27/30 Poems in November: Truth

day-6Kitchen-table revelation
we can change our minds
we can change our thoughts
we can get up
and turn down the heat
when the room gets too hot.
Truth is kitchen-sink
everything but that.
Truth is mad smacking
can’t change the world
just like that
one little voice
in the clanking universe.
Truth is forehead-smacking
honest inquiry
arm’s length and speak
your mind girl.
Truth is big love
and the empty sink
means nobody is eating.
Truth is kitchen table
strewn with papers
not one of them
life changing.
Truth is smack-dab
in the middle of chanting
some one-syllable name
for God you were gob-smacked
by your own foolish heart
and saw that it was time
to stop blaming yourself
for everything
that didn’t go as planned.
Truth is
you didn’t think
ahead
for once were in the moment
and in the moment
you knew what you wanted
needed and you asked
and received
and how we live
with the consequences
of cowardice and courage
may weigh the same
on the kitchen scale
and the karmic scale
and the scale that weighs
hearts and bones
and doesn’t judge.
Truth is kitchen trash
can overflowing
so cinch up the bag
and take it to the bins
in the garage,
take it to the landfill
take it to the streets
take it to heart
when you made up
your story
and declared it to be
true.

27/30

**

Q: What is #30poemsinnovember?

A: A literary fundraiser for Center for New Americans in Northampton, MA.

The Center for New Americans welcomes and serves immigrants in Western Massachusetts with free English classes and a range of support services. Participating poets aim to raise $30,000 over the course of the month.

Writers do their part by writing one poem each day in November. Friends and family do their part by donating to support this effort. Powerful new poems and financial contributions translate to community support for immigrants.

I’m just $140 away from $500. Help me reach my goal.

2/30 Poems in November: Fault Lines

fault-linesWhen your mind turns
to the litany
of failures and detours
of fault lines
you fall through
when you fault yourself
for the mess
of being fully human

When you tie your laces
and go out
into the world
with its sidewalks
and people and strollers
and bus stops,
its dogs on leashes
and women crossing themselves
against the light

When the light changes
from harsh to forgiveness
and the body that blinks
through space
and time
remembers
all of the decisions
you made
good and bad
and maybe

When the poem steeps
all day waiting
for you to come back
and you do
because you said
you would
drop everything
and run home
to make sure
she knows
your yes is as golden
as the late-day light
and it sounds like
I’m sorry.

2/30

**

30 Poems in November! is a literary fundraiser for Center for New Americans. Center for New Americans welcomes and serves immigrants in Western Massachusetts with free English classes and a range of support services. For more information, please visit cnam.org This year, we aim to raise $30,000. Writers do their part by writing one poem each day in November. Friends and family do their part by donating to support this effort. Powerful new poems and financial contributions translate to community support for immigrants.

Some of the most meaningful work I’ve ever done was in my early 20s at the Riverside Church in NYC, leading English-language conversations with new Americans from countries all over the world. It was then that I was privileged to witness the courage, resilience, patience, and grit that immigrants and refugees must have in order to navigate life in a new language and culture.

Since poetry is one of the way I practice showing up in the world, for the month of November, I vow to write one poem a day as a small gesture of respect for and in solidarity with those who land in the Pioneer Valley as new Americans. Your donation will spur me on and, more importantly, support the newest members of our community.

Make your donation here

Forgiveness

book

“How does one know if she has forgiven? You tend to feel sorrow over the circumstance instead of rage, you tend to feel sorry for the person rather than angry with him. You tend to have nothing left to say about it all.” – Clarissa Pinkola Estes

In my tradition — Judaism — tonight marks the beginning of the Days of Awe. For ten days between the Jewish new year (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), it is believed that the Book of Life lies open. During this time, we do what is called t’shuvah. Literally, this word has to do with “turning.” We turn inward and reflect on the past year, paying particular attention to the places where perhaps we stumbled, faltered, missed the mark, or just really f*&!ed up. We take stock of our lives. We reach out to those we may have hurt, knowingly or unknowingly, and ask forgiveness. And we come together communally, to recognize all of the ways we must return, as an in people.

I find equal parts gratitude for and resistance to this practice. Gratitude, because inherent in its imperative is this: We are human. We are human and thus, we are going to make mistakes. We cannot avoid being human, but as humans, we can grow. We can learn. We can say, “I’m sorry.” We can look into our own hearts and face the places where armor replaced permeability, where anger overtook compassion, where pride eclipsed humility. These are not small things. These are the biggest things of all. And while we can cultivate the habit of being self-aware year-round, there is something about having a concentrated period of time each year to focus on our missteps — communally and individually — that brings those chickens home to roost. Thus, the resistance: These aren’t always easy to sit with.

What this isn’t: An excuse to beat ourselves up. What this is: An opportunity to really sit and consider where we’ve veered off-track, away from our values and priorities. Life gets busy and busier, full and overflowing, and not always in a good, abundant kind of way. I know I get swept into the current of everyday responsibilities, sometimes to the detriment of being fully present to the people right in front of me — including myself. This time of year, for me as a Jew and for the Jewish people, is a chance to turn back to what is holy and important and sacred in this life of ours.

Some people go to temple, to sing ancient songs and read the same prayers as Jews around the world. Some people go to the woods or the water to listen for God’s still small voice or mighty roar. Some ignore such rituals altogether. There are so many ways up the mountain.

Some acts are easy to forgive. “I’m sorry I was mad at you that one time,” a child might say to a parent, and it is not difficult (one hopes) for the parent to soften, to take the child into her arms and say, “Oh, my sweet love. I forgive you!”

Others are stickier and take longer, a lifetime even, to work on. I imagine we all have many examples of these. Forgiving someone for hurting us takes a tremendous amount of courage. It is not always possible for all parties involved to come together. And so whether or not we know for sure someone we’ve hurt has accepted our contrition, the courageous thing also becomes to forgive ourselves. For me, this always boils down to being human: looking honestly into my own heart to understand why I did or said something that hurt someone else; listening honestly for whether I’m being truthful with myself; and hopefully learning and growing in ways that will positively inform and affect my future actions.

We don’t always know when we’ve hurt someone else, and it is a great gift when someone trusts you enough that they come forth to tell you: This hurt. Because it is only then that true reflection and healing can happen.

Jewish or not, forgiveness is among the most universal of things we face as humans. This week, what if you sit down to write a story of forgiveness? Whether it is an old story, one you can return to easily, or a new one that still hurts to touch, explore its different nuances. How did things like pride, ego, humility, and self-reflection play into the way things played out? Were you able to resolve things and find peace, or does the experience feel like it’s still an open book and you don’t know how it will end? What shift in perspective or even words — to yourself or another person — would change things?

“Forgiveness does not mean that we suppress anger; forgiveness means that we have asked for a miracle: the ability to see through mistakes that someone has made to the truth that lies in all of our hearts. Forgiveness is not always easy. At times, it feels more painful than the wound we suffered, to forgive the one that inflicted it. And yet, there is no peace without forgiveness. Attack thoughts towards others are attack thoughts towards ourselves. The first step in forgiveness is the willingness to forgive.” – Marianne Williamson

L’shana tova u’metukah. May 5777 bring you a sweet new year, filled with ease, connection, humility, forgiveness, joy, solace, justice, and renewed presence and peace.

The Roar Sessions: Chris Leslie

ROAR:  Reckoning Our Actions Rigorously
by Chris Leslie 
Chris Leslie
Reckoning – Archaic for the process of settling accounts.

When Jena Schwartz invited me to contribute to her ROAR sessions I began to muse about an acronym for the word “ROAR.”  After considering several variations I settled on the one that means the most to me at this time of year and the title of this essay.  Having grown up in the south, the word “reckon” is among my favorite southern words so this works for me. Maybe it will for you, too.

Over the last 15 years I have learned a fair amount about reckoning my actions rigorously.  This has become a way of life for me, one that helps me address and remedy actions I have taken that were not in my best interest and/or in the best interest of others.  It has also helps me to acknowledge and commend myself for actions that have been in my best interest and/or in the best interest of others.

Settling my yearly accounts has become a very healthy strategy for me that is fun, meaningful, and readies me for the next year.  The origins of this practice are varied.  In the business world it’s called “auditing the books” or “taking an inventory.”  In some religions it’s called “the confessional.”  I like the term “reckoning” because it carries both spiritual and practical connotations in one word for “auditing the books” and visiting a confessional booth.

Marley’s ghost, the character in Charles Dickens, Christmas Carol, has played a part in why this process of “reckoning our actions rigorously” makes good sense to me.  Marley, Scrooge’s deceased business partner, comes to Scrooge on Christmas Eve laden in chains binding him for eternity. He wove the chains burdening his soul by being miserly and unconcerned for the welfare of those much less fortunate than he when he walked the earth. He comes to warn Scrooge that he will suffer the same fate unless Scrooge sees the errors of his ways, which he does with the help of three spirits: the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Future, who escort him through the process of reckoning his actions rigorously.

Scrooge is very moved by revisiting scenes from his life when he could have made different choices, and then again, when he reviews choices he could make differently in the future.  Scrooge awakens from his reckoning journey to discover that it is not too late for him and he can indeed live the balance of his life well by amending his miserly ways and by being kind, generous, thoughtful, and merry.

And so it is with me each year now.  I take a reckoning journey over the choices and actions of my life at the end of each calendar year.  I assess what was healthy and what was not so I can learn from and go on from my mistakes and, if possible, mend any harm done.  I also love reveling in the good stuff!

2015 was a challenging year, as well as a pleasantly surprising, good year!  The first six months of 2015 were filled with some very difficult circumstances that made life very stressful.  My spouse and I were able to weather this stormy period by supporting each other and calling out the best in each other instead of the worst, for the most part.  Yeah us!

CL-snowWe were able to do this because we tended our relationship.  We started by going to an amazing couples’ retreat in the snowy woods of western MA over Valentines weekend.  We laughed and cried a lot and we learned a lot. We left the retreat much more appreciative of each other.  After getting through a glacial winter, we spent 10 exquisite days on the Gulf Coast of Florida in mid-April. In late May we spent six days in D.C. so we could attend the wedding of one of our nieces, visit with dear friends and family, and take in some of the sights.

CL&MLIn mid-June, the Supreme Court declared marriage legal for all couples wishing to wed in this great country of ours, relieving our considerable worry that our marriage might never be legal in every state of the union.  At the end of June, we made the decision for Mary to end a job that had become very unhealthy for her and for her to retire.

Since making this decision, Mary has been able to rest, recuperate, and reinvent herself as we have reworked our priorities for the better.  Yeah us!

Over Labor Day Weekend, we made our way to north Georgia for our annual pilgrimage to the south lands to spend time with family and to welcome a niece’s new husband to our clan. Dionisio hales from Maputo, Mozambique, so my niece’s marriage to him crossed international as well as racial lines never crossed before in our family.  Mary and I were privileged to be present as my 88-year-old father conducted MJ’s and Di’s American marriage.

We were teary and joyful as they exchanged their wedding vows with the beloved words: to have and to hold, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, to love and cherish until death do us part.  That we looked like drowned rats just in from the swimming pool did not phase us at all.  We were together.  We were strengthening our family and we loved every minute of it!

CL-TripletsTo top it off, the birth of their triplets was imminent in early September so we were all giddy with joy in anticipation of their arrival. We were relieved and thrilled when our two newest great nephews and great niece arrived on 9/15/15 healthy and raring to go!

Last but not least, in October Mary and I spent a week on Cape Cod enjoying the warmth of the late fall, walking on the beach, taking in the beauty that is second-to-none on Cape Cod, shopping in Provincetown, and eating lots of really good food.  Tending our marital tethers has been really good for us as has tending our familial tethers.  We highly recommend it!

Over the last year, I have made healthier choices, in large part, because I have a goal of living well into my 90’s in good health, God willing as the saying goes.  I have been more willing to go the gym and work out regularly.  I have been more willing to eat organic and unprocessed food, thanks in large part, to my spouse’s devotion to wonderful, well-prepared healthy food!  I don’t consume alcohol (stopped 15 years ago) and I don’t smoke cigarettes!  I ride my bicycle to work when the weather is good.  My spouse and I kayak in beautiful places in VT when it’s warm.  I downhill ski when we have ample snow.  Most important of all, I am taking more time to play, pray and meditate. As the above tells you, I am determined to be more intentional about spending quality time with my spouse, our family and our friends near and far. Every time I call and talk to my 88-year-old father, I thank God I still can.

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Now that I am well into my sixth decade, I am very mindful that I have lived two-thirds of my life.  This, too, is a reason I am more devoted to taking time to reckon my actions rigorously.  My goal is to live what life I have left with gusto, grit, generosity, and gratitude so when the time comes, I can leave this world with as few regrets as possible, with as many fences mended as needed, and with the unbounded joy that comes from having lived long and loved well.

Marley’s message was not meant just for Scrooge.  There is a Scrooge in all of us that, if left untended, can really wreak some havoc in our lives.  Hence, the process of reckoning my actions rigorously — on some kind of regular basis — helps me keep the Scrooge inside of me from reverting to some rather unattractive and less than helpful patterns/habits that once plagued me and sometimes still do.

Auditing my life’s books at the end of each year, settling my accounts, makes good sense and readies me for what is yet to come.  It takes a willingness, though, to be rigorously honest which is not for the faint of heart.  Looking ourselves squarely in the eye and making the decision to stop doing things that hurt us and others takes courage and spiritual fortitude.  In fact, I have found it necessary if I am to venture into the next year without the chains of mistakes and hurtful actions hanging all over me.

I will leave you with three mottoes that I strive to live by, ones you will probably know and perhaps take with you from this ROAR session:  we reap what we sow, we are known by the company we keep, and actions speak louder than words.  May the year ahead be filled with a bountiful harvest of love, gratitude, and joy; with people who are good for us and we them; and with actions that are thoughtful, helpful, inspiring, kind, forgiving, forbearing, and generous.  Then, when it comes time to reckon 2016, we might not have so much work to do!

Happy New Year!

**

Chris LeslieChris Leslie lives in VT with her spouse, Mary, and their dog, Indy.  Chris has been working as a Probation & Parole Officer with the VT Department of Corrections since May 2002.  Prior to this, Chris was in the ministry for 25 years and served in various capacities that included parish ministry, hospital and hospice chaplaincy, drug and alcohol counseling, and running the Habitat For Humanity affiliate in Newark, NJ that she helped to found in 1985.

Chris and Mary are looking forward to retiring in five years and moving to the Eastern Shore outside of D.C. where the hope to spend more time with their family, playing in D.C., and walking on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. And eating lots and lots of good food!