulate your body, your brain comes alive in ways you can’t simulate in a sedentary position.”

This is true. Being a dancer was never even on my radar. Even those group exercises where you act out a name or word or idea always made me feel awkward and dull. But I decided to try a couple of Tharp’s ideas. That is, I had to force myself. The level of resistance was astonishing. But I got on the floor and assumed the postion for Egg: knees bent up to my chin, arms hugging them. Nowhere to go from here but out—somewhere. Tharp lists Exploded Egg, Scrambled Egg, and Egg-Cited as some “eggs” that her students have come up with. I managed Rolling Egg and something I’m calling Flailing Egg.

I noticed that the movement was fueled by the tension in my body. That is, initiating the movement gave the tension a place to go. Then it took over and shaped the movement. I didn’t need to figure out where to move next; I just went along for the ride. The movement broke open the shell of tension (or resistance), and the idea for this post popped right out of the crack.

Doing these exercises went beyond the old “go for a walk when you’re stuck” idea. It was more formal, more structured, focused directly at making something. More powerful.

Have you had an experience of this kind of movement sparking an idea, plan, other inspiration? I’d love to hear about it.

Did I pen this blog post?

Of course not. I typed it on my computer keyboard. But have you noticed how commonly pen is used to mean write? In this age of the keypad and touch screen, pen is such an anachronism that it jars me every time I see it.Original pen: a quill

The Wall Street Journal noted last December that Cyndi Lauper had “penned an essay for Rolling Stone” describing how going off the fiscal cliff would harm LBGT youth. The New York Observer reported that former Lehman Brothers vice chairman Thomas Russo “has penned a book about this country’s pressing financial calamities.” A blurb for The Now Revolution, a book telling businesses how to use social media successfully, exclaims that the authors “have penned a book that truly isn’t a social media book.”  And the writer of a website touting the benefits of posting articles to content mills in order to create inbound links to one’s own site actually titled his site “Penned Articles.”

I’m guessing that none of these people wrote by hand.

This breezy usage of penned irritates me, maybe partly because I’ve been “penning” less and less myself. Initially, the physical connection between brain and pen in hand was integral to writing. Then I began typing first drafts directly on a typewriter and editing them by hand. I’ve now reached the point where the last few books I wrote stayed entirely inside the computer—no printouts. The brain-hand connection still exists, but through the fingers on the keyboard.

It’s interesting how language changes, creating this disconnect between a word’s current usage and its original meaning. Pen dates from the 14th century and comes from the Latin word for feather, the original writing instrument being a quill. The notion of a pen as an object held in the hand that uses some kind of fluid stuck, even as writing implements became metal pen points, then fountain pens, then ballpoints. It stuck so tight that we continued to “pen” books with typewriters, and now with computers.Metal-nib drawing pen

I once had an Israeli client who relished his excellent command of English and loved pointing out to me how Americans’ usage of certain words was incorrect, because, he insisted, their etymological meaning was quite different. Mindful of my English-major course in the history of language, I pointed out in return that languages evolve over time, so the meaning of words naturally changes. Thus presently used to mean at once, but now means in a whileFast originally meant immovable; now it most often means rapid.

My client was quite unmoved by this argument, perhaps because modern Hebrew is a new language. Hebrew had been used only in a religious context for centuries, so when the settlers in Palestine revived it as a living language in the early 20th century, they had to invent many words for contemporary ideas, objects, and actions, often derived from word roots. So Hebrew hasn’t had time to evolve the way English has; the new words are still close to their etymological origins.

Normally I enjoy seeing how a word changes. But I want penned to go away.

Floored by a foot

A six-by-three-foot foot. It sat like a huge bench right by the elevators at the Asia Society, part of an exhibit titled “Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art.”

This gigantic stone carving of the Buddha’s right foot, inscribed with 108 auspicious symbols, packed a wallop, more than anything I saw in the exhibit rooms. It felt personal and close, as though the Buddha had just been there, striding through the lobby on his way to the galleries. You could sense the sculptor’s pure longing to feel his presence. I had never seen a Buddha footprint before, and went home to figure out why it moved me so.

Buddha footprintI did some research and discovered that Buddha footprints (buddhapada, in Sanskrit) are quite common. Both artist-created footprints and “real” prints—foot-shaped impressions on rock, believed to have been made by the Buddha himself—were and still are objects of devotion throughout Buddhist Asia. (The image at the left is of second-century Buddha footprints from northern India at Yale University Art Gallery; the one I saw at the exhibit is here.)

In fact footprints (handprints too) have been created and venerated across cultures and history all over the world—from the Chauvet caves in France 30,000 years ago to a temple in Syria dating from 10,000 BCE to the prints of movie stars outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. One famous “natural” footprint, at the top of Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, is claimed by Buddhists; by Hindus (as the footprint of Shiva); by Muslims (as the print of Adam); and by Christians (as the print of St. Thomas the Apostle).

There are also footprint paintings. Many Tibetan thangkas (paintings on cloth) include the actual handprints and/or footprints of the lamas they depict. But it was the three-dimensional carvings, conveying as they do a sense of the Buddha’s corporeality, that touched me most.

So I started thinking about feet. I read about their symbolic, metaphysical, and psychological associations, the ambiguous nature of the footprint as indicator of both presence and absence, mortality and divinity.

Scrolling through the “Buddha’s Footprint Inspiration Gallery” on a tattoo website, I found:

[The footprint] reminds us that the spiritual life has its feet on the ground, and that while we aspire to “transcendence,” we should never lose awareness of the material plane of existence. At the same time, a disembodied foot speaks of Buddha’s absence, the absence of the human personality, and by extension, his non-attachment to this life.

I love symbols, so I found all this fascinating. More:

  • A central Buddhist teaching is the noble eightfold path, the “way” to enlightenment. What else but a footprint to represent it?
  • A footprint’s ambiguity makes it a type of liminal, or transitional, space. You can imagine yourself filling the Buddha’s shoes (as it were), being imbued with his spirit. Suddenly this thing we’ve been assured we have—our intrinsic Buddha-nature—connects with its universal manifestation.

But none of this really answered my question.

Finally I found a report by Faxian, a fifth-century Chinese pilgrim traveling through India. He came across a buddhapada that changed size depending on who observed it. It was either long or short, noted Faxian, “according to the thoughtfulness of a man’s heart.”

“It exists,” Faxian added, “and the same thing is true about it, at the present day. Here also are still to be seen the rock on which he dried his clothes, and the place where he converted the wicked dragon.”

So perhaps the footprint I saw—which I’m happy to note was pretty long—helped open my heart. It tamed whatever dragon might be making me feel more wicked than I needed to be.

Note: for someone else’s very personal reaction to Buddha footprints, see this blog post.

Where’s the OUTRAGE?

A city dweller—a true child of concrete—once spent the weekend with a friend in the suburbs. The friend’s cat snared a bird and as cats will do, deposited the corpse as a gift on the doorstep. The city visitor was indignant. “Aren’t you mad at Rudy for killing the pretty bird?” she demanded.

“Why should I be angry at a creature for acting according to its nature?” the friend responded.

Even at the time, I perceived a real wisdom in this answer (that city creature wasn’t me, by the way). But only recently do I see why.

Sorry, I was going to post photos of a couple of these billboards—they sure have great entertainment value—but decided I didn’t want to give those vodka makers any more publicity for than they already have. I hope that’s an example of wise discrimination. Photo by Gary Deibler.

Not long ago a friend showed me a photo of a now infamous Wodka Vodka billboard near the Brooklyn Bridge. On a red background, next to an image of a vodka bottle together with a lamb wearing something resembling a sombrero (don’t ask me!), a headline read “ESCORT QUALITY—HOOKER PRICING.” It was one of a series of so-called shock ads; others included “CHRISTMAS QUALITY—HANUKKAH PRICING” (two dogs, one wearing a yarmulke) and “BLACK RUSSIAN,” showing a muscular black man in a wifebeater and a fur hat in front of an image of the Kremlin. The Jewish/ Christian one had been taken down following a storm of outrage.

My friend had shot the photo with his cell phone while driving on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. He showed it to me in anticipation of feminist outrage. But I didn’t produce any, and I think he was rather disappointed. I thought the billboard was pretty disgusting, but I couldn’t work up any ire over it.

Fact is, I don’t get angry as much as I used to. That’s where the cat story comes in. Creatures (including people) are the way they are, they act according to their nature. And they may or may not be at a place where their nature can become kinder, gentler, wiser, whatever. If what they do is harmful, you try to prevent them from doing it, but more and more, indignation and outrage seem to me like a waste of time and energy—even a form of self-indulgence.

I’m moderating! Book collaboration basics at 2012 ASJA conference

As a professional freelancer, book collaboration is probably my greatest expertise. So I’m totally tickled to be moderating a panel where I can spill all my secrets at the American Society of Journalists and Authors annual writers conference next April in New York City.

I’ve been on my share of panels, but this is my first chance to moderate and shape the content of a session. I lined up two panelists who have even more experience than me: agent Madeleine Morel and author Nancy Peske. The three of us will walk everyone through the subtleties of contracts and payments, division of labor and ground rules for a good working relationship. We’ll also cover ways to handle conflicts and the myriad of other issues that pop up when two people produce a manuscript together. Participants will learn how to avoid pitfalls, have a great working relationship, and produce a terrific book.

We’ll cover the actual process of collaboration/ghosting. The next day, veteran ghostwriter Ellen Neubourne will moderate a separate workshop on retooling your resume to break in to ghosting.

I was an editor at a book publisher before I started writing for a living, and that taught me a lot about how to work in a professional yet also rather intimate way with someone else. Aside from the personal/professional interaction and plain old writing skills, you need to know how to draft a collaboration/ghosting contract that will be fair to both parties and protect the writer at the same time. And since books are now so (relatively) easy to publish independently, whether on paper or as ebooks, that contract can be complicated. We’ll talk about that too. In the meantime, you might want to check out the articles on book collaboration on my website.

Find all the details about the 3-day conference here. Panels cover everything from books to blogs to tweets, from marketing to the newest technology.

Twitter: #ASJA2012