Wise Women Wednesday: Maia Dery

Maia Dery Photo by Nicole Zelniker

Maia Dery Photo by Nicole Zelniker

It's Wise Women Wednesday, each week I interview a woman that I believe is inspiring, living abundantly and following her passions.  These are all women who live a life of abundance and bring creativity into the world.  

It was my freshman year at Guilford College and I was desperate to take a photography class.  I wanted to play with a camera, film and the process of developing.  That desire lead me to Maia Dery probably one of the most influential teachers I've ever had.  Anyone who's ever had her knows what an incredible teacher she is.  The fun part for me is that she keeps popping up in my life when I least expect it and when I need it most.  5-6 years back I was taking a workshop from a rather famous if not boring yoga teacher at the Asheville Yoga Center and trying desperately to learn about therapeutic yoga when I realized,  "hey I know a women in the back of class and it's not from yoga!"  It was Maia, and that was the beginning of our friendship outside of Guilford (if there is such a thing).  I'm honored to share her wisdom with you here.  If you like what you read I recommend you checkout out her upcoming retreat.  Wave to Wisdom.  

Q. Who are you? What is your background? 
A. I’m Maia Dery.

I’m a photographer, educator, existential explorer and evangelical planet-lover. In the last decade I’ve been focused on what it means and offers to be a surfer. For my entire conscious life I’ve been high on wonder and using that energy to look for ways to see more clearly-- to live with joy and gratitude and, most of all, to pass on whatever I find that appears useful. For me, it’s all pretty empty unless you can share it.

Q. How do we know each other?
A. We first met when you took a photography class from me at Guilford College- I can’t remember the year. Now, thankfully, we’re friends! I have a clear memory of you- so diligent and creatively courageous at the same time! A rare combination among college students.

Q. What is your work?
A. I teach photography at the college level, which, in my mind means I help people develop their capacity and discipline for creative vision in a culture that discourages both. Yes, we work on their pictures, but those are not the final product. Practice is product. Creative vision and a healthy embodied life are perhaps the most crucial skills you can have when crafting a life. So little of what passes for education, self improvement, or even therapeutic intervention acknowledges that. Recently, I’ve begun leading ocean-centered creative expression retreats for adults and offering my services as a mentor and coach.

Photo by Maia Dery: Wave lip Splash

Photo by Maia Dery: Wave lip Splash

Q. What is one project you are excited to be working on right now?
A. There are so many! I suspect the retreats are probably the most exciting! I love teaching in higher education but am fascinated to see how the benefits of this sort of service broaden and deepen without the distracting dynamics of grades and assignments.

Q. What is one thing you've done recently that's scared you and took courage, but you're glad you did?
A. A couple of weeks ago I paddled into an extremely crowded line-up in Santa Cruz. A line-up is a place where a wave breaks and the surfer begins her ride. It was a day with beautiful, head high waves, a a low sun scattering clarity everywhere, and otters nearby! I’m okay with gentle waves of that size but the crowds still worry me, not so much because of the physical risk of collision (which you can easily avoid once you understand the etiquette) but because of some leftover adolescent fear of rejection. It turned out to be a wonderful experience! I exchanged a few kind words with several surfers and even got some nods of approval. Plus, did I mention the otters?!?

Q. What is the work you most want to be doing and are you doing it?  If not why not what's stopping you? 
A. I want to be helping people go joyfully, fully outdoors and deeply, wisely inside of their hearts at the same time. I’m hopeful that this new retreat initiative, coaching and consulting will facilitate that kind of service.

I’m grateful for all of the years I’ve been able to work with students in a more traditional, classroom and studio-centered educational practice but, especially now, helping people get in touch with the source of all creativity seems more crucial than ever. The more than human world has its own intelligences and they are excellent teachers and creative coaches but we’ve all been trained to tune them out or dismiss them as not the “real world.”

The same goes for embodied wisdom. Popular standards of virtue and discipline are all about ignoring, if not denying  our body’s wisdom. I’d like to facilitate joy and deep learning for a wider audience than those seeking college credit.

I don’t think anything is stopping me but my daily screen time is pretty limited by my constitutional need for movement-- that has definitely slowed the effort down. But slow is not a bad thing. I managed to get a website live for an upcoming retreat and am working on a more substantial site with broader and deeper offerings, including audio interviews with people who I believe have ocean-centered wisdom practices, fine art photography, essays, and more.

Maia Dery Surfing Photo by Jeffrey Boltodano

Maia Dery Surfing Photo by Jeffrey Boltodano

Q. What would you tell your high school or college self?
A. First and foremost: Calm your ass down!

And take such good care of your body.

Immediately start taking yoga classes with as many good teachers as you can find but make sure one of them is an old, articulate female yogi who’s been at it for decades and can match you metaphor for metaphor. You have a lot to learn so be open. It will make you stronger in the ways that will count.

Focus on practice, not outcomes and always make room to discern what’s best for you in this moment and the next but remember that life is long. Try not to attach to some particular long-term outcome while always taking care of that mysterious, future self. You will never be able to guess exactly what that person wants but you can bet that love and freedom, health and activity, joy and service will be manifesting somewhere.

I’d also make myself memorize this poem:

Wild Geese

~Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.


Photo By Maia Dery: Blue Mind

Photo By Maia Dery: Blue Mind

Q. What's one piece of advice or motto you love and use in your daily life that you would like to share with my sweet readers?
A. In my world, all the best advice comes from either or poets or the ocean (and I can’t translate the ocean’s wisdom with words but I’m working on it with images). Some of my favorite advice from Mary Oliver (who clearly is important to me!) is a stanza from her poem “Sometimes”

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

Q. What keeps you creating when you don't feel like it?
A. As far as I’m concerned creativity is a property of nature. If I allow myself to be removed regular perception of the more than human world, my ideas about and access to creative practice get corrupted. For whatever reason, I’m particularly drawn to and nourished by water. If I’m disciplined about not letting the all the cultural pulls away from the wisdom of water and waves get the better of me, then I always feel like being creative! And, what’s perhaps more important, water helps me keep my ideas of what “counts” as creative fluid. It’s so easy to let your creative practice get polluted by ego or a production mindset. Water is an abundant, instructive teacher and, in particular, ocean waves keep me humble and filled with awe, wonder, and humility. Like the poet Pablo Neruda, “I need the sea because it teaches me.”

Q. Anything else you'd like to share?
A. From our discussion so far, it would be easy to assume that I think spending solitary time in the natural world is the path to a good life and I do! I’m so grateful to all the poets whose constitution allows for the massive daily doses of solitude writing requires. But I’m an extreme extrovert and being with people is how I create, serve and thrive.

Poet Marie Ranier Rilke’s words are better than any I could come up with:

To love is also good, for love is difficult. For one human being to love another is perhaps the most difficult task of all, the epitome, the ultimate test. It is that striving for which all other striving is merely preparation.

~Ranier Maria Rilke

Photo by Maia Dery

Photo by Maia Dery

Q.  What's your favorite yoga pose? 
A. Warrior 2!

Q. How do you live a life of abundance?
A. I think the one thing I haven’t addressed yet that’s crucial to practicing abundance is dealing with loss and sadness, heartbreak and grief. Again, for me, water and the ocean waves, with their relentless creative energy have proven lifesaving. Whether I’m surfing them or just staring at them, waves, as both fact and metaphor, are deeply instructive. Each one is unique and leaves a change in its wake but that change is on the cusp of alteration by the next wave. There is no “between” when it comes to being alive. It’s all the thing itself, all in flux, all beautiful and powerful.

I’d like to share these two pieces of wisdom I try to keep near my center, one more from Rilke, whose work I’m utterly grateful for and another from Thich Nhat Hanh. I’m a complete Westerner and probably don’t have the cultural context to understand Buddhism but have been working to sit in a more informed misunderstanding.

Almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension that we find paralyzing because we no longer hear our surprised feelings living. Because we are alone with the alien thing that has entered into our self; because everything intimate and accustomed is for an instant taken away; because we stand in the middle of a transition where we cannot remain standing. For this reason the sadness too passes: the new thing in us, the added thing, has entered into our heart, has gone into its inmost chamber and is not even there any more, — is already in our blood. And we do not learn what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing has happened, and yet we have changed, as a house changes into which a guest has entered.

~Ranier Maria Rilke

"Let us look at a wave on the surface of the ocean. A wave is a wave. It has a beginning and an end. It might be high or low, more or less beautiful than other waves. But a wave is, at the same time, water. Water is the ground of being of the wave. It is important that a wave knows that she is water, and not just a wave. We, too, live our life as an individual. We believe that we have a beginning and an end, that we are separate from other living beings. That is why the Buddha advised us to look more deeply in order to touch the ground of our being which is nirvana. Everything bears deeply the nature of nirvana. Everything has been 'nirvanized' That is the teaching of the LOTUS SUTRA. We look deeply, and we touch the suchness of reality. Looking deeply into a pebble, flower, or our own joy, peace, sorrow, or fear, we touch the ultimate dimension of our being, and that dimension will reveal to us that the ground of our being has the nature of no-birth and no-death… We don't have to attain nirvana, because we ourselves are always dwelling in nirvana. The wave does not have to look for water. It already is water."

~ Thich Nhat Hanh


Photo by Maia Dery: Moon set sunrise

Photo by Maia Dery: Moon set sunrise