Between Were and Are is Here and Now

I’m sitting here. Where is here? Here is “where” without the “w.” Here is my couch — a small, grey leather loveseat with a story behind it. Does every piece of furniture have a story? Probably yes. Here is the living room, in the company of Chalupa, who will be eight-months old tomorrow. She is chewing industriously on the metal sides of her platform bed, which we have permitted her to transform into a hammock of sorts. Our rational is that it keeps her busy and it’s better than eating the furniture, the furniture with stories.

Here is to the right of the kitchen, where homemade blueberry muffins are cooling, and to the left of my daughter’s room. Neither of my kids has school today. Now the puppy is chewing on her paws, which doesn’t seem good. But she’s entertaining herself and I’m not going to mess with it.

Outside, it’s raining, a cold, grey, fall rain. I am not hanging out in hopefulness today, not after what happened two years ago. But I am also not despairing. I am concerned about gerrymandering and voter suppression and intimidation. I am heartened by the people in my orbit who are doing their part. Eager, nervous. And just knowing that we have to get through this day and pray that the results are favorable and send an unequivocally clear message to those in power.

Any inspiration I have had to write has gone out of the window. It’s just not here. But I’m showing up anyway instead of falling into the binary trap of brilliant or bust.

Remember Adam? Well, yesterday, I got to spend an hour with him looking closely at some of his new poems. We drank bubble tea and ate macarons and talked about where poetry comes from and how it’s usually inconvenient in its timing. I read him this fabulous story from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, about the poet Ruth Stone running through the fields and sometimes catching a poem by its tail. He has never taken any official classes in writing poetry, but he has read a ton and it is a privilege to get to be part of his writing life, one of those things that makes me pinch myself with gratitude to make sure I’m really here.

I’m here. That’s the main phrase I’ve been coming back to for as long as I can remember, and certainly for as long as I’ve been blogging. It’s how I felt on Friday night at services, when the tears began rolling and wouldn’t stop, tears I’d been holding in without even meaning to. The familiar “I should become a rabbi” feeling surged through me. I went to the gender neutral bathroom to sob for a few minutes. I didn’t turn on the light. I just stood there against the wall in the dark and let it out.

Later, our rabbi said some profound words about facing the door. During a central prayer in the Friday evening Shabbat service, the congregation rises and faces the door. The idea is that Shabbat is the bride, and we are turning to see her entrance, to delight in her presence. The minute he said the words “open door,” the most chilling sensation tore through me. The open door to the sanctuary. The door through which we expect to see beauty, not bullets.

He also talked about the origins of leaving a door open during the Passover seder. Now, we know this tradition to be linked to the hoped-for arrival of the prophet Elijah. in the middle ages, non-Jews grew suspicious — more so than they already were — of what Jewish families were doing during Passover. In short, they accused them of things like drinking the blood of Christian babies. So the Jews, in what I imagine to be a mixture of frustration, anger, and defiance said, you’re wondering what we’re doing? Look, we will even fling open our doors. We have nothing to hide.

Now the open door to a sanctuary becomes so loaded, so symbolic, such a direct challenge to us: Can we keep our doors open, unguarded? Can we keep our hearts open, unguarded?

On this rainy election day afternoon, these questions make me want to curl up back under the covers. It’s too much. My son practices his new song on the piano before going to bake an apple pie with my mother. My daughter plays guitar behind her closed door. Now Chalupa has collapsed beneath the coffee table we won’t let her chew on. She’s snoring loudly.

Between the rain and her snoring and a fully belly, a great sleepiness comes over me and I wonder how I will possibly stay awake for the rest of the day or for the rest of my life. I flit over to the Dive Into Poetry group and read poems the way a French person might eat dessert — savoring each bite, marveling at the way the flavors and textures work together.

Then I take a breath.

The rain is so soothing. I am here, inside a warm space. I know the whereabouts of my people: My wife, my kids. I weep inside, knowing that this is not a given. Knowing that this is not the case for so many. As I wept on Friday night in the sanctuary, images of asylum seekers walking towards our border kept coming to me. We were refugees, too. We were exiled. We were ostracized. Are, are, are.

The space between ‘were and are collapses, as it did in the dream I had last night, an epic saga of racial profiling that culminated in my somehow knowing that the present had actually occurred many generations ago and that what I was seeing was, in fact, the past. We are the ancestors.

Next May, I am going to Israel for the first time, with my parents and my daughter. We will spend a week there as tourists. I keep saying maybe I will write about my history of trips not taken to Israel. Of dreams where I landed at the airport and knew exactly where I was, even driving home on some long roads through what seemed like nowhere until suddenly a city came into view and I was here, I was home. My first trip-not-taken to Israel was, or would’ve been, in 1995, then 1996, then 2001. I may still, write the story, that is.

But not today.

Today, only this. Rain. Snoring. Quiet. Waiting.

p.s. Now it’s a few hours later. I left the house! I voted! I talked to a writing client about books, and how the process is not the outcome. And now, as it begins to get dark out at 3:38pm, I follow Chupie’s lead and give myself to a wee little rest.

No More Crawling

“I will always want myself.” ~ Ijeoma Umebinyou

No more crawling on my knees in the desert for miles, trying to be noticed, trying to be rescued, trying to be good.

No more crawling on my knees for pity or crawling on my knees for crumbs of joy. No more crying for what cannot be restored or repaired, no more looking over my shoulder like Lot’s Wife who did not even get to speak her own name.

No. I am whole. I am so many rooms. I am unfinished ocean. I promise to stay. I promise to return to this quiet place of presence, knowing it is — I am — enough. Knowing I do not need to be better, do not need more bells or louder whistles. I promise to greet myself everyday: Hello, beautiful, you are here.

I am whole. I promise to offer myself those three words, especially on days when doubt rolls in like a fog that won’t lift. I promise to let the soft animal of my body love what it loves.

No more hesitating or holding back, no more clumsy cartwheels trying to keep up with the pack, no more overcompensating for fabricated shortcomings. I promise to see holiness in the smallest of daily tasks: Prepping coffee for my beloved, sleepy hugs in the kitchen as each one of us rises. I promise to keep showing up and doing my work in this world, and I promise to take rest, real rest.

God, I know I can forget sometimes, forget to call, forget to write. Thanks for not guilt-tripping me about it. I will always want myself just as I will always want you. I will always want myself. I will always want you. I want. I will. I always. I am. I am whole. I promise.

I promise I will keep starting even if I don’t always finish. I promise I will be gentle in making room for myself and others to be human, to change our minds, to not have the words for the feeling. I promise to remember that this is enough. I am enough. I promise to breathe when reaction and rant overtake me. I promise to stand up.

No more crawling. No more crumbs. No more crumbling. No more pity. And I promise not to berate myself when I inevitably fall to my knees. Pain is allowed, and so is dancing.

Stay Close, Stay Close (This Is How I Come Home)

Photo: Brina Blum

Sitting down to write while the household sleeps, the household in this moment being Mani, my wife of nearly four years, and Chalupa, our English bulldog puppy. Mani got up with her today at 5:00am, and is napping in the bedroom. Chalupa crashed after lunch and is snoring loudly on the living room floor. I’m on the couch listening to Joni Mitchell, wondering how it’s almost 3:00pm already. Then again, I only got up five hours ago.

My son is with his dad this week — they went up to visit family in Vermont. He’s mostly sticking close to home this summer, doing “friends” camps. He is also doing weekly Hebrew lessons, as a step towards more intensive bar mitzvah preparation next year. Middle school begins in the fall, which is seventh grade here.

My daughter is currently in Georgia at a state park, as part of a three-week road trip through the south, learning about organic farming. I’ll get to visit her a week from today, and then she’ll spend three more weeks in the Hudson River Valley. Camp is her happy place — her neshama, or soul, comes to life there. And I already know she’ll come home in August changed. She starts community college in September — the alternative we reached to high school, which was not a good fit for her.

The heat wave from a few weeks ago is already the stuff of memory, and I feel slightly jarred by time right now. The tiny prayer flags hanging in front of the south-facing window across the room flutter in the comfortable breeze, and I feel wistful. You know that full feeling, the one that’s hard to put your finger on? It’s a combination of gratitude, grief, and such a big love of life, mixed with something like lack of control. Knowing anything can happen and anything does. Knowing so much sadness and injustice exists, and the incongruity of this as juxtaposed with snoring puppies and peaceful moments.

The world has never been noisier. Finding pockets of quiet is imperative — and the question lives in me of what the difference is between centering and checking out. I’m always conscious of these dichotomies, the spaces between things, the liminal, the things we name as opposites or as mutually exclusive. What lives there? It’s the basis for a new group I’m leading this fall, Between Opposite Shores.

And I feel so acutely today the knowledge that nothing is guaranteed us. Not tomorrow, not years together, not watching our kids grow, not our next meal. No matter how solid things may seem. I suppose the flip side is also true, then: When life feels most fragile, we can find an inner pillar to hold us upright. It makes me want to witness and hold all of the stories — the ones that get swallowed by darkness, the ones that get forgotten by the lightning-fast news cycles.

Now Valerie June comes on the playlist with her Workin’ Woman Blues. I close my eyes for a minute. A parade of images crosses my mind, of the way history lives inside of our bodies and the way grandmothers hold babies close and the way stories can injure or heal, which is to say, all of us can cause harm or repair harm. Which is up to us, but it’s not easy. It takes years and years and years of life unfolding, of learning how to listen closely to your own soul, of seeing the ways you’ve been misled or mistaken.

I worry I’ve been a shitty friend to a friend of mine. Or friends of mine. I hold myself to a standard of perfection that cannot be upheld or achieved. A tightness forms in my throat as I write these words. Because I want to be good, and for people to know how deeply I love. But I won’t always get it right.

Yesterday, I made a peach tart kind of thing. It was going to be a pie, but I didn’t have the right-shaped pan so I had to improvise. The crust is thick and buttery and dense, the filling peachy and sweet. I ate it for breakfast and I suspect I might also eat it for dinner, because it’s summer and I no longer fear calories the way I used to. I have a body, with fat and cellulite and pounds I do not measure or wish away. This body bleeds and scars and its toes wiggle and oh how it loves to kiss and swim and shower and stretch.

Writing is like the cornstarch — it helps hold together the filling. That may be the worst metaphor ever written, but hey. Whatever.

I watched a video earlier about Claire Wineland, who is 21 and has lived her whole life with cystic fibrosis. She is beautiful — self-possessed, disarmingly funny and real. Listening to her talk about how proud she is of her life touched something in me, something deep and old. As a girl, I used to imagine my life was a movie. In some ways, I wonder now if this was a way of disassociating. On the other hand, it made me feel ultra-present and in some way, important. This — this life — somehow it had to matter.

Letting go of “trying to figure out how” has been useful. Those words send me straight into my head, where solutions disappear the ways stars do when you look directly at them. Trusting life continues to be my biggest practice. And it is enough. My scariest moments are the ones when I can’t see: Can’t see where I am, where I’m heading. And the only way I know back from these ledges is to look around. Literally look around the room — bookshelf, chair, mug, dog, notebook, wife. Stay close, stay close.

Stay close to your right now. Stay close to your heart. Stay close to not needing to know what comes next or how to be better. Stay close to this life, the one you’re in. Let the throat open and the tears flow. Don’t think first. What do you feel? What do you know to be true in this moment?

This is how I come home.

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The Shapes of Clouds

This morning, Aviva and I walked to town. We stopped in Hastings, the stationary store I’ve been going to for decades. (If it ever closes, I will have to light a candle or something.) I bought a ream of printer paper, though the printer now won’t work. And a notebook for her, to keep her papers in for community college, where she’s enrolling next year as a high school sophomore.

The sky was blue and spring is early still, so the sun and birds and newly green tips of trees are nothing shy of thrilling. By the time we left Hastings, I tied my sweatshirt around my waist and felt comfortable wearing just a t-shirt. We bumped into an old friend of my mom’s with her very excited chocolate lab, whose name we learned was Bella.

After Bella calmed down, we chatted with my mom’s friend for a minute. V smiled and nodded the way you do in a foreign culture or country where you have no idea what’s going on and don’t speak the language.

After we parted, Aviva sighed and said she’d rather just not even tell people, meaning what she’s doing school-wise. I get it, the not wanting to explain or navigate other people’s questions. I know I’ve felt that way in the past any time I went off the beaten path, which was frequent enough that I learned how much to share and what not to bother with. When people say, “How are you?” they aren’t usually really asking.

We reached the corner and stood there for a few minutes waiting for a walk signal, with her leaning up against the lamppost. I squeezed the back of her neck, the spot where I know she desperately wants a hamsa tattoo and is waiting for my answer about whether I’ll allow this when she’s 16.

She looked up at the sky. “Whoa, look at that plane. It looks like a ghost,” she said. I saw what she meant; its white against the flat blue sky looked like a paper cut-out or an fading mirage. I scanned the clouds for shapes, but what I noticed instead was my daughter’s eye makeup, so expertly applied, and her big silver hoops earrings, and how completely her own person she has become and really always has been.

“I love being your mama,” I told her, eliciting a “whyyyy?” in the slightly exasperated tone that tells you this is not an unusual exchange for us. “It’s just trippy,” answered. “You are this whole other amazing person.”

We lingered there another minute before the light changed. “Bye, Mama,” she said. “Bye, love you, have a good afternoon.” And that was that.

I watched her cross the street, something that once a long time ago would’ve been a big deal, then walked home down the hill carring my printer paper the way I once carried her, looking up at the ever-changing shapes of clouds.

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This blog post began as an unedited 10-minute freewrite in my current 2-week group!

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No More Big Guns

Gun to the head

Photo: Daniel van den Berg

The big guns — this phrase typically has to do with calling in the heavy lifters of spiritual sustenance, faith, guidance. But these days, it just evokes guns. The big ones. The ones with letters and numbers in combinations that sound militaristic, because they are. Because that is what they are intended for, military-style killing machines.

And then all the people who say, time to call in the big guns, to pray for those poor families who have lost loved ones to the big guns, but don’t you dare touch our big gun rights. Oy.

And then the undeniable inequities, always in America, of race, of pushing policies that will hurt people of color most. And the inevitable hierarchies of suffering that get invoked then, my loss against your loss, my kids against your kids, the very realness of black and white and yet the intractability of how this conversation often seems to go.

Full stop. Whew. See? This gun thing is inflammatory. The race thing, also. Our whole country a landscape of landmines buried deep into the soil we walk on, soil stolen and blooded and built upon, a haven and land of opportunity only for some, like my great-grandparents who came here by choice, for economic opportunity and yes, eventually prosperity.

The deeper I move into listening and learning and studying and trying to understand, they less I know. The more I know I don’t know. The more I see that shouting across digital divides gets us nowhere. Status quo is not an option. Life keeps moving, there’s so much to track, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed.

For me, overwhelmed means: I lose my footing. Footing is purpose, priorities, ability to focus without being myopic. The big guns? I may have to abandon this term altogether. Kind of like the phrase “having a gun to your head,” which I almost used with a client Friday in the context of there not being urgency for her to make faster progress on her book, but then though the better of it.

When violence infuses our politics, it is inevitably going to show up in the way we talk, the policies we enact, the monies that get moved around like a shell game we don’t know the half of. I am convinced we are more in the dark than we know, more in the darkness. I will not invoke love and light to make things feel falsely better, nor will I deny the joy and beauty right here under my roof, the miracle of this body, and the fierce love I feel for life itself.

So no. I will no longer be calling in the big guns. I don’t want any guns in my house, not even linguistic ones. I also realize that changing the language we use is not enough, but it isn’t nothing either.

It’s pouring and cold, neither winter nor spring. God is somewhere around here, putting out fires or maybe even starting them. I can’t know for sure, so I will listen hard and see what comes.