Accidents Happen, Learning Happens

Photo: Isaiah Rustad

We got rear-ended yesterday. Nobody was hurt. Mani’s car has some significant damage, the repair of which will be covered by the other driver’s insurance. We’re both a little rattled, though. And of course, there’s the hassle of dealing with appraisers, repairs, and all that jazz.

After we’d both pulled over and gotten out of our cars, I asked the woman what happened. She said she didn’t know why I had stopped.

Um.

I stopped because there was a yield sign, and there was oncoming traffic where we were about to merge.

If the car in front of you isn’t moving, don’t keep driving.

She was clearly frazzled, as I would’ve been in her shoes. I HAVE been in her shoes. Accidents happen.

She thought her car wasn’t registered (and thus, not currently insured), which meant it would have to be towed. After I had already placed a call to the Amherst Police, the woman pleaded with me to take care of things privately. Later, she again asked, in the presence of the officer, why we had to go through insurance. It was at that point that she said we’d gone to high school (roughly 30 years ago).

We *knew* each other, after all. I told her oh, yeah. I thought you looked a little familiar. But honestly, I’m not sure if I remember her or not. This made me feel somehow deficient, as if I was shitty person for not running over to give her a hug.

The officer said, “Because not going through insurance never works out.” Then the woman asked the police officer if she could get a ride back to work. When the officer said no, she asked ME for a ride.

I told her I needed to think about it. The office asked her to go wait in her vehicle while she wrote up a report. And the woman walked over to my car, knocked on the window, and asked me again for a ride.

“Jena. JENA. Have a heart,” she said, looking me directly in the eye. When I told her I wasn’t comfortable doing that (not to mention the fact that I was cramming about 40 things into a two-hour window), she said, “Why? WHY?”

She didn’t have her cell phone, so she borrowed mine to call her husband, then her father, then her workplace.

She went back to her car and the officer came back to ours a few minutes later. Apparently, this was not her first encounter with the other driver. “Oh, I’ve dealt with her before. She’s always like that,” she said.

The experience pushed all my of boundaries buttons. It was as if she knew it would be hard for me to say “no” to her pleas for a lift. And it wasn’t until later that I was even able to articulate why I felt so uncomfortable and pushed. We were also in the middle of *our* day.

She was acting like a victim, even though she had just hit us. Yet I immediately questioned whether I was being cold or lacking compassion.

Having boundaries does not mean you are cold and heartless.

Yes, I am learning.

Boundaries, Conflict, Forgiveness — Oh My!

Photo: Oscar Keys

When you ask a question and the answer is no, that means the conversation is over.

“No” is not an invitation to push back, argue, convince, emote, cajole, or complain your way to a different outcome.

The time you spend fussing about doing a thing is often how long it would’ve taken to get said thing done.

You can accept not getting your way without a meltdown.

“No” does not mean, “I don’t love you.”

“No” does not mean, “You are unlovable.”

“No” does not mean, “I’m angry at you.”

“I’m angry at you” does not mean, “I don’t love you.”

“I’m angry at you” does not mean, “You are unlovable.”

* * *

Interpersonal conflict is part of life. It is absolutely unavoidable. It is something many of us are terrified of, unskilled at, and reactive to.

Making mistakes is also an absolutely unavoidable part of life. No matter how conscientious, thoughtful, mindful, caring, and considerate you are, you will have blindspots. You will misjudge. You will say a thing or ask a question or make a request and later think, what was I thinking?

That is the moment when learning begins.

That is the moment when a voice in your head is very likely to start up, likely with something harsh and berating, such as, “You idiot!”

That is the moment when your heart may start racing, when your bowels will loosen, when your hands will get sweaty. Fight, flight, freeze, fawn — one or more of these will appear in a nanosecond and your body will go into a system of red alert.

* * *

I recently made a mistake. In the moment, it didn’t seem like a big deal, though I could feel an undercurrent of pressure and rushing that should’ve been signals if I’d been paying closer attention.

Person A wanted to join Persons B and C for an outing. (My role: Intermediary between these parties.) Persons B and C had preexisting plans, that weren’t 100% ideal for Person A. Person A pushed on me to ask Persons B and C if they could change their plan to accommodate this.

Had I been more in tune with my values at this moment — such as respect, connection, trust, and honesty — I would have told Person A, either you can change YOUR plans in order to join Persons B and C, or you can let it go.

Instead, I caved and asked Persons B and C if they could change THEIR plans.

Why did I make this decision? Because this is real life: Messy, stumbling, incurably imperfect. If only we could see the whole picture in each and every moment.

Then came later. Because of going to an event 45 minutes later than planned, all the involved persons missed the highlights of the event, which Person C in particular had been looking forward to for months, perhaps even longer. Person C was hysterically sad. (It may be noted that Person C is a very young person, whose sadness was not unreasonable.)

And so it was that Friday night, I received a text from Person D, telling me how hurt she was by my asking Persons B and C to change their plans to accommodate Person A.

In a word, it sucked.

In another word: I made a mistake.

And there was no way to undo that, no way to go back and change it, no way to fix it. All I could do was take responsibility, notice what I wished I had done and said instead, and apologize six ways to Sunday for my poor judgment call.

Would the relationships all be ok?

Of course, that was the fear.

In a word: Loss.

Person A wrote a card with a very sweet drawing and put it in Persons B, C, and D’s mailbox.

I invited Person D to go for a run the next day. We met up in the driveway and gave each other a hug. We talked about how much we mean to each other. We talked about our families of origin and how we learned (or didn’t learn) to meet conflict, anger, and hurt feelings.

Persons B, C, and D forgave Person A and me. We all learned some things.

* * *

“No” means no.

“Yes, this is how that will work for us” is not an invitation to negotiating alternatives.

Boundaries are healthy.

Relationships worth keeping can withstand some conflict.

You cannot control another person’s reaction. We all bring whole lives to our responses to things, and there is almost guaranteed to be other stuff going on that may not be visible to the naked eye.

You are allowed to be angry.

You are allowed to feel hurt.

You are allowed to be scared.

You are allowed to make mistakes.

You are allowed to apologize. But it is not up to you whether or how your apology will be received. Not every song has a nice major chord of resolution at the end.

* * *

You are not required to learn form these experiences, but your world will be richer and your relationships stronger if you do. And there is no avoiding them, lest we live in a fragile, entitled state of needing everything to go our way.

Friends can become family. Family is not a guarantee of closeness.

Anger and hurt are inevitable and normal parts of being a human.

Forgiveness is a choice, not a duty.

Communication takes effort.

It’s worth it.

* * * 

Want to spend 2019 exploring how small but mighty words (like “honesty” and “courage”) show up in your everyday life?

Join me for Truth: A Year-Long Exploration of Personal Values.

Arbitrary Conventions, Untwisting the Overalls, and Learning to Say No

This morning, after drinking coffee and greeting writing groups online, I walked over to the bookshelf in my living room. I closed my eyes and scanned the spines with my right hand, then landed on one and slipped it out from the shelf. When I opened my eyes, I saw that I had selected a beautiful volume of Thich Nhat Hanh’s journals from 1962 to 1966, called Fragrant Palm Leaves. The copyright of my edition is from 1998. Like many of the books that have survived move after move, this one has stayed with me for two decades now.

I opened to page 89.

“Youth is a time for seeking truth. Years ago I wrote in my journal that even if it destroys you, you must hold to the truth. I knew early on that finding truth is not same as finding happiness. You aspire to see the truth, but once you have seen it, you cannot avoid suffering. Otherwise, you’ve seen nothing at all. You are still hostage to arbitrary conventions set up by others. People judge themselves and each other based on standards that are not their own. In fact, such standards are mere wishful thinking, borrowed from public opinion and common viewpoints. One thing is judged as good and another as bad, one thing virtuous and another evil, one thing true and another false. But when the criteria used to arrive at such judgments are not your own, they are not your truth. Truth cannot be borrowed. It can only be experienced directly. The fruit of exploration, suffering, and the direct encounter between one’s own spirit and reality — the reality of the present moment and the reality of ten thousand lifetimes. For each person, it is different. And it is different today than it was yesterday.” 

Take your time reading that paragraph. Go back and reread it if you’d like. I’ll wait.

Now take a deep breath and just take a moment to notice where your thoughts went.

Mine went all over the place — back to youth, when I first read this book, to this morning, when I practiced setting boundaries, something that is difficult for me probably because I have acted for so much of life according to outside criteria for what’s good and virtuous, and to the reality of this present moment, with the early April light melting the snow that stuck this morning.

Seeing what’s true means seeing suffering. There is no unseeing it. But there is being conscious of how we see and how we respond. There is the truth that truth is different for each person, and anytime I assume what’s true for another human without asking, I am asleep at the wheel.

Falling asleep at the wheel is, in a word, dangerous. Have you ever done it? Literally nodded off while driving? Or felt your eyes heavy just in time to pull over safely? That is some terrifying shit.

* * *

“Truth cannot be borrowed. It can only be experienced directly.”

I keep returning to that sentence. The magnitude of it, the simplicity of it, even as direct experience is often anything but simple. What it isn’t is borrowed, manufactured, imagined, or intellectualized. Either a thing is happening or a thing isn’t happening.

How we meet experience, and process it in our minds and bodies afterwards, how we digest and metabolize experience, how we release the waste and keep the nutrients — these are complex functions. They require time and care, patience and compassion.

These days are bringing many opportunities to look at arbitrary conventions I’ve taken on and taken in as truths.

For example: A good mom is always available to and for her kids.

For example: Being self-employed means I should drop everything when someone needs me (since technically, I can).

* * *

This morning, after reading page 89 in the randomly selected and timely book, I wrote a poem:

The pit of the belly
of the beast
of the people pleaser.
The pool of fear
that seethes
in the chest
in the interstitial places
between ribs
of the little child
whose parents are
fighting
down the hall
their s’s curving
down the narrow
tunnel between
rooms
careening into
catastrophe
in a young girl’s
mind.
Go further
and she has
rainbow wallpaper
small tufted clouds
she writes notes
slips papers
beneath doors
apologizing
though she has done
nothing
wrong.
Years later
a woman sits
in her own living
room and says
a simple “no”
to a simple question.
First a man asks
then a girl
and both times
the woman
says no, not today.
No, I am not able.
No, that won’t work
for me.
Her belly
clenches
and chest tightens,
mind revs up
like a motor
that will burn itself
out in a stench
if she’s not careful.
Just say no.
Just say it.
Practice, she tells herself.
What is the worst
thing
that will happen?
She will peel back
the layers
to see the tender
fragile skin
where this began.
And maybe
it will even
heal.

Recognizing that I can rewrite the story and change the narrative — based on direct experience, based on exploration, based on trusting the messages my own body sends me — feels big. It is a way of saying to myself and life: Let’s try something different today, shall we? It’s choosing an unknown instead of the familiar pattern.

Interrupting patterns and creating new ones is the work of a lifetime. I want to do these things with great care, but without walking on eggshells. I want to trust myself to communicate in ways that are loving, honest, direct, and clear. If I’m not sure how to respond to someone, I want to say, “I’m not sure how to respond to this right now. Let me sit with it and get back to you by [enter specified time frame here].”

Without the slowing down piece of this equation, you know what happens? Something seemingly small can overtake my entire day. I can spend hours going over what I wrote or said, questioning myself, thinking through alternate scenarios, and addressing a thousand thoughts about why maybe I could have or should have acted or responded differently.

THAT, my friends, is madness. And life is too short and relationships are too important to settle for madness. I’m a much bigger fan of sanity, clarity, and ease.

* * *

What we think is reality can get so twisted.

It’s like when you do laundry and there’s a pair of overalls in the machine along with shirts and pants, and when you go take the load out to put it in the dryer, the straps from the overalls are wrapped around and around and around the other clothes. A big tangled mess.

Why not just wash the overalls separately next time, right?

Now I’m not even sure quite what it is I’m writing about. Something about truth. Something about rewriting old stories that are more rooted in arbitrary convention than in lived experience. Something about boundaries and learning how to say no and knowing that it won’t ruin a thing, and if it did, that might be an indication that said thing was a bit too fragile in the first place.

Strong, healthy, mature relationships can not only withstand boundaries; they can grow stronger as a result. This goes for my marriage and my parenting, as well as for my work. But man, getting there, living this, is a real work in progress.

* * *

I’m learning how to just say “no.” It makes the times I can and choose to say “yes” so much more authentic. Arbitrary conventions I’ve swallowed and internalized insist I’m being stubborn, selfish, and inflexible. They say I’m not playing nice. I’m noticing how strong those are, and replacing them with a message to myself that in fact, I’m being clear, kind, and real.

If someone I love has a true emergency, you better believe I’ll drop everything. But the frequency with which I drop everything — whether it’s to get a kid a glass of water or give someone a ride or respond to a message that can really wait a few hours — is a signal. It’s time to heed it. It’s time to pull over to the side of the road, splash some cold water on my face, and not cause harm by functioning in ways that are more habitual than fully awake.

I’m going to practice washing things with high tangle potential by themselves, hang them to dry, and do what I can to minimize creating a frustrating mess. The more real, honest, and courageous I am in terms of boundaries, the more truly available I can be for the people and things that are deeply precious to me.

When I look at it that way, it’s not a hard choice to make.

On Boundaries, Shabbat, and Not Neglecting the Soul

The soul, like the mat, never asks where the hell have you been? It just says, welcome home.

Shabbat saves my life. This is only slightly an exaggeration. I want to try to tell you why.

Let me start with a couple of rabbis (always a good idea).

In union with the divine we find release from the pain of the futile cycle of searching and disappointment. Shabbat is our refuge of acceptance, our shelter from cravings and strivings. ~ Sheila Peltz Weinberg

… our weekly struggle in the world of achievement and bustle is now at an end. We have repeated the struggles of creation and now we too are called upon to achieve the great inner quiet which is the secret of true rest. ~ Art Green

So we have been trying to go to Friday night services at our wonderful synagogue more regularly. Last night, it was so so cold out — unseasonably so for November. We went out into the dark at 6:00pm and when we arrived at the synagogue, at first we thought maybe services had been cancelled. The building was dark. The sanctuary was locked. Then we realized our mistake: Services were in the smaller space, attached to the social hall. There weren’t many people there, though more trickled in over the next 10 or so minutes.

Like many weeks, it had been a long one. I notice my impulse to qualify this, to say “mostly good stuff.” And the truth is, there was plenty of good. There were two new writing groups as well as three continuing ones, with check-ins and freewrites and stories and poems that reminded me of the magic and power of writing down and hearing each other’s stories. As one new-to-me writer remarked: “I am amazed by how the simplest of prompts and the smallest of moments can have such an enormous impact!”

My kids have both been growing in beautiful and brave ways, and so much of my purpose emanates from my role as their mama. Doing good in the world, knowing this happens from the inside out and isn’t about bravado or badges of honor but about integrity and presence and fierce protection when necessary and letting them find their own way, not influencing that beyond what is impossible to avoid completely, and let them be who they are.

Learning once again that not everyone will a) like me, b) get me, or c) be worth the time. I tend towards forgiving others and being hard on myself, and I’m seeing in profound ways that forgiving myself doesn’t mean the opposite — being hard on others — but it very well might translate into a boundary I didn’t used to know I could draw or didn’t have the confidence to keep. It feels good, to know who gets to be on the inside with me. It feels good to say here, I am entrusting you with something sacred. Or, in other cases, this sanctuary is locked.

It feels good to learn how to recognize my own voice in my head and heart and not second-guess its knowing.

Needless to say, the past week entailed a LOT of output on many levels, and by last night, I was tuckered out. Within moments of the first melody, I felt the tears wanting out. By the beginning of the second song, they were sliding down my cheeks and chin onto my neck. I closed my eyes and felt the relief of returning to myself, to my soul. I knew it had been there waiting, needing to be touched in a way that is physical, though I know logically that doesn’t make sense. But that is how it felt, like a greeting, like a landing, like a communing.

I left the room to go to the bathroom, to blow my nose and wipe my eyes. In the mirror, I saw a middle-aged woman with two dark braids and an oversized sweater. Her face was creased, like she must enjoy the sun or perhaps was once a smoker. Her eyes looked small and slightly red-rimmed from crying. I gazed at her and she looked back at me. I saw something like soul or kindness there in her eyes. I saw a mother who would go the lengths of the earth for her kids. I saw a wife who had found herself and said yes to what was required of her in order to be that person, and then had found love in a way that she swore felt like a reward, even though she didn’t believe karma works quite that neatly. She looked like someone who felt things deeply. She looked tired, yes, and also real, solid. I liked her. I gave her a tiny squint, like a signal that I saw her and we were ok, and then went back to my seat.

Whatever stresses and tension I’d brought with me into that building did not come home with me. I woke this morning to soft, warm skin that feels like home, like roots. We drank coffee in bed and lingered and talked about how love will wither if you don’t work on relationship, but when you are really in, when you choose this person, this partner, this life again and again, even though it can be work, the love is easy. The love is effortless. It thrives when we are doing our part, showing up, bringing our ideas and our silliness and our sorrows and our fears and our dorkiness and our dreams to the table. What a miracle.

Divine love is unconditional. It is available to every one of us when we fashion our lives into channels to receive and share it. ~ Art Green

What I think is important to add or emphasize is that what this fashioning looks like is so personal. Anyone who tells you they know the right way to do it or it must be done a certain way, that only certain channels contain divine love — whatever such a thing means for you — run the other way. Close the door. Block the account. Do whatever you have to do to preserve yourself. Nobody has the right to tell you what your life must be in order to be a channel for divine love.

Nobody gets to declare they know a better path for you or your children, or that you haven’t done your research or given major decisions enough thought. This is not a permission slip to act irresponsibly; it is a mirror for the fact that you are capable, thorough, intelligent, ethical, and committed not only to doing the work life asks you to do but recognizing that there will always be that which you do not and cannot see.

Being steady is not hubris, arrogance, or narcissism. In fact, it’s what makes it possible to be open to all you do not know. It’s evidence that you are a grown woman whose devotion to truth and wellbeing runs deeper than roots you watered out of obligation or fear.

It is practicing standing in your own two footprints, the only ones in the world that are perfectly your size, and knowing how to stay soft and strong at the same time. It is admitting when you don’t know what to do next. It is acknowledging that you are not the only player here, not the only voice, while not abdicating your own intuition, observations, and wisdom.

All of this relies on an ingredient both ever-present and easily neglected: The soul.

This morning in the shower, after our delicious few hours of slow waking and before the yoga class where I planned to meet my middle sister, I called to Mani, “My soul was kind of back-burnered all week. I so needed this day to tend to it.” I knew she’d know what I meant (she did).

Yoga — my first class since I can’t even remember — was a perfect continuation of this intentional touching into soul. Even though I ran and swam throughout the summer and walk an average of 2-3 miles most days just going around, I haven’t had a regular movement practice in way too long. My body soaked up the asanas like an unwatered plant, and I sank into the floor during savasana, a hint of a headache around my temples that alerted me to the need to eat.  I picked up an egg & cheese sandwich at the cafe downstairs, while my sister got a chai. We walked to the parking lot, chatted for a few minutes, and hugged goodbye. It was cold and sunny and felt more like January than November, but my body was warm from class and cozy in a sweater, coat, leggings, and warm hat.

Without this one day a week of listening to the body, not trying to keep up with anything, to responding to anyone unless I simply want to, and connecting with myself, I wonder if old patterns of discontent, restlessness, and martyrdom would flare up more than they do these days.

In his classic book, The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes about the soothing nature of Shabbat:

The seventh day is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all. It is not a date but an atmosphere.

It is not a different state of consciousness but a different climate; it is as if the appearance of all things somehow changed. The primary awareness is one of our being within the Sabbath rather than the Sabbath being within us. 

That’s exactly it. Taking these 24 or so hours “off” is really a chance to get quiet, to go inward, to look in the mirror, to turn away from the output and towards what is closest. The circles of what’s sacred to me are all beautiful, and when I disregard my soul in the busy mix and the caring for and focusing on others, something gets lost.

It was such a relief in the last 25 hours, to realize that my soul is here and fully intact and so very receptive to the invitation to surface. I love her. I love this life.

 * * *

The is the song that undoes me and makes me whole again; it’s from the fourth verse of Yedid Nefesh, a collection of psalms typically sung on Kabbalat Shabbat. I hope you enjoy it, too.

Higali na ofrus havivi alay et sukkat shelomecha
הִגָלֵה נָא וּפְרשׂ, חָבִיב עָלַי אֶת סֻכַת שְלומָךְ
Please, my Beloved, reveal Yourself and spread upon me your canopy of peace

The Man Who Spoke Too Soon

Just when I think I’ve learned the art of the pause, of waiting before speaking, of being all tuned in and blissed out. Just when I’m taking a walk in the rain and the rain’s picking up and I’m singing out loud — I have found a way to live / in the presence of the lord — and finding my stride. Just when I am taking some credit for my own hard work, knowing that it’s not dumb luck that has landed me in love and livelihood. Just when I’m giving thanks for smooth sailing and an iota of awareness. Just when I’ve moved from stagnant to sweat, from heavy load to lightning pace, from struggle to ease, from doubt to devotion.

Just then, the phone rings. The familiar voice on the other end asks me a question. I answer “yes” without thinking, though my body tells a different story, a hard-won story, a story of loving boundaries and fought-for clarity. I have betrayed my own knowing again.

I return to the song, the chanting, my voice merging with the rain, which is coming down hard now, hard enough that I cut through the woods from street to field, bare prickly branches grabbing at my wet pants as I make my way where there is no trail to open ground. Mind is on the loose, a poorly trained dog who won’t come when I call it home. I call my beloved, who is finding her own ways of living in the presence of that which has so many names and only one name, always the one. She says it is not dumb luck.

I tell her I forgot to pause. Old injuries — fears, stories — came rushing back, like rivers you can tame but take years to dam up all the way, and with them my mouth opened and words came out I didn’t mean. You can’t put them back.

I remember the Yiddish tale I once told to a group of students who had been careless and hurtful with words. A rabbi tells a boy to cut open all of the pillows in the village. This sounds like a fun assignment, one the boy readily agrees to and carries out with gusto. Before long, thousands of feathers float all over the little town. He goes back to the rabbi, greedy for praise.

But there is a second part to his mission: Now he must go and collect all the feathers and return them to their containers. The boy’s face falls and his heart sinks and his soul grows limp. “But rabbi,” he cries. “It is impossible.” He has learned his lesson. Until the next time, when he forgets its toll and once again speaks out of turn, too impulsive, not thinking. The pause has gone missing like a sacred bird to some hiding hole.

The rabbi is not easily exasperated. But after many times, he turns to the boy who is now a grown man, a father, a provider, respected in name and deed by his fellow villagers, and asks: “Why are you still throwing feathers all over town?”

The man sits down. He sits and sits and thinks perhaps he will never speak again, though he knows this is nonsense. Finally, he turns his face upwards to his teacher with tears in his eyes. He knows this old man will love him till his beard grows to his toes, far beyond the grave.

“I keep thinking I’ve found a way to live — to live in the presence of the lord. To live without clinging to dead truths or flinging feathers to the four winds. I keep thinking I’ve found a way to live that waters peace in my heart the way the rain waters our crops and sustains life. I keep thinking…” Now the man is crying. He has no more words.

The rabbi takes the man’s face in his hands and looks him in the eyes. In this moment, a bird lands on the sill beside them. It is not a special-looking bird, but an ordinary one, the kind that collect by the dozens in the treetops at dusk.

“The smallest birds make the biggest racket,” says the rabbi. He then kisses the man’s forehead, holds out a finger, and stays very still until the bird hops from the open window to his hand. Then he leaves the man to sit alone. “You cannot fix this,” he says, turning back once before closing the door. “But you can sit still.”

The man nods, and begins to sing once again, his voice a bit fuller, a bit deeper. And if you listen very closely, you will hear the honesty in his heart, slipping out like so many feathers.

Shabbat Shalom.