The Art of Humility

Photo: Kyson Dana

Photo: Kyson Dana

There’s a humility that lives deep on the inside of confidence. Call it an acorn or a beating heart, a knowing that the hot sun will also come to its ending, that these full green leaves will soon turn to reds and yellows, and fall.

There’s a humility that lives deep on the inside of love. Call it the kind of welling up that happens when you see a child growing up right before your eyes, knowing she has her own life and that it’s the biggest privilege ever to be included.

There’s a humility that lives deep on the inside of making art and writing words. Call it a mystery, some blend of mind and matter and mysticism, intellect plus that which defies explanation or language.

There’s a humility that lives deep inside of each moment. Call it a breath. A swell. A contraction. Call it eye contact. Call it listening. Call it aliveness or awareness. Call it thank you.

The Art of Staying Positive

Tiny Light Catchers

Tiny light catchers

Friday. A few weeks in to our new week-on, week-off co-parenting schedule. Aviva is at overnight camp, so it was just Pearl here with us for the past week. I juggled and balanced coaching clients, reading and reflecting on my writing group participants’ work, creating prompts for several upcoming groups, hanging with Pearl, keeping us all fed, and the usual household responsibilities, of course — a daily series of dishes and laundry that I sometimes enjoy and other times feel never ending.

The other day, I told Mani about the never ending part, and then quickly followed it up with the obvious — it ends when we can no longer do it, or when we’re dead. Kind of blunt, right? But essentially true.

Moments of absolute delight, loving my work, loving my kid, loving my wife, loving our neighborhood, loving my people, loving summer. Moments of absolute exhaustion, emergency naps, wonky blood sugar, not eating well enough, not exercising enough, and the slippery slope of these to all-around not-enoughness.

Moments of despair and outrage. The little boy in that Aleppo ambulance. Insane white privilege. Louisiana flooding. The man in my own town who, after 12 years in the States, was just deported back to El Salvador because of a 2012 DUI. He was a chef at a popular Amherst restaurant and has four kids in the public schools here, ages 5-15, and a wife. And now he is not here with them, and this just made me so sad and angry.

Moments of floating, quite literally, in the pond.

This afternoon, we crashed pretty hard. Mani has been unusually tired this week, a mystery of her Mast Cell Disease — some weeks she has more energy than others. I see it all as part of a long-term healing process, and she is doing so well; not a day goes by that we’re both not incredibly grateful for the trajectory. So after bringing Pearl over to a friend’s house and some of my time-specific work things today, I crawled into bed with her and slept for a little over two hours. When I got up, I whispered to her that I was going for a swim, then kissed her goodbye and slipped out.

The swim was delicious, the pond not as crowded both due to less scorching weather and the dinner hour — by this time it was around 6:00pm. I alternated breast and back strokes with periods of simply floating, listening to the undefinable sounds beneath the water and my own breathing. I appreciated my own strength and ability to swim and the solitude of sky above. And then at the dam, I rested a bit, noticing the light on my wet hands on rock.

After towel drying off and doing some seriously stealth moves to get dressed, I drove into town and decided to get a couple of tacos and a soda for my own dinner. I knew when I got home, Mani would most likely be awake and hungry, but also was guessing she was still asleep since she didn’t respond to a text I sent. It felt good to lengthen out time, not to rush.

And that’s really when I noticed it. I was bluesy. I had walked right into that Friday-night, wish-my-baby-and-I-could-go-out-on-a-date, coming-down-from-a busy-week funk, and it felt like an old friend, this loneliness. We don’t see each other nearly as often as we have in periods past, but from time to time she makes an appearance.

We don’t spend much time focusing on the “can’t” of Mani’s illness. We are so intent on genuinely living, on health, on togetherness, creativity, presence, joyful plans, and gratitude, that it seems like almost blasphemous to wallow. From time to time, a little wave will come, though, when one of us is just fucking sick of it and would do anything to be able to go get margaritas, chips and guacamole at some nice outdoor patio.

Needless to say, I came home with my tacos and my minor blues and ate and read the newspaper. I thought about people asking me, “How do you stay so positive?” And it’s a funny question, in a way. Kind of like people calling you brave, when really you’re just figuring out your life. But there is some truth to it, too. Let me be clear — I’m not talking about copping a positive attitude being something you can just choose when you’re suffering from depression and shit’s just really hard. This is not about simplifying things that are indeed complicated.

But sometimes, things aren’t actually that complicated. This got me to thinking — is there an art to staying positive, one that feels real and not superficial?

Here’s what I came up with:

1. Keep It Real

Has anyone ever told you to “snap out of it” when you were down? Sometimes, the worst thing to hear when you’re lonely, sad, overwhelmed, angry, or frustrated — all passing states but very much real ones at the time — is a solution or suggestion, or worse, an override of your experience. Give yourself a chance to just say it sucks. Set a timer if that helps (I learned this from Mani), and have an all-out tantrum. Scream underwater if you have to, or in the shower. Confide in a trusted confidante. Have a big, snotty cry, the kind where you are in awe that yes, you are STILL LOVED afterwards.

Denial is a breeding ground for negativity. Keeping it real is a true of act of kindness towards yourself.

2. Move Your Body

As much as sometimes I hate to admit it, this one is tried and true. It is very, very difficult to stay stuck in a shitty head space when you’re moving. Whether you run, walk, swim, dance, take a class, hit the gym, or just lie down on the floor and feel the full weight of your body against that solid ground, finding a way into the body gives us access to ourselves and can do a lot of the heavy-lifting for us emotionally. Give it 15 minutes and see how you feel after that. For me, the swim was what gave me access to the feelings themselves, which had otherwise been looming but not landing.

3. Perspective, Yo

Getting some perspective doesn’t mean feeling guilty. It just means keeping things in perspective. That is all. When I’m bummed that my wife has this stupid-ass disease and wish we could just go out on a date and have an awesome meal somewhere, the minute I put myself in her shoes, my experience shifts. Self-pity gives way to empathy. After all, I just got to swim and eat tacos, while she is still limited to 14 foods, including water, and every outing is a notable occasion for celebration.

I quickly remember the insufferable “grass-is-greener” syndrome, one I’ve had many, many times in my life, and boom — I know that if it wasn’t this, it’d be something else. Never being satisfied might make for some amazing “Hamilton” songs, but oh my God, it’s not a very happy or fulfilling way to live. Getting perspective is not about denial (see #1), but it is about realizing that you, like the Jewish teaching about two slips of paper, the world was created for you alone AND you are but ashes and dust. Plenty of people wish they had something you have, you wish you had something they have, and meanwhile, everyone misses what’s right there in front of them.

4. “Fake It till You Become It”

A few days ago, we watched a TED talk by a social psychologist named Amy Cuddy about body language. As the youtube trailer states:

“Body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see ourselves. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy shows how “power posing” — standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident — can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain, and might even have an impact on our chances for success.”

She talks about how smiling actually signals the brain to be happy. I thought of this earlier, while I was walking back to my car, alone, with my tacos in a brown paper bag. I tried smiling and it felt forced and fake. Then I sang a little song quietly. Here’s how it went:

I wanna go on a date with my baby
to get a big ice-cream cone
Instead I got these tacos
And I’m just going home…

I got the blues, baby, I got the blues
I got the Friday night blues…

And sure enough, you know what? I chuckled? I cracked myself up a little, because it was so goofy. And you know what else? It helped.

I came home then, and said hello to Mani and devoured my dinner. Then I sat down to write. Which brings me to my final suggestion for staying positive. Ready for it?

5. Write It Down

You knew this was coming, right?

For me, empirical evidence is more important than studies and data. In other words, I can just ask myself: Do I feel better after I write? The answer is almost always yes. I say “almost,” because there are times when the only thing that helps is time. And sleep. Sometimes the thing you don’t even know you need comes in some completely unexpected form, one you never could have planned on or conjured. But left to my own devices, does writing help me feel “positive,” if by positive I mean more centered, more peaceful, and more present? Yes.

That said, if you’re the kind of person who prefers science, just read something like this study, “Writing about emotions may ease stress and trauma” from the Harvard Medical School, which likens expressive writing to taking a brisk walk.

Writing it down — whatever “it” may be — is another way of externalizing whatever you’re feeling. As with #1, a timer can help create a kind of container for this. Start with five or ten minutes of fast and furious writing. If you need a “hook,” try starting with super simple and neutral. “Right this minute…” or “the thing is…” can be anchors for writing in this way, phrases to which you can keep returning if you get stuck.

6. See What Happens

Sometimes life does feel black and white. Sometimes you have to crouch down and look closely for the light catchers. Sometimes things just suck and all you want to do is eat your first-ever chili dog with your wife, but you can’t because she happens to have a rare disease that makes eating such a thing potentially dangerous — at least for now.

Everything changes.
Everything changes.
Everything changes.

The light changes. Conditions change. Moods change. Relationships change. Jobs change. The number of dishes in the sink changes. Finding things that are steady for you in your life can make all the difference, when it comes to climbing out of negativity.

7. Trust Your Own Experience

There’s one more thing I feel I must say, before I wrap this up: I usually hate posts like this. Posts that have these pithy, simplistic-sounding ways for life to be better, happier, easier. Posts that I can easily turn into weapons against myself (which is exactly why I tend not to read this kind of thing!).

These suggestions for “staying positive” are essentially my “notes to self,” reminders for me to reach for when I’m slipping into the kind of negativity that eats its own tail for breakfast. They aren’t a one-size-fits-all or an abacadabra. Life is a lot of things, usually at the same time.

Be so loving with your whole, beautiful self. Feel the feelings. Try some things. Find what works for you. Most of all, trust your own experience — you are ultimately your best cheerleader, advocate, and witness. And please, if you’re so inclined, share in the comments what helps you stay positive when the light starts to flicker.

The Art of Drawing a Treasure Map

Treasure-Map

Go easy on yourself tonight.

Whatever you’re feeling — feel it fully.

Whatever you’re loving, savor it.

Whatever you’re praying for, if you pray, pray hard.

In whatever ways these fit together, it’s your mosaic, no one else’s.

Think of one person in the world who has your back.
Say their name out loud. Find a way to say thank you.

Picture one person for whom you’d throw yourself on the tracks.
Let them know, in what ever way you can and want to.

Ask yourself what would have things be easy.

Decide what’s worth fighting for and fight with focus.

Gift yourself something you’ve always wanted but didn’t think you deserved. Whisper it. Buy it. Ask for it. Write it down.

Pick a confidante (this could be your cat).

Make something happen.

Let go of the thing you can’t make happen that was never yours to make in the first place.

Let go, let go, let go. Let go again.

Then hold tight to the treasures you keep on purpose.

Draw a picture of the treasures.

Draw a treasure map leading to the you you are when you no longer worry what other people think.

The Art of Taking Rest

Photo: Ismael Nieto

Photo: Ismael Nieto

1. Shabbat (It Can Wait)

It starts Friday. By about 3:00pm, I feel it coming. The kids have headed to their dad’s. The internet grows relatively quiet. Writing in my groups slows down as people wrap up the work week. I come into the bedroom and tell Mani I’m debating between a nap and errands. She takes one look at me and tells me the answer without saying a word.

Two hours later, I get up and post on Facebook:

Unless it’s burning or bleeding, it can wait. It can wait a minute. An hour. A full 24 hours. The work will be better for having rested, the connections deeper, the mind sharper, the ideas brighter, and the heart clearer.

It sounds nice. But this does not come easily to me, this letting things wait. There’s some fear underlying it, a shadow side to my intention. As a provider for my family, I could easily work seven days a week, taking breaks of course, but really, sitting down at my computer first thing in the morning and working until late each night is not uncommon ’round these parts.

Thus: Shabbat. A day of rest. Truly a whole day. Not just a 20-minute run or afternoon nap with my love. Not just squeezing in a swim or watching Kids Cupcake Wars at bedtime, but taking an entire night and day off from being actively engaged with the world beyond the walls of my home and whatever outside I might choose to step into.

Truth is, this happens maybe once, twice a month. And it doesn’t happen to me. I have to make it a priority like my house was on fire and rest is the only thing that will put out the flames and salvage the treasures inside.

If I inherited my father’s love of language, I also have a maternal gene for movement. My mother is the hummingbird: Quick, light, always in motion. It’s funny; as I write I’m thinking how much more I identify with a sloth than a fast-moving little bird! But that very sluggishness is the counterpart to my capacity to fit a lot in to the waking hours — sometimes too much.

Returning, again and again, to balance — this is my practice. And without going “dark,” sometimes I fear my light will go out for good.

Balancing out the fear is faith, which includes letting go of ego. Ego says: It is all up to you! Faith reminds me: Not only won’t things fall apart without my constant presence, but really, the world depends much, much less on me than I sometimes fall for believing. If my work were so fragile that it depended on me being swiftly responsive to every single ping and poke and tag and comment and inquiry, we’d be in big trouble.

And so. I step back. Shabbat Shalom. 

2. From Sundown to Sundown (A Whole Lot of Nothing)

Saturday morning, the sun still rises. Hallelujah.

We spend the day hanging out together doing a whole lot of nothing. Wake up around 10:00am. Drink coffee in bed. Read some New York Times articles out loud to Mani. Resist the urge to share several things on Facebook.

At some point after lunch, we get our sexy on, then nap without my setting an alarm as I do during the work week.

After I get up, it’s time for a late-afternoon swim at Puffer’s, gliding through the spring-fed water, feeling strong and grateful. Then I eat a burrito in town before coming home to make dinner for Mani. (We still don’t eat together, due to her mast cell disease, though we are determined that this will change.)

The beauty of a day of real rest is that you don’t necessarily remember how you spent it. You just remember that it was… wait for it… restful.

Such a relief. Such a necessity. Such a reset. “I’m going to have to write about this,” I tell Mani. She laughs. “I knew you were going to say that.” It’s nice to be known.

3. Havdalah (A Sweet Week)

For those of you who aren’t Jewish, or who (like I was for the first half of my life, Jewish without knowing anything about Judaism), at the end of Shabbat there is a beautiful ceremony called havdalah, which means “separation.”

Separation is a big thing for Jews. It’s how we know what’s what. What’s holy and what’s mundane; what’s darkness and what’s light; what’s right and what’s unjust. Shabbat, the day of rest, sits apart from the other six days. The busy ones. The ones that blur by, with everyday demands, schedules, things to make and do.

Shabbat is when we sit back and see and feel and, in the language of yoga and savasana, “receive the benefits of our practice.” I’ve never heard a rabbi compare Shabbat to savasana, actually, but it’s often what comes to mind for me as an obvious parallel. We practice, stretch, sweat it out (literally or figuratively), show up, struggle, learn, listen, work, respond, and take care of all the kinds of business, all week long.

In the documentary we watched Friday night, I Am Not Your Guru, Tony Robbins talks about how many people think of life as happening TO us and not FOR us. That shift is a game-changer, and no matter your station or situation in life, I believe we all have the ability and right to make that decision.

But without some rest, without time to integrate so much activity and reaction and keeping up, I’m a goner. I forget what it’s even like to FEEL. I lose touch with priorities; all of life, work, and love become one flat landscape with no distinguishing features.

Last night — as the last of the yellow, post-thunderstorm light faded, I sang to Mani. “A good week, a week of peace. May gladness reign, and joy increase. A good week, a week of peace. May gladness reign, and joy increase.” Then I wished her shavua tov, a sweet week, as is customary.

4. Sunday (I Am the Storm)

Sunday afternoon. I’ve spent the day so far writing, reading, interacting online, and doing our August budget. And that’s when it starts. I see the storm rolling in — and the storm is me.

Now, wait just a minute now; wasn’t that day of rest supposed to keep this kind of thing from happening? Uhhhh, let me think. Nope. As it turns out, resting does not make you superhuman. Moods still happen. This falls–as Mani reminds me–under the heading of “being human.”

It’s not easy to keep loving myself when I am the storm. I like myself a lot more when I’m the rest — double entendre intended.

I see it coming — the storm that is me. The storm that is a mood, nothing more, nothing less, and yet so easy to mistake as a failure, obliterating all the “good” stuff and making me a fraud for sharing beautiful moments on social media.

It comes on with a wispy but noticeable gust; I’m frustrated that the GPS on my phone took me on a wild-goose chase to meet up with my niece and sister for a nice dip at the little town beach they like.

I see it coming and cannot not stop it, just the way dark clouds roll in late in these hot summer afternoons, suddenly it’s dark at 5:00pm in July and the thunder rumbles in warning and then boom! Here comes the deluge.

It’s all-encompassing. I find myself hating the people in front of me in line at the grocery store, and the guy in the big truck who guns his engines. I imagine getting into a shouting match with him about politics. I hate myself a little for being hateful.

I make a point of thanking my angels the whole time I’m walk up to our second-floor apartment with the bags of groceries. It takes two trips, though I leave the 24-pack of water bottles in the backseat. I put everything away. I go pee in Aviva’s bathroom, so as not to wake Mani from a nap, only to see that her shampoo, which was upside down, has leaked all over the edges of the tub.

Part of me wants to call her at her dad’s and holler: YOU HAVE TO BE MORE CAREFUL. Thunder and lightning by now, rain lashing the windows of my mind, wind howling. I scrub and wipe and rinse. Next, I move to the dishes that I ignored all day in the kitchen sink. I’m noticing anger rising at a friend I’m feeling blown off by. I’m recognizing the drama of this even as I feel helpless to stop it. I’m breathing. I’m washing dishes. I’m breathing.

I burst into the bedroom and rant to Mani about the friend. Suddenly, I wonder if I have any friends who are feeling hurt by me. Shit. It feels good, though, to just say words out loud. To just say it, without actually blowing up a friendship I care about.

I make some food for Mani. Then I realize I ought to eat, too. I get out the smoked turkey, Monterey Jack, and lettuce, smear some mayo on a flour tortilla, and call it dinner. I realize the storm has let up a bit. But something in me knows that if I am going to write about taking rest, I have to write about this, too. About losing my shit and being ok. About how yucky and awful it feels to be inside that kind of storm — to be the storm itself.

I take a look around myself. My love for my people has not been annihilated. My beating heart is still intact, no worse for the wear. I haven’t done anything irreversible or harmful to others.

And the words I shared earlier in the day are not fraudulent. They are, like everything we share on social media, a glimpse. A moment. Nothing any of us shares is ever everything, but that doesn’t make any of it less genuine.

This is the summer of ripe avocados and blue corn tortilla chips.
Of coaching and talking about writing and life, seeing your faces and hearing your voices in Japan, England, Australia, Canada, Germany, Holland, and all around the U.S.
Of not waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Of exhaling and believing the next breath will come, until it doesn’t, and no point worrying about that.
Of summer bodies, swimming to the dam, and walking around the house topless when the kids aren’t home.
Of an all-the-way open heart that’s learning how to have a swinging gate.
Of welcome, come in. Of closed for a nap, be back in an hour.

Of not knowing what’s next. Of knowing that we never know what’s next.
Of not letting that stop us from making all kinds of fabulous plans. Because if we don’t know, why not go big?
Of saying I’m here and then letting go. Of not pushing.
Of listening to the nervous system. Of rewiring old patterns of fight, of flight, of saying goodbye to the old, familiar you’re-in-trouble-shouldnta-said-written-shared-that voice.
Of loving the shit out of my wife. Of flowers I don’t pick and engines I don’t start and games I don’t play. Of wild blackberries.
This is the summer of entering year two — year two of not smoking, year two of self-employment.
Of standing on some kind of imaginary plateau and what a view and now what, but first a snack.
Of strong thighs and soft belly and loving the way my 40s are reshaping not only my body but my relationship to its sexy curves and grown-up realness.
Of trust. Has it ever not been the summer of trust? Nevermind, don’t answer that.
Of banging up against perfectionism and seeing it for what it is. Flimsy. Fake.
This is the summer of seeing what happens, when I remember it’s just practice.

5. After the Storm (Resilience)

Is it obvious, what I’m going to say now? Taking rest is a practice. Like any practice — from teeth-brushing to meditation to writing — this is not a one-time thing.

If you believe in God, this is the part where you sing God’s praises and say, Damn, that was smart, the whole Shabbat thing. It’s like God not only saw the writing on the wall — oh, these beautiful humans are going to be a mess sometimes — but like God, too, needed time to integrate all of that making and doing, all of that responding and surveying and deciding what to create next.

Shabbat doesn’t save me from moods, but it gives me a little more resilience when they come. Being good to myself — spending time just being — this is what reinforces the inner architecture that can withstand the gale force winds of emotions, passing moods, hormones, and other potentially damaging forces.

I write about practice. My work, be it prompting people in their writing or their lives (or both, as if often the case), is completely oriented around practice. And like all practitioners — of anything, really — I’m no exception. When I don’t take rest, my resilience goes out the window. It becomes a victim of the storm. And since the storm is me, I literally become my own victim. That’s really not how I want this to go.

And so I take rest. I hold on to the rafters when I have to. And I watch when the skies clear. I lean over and kiss my wife on the cheek. It’s dark, time for bed almost. And I’m ready, for a brand new week.

The Art of Getting There

SWIM PIC

What Is It?

Who can say,
is it a snowy egret
or a white flower
standing

at the glossy edge
of the lily-
and frog-filled pond?
Hours ago the orange sun

opened the cups of the lilies
and the leopard frogs
began kicking
their long muscles,

breast-stroking
like little green dwarves
under the roof of the rich,
iron-colored water.

Now the soft
eggs of the salamander
in their wrappings of jelly
begin to shiver.

They’re tired of sleep.
They have a new idea.
They want to swim away
into the world.

– Mary Oliver

**

A new idea: We make maps. I become a mapmaker and you a healer, and together we swim out into the world where every encounter makes and unmakes us.

What does that mean? You can tell I’ve also been reading David Whyte with all of his weighty words. Confluence. Journeywoman.

But I’d rather lilt like Mary Oliver: the way “lily- / and frog-filled pond” forces me to feel the words inside of my mouth, to say each syllable slowly, like chewing on some morsels of goodness one small bite at a time.

Where in the world am I going? It used to be a train I rode on, a train that sped through the countryside. No thought as to destination, except that it was a place called “there” and we’d get to it eventually. I sat alone by the window, looking for girls who looked like me on the other side of the glass, the train too fast for me to call out, to ask, is that you, you whom I’ve been looking for?

Where I’m going is home, now that I tumbled onto the tracks, now that I’ve walked so many miles in your shoes, in no shoes, your bare feet throbbing over live wire coated in glass. Come rest and heal. We’re going home.

Once upon a time, I believed that “out into the world” meant “anywhere but here.” Once, I thought I’d have to wait and wait, scale these city walls with or without you, wistful. Once, I thought struggle and searching defined me. Once, my name was “tired.”

I have a new idea. Let’s stay in bed just a few minutes longer. Let wrap soft limbs round each other so beloved, such belonging — the lovechild of David Whyte and Mary Oliver with a side of Jack White and Prince for good measure. You Are My Sunshine is where I’m going, into the world of now and now and now, no longer sold on the notion that we’ll never get there.

But before our dissolution into the sea, we must live near the sea.

This morning, in that long lingering, she said to me: “You are all the wife and woman I dreamed up and conjured, but so much more, too.”

Let’s conjure your full healing like that, I said. And our house near the beach, the move I’ve decided not to worry about; the how and when and “what abouts” — these I keep surrendering to something I call Bigger Than Us. Every day I choose no worry is a kind of victory parade, all rainbow flags on the street corners of my heart-eye-mind-body.

Can we just put politics aside and trust the movement towards the sea?

Why not, calls back the wind. Why not, sings the mockingbird in sixteen distinct languages. Why not go into the world starting now, just like this?

Why not, indeed.