Rejections, Insults, and Perspective


It’s 7:30 on Sunday morning. I did not sleep well — took a long time falling to sleep, then was up around 3:30, which is when I checked my phone and saw the rejection email from an editor I’d been really, really hoping would select the poem I’d submitted for a weekly series where poets respond to current news stories.

I must have gotten back to sleep — vivid dreams — and before I knew it, Chalupa started stirring sometime after 6:00am, and I woke up drenched in sweat. Night sweats have always been a thing for me but have gotten much more intense as I walk deeper into my 40s. So hi, I’m up. Up with coffee, of course. I took Chalupa downstairs to relieve herself after a bout of record-setting bulldog stubborness at the top of the stairs, then gave her breakfast, played with her mangled crocodile for a few minutes, and gave her a lovely shoulder massage until she was ready to calm down and sleep some more.

I’ve submitted more work in the last week than in a long time, and it’s such a funny cycle: I write, tinker a little, send with a kiss and a wish, wait, know that the odds are not in my favor, and then eventually get the email saying, “Thanks, but.” It doesn’t keep me from continuing (to write, tinker, send, etc.), but that’s not to say I don’t have a truncated trip through the stages of grief every time. This one hit a little harder, which tells me the poem itself is more personal. I will probably share it here soon.

Something Mani shared with me yesterday — she was reading a mental health-related piece about why words matter, especially the words practitioners of all kinds use — really struck me: One negative statement or insult has the same impact as 100 positive statements of compliments. Said another way, it takes 100 positive things to cancel the impact on a person of a single negative one. My mind went in so many directions at once upon hearing this. I thought of children, all children really but particularly those at higher risk to be bullied, teased, ostracized, and underestimated based solely on factors like race, gender expression, or a disability.

I also thought of creativity — from writing to art-making — and the lasting damage of that one teacher who told you you should quit, or you’d never be that good, or you didn’t have what it takes. I thought about the folks who write with me, and why my groups aren’t focused on being better writers per se. When you were diminished as a child, it can take a lot of practice and time and affirmation to slowly begin to believe, “I can.”

The latest rejection stings. It pisses me off for a minute. But it’s not an insult. It’s just a person with his own subjectivity, his own sense of what the readers of his magazine prefer, and surely his own unconscious filters and biases, too, making choices about what to publish. It doesn’t hurt me, and it won’t scar me unless I let it. But if I never shared my work anywhere where it was met with appreciation, recognition in the form of resonance and human connection, and kindness, I think it would be a hell of a lot harder to keep going.

Yesterday, a participant in my most recent 2-week writing group shared this:

Writing with you these past two weeks did get me unstuck. It was hard and didn’t always feel comfortable with what my words revealed, but now I can make words with my voice and camera again. Much self-knowledge gained. Thank you.

This woman is a phenomenally talented photographer and a deeply beautiful writer. But she had been stuck. Her word, along with so much emotion, had gotten lodged inside of her body. And the writing, the prompts, the safe space for sharing where she knew she wouldn’t be insulted or rejected be it for the quality or the content of her words, all allowed her to begin to feel herself again.

This to me is of far greater importance than getting published in the New York Times, the Atlantic, and so on. Don’t get me wrong — reaching more people with my words has always been and remains an ever-growing dream of mine. It’s that this dream doesn’t overpower the other one, which is to encourage people to trust themselves through practice, to make room for being imperfect, and to do this right alongside every person I’m lucky enough to write with.

I suppose it’s called perspective.

I woke up after that less-than-stellar night’s sleep feeling some urgency. Urgency to write, perhaps to assemble my next collection of poems, which I might even submit to a literary contest if I can pull it together in time, and well. We’ll see. For now, I come here. Because here is a place to land, a way to connect, and 20 minutes I’ll never regret.

Now I’m going to pour a second cup. If you want homework: Think of one negative statement or insult you’ve carried. Write it down on a piece of paper. Then get a second piece of paper, and write 100 positive statements or compliments. If you can’t think of that many, it’s fine. Just start.

Goethe’s oft-quoted words seem like a fitting way to end: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

The Other Door

Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, Paris, France, by Alex Holyoake

The other door. A mouth. An ear. A nostril. An eye. A pelvic floor. A vulva. A body of doors, openings and closings. Go inward and there are chambers of the heart and esophageal flaps and valves controlling the flow of fluids through channels, maintaining order. Spine, neural pathways, veins, arteries, capillaries, so much anatomy, a house I’ll never explore fully enough.

The other door. The third eye, the mind’s eye, the wrist, the sacrum. Ridges of teeth against tongue. A pinch here, a pulse there. A room that leads to a room that leads to a room, a series of caves, underground tunnels, a palace built into the side of a mountain at the edge of the sea.

The other door. Scalp. Hair follicles. Nail beds. Reach, stretch, bend, bow. Break. Repair. Heal. Hurt. Fire, ice, water, soak, salve.

The other door. Phlegm. Spit. Cum. Blood. Yellow. White. Red. Black. Bruise. Blue. Green. Eyes. Seeing, translating, refracting, flipping over, inside out, rapid fire, REM sleep, deep dreams, doors through doors through doors, open, open, open, closed. Open, open, open, closed. Mantra, memory. Lullaby.

The other door. Images. Flashes. What makes a person, what makes a body, what makes a a life. Rooms inside of bodies and buildings inside of houses inside of dolls inside of cliff sides inside of families inside of centuries inside of stories inside of time inside of timelessness.

The other door. Listen. Watch. Float on a bed of salt. Squeeze your legs together, spread them wide, kick, pull, push, glide.

The other door. Spirit. Mystery. Sun, moon, plain as day, clear as night. Sky and floor, room after room. Remember this? Remember this place? Swim home through waters you were born from and to which you will return. Doors open, open, open. Open your mouth. Open your eyes.

We Will Protest by Living

The Witches’ Brooms, by Enzie Shahmiri

We’re going to a laughter thing this weekend. Mani and a friend heard about it and thought it sounded fun, and I agreed. I imagine we will either love it or laugh at it or maybe both, but either way it should make for a good story.

Last week, a few days before my birthday, I dreamed I looked in the mirror. For a moment — perhaps it was three or four seconds, the kind of seconds that feel long — I saw my mother’s face returning my gaze. I shook my head and blinked my eyes, disbelieving, and then it was me again on the other side of the glass.

The night before that, I dreamed I was driving and an ambulance was speeding towards me, in the same lane. I swerved just in time to avoid a head-on collision.

Today the sun came out for long enough that I couldn’t ignore its call. I laced up my sneakers and went for a thirty-minute walk. I thought about the books that have been written about boredom — I heard a story on the radio this morning about this, so it was fresh on my mind. How we’ve “lost our ability to be contemplative.” I think about the number of tabs open on my desktop, the number of apps on my phone, and wonder if this is true of me.

Have I lost my ability to contemplate? Sometimes I feel like all I do is contemplate. There must be some relationship between contemplation and action. As with most things, there’s no right answer. I get home with sweat trickling down my back under my sweatshirt and hop on a coaching call with a writer who excitedly reports many discoveries from the past week. She speaks of shame and how it distorts, and later tells a story that exemplifies clear seeing and the compassion that comes with it.

Later, a shower. “I feel like I’m behind,” I call to Mani in the bedroom, then remember that I’m not behind, I’m in the shower. I turn the valve clockwise and feel the water get hotter.

Aviva is cleaning her room. She comes into the kitchen to get a garbage bag and more Oreos. I am trying to work. The kitchen is my office, and I’m used to interruptions. So many interruptions. This morning in the car when we were talking about our Dream House, I used the word “tolerating.” As in, I am tolerating my work space situation. Would it be nice to have a room of my own? Yes. Would I love for Mani to have a yoga room? Yes. Am I unhappy? Truth be told, no. I’m not. I am weary of coveting what I don’t have; I’ve been to that rodeo and it wasn’t so fun. It sucked, in fact, like the speaker in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29:

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;

I swept the kitchen floor today. Later, I spotted a man with a toddler out for an afternoon walk, stopping to watch two dogs play in a yard. I love the feel of a little hand in mine.

Many friends are going to marches on Saturday, in D.C. and Oakland, in Boston and Northampton, in Philadelphia, in Tulsa, , in Raleigh and Portland and Chicago. All over the country, women I call my sisters will be marching. I will be here, with my wife. We’ll meet a new friend and see what it’s like to laugh in a room full of strangers. We will have no idea what to expect. We, too, will leave our house, step out into the day, and protest in our own way: By living.

January is so many shades of grey, and Trump’s inauguration (gag) is one of those events that is decidedly not grey. There is no nuance, no subtlety, no argument for the possibility of good in this abomination of democracy, dignity, and humanity. None. I will not waver on this. And while yes, I understand that this is our reality, that we must work with “what is,” I will still insist after tomorrow that no, he is not my president.

An old friend messaged me today. She said she’d been thinking of me and missed our coffee dates. I wrote her back: I miss you, too. We made a phone date for Sunday. This is what we must do — what we’ve always done: Tell each hello. Show up and say, when can we talk? I want to hear your voice. I want to see your face. Thank you for reaching out.

Share this post with a friend you miss seeing. Make a date to talk, to drink coffee, to give each other a hug. You’re not behind, you’re right here. And I’m right here with you. We’re in this together, and if nothing else, that will keep being true.

Surfing Ocean and Sky: Mary Oliver, Whitman, and Synchronicity

And here we are, gliding along the last days of the year. Taking (time) off is all the lovelier for its strangeness.

And here we are, gliding along the last days of the year. Taking (time) off is all the lovelier for its strangeness.

The first dream happened in the afternoon. It was Friday, December 23. As we do most days, Mani and I took a nap after lunch. But before I tell you this dream, I need to tell you about part of a conversation I had that morning, with a long-standing writing coaching client who has also become a friend and beloved human.

We wrap up our hour-long call, then linger as we often do. We talk a bit about what kind of support she needs for her writing as we begin 2017, and I mention some of the things that are on my mind around my own life and work.

At one point, she says, “If I may…”

To which I respond, “Please do….”

And so she tells me that in the year we’ve been talking every single week by phone, she in her home office and me in my kitchen or living room “office,” she has somehow never before noticed the framed photograph that now catches her eye. It is a picture of the sky. Big, expansive, vast, wide-open sky.

I take a breath and tell her how perfect it feels, like a reading I didn’t even ask for. I joke that I should be the one paying her, rather than the other way around.

And then she says something so beautiful.

You are the sky. And you are the ocean, too. We need you.

I sit with this for a moment, tears in my eyes. I feel the impulse to deflect it, to say something funny or self-deprecating. But I don’t. I take it in. And then I thank her and say, “I need you, too.”

**

A few hours later, Mani and I crash hard. I intend to rest for maybe 45 minutes or so, but when the timer goes off on my phone (the alarm doesn’t work, so I’m always doing the  math and setting a timer), I swiftly swipe it off without resetting it. It’s in this next interval of sleep that I really go under.

I find myself in a dream where I am body surfing the most glorious waves — they are huge, powerful, and generous without being scary or threatening, and I am moving at the speed of ocean. Then I am soaring, too, over sand — it lifts me like air and I feel like I’m flying, unbridled, one with sky, salt, sea, and land. Not a single object or obstruction stands in my way. At one point, a guy on a bike approaches behind me, and I just let him pass.

(Later, there is some confusion — it seems this incredible experience has deposited me in the student center at Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley and I have to figure out how to get back to Amherst.)

But that part of the dream — I want to call it a passage — was extraordinary in its embodiment of movement and being.

I wake up and realize what has happened, what I’ve experienced.

I was the sky. I was the ocean, too.

**

The next day, Saturday the 24th, we pack up for a mini vacation I’ve surprised Mani with for the first few nights of Hanukkah, to an Airbnb in Cambridge. We get there in time to pick up some groceries just before everything closes for Christmas. The place we’ve chosen is perfect — small but clean and cozy, smack in between Fresh Pond and Harvard Square.

I have to sit on my hands not to reach out to everyone I know in the Boston area, knowing that this time is ours alone and trusting that 2017 will bring opportunities to connect with friends, perhaps offer readings from my new book, and lead workshops. Ideas percolate and I let them, without racing to write anything down.

I share a picture on Facebook of the most fabulous display of Christmas lights, with these words, alluding to yesterday’s dream:

lightsI’m sitting in our Airbnb (not the house in the photo!) eating chipotle chicken mac & cheese from a Whole Foods take-out carton, on a quiet street in a neighborhood filled with lights. We had a festive family dinner last night, and now my kiddos are with their dad and his family up in Vermont. I took a nap this afternoon and had an extraordinary dream–so vivid–in which I was body surfing ocean, sand, and sky. I may have to write about it.

But for the next few days, the plan is to read, rest, and just be. The darker the night, the brighter and more beautiful and essential these over-the-top lights seem to me. I’m so grateful for this community of friends and writers–you know who you are, but I hope you also know that you anchor me and bring so much meaning, purpose, connection, and joy into my life.

**

The next morning, I make us coffee and sit down to start reading “Upstream” by Mary Oliver, a gift from my parents. I reach page 23, an essay called “Of Power and Time,” a timeless piece of writing that I will return to again and again for the rest of my days. I underline at least 50% of it as I read, beginning with the opening lines of the second paragraph:

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in. 

She writes of the ways in which not only the world interrupts us, but how we interrupt ourselves, something she calls “a darker and more curious matter.”

I take a picture of these lines and text it to my writing friend, who gets it right away and responds in kind:

Jena – THE SKY!!!

I haven’t yet told her about the sky-ocean-sand surfing dream. My sense of contentment is sudden and complete. In this moment, I have everything I need.

contentment

Later in the same essay, I nearly burst out crying and laughing at the same time. I have just put the final touches on my third, self-published collection of poems. After some deliberation, a title poem rose to the surface and gave the book its name: Why I Was Late for Our Meeting. I wrote this particular poem last summer. The meeting I was late for? A coaching call with my sky-writing friend.

Page 30:

If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.

I am momentarily dismayed not to have read these words in time to include them as an epigraph to the new poems. And then quickly, this is replaced by an immeasurable sense of joy and synchronicity. Because really — how marvelous is this, to be dipping into the same reservoir of knowing, as a poet I so deeply respect and admire. I tell Mani I must find a way to give her a copy of the book!

**

That first night in Cambridge, I dream a statement. It goes something like this:

To ask questions and not assume — this feels like love.

I wake remembering it — almost. The wording is off a bit, but the meaning is clear. I don’t know how the speaker was in the dream, though those of a Jungian persuasion would argue that it’s a moot point; the whole dream is the dreamer.

I pour a second cup of coffee and return to the window seat to  keep reading. I reach the essay called “Sister Turtle” and read, on page 57, this line:

To enjoy, to question–never to assume, or trample.

Oliver is writing about “the responsibility to live thoughtfully and intelligently.” I shudder slightly, as if I’ve been caressed by the softest touch. Once again, I know I am right where I need to be. Later, in “Some Thoughts on Whitman,” she shares the first lines of his glorious “Song of Myself,” a poem I first read in its entirety nearly 20 years ago, when I entered an MFA program and lived not two miles from where we’re staying.

I celebrate myself, 
And what I assume you shall assume, 
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. 

Whitman’s poetry is incantatory — a word my grad school advisor assigned to my work, much to my delight — and intent, as Mary Oliver notes, on “[forcing] open the soul.” She goes on:

He was after a joyfulness, a belief in existence in which man’s inner light is neither rare nor elite, but godly and common, and acknowledged. For that it was necessary to be rooted, again, in the world.

**

I mark this passage and write “lineage,” underlined twice in the margin. I am of and from this belief; it drives my writing and my work. To be flung wide open, unguarded and real. To keep turning over the stones and jewels, never knowing where some shard of light may be revealed, even when the task seems redundant and questionable. To crouch by the edges of my everyday life, as Mary Oliver does near her beloved Blackwater Pond, “utterly quiet and half-hidden.” To coax soul from its perch and into my open palm. To insist on light — mine and yours, common, acknowledged, and essential.

fresh-pond-1

There is a rumor of total welcome among the frosts of the winter morning. – Mary Oliver

The second morning of our getaway, I go for a run around Fresh Pond. I pay for it later; my lower back is not happy with me. But it’s worth it at the time. Kids on scooters riding ahead of the grown-ups, lots of people with their dogs, and pairs of friends or couples all circumambulate the pond in holiday-week leisure. I am glad to be alone but among them.

**

The third morning, I don’t run, but instead venture a few blocks up the street to a bakery that caught my eye. I bring my journal and sit writing, people watching, and caffeinating while Mani sleeps in a little.

I notice my slight anxiety about taking time “off” from working, and watch as my handwritten words unfurl across the creamy, blank pages:

Trusting people to wait for me. Trusting that the world won’t abandon me if I rest… Keep your hand moving, mama, and see what it is really like to be all the way here, deeply and without reservation. That is the practice. That is the work.

**

Speaking of trust, we decide to splurge and stay one additional night.

Now it is the evening of Tuesday, December 27. We’ve brought with us two canvas bags filled with magazines to cut up. At home, Mani does this somewhat regularly, but it has been ages since I did anything visual, and I’m out of practice. This is humbling and a good reminder of where many people are when they first approach my writing groups. Just start, I tell myself. And keep going, I add.

The first little while is awkward. I cut out words and a few pictures, not sure where it’s going or whether it will amount to anything I like. I glance over at Mani and she seems so relaxed, then remind myself to just stay in it without worrying about the outcome. After all, how can I hashtag things like “creative process” if I myself am unwilling to try new things?

After two hours, I am surprised and pleased and not a little bit amazed. I’ve created something!

collage

Come at evening or at morning. Come when expected or without warning. A thousand welcomes you’ll find here before you. And the oftener you come, the more we’ll adore you.

**

Dreams and images, words on pages written out of order, found right on time, speaking to each other across time zones and zip codes, climates and landscapes, decades of life, centuries, too. All of this happens as if in simulcast, where the linearity of time is illusory and really, we’re all here dipping our spoons into the same pot, sipping and slurping and stirring.

Since Sunday, I’ve read two books — the other was “The Light of the World” by Elizabeth Alexander — and indeed rested my body and mind so as to make room to listen to my soul. This has everything to do, for me, with my service to you, to the world. They are inseparable, neither endeavor complete without the other.

This balance is my lifelong… I almost wrote struggle. But no, that was before. Now, it feels like a gift, one I get to keep opening and giving away and receiving again, never the same twice, yet somehow also unchanging.

**

We’re back home now. The snow is really coming down, as predicted. Mani is doing a meditation beside me before we head over to Northampton, where she has her private yoga session and I will sit in a coffee shop, working on prompts for my next two-week writing group.

What will the new year bring?

Rest and work. Giving and receiving. Love and loss. Practice and outcome. Synchronicity and destiny. Not knowing and knowing. Ebbing and flowing. Ocean and sky, sky and ocean.

One unthinkable without the other.

Severing

axSevering. Cutting the cord. Boundaries. Mother’s milk. Hand on my back. Opening my mouth. Cord snaking out, sticky and thick and unending, an infinite belly coil I keep pulling on, years and years and a recurring dream of not being able to cut it — the more I try, the more it becomes something like glue, impossible and uncooperative, stretching from and gumming up the sharp blade. I am trying too hard, I am waking up sweating and tired of being sorry, I am scrambling on eroding ground, watching it crumble. And then, later, walking — I am walking down and then up a hill, feet on earth, voice out loud, begin here, and here, and this is enough for today I tell myself, until later, so much later in the car the throat constricts and chest crushes and suddenly I’m sobbing and remembering this dream after so long a reprieve, and it smells like the teen spirit I swallowed and spit out, it sounds like all the horses running towards me at once, it feels like crowded, hands in front of me, palms facing out in a gesture of give me space, please I need space. And I am aware in this moment of the impulse to rush through the feelings, the way sometimes you want to rush to climax and the rushing runs interference with the desired outcome which is to say what it is about, when really this experience, these feelings in the body are not about — they are not linear or narrative or logical or cognitive, no, they are storms, they are electricity and power surges and powerlessness and where where is the ground, where is the voice, what do I want, who am I, where was I, what am I afraid of losing, what was lost already so many times over and can’t be retrieved? There will be no words until I can give this its full expression, give over to it, give into the walls closing in knowing that when they fall I will be standing here solid under sky without explanation or proof of purchase. All of this is to say the severing dream came back to me, floated into my mind casually, like, no big deal, just coming to say hello, it’s been so long how are you? Why are you here, I asked, and the dream — though I was awake now, and driving — said, to tell you what I was about all those years. And now I am a baby and the cord is cut and I am on my own but held and loved and now I am an adult and I am on my own holding my own and loved in new ways, chosen ways, ways that remind me to be a big girl now, a grown woman, strong enough to know that I don’t have to put myself through the same thing over and over that is so long ago now done and gone.

Use your voice, love your way, and don’t be afraid, love. Don’t be afraid.