Off-Leash Writing

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Off-Leash Blog: Roaming the Heart's Terrain. Tanya Shaffer’s blog focuses on a variety of topics, including creativity, parenthood, special needs parenthood, writing, and travel.

Give It All, Give It Now: A Manifesto of the Creative Life

Confession: I still doubt myself. A lot. Even though I’ve lived more than half a century, even though I’ve been putting pen to paper on an almost daily basis since I was nine years old, even though I’ve made the arts my profession throughout my entire adult life, as actor/writer/solo performer/producer at various times, I still ask myself why I do these things and what makes them worth doing.

 

There’s an ebb and flow to this inner questioning—there are periods in which I’m so utterly absorbed by the work itself that the existential dilemmas blessedly recede and I’m carried along by the current of pure doing. Love those times. But when the Muse takes a call on her cell, leaving me with the ditherings of my own mind and the eternal struggle for a more disciplined daily existence, the doubting voices return. The most persistent of these is the one that says Why bother in the face of…fill in the blank: mortality, climate change, humans’ abhorrent treatment of each other, violence, racism, poverty, greed…

 

A year ago, I added regular teaching to the list of creative endeavors that comprise my professional life. Leading others in the act of writing has been an incredible gift, but it’s also ignited a blazing new round of self-doubt. Who am I to take the lead? Am I capable of holding a room? What do I have to give? And accompanying all of that, the old underlying refrain: why why why why why…

 

Since this inner Why has been with me for so long, I’ve developed a litany of responses, drawn primarily from the work of other artists: songs, poems, passages from favorite books. So when the questions arise within me, these alternate voices rise up to answer them. Together they form a kind of Manifesto of the Creative Life, a buttress against despair. This is why. And this. And this. I share them with you today, dear Reader, in the hope that they may help you through your own moments of darkness. And if these things don’t resonate with you as they do with me, I hope the examination they sprung from may inspire you to develop a Manifesto of your own.

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A Place Where All is Forgiven

Earlier this month I traveled to Iceland with a group of differently wired teens from my son D’s school. Iceland is an extraordinary place: traversing its starkly magnificent terrain, you have a vivid sense that you’re standing on planetary crust, its transformations unfolding before your eyes.  D’s school—I’ll call it A3—is an extraordinary place too.

 

A3 is described as a school for kids who learn differently, but in reality it’s not just about learning differently, but about thinking differently, acting differently, being differently. Or just being different. Some of the students are on the autism spectrum, some have attention challenges, some have sensory issues or social anxiety or gender dysphoria or learning disabilities of various types. Some have no diagnosable condition but are there because it’s the first place they’ve found where they feel comfortable and welcome.

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Paint Your Scars With Gold

The other day I was reading about an ancient Japanese art called Kintsugi, in which, if a ceramic object such as a bowl breaks, it’s repaired using a lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. Once repaired, the fault lines are illuminated, making the object increasingly beautiful as it ages. The philosophy behind Kintsugi treats the process of fracture and repair as part of an object’s history, something to be celebrated rather than hidden or disguised.    

 

This got me thinking about marriage.

I’ve been with my spouse for seventeen years now. And though it’s not easy to share this, I’m going to summon my wobbly courage and tell you: My marriage is not perfect. There have been deep fissures, gashes, cracks that are difficult to repair. In the complex soup of a shared life, the flavors of laughter, tenderness and delight are liberally seasoned with rage, frustration and tears. 

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My Special Needs Kid Got Kicked Out of the Social Justice Club

This is the story of how my high-functioning autistic son was unceremoniously ejected from the Social Justice Club at his pricey private San Francisco Bay Area school. I know—no irony there whatsoever.

 

D attended our local public school (School #1) through the end of sixth grade. Challenges that year prompted our district to offer him placement for the following year in a non-public* middle school (School #2) geared specifically toward kids on the autism spectrum.

 

School #2 was an unmitigated disaster for a multitude of reasons, not least of which was the staff’s inability to stem a series of anti-semitic slurs, culminating in a group of kids following D around his classroom chanting “Hitler Hitler Hitler.” When I asked the principal whether they educate the kids about diversity, she said, Of course. We tell them it’s not nice to point out when someone is different. Ummmm…no.

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Thinking About Wearing My Jewish Star Necklace

It’s been more than a year since we moved across the country, but there are still boxes that I haven’t unpacked. Last weekend I came across a delicate bubble-wrapped packet inside a small jewelry box. When I carefully pulled back the tape and unfolded the bubble-wrap, out fell a tiny gleaming Star of David on a slender silver chain. Made of iridescent glass, it shimmered when I moved it back and forth.

 

My first thought was, I’ll wear this today.

 

My second thought was, Maybe I shouldn’t.

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Death Crashes In

I was celebrating my son’s birthday on Mackinac Island when Death crashed in.

Death was not invited. The clear blue sky with its scudding clouds, the bright yet tender sun, the gentle breeze, the crunchy tang of deep-fried pickles, the waves, the rocks, the lighthouse, the bikes: all of these were on the guest list, but Death was not. Nevertheless, Death showed up.

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The Hardest Thing

As a parent, the hardest thing I do is witness my children’s suffering.



Four months ago the Buddhist monk Ajahn Amaro—an elvish man with protruding ears, a wicked grin, and a British accent—came to speak in Ann Arbor. He spoke of three principles, espoused by an ancient sage:

 

1.     Don’t push; just use the weight of your own body.

2.     Don’t diagnose; just pay attention.

3.     Don’t try to help, but don’t turn away.

 

Since then, I think of these principles regularly with respect to parenting.

 

As I said, I find my children’s suffering excruciating. So if they’re crying wildly, claiming people don’t like them, or they don’t like themselves, or they don’t like their lives, all I want to do is fix it, as quickly as possible. I want their suffering to stop, and I want the expression of it to stop. Because I can’t stand it.

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After the Giddy Plunge

How to describe the beauty and challenge of that day? How high and steep the dune, how fine and bright the sand? How the ocean—no, Lake Michigan (ha, I wrote ocean!)— spread out below us, an impossibly pure colorscape, gradations of aqua, turquoise, teal leading out to a deep true cobalt?

We were at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, in the Northwest corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. We were traversing the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive when we stopped at #9, the Lake Michigan Overlook.


At first I tried to stop D and E from rolling down the nearly vertical dune, fearing they’d lose control, plummet over the edge and disappear. They started rolling anyway, tentatively at first, stopping and starting, looking back. I glanced uncertainly at my husband—I’ll call him H—and he, ever the cautious one, shook his head. I called, half-heartedly, Boys, come back. They ignored me, of course, and I discussed with nearby adults whether it was safe to go down. A couple with toddlers shook their heads and left. But then a man with two young kids, maybe 7 or 8 years old, appeared on the horizon as if by magic.

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Sometimes Lines Are Blurred

As a mother of two boys, one of whom is on the autism spectrum, I experience the stories of the #metoo movement from a multiplicity of perspectives: 

 

As a woman in the world, I’ve had encounters ranging from the frightening (a man locking me in a room with him and pulling out the key) to the sleazy (a professor intimating that he’d sponsor my project if I’d pose nude for his art class) to the merely disgusting (a guy jerking off in front of me in a public park). I’m relieved and cautiously heartened to see the culture finally begin to shift. 

 

As a mom, I take every opportunity to alert my sons – ages 10 and 14 - to sexism and gender discrimination in its many forms – through language, media imagery, externally imposed constructs of masculinity and femininity, etcetera. We’ve discussed consent and the right of each person to decide if, when, and how they want to be touched. 

 

As the mother of a person with autism, however, there’s an aspect of the whole conversation that frightens me. My older son, D, by virtue of his neurological difference, has trouble reading non-verbal social cues. Because of this, I’m terrified that he’ll make some mistake that will get him into trouble.

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The Me Who Stayed

When I was younger, I was judgmental about the use of anti-depressants. I thought that unless you were so depressed that you couldn’t get out of bed, taking anti-depressants was a cop-out, a refusal to engage with your own darkness. When a college friend started taking them, I was disappointed. I thought she was depriving herself of an essential part of the human journey, that facing whatever arose unadulterated was part of what was required to season the soul.

 

I was judgmental about meditation too: I thought it was a waste of precious time that was better spent taking practical, concrete action to make the world a better place.

 

It seems I am doomed to do everything I judge.

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Tell Me A Story

In December of 2016, less than a month after the elections (yes, those elections), I traveled to Taiwan for a production of The Fourth Messenger, the musical I co-wrote with the incandescent singer-songwriter Vienna Teng. It was as bleak a historical moment as I could remember, and I was in deep need of inspiration. Fortunately, I found it.

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Landscape of the Heart

I was born and raised in Kansas, and though I haven’t lived there in more than thirty years, its stretches of wheat and corn are within me still. That’s the thing about where you’re from. Even if, like me, you’re born to Jews and immigrants, who are no more of that place than an olive tree or an arctic fox, you are of that place simply by growing up there. Somehow the soil of the place, the shape of it, takes root inside you and never lets go. 

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