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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The Often Overlooked Heart


I’ve been sitting here most of the morning. Sweat pouring out of my every pore. I am putting an a/c unit in my living room this afternoon, with the help of a local carpenter. She should be arriving shortly. I have misgivings about adding to the energy use that only jacks up the temperatures further, and I also have to be able to work. Mani’s mast cells are kicked up in this heat, and Chalupa is doing her best to stay comfortable with the tiny cooling area of her bulldog head. The heat is intense, all-consuming. It’s a shock to walk into an air-conditioned room or building, to remember that there are spaces we can go.

Not everyone can get to those cool spaces. I worry about those who are homeless, elderly, or cannot afford air-conditioners.

I tidied up a bit this  morning. Refilled the bird-feeders, emptied the big bag of dog food into the container in the pantry. Swept up bits of garlic peel from the kitchen floor. I only want to eat peaches and cucumbers and drink iced coffee. I promised Aviva we could go to a body of water this afternoon. I feel slow, sweaty, uninspired.

Every time I see a photo from someone on vacation, I have a pang of envy. It’s not pretty to write this. I resist the urge to delete, curate, self-censor.

I’ve written about envy before, and how it is a form of self-abandonment. And even just writing that sentence reminds me that rather than hanging out there, what I really need and want is to ask my heart what it needs and wants. Envy is a kind of compass, after all.

* * *

I had a powerful experience last Sunday morning.

A writing coaching client who has also become a friend — I’ll call her S. — offered me some time on the phone. It wasn’t a formal call of any sort, though it did become an unexpected two hours of being gently held and deeply heard. I spent much of our time sitting on the root of the red maple tree in our little front yard. Noticing the subtlety everywhere, of life, of light, of shadow. A bird — though I’m not sure what kind — sang joyfully and loudly from one of the nearby tall pines.

It was when I admitted that I felt uncomfortable accepting this gift of time, meaning without offering payment, that the tears first came. I realize how it is still hard for me to truly receive. To truly let down and spend time with my heart. Once those first tears came, it was as if the gates had been unlocked. I didn’t sob, but I did cry on and off for the rest of our time together, along with moments of laughter, insight, and silence.

For most of my life, I’ve had episodes of the kind of crying that has felt unbearable. This felt less storm-like and more cleansing, like the tears were gently washing over the grime of my often-overlooked heart, making it known to me again.

What I saw? Red, pulsing, tender muscle mass. It was visceral and vivid, not the figurative heart but the real deal, fist-size, pumping away.

I also saw something I can best describe as straps pressing into this heart of mine. The kind of straps that a big heavy box might have wrapped around it, designed to protect it from opening when it’s not supposed to. I saw these straps pulled too tightly, leaving deep cuts against the fragile tissue. With each deep breath inward and the on-and-off gentle bouts of release, I felt the straps loosen.

One thing was clear to me: The heart cannot heal when we never loosen those straps, those ties, the protective measures that keep us bound. And yet, it is not always simple. I feel like I’m someone who is fairly connected to my heart. There are so many layers, and this innermost space goes largely covered much of the time when I am busy doing life.

* * *

I’ve been aware for a while now that I need some kind of break, but it has remained undefined. But oh, wow. The noise around this in my head is so loud. At one point, I told S. the word “failure” popped into my head. Failure!

Also: The need to justify needing a break. Also: Fear. So much fear arising at the prospect of taking a break. Money is the presenting thing — and a very real thing to address since I’m my family’s sole provider — but beneath that, deeper fears that all source back to questions of being, doing, and remaining enough.

The world of online writing groups is so saturated, and I do not thrive when I’m worrying about keeping up or standing out. In fact, you could just shorten that sentence to: I don’t thrive when I’m worrying. Period. I most certainly am not of service to my community when I’m tired or tapped out — and there’s such a deep fear in sharing that, saying it, as if it is a kind of confession.

Really, the only confession here will not come as news to you: I am human!

I never expect anyone in my groups to be anything other than human. In fact, I’ve built this work of fierce encouragement for writing and life around just this: Recognizing the stories and voices that berate us, tell us we’re not enough, and insist that whatever we are doing, writing, or creating needs to be bigger, better, or different.

Culturally, these messages are ruthless and unyielding. Internally, no matter their original sources, they take on a life of their own, ever pulling the straps tighter around the heart. Strangling the heart. The often-overlooked heart that is the holder of the wisdom we need and the stories that are ours alone to live, much less write.

To get quiet enough to listen, to really spend time with this tender, innermost heart, feels scary. It’s not a thing we can measure. There’s no product at the end. You can’t charge money for it.

And at the same time, as I write these sentences and tune into my own knowing, something else arises: Gratitude. I feel grateful that the heart is immeasurable and unquantifiable. It is untouchable by commerce and capitalism and the tyranny of proving our worth.

I hear the voice so quick to jump in: But you have to pay your rent. You have to work. You have to make a living. You have to, you have to, you have to. 

Whose voice this is doesn’t matter. What matters is that I hear it and redirect my attention to the soft, fleshy insides of myself. The longing that I know belongs to my soul.

* * *

My soul has always wanted my attention. And truth be told, it has never led me astray. Trusting that call is always scary, though, because it means moving away from auto-pilot, hushing prescriptive or punishing voices, and trusting deeply. In the more distant past, I would have said trusting the Universe. Now, I am not shy to say trusting God. And trusting myself.

I hear another voice now, my Grammy’s. God is love, she would say in a sing-song voice. God is love.

To trust God is to trust myself is to trust love.

* * *

I have not yet determined what form this “break” will take. My dream is to go offline for most if not all of August. To remember who I am and how my heart feels, away from the demands of work and social media. To really soak in the fullness of these past three years — which is how long it has been since I left my full-time job in order to care for Mani through her illness and recovery.

Questions arise once again. Will what I’ve built here withstand my absence for a month? Will everyone who participates in my groups and works with me privately still be there when I return, or does the world move so fast that we forget each other that quickly and move on? I do not want to live my life and do my work by clinging out of fear, but by letting go, again and again, of the trapeze bars, knowing that I always land, even if I don’t land where I expected. How will we pay the bills if I take some off beyond just a day or two?

I don’t have answers today, and for today, I am not going to try to figure anything out. It feels good, just to come here. To write what’s really on and in my heart in the moment, to make that tender place a little bit known to you, and to name the trust I need to lean into now. To feel it as solid and real as the true root beneath my body, holding me up.

I will admit that I have a fantasy of being supported in this time.

While it’s easy to scoff at or right off, it occurs to me that there is no harm in allowing that, too, to be named and known. It’s not up to me to know what forms that support might take. But in the spirit of learning how to ask for and receive, in the spirit of truth-telling and transparency and real life, I’m going to leave it here.

* * *

It’s funny — that impulse to thank you for reading is there, as if perhaps I owe you something for the time you’ve taken to be on the other side of these words. And so it seems fitting to close with these words from Hiro Boga:

You don’t owe anyone anything. Whatever you give to anyone, whatever you do for them, you do out of love and generosity, not because you’re obliged to. Manipulation through invalidation and guilt is an old, old game. You don’t have to play. You can simply acknowledge the energy for what it is, and refuse the Trojan horse gifts of blame and shame so they remain with the giver.

You have both the right and the responsibility for your own life, for the fulfillment of your own soul’s purposes, which are always about experiencing and expressing qualities of soul. The more clearly you choose your true desires — which are the voice of your soul — and act to fulfill them, the more your life will be filled with joy, peace, creativity, power, abundance and delight, among so many other soul qualities.

By refusing to surrender your own well-being to the demands of others, you give them the gift of clear boundaries and a powerfully sovereign self. Our kids learn how to be themselves by the example we set for them. By being yourself, choosing yourself, choosing your sovereignty, you shine a light that illuminates your path and theirs. You give them incomparable gifts — the freedom to be themselves, to choose their own joy, to learn from their explorations and to grow in creative sovereignty.

A Little of Everything (When Everything Is Everything)

Photo: Elijah Hiett

Sunday consisted of a little of everything. Dreams as vivid as films, forgotten in a blink but returning in flashes throughout the day. Coffee. A run alongside Pearl on her bike up to my parents’ house, where I dropped her off to work for a couple of hours. My mom got her shining silver, sweeping the porch, and weeding the garden. I ran home, aware of some tension I couldn’t place but that hung on most of the day.

Later in the afternoon, it morphed into irritation, then fear, then I put my face up close to Mani’s and asked her to remind me to come in off the ledge. “Yeah, no ledges,” she said.

No ledges. How often do you find yourself there — on that imaginary edge of the world where with a single misstep, you might fall all the way off? It’s silly, maybe, but can seem oh so real. It amazes me how convincing certain states of being are, especially what I deem the “hard” ones. But then I think of this line from the novel I just started (Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi):

The need to call this thing ‘good’ and this thing ‘bad,’ this thing ‘white’ and this thing ‘black,’ was an impulse that Effia did not understand. In her village, everything was everything. Everything bore the weight of everything else.

I see the impulse to label everything. The “bad” states of being — anxiety, fear, anger, agitation, irritability, tension, stress — are all interrelated, like the reunion of the side of the family you do your best to avoid but comes over unannounced no matter. Then there are the “good” states of being — joy, ease, flow, gratitude, curiosity, connection. In their absence, I can worry (will they ever come home?). And when I’m experiencing these, aaaaaah, my ability to trust life expands exponentially.

But what if everything is everything? How does it shift my perception, if everything bears the weight of everything else? Well, for one thing, I can see a bit more clearly, the ephemeral nature of ALL of the above. It becomes easier to step away from the ledge, because I know the ledge is imaginary, no more real than tomorrow. When everything bears the weight of everything, everything is somehow more bearable.

Sometimes, a superstition haunts me a little bit. It goes a little something like this: I will somehow, unknowingly and inadvertently, cause the well to dry up.The well of blessings. Even reading these words makes me shrug my shoulders; obviously I don’t have that kind of power, nor are there some distant Gods watching my every move who will show their pleasure or displeasure with me on a whim. We are beings with free will; bad things happen to the best of people and the most evil of humans get away with atrocities every day. From this standpoint, it’s easy to get kind of hopeless and nihilistic about it.

But to me, it’s actually a positive thing that we are more than just chess pieces in some cosmic game. Why? Because it means that while we may have little control about what life brings to us, we get to choose how to meet life. Today, I felt tense. I swept the kitchen floor. I tried to take a nap but got interrupted five times in 45 minutes, got up feeling groggy and cranky, and then said yes when my sister invited us over for a bite to eat. Later, we got ice cream and saw some roosters. Now, day is done. Kids are clean. Mani’s eating. I’m typing in the quiet kitchen. Night has fallen. The crickets offer up the  tiniest of bells.

The fear that everything will crumble, the missing in advance, the love that sometimes gets eclipsed by moods and minor annoyances, the smile that quickly turns to a squall — all of the daily dynamics that happen not only within each of us but as part of any family unit — none of it stays. None of it.

What stays is this, the coming back. The sitting down. the writing as a way of returning to everything that is everything, where I don’t have to be so quick to say good, bad, hard, easy, black, white. I can just be here, feeling the full weight of this body, and letting the thoughts dissipate, as transient and insubstantial as the day itself.

This Day Brought Me to Tears

“We speak loudly but no one understands us.
But we are not surprised
For we are speaking the language
That will be spoken tomorrow.”

~ Horst Bienek, from “Resistance” (trans. Michael Mead)

Everything is making me cry today. My heart feels so exposed. Like I took off my armor and left it somewhere. Like I spun the prayer wheel so fast it didn’t give me time to worry about doing it right.

David Tennant’s face throughout this surprise tribute.

Bashō (translated by Robert Bly):

The temple bell stops–
but the sound keeps coming 
out of the flowers 

My kid’s fear about a trip without her parents, and the big sign she placed in her suitcase (after she emptied it out this morning) that didn’t mince words: I’M NOT GOING. Please.

Questions like: Who would I be without my work? Without my writing? Without my people? Without “my”?

Would I know, deep down, my worth?

Mani’s words:

“You can’t receive when you have clenched fists.”

Open your hands. Open your mind. Open your heart.

“The best-laid plans are are my open hands.”

(Which Mani can’t remember if she heard in a song or if she wrote herself.)

This song.

The way our names contain us — and how we can find either comfort in being held in, or the courage to push beyond the limitations of those syllables and the energy they carry.

I am not surprised if you don’t understand. I might be speaking tomorrow’s language already. I might have wondered if tomorrow’s language would ever come or if I’d be stuck speaking the same sentences over and over for all time. But no. Time won’t have it. The hardest things shapeshift as surely as the sun is melting the snow. And they also bring clarity, in the way fire burns and purifies but is impossibly hot to stand near for long. You won’t think you can stand it, but you can.

You can.

“I will write in words of fire. I will write them on your skin. I will write about desire. Write beginnings, write of sin. You’re the book I love the best, your skin only holds my truth, you will be a palimpsest lines of age rewriting youth. You will not burn upon the pyre. Or be buried on the shelf. You’re my letter to desire: And you’ll never read yourself. I will trace each word and comma As the final dusk descends, You’re my tale of dreams and drama, Let us find out how it ends.” ~ Neil Gaiman

The last big cry I remember was in the fall. I remember because I cried in the car all the way to the base of a small mountain, then parked and walked furiously uphill over leaves so deep and wet they decomposed before my eyes giving way to earth and winter coming. I remember because I reached the peak and looked out over the river and the valley and felt my dry cheeks and the relief of burning off the tears and getting some perspective.

Then last night I lost it, which isn’t true if you read it literally. I didn’t lose a thing. I just stood at the kitchen sink with the hot water on my hands, blood from where the potato peeler nicked the nail on my left middle finger, and the soapy sponge and the glasses and plates from a late dinner. And I didn’t lose anything, really. But I did cry. I started and I couldn’t stop right away — clearly this had been sitting there, just when I’d begun wondering if I’d ever cry again, a faint hint of concern cropping up that I don’t cry more often given the state of the world.

Well no worries. I can still cry. This is good, even if it freaked my kids out a little. (“Are you OKAY??”)

Last night, lying in bed, Mani put her hands on my back. Then she said just the right words, which she has a knack for: We aren’t here to save each other. We don’t need saving. We all come in with our karma and no one can burn if for us but us.

Then you love people and things get sticky sometimes; it is so painful to see someone you love suffering and to not know the answer. But there’s a reason you don’t know the answer. Your love is enough. It doesn’t feel like enough. It feels all wrong; surely you should be DOING something and the impulse to DO something is the same thing as the impulse to FIX it, SAVE THEM, make it BETTER.

There’s no saving.

So my heart is open and I cried and today, right now, I look out the kitchen window and the branches of the pine trees are swaying in the breeze. The sun is strong, and I’m surprised to glance at the clock and see that it’s after 4:00pm. The earth is turning and the seasons are changing and this is one of those moments when I can SEE time. And how bendable it is, and how it both requires so much faith and also none at all. All at the same time.

“We can know a lot. And still no doubt, there are rash and wonderful ideas brewing somewhere; there are many surprises yet to come.” ~ Mary Oliver

The mind loves to catastrophize. To seize the moment but not in a carpe diem kind of way, more like in a we’re-so-fucked kind of way. But it is a lie. A trap. Don’t fall for it, I tell myself. We no more know that things will be awful than we do that Mary Oliver’s “rash and wonderful ideas” are brewing and surprises are yet to come. Good surprises.

You want to write? So write.

You want to cry? So cry.

You want to love? So open your heart and know that it will break over and over and over and over.

And you will hug someone you love so tightly and suddenly your two bodies will be the shape of sky, which of course is impossible to imagine but perfectly reasonable in the ways of being.

After the fire, you will feel cleaner somehow, and heightened of senses. A bird in the morning will tell you winter is just a word, and you’ll spit out those two syllables with your toothpaste while the shower’s running and you’re standing there naked in the small bathroom looking at all that grey hair around your temples.

Time is not passing us nor are we passing time. Young people will be grown adults someday, full-bodied and with memories of their own, and someday we — you and I — will be the memories themselves. Long, long after we’re gone.

So yes. This day has brought me to tears. Because of love. Because of how empty-handed I feel sometimes. Because of how unbearably beautiful it is to be alive.

Heart Wide Open Hurts

hanumanYou know how sometimes the water is so hot it feels cold? Or you are so overcome with emotion that it’s almost hard to distinguish between feeling and numbness? That’s how it felt as soon as we turned out the light.

I had been too tired even to watch our show, so it was on the early side — before 10:00pm. The meditation music began, and there it was — the constriction in my throat that somehow coupled with a sensation I can only describe as one of being a much younger woman, early 20s say. I’m reminded of how a few weeks ago, Pearl shared with me that she suddenly understood that we are ALL THE AGES we’ve ever been. So, she shared by way of example, if she’s really mad, maybe in that moment she’s actually four. It made perfect sense.

I lay there for a few minutes quietly while Mani pulled me in close; we take turns as we fall asleep with who’s the “big spoon,” and usually start out with her wrapped around me and me skooching my bum against the hollow of her belly as close as humanly possible. It’s my safe place, at least one of the top three.

And suddenly, I choked out these words with a sob. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve been lost my whole life.”

With that, I cried and cried, tears rolling one after another from my eyes down the side of my face, drenching the pillow. She didn’t say a word or ask any questions, but just kept her arms around me tight. I let myself sink into the body memory of living inside of myself in other cities, other moments in time, but with the common feeling of not quite knowing how to BE in the world. How to translate the boundarylessness of being, or if not translate it, contain it and apply it in some useful way. In other words, how to feel at peace, inside and out.

Eventually, I got up to blow my nose. When I came back to bed, Mani asked what brought that on. Apparently, I wasn’t done crying yet, as her question triggered another round of heaving sobs. Flooded by how much I love my kids, more than perhaps they will ever know, and feeling in my bones that this is how much my mother loves me. The immensity of love felt almost like too much to bear. Because it is also pain, and it is also loss. There is no picking and choosing here.

And she told me then, about an image of Hanuman, a Hindu god in the form of a monkey. In the depiction she was recalling, he has ripped open his chest to expose his heart. Here’s one version of this moment, excerpted from a longer story:

Hanuman is given a string of pearls as a token of appreciation. He immediately breaks the necklace and begins cracking each pearl open with his teeth. When asked why he is doing this,  Hanuman replies that he wants to see if Rama’s name is present in the pearls. If it isn’t, then the necklace has no value to him. Sita then asks Hanuman if Rama is inside of him as well. At this point, the monkey god rips open his chest to reveal the name of Rama inscribed on every organ, muscle and bone, and the images of Sita and Rama are found on his heart.

Heart wide open hurts. Heart wide open means alive, human. Chest wide open means heart exposed, and heart exposed means not numb. Means withstanding intensity of aliveness. Means riding waves of all the ages, more moments than would ever be possible to contain or count. We are uncontainable, really much too big for that. And yet here we are, walking around thanks to gravity inside of these skin-shaped vessels called bodies.

Someone gave me a string of pearls and I broke it open to see if God’s name was written there. It was as if I swallowed the pearls whole and took them into my heart, or strew them about in a fit among falling leaves. And then, the chest, the heart, the dark, the music, the holding and the letting loose of all the ages and all the ache and all the love that is too much to carry sometimes.

This morning, I saw their faces, the children I bore who I can only pray know my love. It’s literally in the brownies I made last night, and the way I sat while they ate breakfast and we chatted about this and that dream one of us had last night. It’s in my touch when I squeeze a shoulder or a thigh, my gaze when I’m doing that embarrassing mama thing, and it’s even underlying my annoyance or frustration when they’re fussing at me or each other. I wish my love was the very air they breathed, and I suppose in a way it is. Bigger than me or any of us. And no guarantee of ease.

It hurts sometimes to feel this much. And yes, sometimes I feel like I’ve been lost my whole life and still am. Because what is its opposite — found? Like “Amazing Grace,” is there such a moment when one arrives at the other shore? I’m not convinced. It’s more like a tide that carries me out and back, sometimes violently, sometimes so calmly I don’t even see how far I’ve drifted. There is floating and there are bouts of panic: Where are my people? Where is the ground?

And then there is surrender. To the currency of salt water and tears and ocean and the big sky that might be spacious enough for all of this, and the tightest hold that weathers me through.