How I Spent My Summer Vacation

A Complete Blank

Do you ever get stuck in an “I can’t write” jag, where every time you sit and try to start, you sputter and stall and think “I can’t write” and give up? That’s pretty much where I’ve been for a few days now.

What’s funny is that I actually wrote plenty in August — I wrote over on Patreon, my new playground (come join me!). I wrote on Mondays at 11:00am and on Wednesdays at 6:00pm, when 2-3 women came to my living room to write with me. I wrote lists of 11 things. I wrote two poems while I was walking in Gloucester, where Mani and I spent five blissful nights.

And yet, for some reason, coming here to write a blog post has felt nearly impossible. I think I’m just putting pressure on myself. I came back to Facebook a few days ago after taking a month away, and truly felt like I’d forgotten how to do social media. I said I’d write a post about what I did on my summer vacation, and I really do want to tell you about it.

But when I try to remember, when I stop to think, ok, what is it I did and what do I want to share, I’m drawing a complete blank. It already seems like a long time ago, like a dream that was super vivid and then vanishes the minute you wake up or start telling someone about it. It’s like it gets lost in translation.

Diving In

The first week of August consisted of a daunting amount of sleep. I thought maybe I would just sleep through the entire month. I took a few epic naps — we’re talking in the three-hour range — along with early nights and lazy mornings. I read a LOT, including an incredible memoir called Maid, by Stephanie Land, which I couldn’t put down and highly recommend you preorder.

The week after that, I had a surge of energy. I felt fantastic. So fantastic that I was actually… working more. I met with a few coaching clients — in person and on the phone and via zoom, in Amherst, northern California, and Prague. I had an idea for the next Dive Into Poetry, which will be in November, and emailed all past participants to submit poems I will use as prompts. Several folks responded and I felt really jazzed about trusting myself a few months ago, when I knew I needed a break from what had become a quarterly offering.

Sure enough, taking that time without a plan allowed new ideas to arise. I also got to connect with a wonderful teenage writer, whose poetry is conquering stigmas around mental illness and recovery. I marveled at the way work kept coming in, as if to prove that Facebook is not the one and only way to connect with people. This was a big YAY.

Mid-August, Pearl and I drove to visit Aviva between camp sessions. She’d spent three weeks on an epic road trip through the south — beginning in Asheville, then onto New Orleans, and ending up in Atlanta. In each city, they visited and learned about different urban farms, while camping in local state parks, making their own meals, and discussing Jewish perspectives on environmentalism. Needless to say, she had a life-changing experience. Before spending another three weeks at camp in New York state, there was a family visiting day.

We set out in the morning — turns out Pearl is an excellent DJ, who kept us in good music all the way across 84 West. About half hour before our arrival, I got a call from the camp nurse. It was possible, she said, that Aviva may have broken her toe. We would have to scoop her up and take her to urgent care for x-rays. Approximately $500 later that I am now wrangling about with insurance, she hobbled back to camp on crutches with a sprained big toe. Seeing her was so so good — and I could feel how grounded she was after her few weeks on the road.

Then, the third week came… and I got sick. It’s as if my body was saying: “Um, helllloooooo. We thought you were taking a break?” and knocked me back onto the couch. By then, I had filed all of the papers that had been stacking up for the past month or two, cleaned the car, and taken a huge stack of books to the bookstore to trade for credit.

What began as a tickle in my throat quickly became a full-blown head cold. Mani will tell you I am a big baby when I get sick, and she heard plenty about how miserable I was. I had to cancel Week 6 of the Wednesday living room group, and we packed for our trip despite how crappy I was feeling.  Five nights near the ocean could only do a body good, right?

Right. Right, right, and right some more. Aaaaaaah.

Ocean Medicine

If you ever don’t know what you need, find a way to get to salt water.

The tiny cottage we’d found on AirBnB turned out to be pretty much perfect for the two of us. You could see the water from the little loft bedroom, with a small cove less than 1,000 steps from the sweet outdoor patio with its Buddha statue and fountain. Sitting there the first morning, drinking our coffee, I felt I’d landed in a slice of summer heaven.

Each morning, I set out on a walk and explored side streets, community gardens, cemeteries, neighborhoods, and million-dollar house-porn views. In the afternoons, we checked out a few different beaches, drove around, went to thrift stores and found some adorable items for cheap, and saw a movie at the world’s funkiest movie theater, where viewers have their pick of couches and armchairs.

We finally saw the Mr. Rogers movie and loved it. We also found our dream neighborhood in Rockport and schemed about how we will someday live near the West Coast ocean in the winter and perhaps the East Coast ocean in the summer. Girl’s gotta dream, right? I got excited about bringing the kids back to the coast for a day trip, before the High Holidays and while it’s still warm enough to jump in the water.

Chalupa stayed at her breeder’s house for the duration of our trip. We were admittedly a bit anxious about leaving her, even though we knew she’d be in bulldog-loving hands. Picking her up was *very* exciting for us all, so exciting that I got back on the Mass Pike heading west instead of east and added a full hour to our return trip.

Clusterfucks and Paddleboards

Getting home from Gloucester was a little bit of a crash course, in that there were some last-minute school-related questions to sort out for Aviva. Which is putting it mildly; truth is it felt like a complete clusterfuck on confusion and a tumble of disappointment after such a grounding summer. However, I will say this: These moments always, always come, in some form or another. And how we meet them matters.

After a few days of chaos and uncertainty, things resolved in a way that I am quite sure is for the best, and the best part was seeing my girl dig deep for her own resilience– which was right there ready.

We attended her community college orientation. She even got her official student ID, her hair in two adorable tiny vertical sprigs (it’s growing out from when she shaved it all off last spring).

The next afternoon, Pearl and I borrowed a car and headed north to our second consecutive year of family camp. He was cranky about going at first, but by bedtime in our little cabin had turned a corner and settled in. It was great to see him with the friend he’d stayed in touch with via email all of last year, reconnect with some of the people we met last summer, and meet new families. I even had my Karaoke debut!

Paddleboarding was a high point, especially the moment when Pearl and I traded boards in the lake and I lost my balance. Nothing like losing one’s balance to get a good, old-fashioned dose of humility.

The leaves were already beginning to change in New Hampshire as we drove home on the last Monday of the month. Chalupa was *very* glad to see us; finally everyone under one roof! I think Mani was happy we were back, too, in part because the doggles had a tummy bug the whole time we were gone and she’d been “on” with her round-the-clock.

School-supply shopping the next day rendered a “holy shit” moment at the total we spent, which I chalked it up to new beginnings. Mani, meanwhile, is devouring Your Money or Your Life, and this month we are kicking off some hard-core budgeting and savings goals.

Pearl not only survived his first day of middle school, but came home in a great mood. I met one of the new principals, a man of color in a snappy suit who greeted every student and parent with a handshake by the front door. We rode bikes three mornings in a row, and I found myself feeling happy, grateful, and optimistic as I cycled home without him each day.

Books & Writing

Oh! I meant to tell you: I am reading “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,” a collection of essays by Alexander Chee. I posted about it on Instagram and had a total fangirl moment when he left a comment saying, “I hope you love it.” And I do. I fucking love it. The writing is brilliant and if you write and/or appreciate good writing and true stories, run out and get this book.

I also started “Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved)” by Kate Bowler. I wanted to love this book. I thought we had a good shot at bonding. But I put it down about halfway through. It’s clean and accessible, and I haven’t fully put my finger on why it didn’t hook me. It’s almost too highly edited; something is missing for me in terms of depth and detail and voice. Such a mystery, really, why some writing speaks to us and other writing doesn’t — and it’s not necessarily a reflection of the writing, more the alchemy or lack thereof between book and reader.

This month, you can write 11 things for 11 consecutive days with me, as we listen for the sounds of real life happening. You can also come look for the words for two weeks, with the help of 10 new prompts and a small group of brave souls, in Word Search, a new 2-week group. I feel a bit rusty when it comes to everything internet- and work-related, but I know I will find my way back to the candy house with your help.

Juicy Parts

My friend Doug asked me not to leave out the juicy details from my quiet month. I keep scanning my mind for these, sure there must be something more. It’s funny; I hear the word “juicy” and automatically relate that to a) sex and b) scandal. Thankfully, the former is alive and well in my relationship, due no doubt in part by the lack of the latter. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

Takeaways

Trust yourself. Trust yourself. Trust yourself. When you know, you know. The hard part is so often making room to fully acknowledge what you know, especially if you *don’t* know what to *do* about the knowing. Sometimes you don’t even have to DO anything.

Sometimes what is needed is the full acknowledgement, the space to actually allow yourself to feel the thing that’s arising. In my case before August, this was a degree of exhaustion and burn-out, a need to get very quiet, to immerse myself fully in my here-and-now life, without extending energy to people I cannot actually see, touch, and hear.

If you ask me whether I’d rather have experiences or things, I will always choose experiences. As long as there’s good coffee.

It was scary. But the scary parts are so rarely as bad once you’re in them as what the imagination may conjure. The definition of courage is always feeling the fear and doing it anyway, whatever it happens to be.

The result? I feel softer. My heart literally feels plumper, if you can believe it. And also like I’m bringing a degree of intention and clarity back into my writing, life, and work as we edge towards a new season.

The Perils of Nowherelandia

Geetanjal Khanna

I dreamed about a misused apostrophe.

It occurs to me that this is my subconscious way of finding things within my control, when the fact is that most things are not. I can control what I put in my body. I can control what and I how communicate. I can control what thoughts to focus on and which to filter out (easier said than done, but still). I can control getting up out of my green kitchen chair and out into the day.

I can have the illusion of controlling my schedule, kids’ appointments, and future plans. Take that, Oxford comma! I sneaked three things into one neat and tidy sentence there. Illusion, indeed.

I can control whether I am paying attention to the thing I’m doing, whether that is commenting on someone’s writing, listening to my wife when she is talking to me, washing the dishes, taking a walk, reading an article — you name it.

Truth is, much of the time, my attention is spliced and split and splattered. It’s like I’m playing mental Twister much of the time, rather than standing where I am.

The perils of nowherelandia.

On Sunday afternoon, Mani and I went out to get some groceries, but we made a little date of it. Sometimes it’s just nice to get out of the house together, no matter what the reason, and after the recent cold snap, we haven’t been outside as often. On our way to the Starbucks drive-through, she put on the newest music from her iPod — a song by Laura Marling.

We listened quietly for a few minutes, and then I asked her, “Do you think I’m a gentle person?”

I can’t say exactly where this question arose from. But that’s the nature of driving and listening to music — it can induce the kind of beta state where the soul has a chance to come out of one’s mouth in the form of words and questions.

This opened to a deep conversation as we wandered the aisles of Famous Footwear, Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and Whole Foods. A conversation about what makes each of us feel nurtured by the other, and how feeling loved and feeling nurtured are not always identical.

I think people who know me through my writing groups and social media presence feel that I am a deeply nurturing person. And one thing this outing with Mani got me reflecting on is that our interactions with others — be they in person or virtual — are only as genuine as the way we meet and care for those closest to us.

If I am gentler or more generous with people I’ve never even met in real life than the ones under my own roof, who am I?

It is admittedly cringe-inducing for me to honestly acknowledge just how often I don’t put my phone down or lower my laptop screen when my wife or kids are talking to me, or when I’m talking on the phone. Or how often my body is doing one thing but my mind is a million miles away in nowherelandia. I’m increasingly convinced that whatever anxiety or depression I experience has its roots in this place that is no place at all.

Operators are standing by.

Instead or cringing and being hard on myself, I’m trying something different. I’m calling my very own personal AAA 800-number: Kavanah, a Hebrew word meaning “intention” or “sincere feeling, direction of the heart.” It has everything to do with devotion and what gets our full attention.

Benefits of kavanah include acceptance, awareness, and action.  In fact, we all have instant access to this wonderful service: All you have to do is dial in and (your inner) operators are standing by. You were born with a lifetime membership guarantee, and best of all? It’s free (and no, you don’t have to be Jewish to call.)

Acceptance of myself as human. As flawed. As so very susceptible to distraction in its many guises. Acceptance of the inevitability of losing my way. Acceptance that I will stray off the path, stumble in the dark, and let some people down. Acceptance that I have blind spots, and by their very nature, I don’t know what these are.

Awareness of how it makes me and others feel when I’m not fully present. Awareness that my most sacred priorities and deepest values are only as good as my actions. Awareness is like the moment when you see the blind spot, stripping it of its power. The flood of visual or emotional information that may come with this moment can be temporarily overwhelming. Awareness that the overwhelm is temporary.

Action based on these discoveries. Action as a kind of return to self and other. Action is “put your money where your mouth is” and “actions speak louder than words.” Action is making my love a cup of tea, without her asking. It’s following through on the thing I said was so important. It’s listening, all the way. It’s one tab at a time. It’s one dish at a time. It’s one word at a time. It’s awake and evident.

Consider these words from the 12th century Spanish rabbi and philosopher, Maimonides. See what happens when you replace the word “prayer” with awareness, acceptance, and/or action.

“Prayer without kavanah is no prayer at all. He who has prayed without kavanah ought to pray once more. He whose thoughts are wandering or occupied with other things need not pray until he has recovered his mental composure.”

These three As coexist. They tumble through the space-time continuum that is individual consciousness. Sometimes one gets eclipsed by the rush of the day or lost, like a missing sock. But as I sit here writing this morning, what strikes me as miraculous is that we can always come back. Like the writing itself, each of these is a practice and requires commitment and repetition.

Practice, not perfection.

Acceptance is a practice. Awareness is a practice. Action is a practice. (I suppose it would follow that prayer is practice, too, if you like.)

This is the part where perfection tries to hijack the whole damn post. Here it is:

I’m so far from perfect. My life is far from perfect. I have no idea what “perfect” means. The mourning dove on the branch outside my kitchen window is perfect. This moment, for all I know, is perfect. I’m tempted to delete this whole paragraph, since I’m not sure how the stranglehold of perfection factors into this particular conversation. But for the sake of seeing what happens, I’m going to leave it here.

OK, here it is: Perfection ties right back in with that part about cringing. If I get stuck in shame — in other words, fuck, I suck for looking at my phone while Mani is talking to me or while one of my kids is asking me a question — then I’m really not even close to the AAAs. Hanging out in a place of guilt and shame is just another way of being self-absorbed and missing in action. This notion of getting it right as a fixed target has got to die.

It doesn’t feel good to live on autopilot. At some point, life throws cold water in your face and says: WHERE ARE YOU? WAKE UP!

I think it’s possible to experience this reawakening ten thousand times a day. For me, a key question is whether I can bring some gentleness to it. Going through the motions leaves me feeling like a shell of a person, with that vaguely empty feeling in bed at night: Where was I all day? Who was I all day?

Come Back.

As surely as the light of day comes with morning, we all have the face we put on for the world. More than anything, I want to be genuine. The thought of having a “persona” makes me want to go live in a cave. Being honest with myself — without the cringing — is the doorway I must come back to throughout the day.

I can’t control where things go, but I can be intentional about the direction my heart is facing and the orientation of my mind. That’s the bottom line. Come back, come back, come back. Be all the way here, wherever “here” happens to be at any given moment.

Accepting the complexity of this being alive thing, awareness that there are few things I control but taking responsibility for the ones I can, and acting accordingly — this is my kavanah.

What’s yours?

The Art of Drawing a Treasure Map

Treasure-Map

Go easy on yourself tonight.

Whatever you’re feeling — feel it fully.

Whatever you’re loving, savor it.

Whatever you’re praying for, if you pray, pray hard.

In whatever ways these fit together, it’s your mosaic, no one else’s.

Think of one person in the world who has your back.
Say their name out loud. Find a way to say thank you.

Picture one person for whom you’d throw yourself on the tracks.
Let them know, in what ever way you can and want to.

Ask yourself what would have things be easy.

Decide what’s worth fighting for and fight with focus.

Gift yourself something you’ve always wanted but didn’t think you deserved. Whisper it. Buy it. Ask for it. Write it down.

Pick a confidante (this could be your cat).

Make something happen.

Let go of the thing you can’t make happen that was never yours to make in the first place.

Let go, let go, let go. Let go again.

Then hold tight to the treasures you keep on purpose.

Draw a picture of the treasures.

Draw a treasure map leading to the you you are when you no longer worry what other people think.