The Blessing of a Bruised Right Buttock

My whole body is a bit tweaked from the fall I took two nights ago. The rather magnificent bruise on my right buttock (which turned into quite a fun #rightbuttock joke on Facebook) has deepened into a shocking and marvelous set of purples, and I thought that was that.

But yesterday, my neck started feeling achy and I was nauseous, to boot, enough so that I rescheduled an afternoon client so that I could take an Epsom salt bath and a rest rather than pushing through and pretending to be present. There are few worse and more disrespectful things than pretending to be anything, especially present. I was fine the day after the fall; amazing how these things can both take time to become apparent and creep up on you.

Earlier in the day, I’d listened as a different beloved client 3,000 miles away told me about a moment of sitting in her own tangled places — emotional, personal, professional. The entire call, I’d been watching a huge sheet of ice and snow melt in slow, steady drips just outside the south-facing kitchen windows. I told her about it, as it seemed symbolically fitting somehow, then sent her a photo after our call.

This morning, she reciprocated with a texted picture of a Buddha outside in the rain, pointing out that the face was half wet and half dry. It reminded me of the both/and of things; how we can be ok, be calm, be, period, even when we are exposed to the elements.

Sometimes I feel like I’m just recycling the same thoughts and ideas over and over again. I commit to things and then find myself unprepared, literally scrawling noted on the back on an envelope minutes before it’s my turn to speak. I judge myself harshly for being out of my league, but not unkindly for showing up in the first place. Ego is apparent here in many ways: Ego says, you suck. Ego says, you’re amazing. I’m wary of both messages.

My bruised right buttock slowed me down this weekend. After a shower, coffee, and breakfast, Mani went to work on a puzzle in the front hallway. I was debating between reading a book and taking a nap when I heard a crash.

I ran to the other end of our apartment to see if she was ok; she was fine, but her puzzle table had gone down the front steps (what’s up with us and the stairs in our place this week?!), and pieces had gone flying everywhere.

It was while picking them up that I came across  a folder filled with short bits of writing, report cards, awards, and recommendations ranging from 1982 to 1991. I didn’t realize it was in that wooden peach crate with all the photos we’ve been meaning to hang in the front hallway for the last two and half years.

Once she got back to her puzzle, I sat down in the bathroom doorway and started reading through the contents of the folder.

“The most intellectual member of her class,” wrote my guidance counselor in 1990. “Jena is a warm, empathetic, articulate, and spirited individual with a twinkle of humor in her eyes. She is a good listener, and her peers actively seek and value her opinions. Jena is comfortable with herself, and she has a gift for making others feel relaxed whenever they are around her. It is difficult to describe Jena in a few words as there is much depth to this strong-willed, generous and engaging young woman.”

Now, it’s evening. I sit here with that folder at my side, the folder with newspaper clippings announcing national prizes I won for poems and essays about the Holocaust, short stories I started and never finished, a drawing from fifth grade of African-American anti-slavery activist and poet Charlotte Forten Grimké, and the one that really cracked me up, from a P.E. teacher who said I had “weak abdominals” (some things really never change).

There’s an uncomfortable sensation but I can’t fully put my finger on it. And then it hits me: I am wondering if I have lived up to this girl’s promise. And then something even bigger hits me: She wondered the same thing.

Suddenly, here we are, the two of us, my 43-year-old self and my 10- and 15- and 17- year-old selves. And I want to sit and look her in the eyes. I want to say: Hey you, in there. You don’t have to be amazing, you know.

As I sit here, another wave of thought comes rushing up to me. It goes something like this:

See? This is why it’s best to close the doors and leave them closed. What purpose is there in revisiting this old stuff? You can either use it as evidence of how totally YOU you were back then, or of how totally NOT you you were then. You can make it a badge or a weapon. You can spin any story you want, and they will all be true and none of them will be true. 

I find a collection of ten poems I put together in 1998, after my first year of grad school. One is called “After an Absence,” by Linda Pastan. It begins:

After an absence that was no one’s fault
we are shy with each other,
and our words seem younger than we are,
as if we must return to the time we met
and work ourselves back to the present,
the way you never read a story
from the place you stopped
but always start each book all over again.

Sometimes life is like this. We start the same book all over again. And again, and again. We forget who we were, carrying only memory ghost imprints of our younger selves. The once who were bursting with ideas. “Enthusiasm and delight” is how my Amherst College professor described my relationship to the Spanish language; I was 15, a junior in high school.

And then there is “Kannon” by Sam Hamill. How bizarre; he doesn’t know me from Eve but we are Facebook friends now 20 years later, and I watch from afar as his health dwindles. As a woman in my early 20s, his poetry spoke to some deeply human and impossible part of me.

I adore you. I love you
completely. Nothing to ask in return.

Each act of affection a lesson:
I fail, but with each failure, learn.

Like studying
under Te-shan:

thirty blows if I can’t answer,
thirty blows if I can.

And William Stafford’s “Awareness,” yet another hint of what I knew I didn’t yet know. Here are the final two stanzas:

Of hiding important things because
they don’t belong in the world.

Of now. Of maybe. Of something
different being true.

And Mary Oliver’s “March,” which ends:

“Something touched me, lightly, like a knife blade. Somewhere I felt I was bleeding, though just a little, a hint. Inside, I flared hot, then cold. I thought of you. Whom I love, madly.”

The girl I was, the teenager, the young woman, the young wife, the new mother — all of these matryoshka dolls stacked one inside another. I sit here this evening as the light fades. Much of the snow on our neighbor’s roof has melted from the storm a few days ago, and soon soon soon, spring will come for real. I feel like a grown up, even though I question what that actually means.

Oh, life. You have such a way about you.

I think it has to do with a bruised buttock — a fleshy one, too, not like the underweight ass of my youth. It has to do with mad love and evenings in, with poems as portents, with potential unfolding and dying in every single moment, rather than as something to bottle up and stash for emergencies. It has to do with being the mama now, who is strong enough to sit still, to say, “you are safe.” To mother and live in such a way that my kids can find their way to being truly themselves. And it definitely has to do with what happens when I stop trying to be good enough and instead, just love the person I’ve always been.

I look out the window at the dark, then turn to myself and say:

Keep reading for hints and watching for clues. Keep scribbling notes and paying attention to which poems grab you by the heart. Keep sharing delight and enthusiasm — for language, for learning, for stories and poems. Keep showing up, whether you feel prepared or not. Keep diving in where things are tangled and keep coming up for air where the sun shines and melts away what seems impossible and permanent. Let the seasons change. Listen to the body. It knows how to heal. Healing is possible. 

Yoga + Writing: Parallel Practices

PART 1: THREE POSES

Each time she said “yoga,” I substituted “writing.”

“Don’t do it with great willpower, but with great affection.” ~ B.K.S. Iyengar

“I don’t know what happened to my grit,” she said.

My coaching client was referring to the passion and will she remembered having as a much younger woman. She’s been working on a children’s book on and off for years now. But after a health scare last summer, she shelved it completely for reasons that didn’t even make sense to her. What those are don’t matter; we were talking now, because she wanted to get back to the writing. Back to some semblance of discipline and grit, but in ways that reflect who she is now at 50, not who she was then, at, say, 20.

This woman, whose writing and being I adore, is also a mom and a yoga teacher.

I asked her about her yoga practice. What gets her back to the mat after a hiatus? She thought about this and then responded: “I know what I need to do.”

As an aside: These are words that make a coach jump out of her seat to do a happy dance before further inquiry.

Then I asked her to tell me more. And she talked about how B.K.S. Iyengar, whose tradition of yoga she follows, instructed his students to do just three poses. Three poses constitutes a practice. I mentioned Mani’s “rule,” which it to simply “get on the mat” once a day.

Once there, anything goes; even if she rolls it right back up, if she gets on the mat once a day, she can know that she showed up. Most times, of course, once you’re on the mat, you might as well move around a bit. Three poses often opens to a longer practice, because the body is so hungry for breath and length and movement, and the spirit for the sheer relief of not having to be anywhere else.

So, I asked her, what “three poses” are your writing equivalent? In other words, what is the bare minimum you must commit to in order to know that you’re showing up to your practice and your intention of returning to this book?

She considered this for a few minutes.

Number one, she said: “Take your seat.”

Sound easy enough, but I would argue that this may in fact be the hardest part of writing. Just sitting down. You can circle the wagons all damn day, or you can take your seat. You can open and close the fridge door 20 times, or you can take your seat. You can text your BFF, run errands, watch Netflix, obsess about the news for good reason, or just scroll on Facebook, or you can take your seat.

I do all of the above — the avoidance, the fridge the circling like a dog trying to find that absolute most perfect spot. It’s fine. As long as you eventually TAKE YOUR SEAT.

Number two, she said: “Write one scene.”

Mind you, we talked about what this means. Will she measure a “scene” by word count or number of pages or because she has a predetermined list of scenes that remain unwritten? Yes. In other words, she is building in freedom to the plan. “Scene” is flexible. The important thing at this stage is to write one, whether it’s a paragraph or five pages.

And last but not least, number three, which addresses what to do on days when number two isn’t happening.

In other words, what about when she takes her seat but doesn’t know what to write? We all know that these moments are like surprise parties for our inner critics, with ribbons and balloons and pizza and cake. Every inner critic I’ve ever met will happily waltz through that door, get on her soapbox, and proceed to give a speech we’ve heard a thousand times. You know the one? About how we don’t really know what we’re doing, and this book probably isn’t even going anywhere, and every time you try some great new plan (like “three poses”), the whole thing unravels, and who do you think you are anyway?

STOP. That is NOT how this is going to go, sister.

Nope. Instead, step three, or “pose” three, is this: Come up with a reminder, an affirmation if you will. For example: “Don’t panic. The story always finds you.”

You have permission not always to know what’s next. Explore. Meander. Set a timer and freewrite without stopping for 10 minutes. Everything counts, and sometimes it’s from staying inside of these “not knowing” times that something new comes through. It requires faith and patience. And, come to think of it, grit.

I emailed her a few days later to say hi, and to ask her permission to write about our conversation. I also asked if she’d started the new routine yet. Here’s what she wrote:

“And yes, the ship has set sail. Friday I created a ‘not etched in stone’ weekly schedule that encompasses everything: writing, yoga, meditation, walking dogs, cleaning toilets. Lots of flexibility built into it, so I can shuffle things around when needed. But writing… writing comes first.”

Amen.

Just for fun: What are your three poses?

If you’re looking for your grit or can’t get yourself to sit and write on a regular basis, take a look around. What works in some other area of your life? How can you transpose that and come up with something to try? If you practice yoga, what do you know about your time on the mat that might in fact relate to your time with your notebook (or wherever you face down the unknown)?

PART 2: Props / Prompts

Some people see yoga props and writing prompts as the tools of novices.

“The fewer our demands on life, the greater our ability to see its bounty.” ~ B.K.S. Iyengar

Saturday morning. Mani and I got up at our usual 6:30am time. When her alarm went off, I could barely open my eyes. In a weird role reversal, she was chipper and wide awake and greeted me with a kiss. “Good morning! Shabbat Shalom, darling!”

“It’s Shabbat,” I groaned, covering my head with the pillow. A nice way of saying, WTF why are we awake? But then I took a long, hot shower while she prepped our Very Strong Coffee, and I joined her in the kitchen somewhat more awake.

Sitting at the table with our morning coffee has been one of the biggest rewards of our new daily schedule. Even though I work at home and we see each other all day long, there’s something special about intentionally beginning the day together this way, and we tend to have interested, meandering conversations.

This one somehow went in the direction of yoga. Mani mentioned that when she couldn’t fall asleep right away the night before, she’d “pinned” a bunch of Iyengar quotes to her Yoga Life board on Pinterest.

“That’s so crazy,” I told her, mentioning the Iyengar reference during a coaching call last week. And from there, somehow we were off and running. We got to talking about props, and because I am a word dork, I lit up at realizing that the word “prop” fits neatly inside the word “prompt.”

Some people see yoga props and writing prompts as the tools of novices. I think of these rather as useful tools to help the practitioner meet the blank page or enter a pose, supports to use for gradually growing stronger and going deeper.

“Until one day…” a beloved yoga teacher of mine used to say, before showing us the “full expression” of the pose (if she herself had mastered it). I can still hear her soothing, steady voice in my ear. “Until one day your practice is so steady and strong that you don’t use a prop/prompt.”

I always loved that “one day” thing. So different from the elusive “someday,” it implies something more concrete and even inevitable. A faith, a confidence. One day you will do this, whether that day is next month or not in this lifetime.

Mani started reading me Iyengar quote after Iyengar quote. Each time she said “yoga,” I substituted “writing.” Then I started scribbling quotes and notes like crazy on unlined paper. We finished our coffee. A new writing group was born.

Part 3: The Republic of the Body: A New Writing Group, May 1-26

“Love must be incarnated in the smallest pore of the skin, the smallest cell of the body, to make them intelligent so they can collaborate with all the other ones, in the big republic of the body. This love must radiate from you to others.” ~ B.K.S. Iyengar

It doesn’t matter how sporadic and erratic my practice gets. The mat forgives me every time. So does the blank page.

Details + Registration

 

Works in Progress

Photo: Les Anderson

I am a work in progress dressed in the fabric of a world unfolding. – Ani DiFranco

On days like this, when I’ve started and deleted three different blog posts, it can be easy to feel discouraged or doubtful. All or nothing thinking spills over, threatening to flood my thoughts. I take this a signal to step back and give it a rest, and turn to reading other people’s work instead. I have no idea what I will write next; what will have legs, what will stand up on its own two feet and dance a two-step around the kitchen.

It’s time to pick Pearl up from Hebrew School. Our synagogue has not received any bomb threats today, a fact that is made remarkable only by the fact that 20 JCCs on the East coast did receive bomb threats today, and this is the second time this month there’s been a spate of such calls. Aviva runs in to sign her out while I wait in the car. Parents and kids leave the building in twos and threes. I realize that every time I’ve entered the building since November, I’ve scanned the exterior for graffiti. For swastikas. It seems more like a “when” than an “if” at this point, a fact that makes me angry and frightened.

One of the failed blog posts I wrote and scrapped earlier was about parenting and time going by and kids growing up. It’s the kind of thing I would have written 10 years ago, and while it was fine and nice, it felt stale and safe. I don’t want to write safe and I don’t want to write stale.

If there is one thing I’ve learned about writing, it’s this: Not every blog post is a winner. Not every freewrite has hidden gems. Not every poem makes you weep.

I know there are writers who only share with the world the pieces that do hit a home run, whatever that means — who would never share unedited pieces or drafts or one-offs. I share so much of the latter that sometimes I wind up perverting my own practice.

Perfectionism is sneaky like that.

I want to wrap this up neatly with something inspiring, like “it gets easier.” But fuck that noise; platitudes don’t help us get stronger, and neat endings certainly don’t help me expand my ability to show up even when the writing just ain’t flowing. Nope. There’s no pretty ending here, no ribbon, no gift wrap. What I do know is this: I don’t give up nearly as easily as I used to. And if I waited for perfection, you would never read another word of mine, no exaggeration.

Real life happens every day; great writing happens sometimes, if we’re lucky — and if we take our seat, even when it doesn’t. And days like this? They are a gift in their own way, reminding me, as Ani wrote, that the writing, like life itself, is a work in progress, ever unfolding.

Now pull up a chair. At least we can order another espresso and do this thing together.