People often ask, “How did you come to do such an unusual and fulfilling thing at such a young age?”
I was raised in Appleton, WI, by two parents who were pretty atheist and non-spiritual. I experienced some pretty early losses: a grandmother dying when I was six, my father when I was twelve, my other grandmother at thirteen. Then my mother died suddenly when I was nineteen and remaining grandfather died when I was twenty-two.
After my father died, I briefly joined a born-again Christian church (rebellion against my atheist parents!), and this was my first taste of spirituality and community. I loved it! The church itself lost luster for me, but the relationships of community and spirituality stayed with me, underground, for another ten years.
I became a poet when my father died, too – wrote all the time as a way to survive his death, which was traumatizing to me. I wrote poetry continuously – winning awards and even a scholarship to college on it – until college. Then, when I got to college, my mother died, and I stopped writing.
The Transition to What I Do Now
The last semester of college I took one creative writing course, the only one I took in college, with the amazing Aimee Nekuzmatatil at UW Madison. She helped me fall back in love with poetry. I graduated with a double degree in French and Anthropology, with no intention to do either as a career. I left school hungry to write again, and found a local group called PGI that was meeting and doing readings, critiques, and so on just blocks from my apartment.
I was also taking photographs more and more. My camera was my father’s ancient Pentax K1000. Right after college, a friend and I were in Barcelona when 9/11 happened. We consumed as many International Herald Tribunes as we could, trying to understand.
We spent our days trapped in Barcelona, trying to do the tourist thing: going to Gaudi buildings and walking around taking pictures. When I got back from that trip and developed them, there was a clear difference between my pre-9/11 photos and post-9/11 photos. The pre-9/11 photos are much more documentary. The post-9/11 are much more expressive – abstract, and tense. Intense. Aware of chaos and expressing it.
Around the same time, in the writing group I met a woman who was taking a writing class with someone who used meditation as a part of the writing process. ”You’ll love it!” she said, and so I did. These classes were with Paula Novotnak. Her own creation, she called them Writing From Center, and were held in a little office on the near-East side. Once a week I would meet with her and a half dozen always-older women, meditate, write, share and get super supportive feedback. I mourned my mother, found my voice again and began to learn how to compassionately listen to others. After my second class with Paula, I asked Paula how I could learn to do what she does. Without a blink, she suggested I study what she was doing while she did it and we’d meet quarterly to discuss it. I didn’t realize how generous and aware she was at the time. I now see, having been asked the same thing myself numerous times how much faith she had in me.
Paula had to stop teaching, and she suggested I begin teaching. I wanted to teach, but I was scared to, and had no idea how to even begin. Paula suggested that I go downstairs (her office was on the second floor) and visit the people who ran a meditation group down there. Because their door was on the side of the building, and hers was on the front, I had never entered nor particularly noticed them. She said they might sublet space, and were nice people who liked Pema Chodron, a teacher whose work Paula had shared with us in class, this seemed like a good fit. Paula isn’t Buddhist, not officially, but her leanings became my destiny. Or already were.
At an art exhibit in Madison’s tiny modern art museum, I saw a show of Aaron Siskind’s. Most of the pieces were from his highway tar period – towards the end of his life, he shot abstract full-frame pictures of highway tar. I loved it, and immediately knew there was something in common with what he was doing and what my post-911 photos were doing, though I couldn’t articulate why at that time.
I read some of his writings, and writings about him, though, and I was disappointed to find that what he articulated didn’t line up with how I felt. But something was happening, opening. I was tapping into something important and deep in photography.
Things Fall Together Quickly
A friend and I went downstairs to check out the space, which turned out to be the Shambhala Meditation Center of Madison. We got meditation instruction from Kathy Faas, who was then co-director, and Kathy, when I asked if I could lease some space from them, basically handed me the key and said, “You can use it during such-and-such times. If you make anything, throw us some of it.” I began teaching writing very part-time, calling it Contemplative Writing.
After teaching in the Shambhala Center for a few weeks, some fliers appeared in the mail along with a video and calendar. It was a promotional package that Michael Wood, one of the co-founders of Miksang, had sent out to all the North American Shambhala Centers. I took home the video and watched it. Eight times in a row. I cried. This, this was it. This is what I had been looking for – in photography. I googled Miksang and came up with a workshop in Chicago in two weeks. I didn’t have much money, no car, but I found a way – borrowed a vehicle and went down to the Chicago Shambhala Center, which I didn’t know existed before that week.
I teach four in-person contemplative writing classes a week, in my living room, for 28 weeks out of the year (four sessions, seven weeks each). During those sessions, I try to travel as little as possible, so I can focus on my in-person classes. When not in session, I travel to anywhere that wants me to come do weekend programs. I have solid, loving communities in many cities in North America, England and France. These are not just students, but my peers and sangha.
I am also teaching more and more online. I teach writing and Miksang through Shambhala Online, offer private mentoring and coaching for creative process online and will be starting new courses in 2016 through Ruzuku.
Who knows what is next? My only guess is that it will take me – and all those who are willing to go there with me – deeper into the core of the teachings at all of what I do: being present, working with perceptions, enjoying the richness of our minds and experience.
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