11 things after the last Shabbat of 2018

1. The first half of today was a cinnamon roll project with Aviva. After four hours of mixing, melting, blooming, rising, kneading, spreading, rolling, cutting, and baking — we dug into what was perhaps the most delectable thing I have ever eaten in my life, not counting the white lasagna Mani made for my 40th birthday five years ago. I am talking foodgasm quality wow.

2. After that, a nap on the couch in the sun while Pearl played with our neighbors. V rested too, and Mani did some work.

3. The apartment was quiet and smelled like cinnamon, which is delicious unless you have mast cell disease, in which case you will spend hours in a different room with the doors closed because cinnamon is a mast cell destabilizer. We kept a kitchen window open for the afternoon and that did the trick.

4. Pearl and I went to the Mullins Center at UMass after my siesta. I have figure skates from a million years ago and we rented a pair for him for $5. Some friends were supposed to meet us, but they forgot, but we stayed and skated on our own for about 45 minutes. It was so fun. I need to do that more often.

5. We went over to the house of the friends who forgot to meet us and hung out for a while. They had picked up a few pizzas, so my steady diet of carbs remained uncompromised. Phew! Aren’t you relieved?

6. Aviva’s babysitting tonight and tomorrow, socking away money for her upcoming NYC trip and, a longer-term goal, a used car for next year.

7. I have fallen completely off the holiday card wagon. I feel both at peace with and a little sad about this and wonder if I’ll get back on it next year or ever. I keep thinking of the friends I’m rarely in touch with but think and care about dearly, and I worry that they don’t know it. Is this just what happens over time, or am I doing something wrong?

8. Yesterday we were talking about negative bias — that easy slide towards what wasn’t good. And we made lists of good things from 2018. I’m also reading a novel right now called “The Tattooist of Auschwitz,” and honestly, it’s such a reminder to honor life.

9. As I was waking up from napping, I watched the clouds moving swiftly from west to east outside the south-facing living room window. It was peaceful and restful.

10. More WWII moments in the news today. These two men, well over 100 years old each, leaving such legacies. May their memories be a blessing and inspire us to be courageous: cnn.it/2VdFrlB and bit.ly/2GO7WDc

11. Only three days until we change out our Frida Kahlo calendar for our Harrison Ford Bulldog calendar. Yee-haw!

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Join me in January for 11 days of writing 11 things, a practice Julie Lieberman Neale calls “a clarifying, liberating, surprisingly profound process.” Grab your spot here.

Petrozavodsk, 1990

Zina was Anya’s mother. When I came down with a cold, she fed me spoonfuls of honey at the small round table by the kitchen windows, morning light streaming in through the thin glass. It was early spring, but still cold in those northern parts, and when we went walking you could see the steam hovering over Lake Onega. The snow melted in April, and by the time I was feeling better, tiny crocuses were pushing their way through the cold ground and children were skipping in the courtyard.

Zina’s hair was a shock of that red-orange dye distinct to Russian women of a certain age. I didn’t  understand why she loved me like a second daughter; maybe because I was inquisitive whereas Anya was sullen.

My questions ran the gamut; I wanted to hear about her childhood, the dacha where her grandmother taught her to grow carrots and berries, the goat she nearly lost during a particularly bad spring flood when she twelve, how she’d met her husband (their families knew each other), and whether she ever dreamed of traveling beyond the city where she’d lived her whole life.

Zhanna, she’d say, I am content. Why should I want to go anywhere else when I have everything I need right here? She’d gesture around the small room, as if her teapot and slippers belonged to royalty. It made it hard to argue, even though as a young woman lusting for life experience, I knew my love of that provincial place hinged on the train that would take me away from it before long.

The forests nearby — miles and miles of birch trees straddling the Finnish border, dense with memory and darkness — and the low-hanging sky that seemed like an inverted bowl holding in the world below, all of this created a kind of vortex effect. At night, I’d lie in my small bed covered with so many blankets, the cold air seeping in from the crack Zina insisted was healthy for sleeping, and imagine I could hear the whispers of those who’d lived in that high-ceilinged room  before Anya’s family moved in. My dreams were a mish-mash of Russian and English and lines of poetry I couldn’t remember come morning, and I felt at once old and young and ageless as the weeks passed.

I also felt Jewish in ways that were beginning to grow more pronounced. The few times I brought this up, an unmistakably displeased expression crept over Zina’s face, and Anya’s lips turned downward even more than usual. Mother and daughter alike would glance in the direction of Anya’s father, who wouldn’t look up from his newspaper. Case closed; religion was not to be discussed.

But I couldn’t help myself. My love of Russia began to bang up against something else: The undeniable truth that Jews had left this place in droves, in search of the religious and cultural freedom of expression. Sure, some small communities had cropped up, particularly in the bigger cities, but here in the north, Jews were an anomaly — suspicious, strange, other.

More and more, I realized I was like those Russian Jews. My grandmother with her Yiddishisms and stories paired with my own lack of knowledge seemed too great of a parallel to ignore. I knew I was Jewish, but had not idea in practice what that meant. I didn’t know where to begin, but knew that begin I must. Zina and Anya indulged me, but the line was clear that this was not a welcome subject. Better to pour another cup of tea and talk about school or the weather. History, identity — why would you open those troublesome topics?

The next time I was there was four years later. Late July, the outer edge of the White Nights that held twilight suspended in a liminal state of waiting until dawn. We pulled the heavy shades at night to induce darkness, then woke to the sound of the kettle screaming in the kitchen. I was very sick; I spent days on or bending over the toilet, and Zina was as attentive as ever even as Anya receded further from sight. The moment had come and gone, the one where I belonged.

When I left, they waved at the train. I could see that Anya was tearful. Was it because she’d miss me, or because I was leaving and she wasn’t? From there, I’d travel to Prague, where the Jewish quarter and Terezín brought me ever closer to the inescapable truth of my heritage. It didn’t matter what I knew or didn’t know of my family’s history; as my grandfather had said while he lay dying, “Once a Jew, always a Jew.”

Power. Money. Success.

Morning walk. Sunrise. Moonset. A chat with the universe. Considering the new year and my lack of interest in resolutions. And contemplating the little internet game I did yesterday — one of those word search thingys where the first three words you see are your words for the year.

Mine were: Power. Money. Success.

For real, that’s what I saw.

Mind you, right after that I saw beauty, health, and humor. But still, there was no denying it.

Now, you could rightfully say that kind of thing is silly and meaningless, and maybe it is.

And what I noticed was that I immediately thought, oh no. Power, money, success. Those are bad. That’s not what I should see or choose or want.

Then another thought immediately after that one: Why the hell not?

Staci Jordan Shelton writes and teaches a lot about binaries, and how they keep us small in our thinking and our actions. My internal response to those three words made me think of her wisdom.

Power, money, success — these are not “bad.” In fact, they are neutral. They are not the opposite of things that are culturally more agreeable, such as compassion, kindness, and gratitude. But that’s what we do — we pit things against each other and create false and arbitrary judgments rather than moving into curiosity.

So, I got curious. What could and would it feel like to quietly claim these words? What if power, money, and success were valuable and worthy goals? What if having goals did not have to equal striving and keeping up? What if inner and outer could work in concert with each other, smashing binaries and taking up more room in the world — for good?

That last bit is important. Power, money, success — these are not good or bad, but how we inhabit them, how we can lose ourselves to them, how we demonize or worship them, now that’s where the problems start.

But look at people doing amazing things with their power, with their money — and the whole idea that we are as afraid, perhaps more, of success as we are of failure comes to mind.

I have no definitive thing to say about this, only that I’m intrigued. I’ve spent so long shying away from words like these. Maybe it’s time to move closer to them, to ask them questions, to see what they have to teach me. Maybe not. We’ll see.

By the time I got home from my walk, I was thinking about quiet power. And how we equate noise with power, when really, you can be quietly powerful. You can show up powerfully in your days, away from the glare of social media, and have so many kinds of experiences.

We live in a bizarre culture of “influencers” and megalomaniacs. It’s so much more interesting out here in the world, with its morning light and its bus drivers and its handwritten notes and its conversations, the ones where you hash things out and don’t come closer to closure but maybe touch on something even better — connection.

I’m going to hang out here in the quiet some more, paying attention to what wants to be written, to shoulders that need squeezing, to snoring dogs and what happens we look beyond blame and defensive posturing.

I don’t know how healing happens, but I think there’s something to this, this power, money, success thing, this surprising yourself thing, this experimenting with different ways of being in the world.

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Writing Without the Woo

Photo: Erik Witsoe

I just shared the last greeting and invitation of the fall session with my Jewels on the Path group. Closing out 16 weeks of witnessing writing + life concurrently unfolding with a dozen women around the country leaves me… verklempt.

This week, I asked folks to share thoughts on this phrase: “I am a writer.” You’d be amazed at how many people who write are reluctant to claim this, reserve it for the “real” writers who are well-known, widely published, making money, yadda yadda.

The responses were deeply moving.

One person crossed a threshold recently, when she shared a deeply personal piece outside of our group with her wider community — and found that the reactions to her words were affirming, far-reaching, and intimate all at once.

Another shared this: “I feel more like a writer with every passing week.”

From free-range lists of 11 things to installments of memoirs-in-progress to freewrites exploring the here and now to weeks when life happened and writing did not, the courage to keep meeting the blank page, to keep going, to share and be seen, to ask for the kind of feedback that would most serve the process rather than most “improve” the writing — all of this has filled a secret Facebook group and made it into a living, breathing space of community and creativity.

Whew.

Nick Cave writes, “The artistic process seems to be mythologized quite a lot into something far greater than it actually is. It is just hard labor.”

I would tend to agree with this. When you strip away the woo, what’s left?

Sitting down, showing up, starting. I do believe in mystery, but I also believe that there is no substitute for simply doing the work. It’s where all of the learning happens. It’s where we get to challenge the things we thought about ourselves, about our writing, about our stories, about what’s possible.

To my Jewels, and to everyone who has practiced writing with me this year, thank you.

To you, friends who witness my own process of showing up and being a real life person who writes, thank you for being on the other side of the words, and for your steady kindness and encouragement.

Let’s keep being here with and for each other in 2019.

Looking for a safe haven for your writing practice and process in the new year?

There are THREE SPOTS remaining for the next session of Jewels on the Path, a 16-week intensive for female-identified and non-binary writers, beginning January 7, 2019. Come learn more or feel free to contact me with questions.

The Most Wonderful Time

It’s the most wonderful time of the year
piping through the speakers at Trader Joe’s
as I imagine the many parts of the world
where holidays are not tied to capitalism,
where children don’t grow up on diets
of images of what and who they should be
or of what or who they should never deign
to dream of.

An evening walk in the darkest dark
on the longest night in this corner
of the spinning planet that is a speck,
a whirl in the print of some unfathomable
palm holding us but not holding us
reveals so many windows, lights,
leaving me to wonder what it’s really like
on the inside.

Divorce, death, disability —
these interfere with the fantasy of ease
and joy we are supposed to eat
like the fruitcake that one batty aunt
always brings and everyone kind of wonders
is it the same cake from last year
then says, good, good, we’re all fine, great.

It’s worth trying, you might argue,
at least put on a happy face
if you find this time of year oppressive
with its bottomless expectations of giving
and showing up and receiving and making
things pretty. Maybe. Maybe not, like the old
Buddhist story about the boy and the horse
or something like that.

To you without family, to you whose ex
has the kids this year, to you whose adult
children have other plans, to you who wake
every single morning with the ache
of missing, to you who fills the house
with cheer then disappears into the dark,
what can I say? Let’s blow this joint,
get a room, order in, watch old movies,
and burn nostalgia in the fireplace along
with all the wrapping paper.

Or better yet, here. Let me make us some tea.
We can sit here at the table as the solstice
slips by, reminding each other
the light always returns.