A Day of Mourning

Photo: Jilbert Ebrahimi

Photo: Jilbert Ebrahimi

Today is a day of mourning.
Whatever you are feeling, feel it.
What happens next?
The honest answer is: I don’t know.

Today we cast our gaze backward
and see how far that gets us.
Or we fix our eyes on the steep climb ahead,
when there is also this road,
only this road our brothers have braved
and our sisters have sung,
this road soaked with the blood
of my blood and the bones of my bones.

Today, anything goes.
We remember the night of broken glass,
the night of red overunning all of our maps,
the night of disbelief and yes,
this is real, this is really happening.
We are not the first
nor will we go down as the last
ones standing up for and against
the walls they threaten to build,
the ones my child told me
can’t get all the way to the clouds.

Today we take one day to mourn.
Maybe two or three or four,
maybe we channel this grief
and disgust into the kind of courage
that reminds us never
ever give up.
Maybe.

Today is a day of shame.
We voted and it was not enough.
Our fingertips grazed the glass ceiling
but our white clothing served to remind us
that it was a white woman’s fight
and this, there is no forgetting
or forgiving.

The demagogue will sell you down
the river and the river will deposit you
into polluted oceans that connect us all.
I am ill. Today I am ill.
If I say, none of the right people
will read these lines,
then who are you, and who am I?

Today is a day of mourning.
Of lament. Of memory the body carries.
Of frozen silence and blazing fury
and give us a minute, can you just
give us a minute?

Today is a day to turn off the news.
To feel whatever you feel.
To kneel before no man
and to heed the call of your own heartache.
Stay — please, please stay — inside
of your own skin, your own body.
Be safe there.
Be safe.

9/30

#30poemsinnovember

The Art of Withstanding Fear

fog Fear can be a bitch — especially when it’s ungrounded, based in thoughts and not realities (which is usually the case, for me anyway). Maybe it’s fear based on something that happened in the past, or fear based on the idea of what could happen in the future, or some crazy collision of both of these.

What it isn’t — this elusive, illusory, free-floating fear — is here. In this quiet kitchen, fridge humming, one kid happily at school, the other getting ready since I let her sleep in, working away, interacting with really wonderful people who are deep in their own complicated, real lives (we all are, we all are), my wife in the other room eating oatmeal.

That whole “all is well” thing is quite useful sometimes, and requires a complete acceptance of the fullness and completeness of this very moment. This very moment. This very moment. So often if one of my kids is experiencing pain — physical or emotional — my urge is overwhelming to rush in and sooth or fix or help. But really, we don’t need to save our kids from themselves, any more than we need to save ourselves from ourselves.

“You are not supposed to be happy all the time. Life hurts and it’s hard. Not because you’re doing it wrong, but because it hurts for everybody. Don’t avoid the pain. You need it. It’s meant for you. Be still with it, let it come, let it go, let it leave you with the fuel you’ll burn to get your work done on this earth.” – Glennon Doyle Melton

I love this Glennon quote, because it reminds me not to avoid the stuff that hurts or the stuff that scares me. It’s such a steep practice for me sometimes, to speak my own truth, to balance listening and open-mindedness with what my body’s telling me. Sometimes I feel like I suck at it. Sometimes I want to avoid anything smacking of confrontation, to disappear, to make it go away. And mostly, what I need to trust is that it’s coming from love, but not everything requires action and reaction.

Can I be the mountain? Can I withstand some discomfort if the alternative is to swallow my voice in order to make others feel more comfortable? These, to me, are not easy questions to sit with. I want to say the answer is an obvious “hell yes,” but the truth is I’m not (yet) always as steady in my courage as I want to be.

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.

Write with me in one or more of these upcoming online groups! 

Explore what you want and need with one-on-one coaching.

To the Lighthouse

lighthouse
It started with Airbnb. We looked in Maine, in New Hampshire, in Massachusetts, and in Rhode Island. We looked in Brooklyn and Manhattan and Boston. We ooohed and aaahed over gorgeous whole houses we can’t afford, and read for fine print about pets and shared spaces. Finally, we found the one: A simple little house near a cove, in a fishing village known for its art and quarries and creativity and kindness and lighthouses. Three nights away, next week, just me and my love.

Big deal, you say? Why yes, it is a big deal. Six months ago, our Valentine’s Day getaway to The Porches Inn in Williamstown, MA left us positively giddy. We had such a wonderful time at Mass MoCA the next day, and felt like a million dollars having gotten out of dodge for the first time in almost 18 months, not counting hospital visits like this one. At the time, Mani was able to bring Ensure with us, so we didn’t have to worry about what she would eat.

You know how some foods, or even songs or shows or books, will forever remind you of being sick? Whether you had a flu or a serious or chronic illness, you might never want to see another bowl of red jello or rice cereal again. Well, that’s how Ensure is for Mani, I think; it saved her life and we are forever grateful for its calories and nourishment. But a few months ago, she started reacting to it, and now it’s off the table.

As we’re able to start getting out more, little by little — the kind of little by little that in a moment will become all of a sudden, a pattern so many things in life follow — the food thing is a bit tricky right now. But is that going to stop us? Give me a hell, no. We just can’t do hotels for the time being, or day trips. What we can do is rent a place with a kitchen, bring our pots and pans and coffeemaker and air purifier, find a grocery store when we get there, and set up shop. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do next Monday night until Thursday.

We looked at the calendar a few days ago and realized that next week is the ONLY week in the coming months when I will not have multiple writing groups going on. So many exciting things are coming up — both my own groups, two of which begin in August and a third in September (One Story: Ten FacetsWorrier to Warrior, and On the Corner: Writing at the Intersections), and the fantastic two-week writing groups I’ll be co-creating and co-facilitating each month this fall with my wonderful partner over at The Inky Path.

So I had a come-to-Jesus moment (are Jews allowed to have those?) when I realized that if I’m going to keep loving this work, and I really, really want to keep loving it — I need a break. Not a 24-hour break like Shabbat, but something away from home, with just myself and my wife and maybe a book or three. I almost never unplug, and my nervous system is feeling the effects of this. The whole “Physician, heal thyself” adage is so, so true; if I don’t cherish, protect, and nurture my own creativity, how on earth can I support others on their writing journeys?

I’ve been a bit jumpy lately, enough so that I’ve actually started writing about it in my head. Flashes of moments when I was nervous or anxious or scared from many different ages and stages of life, illuminated as if by heat lightning in a summer storm and just as quickly dark again. It’s as if my body is remembering something, or perhaps sending me a message: It doesn’t have to be this way. You are safe. Everything really is ok and will continue to be ok. You swam through scary moments and made it across. There’s enough money to pay the bills, so much love I have a surplus, and I can run and sing and swim and make love and form complete sentences and eat stale cheerios as a late-night snack and life is good. It is.

And.

There is more: I am risking burnout.

There’s a bit of pride swallowing in sharing this, but that’s exactly why I am writing it here (this I realize literally as I type the words). Or if not pride, fear perhaps — if I am not superwoman, will people still want to be in my writing groups? If I am not the energizer bunny, will people still want me to be their coach?

Oh, Jena. Really?

I know the answer, I do. But it’s still vulnerable, as if I’m “admitting” something by saying I am depleted at all. It’s like I’m afraid people — you — will somehow take it personally. Again, though, I write the words down and they stare back at me with a different message, and suddenly something like a cackle kicks up. It starts low then becomes howling laughter: You think it will matter if you disappear from Facebook and the internets for a few days? HAHAHAHAHAHA.

OK, OK. I get it. I get it! It’s completely ridiculous. Nobody thinks I’m superwoman! I’m the only one carrying that shit around, and newsflash: it’s bunk.

Tomorrow, four women will show up in Amherst to Unfurl for the weekend. Pearl went around with me doing some last-minute errands. A mason jar with newly sharpened colored pencils sits on the windowsill; a giant bag of M&Ms and a stack of inspiring writing books wait by the door. I will show up tomorrow as my whole self, my real self, my honest self. Not with a fake smile, not with a false front, and not with a sugarcoated story. I will write alongside the others as the timer counts down, about what we want, about trust and deep inner wisdom. I will eat heartily and laugh and oh! I just remembered I forgot to buy tissues. Note to self: Buy tissues.

And then on Monday, Mani and I will pack our bags and drive east to the ocean, to fill our noses with salt air. I’ve forgotten a bit what it’s like, to just be me — without kids, without interacting, without engaging with the world through screens big and small.

Nothing will fall apart if I do this; in fact, things may come together in beautiful, unanticipated ways. So I am going to go away with my love, to take pictures of lighthouses — and to remember that my own light will be brighter for the “going dark.”

I Want to Hear What You Have to Say

What-you-have-to-say
I want to hear what you have to say, and sometimes I am not a great listener. I jump in, jump the gun, with opinions and judgments, thin-skinned covers for fears I cling to and do a terrible job of hiding, beliefs I swallowed without study, things I call “norms” and things I call “best,” all evidence of ignorance, places of discomfort demanding my attention.

From screentime to white supremacy, I am swimming in a sea of plastic bags, choking turtles, washed-up whales and broken bodies; from parenting to profiting, I can close my eyes or open them, close my gates or open them, close my heart and mind or open them. That is all. What follows is a direct result of that simple choice, a daily one, one that itself is borne of privilege.

Yesterday, my wife rattled off five ways women “still” don’t live as equals in our country to an inquisitive ten-year old. We may not wave a freak flag high, nor can I stand and chat without wanting to ask, what are you afraid of? What comforts are you needing to protect by keeping your eyes closed? And also, yes, me too. And also, I refuse. And aren’t we complicated creatures, some say God’s children, one and all, others not so much.

I want to hear what you have to say and sometimes I am not a great listener. Sometimes I interrupt, sometimes I think I suck, sometimes I take a breath and your voice rises and falls and calls me out and fills the room with truth and I want to say thank you. Let me help. Let me have the courage to unlearn so many judgments and whose best practices are those, anyway?

Sometimes I say, when I’m alone in my car, engine off keys dangling from ignition in the safety of my driveway, “let me be a vessel,” and sometimes I have to breathe into that and go beyond the limitations of language into a space beyond censor, beyond selfhood, beyond sky and back again to this moment, rain on dashboard, the blackberries that were so ripe last week now withered, a squirrel got into the compost again and I have to use the bathroom and are we really “all in this together” or is that a convenient way of saying I accept the status quo?

Let us go then, you and I, to the places courage carries us to look each other in the eye. I have no answers. Only this silence where the words pour in from some invisible valve and light competes with brutality and I finally speak out loud just this: “God, are you here?”