The Man Who Spoke Too Soon

Just when I think I’ve learned the art of the pause, of waiting before speaking, of being all tuned in and blissed out. Just when I’m taking a walk in the rain and the rain’s picking up and I’m singing out loud — I have found a way to live / in the presence of the lord — and finding my stride. Just when I am taking some credit for my own hard work, knowing that it’s not dumb luck that has landed me in love and livelihood. Just when I’m giving thanks for smooth sailing and an iota of awareness. Just when I’ve moved from stagnant to sweat, from heavy load to lightning pace, from struggle to ease, from doubt to devotion.

Just then, the phone rings. The familiar voice on the other end asks me a question. I answer “yes” without thinking, though my body tells a different story, a hard-won story, a story of loving boundaries and fought-for clarity. I have betrayed my own knowing again.

I return to the song, the chanting, my voice merging with the rain, which is coming down hard now, hard enough that I cut through the woods from street to field, bare prickly branches grabbing at my wet pants as I make my way where there is no trail to open ground. Mind is on the loose, a poorly trained dog who won’t come when I call it home. I call my beloved, who is finding her own ways of living in the presence of that which has so many names and only one name, always the one. She says it is not dumb luck.

I tell her I forgot to pause. Old injuries — fears, stories — came rushing back, like rivers you can tame but take years to dam up all the way, and with them my mouth opened and words came out I didn’t mean. You can’t put them back.

I remember the Yiddish tale I once told to a group of students who had been careless and hurtful with words. A rabbi tells a boy to cut open all of the pillows in the village. This sounds like a fun assignment, one the boy readily agrees to and carries out with gusto. Before long, thousands of feathers float all over the little town. He goes back to the rabbi, greedy for praise.

But there is a second part to his mission: Now he must go and collect all the feathers and return them to their containers. The boy’s face falls and his heart sinks and his soul grows limp. “But rabbi,” he cries. “It is impossible.” He has learned his lesson. Until the next time, when he forgets its toll and once again speaks out of turn, too impulsive, not thinking. The pause has gone missing like a sacred bird to some hiding hole.

The rabbi is not easily exasperated. But after many times, he turns to the boy who is now a grown man, a father, a provider, respected in name and deed by his fellow villagers, and asks: “Why are you still throwing feathers all over town?”

The man sits down. He sits and sits and thinks perhaps he will never speak again, though he knows this is nonsense. Finally, he turns his face upwards to his teacher with tears in his eyes. He knows this old man will love him till his beard grows to his toes, far beyond the grave.

“I keep thinking I’ve found a way to live — to live in the presence of the lord. To live without clinging to dead truths or flinging feathers to the four winds. I keep thinking I’ve found a way to live that waters peace in my heart the way the rain waters our crops and sustains life. I keep thinking…” Now the man is crying. He has no more words.

The rabbi takes the man’s face in his hands and looks him in the eyes. In this moment, a bird lands on the sill beside them. It is not a special-looking bird, but an ordinary one, the kind that collect by the dozens in the treetops at dusk.

“The smallest birds make the biggest racket,” says the rabbi. He then kisses the man’s forehead, holds out a finger, and stays very still until the bird hops from the open window to his hand. Then he leaves the man to sit alone. “You cannot fix this,” he says, turning back once before closing the door. “But you can sit still.”

The man nods, and begins to sing once again, his voice a bit fuller, a bit deeper. And if you listen very closely, you will hear the honesty in his heart, slipping out like so many feathers.

Shabbat Shalom.

This Day Brought Me to Tears

“We speak loudly but no one understands us.
But we are not surprised
For we are speaking the language
That will be spoken tomorrow.”

~ Horst Bienek, from “Resistance” (trans. Michael Mead)

Everything is making me cry today. My heart feels so exposed. Like I took off my armor and left it somewhere. Like I spun the prayer wheel so fast it didn’t give me time to worry about doing it right.

David Tennant’s face throughout this surprise tribute.

Bashō (translated by Robert Bly):

The temple bell stops–
but the sound keeps coming 
out of the flowers 

My kid’s fear about a trip without her parents, and the big sign she placed in her suitcase (after she emptied it out this morning) that didn’t mince words: I’M NOT GOING. Please.

Questions like: Who would I be without my work? Without my writing? Without my people? Without “my”?

Would I know, deep down, my worth?

Mani’s words:

“You can’t receive when you have clenched fists.”

Open your hands. Open your mind. Open your heart.

“The best-laid plans are are my open hands.”

(Which Mani can’t remember if she heard in a song or if she wrote herself.)

This song.

The way our names contain us — and how we can find either comfort in being held in, or the courage to push beyond the limitations of those syllables and the energy they carry.

I am not surprised if you don’t understand. I might be speaking tomorrow’s language already. I might have wondered if tomorrow’s language would ever come or if I’d be stuck speaking the same sentences over and over for all time. But no. Time won’t have it. The hardest things shapeshift as surely as the sun is melting the snow. And they also bring clarity, in the way fire burns and purifies but is impossibly hot to stand near for long. You won’t think you can stand it, but you can.

You can.

“I will write in words of fire. I will write them on your skin. I will write about desire. Write beginnings, write of sin. You’re the book I love the best, your skin only holds my truth, you will be a palimpsest lines of age rewriting youth. You will not burn upon the pyre. Or be buried on the shelf. You’re my letter to desire: And you’ll never read yourself. I will trace each word and comma As the final dusk descends, You’re my tale of dreams and drama, Let us find out how it ends.” ~ Neil Gaiman

The last big cry I remember was in the fall. I remember because I cried in the car all the way to the base of a small mountain, then parked and walked furiously uphill over leaves so deep and wet they decomposed before my eyes giving way to earth and winter coming. I remember because I reached the peak and looked out over the river and the valley and felt my dry cheeks and the relief of burning off the tears and getting some perspective.

Then last night I lost it, which isn’t true if you read it literally. I didn’t lose a thing. I just stood at the kitchen sink with the hot water on my hands, blood from where the potato peeler nicked the nail on my left middle finger, and the soapy sponge and the glasses and plates from a late dinner. And I didn’t lose anything, really. But I did cry. I started and I couldn’t stop right away — clearly this had been sitting there, just when I’d begun wondering if I’d ever cry again, a faint hint of concern cropping up that I don’t cry more often given the state of the world.

Well no worries. I can still cry. This is good, even if it freaked my kids out a little. (“Are you OKAY??”)

Last night, lying in bed, Mani put her hands on my back. Then she said just the right words, which she has a knack for: We aren’t here to save each other. We don’t need saving. We all come in with our karma and no one can burn if for us but us.

Then you love people and things get sticky sometimes; it is so painful to see someone you love suffering and to not know the answer. But there’s a reason you don’t know the answer. Your love is enough. It doesn’t feel like enough. It feels all wrong; surely you should be DOING something and the impulse to DO something is the same thing as the impulse to FIX it, SAVE THEM, make it BETTER.

There’s no saving.

So my heart is open and I cried and today, right now, I look out the kitchen window and the branches of the pine trees are swaying in the breeze. The sun is strong, and I’m surprised to glance at the clock and see that it’s after 4:00pm. The earth is turning and the seasons are changing and this is one of those moments when I can SEE time. And how bendable it is, and how it both requires so much faith and also none at all. All at the same time.

“We can know a lot. And still no doubt, there are rash and wonderful ideas brewing somewhere; there are many surprises yet to come.” ~ Mary Oliver

The mind loves to catastrophize. To seize the moment but not in a carpe diem kind of way, more like in a we’re-so-fucked kind of way. But it is a lie. A trap. Don’t fall for it, I tell myself. We no more know that things will be awful than we do that Mary Oliver’s “rash and wonderful ideas” are brewing and surprises are yet to come. Good surprises.

You want to write? So write.

You want to cry? So cry.

You want to love? So open your heart and know that it will break over and over and over and over.

And you will hug someone you love so tightly and suddenly your two bodies will be the shape of sky, which of course is impossible to imagine but perfectly reasonable in the ways of being.

After the fire, you will feel cleaner somehow, and heightened of senses. A bird in the morning will tell you winter is just a word, and you’ll spit out those two syllables with your toothpaste while the shower’s running and you’re standing there naked in the small bathroom looking at all that grey hair around your temples.

Time is not passing us nor are we passing time. Young people will be grown adults someday, full-bodied and with memories of their own, and someday we — you and I — will be the memories themselves. Long, long after we’re gone.

So yes. This day has brought me to tears. Because of love. Because of how empty-handed I feel sometimes. Because of how unbearably beautiful it is to be alive.

All You Need Is Love

All you need is love.

And justice. And equal pay. And justice. And fair legal representation. And justice. And protection from discrimination. And the right to be safe in your own skin. And justice. And gun control. And justice. And clean water. And justice. And safe schools. And justice. And the right to choose. And justice. And reparations. And justice. And sacred land. And justice. And solid allies. And justice. And access to affordable and unbiased medical care. And justice. And housing. And justice. And scientific research. And justice. And opportunities for higher learning. And justice. And livable wages. And justice. And freedom of the press. And justice. And sanctuary cities. And justice. And art of all kinds that makes you think and squirm and burst into tears or laughter. And justice. And intersectionality. And justice.

If all of this is love, than yes, love is all you need. But if by “love” you do not include the above, then that’s not love. That’s a platitude.

Pecking Away

4emljshk4kk-noah-rosenfieldAnd then you remember the lesson you learned — was it one year ago, or two now — the years a blur of high points and low points.

I’m picturing a bench, sun, late June 2105, my wife in the hospital and me, sitting there at intervals throughout the day and night, smoking cloves, writing on my phone, wondering what will happen next and how we will go on.

Today, she told me about a friend whose girlfriend left him because he was very sick.

I told her — she was cooking chicken and rice and I was about to run to town to eat a falafel then pick up wrapping paper and toilet paper and prescriptions at CVS — that I could see how that happens. I didn’t know if I had it in me, to stay with life that was so other than I’d expected.

But I knew if the tables were turned — if I’d been sick and she well — the thought of leaving would not even have crossed her mind. I knew this.

I felt sad for that time and the fact that it crossed mine, though relieved that we can talk about it now and grateful I was able to let the sun shine on my face on a bench by the hospital, that she let me take care of her when she needed it and that I learned how to do the thing that didn’t come easily to me.

I remember a woman at a writing group I led during that time saying, honestly Jena, I don’t know if I could do what you’re doing. But I knew I was not a hero. Just a decent human and a good wife, which is the only kind she deserved then just as she deserves now.

And then there was the time I wrote my way into her shoes and finally understood.

It’s funny — this was not the lesson I had in mind at the beginning here, not at all. I was going to write about how I’ve grown more comfortable with the fact that there are many billions of us here, and trusting that there’s enough birdseed to go around.

I was going to write about the quiet meeting place between who I want to be and who I am, and that scarcity leads to ugliness.

The writing does this, doesn’t it? Leads us down some winding trail into territory we didn’t pack properly for, then spits us out by some clearing but not the one we followed the red dots painted on trees towards.

If we’re lucky, there’s a bench for sitting and taking in the sky for a while. A bag of crumbs for the birds. A decision you don’t regret making.

The Light We Throw

jp5rutrnaes-mark-rabeDriving south on 116, determined
not to miss the bus like yesterday,
my daughter chooses the soundtrack
of this wet morning, a precipitous mix
of snow and rain and angsty lyrics.
She mentions how much better
her outfit would look with Doc Martens,
hinting at the Hanukkah gift she knows
I know she knows awaits her.
She assures me she doesn’t, like, need
anything, but offers updated wish lists
like the cuddles and kisses I still covet.
I say “I love you” to my wife and youngest
before we leave, scolding myself gently
for the morbid flashes of black ice
and no return. We sit in the parking lot
waiting for the bus, a prosaic moment
I will insist on turning into poetry later.
We are incorrigible, the whole lot
of us, stubborn in being who we are.
And in these shortest of days, I find
that my heart will twist in any direction
to get a glimpse of the light we throw
off when the others aren’t looking.