I’d Rather Be Real Than Popular

Photo: Jonatán Becerra

Do you ever feel like you should only share your writing when it’s happy, or when you’ve pored over it a thousand times? Do you ever only sit down to write when your sad? How do different moods affect your writing?

Tonight, I am just super down.

I know this is way amplified by PMS, and yes, I tend to come to this space every few months it seems around this time of the month. Is that wallowing? Whatever. Here I am. I ate half a pint of ice cream and it was so good. I read several articles about Trayvon Martin, who should have turned 23 a few weeks ago but didn’t because he was killed by a man who lives a free life today.

I have plenty of irrational fears. My fears have nothing to do with going out at night and wearing a hoodie, and this is important to note.

My fears are that if I have moods, if I’m not shiny and inspirational all of the time, people will not want to be around me. And if people don’t want to be around me, nobody will want to join my writing groups or work with me and I will stop making a living and we will be in deep doo-doo.

Really, my mind goes there in 2.2 seconds.

I told a very close friend over coffee last Friday morning about this, this persistent fear. I mean, it’s not a bad thing to be mindful of sustaining one’s income and providing for one’s family — ok, my income, my family — but that is a very different thing from fear.

This friend, I should mention, is a Buddhist. The real deal. And you know what she said? That it’s my resistance to the fear that is problematic, not the fear itself. So she suggested not resisting it.

I’m taking this to heart. And tonight, I’m doing the same with my heavy mood.

Honestly, if your mood was never heavy these days, I’d question what kind of person you are. On the other hand, too much empathy can be paralyzing. I think the thing might be to do what my friend advised, and not resist any of it. Hello, sadness. Hello, irritation. Hello, fear. Hello, hello. Come in. You can’t sleep in my bed with me and no way do you get to share my ice cream, but come and we can sit together for just a little while.

What do you have to tell me? I’m listening.

Oh, I see. It starts with that deep breath. And just feeling feelings. Feeling the weight of the body here on the couch. Closing my eyes for a moment.

The moment I feel the feelings, this thing happens: I remember that while there is so much that needs my attention, there is, in this moment, no action to take. The urgency to fix things can get in the way of remembering who I am. Same goes for doing, doing, doing. Doing that is sourced in lack or fear is like pouring water into a ditch; the soil just soaks it up until there’s nothing but a muddy mess.

But doing that is intentional — that’s more like pouring water into a potted plant, thoughtfully, lovingly, and paying attention to the moment when it begins to drain from the bottom. The plant does not need an endless amount of water all at once. it needs just the right amount, every few days or so. Love doesn’t mean constant, hyper-focused attention. That sounds smothering.

No, love means saying come in. You don’t get to have so much power here, so instead of yelling at me from the driveway and tossing rocks at my window, I am calling you up, pouring you a cup of tea, and giving you a bit of my undivided attention.

So what are you scared of, love? What are you sad about? Why the tears springing up? Tell me everything. Or just sip your tea. We don’t even have to talk.

If you only write when you’re happy and shiny, I’m not sure I’ll trust you. Write whenever you feel like writing. Don’t worry about who’s reading. Don’t worry about how it sounds or whether it’s any good.

Remember who you are. A person who writes to connect with yourself. A person who writes to make sense of emotions and moods and experiences and highs and lows. A person who would rather be real than popular.

And Jena? Remember what this space is for: Showing up. Practicing. And beginning again and again and again.

Tiles in a Laborious Mosaic

“There are very few human beings who receive the truth, complete and staggering, by instant illumination. Most of them acquire it fragment by fragment, on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic.”

~ The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944

Thought: There is a LOT of news we don’t hear about. Every single day, things happen. Small miracles. Wrenching losses. Breathtaking moments of ecstasy and countless, repetitive motions. “You and me” takes on hundreds of manifestations. The big picture will always be there, beyond our field of vision, a scale so measureless it requires tremendous faith in the unseen and unseeable.

What is a mosaic made of, but so many tiny tiles?

Every day that we wake up and find that we are still here, alive, conscious, breathing, able to interact in whatever ways our bodies make possible, is an opportunity to change our minds and alter that unfathomable pattern in the direction of wholeness.

Here’s the catch: It’s hard.

We get tangled in webs of invisible energy. We react. We rush. We carry so much pent-up rage and sadness that it’s bound to leak out all over everything if we don’t acknowledge it and find channels for expression, release, and healing. The world doesn’t meet us where we are any more than we meet the world as it is. We meet the world — I do this so very often — through a distorted lens of how I think it should be. The world shrugs back like a teenager. “Whatever.”

Tears come unexpectedly. At first, I sit still and let them roll down my cheeks as the singers sing on. Then it becomes too much; I feel the strain of trying to control what is quickly moving from a quiet flow to a full-on storm, and I leave the room quietly, move towards a large window at the end of a wide hallway. It is facing west. The sun is low over a bike path, a parking lot. I watch people coming and going as the sobbing I didn’t see coming overtakes me. It’s every hard thing, every yearning, every pinch, every tight spot, every constraint. It’s neither rational nor irrational. It is scary and at the same time, somewhere in the deep of my brain, I know it won’t last.

It doesn’t last.

I return to the room. I take my seat back on the cushion. My wife sits a foot or so away from me. The space is filled with sound. Guitar, tabla, bass, drums, cello, flute, violin, harmonium. Deep voices and piercing voices coming together in an ancient call and response. I sway a little but don’t join in for a while, allowing myself just to stay here in the stillness. I notice the urge to flee. I stay. I notice 10,000 variations on this theme. I resist all of it. I stay. I stay. I stay.

And sure enough, I begin to soften. Almost despite myself, I open my mouth to sing. I sing quietly. I don’t need anyone to hear me. I am here, and that is enough.

We all have moments where we are “not our best selves.” But what does this even mean? Best, worst, first, last — all of these monosyllabic words that don’t ultimately mean anything. What matters is our ability to hold steady through the periods of turmoil and tumult, when you’re so caught up in the wave that you don’t know how to break through to the surface for air. It is easy to panic in these moments, to flail. To pull others down with you. To make it infinitely scarier and more painful than it already is.

There is a big picture, and so very much happens in the course of a day, a week, a month, a year, a life. None of us knows how much time we have here, and every day seems to be an exercise in imperfection, starting over, self-forgiveness, and learning.

When I say, “Be good to yourself,” this is what I’m talking about. It’s not a code for anything else, nor is it a permission slip to ditch responsibility for our impact on others. It is as simple an imperative as I can muster for myself, a baseline, and — hopefully — a bit of solid ground to feel for when life is moving at lightning speed and we temporarily lose our bearings and forget our place in the entirety of things.

As Anaïs Nin noted in her diary so many decades ago, life unfolds and takes shape “fragment by fragment.” And we are all essential tiles, in an incalculable whole.

Want / Need

Easy Love1. A New Idea

What we want is never simple. – Linda Pastan

This morning, I read you a poem by Sharon Olds called “Topography.” Earlier, I’d snoozed the alarm – 10 more minutes, 15 more minutes, 5 more minutes. Pressing my back and bum into your rib cage and bowl of belly, our bodies sealed together just like the bodies in the poem forming one country: I am east, you are west, and we close the space between by remembering the dream that remembers us and living it together, even on days when one of us is off-kilter or ragey, hormonal or achy.

We take turns holding and being held, and I wonder if what we want, in some way, is simple. Maybe it is time for what Mary Oliver calls “a new idea.”

What I want is something that for so long I trained myself not to want, as if I had an “override” button and pressed it so many times that it stayed in a permanently depressed position, no wanting allowed, only gratitude for what I already had. But that wasn’t the whole truth, never was. I wanted so much and it was bigger than the container I’d contorted to. No wonder I ached.

But I do not want to write about the past. I think I did dream the dream last night, where if I ached it was for so much stillness and spaciousness, the kind I still clutter with too many tasks, too many physical objects and things that want me. Our bedroom is cluttered and what I want once again is a kind of emptiness. Empty room. Empty time. Not empty as in meaningless, but empty as in space for meaning to actually arise in its own time, space for feelings and new ideas and long, slow breaths I don’t realize I’m desperate for until I stop and allow emptiness to fill me.

What I want is to live from the center of a dark summer pond. To float, to feel resistance as delicious, as my own strength pushing though water, the water that is me meeting its environs and a meeting of bodies and a meeting of minds and a meeting with time that’s unhurried, where I’m not holding my breath in my upper chest but taking it into that hollow place and following it through windpipe and nostrils into lungs and belly.

What I want is beach and a long stretch of sand. What I want is wordless. What I want is to listen closely for the sounds of songs that have never been sung or written down.

What I want is trust, to trust time to be long and kind. What I want is to a beauty magnet, a bastion of worldly success, a haven for hurt, and a beacon of light. What I want it to quiet the judging voices with such harsh opinions of me, so discouraging.

What I want is a year under the Tuscan sun, a year in field of barley, of glory, or lavender for miles. What I want is a living painting and a poem that can breathe underwater. What I want is two feet on the ground and a nervous system that’s only rattled by true emergencies.

What I want is simultaneously severing and healing, severed so that the healing can happen, and I don’t know how to be in the between that catches behind my eyes like feelings entangled in nets and frantic to unhook.

Breathe. A slow, steady, bright, balanced unfolding of days.

What I want is peace in my heart, for the water to run so clear in my heart you could drink it unfiltered from clean, cupped hands, you could splash it on your face, cool and awake. What I want is for what I want to be really that simple.

What I want is simple: To be calm. To belong to my life. To love well, to parent well, good enough mother, good enough not to disappear. I want to live inside of the mandala of justice turning wheels, to meet people’s eyes and to speak and write in ways that matter.

What I want is this: Quiet room. Color. Stillness. Books and blank pages. I want to stay and stay and stay until something moves me to move. I want to wait and wait and wait until instinct or inspiration say “go.”

I want to weep and break and then be so loving with myself in the after space of open and exposed. I want to make art out of postcards we collect on the road and to make my letter to the world before I go. I want to die just to see what it would be like.

I always used to say I wanted it all. I still do. The difference now? “Everything I need is right here in my hands, right here in my hands.”

2. Kindred Spirits

“Kindred Spirits” is a phrase that has stayed with me since single digits, on a rock in a field at a camp in Connecticut, where barefoot we danced and under a lunar eclipse a counselor told me what this meant.

“Kindred” is a word I loved right away. Something even in my child self knew this to be my home, sitting on a rock in the night in the company of women. This is how I know life is here with me, has never once abandoned me. This is how I know I am here with myself.

Kindred. All those years of missing in action really not lost at all but seeking the kindred spirits I could know and call my own and call my home. Now I am my own home, an she is my kindred spirit – just look at how in the photograph those two delight in each other’s company.

What I want really is that simple then, like that butterfly there, fluttering around them: To allow myself to change and evolve and transform in the company of another, on a dark summer night in a field teeming with fireflies and cicadas, the pond a flat mirror of moonless sky, the earth a shadow passing over and eventually, morning comes and with it, light.

To be kindred in this lifetime, nothing missing from this moment? I see as if for the first time the gift of taking delight in another’s presence. I hear the truth of it – how this is the answer to the question I didn’t know I was asking. The question I was living and living into.

When you feel lost, come back to this rock, I hear her whisper. And I’ll be right here, waiting for you.

3. A Series of Small Confessions

Confession: I used to be a slacker. I wrote poems at work on hidden Word files and mastered the art of looking busy. Always a good student, I knew how to play the role of hard worker, but secretly I scoffed at anything remotely bureaucratic or institutional, as if I was somehow an exception to the rules. In this way, I learned how to doubt myself.

Confession: The other word I remember learning is “privilege,” on the front porch of 378 Crescent Street in Buffalo from my middle sister, who didn’t have a middle name and made fake homework for me when we were 5 and 9.

Confession: I am afraid to make things. I wanted for so long to make a living by “just being myself,” and now that I’m doing just that, the space between creating and working has collapsed and I am groping again for the space between. The empty space. I know it’s here somewhere.

Confession: I am online almost all of the time, or so it feels. I feel some shame about this.

Confession: My wife keeps offering to help me make a schedule. Taking her up on this would surely open up wonders of psychic and creative space and help me be more, not less, present with the many people I work with. (Whereby I confront the notion of “stuck places.”)

Confession: I have this recurring fantasy that someone will give us a gorgeous house, and we will get to live there, writing and loving.

Permission: To start experimenting more. To write down what’s working and what’s not working. To shake up shitty habits.

A New Idea: Try something new.

4. Saying “My Wife”

If I knew everything was going to be ok, the greatest sense of ease would flood my body, as if all of life was leading to this moment. I’d live and work slower, not fill all the waking hours. I’d leave some pages blank. Sit. Blink.

In a blink, everything would change again. And again after that.

“Your hands feel nice,” she said this morning as I stroked her hair back from her forehead – not like a cat or a child but like my one and only woman.

Confession: I felt shy saying “wife” when we first got married. Not embarrassed or ashamed, no, it wasn’t like that, but just shy – new – a bit tickled and incredulous. Saying “my wife” was synonymous with saying “everything is ok.” And saying “everything’s ok” was an admission that I could exist and take up room with the signature of struggle I thought was my name.

It wasn’t.

I changed my name then and started trying on a new one: Ease. Easy. It was strange and enticing and a bit scary and wonderfully not-dangerous. In the dark, I’d whisper to her, to my wife, “Is everything going to be ok? Really?” And she’d reassure me that yes, not only would it be but it already was.

Just like that, I practiced believing her. I started leaving this “what is everything falls apart” question at home more and more often. Am I really still afraid of the thing that already happened?

This is my new definition of trauma: Fear of what already happened.

Some young part of me stays scared of getting in trouble, of being scolded or called out or caught. I want to surround myself with beauty and shields and strength and light. I want personal bodyguards. I want to hold hands with the night herself. To be crescent moon and muse and wind and storm and place where ocean and sky touch without fusing.

If everything really is ok in this moment, there’s no good reason to believe it won’t be in the next and the next. Why do our thoughts love catastrophe? I want to be a lover and a fighter – only her lover and only a focused fighter, not flailing and exhausting myself in shallow water, waist-high, where I could just stand up if I knew. If I was new. And if you knew, too. If we stopped with the falsehoods, stepped out from behind the convenient covers of drama. Easy things do not have to be hard. What if we saved struggle for things that are actually struggles? Yes, let’s.

I want to hold knowing and not knowing gently, like I would a small bird, not squeezing or entrapping. Some things fly away and other stay close. Stay close.

It always comes back to this: Your reassuring voice in my ear, my hands in your hair, full circle to sealed bodies, stamped with each other’s new names. You do? I do, too.

Whether we have a week or six months of fifty years to live, what difference would knowing make and where is the pivot point between patience and urgency? Can urgency be calm and easy or is that a paradox?

Would it matter if we knew? It might, it might not. It’s too many questions. My answer is here in the here and now in the now, knowing and not knowing like birds on a wire.

5. Future Self

I am 62. Fully grey. My hair is short again, a halo of curls. All is well.

Little by little then all of a sudden I shed the last layers of living in fear. There is a simplicity to our days here, an easy balance.

I need to know where everyone is, especially my kids. They are 33 and 30. Parents in their early 90s. I don’t know who has died. I don’t know what I’ve written or what Mani has written or what we’ve published or whether there are royalties. I don’t know so many things, only that we are coming up on our 22nd anniversary. We are planning a trip, as we do every year. We love our home. It is the home we dreamed of for so long, but even better.

Money is not a problem; we comfortably give away more than 10% of our income, help all the kids, and skimp on nothing. I teach and coach small groups in our beautiful home and host retreats here, too – everyone loves the pool, and the ocean so close by, and the bliss of connecting and creating. I lead writing workshops in the nearby homeless shelter on Monday afternoons, and thrill every single time someone I’ve worked with publishes a poem or an essay or another book or discovers some new dimension of her voice.

I love this life.

What began as a hustle slowly became as solid and soft and lived-in as a quilt made of so many threads and patches and images and by so many hands, hands from all over the world, hands of people we’ve met on our travels, friends from long ago, and people from so many parts of our lives.

The future started so long ago.

The future was a breath away and then it wasn’t, then it was already gone, but where? We say “behind us” but turn to look and there is nothing there. Noting but memory. And then an idea of what might be, and all along, the DNA of our imagination is unfurling and there’s no way to know what will become and what will decay.

We ache that time is passing and step all the way into its mighty current. We fall asleep and wake up in so many beds, in so many buildings and rooms, always looking straight away for each other’s faces, eyes, lines of familiar songs running through our heads like hands through water, nothing sticks, we are fluid, solid, dark, light, hungry, sated.

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The Skin I’m In

savasana
Sometimes I think I’m too thin-skinned for this world. 

That was the thought I had, as I washed the last of the dinner dishes. It wasn’t particularly tied into anything. No single incident or interaction had derailed my footing or rattled my resilience.

That’s just like me, to think something so dramatic. 

That was my next thought, after the first one, followed by the inevitable question of meaning, and then, after that, a response — we are now talking an official ping-pong match — dismissing meaning as overrated and nonexistent.

Seriously, people. It’s like that in there sometimes.

Lo and behold, I found myself — after quite the hiatus — on my old green yoga mat on the living room floor. And I don’t mean practicing yoga in any kind of asana sense. I mean child’s pose, the immediacy of breath that surrender invites, a few very gentle stretches (isn’t it silly that you’re doing this in jeans?), and something I can only call savasana-ish.

The latter lasted until Aviva called me into her room to help her pick out new bras, but amazingly, just that few minutes of of checking out — can you believe I called this checking out and not checking in? — and I felt restored enough to face life again.

Not that there was any reason per se, not to face it earlier. If I experienced anything today, it was this: Sun on face. Body on mat. My business, your business, God’s business. All of these simple but easy-to-forget things that bring me home.

Oh, and this. Yes, this brings me home. Sitting to write for a few minutes before bed.

“Create before you consume,” suggests Marie Forleo. Otherwise, as she points out, you will spend half the morning comparing yourself , the afternoon in meetings, and before you know it, a whole day will have gone by. Very true.

I think something similar is worth remembering before bed, not to create but to touch down with some kind of quiet. The fridge humming. A bowl of cereal to my left, with just enough milk in the bowl to slurp before rinsing it out, turning off the overhead light, brushing my teeth, and climbing into bed with my honey.

This afternoon, I asked Mani if I’d ever be clear of the internal sludge that life stirs up.

It feels like I’m removing it by the spoonful sometimes. I was whining.

It is possible, she responded.

It is possible, I repeated to myself, after we hung up.

And in the meantime, which is all I’ve got, I’m going to start coming home more often, to this place, this quiet night moment, and those creative morning ones, without the noise of anything but the volleys I can ignore rather than referee.

Then all that’s left is room to really feel and acknowledge whatever’s actually going on, space to listen for my own wisdom rather than flailing about as if I haven’t got any, and, if I’m lucky, a bounce in my step enough to propel me to whatever’s waiting in the wings.

It’s not about being too thin-skinned or needing to toughen up. It’s about not abandoning myself, and yes — loving the skin I’m already in.

Image ::  SAVASANA: The Art of Conscious Dying by Jeannie E. Javelosa