Power. Money. Success.

Morning walk. Sunrise. Moonset. A chat with the universe. Considering the new year and my lack of interest in resolutions. And contemplating the little internet game I did yesterday — one of those word search thingys where the first three words you see are your words for the year.

Mine were: Power. Money. Success.

For real, that’s what I saw.

Mind you, right after that I saw beauty, health, and humor. But still, there was no denying it.

Now, you could rightfully say that kind of thing is silly and meaningless, and maybe it is.

And what I noticed was that I immediately thought, oh no. Power, money, success. Those are bad. That’s not what I should see or choose or want.

Then another thought immediately after that one: Why the hell not?

Staci Jordan Shelton writes and teaches a lot about binaries, and how they keep us small in our thinking and our actions. My internal response to those three words made me think of her wisdom.

Power, money, success — these are not “bad.” In fact, they are neutral. They are not the opposite of things that are culturally more agreeable, such as compassion, kindness, and gratitude. But that’s what we do — we pit things against each other and create false and arbitrary judgments rather than moving into curiosity.

So, I got curious. What could and would it feel like to quietly claim these words? What if power, money, and success were valuable and worthy goals? What if having goals did not have to equal striving and keeping up? What if inner and outer could work in concert with each other, smashing binaries and taking up more room in the world — for good?

That last bit is important. Power, money, success — these are not good or bad, but how we inhabit them, how we can lose ourselves to them, how we demonize or worship them, now that’s where the problems start.

But look at people doing amazing things with their power, with their money — and the whole idea that we are as afraid, perhaps more, of success as we are of failure comes to mind.

I have no definitive thing to say about this, only that I’m intrigued. I’ve spent so long shying away from words like these. Maybe it’s time to move closer to them, to ask them questions, to see what they have to teach me. Maybe not. We’ll see.

By the time I got home from my walk, I was thinking about quiet power. And how we equate noise with power, when really, you can be quietly powerful. You can show up powerfully in your days, away from the glare of social media, and have so many kinds of experiences.

We live in a bizarre culture of “influencers” and megalomaniacs. It’s so much more interesting out here in the world, with its morning light and its bus drivers and its handwritten notes and its conversations, the ones where you hash things out and don’t come closer to closure but maybe touch on something even better — connection.

I’m going to hang out here in the quiet some more, paying attention to what wants to be written, to shoulders that need squeezing, to snoring dogs and what happens we look beyond blame and defensive posturing.

I don’t know how healing happens, but I think there’s something to this, this power, money, success thing, this surprising yourself thing, this experimenting with different ways of being in the world.

* *

Spend 2019 exploring a single word each week:

Register for Truth: A Year-Long Exploration of Personal Values

Thoughts About Class Privilege (from the McDonald’s Drive Thru)

Puppy preschool class ran late on Tuesday. I was trying to get home in time for the 7:00pm start of the Month six Freedom School call, and I was hungry. Pearl had gone to volunteer at a school event, and Aviva was home.

“Should I just get McDonald’s?” I asked Mani. “Why not?” she answered.

I called V, who picked up after a few rings. “Want McDonald’s?” “Um… sure!”

At the light where Maple Street intersects with Route 9 — a busy four-way intersection — we heard a loud noise. It could’ve been a gun shot or a blown transfomer. The answer came when we looked up and saw that the multiple traffic lights had all gone dark. Suddenly, the importance of paying supreme attention to what all of the other cars were doing became paramount, as it would take a few minutes before the police arrived to direct traffic. We inched our way to a left turn. Were those cars honking at me? I couldn’t tell.

When we drove up to the window at McDonald’s and I started to order, the guy apologized and said there had just been a major power outage. Did we want to wait for five minutes? Mani was hungry, too, ready to get home to make herself dinner, and now I was for sure late for my class. But we were there, so I said yes, I could wait.

I took the time to study the menu board, choosing two Value Meals — a Quarter Pounder with cheese for Aviva and a chicken sandwich with too fancy of a name (was it “Artisan”?) for myself. Both came with medium fries. “What would you like to drink with that?” the disembodied young male-sounding voice asked. “Oh, it comes with a drink?” I asked. Mani looked over at me with affectionate incredulity. How did I not know these things? I ordered one Sprite and one Diet Coke.

Then I did what I thought I should — I pulled up. But it turned out I whipped right past the window where you pay to the one where you get the food.

“Babe!” Mani said. I quickly realized my mistake and looked back over my shoulder to see an arm sticking out from the window behind us, beckoning. I put the car in reverse and backed up slowly. The car behind us had to back up a little, too. I laughed off my embarrassment in a self-deprecating way.

“You should write a book about me,” I joked to Mani. She didn’t miss a beat. “Yeah. I’ll call it ‘Marrying Up’!”

At that point we were both in near hysterics at the absurdity of the whole thing. We’re a team alright.

We really do talk about the possibility of co-writing a book about inter-class marriage; it’s not something there is pre-marital counseling for the way there is, say, for interfaith couples.

It’s something that comes up often, sometimes in hilarity as it did on Tuesday and other times in ways that unsettle our deepest held expectations, assumptions, and ideas about life. The learning curve between us has been steep at times, and the unlearning of certain social “norms,” profound.

Our McDonald’s moment ushered in memories for me that weren’t super fun to have; moments when I unconsciously exercised class privilege to the potential detriment of another human, for example. I told Mani about the time when I was 23 driving cross country, when I asked a vending machine worker for a soda while the machine was open (and thus couldn’t accept any coins). Did I stop to think that this could’ve cost him his job? Did I think I was being charming or cute in the guise of chutzpah?

Chutzpah is one thing. But it’s another altogether to think you are somehow above the rules, that the rules are always pliable, there’s always another way, a workaround, someone you could call, a conversation that could clear things up or open a door.

It’s not pretty to look at the parts of ourselves that exemplify the things we say we’re against — entitlement, white privilege, intellectual snobbery. But to not look at these, to choose to stay cloistered, sheltered, more “successful” in ways society recognizes and values, and what we may have been taught would be “safer,” is inexcusable for anyone who claims to care about justice and humanity.

The playing fields have never, ever been equal. My parents paid for my college tuition. At the age of 21, I had a degree from Barnard and no student loan debt. Mani’s life experiences had led her to a completely different reality. I remember the first time I saw her Facebook profile back around 2009, years before I had any inkling we would come to know each other, much less fall in love. Under education, it said, “Autodidactic School of Hard Knocks.” It stuck with me. Who was this person? I was intrigued.

We find our people. Finding our people across class lines, across race lines, across religions, across the aisle, across the boxes we grew up in, across systems that favor whiteness and wealth and punish poverty, as if poverty isn’t punishing enough — it’s no small miracle. And while the class divides continue to grow with so many people falling into the great chasms of lack and others clinging to bubbles of ease and comfort, class differences have in their way brought me and Mani closer.

Earlier in the week, Pearl brought home a flyer from school announcing free lunches at several apartment complexes around town over the summer. “Can we go?” he asked, his privilege so transparent. I explained to him that no, we would not be going. Why not? Because we have food in the house. We can afford lunch — and breakfast, dinner, snacks, and dessert. We can stand in front of the fridge deciding what to eat rather than wondering whether we’ll eat. I told him that this is for kids and families who don’t necessarily know when their next meal will be, not kids and families who are ordering a new swim shirt from the Land’s End website.

I told him — and continue to talk to my kids often — about these things not to shame him, and not so that he will feel guilty, and especially not so that he will feel sorry for “those people.” God help me if I ever cop an attitude of “those people.” I am desperate for my kids to grow up aware of their privilege in ways I grappled to find the language for until adulthood and continue to try to look at as directly as possible. For them to know that it’s a matter of responsibility, not charity, to care about justice. And to check their privilege as I continue to check my own, when it comes to shopping at Whole Foods but not knowing how to pay for food at the McDonald’s drive-through.

We have a long way to go. And honestly, having a spouse with such a different set of life experiences, while more challenging perhaps in some ways, opens my eyes to some of the blindspots I didn’t even know I had. (I suppose they wouldn’t be blindspots if I did; they would just be choices).

Doing the work to wake up is constant, ongoing, and more critical than ever.

Necessity Is the Mother of Invention

“When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back.”~ Paulo Coelho

I’ve noticed something. The more time I spend online, the less I remember what it fully feels like to be me. And when I do have a spell of time away from the computer and less plugged into the apps on my phone, something shifts internally. It’s a shift you can’t really put into words, kind of the way someone could explain swimming to you but until that moment where it’s your body moving through water, it will only be a concept, divorced from experience.

I’ve noticed something else. I have created a monumental story in my head about the time I spend online. The biggest, most dire of the plot lines is this: If I spend less time online, I won’t earn a living.

Let me explain.

I led my first online writing group in December, 2014. Not three months after marrying my beautiful wife, her health had begun to unravel, slowly and mysteriously at first, and then rapidly and at such a precipitous pitch that it felt like we were sliding right out of our lives, the lives we had really just begun together. Nothing was what we’d expected. I had a full-time job at a local college, but with Mani’s ability to work quickly eroding, my income became barely sufficient to carry the four of us. Winter solstice was approaching; it was dark when I left for work in the morning and dark when I got home. I was lonely and scared. She was playing private investigator to her own deterioration, eventually self-diagnosing (accurately).

It was in this context that I wrote my very first 10 prompts and opened the doors to a secret Facebook group for 12 people. Some I knew already, others had found me through mutual friends or old-fashioned serendipity. What happened during those two weeks I could never had predicted. We wrote like crazy. For 10 minutes a day, we put pens to paper or let fingers fly over keys. It was terrifying and exhilarating and liberating to just write after a long dry spell without words, without expectation, without judgment (from others, at least). In the safety of this container, stories poured out.

The resulting writing was funny, heartbreaking, surprising, wise, ridiculous, wry, and real. The writing was not a means to an end. It was simply itself. Nobody had to perform or compare or compete for airtime or worry about who was better (though oh, how we do).

It was, in a word, magic.

So I did it again. Another 10 prompts, another two weeks, another 12 folks — many returning, many new. And again. And again! It was thrilling. I had no idea what I was “doing.” All I knew was that I loved it, it came naturally to me, it felt effortless and like the thing that threaded together the strands I’d been trying to combine for decades: Writing, connecting, coaching, creating, and community building.

By May, I was leading two groups at a time. By May, I was squirreling away money in a PayPal account. By May, I was planning my first in-person retreat for June.

And by May, we were reaching a crisis point.

She was living on water and white rice. She could no longer tolerate any other foods. And she had developed neuropathy in her feet and lower legs so severe that she barely slept, cried in pain at a feather touch, and listened to Jon Kabat-Zinn meditations on chronic pain literally on loop. We had been to a dozen specialists, and not even her immunologist who was familiar with her rare disease — Mast Cell Activation Disorder — knew what was happening. We wound up at the ER several times, but she didn’t go on pain medication since we didn’t know if she’d react to it.

I went on unpaid medical leave from my job as it became clear that I needed to be home full-time. Mani could barely stand to walk to the bathroom, much less cook or drive or do anything for herself.

By the time I led my first Unfurl retreat, the people in my writing groups had become not only a creative community but a support network that seemed to appear as if on some kind of crazy cosmic schedule. We fell into each other in the best sense, spending a weekend freewriting and sharing, alternating between cathartic laughter and cathartic tears, and consuming copious amounts of chocolate. Within days after that, Mani and I were checking into the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. I extended my medical leave from six to 12 weeks. Friends — many of whom I’d only met in the previous months through my writing groups — donated money and meals alike. The generosity was breathtaking.

This was never about building a business for me. This was about survival. This was about need. This was about love and devotion and fear and not knowing what to do but doing it anyway because what is the alternative? This was not about “being brave” or “taking a leap of faith” or 10 steps to following your dreams or how to quit your day job in six months flat. This was about learning to ask for help and just taking the fucking donuts.

It was all and none of those things. It was real life unfolding in ways that threw both of us into roles we never imagined and frankly, didn’t favor. Contrary to what many might assume, being nurturing — as opposed to being nurtured — triggered all kinds of stuff for me that I had no choice but to confront. And for her, being so dependent was about as identity-stripping as things could get. We were both in limbo, holding on to each other for dear life and determined to get through.

My leave from work came to a close and I gave my official notice. Going back was not an option; Mani was taking heavy-duty pain medication and her climb back to health would be steady, but long and slow and steep.

Two years later, here we are. The wheelchair she needed at one point to even leave the house for a short trip to Target sits getting dusty in the garage. She is up to nearly 30 foods and beverages and adding more every week. We just got back from a long weekend, where I co-taught a writing + art workshop Saturday morning. We go to Kirtan on Tuesday nights and read books together and say “I love you.” A lot.

My writing groups continue to fill up and have evolved into a variety of offerings, from quarterly intensives to poetry workshops. I have coaching clients again for the first time since I closed the doors on that work seven years ago, and I love my clients so much I can’t stand it. I pinch myself every day. I keep experimenting and growing. Some things fly and others flop.

And. I worry.

Maybe this just comes with the territory. In many ways, we take ourselves with us (as Kabat-Zinn writes, “Wherever you go, there you are”). I worried about money when I had a full-time job with a predictable monthly paycheck. Now I worry other things:

What if this is the month when everything just… ends? What if this is the month when everything just… ends? (This one is on repeat.)
Then we will figure it out, Mani reminds me.

What if people decide they are bored with me?
This is not about me entertaining people or being liked, I remind myself.

This is about genuine connection, safe space, and room to enter or re-enter writing practice and a creative process — something I know many of us don’t make time for. Or if we do, it’s under such relentless and vicious attack by self-criticism and perfectionism that we’re lucky to write three sentences before we erase or edit the life out of the rest.

In other words, it’s out of my hands.

Facebook can be such a mindfuck, like a hall of mirrors that meets a high-school reunion. It can also be a miracle. I love it. And I feel beholden to it. I’m trying to find my way with this and for the first time — maybe this is a gesture of trust — I am writing about it. After all, writing is how I find my way. It always has been and now is no different.

There is a proliferation of writing groups out there. I cannot and will not get sucked under a dark current of competition. I don’t want to and it feels awful and I’d sooner throw in the towel altogether. But that doesn’t mean I’m not susceptible to it, especially on days of self-doubt.

At the end of my groups, after a few days to collect our words, the space goes *poof*. I’ve done it this way from the very beginning. It was an intuitive decision that has continued to feel right; the energy of the words and connections like soap from inside a bubble, like sand from a mandala, go out into the world, though their forms will never again be the same. Impermanence is not an accident; it is a fundamental component of practice.

Impermanence is all we have for sure. In this work, in this life, in our writing, in our relationships, in our health, in our friendships, in our communities. That doesn’t mean there aren’t real, lasting things. In fact, I think it’s the opposite: Impermanence deepens my awareness and appreciation of just how precious these are. It has also helped me through some of the hardest and darkest times in my life.

I love what I do for work. I love that I have learned that I am capable of so much more than I ever imagined. And every time I can catch myself in the worry, I take a breath, acknowledge it, and say a thousand thank yous. In this moment, we are ok. In this moment, my wife is next to me adding more books to her library holds. In this moment, the right people will find me and choose to write and practice with me. In this moment, I get to be here. If we could get through the past few years intact, we can get through anything.

I want my work to continue to grow in ways I can’t necessarily yet envision fully. All I know for sure is that I want to keep connecting with people in ways that are real and deep, in ways that heal and don’t harm, in ways that foster community rather than divisiveness.

As I come to a slowing-down point for an outpouring of words I didn’t see coming this evening, I realize that this isn’t really about how much time I spend online. It’s about integrity and authenticity and continuing to live and work in ways that feel deeply real and genuine.  These happen both online and off; it’s the intention that matters.

Lately one of the things that is calling my soul is the desire for more unplugged, unstructured time. That’s why my next group is not a writing group per se, but a group where each day for two weeks, we’ll practice different ways of not doing. We start a week from today.

If spending a minimum of 15 minutes a day doing things like sitting on a bench, lying on the floor, listening to music, and eating mindfully make something in your soul stir a little, please join me. Our secret group will be a place to share our discoveries, experiences, surprises, and struggles.

Feast On Your Life
June 5-16 :: Register Now

We are all in this alone, but I am so, so thankful that we also get to be in it together.

* * * * *

Other Upcoming Groups

Dive Into Poetry
July 1-30 :: Register

Jewels on the Crown (Summer Session)
July 3-September 22 :: Register

The Unspeakables
July 10-21 :: Register