Writing Without the Woo

Photo: Erik Witsoe

I just shared the last greeting and invitation of the fall session with my Jewels on the Path group. Closing out 16 weeks of witnessing writing + life concurrently unfolding with a dozen women around the country leaves me… verklempt.

This week, I asked folks to share thoughts on this phrase: “I am a writer.” You’d be amazed at how many people who write are reluctant to claim this, reserve it for the “real” writers who are well-known, widely published, making money, yadda yadda.

The responses were deeply moving.

One person crossed a threshold recently, when she shared a deeply personal piece outside of our group with her wider community — and found that the reactions to her words were affirming, far-reaching, and intimate all at once.

Another shared this: “I feel more like a writer with every passing week.”

From free-range lists of 11 things to installments of memoirs-in-progress to freewrites exploring the here and now to weeks when life happened and writing did not, the courage to keep meeting the blank page, to keep going, to share and be seen, to ask for the kind of feedback that would most serve the process rather than most “improve” the writing — all of this has filled a secret Facebook group and made it into a living, breathing space of community and creativity.

Whew.

Nick Cave writes, “The artistic process seems to be mythologized quite a lot into something far greater than it actually is. It is just hard labor.”

I would tend to agree with this. When you strip away the woo, what’s left?

Sitting down, showing up, starting. I do believe in mystery, but I also believe that there is no substitute for simply doing the work. It’s where all of the learning happens. It’s where we get to challenge the things we thought about ourselves, about our writing, about our stories, about what’s possible.

To my Jewels, and to everyone who has practiced writing with me this year, thank you.

To you, friends who witness my own process of showing up and being a real life person who writes, thank you for being on the other side of the words, and for your steady kindness and encouragement.

Let’s keep being here with and for each other in 2019.

Looking for a safe haven for your writing practice and process in the new year?

There are THREE SPOTS remaining for the next session of Jewels on the Path, a 16-week intensive for female-identified and non-binary writers, beginning January 7, 2019. Come learn more or feel free to contact me with questions.

The Most Wonderful Time

It’s the most wonderful time of the year
piping through the speakers at Trader Joe’s
as I imagine the many parts of the world
where holidays are not tied to capitalism,
where children don’t grow up on diets
of images of what and who they should be
or of what or who they should never deign
to dream of.

An evening walk in the darkest dark
on the longest night in this corner
of the spinning planet that is a speck,
a whirl in the print of some unfathomable
palm holding us but not holding us
reveals so many windows, lights,
leaving me to wonder what it’s really like
on the inside.

Divorce, death, disability —
these interfere with the fantasy of ease
and joy we are supposed to eat
like the fruitcake that one batty aunt
always brings and everyone kind of wonders
is it the same cake from last year
then says, good, good, we’re all fine, great.

It’s worth trying, you might argue,
at least put on a happy face
if you find this time of year oppressive
with its bottomless expectations of giving
and showing up and receiving and making
things pretty. Maybe. Maybe not, like the old
Buddhist story about the boy and the horse
or something like that.

To you without family, to you whose ex
has the kids this year, to you whose adult
children have other plans, to you who wake
every single morning with the ache
of missing, to you who fills the house
with cheer then disappears into the dark,
what can I say? Let’s blow this joint,
get a room, order in, watch old movies,
and burn nostalgia in the fireplace along
with all the wrapping paper.

Or better yet, here. Let me make us some tea.
We can sit here at the table as the solstice
slips by, reminding each other
the light always returns.

Stay Close, Stay Close (This Is How I Come Home)

Photo: Brina Blum

Sitting down to write while the household sleeps, the household in this moment being Mani, my wife of nearly four years, and Chalupa, our English bulldog puppy. Mani got up with her today at 5:00am, and is napping in the bedroom. Chalupa crashed after lunch and is snoring loudly on the living room floor. I’m on the couch listening to Joni Mitchell, wondering how it’s almost 3:00pm already. Then again, I only got up five hours ago.

My son is with his dad this week — they went up to visit family in Vermont. He’s mostly sticking close to home this summer, doing “friends” camps. He is also doing weekly Hebrew lessons, as a step towards more intensive bar mitzvah preparation next year. Middle school begins in the fall, which is seventh grade here.

My daughter is currently in Georgia at a state park, as part of a three-week road trip through the south, learning about organic farming. I’ll get to visit her a week from today, and then she’ll spend three more weeks in the Hudson River Valley. Camp is her happy place — her neshama, or soul, comes to life there. And I already know she’ll come home in August changed. She starts community college in September — the alternative we reached to high school, which was not a good fit for her.

The heat wave from a few weeks ago is already the stuff of memory, and I feel slightly jarred by time right now. The tiny prayer flags hanging in front of the south-facing window across the room flutter in the comfortable breeze, and I feel wistful. You know that full feeling, the one that’s hard to put your finger on? It’s a combination of gratitude, grief, and such a big love of life, mixed with something like lack of control. Knowing anything can happen and anything does. Knowing so much sadness and injustice exists, and the incongruity of this as juxtaposed with snoring puppies and peaceful moments.

The world has never been noisier. Finding pockets of quiet is imperative — and the question lives in me of what the difference is between centering and checking out. I’m always conscious of these dichotomies, the spaces between things, the liminal, the things we name as opposites or as mutually exclusive. What lives there? It’s the basis for a new group I’m leading this fall, Between Opposite Shores.

And I feel so acutely today the knowledge that nothing is guaranteed us. Not tomorrow, not years together, not watching our kids grow, not our next meal. No matter how solid things may seem. I suppose the flip side is also true, then: When life feels most fragile, we can find an inner pillar to hold us upright. It makes me want to witness and hold all of the stories — the ones that get swallowed by darkness, the ones that get forgotten by the lightning-fast news cycles.

Now Valerie June comes on the playlist with her Workin’ Woman Blues. I close my eyes for a minute. A parade of images crosses my mind, of the way history lives inside of our bodies and the way grandmothers hold babies close and the way stories can injure or heal, which is to say, all of us can cause harm or repair harm. Which is up to us, but it’s not easy. It takes years and years and years of life unfolding, of learning how to listen closely to your own soul, of seeing the ways you’ve been misled or mistaken.

I worry I’ve been a shitty friend to a friend of mine. Or friends of mine. I hold myself to a standard of perfection that cannot be upheld or achieved. A tightness forms in my throat as I write these words. Because I want to be good, and for people to know how deeply I love. But I won’t always get it right.

Yesterday, I made a peach tart kind of thing. It was going to be a pie, but I didn’t have the right-shaped pan so I had to improvise. The crust is thick and buttery and dense, the filling peachy and sweet. I ate it for breakfast and I suspect I might also eat it for dinner, because it’s summer and I no longer fear calories the way I used to. I have a body, with fat and cellulite and pounds I do not measure or wish away. This body bleeds and scars and its toes wiggle and oh how it loves to kiss and swim and shower and stretch.

Writing is like the cornstarch — it helps hold together the filling. That may be the worst metaphor ever written, but hey. Whatever.

I watched a video earlier about Claire Wineland, who is 21 and has lived her whole life with cystic fibrosis. She is beautiful — self-possessed, disarmingly funny and real. Listening to her talk about how proud she is of her life touched something in me, something deep and old. As a girl, I used to imagine my life was a movie. In some ways, I wonder now if this was a way of disassociating. On the other hand, it made me feel ultra-present and in some way, important. This — this life — somehow it had to matter.

Letting go of “trying to figure out how” has been useful. Those words send me straight into my head, where solutions disappear the ways stars do when you look directly at them. Trusting life continues to be my biggest practice. And it is enough. My scariest moments are the ones when I can’t see: Can’t see where I am, where I’m heading. And the only way I know back from these ledges is to look around. Literally look around the room — bookshelf, chair, mug, dog, notebook, wife. Stay close, stay close.

Stay close to your right now. Stay close to your heart. Stay close to not needing to know what comes next or how to be better. Stay close to this life, the one you’re in. Let the throat open and the tears flow. Don’t think first. What do you feel? What do you know to be true in this moment?

This is how I come home.

* * *

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Real Life in 11 Parts: May 16

1. I wonder at what point “in real life” became a common phrase. I’m fascinated by things like this, language and how different trends begin and spread.

2. That makes me think about the conversation Mani and I just had about class differences, and how these affect the things we know and don’t know.

3. Will I ever write anything again that doesn’t mention Chalupa snoring?

4. I just saw a headline about octopus eggs from space a zillion years ago. The internet is weird. It’s part of why I go out of the house — again with the “real life” theme. Not that real life isn’t in the house, too; it’s just that since I’m self-employed and work from home… see #3.

5. Came to Starbucks on Route 9. I just saw two of the nurses from the family practice where Mani and the kids and I all go for primary care. There was that moment, when patient confidentiality comes into play. It reminded me of how, many years ago, probably a decade now, I kept bumping into my former therapist everywhere.

6. Is it a stretch, to write 11 things a day? I guess that’s part of what I want to explore. What happens when I don’t worry about being boring or repetitive? Because honestly, life is repetitive. Sure, if you’re a first responder or an ER doc or in active combat duty, maybe the days are always filled with adrenaline and constantly changing conditions. But for most of us, aren’t there certain routines, beaten paths, patterns, and habits? Some degree of boring is ok with me now. I see it partly as a mindset, a way of seeing and perceiving. One could argue that boring is impossible if we’re truly awake and paying attention; if you watch one branch on a tree, a busy counter at a cafe, even the rise and fall of your own breath, you’ll see that nothing is static. And living with adrenaline coursing through your system is actually a recipe for disaster.

7. And yet, I worry this will get boring. Ha.

8. A woman with white shoulder-length hair is speaking Spanish with a younger woman. I imagine they might be related, maybe mother and daughter. Yesterday, I got to talk on the phone with a friend whose daughter has been living in Mexico. My friend is teaching herself Spanish using an app. She was saying how much she’s enjoying it, and also that it is siphoning mental energy away from writing at the moment. It got me thinking about how we get more proficient at whatever we’re doing the most consistently.

9. There are so many things I want to do and learn. And yet lately, my mental energy goes to writing, to caring for my marriage and kids, to nurturing my work and those who write with me, and now, to the baby dog. This is a life. My life. Will I ever return to studying Hebrew? Will I ever learn how to change the oil?

10. I just farted. Excuse me.

11. Sometimes when I look at the carefully arranged shelves filled with shiny, new things, I feel the pull of consumerism. If we have nice things, we’ll be happy. And then, through that momentary fog, I see something else. Something like the truth.

* * *

Want to write 11 things with me for 11 days with 11 other beautiful humans living life? The Sound of Real Life Happening, a brand-new writing group, will take place June 11-21. Whether your intention is to practice paying more attention to your days, to generate raw material for other writing, or both, this group promises to be small, supportive, intimate, and encouraging.

Details + registration

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.