Real Life in 11 Parts: May 16

1. I wonder at what point “in real life” became a common phrase. I’m fascinated by things like this, language and how different trends begin and spread.

2. That makes me think about the conversation Mani and I just had about class differences, and how these affect the things we know and don’t know.

3. Will I ever write anything again that doesn’t mention Chalupa snoring?

4. I just saw a headline about octopus eggs from space a zillion years ago. The internet is weird. It’s part of why I go out of the house — again with the “real life” theme. Not that real life isn’t in the house, too; it’s just that since I’m self-employed and work from home… see #3.

5. Came to Starbucks on Route 9. I just saw two of the nurses from the family practice where Mani and the kids and I all go for primary care. There was that moment, when patient confidentiality comes into play. It reminded me of how, many years ago, probably a decade now, I kept bumping into my former therapist everywhere.

6. Is it a stretch, to write 11 things a day? I guess that’s part of what I want to explore. What happens when I don’t worry about being boring or repetitive? Because honestly, life is repetitive. Sure, if you’re a first responder or an ER doc or in active combat duty, maybe the days are always filled with adrenaline and constantly changing conditions. But for most of us, aren’t there certain routines, beaten paths, patterns, and habits? Some degree of boring is ok with me now. I see it partly as a mindset, a way of seeing and perceiving. One could argue that boring is impossible if we’re truly awake and paying attention; if you watch one branch on a tree, a busy counter at a cafe, even the rise and fall of your own breath, you’ll see that nothing is static. And living with adrenaline coursing through your system is actually a recipe for disaster.

7. And yet, I worry this will get boring. Ha.

8. A woman with white shoulder-length hair is speaking Spanish with a younger woman. I imagine they might be related, maybe mother and daughter. Yesterday, I got to talk on the phone with a friend whose daughter has been living in Mexico. My friend is teaching herself Spanish using an app. She was saying how much she’s enjoying it, and also that it is siphoning mental energy away from writing at the moment. It got me thinking about how we get more proficient at whatever we’re doing the most consistently.

9. There are so many things I want to do and learn. And yet lately, my mental energy goes to writing, to caring for my marriage and kids, to nurturing my work and those who write with me, and now, to the baby dog. This is a life. My life. Will I ever return to studying Hebrew? Will I ever learn how to change the oil?

10. I just farted. Excuse me.

11. Sometimes when I look at the carefully arranged shelves filled with shiny, new things, I feel the pull of consumerism. If we have nice things, we’ll be happy. And then, through that momentary fog, I see something else. Something like the truth.

* * *

Want to write 11 things with me for 11 days with 11 other beautiful humans living life? The Sound of Real Life Happening, a brand-new writing group, will take place June 11-21. Whether your intention is to practice paying more attention to your days, to generate raw material for other writing, or both, this group promises to be small, supportive, intimate, and encouraging.

Details + registration

Five Deep Breaths

My wife is reading a book called “The Art of Stopping  Time, Practical Mindfulness for Busy People” by Pedram Shojai. Each day offers a short chapter with a suggested exercise. It may be spending time in nature, or fasting from social media for a day.

Yesterday’s was to take five deep breaths every 30 minutes throughout the day, using a timer. I decided to try it.

Here are some observations:

Thirty minutes goes by very quickly. It seemed like every time I turned around, the timer was going off. I was also surprised by how much I packed into each 30-minute period. This shed some light on periods when I was focused — and the integers when I was multitasking and flitting from one thing to another. The timer gave me a chance to pause and check in with myself.

I spotted the impulse to do other things while I took the five deep breaths — stretch or look at my phone or simply keep working on whatever I was working on at the moment. It took a conscious decision to stop everything and ONLY breathe. I also saw this thought more than once: “I don’t have time to stop.” But not once did this turn out to be true. The five deep breaths took less than a minute.

At one point in the morning, I was nearing the end of a fast and furious freewrite when the timer went off. I was tempted to ignore it, but didn’t. The five deep breaths didn’t ruin my flow; in fact, they slowed me down just enough that when I returned to the keyboard, picking up right where I had left off was easy.

Full disclosure: I missed a few hours. At some point mid-morning, I forgot to restart the timer after my deep breaths. I walked to town to meet Luping for our hour of tutoring, then did some errands on foot. When I resumed my practice in the early afternoon, the five breaths turned into 10 along with some loud yawning and big jaw opening. Suddenly, the interruption was fully welcome, a reminder to get up off my ass, plant both feet on the floor, and say hello to the body.

Late-afternoon brought hot chocolate around a small bonfire with Pearl’s Hebrew school class, celebrating the Jewish holiday of Tu b’Shvat, also known as the new year of the trees. Along with this small caffeine hit, the cold woke me back up, and I detected a subtle connection between the deep breathing I’d been doing throughout the day and the singing we were now doing around the fire. Come to think of it, there’s also a natural correlation between deep breathing and trees, since without them we’d be in deep breathing trouble.

Today, I’m giving it another go. Having a chance to check in every half hour may seem excessive, but really it’s a good way to get in the habit of breathing more consciously throughout the day. I’m already feeling more aware of when my breath gets shallow or neglected. I like this idea of tending to it, in the same way I would another person under my roof.

If breath is life, who are we when we’re running around being busy or trying to cram 10,000 things into every increment of time? Is that actually living?

Practices like this bring me a chance to see my default habits anew. Rather than thinking I failed some test if I forgot to set my timer and breathe deeply the whole day, I’m always more interested in what happens when I don’t judge myself but bring patience and care to the process of trying things. Anything that smacks of holier-than-thou-ness will send me running for the hills, but I will gladly play with ways to wake myself up, mentally and physically, and make more of me available to whatever or whomever is in front of me.

I have six minutes left till my next five deep breaths, but you know what? I’m not waiting. I’m taking them right now, even as my hands fly over the keyboard.

When do you neglect your breath? When do you tend to it? What reminds you to come back to yourself throughout the day? 

The Darker the Night… Reflections on 2017


The past few days found me in a funk. Nothing major, but sometimes that makes moods even harder to bear; you feel like you should at least have a reason for being irritable or sad. But this was free-floating, hormonal, and seasonal, with nothing to do but try my hardest to just stay with myself, not be a jerk to my wife and kids, and self-manage as gently as possible until it passed. (Would it pass? This is always the question. And the answer is always the same.)

Emily Dickinson must’ve experienced many a similar mood. After all, she’s the one who wrote:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

This morning, the sun is shining on the newly fallen snow. It is falling in shimmery drifts from the pine boughs just outside my bedroom windows, and the southeastern light looks like something pure and hopeful. I may not be super psyched to dig out my car later, but there’s no denying the particular beauty this season offers in moments like these.

Perspective is one of the first casualties – temporarily, thank god, of the kind of mood that hangs out dangerously close to the border crossing into depression. It’s more like a white-out; driving snow, limited visibility. I’m relieved and grateful as I sit down to write this morning that the sky seems to have cleared and I can see a bit more clearly again. A tiny sparrow dive-bombing a snow drift 100 times its size; a hawk overhead, sun illuminating its underside; and room to breathe.

Yesterday, room to breathe felt more difficult to come by, even though nothing externally was really all that different than this. That’s the thing with aliveness. We must learn how to sit with ten thousand states of being, some ecstatic and others downright sucky. Squirmy, uncomfortable, climb-out-of-your-skin, and ever so easy to want to draw your bow and aim the sharpest arrow for the person closest to you.

If you have a spouse or partner or kids, yikes. You may become convinced it’s their fault, in ways that may not make an iota of rational sense. Or you might start pummeling yourself with darts, instead, losing sight of your amazingness, convinced you’ve fucked it all up, failed at everything you’ve ever tried, and are, in three succinct little words, a lost cause.

Ouch.

It can really, really hurt, this place of scary driving conditions. Probably best not to go out. Maybe a good a time to clean the bathroom, sweep the kitchen, plow through stacks of papers where even the stink bugs found safe harbor when the cold weather came.

Meditation may tell us to sit with these difficult emotions, and the cushion is definitely one good place to practice surviving them and observing the shitstorm passing through your mind and body like a short-circuiting machine. I also believe there are many ways to meditate, and sometimes being in motion and touching the real, tangible things in my immediate sphere is incredibly grounding and can help me come back to a more forgiving heart.

This morning, I woke remembering a film reel of disturbing dreams. Mani brought coffee. I plugged in the twinkle lights. And as I began to wake up and feel my way into a new day, I realized something: I felt better. I noticed on Instagram that several friends had created “best nine” photo montages from 2017, so I decided that might be a fun exercise. As I scrolled my camera roll through hundreds of images, something beautiful occurred: I began remembering and letting myself really appreciate the fullness of the year that’s coming to its end. The sense of not-enough-ness that plagued me the past few days dissolved in the face of so much evidence to the contrary.

Concerts with Mani – Laura Marling, numerous kirtans, Ben Sollee, Iron & Wine, and Regina Spektor. An overnight to NYC with Aviva. Swimming at Puffer’s Pond with Pearl. Two writing retreats, one in Amherst and one in Wisconsin, and a summer writing group down at the Nacul Center, back when it was still light out as we wrapped up at 8:00pm, and more than a dozen online writing groups. Visits with friends, tears, outrage, words, typewriters in town, and all the ups and downs that make a life a life. Seasons changing, bodies changing, relationships changing, kids changing. Mani weaning off of hard-core pain meds, devoting every ounce of her being to recovering her health. Kind neighbors. Steep learning curves. White privilege and misogyny and heteronormative lies falling like flies. Trees and trees and trees and trees. Shabbat, week after week. COFFEE.

I’m reminded of the song from Rent: 525,600 minutes… How do you measure, measure a year?

Those lyricists nailed it.

This post goes out to all of you. You who offer me so much kindness and encouragement to keep going. You who choose to write with me. You who make me laugh. You who challenge me to shed harmful beliefs and ways of being. You who inspire me with your own perseverance and courage, though it may not feel like courage to you. You who teach me how to have and hold boundaries. You whose everyday existence testifies to the fact that the world holds so much fierce truth and beauty.

With a special dedication to Emily Dickinson, Susa Talan, and Tia Finn — who all share a birthday today, and who teach me how to pay attention and stay true. I love you. 

The Little Things, Like Offerings


MailChimp sends me a report from my list activity for the week.

2 subscribed. 0 unsubscribed.

These are big numbers in my world.

I just spent an hour FINALLY tackling the unwieldy pile of receipts that’s been accumulating for months.

I just wrote a sentence with not one, but two words with i before e except after c. I actually misspelled unwieldy the first time, and again just now, and had to go back to fix it.

These are the little things.

The single person or two who decide to sign up for my newsletter.

The receipts that represent manuscripts printed on recycled paper up the street at Collective Copies, stamps and books mailed, coffee dates with writers, ink and paper and notebooks and all of the completely unglamorous stuff that goes into my everyday work, the work that is, here in my kitchen, as much a part of life as boiling water for tea, helping my kids navigate big decisions, and watching TV in bed at night with my beautiful wife.

The little things. The piles that pile up. The stuff we avoid and move around the house, from one room to another until the evening comes when we sort and record and file and purge. The notes from folks who say how are you doing what you’re doing and instead of writing back, I say when can we talk. And we talk and she says I think you are awesome and I say, wait, I think *you* are awesome, and we agree that the irony is complete because each of us thinks the other is rocking their business.

The little things. The way I always come back to this, it seems. This being the real, the tangible, the mess, the clean-up. All the times I feel like oh shit, what if this isn’t working. And then I think, wait, that’s just part of it. Everything keeps changing, and this is not an emergency. I tell my nervous system it’s safe, we’re ok. We can rest. We can adjust. We can even take our time.

The little things that are big things.

Like how the sanctuary volunteering isn’t ultimately about security but about human presence. And how I am walking through my days freely without an ankle bracelet that the government is tracking.

The little things like taking a moment to breathe and appreciate what is ending — a month-long poetry group that knocked my socks off — before catapulting into the next thing. Trust, trust, trust.

She asked if I have a strategy.

I laughed.

Not really, I said. I try to come back to ease. I try to recognize the expectations I’ve cast off like someone else’s idea of who I would or should be. I try to check in with what freedom feels like, and joy. To remember that there are so, so many of us. And when two people say yes, I’d like your words in my inbox, when one person says, yes, I’d like to trust you to read my unedited words, I am floored. Every time.

We live in a competitive world. Women are taught to look at each other uneasily. The “how does she do it” trope is so so tired and worn. None of us does it all. Not a single one. None of us is a fucking Marvel comics character.

All of us have such full, full lives. Lives filled with little things and big things and medium-sized things. Lives that are mired in grief or soaring on reclamation or plodding along somewhere in the muck or going by so fast we don’t even remember the last time we really, really stopped.

This is often what I crave the most, the stopping. In the past, I imagined it as a kind of all-or nothing. Surely stopping meant going away, checking out of the demands and responsibilities and having a room with a view, preferably of some mountains and oceans and palm trees and white against blue. We are sold this, too. Town & Country magazine’s top 10 places to restore your soul.

But no. Stopping is a little-big thing. A way of coming clean. A way of being real.

It’s this.

It’s sitting down after recording the i-before-e-except-after-c receipts and then stuffing them in an envelope in case you ever God Forbid get audited. It’s going to bed early tonight. It’s a hug in the middle of the kitchen and it’s the lingering.

Is it amazing? It is, sometimes.

Is it exhausting. It is, sometimes.

Is it too much? It is, sometimes.

Is it sustainable? That question always stops me in my tracks. I don’t know the answer. I notice how this makes me uneasy, the not knowing. And I decide that I can let it in, the question. I can say hello, question. Have a seat. I’m making tea. You might have to stick around a while, giving me time get to know you better and you to get to know me better and we’ll see what this thing is between us.

The little things, like Bukowski’s shoelace, can be the death of us, that which makes us snap.

Or the little things, like offerings — like nickels and twine and stones and twigs — can bring us back, back to right here, back to right now, back to what’s solid and known and seeable and do-able, trusting that the rest will come or go or some combination of coming and going, and we don’t have to know, what happens next.

Feast On Your Life: A New Group for Not Doing

“Morning Musing” by Shelby McQuilkin | shelbymcquilkin.com

LOVE AFTER LOVE

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

~ Derek Walcott (1930-2017)

All this striving is killing us.

I’m not exaggerating.

It’s killing our spirits. It’s killing our creativity. It’s killing our ability to dream, to let our thoughts wander, to discover, to be awed. We’re so busy being busy that we are afraid of what will happen if we stop. Just stop.

Everything has to have a point. Be a means to an end. Result in something — an outcome, a benefit, a purpose. Our to-do lists are subtle oppressors we hitch ourselves to. We feel restless when we relax, if we even remember how. Even the things that once brought us joy become chores, or guilty pleasures. We speak of “stealing” time — to garden or nap or write. We can’t sleep. We check our phones first thing upon waking and last thing before sleeping. I’m talking about myself. I’m talking about you. I’m speaking in intimate generalizations. I’m concerned. I’m yearning.

“Simply put, creativity happens when your mind is unfocused, daydreaming or idle.” ~ Emma SeppäläScience Director, Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education :: read more

I want to lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling and have it count.

I want to walk in the woods after rain, inhaling deeply the scent of wet earth, ducking under dripping branches, stopping to look at the patterns of bark and stone.

I want to take a fresh peach in my hands and spend a few minutes touching its fuzzy skin, lifting it to my nose, and examining its colors and creases.

I want to put on a record and really listen to it — not as background music but as the thing I’m (not) doing.

I want to sit and feast on my life, as the late, great Derek Walcott memorialized in his timeless poem, Love After Love.

But how can I remember how to do this, if I don’t make time each day to “take down the love letters from the bookshelf,” read them one by one, without setting a timer, without punching a clock?

I want my writing to emerge from a place not of doing, but of being — but how will that ever happen if all I do is do?

That’s where you come in, and a brand new group.

Our lives are too precious to miss. But that’s exactly what happens when we feed the addiction of proving ourselves and how we “spend” our time, when we feel we must justify time off — and even the fact that we call it “time off” is so telling, isn’t it?

Come greet yourself.

Feast on Your Life

What it is: 
A two-week group where our focus will be on practicing the powerful art of being idle.

Each day will bring a different suggested activity, along with related readings and other supportive content. We’ll gather in a secret Facebook group to share check-ins about our experience as we go.

The focus here won’t be on writing as much as on taking some time each day to step out of the routines, the requirements, and the responsibilities — into a space that prizes a slower pace. Having nothing to show for yourself will be cause for celebration. Doesn’t that sound refreshing?

What it isn’t: 
Steeped in any particular tradition or dogma. We will draw on ideas from many sources and well as from each other’s experience.

Sign up if you: 

  • Are a chronic overachiever
  • Rarely put down your phone
  • Feel plagued by the need to prove something
  • Regularly sacrifice creativity on the altar of productivity
  • Long to feast on your life but secretly believe that’s impossible
  • Berate yourself for committing to things and not following through
  • Get nostalgic for some former self that used to listen to music, read poetry, and take walks

What are some example of “not doing” things?

  • Lying on the floor
  • Taking a slow walk with no destination (or fitbit, for that matter)
  • Napping
  • Listening to music
  • Saying no without a reason
  • Returning to something that once brought you joy
  • Sitting on a bench in the sun
  • Just calling to say hi
  • Doodling
  • Taking an extra long bath or shower
  • Eating a peach and calling it a feast
  • So much more… to be discovered together

Dates:
June 5-16

Cost:

With the intention of this group being widely inclusive, the cost is on a sliding scale. Simply use the button below to pay any amount been $49 and $149.