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.

27/30 Poems in November: Truth

day-6Kitchen-table revelation
we can change our minds
we can change our thoughts
we can get up
and turn down the heat
when the room gets too hot.
Truth is kitchen-sink
everything but that.
Truth is mad smacking
can’t change the world
just like that
one little voice
in the clanking universe.
Truth is forehead-smacking
honest inquiry
arm’s length and speak
your mind girl.
Truth is big love
and the empty sink
means nobody is eating.
Truth is kitchen table
strewn with papers
not one of them
life changing.
Truth is smack-dab
in the middle of chanting
some one-syllable name
for God you were gob-smacked
by your own foolish heart
and saw that it was time
to stop blaming yourself
for everything
that didn’t go as planned.
Truth is
you didn’t think
ahead
for once were in the moment
and in the moment
you knew what you wanted
needed and you asked
and received
and how we live
with the consequences
of cowardice and courage
may weigh the same
on the kitchen scale
and the karmic scale
and the scale that weighs
hearts and bones
and doesn’t judge.
Truth is kitchen trash
can overflowing
so cinch up the bag
and take it to the bins
in the garage,
take it to the landfill
take it to the streets
take it to heart
when you made up
your story
and declared it to be
true.

27/30

**

Q: What is #30poemsinnovember?

A: A literary fundraiser for Center for New Americans in Northampton, MA.

The Center for New Americans welcomes and serves immigrants in Western Massachusetts with free English classes and a range of support services. Participating poets aim to raise $30,000 over the course of the month.

Writers do their part by writing one poem each day in November. Friends and family do their part by donating to support this effort. Powerful new poems and financial contributions translate to community support for immigrants.

I’m just $140 away from $500. Help me reach my goal.

Forgiveness

book

“How does one know if she has forgiven? You tend to feel sorrow over the circumstance instead of rage, you tend to feel sorry for the person rather than angry with him. You tend to have nothing left to say about it all.” – Clarissa Pinkola Estes

In my tradition — Judaism — tonight marks the beginning of the Days of Awe. For ten days between the Jewish new year (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), it is believed that the Book of Life lies open. During this time, we do what is called t’shuvah. Literally, this word has to do with “turning.” We turn inward and reflect on the past year, paying particular attention to the places where perhaps we stumbled, faltered, missed the mark, or just really f*&!ed up. We take stock of our lives. We reach out to those we may have hurt, knowingly or unknowingly, and ask forgiveness. And we come together communally, to recognize all of the ways we must return, as an in people.

I find equal parts gratitude for and resistance to this practice. Gratitude, because inherent in its imperative is this: We are human. We are human and thus, we are going to make mistakes. We cannot avoid being human, but as humans, we can grow. We can learn. We can say, “I’m sorry.” We can look into our own hearts and face the places where armor replaced permeability, where anger overtook compassion, where pride eclipsed humility. These are not small things. These are the biggest things of all. And while we can cultivate the habit of being self-aware year-round, there is something about having a concentrated period of time each year to focus on our missteps — communally and individually — that brings those chickens home to roost. Thus, the resistance: These aren’t always easy to sit with.

What this isn’t: An excuse to beat ourselves up. What this is: An opportunity to really sit and consider where we’ve veered off-track, away from our values and priorities. Life gets busy and busier, full and overflowing, and not always in a good, abundant kind of way. I know I get swept into the current of everyday responsibilities, sometimes to the detriment of being fully present to the people right in front of me — including myself. This time of year, for me as a Jew and for the Jewish people, is a chance to turn back to what is holy and important and sacred in this life of ours.

Some people go to temple, to sing ancient songs and read the same prayers as Jews around the world. Some people go to the woods or the water to listen for God’s still small voice or mighty roar. Some ignore such rituals altogether. There are so many ways up the mountain.

Some acts are easy to forgive. “I’m sorry I was mad at you that one time,” a child might say to a parent, and it is not difficult (one hopes) for the parent to soften, to take the child into her arms and say, “Oh, my sweet love. I forgive you!”

Others are stickier and take longer, a lifetime even, to work on. I imagine we all have many examples of these. Forgiving someone for hurting us takes a tremendous amount of courage. It is not always possible for all parties involved to come together. And so whether or not we know for sure someone we’ve hurt has accepted our contrition, the courageous thing also becomes to forgive ourselves. For me, this always boils down to being human: looking honestly into my own heart to understand why I did or said something that hurt someone else; listening honestly for whether I’m being truthful with myself; and hopefully learning and growing in ways that will positively inform and affect my future actions.

We don’t always know when we’ve hurt someone else, and it is a great gift when someone trusts you enough that they come forth to tell you: This hurt. Because it is only then that true reflection and healing can happen.

Jewish or not, forgiveness is among the most universal of things we face as humans. This week, what if you sit down to write a story of forgiveness? Whether it is an old story, one you can return to easily, or a new one that still hurts to touch, explore its different nuances. How did things like pride, ego, humility, and self-reflection play into the way things played out? Were you able to resolve things and find peace, or does the experience feel like it’s still an open book and you don’t know how it will end? What shift in perspective or even words — to yourself or another person — would change things?

“Forgiveness does not mean that we suppress anger; forgiveness means that we have asked for a miracle: the ability to see through mistakes that someone has made to the truth that lies in all of our hearts. Forgiveness is not always easy. At times, it feels more painful than the wound we suffered, to forgive the one that inflicted it. And yet, there is no peace without forgiveness. Attack thoughts towards others are attack thoughts towards ourselves. The first step in forgiveness is the willingness to forgive.” – Marianne Williamson

L’shana tova u’metukah. May 5777 bring you a sweet new year, filled with ease, connection, humility, forgiveness, joy, solace, justice, and renewed presence and peace.

“the dark places between the stars”

light

Sometimes when you put your hand into a hollow tree
you touch the dark places between the stars.

Robert Bly

I sit down in the living room. The overhead light is turned off, and the string of holiday lights around the perimeter where the walls meet the ceiling crate a soft glow. The holidays are over and the new year has begun. As a Jew, I observe two new years — one where I return to my soul by looking back over the year past and prepare my name for a blank page in the Book of Life, and the other when I climbs into the ferris wheel bucket, going up and up to the tippy top, where January perches on top of the world, waiting to start the descent to summer and ascent back to winter. It’s  a circle every time; some turns have felt wracked by threatening winds while others have been gentle.

Now, a week before I turn 42, I sit here looking out — at the living room, at the view from here. My children are with their father tonight — piano lessons and middle school homework, I imagine him snuggling with the younger of the two while the older one watches “Grey’s Anatomy” or listening to iTunes on headphones in her room.

I’ve been living all the way into each day, even as my wife and I work towards change and an eventual move to the ocean. Pacific Beach or thereabouts awaits us. We dream of grandchildren already. We don’t get sick of each other. Our contract is for love not to be work, but kindness, with plenty of space to just feel and be, not having to better ourselves. It’s a relief, frankly.

My body’s curves have become slightly softer in the past six months. Partly as a result of quitting smoking, no doubt, but there’s something else — a settling in, a relaxing. I’m finally learning how to take time off. How to rest without guilt. I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked in my life, and am happier, too — the work is my own, and the combination of not punching a clock with getting to make up rules and content as I go on my own terms suits me well. For the first time ever, I do not feel I have to prove myself or explain my choices.

Little makes me more fulfilled than baking something my kids will love eating. I’m more aware than ever that they’re no longer little, which also means they need me on their terms and not mine. Time together is not a given, and as much as–more than–ever, I don’t want to miss it. I’ve spent so much time coming to terms with decisions I made as a much younger woman, and the more distance I gain on the past, the more clearly I’m able to see  and understand what I denied in order to love the life I had–and why.

The first string of lights I bought this year to brighten up the living room in December burned out quickly. I exchanged them for new ones at Target, but it turned out the new string was twice as long as the first. For two weeks, a bundle of extra lights lay collecting dust on the floor; I kept meaning to get around to hammering in some nails around the doorway to the kitchen. Then one day last week, I walked into the living room to find the old glass water dispenser–the one I’d hauled home last summer from someone’s trash heap during a run– filled with light. My wife pointed out that it looked like something that would cost $94 from Anthropologie.

I asked my thirteen-year old if she’d thought of that. She had, indeed. It was lovely, just the kind of thing that could make a room feel beautiful instead of neglected.

And it reminds me tonight of the dark places between stars, a phrase that fills me with nighttime and spacious sky and desert dark and the beauty of not knowing. I sit here in the living room, the one where we are making into a home but that won’t be home forever, grateful for the quiet, the clicking of the keys, the time to listen to my own thoughts and see them unfurl across the page. Nothing will ever be the same, that much I know, as I reflect on something I read earlier in the evening, by a beautiful writer named Tracy Franz:

“So ichi-go ichi-e is not simply ‘pay attention to now.’ It is ‘pay attention to now and rest in the awareness of all that has come before, all of the causes and conditions that now culminate and come together in this present moment; notice that this moment, too, will pass.'”

This too will pass. This moment is the culmination of all of the moments before it. It rests on its very own now-ness, and as soon as I notice it, is already gone. Like breath on glass, get up close to the thing, and the thing is gone. But not always. Sometimes, I get close up to my child’s face after sleep has come, or my lover’s skin, and it is more real than ever, to be savored and memorized.

What comes tomorrow, I don’t know. Only that it will be its own time, and also a container for all that came before. What this means doesn’t matter, only that I will sleep in the dark spaces between, wake inside the hollow, and open my green eyes again, to something both known and new.