Finding Refuge in Ourselves and Each Other

sundownI know better than to say anything external can make my life a living hell, but when Mani was very, very sick, I thought just that: Maybe her being very, very sick was making my life a living hell. In some ways, this was true. It was also making her life a living hell.

There was this one time, when I was writing about looking at that situation from someone else’s perspective, standing in someone else’s proverbial shoes, that I finally stepped into hers. Mind you, this was at a time when even a feather touch to her feet could send her through the roof with pain. No doctor could say what the source was of this peripheral neuropathy, but it definitely fell into the “living hell” category. I wrote and wrote. I got out of my own head. I got over myself for ten minutes, and then read her what I’d written. And it was one of those moments, a turning point — she felt heard and seen in a new way, and I felt less imprisoned by my own selfishness.

I spent the morning in synagogue. Not everyone, but many people were wearing all white, as is customary on Yom Kippur. I remembered for once to bring a tallit, or prayer shawl; when Mani and I got married two years ago, we ordered a two-person one from Israel, and they accidentally sent us two. So I brought the one that is all white and linen-colored. When we arrived (Pearl came with me and we sat in a row with my middle sister’s family; Aviva slept in as she attempted to fast), I lifted the tallit over my head as I’ve seen many others do. I did not say the actual blessing for wearing a tallit (Jews have a blessing for pretty much everything), but I did hover underneath it for a good long minute alone. And you know? It was a kind of paradise in there. It really was.

Under the tallit, I felt sheltered. I remembered that that space is always available to me, and asked myself in that silent place why I don’t take refuge there more often.

Same reason I don’t take refuge more often in general, comes the likely answer. On the yoga mat. In the woods or a bathtub. On a chair under a blanket with a book. Even in the kitchen, making a slow-cooked meal rather than a quick and easy one. So many places to find that readily available sensation of peace, and yet — I take detour after detour and then wonder, as if it’s some great mystery, why I am (fill in the blank — exhausted, headachy, grouchy, overwhelmed, etc).

The next hours were spend singing. Alternately sitting and standing. We got there when the sanctuary was pretty much filled up, so I did not have a machzor, or prayer book. And this was ok. It was paradise, too. Nothing to follow along with, no page numbers to keep track of. Just my voice joining with the ones beside, before, and behind me, following some ancient rhythms of collective responsibility and second chances.

This afternoon, Mani had a doctor’s appointment with her immunologist; he was blown away by how well she is doing — no wheelchair, no cane even, no epipen for over a year, and she has weaned herself off of some of the most hardcore opiates out there. (Can I get an amen?) He also brought up politics, and told us he’s been asking all of his patients for the past month or so who they’re voting for. We joked that seeing as we Jewish gay women who would very much like to stay legally married, he could probably guess.

While we were in the waiting room, I saw a post from writer Lesléa Newman in my Facebook feed. It was a photo of Matthew Shepard — his young, beautiful face accompanied by her words:

“In Judaism, the number 18 stands for life. Today is the 18th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death. It is also Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This feels very significant to me. Matthew Shepard believed passionately in social justice. Let us carry on his legacy today and every day by working hard to make the world a more peaceful and kinder place for all.”

matthew-shepard
Seeing this the day after National Coming Out Day after spending the morning in communal prayer ushered me home to everything I hold dear: Being free to live one’s truth — and our collective responsibility to make sure doing so is safe and — better yet — embraced.

In fact, something Rabbi Weiner said this morning, while offering a blessing for those who rose with an intention to stand up and speak out for social justice in the new year, spoke to me so personally: Sometimes a thing has to be broken in order to be repaired.

Sometimes a thing has to be broken in order to be repaired. This was certainly true for me of coming out. And I can’t help but wonder — with a cautious tinge of optimism — if it could be true for our country, too.

And yet, for many people, coming out is not safe. There is no place of refuge for this emergence, one that so often requires breaking with one’s own past in profound ways. There may not be a welcome committee imagining life in your shoes, or waiting with warm cookies and a toaster oven. For many people, to come out — be it along the LGBTQ spectrum or in other ways, as artists, as activists, as women with stories we’ve never shared, as speaking in fierce opposition to power, as spiritual — is not only scary but unfathomable.

And that is truly a living hell: To have to wear a mask inside of your own life.

As Yom Kippur came to a close and I heated up a bowl of homemade chicken soup to break my fast, as the light began to go down over the blaze of October leaves, I considered the ways in which I want to seal the year behind us and welcome the one just now beginning. As an individual, yes, one who takes responsibility for my words and actions and their impact on others. And as a member of a community — the Jewish people, the American people — who is also responsibility for doing my part to ensure that ALL of us have safe spaces.

If my wife is in pain, I must step outside of myself to imagine her experience. If my fellow human must hide who she is, may my words and presence contribute some small dose of safety to her emergence. Refuge should not fall into the category of privilege or luxury. It can’t be bought, sold, or traded, nor are some of us more deserving than others.

May 5777 — and November 8 — bring evidence that we will uphold this truth not only as self-evident, but as sacred and civic duty, individually and collectively.

The Art of Stopping Time

cccpIt went by so fast. I thought it would feel like forever. I thought it would be awkward. But it wasn’t at all. It was the most natural thing in the world, to meet myself there for a whole minute. To look into my own eyes in the way I would a child, or someone I love so very much. The relief of it. The tenderness of it. The way when I played with the deep furrow lines between my brows, my expression changed. From loving and kind to amused to angry to simply relaxed. I watched my pupils grow large in the dim living room. I saw the ways in which my face hasn’t changed at all since childhood, and I saw the depth in my eyes of being.

I looked into my eyes and thought about how thought had nothing to do with it. Just to be. Just to be here, with myself. That is why when the one-minute timer went off, I was startled. That was a whole minute?

As I write this, Mani has a hypnosis on – a man with the most wonderful Scottish brogue. He is talking about procrastination. He is talking about stopping time, and how long one second feels when time is stopped. He is talking about suffering, and how one minute is 60 times longer than one second, and an hour 60 times longer than one minute, and so on, and really, how long do you want to prolong your suffering?

Looking in the mirror for one minute was a bit like stopping time for me, which may explain why the timer came as a surprise. I realized just how rare it is that I stop and just see. Take one full minute to see. To just see myself or whomever it is in front of me. We avoid eye contact, at least prolonged eye contact. Culturally, it’s considered rude or even aggressive. Yet to meet someone’s eyes, especially your own, is such a gift. To stop and really just see. Not listen. Not take turns even. Just see equally – I am here, you are there, here we are.

Can you imagine if in a presidential debate, the opponents had to sit and just look at each other’s eyes for even a minute? No words, no rebuttals, no interruptions, no arguments, no evidence, no attacks, no defense. Just looking. Seeing. Two humans sitting together.

To look at myself in the mirror without words is to see my humanness. I am flawed, which is to say human. I am worn, which is to say human. I am creased and marked by time, because time does not stand still. And yet the illusion of it – that time is a thing I am bound by – that also melts away.

I don’t know what else to write. The hypnosis is ending with the words, “Wide, wide awake.” Maybe that’s it. Maybe taking a full minute to look in the mirror is a worthwhile daily practice. A way of saying, I am here. I am here and I am wide, wide awake. My eyes are deep with love and pain and care and little brown specks in the green and black pupils wide wide and awake in the dim room.

My face is my daughter’s face – this morning in the car, she said how every time an adult meets her for the first time, someone who already knows me, they exclaim how much she looks like her mother. “Sorry,” I say, faux-apologetically. But I can tell we are both ok with it.

I have this face that is timeless and not timeless. I resist the urge to look at the timer. I hear the clock on my dresser ticking. One second after another.

**

This was an unedited ten-minute freewrite in one of my current writing groups. If you’re looking to jumpstart or deepen your writing practice, join me for “What If You Knew?” (October 10-21), my next two-week group. Limited to 12 participants. More details and registration here.

No Matter What

This stellar swarm is M80 (NGC 6093), one of the densest of the 147 known globular star clusters in the Milky Way galaxy. Located about 28,000 light-years from Earth, M80 contains hundreds of thousands of stars, all held together by their mutual gravitational attraction. Globular clusters are particularly useful for studying stellar evolution, since all of the stars in the cluster have the same age (about 15 billion years), but cover a range of stellar masses. Every star visible in this image is either more highly evolved than, or in a few rare cases more massive than, our own Sun. Especially obvious are the bright red giants, which are stars similar to the Sun in mass that are nearing the ends of their lives.

This stellar swarm is M80 (NGC 6093), one of the densest of the 147 known globular star clusters in the Milky Way galaxy. Located about 28,000 light-years from Earth, M80 contains hundreds of thousands of stars, all held together by their mutual gravitational attraction. Globular clusters are particularly useful for studying stellar evolution, since all of the stars in the cluster have the same age (about 15 billion years), but cover a range of stellar masses. Every star visible in this image is either more highly evolved than, or in a few rare cases more massive than, our own Sun. Especially obvious are the bright red giants, which are stars similar to the Sun in mass that are nearing the ends of their lives.

No matter where you are tonight. No matter what you’re going through.

No matter how busy or bored, confused or tired, pissed off or content.

No matter if you’re grieving or celebrating, wound up or unwinding,
healing or crumbling, discovering or forgetting
or sitting in that place where these meet that has no name.

No matter if you’re hungry, full,
or consumed by some unspoken craving.

No matter if you’re satisfied or searching.

No matter if you’re scared or in denial or facing the facts.

No matter if you’re home or away,
here, there or neither here nor there.

No matter if you’re alone or surrounded, or surrounded yet alone.

No matter if you’re playing games on your phone or watching Netflix
or reading a book or trying to stay awake at work
or tucking kids in or wishing you were somewhere else
or unable to sleep or deep in a dream.

No matter what, I am so glad that we get to be here on the planet at the same time. I mean, what are the odds?

Billions of years, billions of people. And here we are. Here we are.

#biglove

The Art of Detachment

This morning, my old friend and I went for our weekly run. We were both tired, but she came over anyway, and I rallied and laced up my sneakers, and out we went for our just-shy-of-25-minute jaunt north to UMass and then up through town, back to my driveway, where we stretched and kept talking for a while longer, then up to my kitchen, where I poured us both some water and we talked yet some more.

Our weekly run reminds me of when, years ago in Burlington, my friend Nan and I used to meet Friday mornings at my house, ostensibly for sitting practice. We did sit, mind you — usually for 10 or 15, sometimes as long as 20 minutes. And then we picked a card from the Carolyn Myss archetypes deck and talked. And talked and talked and talked. I’d joke that our sitting practice was really just cover for getting together, and it was.

When my life imploded, it was Nan I called, and the friendship that grew up inside of all that sitting and talking was a kind of bedrock. The same is true these days with Susa. The running is our presenting reason for a regular visit, and these visits are the stuff that makes a friendship become bedrock, even one that goes back 30+ years.
We were talking about how you really never know what’s going on in someone else’s world, not unless he or she tells you.

What if we moved through life seeing each other this way? She told me about a video that always makes her partner, a dharma teacher, well up with tears. In it, some guy is having One of Those Days. The kind where everything is hard, the world seems to be against him, conspiring to perpetuate his suffering. He gets cut off in traffic, someone at the coffee shop is rude to him — we’ve all been this person.

Then there’s the second version, with little bubbles above the other people’s heads. The driver of the car that cut off our disgruntled protagonist? Recently lost his wife to cancer. The jerk in the coffee shop ? Going through a brutal divorce.

You’ve probably seen this quote, even likelier in some pretty meme on Pinterest: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” There’s debate about its origin, which attests if anything to its universality and truth.

Where things can sticky, for me, is when I forget this. Because then it becomes easy for my own ego to take center stage (isn’t that where ego loves to hang out?). Historically, it has been really hard for me to have someone be unhappy. As a kid, I hated it when my mom was upset, even if I hadn’t been the one to upset her. Because life is kind in this way, I’ve had lots of practice with this trigger.

To this day, I still have to work on walking away when Aviva is upset or angry, be it with me or for any other reason. I’m not proud of this, but it’s true. “I’m getting better,” I want to say, and even there, I hear the plea, the not-so-subtle wish for approval: Look, world, I’m working on it! Look, Ma, no hands!

The good girl in me — I don’t trust her much anymore. She sees through distorted lenses. She might have 99 people who respect her, appreciate her, and enjoy her gifts and foibles alike. But guess what? It’s that 1% that catches her, hooks her, sinks her. Left to her own voices and devices, she’d be a cloying partner, a needy friend, and a helicopter mom. Oy.

The art of detachment. Other people’s opinions of me are none of my business. Complete sentences, like “No.” And, “I don’t want to.” And, “This doesn’t feel good to me.” And, “Best wishes.

Sometimes not everything goes your way, or mine. Maybe even a lot of time. Where did we — where did I — get this idea, that it should?

I think about raising resilient, well-prepared-for-real-life kids, and realize the best and perhaps only way I can do this is to live a real life. Hang the rejection letter on the fridge. Tell them I had an unhappy customer and didn’t understand why and couldn’t fix it because it wasn’t mine to fix. Keep doing my work with as much joy, integrity, and heart as I can. Focus on the 99% not as sugar-coating but because it feels good and fuels me.

I’m not polished. I’m not perfect. I’m not for everyone. You’re not for everyone. Some days are rough, but the truth is, as many beautiful moments happen as sucky ones. It’s just that the latter can eclipse everything if I let them.

What if we all saw those little bubbles over each other’s heads? What if we have one person, just one, who meets us exactly where we are, week after week after week, to sit, to run, or even just to drink coffee and laugh or cry or talk about all the broken and beautiful things until a day comes when oh, do we ever need that friend and there she is, waiting for you with a latte and a hug? What if we wished each other well and walked away when it didn’t feel good, and it was nobody’s fault? What if we were kinder to each other and ourselves, and didn’t take everything so personally?

I’m practicing the art of detachment. And something interesting is happening. It is getting easier to arrive at this freedom: I am here, you are there. This is mine, that is yours. My shadow is a dance partner who’s always pushing me to learn new steps.

It’s almost like she believes in me.