Bittersweet


Three years ago, I started a membership group called Get Your Muse On. At its peak, it had about 40 members who actively shared weekly intentions, freewrites, and other creative shenanigans. Friendships blossomed, confidence deepened, and many a birthday limerick has been shared.

After a few different incarnatons, I made a decision this week to officially retire this group. I closed its doors to new members quite a while back, and those who remain are close-knit and committed to staying connected. But the participation and engagement aren’t what they were and rather than trying to return to something that had its day, letting it simply be what it is — a sweet gathering place for friends who love writing — seemed like the next right step.

But letting go and allowing change to happen is not easy for me. I suspect this is true for many of us. It’s bittersweet, maybe a little scary even, to acknowledge that a thing has run its course.

As we move towards the solstice and new year, I’m feeling this energy so intensely. I’ve heard from more than one person in the past few days that they are feeling exhausted, moody, tapped out. The holiday season can drain our wallets and our spirits, as much as it’s supposed to fill our hearts with joy and sugarplums.

I was chatting with a teacher of Pearl’s last night about her holiday plans. She said her grown kids have very different food preferences, so she didn’t yet know what kind of meal she might prepare on Christmas day with them. I said something about images of families sitting down to eat, everyone at a table — how images like that can be so… she finished my sentence for me: Oppressive.

Yes. Images like that invariably make us feel like we’re failing at something, when in fact we are actually living real lives, where not everyone wants to or can eat the same things, where not everyone wants to or can be at the table, where not everything is happy and bright.

Groups like the Muses are havens from these expectations. As I write this, I realize that this is true of all of my work — the writing groups, the coaching, even working with folks on books. Having room to show up as we are, to write without worrying about being good, to say what’s really going on in our lives and hearts, to name what really happened in the past, all of this is how we get free to take up more space in the world and ultimately share more of ourselves.

More of ourselves, please. The world tells us a lot of things. The world tells us a lot of things about what being a writer is supposed to look like.

I got a(nother) rejection yesterday. It’s an essay I wrote a year ago and originally submitted to the New York Times Modern Love column with a wish and a prayer and not-so-secret high hopes that this would be the One.

Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. It was one of many. After the NYT rejected it, I kept sending it out. So far, not even a nibble. There’s a high probability I will choose to post it here and on my blog. That’s my way. That’s what I mean when I say “keep going.”

The end goal is not a perfect meal, a Rockwell painting, a slam dunk, a bullseye, or bragging rights. The end goal is to be here, to live fully, to take risks, to show up, to listen hard, to love well.

Last night, Pearl was awake with a tummy bug (he’s currently finally sleeping on the couch next to me). At one point, hoping he’d be able to rest, I told him to try counting his breaths, from one to ten. “If you lose count, go back to one,” I said.

I’m always going back to one. I had a zen teacher at one point who wrote about this, and it’s true. We’re always trying to get somewhere else.

So I’m letting the Muses group go as an “official” group. I’m making room, without having to rush in to fill it. I’m honoring the relationships I’ve come to cherish and know will endure, without clinging to the past.

Change happens. Stomach bugs happen. Rejection happens. Real life happens. And the writing? It happens, too, in the context of all of this. The minute we stop trying to get it right, the minute we start believing who and where we are is good enough, so much opens up. Room to breathe opens up. Trust might even make a guest appearance.

Back to one. Everybody now. And as for the Muses? You know who you are, and I love you all 4-ev-uh.

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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A Little of Everything (When Everything Is Everything)

Photo: Elijah Hiett

Sunday consisted of a little of everything. Dreams as vivid as films, forgotten in a blink but returning in flashes throughout the day. Coffee. A run alongside Pearl on her bike up to my parents’ house, where I dropped her off to work for a couple of hours. My mom got her shining silver, sweeping the porch, and weeding the garden. I ran home, aware of some tension I couldn’t place but that hung on most of the day.

Later in the afternoon, it morphed into irritation, then fear, then I put my face up close to Mani’s and asked her to remind me to come in off the ledge. “Yeah, no ledges,” she said.

No ledges. How often do you find yourself there — on that imaginary edge of the world where with a single misstep, you might fall all the way off? It’s silly, maybe, but can seem oh so real. It amazes me how convincing certain states of being are, especially what I deem the “hard” ones. But then I think of this line from the novel I just started (Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi):

The need to call this thing ‘good’ and this thing ‘bad,’ this thing ‘white’ and this thing ‘black,’ was an impulse that Effia did not understand. In her village, everything was everything. Everything bore the weight of everything else.

I see the impulse to label everything. The “bad” states of being — anxiety, fear, anger, agitation, irritability, tension, stress — are all interrelated, like the reunion of the side of the family you do your best to avoid but comes over unannounced no matter. Then there are the “good” states of being — joy, ease, flow, gratitude, curiosity, connection. In their absence, I can worry (will they ever come home?). And when I’m experiencing these, aaaaaah, my ability to trust life expands exponentially.

But what if everything is everything? How does it shift my perception, if everything bears the weight of everything else? Well, for one thing, I can see a bit more clearly, the ephemeral nature of ALL of the above. It becomes easier to step away from the ledge, because I know the ledge is imaginary, no more real than tomorrow. When everything bears the weight of everything, everything is somehow more bearable.

Sometimes, a superstition haunts me a little bit. It goes a little something like this: I will somehow, unknowingly and inadvertently, cause the well to dry up.The well of blessings. Even reading these words makes me shrug my shoulders; obviously I don’t have that kind of power, nor are there some distant Gods watching my every move who will show their pleasure or displeasure with me on a whim. We are beings with free will; bad things happen to the best of people and the most evil of humans get away with atrocities every day. From this standpoint, it’s easy to get kind of hopeless and nihilistic about it.

But to me, it’s actually a positive thing that we are more than just chess pieces in some cosmic game. Why? Because it means that while we may have little control about what life brings to us, we get to choose how to meet life. Today, I felt tense. I swept the kitchen floor. I tried to take a nap but got interrupted five times in 45 minutes, got up feeling groggy and cranky, and then said yes when my sister invited us over for a bite to eat. Later, we got ice cream and saw some roosters. Now, day is done. Kids are clean. Mani’s eating. I’m typing in the quiet kitchen. Night has fallen. The crickets offer up the  tiniest of bells.

The fear that everything will crumble, the missing in advance, the love that sometimes gets eclipsed by moods and minor annoyances, the smile that quickly turns to a squall — all of the daily dynamics that happen not only within each of us but as part of any family unit — none of it stays. None of it.

What stays is this, the coming back. The sitting down. the writing as a way of returning to everything that is everything, where I don’t have to be so quick to say good, bad, hard, easy, black, white. I can just be here, feeling the full weight of this body, and letting the thoughts dissipate, as transient and insubstantial as the day itself.

Same Sun, Same Moon

I’m in bed. It’s only 8:13pm but after a full day, it felt good to slip out of my clothes and under the clean sheets. In a little bit, I’ll turn off the computer and we will read a chapter from our current book before watching a show. Then Mani will put on a short meditation from the Daily Calm app (we call it the Daily Clam, after that one time I misread it), and with any luck, we’ll both get a decent night’s sleep.

This is more or less how it goes every night. When the kids are here, I read to Pearl and say goodnight to V before locking up. I try to motivate to wash the evening dishes, since it’s so nice to wake up to an empty sink in the morning when I go to make the coffee. Some nights, I get sucked into working late or just fucking around online.

Yesterday at the end of my run, I saw the fox again, the one who makes the occasional appearance in our driveway. He crossed the street and trotted down towards the woods near Sunset Farm. My mind wandered to tattoo daydreams.

Then I was home and the sweat was pouring and I was proud of myself for moving my body. I took a cold shower and shaved my legs and drank cold water and forgot what day it was.

Self-employment is a lot of things. One of them is flexible. Other than calls with coaching clients and my upcoming Monday night in-person group (which isn’t on my website, by the way, so if you’re local and you want to write with a small group of women for six weeks in Amherst, let me know), I rarely have to be in a particular place at a specific time. There is a definite rhythm to my days and weeks, but it’s one of my own making and shaping.

Sometimes I forget this and I revert to treating my life, not to mention my writing, like something to squeeze in around the edges. I’ll find myself bringing the same tension to getting to the kitchen table to greet a writing group in the morning that I used to feel driving to work — hurried, tense, late. Then I remember that no one in said group is checking their watch. I don’t clock in or out. There’s no payday or benefits office. I am all the things. This is both amazing and challenging. I wouldn’t trade it.

Today, I watched a video by a writer I admire. She’s very funny, irreverent, and ballsy. The video had nearly 35,000 views. I do not know how that happens. I do not know if that even matters.

Just now, I looked up from the screen and there was the waxing moon on the other side of our bedroom skylight, bright in the still-blue July sky as if to say: No, it doesn’t matter how many views you get. Thanks, Moon. The moon always has the best timing.

Today, I ran again. Just me and my tiny iPod shuffle and the midday sun. I ran north to UMass and around the little pond in the middle of campus. There was a group of young adults milling around with matching blue backpacks. Many of the women wore colorful headscarves and I imagined that they were a visiting group of students here for some summer program. I thought about the Travel Ban and wondered what country they were from.

Arcade Fire’s album “The Suburbs” has been my running soundtrack lately, along with some old-school Madonna and a smattering of other indie-pop songs that keep me moving. I didn’t run all winter, and then all of a sudden a few weeks ago, I started again. Just like that.

Summer and I are old friends. We share stories that don’t need to be revisited. We both enjoy fresh-water swimming and napping in hammocks and ice cream for dinner. Everything seems a little more do-able. My daughter is quick to correct me if I say there are more hours in the day, but she knows what I mean. I am a goner for heat and light.

On my bedside table, so many books. Half-read books, unread books. Paperbacks, hardcovers. On my head, more grey hairs every day. I pluck them, not in battle but more like a new hobby. My skin is changing. My life is changing.

Our lives are always changing. If we pay attention, we might even notice. But so much of the change happens while we’re so in the days, the news, the fury, the mundane, the passion, the questions, the sweat and tears of it all, that we don’t know until later. And then later is the new now and here we are: Kids older, bodies older, love a few layers deeper, understanding wider, with just as many places to be lost and found as ever.

I find myself running again. I find myself pounding the pavement, creating the rhythm of my own days in this life, loving my people, and not worrying about the numbers. I look up to find that the moon has already moved slightly further west as it starts out its nightly journey across the small slice of sky we can see. I marvel, like a child, that it’s the same sky, the same sun, the same moon, for you.

Tiles in a Laborious Mosaic

“There are very few human beings who receive the truth, complete and staggering, by instant illumination. Most of them acquire it fragment by fragment, on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic.”

~ The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944

Thought: There is a LOT of news we don’t hear about. Every single day, things happen. Small miracles. Wrenching losses. Breathtaking moments of ecstasy and countless, repetitive motions. “You and me” takes on hundreds of manifestations. The big picture will always be there, beyond our field of vision, a scale so measureless it requires tremendous faith in the unseen and unseeable.

What is a mosaic made of, but so many tiny tiles?

Every day that we wake up and find that we are still here, alive, conscious, breathing, able to interact in whatever ways our bodies make possible, is an opportunity to change our minds and alter that unfathomable pattern in the direction of wholeness.

Here’s the catch: It’s hard.

We get tangled in webs of invisible energy. We react. We rush. We carry so much pent-up rage and sadness that it’s bound to leak out all over everything if we don’t acknowledge it and find channels for expression, release, and healing. The world doesn’t meet us where we are any more than we meet the world as it is. We meet the world — I do this so very often — through a distorted lens of how I think it should be. The world shrugs back like a teenager. “Whatever.”

Tears come unexpectedly. At first, I sit still and let them roll down my cheeks as the singers sing on. Then it becomes too much; I feel the strain of trying to control what is quickly moving from a quiet flow to a full-on storm, and I leave the room quietly, move towards a large window at the end of a wide hallway. It is facing west. The sun is low over a bike path, a parking lot. I watch people coming and going as the sobbing I didn’t see coming overtakes me. It’s every hard thing, every yearning, every pinch, every tight spot, every constraint. It’s neither rational nor irrational. It is scary and at the same time, somewhere in the deep of my brain, I know it won’t last.

It doesn’t last.

I return to the room. I take my seat back on the cushion. My wife sits a foot or so away from me. The space is filled with sound. Guitar, tabla, bass, drums, cello, flute, violin, harmonium. Deep voices and piercing voices coming together in an ancient call and response. I sway a little but don’t join in for a while, allowing myself just to stay here in the stillness. I notice the urge to flee. I stay. I notice 10,000 variations on this theme. I resist all of it. I stay. I stay. I stay.

And sure enough, I begin to soften. Almost despite myself, I open my mouth to sing. I sing quietly. I don’t need anyone to hear me. I am here, and that is enough.

We all have moments where we are “not our best selves.” But what does this even mean? Best, worst, first, last — all of these monosyllabic words that don’t ultimately mean anything. What matters is our ability to hold steady through the periods of turmoil and tumult, when you’re so caught up in the wave that you don’t know how to break through to the surface for air. It is easy to panic in these moments, to flail. To pull others down with you. To make it infinitely scarier and more painful than it already is.

There is a big picture, and so very much happens in the course of a day, a week, a month, a year, a life. None of us knows how much time we have here, and every day seems to be an exercise in imperfection, starting over, self-forgiveness, and learning.

When I say, “Be good to yourself,” this is what I’m talking about. It’s not a code for anything else, nor is it a permission slip to ditch responsibility for our impact on others. It is as simple an imperative as I can muster for myself, a baseline, and — hopefully — a bit of solid ground to feel for when life is moving at lightning speed and we temporarily lose our bearings and forget our place in the entirety of things.

As Anaïs Nin noted in her diary so many decades ago, life unfolds and takes shape “fragment by fragment.” And we are all essential tiles, in an incalculable whole.