Rejections, Insults, and Perspective


It’s 7:30 on Sunday morning. I did not sleep well — took a long time falling to sleep, then was up around 3:30, which is when I checked my phone and saw the rejection email from an editor I’d been really, really hoping would select the poem I’d submitted for a weekly series where poets respond to current news stories.

I must have gotten back to sleep — vivid dreams — and before I knew it, Chalupa started stirring sometime after 6:00am, and I woke up drenched in sweat. Night sweats have always been a thing for me but have gotten much more intense as I walk deeper into my 40s. So hi, I’m up. Up with coffee, of course. I took Chalupa downstairs to relieve herself after a bout of record-setting bulldog stubborness at the top of the stairs, then gave her breakfast, played with her mangled crocodile for a few minutes, and gave her a lovely shoulder massage until she was ready to calm down and sleep some more.

I’ve submitted more work in the last week than in a long time, and it’s such a funny cycle: I write, tinker a little, send with a kiss and a wish, wait, know that the odds are not in my favor, and then eventually get the email saying, “Thanks, but.” It doesn’t keep me from continuing (to write, tinker, send, etc.), but that’s not to say I don’t have a truncated trip through the stages of grief every time. This one hit a little harder, which tells me the poem itself is more personal. I will probably share it here soon.

Something Mani shared with me yesterday — she was reading a mental health-related piece about why words matter, especially the words practitioners of all kinds use — really struck me: One negative statement or insult has the same impact as 100 positive statements of compliments. Said another way, it takes 100 positive things to cancel the impact on a person of a single negative one. My mind went in so many directions at once upon hearing this. I thought of children, all children really but particularly those at higher risk to be bullied, teased, ostracized, and underestimated based solely on factors like race, gender expression, or a disability.

I also thought of creativity — from writing to art-making — and the lasting damage of that one teacher who told you you should quit, or you’d never be that good, or you didn’t have what it takes. I thought about the folks who write with me, and why my groups aren’t focused on being better writers per se. When you were diminished as a child, it can take a lot of practice and time and affirmation to slowly begin to believe, “I can.”

The latest rejection stings. It pisses me off for a minute. But it’s not an insult. It’s just a person with his own subjectivity, his own sense of what the readers of his magazine prefer, and surely his own unconscious filters and biases, too, making choices about what to publish. It doesn’t hurt me, and it won’t scar me unless I let it. But if I never shared my work anywhere where it was met with appreciation, recognition in the form of resonance and human connection, and kindness, I think it would be a hell of a lot harder to keep going.

Yesterday, a participant in my most recent 2-week writing group shared this:

Writing with you these past two weeks did get me unstuck. It was hard and didn’t always feel comfortable with what my words revealed, but now I can make words with my voice and camera again. Much self-knowledge gained. Thank you.

This woman is a phenomenally talented photographer and a deeply beautiful writer. But she had been stuck. Her word, along with so much emotion, had gotten lodged inside of her body. And the writing, the prompts, the safe space for sharing where she knew she wouldn’t be insulted or rejected be it for the quality or the content of her words, all allowed her to begin to feel herself again.

This to me is of far greater importance than getting published in the New York Times, the Atlantic, and so on. Don’t get me wrong — reaching more people with my words has always been and remains an ever-growing dream of mine. It’s that this dream doesn’t overpower the other one, which is to encourage people to trust themselves through practice, to make room for being imperfect, and to do this right alongside every person I’m lucky enough to write with.

I suppose it’s called perspective.

I woke up after that less-than-stellar night’s sleep feeling some urgency. Urgency to write, perhaps to assemble my next collection of poems, which I might even submit to a literary contest if I can pull it together in time, and well. We’ll see. For now, I come here. Because here is a place to land, a way to connect, and 20 minutes I’ll never regret.

Now I’m going to pour a second cup. If you want homework: Think of one negative statement or insult you’ve carried. Write it down on a piece of paper. Then get a second piece of paper, and write 100 positive statements or compliments. If you can’t think of that many, it’s fine. Just start.

Goethe’s oft-quoted words seem like a fitting way to end: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

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. 

Tiles in a Laborious Mosaic

“There are very few human beings who receive the truth, complete and staggering, by instant illumination. Most of them acquire it fragment by fragment, on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic.”

~ The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944

Thought: There is a LOT of news we don’t hear about. Every single day, things happen. Small miracles. Wrenching losses. Breathtaking moments of ecstasy and countless, repetitive motions. “You and me” takes on hundreds of manifestations. The big picture will always be there, beyond our field of vision, a scale so measureless it requires tremendous faith in the unseen and unseeable.

What is a mosaic made of, but so many tiny tiles?

Every day that we wake up and find that we are still here, alive, conscious, breathing, able to interact in whatever ways our bodies make possible, is an opportunity to change our minds and alter that unfathomable pattern in the direction of wholeness.

Here’s the catch: It’s hard.

We get tangled in webs of invisible energy. We react. We rush. We carry so much pent-up rage and sadness that it’s bound to leak out all over everything if we don’t acknowledge it and find channels for expression, release, and healing. The world doesn’t meet us where we are any more than we meet the world as it is. We meet the world — I do this so very often — through a distorted lens of how I think it should be. The world shrugs back like a teenager. “Whatever.”

Tears come unexpectedly. At first, I sit still and let them roll down my cheeks as the singers sing on. Then it becomes too much; I feel the strain of trying to control what is quickly moving from a quiet flow to a full-on storm, and I leave the room quietly, move towards a large window at the end of a wide hallway. It is facing west. The sun is low over a bike path, a parking lot. I watch people coming and going as the sobbing I didn’t see coming overtakes me. It’s every hard thing, every yearning, every pinch, every tight spot, every constraint. It’s neither rational nor irrational. It is scary and at the same time, somewhere in the deep of my brain, I know it won’t last.

It doesn’t last.

I return to the room. I take my seat back on the cushion. My wife sits a foot or so away from me. The space is filled with sound. Guitar, tabla, bass, drums, cello, flute, violin, harmonium. Deep voices and piercing voices coming together in an ancient call and response. I sway a little but don’t join in for a while, allowing myself just to stay here in the stillness. I notice the urge to flee. I stay. I notice 10,000 variations on this theme. I resist all of it. I stay. I stay. I stay.

And sure enough, I begin to soften. Almost despite myself, I open my mouth to sing. I sing quietly. I don’t need anyone to hear me. I am here, and that is enough.

We all have moments where we are “not our best selves.” But what does this even mean? Best, worst, first, last — all of these monosyllabic words that don’t ultimately mean anything. What matters is our ability to hold steady through the periods of turmoil and tumult, when you’re so caught up in the wave that you don’t know how to break through to the surface for air. It is easy to panic in these moments, to flail. To pull others down with you. To make it infinitely scarier and more painful than it already is.

There is a big picture, and so very much happens in the course of a day, a week, a month, a year, a life. None of us knows how much time we have here, and every day seems to be an exercise in imperfection, starting over, self-forgiveness, and learning.

When I say, “Be good to yourself,” this is what I’m talking about. It’s not a code for anything else, nor is it a permission slip to ditch responsibility for our impact on others. It is as simple an imperative as I can muster for myself, a baseline, and — hopefully — a bit of solid ground to feel for when life is moving at lightning speed and we temporarily lose our bearings and forget our place in the entirety of things.

As Anaïs Nin noted in her diary so many decades ago, life unfolds and takes shape “fragment by fragment.” And we are all essential tiles, in an incalculable whole.

The Art of Staying Positive

Tiny Light Catchers

Tiny light catchers

Friday. A few weeks in to our new week-on, week-off co-parenting schedule. Aviva is at overnight camp, so it was just Pearl here with us for the past week. I juggled and balanced coaching clients, reading and reflecting on my writing group participants’ work, creating prompts for several upcoming groups, hanging with Pearl, keeping us all fed, and the usual household responsibilities, of course — a daily series of dishes and laundry that I sometimes enjoy and other times feel never ending.

The other day, I told Mani about the never ending part, and then quickly followed it up with the obvious — it ends when we can no longer do it, or when we’re dead. Kind of blunt, right? But essentially true.

Moments of absolute delight, loving my work, loving my kid, loving my wife, loving our neighborhood, loving my people, loving summer. Moments of absolute exhaustion, emergency naps, wonky blood sugar, not eating well enough, not exercising enough, and the slippery slope of these to all-around not-enoughness.

Moments of despair and outrage. The little boy in that Aleppo ambulance. Insane white privilege. Louisiana flooding. The man in my own town who, after 12 years in the States, was just deported back to El Salvador because of a 2012 DUI. He was a chef at a popular Amherst restaurant and has four kids in the public schools here, ages 5-15, and a wife. And now he is not here with them, and this just made me so sad and angry.

Moments of floating, quite literally, in the pond.

This afternoon, we crashed pretty hard. Mani has been unusually tired this week, a mystery of her Mast Cell Disease — some weeks she has more energy than others. I see it all as part of a long-term healing process, and she is doing so well; not a day goes by that we’re both not incredibly grateful for the trajectory. So after bringing Pearl over to a friend’s house and some of my time-specific work things today, I crawled into bed with her and slept for a little over two hours. When I got up, I whispered to her that I was going for a swim, then kissed her goodbye and slipped out.

The swim was delicious, the pond not as crowded both due to less scorching weather and the dinner hour — by this time it was around 6:00pm. I alternated breast and back strokes with periods of simply floating, listening to the undefinable sounds beneath the water and my own breathing. I appreciated my own strength and ability to swim and the solitude of sky above. And then at the dam, I rested a bit, noticing the light on my wet hands on rock.

After towel drying off and doing some seriously stealth moves to get dressed, I drove into town and decided to get a couple of tacos and a soda for my own dinner. I knew when I got home, Mani would most likely be awake and hungry, but also was guessing she was still asleep since she didn’t respond to a text I sent. It felt good to lengthen out time, not to rush.

And that’s really when I noticed it. I was bluesy. I had walked right into that Friday-night, wish-my-baby-and-I-could-go-out-on-a-date, coming-down-from-a busy-week funk, and it felt like an old friend, this loneliness. We don’t see each other nearly as often as we have in periods past, but from time to time she makes an appearance.

We don’t spend much time focusing on the “can’t” of Mani’s illness. We are so intent on genuinely living, on health, on togetherness, creativity, presence, joyful plans, and gratitude, that it seems like almost blasphemous to wallow. From time to time, a little wave will come, though, when one of us is just fucking sick of it and would do anything to be able to go get margaritas, chips and guacamole at some nice outdoor patio.

Needless to say, I came home with my tacos and my minor blues and ate and read the newspaper. I thought about people asking me, “How do you stay so positive?” And it’s a funny question, in a way. Kind of like people calling you brave, when really you’re just figuring out your life. But there is some truth to it, too. Let me be clear — I’m not talking about copping a positive attitude being something you can just choose when you’re suffering from depression and shit’s just really hard. This is not about simplifying things that are indeed complicated.

But sometimes, things aren’t actually that complicated. This got me to thinking — is there an art to staying positive, one that feels real and not superficial?

Here’s what I came up with:

1. Keep It Real

Has anyone ever told you to “snap out of it” when you were down? Sometimes, the worst thing to hear when you’re lonely, sad, overwhelmed, angry, or frustrated — all passing states but very much real ones at the time — is a solution or suggestion, or worse, an override of your experience. Give yourself a chance to just say it sucks. Set a timer if that helps (I learned this from Mani), and have an all-out tantrum. Scream underwater if you have to, or in the shower. Confide in a trusted confidante. Have a big, snotty cry, the kind where you are in awe that yes, you are STILL LOVED afterwards.

Denial is a breeding ground for negativity. Keeping it real is a true of act of kindness towards yourself.

2. Move Your Body

As much as sometimes I hate to admit it, this one is tried and true. It is very, very difficult to stay stuck in a shitty head space when you’re moving. Whether you run, walk, swim, dance, take a class, hit the gym, or just lie down on the floor and feel the full weight of your body against that solid ground, finding a way into the body gives us access to ourselves and can do a lot of the heavy-lifting for us emotionally. Give it 15 minutes and see how you feel after that. For me, the swim was what gave me access to the feelings themselves, which had otherwise been looming but not landing.

3. Perspective, Yo

Getting some perspective doesn’t mean feeling guilty. It just means keeping things in perspective. That is all. When I’m bummed that my wife has this stupid-ass disease and wish we could just go out on a date and have an awesome meal somewhere, the minute I put myself in her shoes, my experience shifts. Self-pity gives way to empathy. After all, I just got to swim and eat tacos, while she is still limited to 14 foods, including water, and every outing is a notable occasion for celebration.

I quickly remember the insufferable “grass-is-greener” syndrome, one I’ve had many, many times in my life, and boom — I know that if it wasn’t this, it’d be something else. Never being satisfied might make for some amazing “Hamilton” songs, but oh my God, it’s not a very happy or fulfilling way to live. Getting perspective is not about denial (see #1), but it is about realizing that you, like the Jewish teaching about two slips of paper, the world was created for you alone AND you are but ashes and dust. Plenty of people wish they had something you have, you wish you had something they have, and meanwhile, everyone misses what’s right there in front of them.

4. “Fake It till You Become It”

A few days ago, we watched a TED talk by a social psychologist named Amy Cuddy about body language. As the youtube trailer states:

“Body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see ourselves. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy shows how “power posing” — standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident — can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain, and might even have an impact on our chances for success.”

She talks about how smiling actually signals the brain to be happy. I thought of this earlier, while I was walking back to my car, alone, with my tacos in a brown paper bag. I tried smiling and it felt forced and fake. Then I sang a little song quietly. Here’s how it went:

I wanna go on a date with my baby
to get a big ice-cream cone
Instead I got these tacos
And I’m just going home…

I got the blues, baby, I got the blues
I got the Friday night blues…

And sure enough, you know what? I chuckled? I cracked myself up a little, because it was so goofy. And you know what else? It helped.

I came home then, and said hello to Mani and devoured my dinner. Then I sat down to write. Which brings me to my final suggestion for staying positive. Ready for it?

5. Write It Down

You knew this was coming, right?

For me, empirical evidence is more important than studies and data. In other words, I can just ask myself: Do I feel better after I write? The answer is almost always yes. I say “almost,” because there are times when the only thing that helps is time. And sleep. Sometimes the thing you don’t even know you need comes in some completely unexpected form, one you never could have planned on or conjured. But left to my own devices, does writing help me feel “positive,” if by positive I mean more centered, more peaceful, and more present? Yes.

That said, if you’re the kind of person who prefers science, just read something like this study, “Writing about emotions may ease stress and trauma” from the Harvard Medical School, which likens expressive writing to taking a brisk walk.

Writing it down — whatever “it” may be — is another way of externalizing whatever you’re feeling. As with #1, a timer can help create a kind of container for this. Start with five or ten minutes of fast and furious writing. If you need a “hook,” try starting with super simple and neutral. “Right this minute…” or “the thing is…” can be anchors for writing in this way, phrases to which you can keep returning if you get stuck.

6. See What Happens

Sometimes life does feel black and white. Sometimes you have to crouch down and look closely for the light catchers. Sometimes things just suck and all you want to do is eat your first-ever chili dog with your wife, but you can’t because she happens to have a rare disease that makes eating such a thing potentially dangerous — at least for now.

Everything changes.
Everything changes.
Everything changes.

The light changes. Conditions change. Moods change. Relationships change. Jobs change. The number of dishes in the sink changes. Finding things that are steady for you in your life can make all the difference, when it comes to climbing out of negativity.

7. Trust Your Own Experience

There’s one more thing I feel I must say, before I wrap this up: I usually hate posts like this. Posts that have these pithy, simplistic-sounding ways for life to be better, happier, easier. Posts that I can easily turn into weapons against myself (which is exactly why I tend not to read this kind of thing!).

These suggestions for “staying positive” are essentially my “notes to self,” reminders for me to reach for when I’m slipping into the kind of negativity that eats its own tail for breakfast. They aren’t a one-size-fits-all or an abacadabra. Life is a lot of things, usually at the same time.

Be so loving with your whole, beautiful self. Feel the feelings. Try some things. Find what works for you. Most of all, trust your own experience — you are ultimately your best cheerleader, advocate, and witness. And please, if you’re so inclined, share in the comments what helps you stay positive when the light starts to flicker.