“Why Am I Here?”

When Anne Sexton wrote,
“Everyone in me is a bird
I am beating all my wings”
She was writing for you.

When Nelson Mandela wrote,
“Do not judge me by my successes,
judge me by how many times I fell down
and got back up again”
He was writing for you.

When Amelia Earhart flew
across the Atlantic Ocean
alone, she was charting your course.

When Lucille Clifton celebrated
herself with these words:
“these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.”
She was celebrating you.

When David Whyte called despair
“a necessary and seasonal state of repair,
a temporary healing absence,”
he had you in mind.

I spoke with these poets,
these pioneers, these people of doubt
and faith, or darkness and light,
those who did not shy away
from the heart of the world
but flung themselves into what Pico Iyer
calls “the wonderful abyss.”
They called me in at 4:00am,
just in time for your question
from the other side of the world:
“Why am I here?”

To burn off anything extra,
becoming so fully human that every
feeling is welcome in your guest house.
To take down and build up.
To grieve and to sing.
To feel, and feel, and feel,
until all of the layers have been loved.

Stanley Kunitz and Rumi
joined us, and soon the room
was so full of friends and poets,
dancers and makers of things,
and those who crave a moment,
just one single moment, of pure
connection, someone to look at their eyes
with true love. Your voice rises,
still it rises — Maya Angelou, too —
and says, “I see you. I am here to see.”

Seeing can be painful work.
And miraculous, too.
You are the one who lets go.
And you are the holder, too,
infinitely and forever held
by the arms of the world.

Two Kinds of Quiet

px2j3zadqk4-carolina-sanchez-b-1There have been many times in my writing life when I’ve wondered why on earth anyone would want to read my words. There is so much good stuff to read from people so much more on the front lines than I am. And still — I come here.

I come here tonight after taking a shower and climbing into bed. Mani is talking on the phone with her oldest daughter. Today was a mish-mash of working, a short run, grocery shopping, napping, and more working. The kids are at their dad’s. I miss them, though I keep the missing in perspective given that they are just a few miles away and I will see Pearl tomorrow morning when she comes over for breakfast before the school bus, and V and I have been exchanging silly texts for the past two hours.

I’m inundated with articles I want to make sure I read, a list of books I admit is daunting given how long it takes me to complete a single memoir on my nightstand, and thoughts about how best to participate in this moment of historical urgency.

I’m terrified of not doing enough, and yet aware that that seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy, an unacceptable cop-out. So instead, I am focusing on what I can do. One of those things is this — show up here and just write. Just say hello, how are you? Where are you? To myself, to you reading.

It’s very tempting to stop writing when things are murky and I’m less than clear on my contribution to this mess — both in terms of cause and solution. I notice the impulse to get really quiet.

There are two kinds of really quiet. One is the kind that would have you listen hard — listen in to the quiet. Listen for the knowing that will surely find you when you get very still (as if you are hunting wabbits and conquering injustice, for example).

But the other kind of quiet is something else. It’s a bit insidious. It may masquerade as the listening-hard variety, when in fact you are slowly receding, giving away the work to those who appear more vocal, more comfortable speaking out, more knowledgeable about what to say or do.

I am pretty sure there are a LOT of people who don’t feel comfortable writing or speaking, not our of lack of outrage but out of not knowing what the hell to do beyond circulating other people’s blog posts and news stories. “Thank god for good writers” is a thought I have frequently, these days more than ever. I won’t hide behind the quiet, but I’m also not the loudspeaker type.

These are not exactly times of balance, and yet to be effective — as writers, as parents, as fighters, as lovers, as friends, and as allies — it goes a long way to have some connection to your own values and voice. This connection comes in part as a result of cultivating quiet as a way of being present as opposed to quiet that is a disguise for checking out out of a sense of personal impotence and powerlessness.

You are not powerless.

Take your anger, your grief, your fear, your overwhelm — whatever states you find yourself cycling through — and let them be guides. Show up without knowing what you will write or say. Trust your instincts: join up with people you can learn from and move away from people who make you feel unsafe or crazy. And if the quiet of really listening for where you belong is trying to get your attention, let it. There is information there, and you are the only one who can convey it.

You are not crazy for feeling crazed. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel from a speech on January 14, 1963: “What we face is a human emergency.”

It’s enough to make any one — writer or not — have to gather up her wits and words and figure out where on earth to start. And as usual, the answer is simple: Start where you are. Then keep going.

Heart Wide Open Hurts

hanumanYou know how sometimes the water is so hot it feels cold? Or you are so overcome with emotion that it’s almost hard to distinguish between feeling and numbness? That’s how it felt as soon as we turned out the light.

I had been too tired even to watch our show, so it was on the early side — before 10:00pm. The meditation music began, and there it was — the constriction in my throat that somehow coupled with a sensation I can only describe as one of being a much younger woman, early 20s say. I’m reminded of how a few weeks ago, Pearl shared with me that she suddenly understood that we are ALL THE AGES we’ve ever been. So, she shared by way of example, if she’s really mad, maybe in that moment she’s actually four. It made perfect sense.

I lay there for a few minutes quietly while Mani pulled me in close; we take turns as we fall asleep with who’s the “big spoon,” and usually start out with her wrapped around me and me skooching my bum against the hollow of her belly as close as humanly possible. It’s my safe place, at least one of the top three.

And suddenly, I choked out these words with a sob. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve been lost my whole life.”

With that, I cried and cried, tears rolling one after another from my eyes down the side of my face, drenching the pillow. She didn’t say a word or ask any questions, but just kept her arms around me tight. I let myself sink into the body memory of living inside of myself in other cities, other moments in time, but with the common feeling of not quite knowing how to BE in the world. How to translate the boundarylessness of being, or if not translate it, contain it and apply it in some useful way. In other words, how to feel at peace, inside and out.

Eventually, I got up to blow my nose. When I came back to bed, Mani asked what brought that on. Apparently, I wasn’t done crying yet, as her question triggered another round of heaving sobs. Flooded by how much I love my kids, more than perhaps they will ever know, and feeling in my bones that this is how much my mother loves me. The immensity of love felt almost like too much to bear. Because it is also pain, and it is also loss. There is no picking and choosing here.

And she told me then, about an image of Hanuman, a Hindu god in the form of a monkey. In the depiction she was recalling, he has ripped open his chest to expose his heart. Here’s one version of this moment, excerpted from a longer story:

Hanuman is given a string of pearls as a token of appreciation. He immediately breaks the necklace and begins cracking each pearl open with his teeth. When asked why he is doing this,  Hanuman replies that he wants to see if Rama’s name is present in the pearls. If it isn’t, then the necklace has no value to him. Sita then asks Hanuman if Rama is inside of him as well. At this point, the monkey god rips open his chest to reveal the name of Rama inscribed on every organ, muscle and bone, and the images of Sita and Rama are found on his heart.

Heart wide open hurts. Heart wide open means alive, human. Chest wide open means heart exposed, and heart exposed means not numb. Means withstanding intensity of aliveness. Means riding waves of all the ages, more moments than would ever be possible to contain or count. We are uncontainable, really much too big for that. And yet here we are, walking around thanks to gravity inside of these skin-shaped vessels called bodies.

Someone gave me a string of pearls and I broke it open to see if God’s name was written there. It was as if I swallowed the pearls whole and took them into my heart, or strew them about in a fit among falling leaves. And then, the chest, the heart, the dark, the music, the holding and the letting loose of all the ages and all the ache and all the love that is too much to carry sometimes.

This morning, I saw their faces, the children I bore who I can only pray know my love. It’s literally in the brownies I made last night, and the way I sat while they ate breakfast and we chatted about this and that dream one of us had last night. It’s in my touch when I squeeze a shoulder or a thigh, my gaze when I’m doing that embarrassing mama thing, and it’s even underlying my annoyance or frustration when they’re fussing at me or each other. I wish my love was the very air they breathed, and I suppose in a way it is. Bigger than me or any of us. And no guarantee of ease.

It hurts sometimes to feel this much. And yes, sometimes I feel like I’ve been lost my whole life and still am. Because what is its opposite — found? Like “Amazing Grace,” is there such a moment when one arrives at the other shore? I’m not convinced. It’s more like a tide that carries me out and back, sometimes violently, sometimes so calmly I don’t even see how far I’ve drifted. There is floating and there are bouts of panic: Where are my people? Where is the ground?

And then there is surrender. To the currency of salt water and tears and ocean and the big sky that might be spacious enough for all of this, and the tightest hold that weathers me through.