What I Mean When I Say “Big Love”

9-fried-potatoesI was frying potatoes.
Contemplating the meaning of life.
For real, I am not making this up.
Feeling small. Ponderous.
What is my message?
What is my purpose?

And then I stirred the potatoes.
They were dinner for my wife
who can eat 14 things now,
including water and salt
and sugar and coffee,
rice and chicken
and oats and organic Gala apples
and blueberries, boiled,
and whole milk and best of all
butter. Also seltzer and Pom juice,
her new elixir of choice.

And I remember when it was only rice
and Coke
and she was losing weight and scaring
us both and everyone else
and someone asked if she was dying
and I went crazy in my head
at the question, which I knew was
not unreasonable given her rapid
precipitous decline but still could not
hear, could not accept, could not bear
when everything in me was existing
to keep her here and help her live.

So frying potatoes, you see,
really did have me contemplating
the meaning of life, and the meaning
of survival, the meaning of joy,
the meaning of thriving, the meaning
of healing, the meaning of marriage,
the purpose of loving, the message
of resilience, of learning how to give
and of learning how to receive,
of being forced so far out
of our comfortable roles
that we both had to grow
into bigger, more complete humans.

And in the growing, so much became
available — poems and dreams
and going all the way into the dark
that we wouldn’t let claim us
and seeing each other
there, eyes lit by eyes
and hearts by hearts
and knowing
that to be given another chance
is nothing to sneeze at or spit at,
nothing to miss even a minute of
to self-pity or regret or doubt
or envy. We get to be here.

That’s it. That’s my purpose.
That’s my message.
We get to be here.
And if it’s not working for you,
change something.
Because you can.
Always.

The Art of Taking Rest

Photo: Ismael Nieto

Photo: Ismael Nieto

1. Shabbat (It Can Wait)

It starts Friday. By about 3:00pm, I feel it coming. The kids have headed to their dad’s. The internet grows relatively quiet. Writing in my groups slows down as people wrap up the work week. I come into the bedroom and tell Mani I’m debating between a nap and errands. She takes one look at me and tells me the answer without saying a word.

Two hours later, I get up and post on Facebook:

Unless it’s burning or bleeding, it can wait. It can wait a minute. An hour. A full 24 hours. The work will be better for having rested, the connections deeper, the mind sharper, the ideas brighter, and the heart clearer.

It sounds nice. But this does not come easily to me, this letting things wait. There’s some fear underlying it, a shadow side to my intention. As a provider for my family, I could easily work seven days a week, taking breaks of course, but really, sitting down at my computer first thing in the morning and working until late each night is not uncommon ’round these parts.

Thus: Shabbat. A day of rest. Truly a whole day. Not just a 20-minute run or afternoon nap with my love. Not just squeezing in a swim or watching Kids Cupcake Wars at bedtime, but taking an entire night and day off from being actively engaged with the world beyond the walls of my home and whatever outside I might choose to step into.

Truth is, this happens maybe once, twice a month. And it doesn’t happen to me. I have to make it a priority like my house was on fire and rest is the only thing that will put out the flames and salvage the treasures inside.

If I inherited my father’s love of language, I also have a maternal gene for movement. My mother is the hummingbird: Quick, light, always in motion. It’s funny; as I write I’m thinking how much more I identify with a sloth than a fast-moving little bird! But that very sluggishness is the counterpart to my capacity to fit a lot in to the waking hours — sometimes too much.

Returning, again and again, to balance — this is my practice. And without going “dark,” sometimes I fear my light will go out for good.

Balancing out the fear is faith, which includes letting go of ego. Ego says: It is all up to you! Faith reminds me: Not only won’t things fall apart without my constant presence, but really, the world depends much, much less on me than I sometimes fall for believing. If my work were so fragile that it depended on me being swiftly responsive to every single ping and poke and tag and comment and inquiry, we’d be in big trouble.

And so. I step back. Shabbat Shalom. 

2. From Sundown to Sundown (A Whole Lot of Nothing)

Saturday morning, the sun still rises. Hallelujah.

We spend the day hanging out together doing a whole lot of nothing. Wake up around 10:00am. Drink coffee in bed. Read some New York Times articles out loud to Mani. Resist the urge to share several things on Facebook.

At some point after lunch, we get our sexy on, then nap without my setting an alarm as I do during the work week.

After I get up, it’s time for a late-afternoon swim at Puffer’s, gliding through the spring-fed water, feeling strong and grateful. Then I eat a burrito in town before coming home to make dinner for Mani. (We still don’t eat together, due to her mast cell disease, though we are determined that this will change.)

The beauty of a day of real rest is that you don’t necessarily remember how you spent it. You just remember that it was… wait for it… restful.

Such a relief. Such a necessity. Such a reset. “I’m going to have to write about this,” I tell Mani. She laughs. “I knew you were going to say that.” It’s nice to be known.

3. Havdalah (A Sweet Week)

For those of you who aren’t Jewish, or who (like I was for the first half of my life, Jewish without knowing anything about Judaism), at the end of Shabbat there is a beautiful ceremony called havdalah, which means “separation.”

Separation is a big thing for Jews. It’s how we know what’s what. What’s holy and what’s mundane; what’s darkness and what’s light; what’s right and what’s unjust. Shabbat, the day of rest, sits apart from the other six days. The busy ones. The ones that blur by, with everyday demands, schedules, things to make and do.

Shabbat is when we sit back and see and feel and, in the language of yoga and savasana, “receive the benefits of our practice.” I’ve never heard a rabbi compare Shabbat to savasana, actually, but it’s often what comes to mind for me as an obvious parallel. We practice, stretch, sweat it out (literally or figuratively), show up, struggle, learn, listen, work, respond, and take care of all the kinds of business, all week long.

In the documentary we watched Friday night, I Am Not Your Guru, Tony Robbins talks about how many people think of life as happening TO us and not FOR us. That shift is a game-changer, and no matter your station or situation in life, I believe we all have the ability and right to make that decision.

But without some rest, without time to integrate so much activity and reaction and keeping up, I’m a goner. I forget what it’s even like to FEEL. I lose touch with priorities; all of life, work, and love become one flat landscape with no distinguishing features.

Last night — as the last of the yellow, post-thunderstorm light faded, I sang to Mani. “A good week, a week of peace. May gladness reign, and joy increase. A good week, a week of peace. May gladness reign, and joy increase.” Then I wished her shavua tov, a sweet week, as is customary.

4. Sunday (I Am the Storm)

Sunday afternoon. I’ve spent the day so far writing, reading, interacting online, and doing our August budget. And that’s when it starts. I see the storm rolling in — and the storm is me.

Now, wait just a minute now; wasn’t that day of rest supposed to keep this kind of thing from happening? Uhhhh, let me think. Nope. As it turns out, resting does not make you superhuman. Moods still happen. This falls–as Mani reminds me–under the heading of “being human.”

It’s not easy to keep loving myself when I am the storm. I like myself a lot more when I’m the rest — double entendre intended.

I see it coming — the storm that is me. The storm that is a mood, nothing more, nothing less, and yet so easy to mistake as a failure, obliterating all the “good” stuff and making me a fraud for sharing beautiful moments on social media.

It comes on with a wispy but noticeable gust; I’m frustrated that the GPS on my phone took me on a wild-goose chase to meet up with my niece and sister for a nice dip at the little town beach they like.

I see it coming and cannot not stop it, just the way dark clouds roll in late in these hot summer afternoons, suddenly it’s dark at 5:00pm in July and the thunder rumbles in warning and then boom! Here comes the deluge.

It’s all-encompassing. I find myself hating the people in front of me in line at the grocery store, and the guy in the big truck who guns his engines. I imagine getting into a shouting match with him about politics. I hate myself a little for being hateful.

I make a point of thanking my angels the whole time I’m walk up to our second-floor apartment with the bags of groceries. It takes two trips, though I leave the 24-pack of water bottles in the backseat. I put everything away. I go pee in Aviva’s bathroom, so as not to wake Mani from a nap, only to see that her shampoo, which was upside down, has leaked all over the edges of the tub.

Part of me wants to call her at her dad’s and holler: YOU HAVE TO BE MORE CAREFUL. Thunder and lightning by now, rain lashing the windows of my mind, wind howling. I scrub and wipe and rinse. Next, I move to the dishes that I ignored all day in the kitchen sink. I’m noticing anger rising at a friend I’m feeling blown off by. I’m recognizing the drama of this even as I feel helpless to stop it. I’m breathing. I’m washing dishes. I’m breathing.

I burst into the bedroom and rant to Mani about the friend. Suddenly, I wonder if I have any friends who are feeling hurt by me. Shit. It feels good, though, to just say words out loud. To just say it, without actually blowing up a friendship I care about.

I make some food for Mani. Then I realize I ought to eat, too. I get out the smoked turkey, Monterey Jack, and lettuce, smear some mayo on a flour tortilla, and call it dinner. I realize the storm has let up a bit. But something in me knows that if I am going to write about taking rest, I have to write about this, too. About losing my shit and being ok. About how yucky and awful it feels to be inside that kind of storm — to be the storm itself.

I take a look around myself. My love for my people has not been annihilated. My beating heart is still intact, no worse for the wear. I haven’t done anything irreversible or harmful to others.

And the words I shared earlier in the day are not fraudulent. They are, like everything we share on social media, a glimpse. A moment. Nothing any of us shares is ever everything, but that doesn’t make any of it less genuine.

This is the summer of ripe avocados and blue corn tortilla chips.
Of coaching and talking about writing and life, seeing your faces and hearing your voices in Japan, England, Australia, Canada, Germany, Holland, and all around the U.S.
Of not waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Of exhaling and believing the next breath will come, until it doesn’t, and no point worrying about that.
Of summer bodies, swimming to the dam, and walking around the house topless when the kids aren’t home.
Of an all-the-way open heart that’s learning how to have a swinging gate.
Of welcome, come in. Of closed for a nap, be back in an hour.

Of not knowing what’s next. Of knowing that we never know what’s next.
Of not letting that stop us from making all kinds of fabulous plans. Because if we don’t know, why not go big?
Of saying I’m here and then letting go. Of not pushing.
Of listening to the nervous system. Of rewiring old patterns of fight, of flight, of saying goodbye to the old, familiar you’re-in-trouble-shouldnta-said-written-shared-that voice.
Of loving the shit out of my wife. Of flowers I don’t pick and engines I don’t start and games I don’t play. Of wild blackberries.
This is the summer of entering year two — year two of not smoking, year two of self-employment.
Of standing on some kind of imaginary plateau and what a view and now what, but first a snack.
Of strong thighs and soft belly and loving the way my 40s are reshaping not only my body but my relationship to its sexy curves and grown-up realness.
Of trust. Has it ever not been the summer of trust? Nevermind, don’t answer that.
Of banging up against perfectionism and seeing it for what it is. Flimsy. Fake.
This is the summer of seeing what happens, when I remember it’s just practice.

5. After the Storm (Resilience)

Is it obvious, what I’m going to say now? Taking rest is a practice. Like any practice — from teeth-brushing to meditation to writing — this is not a one-time thing.

If you believe in God, this is the part where you sing God’s praises and say, Damn, that was smart, the whole Shabbat thing. It’s like God not only saw the writing on the wall — oh, these beautiful humans are going to be a mess sometimes — but like God, too, needed time to integrate all of that making and doing, all of that responding and surveying and deciding what to create next.

Shabbat doesn’t save me from moods, but it gives me a little more resilience when they come. Being good to myself — spending time just being — this is what reinforces the inner architecture that can withstand the gale force winds of emotions, passing moods, hormones, and other potentially damaging forces.

I write about practice. My work, be it prompting people in their writing or their lives (or both, as if often the case), is completely oriented around practice. And like all practitioners — of anything, really — I’m no exception. When I don’t take rest, my resilience goes out the window. It becomes a victim of the storm. And since the storm is me, I literally become my own victim. That’s really not how I want this to go.

And so I take rest. I hold on to the rafters when I have to. And I watch when the skies clear. I lean over and kiss my wife on the cheek. It’s dark, time for bed almost. And I’m ready, for a brand new week.

The Art of Writing the Waves

photo-1462869910912-c1071bfb2fe7

Photo credit: Terrell Woods

You have to paddle hard past the break before you even have a shot at catching a good one.

Those first words, sentences, paragraphs, sometimes whole pages — they are the paddling. It’s hard work and not particularly forgiving or enjoyable. Fear will set in, and doubt. You might even start to wonder why the f*&k am I out here? Who do I think I am?

Keep going. The break will come.

One day, after lots of scrapes and failures and falls and tumbling, after you’ve surrendered to the ocean rather than foolishly thinking it was something to conquer, after you’ve given way to knowing that the swell of writing is bigger than you but you have to meet it with everything you have, that’s when you will find yourself standing up. One with the water. One with the words.

One day, you might even ride it all the way back to shore.

(And then do it again!)

We Encourage You to Submit Your Ego Again

submit“Though we’re passing on this one, we really appreciate your trusting us with your work.”

I know it shouldn’t get to me, but it does. I know it doesn’t matter, but tonight it does. I know getting work published is insanely subjective and stupidly competitive — and that I’m being irrationally ridiculous to feel so pissed and discouraged. I know that getting published does not make life magically different or better.

I know you win some, you lose some. I know all the famous writers who plastered their walls with letters from “appreciative” editors and indifferent editors and slush-pile unpaid intern editors.

Come to think of it, I was an unpaid intern once, at a literary journal in Union Square called Parnassus. I wonder if I was given the power to reject anyone. I know walking to town with my kid on a sunny Friday afternoon brings me joy. I know reading poem after poem by people who are writing their hearts out feels as trippy and wondrous and privileged as I imagine moonwalking would–buoyant, ethereal, and solid in our landing.

I know we’re all putting on our oxygen masks every day. We’re breathing molecules from other hemispheres on this itty-bitty planet. I know I’m eating Annie’s mac & cheese with a can of tuna mixed in for dinner, and that I get to go put clean sheets on my bed after this and remember childbirth yes, like it was yesterday, and that there is so much new grey in my hair, especially around my temples, and some days it’s all I can do not to smoke ’em if you got ’em but I don’t got ’em because it’s rather nice, this breathing situation without tanks or masks or other such appendages. I know this will blow over, over and out, mark my words and Roger that, it doesn’t matter.

It does not matter.

But just for a minute it did, it does, and I need to allow myself this moment. This anger.

The thing is, I’ve never fit with the establishment — whatever that may mean. I got an MFA but then became a Hillel director, then a life coach and a career counselor. I got married and had babies and wondered for years: Am I still a writer if I’m not actually writing? I knew the answer was yes; it felt similar to a non-practicing Jew still being Jewish. But that “yes” didn’t stop me from wondering and wanting so much to not only know I was a writer, but to interface with the world as a writer. To reach people with my words. To connect deeply through my writing. This was my dream, and it still is.

I remember when Aviva was a baby and I’d go out alone, just to be with myself. I always brought a journal, and I’d sit by the lake or in a coffeeshop and write. I wrote fundraising appeal letters and bylaws and student group descriptions and eventually brochure and website copy for my fledgling business. But I still wasn’t a writer who was writing; I was writer who was trying to make a living doing other things that used other skills, and writing was a skill but in that context, not a soul.

Blogging started to change all of that, and a couple of times lately in conversations with people in my writing groups, the topic of practice has come up. Practice not only in the sense of writing practice, but the parallel practice of “putting it out there.” Of not knowing whether or where or with whom or how your words will land. Of learning not to look at, or at least not get snagged by, “seen by” stats or likes or comments as a measure of your writing’s value. Or your own value. Of knowing that silence does not equal judgment. Silence could equal busy people caught up in their own lives and stories and minds and responsibilities; silence could equal awe; silence could equal nobody saw. Silence does not matter. Silence is a gift. It gives us back ourselves.

When faced with rejection, with silence, I get to sit here with myself. At the kitchen table where I so often ramble and write. At the juncture between an inhale and an exhale, that plateau where I can choose to hold my breath in and in and in — now it becomes a game, like when we were kids — until I can’t hold it any longer and I allow the release through my nostrils. It’s then that some tears come, as if on cue.

There is room for you, the breath seems to be saying to the tears. There is room for rejection. There is room for anger. There is room for appreciation. There is room for resilience and rage and connection and moonwalking and silence. There is room for change. The only thing there isn’t room for at the inn is shame. We’ve had enough of that, haven’t we?

“We encourage you to submit your work again.”

I think I may, I think I might, I think I might not, I think for tonight it really doesn’t matter. I think I am lucky to be alive, full belly and rip-roaring heart and green speckled eyes and a wife who loves me and gorgeous growing-up kids and people who trust me with their stories.

There’s a reason I’m not in the business of evaluating people’s words. We are surrounded by evaluative measures and systems; those are not hard to come by. What’s hard to come by is genuine, unconditional, non-competitive encouragement. So that’s what I do now, not only for myself but as a job. A job I made up out of the blue! Can you believe that is even possible? I give other people the very thing I want to receive. I teach what I have to learn, even though I really don’t think of what I do as teaching. This was my dream, and it still is. And it’s changing and evolving and unfolding. It’s scary and it’s beautiful and it’s unpredictable and, as my accountant reminded me, being self-employed can make us become quite religious.

Anyway. For tonight, I am not encouraged, but I will keep submitting — if not my poems, then my ego.

I submit and surrender to life as I know it, with all the trust in the world that saving one life is like saving the whole world, and not knowing — never knowing — where or whether or with whom these words will land.

If you’ve read this, thank you. For hanging in there with me and my ups and downs and rants and raves. It’s good for me to let this shit out. And it’s also good to hit “publish” and unplug for 24 hours, which is what I’m about to do.

Besides, Madonna once said, “Rejection is the greatest aphrodisiac.” I’m not taking her word for it though; better go find out for myself.

Shabbat Shalom, my friends.