In celebration of April Fools’ Day, including the memory of a dear friend, the conception of my first child, and all the learning that’s resulted, here is the complete last chapter from The Shoreline of Wonder: On Being Creative, a chapter that gets into the transformative messiness and healing required to truly take our place as creators.
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Pulling It All Apart: Moonlight on the Mountains
It’s true the wind blows terribly here
but moonlight also leaks between the roof planks
of this ruined house.
Halfway up the Berkeley Hills, along the route of a historic and long-defunct streetcar line and an even more historic and intermittently active geological fault, at the confluence of three creeks that join together beneath Codornices Park and emerge united at the focal point of the Berkeley Rose Gardens, in a grove of stately redwoods surrounding a turn-of-the-century house, in one of its seven apartments, in a ship’s prow of a bedroom, half of which rested on the apartment below, half of which was cantilevered out into space, upon a double mattress set upon the hardwood floors, in a tangle of a sheets and bedding, my girlfriend and I, unbeknownst to us, conceived a child. It was right around the spring equinox. We’d only moved into the apartment two weeks earlier. In such an idyllic setting, in a world-renowned city facing the Golden Gate, in a historic home abutting one of the most beautiful parks I’d ever seen, it might have seemed perfect.
From the street, our building looked like a typical, single-family home. Built during the East Bay exodus, when thousands fled the devastation of the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, it was symmetrical, complete with two large-pane glass windows and wide steps leading up to a generous porch covered by a prominent gable. As you moved around to the sides, however, the ground began to drop away, revealing a second story underneath, and then a third below that. Moreover, the conversion of the building into five one-bedroom apartments and two studios, including a lower basement apartment accreted on to the southeast corner, caused the growth of tumor-like enclosures for additional hot-water heaters, electrical meters, gas lines, laundry facilities, and all of the additional plumbing, much of which ran outside the exterior walls. When you stood in the back parking lot, the building loomed overhead, an architectural Rubik’s Cube with no help of reordering, the only unifying factor being a fresh coat of light grey paint. Even the foundation was dubious. The contractor living next door claimed that our houses were built on a “mud glacier,” a term I’d never encountered in all my years of studying the geomorphology, but which, along with the Hayward Fault nearby, fittingly described the causes behind the equally prominent crack dividing the front steps into two distinct halves and doors that would suddenly refuse to open.
It was April Fools’ Day, 2009, when we found out Jen was pregnant, a day that was already significant for both of us. For Jen, it was the 21-year anniversary of her first period, which she remembered quite vividly; she thought her younger brother was playing an April Fools’ joke on her, staining the toilet with ketchup, perhaps, to make it look like blood. For me, it marked the 13-year anniversary of the death of my best friend from college, Matt Baxter, whom I’d met at the University just down the street. Although he was just a novice himself, he taught me how to rock climb, and we forged our friendship climbing throughout the Bay Area and our beloved Yosemite, where he died in 1996 during a solo ascent on El Capitan. I had spent the earlier part of the evening outside with some men friends of mine, gathered around a fire, recounting the memory and significance of the loss of my dear friend. When I came home and sat down at the Craigslist dining room table we’d bought a week earlier, Jen placed two pregnancy test sticks in front of me. Both were marked positive. She might as well have walloped me with a sledge hammer.
The news might have come across better if not for one crucial detail: Jen and I fought frequently, with great intensity, and for hours, sometimes days at a time. Our fighting wasn’t a small part of our relationship, an occasional moment of tension over some miscommunication, a brief but reasonable flaring of tempers normal among couples. No, in my mind our fighting was a different beast all together, two beasts really, two beasts immune to any possible reconciliatory etiquette, tearing one another apart in long drawn-out campaigns. We each made vicious attacks and counter-attacks on each other’s character, the other’s families’ characters, and the others friends’ characters. Our fights were full of cursing and screaming, objects hurled at one another, crippling battles with shaky and fleeting moments of reconciliation, only to be followed by another underhanded comment, or passive-aggressive stab, and we’d be at war once again. And though I was blind to it at the time, my whole campaign to keep her at a distance was waged with the unspoken goal of avoiding what I really feared most: the possibility of true intimacy.
Sitting around our new used dining table that evening, we were both in a state of shock. The idea of bringing an innocent child into such an environment left us both profoundly uneasy. That night, we stayed up into the wee hours, debating and blaming, drowning each other with new oceans of fear.
In the seven months we’d been together, I believed our relationship to be as dysfunctional as they come, the sort of thing that would leave a daytime television producer salivating. Yet even under such circumstances, with ample opportunities for either one of us to walk away, we’d stuck it out, sensing that there was something important to be discovered. And the child, at least the idea of the child, like a light in the distance, somehow made sense to me. As Jen, an impeccable planner with a lightning-quick mind, machine-gunned off possible scenarios, and as I struggled to keep up, my own fears and disbelief hurling themselves against the shorelines in my head, my mind would quiet for a moment as I thought of the baby, those cells that were dividing in the womb of this woman in front of me, the wide-eyed woman waving her arms and screaming. After more than 12 hours of violent emotional outbursts and fragmented planning, Jen said, “You’re the man, you decide.”
Opposites in Opposition
Jen and I could not have been more opposite. She had a warm, engaging personality and loved spending time with people. I was more reserved, comfortable on the peripheries of the action, even being described by my dear friend from birth as aloof. Jen was half-Filipino, half- Pennsylvania Dutch with a trace of Native American ancestry, which prompted her to say when angered, “You can kiss my half-yellow ass!” I was about as Caucasian American as they come: both my mother’s family and my father’s had been around since the Revolution and fought on opposite sides of the Civil War. Jen trained in clairvoyance at the Berkeley Psychic Institute and read my thoughts and emotions better than I could. I had gone to UC Berkeley, studied geography and rhetoric, graduated with honors and forged my identity as an arrogant intellectual snob. She was ambitious and had owned and operated two wellness centers by the time she was 27. I lumbered along with mine, doing all that I could to keep expenses down, possessions to a minimum, and have ample time to read, write, surf, climb, and meditate. Her memory was practically photographic, except for the shape-shifting photo paper she developed it on. Mine was more like a sand painting, laboriously coming to some cohesive understanding, then losing it all with the slightest of breezes. She taught workshops on intimacy and couple’s massage. I avoided such workshops like the plague, preferring an individualist approach to growth and liberation that confounded even my Buddhist teacher.
Along with the opposition, however, there was also dynamic polarity, the strong pull of those opposed to one another, the swooning qualities of a high-voltage electric field, the warbling of space due to the force of attraction, the voice of a reconciliatory universe saying, “Hey, take a look at this!”
Fulfilling a longstanding fantasy of mine, we’d met in the heavenly chaos of a late night dance pit, at the Bay Area’s most recent affront to America’s longstanding puritanical shadow, Burning Man, one of the few places left where cell phones don’t work, where art—beautiful, inspired, temporary art—is everywhere, and people gather en masse to watch the sunrise. The music that night combined two genres of electronic music: dubstep, a raw, stripped-down genre using slow, grinding rhythms and ultra low-frequency bass riffs; and glitch, an eclectic assemblage of sonic clips, shards, and scraps, like pieces of broken ceramic arranged into a beautiful mosaic. The overall affect of the two genres created a delectable sonic cataclysm, the walls of sound crumbling from the speakers, luxurious primordial riffs swaying the willing dancers like harbored ships in a tsunami. Furthering the sense of buoyancy, I had just returned from my annual backpacking trip in the Eastern Sierra three days earlier. My most treasured time of the year, I’d spent six nights alone above timberline, doing what I loved most: reading, writing, meditating, swimming in clear, bone-chilling water, and watching the moon rise over the craggy peaks, spilling its mystical light over the white granite bones of the earth.
Swaying in the waves of sound pouring from the speakers, kicking up clouds of dust at our feet, with her enchanting smile and sparkly, engaging eyes, we were drawn together, so it seemed, by the cosmic winds sweeping the Black Rock desert. We kissed before we knew each other’s names and were inseparable thereafter. I named her Chispa Morena, “Dark Spark,” and she called me El Matador, “The Killer,” and, as newly found soul mates, we began, unknowingly, the arduous task of undoing our longstanding fears and habitual patterns standing in the way of true, rock-meets-bone love.
After our stellar beginning, things went quickly south. In my mind, I tried to reconcile our relationship in a number of ways. Sometimes I thought of our relationship as a trip to the zoo, each of us looking across the bars at one another, wondering who this curious and exotic creature was, the only difference being that there was no barrier, no protection from the gnashing teeth and sharp claws. Sometimes I thought of it like a divine crucible, the heat, pressure, and claustrophobia driving the transformation, the forging of two very self-centered individuals into more open, tolerant, compassionate members of society. Other times I saw it like those creeks outside our window, the confluence of karmic streams, the swirling and turbulence ultimately weaving into a unified force. And other times I saw us like meteors bouncing along in the upper atmosphere, in real danger of burning up from all the friction with only the most miniscule of chances that some part of us would touch down safely on terra firma.
As time wore on, we stockpiled a formidable scrap heap of bad behavior toward one another and the relationship became more and more antagonistic. I saw her as an incorrigible, man-hating narcissist with an annoying knack for self promotion, a half-yellow witch whose ravaged island of origin had contributed one and one word only to the English language, amok—mad with a murderous frenzy. She saw me as an arrogant and passive-aggressive, a socially inept man-child in his late thirties who’d been traumatized by his parent’s divorce in the first few years of his life, an irredeemable misogynist at war with the divine feminine.
Both of us had valid points. Jen was often incorrigible. Even when I tried my best, she would easily find something to blame me for, consistently pointing out that I hadn’t a clue how to treat or, more precisely, to honor a woman. And I was often unreachable. On those particularly bad nights, when I felt at the frayed frontiers of wit’s end, instead of trying to patch things up so as not to go to bed enraged, I would demand that I sleep in the front room, next to the shrine, on the mattress I kept in my van, in the sleeping bag I took to the wilderness.
I’d never fought so much in my life as I had during the first seven months of our relationship. During my time alone, in the wake of another battle, hiding out in the park or lost in the Berkeley Hills, I often found myself with my head buried in my hands, either numb with a tension headache or sobbing uncontrollably in disbelief.
Yet there we were, the morning after April Fool’s Day, both under slept and emotionally exhausted, our DNA irrefutably entwined and growing in her belly.
“You’re the man,” she said “you decide.”
An Irrefutable Message
Being the man, I did what seemed most natural to me at the time: I grabbed one of those pregnancy sticks, got in my car, drove over the Bay Bridge, and headed to Grace Cathedral. There, just in front of the building, in a discrete appendage of a courtyard, was my destiny, the interfaith labyrinth, an aesthetically and functionally mind-blowing form, a form which I’d begun to explore in earnest a few months earlier as a method, like meditation, for promoting creative insight subverting the confines of linear thinking.
Labyrinths are ancient archetypes. Their precise origins are unknown. But they can be found in various forms in cultures throughout the world. The 11-circuit labyrinth evolved in Europe during the Middle Ages as a substitute for the dangerous pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The labyrinth gets its name from its layout of 11 concentric circles around a center with six flower-like petals. Differing from a maze, labyrinths contain no dead ends, false starts, or misdirections. The only choice is whether or not to enter. A single prescribed path winds its way through the entirety of the concentric circles, making 28 180° turns on the way to the center, thus aligning one with the 28 days of the lunar cycle. Once in the center, one lingers for a spell, possibly gaining some insight, then follows the same path out to the initial starting place.
When I arrived at the edge of the labyrinth, I formulated my question, which, looking back on it now seems a bit strange. Instead of asking, “Should we have the child?” I asked, “What to do about our relationship?”
With my first step, I felt the world shift. As I wound my way around the concentric circles, the first things to come to mind were those I had loved and lost. I thought of my grandmother, Elizabeth Binyon Smith—Mammaw as she was known to her grandkids—who I’d been very close to and lost in 2004. I thought of Matt Baxter and his death at the age of 26. I thought of my stillborn nephew, Ely Clarkson Shaw—a perfect child with the unmistakable face of my younger brother.
As I continued, winding my way along the outer peripheries of the labyrinth, my mind settled on a more universal mantra, the first of the four famed Buddhist reminders, precious human birth:
Contemplate the preciousness of being born free and well favored. This is difficult to gain and easy to lose. Now I must do something meaningful.
As I snaked along the sensuous curves of the labyrinth, the words fell away. I simply felt at peace.
The final stretch of the labyrinth has one walk along the outermost circle before walking the final straightaway to the center. It’s like a moment of respite in the deep space of the outermost ring, a pregnant pause before completing the final turn and entering the center. Several feet before I actually entered the center, I was struck, so it seemed, by rainbow lightning, and a single word was set in my consciousness: MARRIAGE.
For much of my adult life I had cultivated and coveted mystical experience, those moments where the world seems to turn itself inside out, revealing its true essence beyond the buzzing static of discursive thinking. And during my times as a rock climber, a surfer, and a meditator, I’d had many such experiences, the dawning of insight cracking my mind.
But not one of those experiences was anything like this.
As I stood in the center, with my eyes closed and my arms by my side, I felt a current of energy running through my body, as though I were a lightning rod connecting heaven and earth. Sweat poured from my skin and water shot from my eyes. The sweat was neither hot nor cold and the tears were neither sadness nor joy. It was pure experience, sensation and emotion, the creative life-force energy coursing through me. In my mind’s eye, that energy moved up and down the conduit of my body, swirling as two rainbow vortexes in the space behind my eyes.
As I stood there longer, I felt exhilaration and terror precipitating out of the pure, life-force energy, dancing with equal abandon with my limitless potential as a human being and my lifelong habits and defense structures. I sat cross-legged and surrendered to the feeling: the absolute, ineffable truth leading me in an irrefutable direction. I sat there in awe, savoring the universe’s willingness to deliver a message to me with such clarity.
After some time I stood up and decided to envision the child entering the world. I took a moment to stand in each of the six florets surrounding the center, letting the florets represent the sheaths of existence. Stepping from one to the next, I imagined the child as an absolute presence, then a spirit, then a soul, then a mind, then a personality, and, finally, as a physical being entering this world. Before walking out, I let out a lion’s roar, a primal scream of determination to welcome and protect this child. On the last stretch of the path, a stiff wind threatened to blow me over. But I righted my balance, exited, and looked up, the clear spring sky and the luminous flags snapping in the distance atop the Fairmont and Mark Adam hotels. I went to the gift shop below the cathedral, bought two labyrinth pendants, then drove back to the East Bay and home, where I walked Chispa Morena down to the Rose Garden and asked for her hand in marriage.
She agreed, we embraced, and we entered into a dream-like stretch of love, support, and appreciation for one another, all of which lasted two whole days, two whole days of bliss concluded by my first bona fide panic attack.
The Long Undoing
I heard somewhere that during a pregnancy, expectant parents go through their own personal challenges, the necessary psychological and spiritual adjustments in order to prepare themselves to be a mother or father. While Jen’s changes were dominated by the ceaseless bodily transformations and physical discomforts, mine were overwhelmingly psychological, frequented by panic attacks, binge behavior, and manic-depressive episodes. Over time, in place of Chispa Morena and El Matador, Jen became the “The Puker” and I, “The Crier.”
If our lives before our pregnancy were difficult, life during the pregnancy felt like a stream of cataclysms, fueled by Jen’s hormonal surges and the alien being growing inside her, and my own profound terror of being a husband, a father, and, most paralyzing of all, a provider. I had spent the last two decades doing all that I could to avoid commitment and responsibility. Even architecture projects that fell into my lap made me edgy as I knew that I would be tied to a particular place and a particular client for the duration of the project.
On an outer level, we began making some strides as a team, exploring birthing options and strategizing as we attempted to utilize our resources and every inch of our compact, one- bedroom apartment. The newly purchased dining room table and an ornate credenza were re-recycled on Craigslist. We upgraded to a queen sized mattress and purchased a solid bed frame with storage to go underneath. Jen’s parents bought us a rocking chair and placed it in the corner by the balcony window. We hired a midwife, teamed up with a prenatal group, and signed up for Hypnobirthing classes. Jen secured baby clothing and equipment on parent networks and from other young moms she knew. We spent weekends going to furniture showrooms and the behemoth Emeryville IKEA, and I spent hours assembling all the components and securing them to the unlevel floors and catawampus lath-and-plaster walls of our 800-square-foot apartment.
Jen, with her lightning-fast mind and her need for data, bought 15 books on pregnancy and parenting, which she would consult and cross-reference. I bought nothing and barely read the book she pushed on me, defiantly swearing by the famed pediatrician Dr. Spock’s opening lines to his book on parenting: “You know more than you think you do,” which I’d come across only as an example of engaging first lines in a book on writing.
But the inner preparation was far more messy and arduous. As Jen’s belly grew and the apartment transformed, we continued to butt up against self-defeating patterns, deep-seated fears, and unhealed wounds. During our first ultrasound, for example, I sat there frozen in the low-lit treatment room as the nurse rolled the sensor over Jen’s belly, taking measurements with a white cursor and typing them into the computer. At the end she presented us with a grainy, black and white photo like a transmission from deep space: strange block-shaped numbers along the sides of a central image of what looked like an egg, sunny side up, caught in a tractor beam. I maintained my glacial composure until we got to the car, where, staring at the photo, I broke into tears wailing, “We are not ready for this!”
Soon after the ultrasound, Jen signed us up for an internet service that sent us weekly updates chronicling the miracle of life. But that’s not how they landed for me. Like the central commander of a besieged nation, I read those updates with the horror of watching the perimeter defense structure beginning to crumble. Not unlike the ultrasound, the images, especially the early ones, looked like photos from some underwater probe deep in the Mariana Trench.
The accompanying text was equally unnerving:
Week 5: At this point your baby’s about the size of a sesame seed and looks more like a tiny tadpole… his tiny heart begins to divide into chambers and beat and pump blood.
Week 6: Baby about the size of a lentil and the bud of tissue that gives rise to his lungs has appeared.
Week 7: Your baby’s about the size of a blueberry. The tail will disappear in a few weeks but that’s about the only thing getting smaller.
Each time a new notification appeared in my inbox, I was hesitant to even open it. The whole thing seemed so confounding, surreal, and terrifying.
A month after our first ultrasound, I coaxed Jen into going to a one-night return showing of one of my all time favorite movies, Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of Stephen King’s The Shining. As we sat there in the dark theater, however, the movie seemed eerily autobiographical: A failed writer of a husband and his lonely, emotionally malnourished wife holed up for the winter in a high mountain resort, only to be undone by cabin fever, the husband’s own demons, and the resort’s tragic and haunted past. Even the final chase scene, where the psychic boy is being chased by his deranged, hatchet-wielding father through the maze, seemed like a twisted mirror to my luminous experience inside the labyrinth, casting my decision to have the baby beneath a shadow of doubt. “What the hell was I thinking, consulting a Christian archetype,” I thought, “I’m a goddamn Buddhist!”
Shortly after seeing The Shining, Jen and I sustained another blow. One of her massage and coaching clients and my new writing mentor, Dr. Ronald Takaki, a husband, father of three, grandfather of many others, and prolific writer and pioneer of Ethnic Studies programs at UCLA and UC Berkeley, hung himself after battling depression for years. And he did so during the time he was supposed to be in session with Jen.
Earlier that year, in February, through his appreciation for all that Jen had done for his sense of well-being, Ron began to counsel me on my own writing, encouraging me to transform it from heady abstractions of interest to few to concrete stories that would capture the attention of a larger audience. In early May, I had finally reworked a chapter based on his advice and sent it off to him. In the reading room at the Berkeley Public Library, I received his reply:
I quickly read your new draft, and want to say thank you for taking my comments on the first draft to heart. What you wrote this time is definitely on track. Many readers will be able to relate to this writing: It tells a story about a real person, real experiences, and a real opening for your readers and architects.
I think you have found your “voice.” Keep on telling stories as you write your book.
So, you are off to an audacious start. Keep up the great work,
A few hours later, I received another email from Ron:
I have been thinking about a title for your book: “The Labyrinth of an Awakened Architect.”
Anyway, just a suggestion,
Greatly encouraged, I shared the good news with Jen, but she quickly cast it in an ominous light. “You have to keep feeding him work,” she said, “he really needs something to keep his mind occupied.”
But I wasn’t a fast writer. With Ron’s encouragement I’d made a giant stride forward. But it had taken me three months to transform one chapter. Three weeks later, Ron took his life.
Not only did I feel a sense of responsibility, his suicide seemed to underscore the problems of writers in general. Even though Ron had written several highly acclaimed books, had a loving family and thousands of appreciative students, it wasn’t enough to overcome his ultimate desire for death, which, along with Jack Nicholson’s aspiring writer/hatchet-wielding character, further cast doubt over my own urge to write. Not only was it dubious that my writing would cover the needs of the coming child, I could feel the real possibility of going into a psychotic breakdown or deep depression.
Jen also felt responsible for Ron’s suicide. She had worked with him for years, encouraging him to make changes to both his diet and his thought patterns. In his appreciation, he’d even used her middle name, Epiphany, as a play on a title of one of his chapters. Jen later learned from Ron’s wife, Carol, who was also Ron’s editor, that when she found her husband, Jen’s usual $20 tip was left on the dining room table in view of the Japanese maple he’d used to hang himself.
That fall, one day shy of the autumnal equinox, the University of California held a memorial service for Ron in the International House Auditorium. As a testament to his love for his students, the admiration of his colleges, and his dedication to helping others find their own voice, the room was filled to capacity, with many others pouring out into the adjacent hallway. Jen and I wept for most of the service.
There were other shake-ups. In order to focus on being a mom and help us pay for the baby’s expenses, Jen put her wellness center on the market, only to be courted by 1) people with no business experience 2) people with no health and wellness experience 3) the legally insane 4) strange combinations of the three. My stepmother, whom I’d known and loved since I was a child, was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. In the midst of the freefall economy, my stepfather, a remarkably kind, generous, and successful man, lost a substantial portion of his savings in a Ponzi scheme, a scheme run by an old friend from high school. Nationwide, the newly elected Obama and his “audacity of hope” were quickly being undone by the quagmire of two wars and the debtor nation unveiling itself at home. At all financial levels and across all walks of life, the American Dream was being undermined by the nightmare of rampant, dangerous greed.
All the while, the strange, destabilizing transmissions just kept on coming:
Week 13: Your baby’s the size of a medium shrimp. If you’re having a girl, she now has more than two million eggs in her ovaries.
Week 17: Your baby’s about the size of an avocado and his eyes have moved closer to the front of his head.
While Jen gave up all intoxicants to protect the health of the baby, I did just the opposite, increasing my alcohol consumption to try and keep my emotions at bay. On more than one occasion I drank myself to the point of sickness, including one particularly embarrassing outing during my younger brother’s bachelor party. On that day, fresh in from sea level, sweltering beneath the fierce high-altitude sun in the outskirts of Denver, totally out of control on prodigious amounts of tequila and Budweiser, I charged over $2000 of strange multimedia art pieces at a music festival, including a skull and a life-sized anatomical skeleton painted garish colors. The next day, with my ongoing worries about money, I begged the artists to retract my order. They insisted I purchase something, claiming they would have sold those pieces to someone else had I not reserved them.
I stopped drinking after that, only to take up smoking with Jen’s father whenever our families got together.
In September, three months before our due date, Jen ended up in the hospital with early contractions. Undoubtedly, the instability of our relationship coupled with the difficult challenge of running and selling her business had caused her great strain. After that, we did what we could to slow her down, limiting physical activity, including sex, doing all that we could to prevent the child from being born premature. But the sense that we might go into labor at any time added to the general feeling of anxiety.
There was also, of course, the marriage piece. In the beginning, we thought we had enough to think about and therefore would wait until after the child was born. But a close friend of mine, Eliza Kerr, who’d been engaged to Matt Baxter when he died in his climbing accident, said, “If I were you, I’d do it now. It creates stability.”
That was in May, and though it seemed like a good idea at the time, driven by my own fear of commitment, it soon became another point of contention in the ongoing debates. After several months, we finally scheduled a date at San Francisco’s City Hall, for October 13, 2009, the day after Jen turned 33.
The morning of our appointment, we awoke to a freakish, early winter storm, violent erratic wind and surges of driving rain, coating the streets with leaves, branches, and other debris. We sat at our kitchen table that morning doing, as we always had, debating whether or not this was the right thing to do. Ninety minutes before our scheduled time, we mustered our courage, wrapped ourselves in winter clothes, raced to a Tibetan gift shop on Solano, picked up two knot-of-eternity rings, hers with red inlay symbolizing passion, mine with blue inlay symbolizing aggression (indicative of our various styles of avoidance), and drove over the wind-whipped Bay Bridge to San Francisco City Hall. We filled out the paperwork for the license and waited nervously for our appointment below the soaring cupola, as the building staff set up an earthquake preparedness event commemorating the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Finally, as Jen was beginning to buckle beneath the thought of taking my last name on the forms, a large, jovial lesbian judge with a dental tattoo of a peace sign on her canine called our names, went over the forms, walked us up the steps, and married us, our only witnesses being Peanut, the new, gender-neutral name for our unborn child we’d taken from the internet service, and the commemorative bust of slain city counselor and gay rights activist Harvey Milk.
Once married, I thought we would somehow be rewarded for following through with the decision, that despite all the fighting, puking, and crying, and my reptilian desires to run, we had stuck it out and made it to this divinely inspired milestone. I thought things might stabilize, or at least ease up a bit, that The Puker and The Crier would both feel a little more relaxed as their lives unfolded together.
But we didn’t. The economy continued to freefall, the days grew progressively colder and darker, and our nervous anticipation heightened. Other mothers, many of them complete strangers, who’d recently gone through labor would approach Jen, her big belly signpost of pregnancy, and offload their tales of horror. The thrust of my manuscript kept changing, causing me to backtrack again and again. We continued our usual styles of combat, she blaming and attacking, me judging and withdrawing. We retired another relationship counselor. Each morning I would seethe in the kitchen, livid over another, overly precise mandate for some odd food combination. Each night, we would put on god-awful New Age music and practice our Hypnobirthing scripts.
And all the while, the transmissions just seemed stranger and stranger:
Week 26: Your baby’s the size of an English Hothouse Cucumber. If you’re having a boy, his testicles are beginning to descend into his scrotum, a trip that will take about two to three days.
Week 33: Your baby’s the size of a pineapple. She’s rapidly losing that wrinkled, alien look and her skeleton is hardening.
On the day before Thanksgiving, a few weeks before Peanut’s prognosticated due date, I drove to San Francisco to pick up the birth tub from our sleep-deprived midwife, who was now, by default, also our newly appointed relationship coach. It was a bluebird day, clear and still, one of the last holdout days of the Indian Summer. After picking up the tub, I headed to the Marin side of the Golden Gate and walked out to the center of the bridge and stared long and hard at the water below. I wasn’t feeling suicidal, but I knew this was where over 2000 people had chosen to end their lives. The space around me felt thick and immense, the ethereal beauty of San Francisco, the roaring traffic behind me, and the primordial force of the life-giving, life-taking qualities of the water swirling below.
The Perimeter Breached
As we entered December I noticed a remarkable shift happening. The late autumn sun began to lower itself in the southern sky, its rays dipping below the lowest branches of the surrounding redwoods, flooding our apartment with light, illuminating the co-sleeper next to our bed, washing over the coffee table, the sofa, and the rocking chair we placed in the corner, the brilliant light and the long shadows cohabitating in our dwelling. I set up the birth tub and we watched movies in it, feeling like third-rate celebrities. Jen continued to grow, and, though it didn’t feel that way at the time, so did I.
Even the quality of the transmissions were beginning to turn, talking not only of unfettered growth, but transformation:
Week 39: Your baby’s waiting to greet the world! He weighs about 7 pounds, a mini watermelon; the outer layers of skin are sloughing off as new skin forms underneath.
When the due date came and then went, we flipped our vows of celibacy on their head and became tantric rabbits, supplementing our evening Hypnobirthing ritual with good old-fashioned sex. Ten days later Jen received a dangerously low amniotic fluid measurement and we were admitted immediately to Alta Bates hospital on a Friday night. Jen set up the music she wanted, I made Japanese flower arrangements out of the bedpans, and the midwife refereed our disputes. The staff induced labor and we waited, and waited, enduring another tempestuous day and a half of anxiety, frustration, and fear.
Early Sunday morning, on the eve of winter solstice, Jen’s cervix finally began to open. For an indeterminable amount of time, I watched the crown of Peanut’s head appear, then move in and out, like the shore break on the rising of the tide. Like a totem, my wife squatted on the bed, and my eyes moved back and forth between the awesome determination on her face, indescribably beautiful in both its transcendence and its rooted presence, and the head of our child navigating the birth canal, the room pervaded by a singing presence during this most primordial of creative offerings.
Twenty minutes after dawn, after our seven-month calamitous courtship and another nine months of psycho-hormonal hell for both of us, with the birth canal successfully navigated and the perimeter of my defenses fully breached, our baby, a luminous little girl, was born. We named her Sierra Lucia, a name meaning “moonlight on the mountains.”
It’s ten o’clock on a Thursday evening. The garish art piece I settled upon after my drunken art-buying rampage hangs in the corner. It features a human skeleton about a third its normal size in lotus position, mounted on plywood painted purple and teal, with positive slogans such as “joy,” “growth,” and “strive” written on its bones. Below the skeleton’s feet, written in silver pen, it used to say, “Life is Pure,” which I hated. While I was away in the mountains last summer, Jen changed it to “Life is Raw.” We’ve further undermined its sterile purity by pasting Sierra’s pen drawings and random photos over the annoyingly positive aphorisms.
Through the door to the balcony, the sky glows like a lantern, a thin marine layer in from the Pacific, lit from above and below. Though I can’t see it, I know the moon is nearing full. Sierra doesn’t want to go to bed right now and I don’t blame her; she just woke up from a late afternoon nap. With the rest of her teeth coming in, seemingly all at once, and an irritation in one of her ears, she hasn’t felt well the past couple of days.
“Do you want to go see the moon?” I ask.
“Moown!” She squeals, pointing upwards and spinning in my arms to look for it through the glass.
“Yeah? Let’s go out and see the moon!”
Jen and I work together, layering warm clothes over our daughter’s pajamas, slipping on a pair of boots, sliding her arms into a warm jacket, placing the white knit cap atop her head. She looks adorable, all bundled up with her little legs still wrapped in her pajama bottoms.
As soon as we’re out from under the gable, Sierra turns her gaze skyward, looking around for the moon. “Sweetheart, we can’t see the moon right now, only its light. It’s hidden behind the clouds.”
She doesn’t mind, she’s just happy to be out and about.
“Would you like to go down to the Rose Garden? We can look at the city lights. That’s where Daddy proposed to Mommy.”
“Oh God! Don’t remind me!” Jen remarks, triggered by the past, “I can’t believe what you’ve put me through in the last three-and-a-half years.”
“Hey, Jen,” I say, “we haven’t even known each other for three years.” I add, half jokingly, “I’m sure it feels like longer.”
We walk down the path of the historic street car line in silence, Jen carrying Sierra, myself hanging back a few paces to let the wave of resentment roll on through.
Once at the overlook, the three of us sit on the historic bench for a moment. But Sierra wants to keep moving. She’s been walking now for five months, each day growing more confident.
“Would you like to go down and smell the roses?” Jen asks.
“Wroses!” Sierra squeals, vigorously nodding her head.
With Jen on her left and me on her right, we each offer her a finger to wrap her little hands around. With a firm grip on each of us, she leads us down the path and into the garden. From there she guides us across the Hayward Fault, leading us past the upper plots, under the redwood pergola, down through the stepped, concentric plantings to the place where the three forks of Codornices Creek emerge as one. There, at the opening, she has us pause and listen to the water. Then, taking us each by the hand again, she leads us back up, the three of us stopping to sample the roses’ heavenly scents. In the low light, with the quiet roar of the city rising up from below, the smell is particularly fragrant.
Though neither one of us know it right now, in three weeks Sierra will go to her grandparents and Jen and I will return to the place where we met, Burning Man, and there we will set the intention to let go of the hurt and resentment, allowing it to be swallowed by the stark vastness of the Black Rock desert. In the spirit of allowing the best to come forward, Jen will cease using her first name and start going by her middle name, Epiphany, which is also the name of her mother and her great grandmother. We will watch the sun rise all six mornings we are there. The pilgrimage will be a celebration and a time of healing and resetting, and, with matters of the heart, incomplete. But from that place we will begin the hard work of forging a new path, not as individuals, not just as seed DNA for our child, nor as husband and wife, but as partners and friends.
People often ask me how we’ve managed to turn things around. I don’t believe anything is ever turned around completely. Humans are mysteriously complex, relationships even more so. Though the coveted and creative space of love between individuals is universally celebrated, it takes work. As soon as one thing seems resolved, other hurts, both new and old, are free to surface. As each layer is removed, others are exposed and need to be addressed. That being said, we have made remarkable progress. From this perspective, I can begin to identify a few things that have and haven’t worked for us.
First, the Buddhist practices I brought into the relationship—including meditation and retreat practices—though serving me as an individual, were actually detrimental to our relationship in the beginning. Why? Because I used them as justifications for my ego-based holy war against Epiphany. Instead of loving or promoting the spiritual growth of the other, I whacked her over the head with my world view. More specifically, based on my own fear of intimacy, I used the Buddhist teachings to condemn Epiphany’s desire to spend more time with me. Though I believe in the power and importance of religion, I have certainly been guilty of using it in the worst ways possible.
When we could see that we were beginning to develop bad habits, we started going to couples’ counseling. The results were limited. The problem with talk therapy was that both Epiphany and I were damn good at it. I was especially good at twisting things around, getting the therapist on my side (at least when she was no longer around to monitor our exchanges), and using them against Epiphany. Even a summer-long attempt to learn and use Nonviolent Communication techniques proved to be no more than warm-up exercises for screaming matches.
Next was Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), a practice of using audio, visual, and kinesthetic cues to access the wisdom of the subconscious. NLP has proved to be far more effective for both of us by allowing us to address the hurt behind our frustrations directly without continuously rehashing our stories. Our work with NLP, specifically with trainers Tim and Kris Hallbom and with a particularly dedicated NLP coach named Therese Kells, has led to numerous experiential insights for both of us, including the momentum of our family dynamics and the subtleties of our relationship and how it intersects more universal themes unfolding in the human drama. Much of the earlier Ground of Creativity chapter, for example, specifically the section on the dawn of conscious self-awareness, was based on insight gained during a marathon NLP therapy session with Therese.
Next is dancing, specifically to intensely loud, electronic music built on the thick foundations of bone-rattling sub-bass. Wearing ear plugs, we frequently enter into the tempestuous oceans of sound. The engulfing sound and raw energy allow us to let our guards down, roll about for a spell, and reenact our initial meeting. We nearly always emerge with a sense of renewed love and possibility. Since our relationship was born out of music and dancing, we have the good fortune of using these as our go-to singularity of sorts. We’ve learned to return there often, using them as a reset button.
We have since developed other tricks to get out of our own heads and into our hearts, but I’ll save those for another time.
And of course there’s Sierra, whose unfettered spirit and perpetual wonder and aliveness have been guiding us both along. When Epiphany and I look at her, we experience the wholeness and mystery of the universe looking back at us, gifting us with the opportunity to care for her and for one another.
After Sierra was born, for example, I’d often sit with her in the rocking chair, studying her tiny features. Some days what struck me was the fragility of this little person, completely dependent upon us. Other days, I sensed something far more enduring, an old and wise spirit that had been around for eons. One day, when the winter light was just right, I noticed two spirals of hair on her head, the first originating from the crown, the other of much finer, almost invisible wisps swirling outwards from her forehead, just above her left eye. When compared to the first, this second spiral seemed to be a sort of follicular anti-matter, a boundary to keep the other spiral from overrunning her entire face. I could also see that this was to become the same force sculpting her maternal grandfather’s distinct cowlick, as well as Epiphany’s widow’s peak. Already, this second spiral has disappeared, leaving, as geologists like to say, a relic landscape.
As products of a dynamic, interdependent, deeply mysterious, wildly creative universe, I have come to think of our own lives progressing like those two spirals, one representing all that we can plainly see, and another, much larger spiral representing all that lies hidden from view. The second spiral, like the Divine Ground of the perennial philosophers, gives form and significance to the first, as well as space in which to grow.
Furthermore, as I’ve watched this little spirit descend into and occupy her mind and body, I wonder how much of what we do comes from our own efforts, and how much of it is simply the tides of things much bigger rolling through, driven by the more enduring celestial bodies of wisdom, love, and compassion and their opposites, ignorance, hatred, and cruelty.
Neither Epiphany nor I are proud of how we handled ourselves during the pregnancy, nor for that matter in the period soon after Sierra was born. We had, as Buddhists like to say, a lot of karma to ripen together. Like our little girl navigating the birth canal, forward and back, we’ve both had to work hard rebirthing a new version of ourselves, enduring the pain of regression, ushered on by the levity of growth and deepening connection.
We’re inexpressibly grateful that we both stuck it out. To care for a little person who’s in a constant state of becoming, whose natural disposition is wonder and amazement, and whose spirit shines unobstructed in the time before identity, has been indescribably precious and healing for us both. A piece of our hearts, now, is out there in the world, leading us along. As we change her diapers and rock her to sleep, as we feed her and clothe her and bathe her at night, as we inhale her vitality and tell her how much we love her, she leads us along toward our own, heretofore impossible, maturations.
All of which is my reason for including this chapter in the book: This whole experience, as painful and overwhelming as it was and as nourishing and empowering as it’s become, has also been, by far, my single biggest lesson in creativity to date. Despite all our fears and insecurities, all our limiting beliefs and blame, and all our battles in the months before the pregnancy, Epiphany and I chose to enter the game. In the face of our deepest fears, we chose to bring new life into the world, then held on as best we could as the universe kept presenting us with challenge after challenge, each one wrenching us from our own forms of self-centered behavior, challenges to aid us in accepting the situation as it was, challenges, ultimately, to make us more available to the child, and, in time, to each other. The external experience of creativity usually involves putting things together. The internal experience of becoming a creator, however, often involves pulling self-imposed limitations apart.
My profound and irrefutable insight to have the child did not mean that everything was going to align perfectly from that point on. All genuinely creative undertakings are transformative processes. Once we decided to enter into the crucible, some pain was almost guaranteed, because neither one of us was ready. How could we be? Most of us don’t move through the world without the momentum of the past affecting the conditions of the present, and the past for both Epiphany and I had been solely to ourselves.
In Epiphany’s and my case, each of us felt the strong attraction to one another on both a physical and spiritual plane, but our ego identities and all our stories and schemas, all our underlying scripts about how things should or should not be, were running the show. From the moment we woke up from fitful sleep, until the moment we lay down in exasperation, we battled one another for sovereignty, wanting the other to surrender to our own, very limited way of viewing things.
My whole relationship with Epiphany has been an initiation of sorts, converting me from a dyed-in-the-wool individual out for myself to a valued member of the communities with whom I interact. I can honestly say that I’ve taken my seat in this world and have committed myself to helping others through my design work, through the universal appeal of creativity and the creative process, and through my own budding NLP practice. Not only was Sierra Lucia born from this process, so, too, was this book, forcing me to focus in the face of all my new responsibilities.
And for Epiphany, a true extrovert with a habit of taking on other people’s existential projects, she has learned to set up appropriate boundaries, create a sense of greater autonomy, and care less and less about how others perceive her.
I am profoundly grateful that Epiphany, who, with her uncanny ability to see my defense structures from the beginning, took the most important stand of all. “You’re the one!” she said, on the second day we were together, which scared the hell out of me. And, even more confounding, as she said later told me, the spirit who would become Sierra, a spirit who had been with her since she was a little girl confirmed it, saying, “He’s the father.”
Both my wife and my daughter, and the whole of this experience, as challenging as it was and as challenging as it sometimes continues to be, have helped me to step outside the confines of my head and enjoy the expansiveness of my heart, and to create, to create new projects, to create new opportunities, to create new life, and to have new chances to delve deeper into this awesome and mysterious world in which we live.