Surfing Ocean and Sky: Mary Oliver, Whitman, and Synchronicity

And here we are, gliding along the last days of the year. Taking (time) off is all the lovelier for its strangeness.

And here we are, gliding along the last days of the year. Taking (time) off is all the lovelier for its strangeness.

The first dream happened in the afternoon. It was Friday, December 23. As we do most days, Mani and I took a nap after lunch. But before I tell you this dream, I need to tell you about part of a conversation I had that morning, with a long-standing writing coaching client who has also become a friend and beloved human.

We wrap up our hour-long call, then linger as we often do. We talk a bit about what kind of support she needs for her writing as we begin 2017, and I mention some of the things that are on my mind around my own life and work.

At one point, she says, “If I may…”

To which I respond, “Please do….”

And so she tells me that in the year we’ve been talking every single week by phone, she in her home office and me in my kitchen or living room “office,” she has somehow never before noticed the framed photograph that now catches her eye. It is a picture of the sky. Big, expansive, vast, wide-open sky.

I take a breath and tell her how perfect it feels, like a reading I didn’t even ask for. I joke that I should be the one paying her, rather than the other way around.

And then she says something so beautiful.

You are the sky. And you are the ocean, too. We need you.

I sit with this for a moment, tears in my eyes. I feel the impulse to deflect it, to say something funny or self-deprecating. But I don’t. I take it in. And then I thank her and say, “I need you, too.”

**

A few hours later, Mani and I crash hard. I intend to rest for maybe 45 minutes or so, but when the timer goes off on my phone (the alarm doesn’t work, so I’m always doing the  math and setting a timer), I swiftly swipe it off without resetting it. It’s in this next interval of sleep that I really go under.

I find myself in a dream where I am body surfing the most glorious waves — they are huge, powerful, and generous without being scary or threatening, and I am moving at the speed of ocean. Then I am soaring, too, over sand — it lifts me like air and I feel like I’m flying, unbridled, one with sky, salt, sea, and land. Not a single object or obstruction stands in my way. At one point, a guy on a bike approaches behind me, and I just let him pass.

(Later, there is some confusion — it seems this incredible experience has deposited me in the student center at Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley and I have to figure out how to get back to Amherst.)

But that part of the dream — I want to call it a passage — was extraordinary in its embodiment of movement and being.

I wake up and realize what has happened, what I’ve experienced.

I was the sky. I was the ocean, too.

**

The next day, Saturday the 24th, we pack up for a mini vacation I’ve surprised Mani with for the first few nights of Hanukkah, to an Airbnb in Cambridge. We get there in time to pick up some groceries just before everything closes for Christmas. The place we’ve chosen is perfect — small but clean and cozy, smack in between Fresh Pond and Harvard Square.

I have to sit on my hands not to reach out to everyone I know in the Boston area, knowing that this time is ours alone and trusting that 2017 will bring opportunities to connect with friends, perhaps offer readings from my new book, and lead workshops. Ideas percolate and I let them, without racing to write anything down.

I share a picture on Facebook of the most fabulous display of Christmas lights, with these words, alluding to yesterday’s dream:

lightsI’m sitting in our Airbnb (not the house in the photo!) eating chipotle chicken mac & cheese from a Whole Foods take-out carton, on a quiet street in a neighborhood filled with lights. We had a festive family dinner last night, and now my kiddos are with their dad and his family up in Vermont. I took a nap this afternoon and had an extraordinary dream–so vivid–in which I was body surfing ocean, sand, and sky. I may have to write about it.

But for the next few days, the plan is to read, rest, and just be. The darker the night, the brighter and more beautiful and essential these over-the-top lights seem to me. I’m so grateful for this community of friends and writers–you know who you are, but I hope you also know that you anchor me and bring so much meaning, purpose, connection, and joy into my life.

**

The next morning, I make us coffee and sit down to start reading “Upstream” by Mary Oliver, a gift from my parents. I reach page 23, an essay called “Of Power and Time,” a timeless piece of writing that I will return to again and again for the rest of my days. I underline at least 50% of it as I read, beginning with the opening lines of the second paragraph:

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in. 

She writes of the ways in which not only the world interrupts us, but how we interrupt ourselves, something she calls “a darker and more curious matter.”

I take a picture of these lines and text it to my writing friend, who gets it right away and responds in kind:

Jena – THE SKY!!!

I haven’t yet told her about the sky-ocean-sand surfing dream. My sense of contentment is sudden and complete. In this moment, I have everything I need.

contentment

Later in the same essay, I nearly burst out crying and laughing at the same time. I have just put the final touches on my third, self-published collection of poems. After some deliberation, a title poem rose to the surface and gave the book its name: Why I Was Late for Our Meeting. I wrote this particular poem last summer. The meeting I was late for? A coaching call with my sky-writing friend.

Page 30:

If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.

I am momentarily dismayed not to have read these words in time to include them as an epigraph to the new poems. And then quickly, this is replaced by an immeasurable sense of joy and synchronicity. Because really — how marvelous is this, to be dipping into the same reservoir of knowing, as a poet I so deeply respect and admire. I tell Mani I must find a way to give her a copy of the book!

**

That first night in Cambridge, I dream a statement. It goes something like this:

To ask questions and not assume — this feels like love.

I wake remembering it — almost. The wording is off a bit, but the meaning is clear. I don’t know how the speaker was in the dream, though those of a Jungian persuasion would argue that it’s a moot point; the whole dream is the dreamer.

I pour a second cup of coffee and return to the window seat to  keep reading. I reach the essay called “Sister Turtle” and read, on page 57, this line:

To enjoy, to question–never to assume, or trample.

Oliver is writing about “the responsibility to live thoughtfully and intelligently.” I shudder slightly, as if I’ve been caressed by the softest touch. Once again, I know I am right where I need to be. Later, in “Some Thoughts on Whitman,” she shares the first lines of his glorious “Song of Myself,” a poem I first read in its entirety nearly 20 years ago, when I entered an MFA program and lived not two miles from where we’re staying.

I celebrate myself, 
And what I assume you shall assume, 
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. 

Whitman’s poetry is incantatory — a word my grad school advisor assigned to my work, much to my delight — and intent, as Mary Oliver notes, on “[forcing] open the soul.” She goes on:

He was after a joyfulness, a belief in existence in which man’s inner light is neither rare nor elite, but godly and common, and acknowledged. For that it was necessary to be rooted, again, in the world.

**

I mark this passage and write “lineage,” underlined twice in the margin. I am of and from this belief; it drives my writing and my work. To be flung wide open, unguarded and real. To keep turning over the stones and jewels, never knowing where some shard of light may be revealed, even when the task seems redundant and questionable. To crouch by the edges of my everyday life, as Mary Oliver does near her beloved Blackwater Pond, “utterly quiet and half-hidden.” To coax soul from its perch and into my open palm. To insist on light — mine and yours, common, acknowledged, and essential.

fresh-pond-1

There is a rumor of total welcome among the frosts of the winter morning. – Mary Oliver

The second morning of our getaway, I go for a run around Fresh Pond. I pay for it later; my lower back is not happy with me. But it’s worth it at the time. Kids on scooters riding ahead of the grown-ups, lots of people with their dogs, and pairs of friends or couples all circumambulate the pond in holiday-week leisure. I am glad to be alone but among them.

**

The third morning, I don’t run, but instead venture a few blocks up the street to a bakery that caught my eye. I bring my journal and sit writing, people watching, and caffeinating while Mani sleeps in a little.

I notice my slight anxiety about taking time “off” from working, and watch as my handwritten words unfurl across the creamy, blank pages:

Trusting people to wait for me. Trusting that the world won’t abandon me if I rest… Keep your hand moving, mama, and see what it is really like to be all the way here, deeply and without reservation. That is the practice. That is the work.

**

Speaking of trust, we decide to splurge and stay one additional night.

Now it is the evening of Tuesday, December 27. We’ve brought with us two canvas bags filled with magazines to cut up. At home, Mani does this somewhat regularly, but it has been ages since I did anything visual, and I’m out of practice. This is humbling and a good reminder of where many people are when they first approach my writing groups. Just start, I tell myself. And keep going, I add.

The first little while is awkward. I cut out words and a few pictures, not sure where it’s going or whether it will amount to anything I like. I glance over at Mani and she seems so relaxed, then remind myself to just stay in it without worrying about the outcome. After all, how can I hashtag things like “creative process” if I myself am unwilling to try new things?

After two hours, I am surprised and pleased and not a little bit amazed. I’ve created something!

collage

Come at evening or at morning. Come when expected or without warning. A thousand welcomes you’ll find here before you. And the oftener you come, the more we’ll adore you.

**

Dreams and images, words on pages written out of order, found right on time, speaking to each other across time zones and zip codes, climates and landscapes, decades of life, centuries, too. All of this happens as if in simulcast, where the linearity of time is illusory and really, we’re all here dipping our spoons into the same pot, sipping and slurping and stirring.

Since Sunday, I’ve read two books — the other was “The Light of the World” by Elizabeth Alexander — and indeed rested my body and mind so as to make room to listen to my soul. This has everything to do, for me, with my service to you, to the world. They are inseparable, neither endeavor complete without the other.

This balance is my lifelong… I almost wrote struggle. But no, that was before. Now, it feels like a gift, one I get to keep opening and giving away and receiving again, never the same twice, yet somehow also unchanging.

**

We’re back home now. The snow is really coming down, as predicted. Mani is doing a meditation beside me before we head over to Northampton, where she has her private yoga session and I will sit in a coffee shop, working on prompts for my next two-week writing group.

What will the new year bring?

Rest and work. Giving and receiving. Love and loss. Practice and outcome. Synchronicity and destiny. Not knowing and knowing. Ebbing and flowing. Ocean and sky, sky and ocean.

One unthinkable without the other.

“the dark places between the stars”

light

Sometimes when you put your hand into a hollow tree
you touch the dark places between the stars.

Robert Bly

I sit down in the living room. The overhead light is turned off, and the string of holiday lights around the perimeter where the walls meet the ceiling crate a soft glow. The holidays are over and the new year has begun. As a Jew, I observe two new years — one where I return to my soul by looking back over the year past and prepare my name for a blank page in the Book of Life, and the other when I climbs into the ferris wheel bucket, going up and up to the tippy top, where January perches on top of the world, waiting to start the descent to summer and ascent back to winter. It’s  a circle every time; some turns have felt wracked by threatening winds while others have been gentle.

Now, a week before I turn 42, I sit here looking out — at the living room, at the view from here. My children are with their father tonight — piano lessons and middle school homework, I imagine him snuggling with the younger of the two while the older one watches “Grey’s Anatomy” or listening to iTunes on headphones in her room.

I’ve been living all the way into each day, even as my wife and I work towards change and an eventual move to the ocean. Pacific Beach or thereabouts awaits us. We dream of grandchildren already. We don’t get sick of each other. Our contract is for love not to be work, but kindness, with plenty of space to just feel and be, not having to better ourselves. It’s a relief, frankly.

My body’s curves have become slightly softer in the past six months. Partly as a result of quitting smoking, no doubt, but there’s something else — a settling in, a relaxing. I’m finally learning how to take time off. How to rest without guilt. I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked in my life, and am happier, too — the work is my own, and the combination of not punching a clock with getting to make up rules and content as I go on my own terms suits me well. For the first time ever, I do not feel I have to prove myself or explain my choices.

Little makes me more fulfilled than baking something my kids will love eating. I’m more aware than ever that they’re no longer little, which also means they need me on their terms and not mine. Time together is not a given, and as much as–more than–ever, I don’t want to miss it. I’ve spent so much time coming to terms with decisions I made as a much younger woman, and the more distance I gain on the past, the more clearly I’m able to see  and understand what I denied in order to love the life I had–and why.

The first string of lights I bought this year to brighten up the living room in December burned out quickly. I exchanged them for new ones at Target, but it turned out the new string was twice as long as the first. For two weeks, a bundle of extra lights lay collecting dust on the floor; I kept meaning to get around to hammering in some nails around the doorway to the kitchen. Then one day last week, I walked into the living room to find the old glass water dispenser–the one I’d hauled home last summer from someone’s trash heap during a run– filled with light. My wife pointed out that it looked like something that would cost $94 from Anthropologie.

I asked my thirteen-year old if she’d thought of that. She had, indeed. It was lovely, just the kind of thing that could make a room feel beautiful instead of neglected.

And it reminds me tonight of the dark places between stars, a phrase that fills me with nighttime and spacious sky and desert dark and the beauty of not knowing. I sit here in the living room, the one where we are making into a home but that won’t be home forever, grateful for the quiet, the clicking of the keys, the time to listen to my own thoughts and see them unfurl across the page. Nothing will ever be the same, that much I know, as I reflect on something I read earlier in the evening, by a beautiful writer named Tracy Franz:

“So ichi-go ichi-e is not simply ‘pay attention to now.’ It is ‘pay attention to now and rest in the awareness of all that has come before, all of the causes and conditions that now culminate and come together in this present moment; notice that this moment, too, will pass.'”

This too will pass. This moment is the culmination of all of the moments before it. It rests on its very own now-ness, and as soon as I notice it, is already gone. Like breath on glass, get up close to the thing, and the thing is gone. But not always. Sometimes, I get close up to my child’s face after sleep has come, or my lover’s skin, and it is more real than ever, to be savored and memorized.

What comes tomorrow, I don’t know. Only that it will be its own time, and also a container for all that came before. What this means doesn’t matter, only that I will sleep in the dark spaces between, wake inside the hollow, and open my green eyes again, to something both known and new.