Surfing Ocean and Sky: Mary Oliver, Whitman, and Synchronicity

And here we are, gliding along the last days of the year. Taking (time) off is all the lovelier for its strangeness.

And here we are, gliding along the last days of the year. Taking (time) off is all the lovelier for its strangeness.

The first dream happened in the afternoon. It was Friday, December 23. As we do most days, Mani and I took a nap after lunch. But before I tell you this dream, I need to tell you about part of a conversation I had that morning, with a long-standing writing coaching client who has also become a friend and beloved human.

We wrap up our hour-long call, then linger as we often do. We talk a bit about what kind of support she needs for her writing as we begin 2017, and I mention some of the things that are on my mind around my own life and work.

At one point, she says, “If I may…”

To which I respond, “Please do….”

And so she tells me that in the year we’ve been talking every single week by phone, she in her home office and me in my kitchen or living room “office,” she has somehow never before noticed the framed photograph that now catches her eye. It is a picture of the sky. Big, expansive, vast, wide-open sky.

I take a breath and tell her how perfect it feels, like a reading I didn’t even ask for. I joke that I should be the one paying her, rather than the other way around.

And then she says something so beautiful.

You are the sky. And you are the ocean, too. We need you.

I sit with this for a moment, tears in my eyes. I feel the impulse to deflect it, to say something funny or self-deprecating. But I don’t. I take it in. And then I thank her and say, “I need you, too.”

**

A few hours later, Mani and I crash hard. I intend to rest for maybe 45 minutes or so, but when the timer goes off on my phone (the alarm doesn’t work, so I’m always doing the  math and setting a timer), I swiftly swipe it off without resetting it. It’s in this next interval of sleep that I really go under.

I find myself in a dream where I am body surfing the most glorious waves — they are huge, powerful, and generous without being scary or threatening, and I am moving at the speed of ocean. Then I am soaring, too, over sand — it lifts me like air and I feel like I’m flying, unbridled, one with sky, salt, sea, and land. Not a single object or obstruction stands in my way. At one point, a guy on a bike approaches behind me, and I just let him pass.

(Later, there is some confusion — it seems this incredible experience has deposited me in the student center at Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley and I have to figure out how to get back to Amherst.)

But that part of the dream — I want to call it a passage — was extraordinary in its embodiment of movement and being.

I wake up and realize what has happened, what I’ve experienced.

I was the sky. I was the ocean, too.

**

The next day, Saturday the 24th, we pack up for a mini vacation I’ve surprised Mani with for the first few nights of Hanukkah, to an Airbnb in Cambridge. We get there in time to pick up some groceries just before everything closes for Christmas. The place we’ve chosen is perfect — small but clean and cozy, smack in between Fresh Pond and Harvard Square.

I have to sit on my hands not to reach out to everyone I know in the Boston area, knowing that this time is ours alone and trusting that 2017 will bring opportunities to connect with friends, perhaps offer readings from my new book, and lead workshops. Ideas percolate and I let them, without racing to write anything down.

I share a picture on Facebook of the most fabulous display of Christmas lights, with these words, alluding to yesterday’s dream:

lightsI’m sitting in our Airbnb (not the house in the photo!) eating chipotle chicken mac & cheese from a Whole Foods take-out carton, on a quiet street in a neighborhood filled with lights. We had a festive family dinner last night, and now my kiddos are with their dad and his family up in Vermont. I took a nap this afternoon and had an extraordinary dream–so vivid–in which I was body surfing ocean, sand, and sky. I may have to write about it.

But for the next few days, the plan is to read, rest, and just be. The darker the night, the brighter and more beautiful and essential these over-the-top lights seem to me. I’m so grateful for this community of friends and writers–you know who you are, but I hope you also know that you anchor me and bring so much meaning, purpose, connection, and joy into my life.

**

The next morning, I make us coffee and sit down to start reading “Upstream” by Mary Oliver, a gift from my parents. I reach page 23, an essay called “Of Power and Time,” a timeless piece of writing that I will return to again and again for the rest of my days. I underline at least 50% of it as I read, beginning with the opening lines of the second paragraph:

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in. 

She writes of the ways in which not only the world interrupts us, but how we interrupt ourselves, something she calls “a darker and more curious matter.”

I take a picture of these lines and text it to my writing friend, who gets it right away and responds in kind:

Jena – THE SKY!!!

I haven’t yet told her about the sky-ocean-sand surfing dream. My sense of contentment is sudden and complete. In this moment, I have everything I need.

contentment

Later in the same essay, I nearly burst out crying and laughing at the same time. I have just put the final touches on my third, self-published collection of poems. After some deliberation, a title poem rose to the surface and gave the book its name: Why I Was Late for Our Meeting. I wrote this particular poem last summer. The meeting I was late for? A coaching call with my sky-writing friend.

Page 30:

If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.

I am momentarily dismayed not to have read these words in time to include them as an epigraph to the new poems. And then quickly, this is replaced by an immeasurable sense of joy and synchronicity. Because really — how marvelous is this, to be dipping into the same reservoir of knowing, as a poet I so deeply respect and admire. I tell Mani I must find a way to give her a copy of the book!

**

That first night in Cambridge, I dream a statement. It goes something like this:

To ask questions and not assume — this feels like love.

I wake remembering it — almost. The wording is off a bit, but the meaning is clear. I don’t know how the speaker was in the dream, though those of a Jungian persuasion would argue that it’s a moot point; the whole dream is the dreamer.

I pour a second cup of coffee and return to the window seat to  keep reading. I reach the essay called “Sister Turtle” and read, on page 57, this line:

To enjoy, to question–never to assume, or trample.

Oliver is writing about “the responsibility to live thoughtfully and intelligently.” I shudder slightly, as if I’ve been caressed by the softest touch. Once again, I know I am right where I need to be. Later, in “Some Thoughts on Whitman,” she shares the first lines of his glorious “Song of Myself,” a poem I first read in its entirety nearly 20 years ago, when I entered an MFA program and lived not two miles from where we’re staying.

I celebrate myself, 
And what I assume you shall assume, 
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. 

Whitman’s poetry is incantatory — a word my grad school advisor assigned to my work, much to my delight — and intent, as Mary Oliver notes, on “[forcing] open the soul.” She goes on:

He was after a joyfulness, a belief in existence in which man’s inner light is neither rare nor elite, but godly and common, and acknowledged. For that it was necessary to be rooted, again, in the world.

**

I mark this passage and write “lineage,” underlined twice in the margin. I am of and from this belief; it drives my writing and my work. To be flung wide open, unguarded and real. To keep turning over the stones and jewels, never knowing where some shard of light may be revealed, even when the task seems redundant and questionable. To crouch by the edges of my everyday life, as Mary Oliver does near her beloved Blackwater Pond, “utterly quiet and half-hidden.” To coax soul from its perch and into my open palm. To insist on light — mine and yours, common, acknowledged, and essential.

fresh-pond-1

There is a rumor of total welcome among the frosts of the winter morning. – Mary Oliver

The second morning of our getaway, I go for a run around Fresh Pond. I pay for it later; my lower back is not happy with me. But it’s worth it at the time. Kids on scooters riding ahead of the grown-ups, lots of people with their dogs, and pairs of friends or couples all circumambulate the pond in holiday-week leisure. I am glad to be alone but among them.

**

The third morning, I don’t run, but instead venture a few blocks up the street to a bakery that caught my eye. I bring my journal and sit writing, people watching, and caffeinating while Mani sleeps in a little.

I notice my slight anxiety about taking time “off” from working, and watch as my handwritten words unfurl across the creamy, blank pages:

Trusting people to wait for me. Trusting that the world won’t abandon me if I rest… Keep your hand moving, mama, and see what it is really like to be all the way here, deeply and without reservation. That is the practice. That is the work.

**

Speaking of trust, we decide to splurge and stay one additional night.

Now it is the evening of Tuesday, December 27. We’ve brought with us two canvas bags filled with magazines to cut up. At home, Mani does this somewhat regularly, but it has been ages since I did anything visual, and I’m out of practice. This is humbling and a good reminder of where many people are when they first approach my writing groups. Just start, I tell myself. And keep going, I add.

The first little while is awkward. I cut out words and a few pictures, not sure where it’s going or whether it will amount to anything I like. I glance over at Mani and she seems so relaxed, then remind myself to just stay in it without worrying about the outcome. After all, how can I hashtag things like “creative process” if I myself am unwilling to try new things?

After two hours, I am surprised and pleased and not a little bit amazed. I’ve created something!

collage

Come at evening or at morning. Come when expected or without warning. A thousand welcomes you’ll find here before you. And the oftener you come, the more we’ll adore you.

**

Dreams and images, words on pages written out of order, found right on time, speaking to each other across time zones and zip codes, climates and landscapes, decades of life, centuries, too. All of this happens as if in simulcast, where the linearity of time is illusory and really, we’re all here dipping our spoons into the same pot, sipping and slurping and stirring.

Since Sunday, I’ve read two books — the other was “The Light of the World” by Elizabeth Alexander — and indeed rested my body and mind so as to make room to listen to my soul. This has everything to do, for me, with my service to you, to the world. They are inseparable, neither endeavor complete without the other.

This balance is my lifelong… I almost wrote struggle. But no, that was before. Now, it feels like a gift, one I get to keep opening and giving away and receiving again, never the same twice, yet somehow also unchanging.

**

We’re back home now. The snow is really coming down, as predicted. Mani is doing a meditation beside me before we head over to Northampton, where she has her private yoga session and I will sit in a coffee shop, working on prompts for my next two-week writing group.

What will the new year bring?

Rest and work. Giving and receiving. Love and loss. Practice and outcome. Synchronicity and destiny. Not knowing and knowing. Ebbing and flowing. Ocean and sky, sky and ocean.

One unthinkable without the other.

The Better to Write With You, My Dear

nepoThe day began with a package on the side porch from Amazon. I carried it upstairs and called to Mani to ask her if she’d ordered something for me — we have both had Hanukkah gifts for each other and the kids trickling in, so opening packages without asking is a no-no. She didn’t think so, so I went for it, slicing a knife through the tape and ripping open the cardboard.

Inside, I found two hardcovers, both by Mark Nepo. One of them, The Way Under the Way, contains three books of poems. The second is called The One Life We’re Given: Finding the Wisdom That Waits in Your Heart. A gift slip sat atop them, from a beloved writer, client, and friend on the west coast, thanking me “for everything.” What she doesn’t  know — or maybe she does — is that it is she who has given me everything, from livelihood to the gift of watching another person come into greater gentleness with herself and confidence with her voice, in writing and in the world.

I’m surprising Mani with a few nights away–the first, second, and third nights of Hanukkah, to be exact. The kids will be with their dad and his family in Vermont for Christmas after a big family dinner tomorrow night, and I’ve been imagining for months now taking this last week of December “off.” Not having paid vacation is one of the things that can easily cancel out the much-heralded and truly fabulous flexibility of self-employment; it’s easy to *never* take time off, since no work means no money.

I’m at a place with all of it — life, work, money, love — where to live in fear or scarcity would be like spitting in the face of all that is holy and good in this world. And since how we do one thing is how we do everything, I’m deliberately choosing to take some rest — the better to write with you, my dear, in the coming new year. 

I’ll be bringing these new books, along with the memoir I started a month ago and have been “reading” at a painstakingly slow pace. I’ll be packing a journal, and making time to find out what my heart knows. And of course, we’ll be packing the air purifier, pots and pans, coffee and French press, and all of the other home accouterments we’re accustomed to bringing with us when we hit the road these days — not yet to where we can travel all-the-way freely (i.e. eating out, etc), but so grateful that we can get out of dodge at all.

January will bring the 10th anniversary of this blog, the new book, my birthday, a brand-new Dive Into Poetry, and who knows what other surprises. As I said to Mani last night — I need more sleeves, for all the things I keep up them.

Who knows? Maybe next week will even bring some new writing. I’m not making any plans beyond having no plans. And I’m trusting that not only is some down time good for me, but that what’s good for me is good, ultimately, for business.

In the meantime, in lieu of sending every single one of you a holiday card, I’m wishing you moments of presence and beauty in these coming winter days, no matter your tradition. I refuse to succumb to despair for this world, though there’s plenty of reason for it, and will keep doing everything I can to keep it real, connect deeply, and encourage you to use your words in 2017.

5 Gifts Under $50 (for You & the Writers You Love)

blessingIf you’re anything like some people I know and love, you’ve left some of your holiday shopping for the last minute — or (gasp) neglected to get something special for your own beautiful self!

I’ve assembled this quick and dirty list of writing-related gifts for you and/or the writer(s) you love, in case you’re looking for something but didn’t quite know what it was until you did.

Please note: If you are purchasing any of the items below as gifts, be sure to contact me with the recipient’s information. From my home to yours: Happy Merry. 

30-minute coaching session $50

13558921_10209162731121933_2635687224181490059_oWrestling with a piece of writing? Having trouble getting out of your head? So beaten up by the state of the world that you just can’t even? Time to get back in the ring, my friend. A 30-minute call completely devoted to your creative juices. Purchase + contact me to schedule.  

Dive Into Poetry + Jena’s new book, “Why I Was Late for Our Meeting” $49

Roar-Sessions-First-BirthdayHave your cake and eat it, too! Spend a month *playing* with poetry AND pre-order a personally inscribed and signed copy of Jena’s newest collection of poems to read at your leisure. Purchase.

10 Self-Paced Writing Prompts $36

10-daysEvery day for 10 days — on the start date and time of day of your choosing — receive a beautiful and original prompt in your inbox. Set a timer for 10 minutes, and start writing. That’s all there is to igniting or deepening your practice — at your own pace. Purchase.

Dive Into Poetry – January 2017 $31

diveA month-long online poetry party, for the people, by the people, and of the people. (Hint: You are the people!) No experience or prerequisites — this group is low stakes, super supportive, and loads of fun. Register.

“Don’t Miss This” and “The Inside of Out” $19.90 each

dont-miss-thisJena’s first book, “Don’t Miss This,” traces a fierce 15-year journey through marriage, motherhood, and coming out — when she risked everything she knew in order to claim what she had denied for so long: herself. Purchase.

inside-of-outBlending poetry and prose, the personal and political, and the ordinary with a 30,000-foot view, “The Inside of Out” is an intimate look at what happens over the course of a year, after life falls apart and reconfigures again. A beautiful gift for anyone who has ever wished love could be easy. Purchase.

“Why I Was Late for Our Meeting” $18

coverJena’s new collection of 50 poems caps off a year of darkness with these words: “The sun’s up there somewhere.” This book is equal parts invitation, prayer, protest, and love song to the pain and beauty of humanity and everyday life. Inscribed and signed for you or the beloved recipient of your choice. Purchase.

Pecking Away

4emljshk4kk-noah-rosenfieldAnd then you remember the lesson you learned — was it one year ago, or two now — the years a blur of high points and low points.

I’m picturing a bench, sun, late June 2105, my wife in the hospital and me, sitting there at intervals throughout the day and night, smoking cloves, writing on my phone, wondering what will happen next and how we will go on.

Today, she told me about a friend whose girlfriend left him because he was very sick.

I told her — she was cooking chicken and rice and I was about to run to town to eat a falafel then pick up wrapping paper and toilet paper and prescriptions at CVS — that I could see how that happens. I didn’t know if I had it in me, to stay with life that was so other than I’d expected.

But I knew if the tables were turned — if I’d been sick and she well — the thought of leaving would not even have crossed her mind. I knew this.

I felt sad for that time and the fact that it crossed mine, though relieved that we can talk about it now and grateful I was able to let the sun shine on my face on a bench by the hospital, that she let me take care of her when she needed it and that I learned how to do the thing that didn’t come easily to me.

I remember a woman at a writing group I led during that time saying, honestly Jena, I don’t know if I could do what you’re doing. But I knew I was not a hero. Just a decent human and a good wife, which is the only kind she deserved then just as she deserves now.

And then there was the time I wrote my way into her shoes and finally understood.

It’s funny — this was not the lesson I had in mind at the beginning here, not at all. I was going to write about how I’ve grown more comfortable with the fact that there are many billions of us here, and trusting that there’s enough birdseed to go around.

I was going to write about the quiet meeting place between who I want to be and who I am, and that scarcity leads to ugliness.

The writing does this, doesn’t it? Leads us down some winding trail into territory we didn’t pack properly for, then spits us out by some clearing but not the one we followed the red dots painted on trees towards.

If we’re lucky, there’s a bench for sitting and taking in the sky for a while. A bag of crumbs for the birds. A decision you don’t regret making.

Now Would Be a Good Time to Forget Your Perfect Offering

0q33pyk-axi-tina-rataj-berardFast and furious freewrite about worry. Here goes.

What worries me is worrying itself, and how it is a closed loop, a vicious cycle, a mindfuck and a body destroyer. The topics that typically worry me most are so familiar, so ubiquitous. They remind me of the dust beneath our bed. Just there. But if we would only move the entire frame away, sweeping and mopping would be a snap. Worrying about being able to focus and connect and keep writing and doing my work in this world.

I worry that all the noise will make it impossible to hear my own heart. I worry that I feel alienated by conversations people are having — people I once related to or felt connected to.

And so there is this sense of shifting: Who are my people?

And then remembering that the place where worry goes away for me is when I don’t worry about who my people are. If you read these words and they spark some sense of yes for you, if we care about each other, if we are both worried about Russia and Canadian geese dying in toxic lakes and the school-to-prison pipeline and corruption beyond imagination and how we never learned the native maps, how there was barely even a mention in school of life on this land before the British came and sought “freedom” on faulty ideals that excluded the very people who named the rivers, before random borders were established, when women’s voices were in the margins of the writing pads, kitchen subversives and secret abolitionists, if you are worried that we are in a state so severe that worrying will get us nowhere, if you know that we are already nowhere and thus, more here than ever, in a post-worrying world where speed leads to implosion, then you are my people.

If you feel alienated by the mainstream and question whether “mainstream” is even a thing and who gets to decide these things and no, I won’t share yet another Trump video, like the one where he’s saying “Man of the Year” has a much better ring to it than “Person of the Year” (don’t you think? YEAH roars his reality-show crowd, his minions) because sharing this shit changes nothing. But then I can’t resist because I’m so worked up, so I share. And then I delete. Repeat.

Getting worked up changes nothing and yet if you aren’t worked up, if you aren’t worrying, what are you doing? Who are you being?

There is no right or wrong way to be. And yet I write this, and even as the words come, there is a hollow ring to them. I can’t bear platitudes. I can’t bear language so inclusive that it could be misconstrued as apology for ignorance, inaction, or anything that enables this moment to go unchallenged. I worry about questions around judgment, factions, language police (on all sides), and so much noise, oh just so much noise.

Am I adding to the noise? Oh, but I must.

Now would be a good time to forget your perfect offering. Right, Mr. Cohen (may you rest in peace)?

Forget your perfect offering. Don’t let this rancid moment in history curl your heart into acrid dissolution. Tell me what you worry about. Tell me what your Sunday will bring. Tell me one beautiful thing about your life. Tell me which windows let in the most light. Tell me where you are on the map of the world. Tell me that this is not “spiritual bypassing” but real, real life, real connection, in this moment — and that that still counts. Tell me it still fucking counts.

And I will keep telling you, too: Everything counts. Your life, your words, your ways. Forget your perfect offering and keep being here with me.

Join me for my next two-week writing group: Imperfect Offerings, January 9-20, 2017. Come let the words out without having to get it right or prove a thing. This is a place for practice, not perfection. Register here