The Often Overlooked Heart


I’ve been sitting here most of the morning. Sweat pouring out of my every pore. I am putting an a/c unit in my living room this afternoon, with the help of a local carpenter. She should be arriving shortly. I have misgivings about adding to the energy use that only jacks up the temperatures further, and I also have to be able to work. Mani’s mast cells are kicked up in this heat, and Chalupa is doing her best to stay comfortable with the tiny cooling area of her bulldog head. The heat is intense, all-consuming. It’s a shock to walk into an air-conditioned room or building, to remember that there are spaces we can go.

Not everyone can get to those cool spaces. I worry about those who are homeless, elderly, or cannot afford air-conditioners.

I tidied up a bit this  morning. Refilled the bird-feeders, emptied the big bag of dog food into the container in the pantry. Swept up bits of garlic peel from the kitchen floor. I only want to eat peaches and cucumbers and drink iced coffee. I promised Aviva we could go to a body of water this afternoon. I feel slow, sweaty, uninspired.

Every time I see a photo from someone on vacation, I have a pang of envy. It’s not pretty to write this. I resist the urge to delete, curate, self-censor.

I’ve written about envy before, and how it is a form of self-abandonment. And even just writing that sentence reminds me that rather than hanging out there, what I really need and want is to ask my heart what it needs and wants. Envy is a kind of compass, after all.

* * *

I had a powerful experience last Sunday morning.

A writing coaching client who has also become a friend — I’ll call her S. — offered me some time on the phone. It wasn’t a formal call of any sort, though it did become an unexpected two hours of being gently held and deeply heard. I spent much of our time sitting on the root of the red maple tree in our little front yard. Noticing the subtlety everywhere, of life, of light, of shadow. A bird — though I’m not sure what kind — sang joyfully and loudly from one of the nearby tall pines.

It was when I admitted that I felt uncomfortable accepting this gift of time, meaning without offering payment, that the tears first came. I realize how it is still hard for me to truly receive. To truly let down and spend time with my heart. Once those first tears came, it was as if the gates had been unlocked. I didn’t sob, but I did cry on and off for the rest of our time together, along with moments of laughter, insight, and silence.

For most of my life, I’ve had episodes of the kind of crying that has felt unbearable. This felt less storm-like and more cleansing, like the tears were gently washing over the grime of my often-overlooked heart, making it known to me again.

What I saw? Red, pulsing, tender muscle mass. It was visceral and vivid, not the figurative heart but the real deal, fist-size, pumping away.

I also saw something I can best describe as straps pressing into this heart of mine. The kind of straps that a big heavy box might have wrapped around it, designed to protect it from opening when it’s not supposed to. I saw these straps pulled too tightly, leaving deep cuts against the fragile tissue. With each deep breath inward and the on-and-off gentle bouts of release, I felt the straps loosen.

One thing was clear to me: The heart cannot heal when we never loosen those straps, those ties, the protective measures that keep us bound. And yet, it is not always simple. I feel like I’m someone who is fairly connected to my heart. There are so many layers, and this innermost space goes largely covered much of the time when I am busy doing life.

* * *

I’ve been aware for a while now that I need some kind of break, but it has remained undefined. But oh, wow. The noise around this in my head is so loud. At one point, I told S. the word “failure” popped into my head. Failure!

Also: The need to justify needing a break. Also: Fear. So much fear arising at the prospect of taking a break. Money is the presenting thing — and a very real thing to address since I’m my family’s sole provider — but beneath that, deeper fears that all source back to questions of being, doing, and remaining enough.

The world of online writing groups is so saturated, and I do not thrive when I’m worrying about keeping up or standing out. In fact, you could just shorten that sentence to: I don’t thrive when I’m worrying. Period. I most certainly am not of service to my community when I’m tired or tapped out — and there’s such a deep fear in sharing that, saying it, as if it is a kind of confession.

Really, the only confession here will not come as news to you: I am human!

I never expect anyone in my groups to be anything other than human. In fact, I’ve built this work of fierce encouragement for writing and life around just this: Recognizing the stories and voices that berate us, tell us we’re not enough, and insist that whatever we are doing, writing, or creating needs to be bigger, better, or different.

Culturally, these messages are ruthless and unyielding. Internally, no matter their original sources, they take on a life of their own, ever pulling the straps tighter around the heart. Strangling the heart. The often-overlooked heart that is the holder of the wisdom we need and the stories that are ours alone to live, much less write.

To get quiet enough to listen, to really spend time with this tender, innermost heart, feels scary. It’s not a thing we can measure. There’s no product at the end. You can’t charge money for it.

And at the same time, as I write these sentences and tune into my own knowing, something else arises: Gratitude. I feel grateful that the heart is immeasurable and unquantifiable. It is untouchable by commerce and capitalism and the tyranny of proving our worth.

I hear the voice so quick to jump in: But you have to pay your rent. You have to work. You have to make a living. You have to, you have to, you have to. 

Whose voice this is doesn’t matter. What matters is that I hear it and redirect my attention to the soft, fleshy insides of myself. The longing that I know belongs to my soul.

* * *

My soul has always wanted my attention. And truth be told, it has never led me astray. Trusting that call is always scary, though, because it means moving away from auto-pilot, hushing prescriptive or punishing voices, and trusting deeply. In the more distant past, I would have said trusting the Universe. Now, I am not shy to say trusting God. And trusting myself.

I hear another voice now, my Grammy’s. God is love, she would say in a sing-song voice. God is love.

To trust God is to trust myself is to trust love.

* * *

I have not yet determined what form this “break” will take. My dream is to go offline for most if not all of August. To remember who I am and how my heart feels, away from the demands of work and social media. To really soak in the fullness of these past three years — which is how long it has been since I left my full-time job in order to care for Mani through her illness and recovery.

Questions arise once again. Will what I’ve built here withstand my absence for a month? Will everyone who participates in my groups and works with me privately still be there when I return, or does the world move so fast that we forget each other that quickly and move on? I do not want to live my life and do my work by clinging out of fear, but by letting go, again and again, of the trapeze bars, knowing that I always land, even if I don’t land where I expected. How will we pay the bills if I take some off beyond just a day or two?

I don’t have answers today, and for today, I am not going to try to figure anything out. It feels good, just to come here. To write what’s really on and in my heart in the moment, to make that tender place a little bit known to you, and to name the trust I need to lean into now. To feel it as solid and real as the true root beneath my body, holding me up.

I will admit that I have a fantasy of being supported in this time.

While it’s easy to scoff at or right off, it occurs to me that there is no harm in allowing that, too, to be named and known. It’s not up to me to know what forms that support might take. But in the spirit of learning how to ask for and receive, in the spirit of truth-telling and transparency and real life, I’m going to leave it here.

* * *

It’s funny — that impulse to thank you for reading is there, as if perhaps I owe you something for the time you’ve taken to be on the other side of these words. And so it seems fitting to close with these words from Hiro Boga:

You don’t owe anyone anything. Whatever you give to anyone, whatever you do for them, you do out of love and generosity, not because you’re obliged to. Manipulation through invalidation and guilt is an old, old game. You don’t have to play. You can simply acknowledge the energy for what it is, and refuse the Trojan horse gifts of blame and shame so they remain with the giver.

You have both the right and the responsibility for your own life, for the fulfillment of your own soul’s purposes, which are always about experiencing and expressing qualities of soul. The more clearly you choose your true desires — which are the voice of your soul — and act to fulfill them, the more your life will be filled with joy, peace, creativity, power, abundance and delight, among so many other soul qualities.

By refusing to surrender your own well-being to the demands of others, you give them the gift of clear boundaries and a powerfully sovereign self. Our kids learn how to be themselves by the example we set for them. By being yourself, choosing yourself, choosing your sovereignty, you shine a light that illuminates your path and theirs. You give them incomparable gifts — the freedom to be themselves, to choose their own joy, to learn from their explorations and to grow in creative sovereignty.

On Boundaries, Shabbat, and Not Neglecting the Soul

The soul, like the mat, never asks where the hell have you been? It just says, welcome home.

Shabbat saves my life. This is only slightly an exaggeration. I want to try to tell you why.

Let me start with a couple of rabbis (always a good idea).

In union with the divine we find release from the pain of the futile cycle of searching and disappointment. Shabbat is our refuge of acceptance, our shelter from cravings and strivings. ~ Sheila Peltz Weinberg

… our weekly struggle in the world of achievement and bustle is now at an end. We have repeated the struggles of creation and now we too are called upon to achieve the great inner quiet which is the secret of true rest. ~ Art Green

So we have been trying to go to Friday night services at our wonderful synagogue more regularly. Last night, it was so so cold out — unseasonably so for November. We went out into the dark at 6:00pm and when we arrived at the synagogue, at first we thought maybe services had been cancelled. The building was dark. The sanctuary was locked. Then we realized our mistake: Services were in the smaller space, attached to the social hall. There weren’t many people there, though more trickled in over the next 10 or so minutes.

Like many weeks, it had been a long one. I notice my impulse to qualify this, to say “mostly good stuff.” And the truth is, there was plenty of good. There were two new writing groups as well as three continuing ones, with check-ins and freewrites and stories and poems that reminded me of the magic and power of writing down and hearing each other’s stories. As one new-to-me writer remarked: “I am amazed by how the simplest of prompts and the smallest of moments can have such an enormous impact!”

My kids have both been growing in beautiful and brave ways, and so much of my purpose emanates from my role as their mama. Doing good in the world, knowing this happens from the inside out and isn’t about bravado or badges of honor but about integrity and presence and fierce protection when necessary and letting them find their own way, not influencing that beyond what is impossible to avoid completely, and let them be who they are.

Learning once again that not everyone will a) like me, b) get me, or c) be worth the time. I tend towards forgiving others and being hard on myself, and I’m seeing in profound ways that forgiving myself doesn’t mean the opposite — being hard on others — but it very well might translate into a boundary I didn’t used to know I could draw or didn’t have the confidence to keep. It feels good, to know who gets to be on the inside with me. It feels good to say here, I am entrusting you with something sacred. Or, in other cases, this sanctuary is locked.

It feels good to learn how to recognize my own voice in my head and heart and not second-guess its knowing.

Needless to say, the past week entailed a LOT of output on many levels, and by last night, I was tuckered out. Within moments of the first melody, I felt the tears wanting out. By the beginning of the second song, they were sliding down my cheeks and chin onto my neck. I closed my eyes and felt the relief of returning to myself, to my soul. I knew it had been there waiting, needing to be touched in a way that is physical, though I know logically that doesn’t make sense. But that is how it felt, like a greeting, like a landing, like a communing.

I left the room to go to the bathroom, to blow my nose and wipe my eyes. In the mirror, I saw a middle-aged woman with two dark braids and an oversized sweater. Her face was creased, like she must enjoy the sun or perhaps was once a smoker. Her eyes looked small and slightly red-rimmed from crying. I gazed at her and she looked back at me. I saw something like soul or kindness there in her eyes. I saw a mother who would go the lengths of the earth for her kids. I saw a wife who had found herself and said yes to what was required of her in order to be that person, and then had found love in a way that she swore felt like a reward, even though she didn’t believe karma works quite that neatly. She looked like someone who felt things deeply. She looked tired, yes, and also real, solid. I liked her. I gave her a tiny squint, like a signal that I saw her and we were ok, and then went back to my seat.

Whatever stresses and tension I’d brought with me into that building did not come home with me. I woke this morning to soft, warm skin that feels like home, like roots. We drank coffee in bed and lingered and talked about how love will wither if you don’t work on relationship, but when you are really in, when you choose this person, this partner, this life again and again, even though it can be work, the love is easy. The love is effortless. It thrives when we are doing our part, showing up, bringing our ideas and our silliness and our sorrows and our fears and our dorkiness and our dreams to the table. What a miracle.

Divine love is unconditional. It is available to every one of us when we fashion our lives into channels to receive and share it. ~ Art Green

What I think is important to add or emphasize is that what this fashioning looks like is so personal. Anyone who tells you they know the right way to do it or it must be done a certain way, that only certain channels contain divine love — whatever such a thing means for you — run the other way. Close the door. Block the account. Do whatever you have to do to preserve yourself. Nobody has the right to tell you what your life must be in order to be a channel for divine love.

Nobody gets to declare they know a better path for you or your children, or that you haven’t done your research or given major decisions enough thought. This is not a permission slip to act irresponsibly; it is a mirror for the fact that you are capable, thorough, intelligent, ethical, and committed not only to doing the work life asks you to do but recognizing that there will always be that which you do not and cannot see.

Being steady is not hubris, arrogance, or narcissism. In fact, it’s what makes it possible to be open to all you do not know. It’s evidence that you are a grown woman whose devotion to truth and wellbeing runs deeper than roots you watered out of obligation or fear.

It is practicing standing in your own two footprints, the only ones in the world that are perfectly your size, and knowing how to stay soft and strong at the same time. It is admitting when you don’t know what to do next. It is acknowledging that you are not the only player here, not the only voice, while not abdicating your own intuition, observations, and wisdom.

All of this relies on an ingredient both ever-present and easily neglected: The soul.

This morning in the shower, after our delicious few hours of slow waking and before the yoga class where I planned to meet my middle sister, I called to Mani, “My soul was kind of back-burnered all week. I so needed this day to tend to it.” I knew she’d know what I meant (she did).

Yoga — my first class since I can’t even remember — was a perfect continuation of this intentional touching into soul. Even though I ran and swam throughout the summer and walk an average of 2-3 miles most days just going around, I haven’t had a regular movement practice in way too long. My body soaked up the asanas like an unwatered plant, and I sank into the floor during savasana, a hint of a headache around my temples that alerted me to the need to eat.  I picked up an egg & cheese sandwich at the cafe downstairs, while my sister got a chai. We walked to the parking lot, chatted for a few minutes, and hugged goodbye. It was cold and sunny and felt more like January than November, but my body was warm from class and cozy in a sweater, coat, leggings, and warm hat.

Without this one day a week of listening to the body, not trying to keep up with anything, to responding to anyone unless I simply want to, and connecting with myself, I wonder if old patterns of discontent, restlessness, and martyrdom would flare up more than they do these days.

In his classic book, The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes about the soothing nature of Shabbat:

The seventh day is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all. It is not a date but an atmosphere.

It is not a different state of consciousness but a different climate; it is as if the appearance of all things somehow changed. The primary awareness is one of our being within the Sabbath rather than the Sabbath being within us. 

That’s exactly it. Taking these 24 or so hours “off” is really a chance to get quiet, to go inward, to look in the mirror, to turn away from the output and towards what is closest. The circles of what’s sacred to me are all beautiful, and when I disregard my soul in the busy mix and the caring for and focusing on others, something gets lost.

It was such a relief in the last 25 hours, to realize that my soul is here and fully intact and so very receptive to the invitation to surface. I love her. I love this life.

 * * *

The is the song that undoes me and makes me whole again; it’s from the fourth verse of Yedid Nefesh, a collection of psalms typically sung on Kabbalat Shabbat. I hope you enjoy it, too.

Higali na ofrus havivi alay et sukkat shelomecha
הִגָלֵה נָא וּפְרשׂ, חָבִיב עָלַי אֶת סֻכַת שְלומָךְ
Please, my Beloved, reveal Yourself and spread upon me your canopy of peace

The Scenic Route to Freedom: A Book Review

The same weekend I read an advance copy of Hiro Boga’s To Be Soul, Do Soul, my wife and I went for a Saturday drive to the New England Peace Pagoda in Leverett, Massachusetts. The winding roads led us through the late-October countryside, past old cemeteries, crooked farmhouses, and an occasional dog lounging in a driveway, watching the leaves fall.

The experiences were uncannily aligned; both invited me to slow down and experience the pure poetry not only around but within me. At the Pagoda, a gleaming white dome greeted us against a perfectly blue sky, the unblemished golden prayer wheel turning ever so subtly at the top. The opening pages of the book offered a similar experience, an invitation at once simple and vast, so that I knew immediately I was in the realm of the sacred. Hiro’s voice is as solid and real as if she were sitting next to me on one of the slightly sloping benches made of wood or stone, one thousand prayer flags flapping in the fall breeze.

The further I ventured into the writing the more connected I felt to what Hiro so confidently names soul. Without so much as a hint of contrivance, she shows her readers that soul isn’t something other, but rather deeply embedded within each of us, an earthy, multidimensional source of renewable wisdom.

Hiro’s exquisite one-liners are often so delightful and surprising, one can’t help but leap at the invitation: “Be the honey in someone else’s tea. Be the fire that cooks someone else’s stew, the oven that bakes their fragrant loaf of bread.”

It may be poetic, but it’s not all metaphor. She guides us towards asking questions related to power, creativity, and social change. “Write the story of the last day of your life. Live it today,” Hiro offers, but “take the scenic route.” Here, there is no rush, and the effect is one of tremendous permission that brought me to places within alternately calm, enlivened, moved, and awakened. The utter lack of agenda allowed me to fully explore joy, grief, story, and nature in embodied, sensual, and often surprising ways – ways that revealed new doorways to me to better understanding myself and allowing for a more spacious relationship to creativity and consciousness.

It’s important to note that all of this occurs in ways that don’t bypass reality but urge us to dive into it, exactly as it is and as we are. That may in fact be the book’s real superpower: Its utter embrace of possibility, rooted in the tangible, “in our own lives, in the body politic, and in the world.”

Many of the pages begin with imperatives – Write, Dive, Rest, Invite, Release, Open, Run, Listen, Notice, Saturate, Explore. Hiro seamlessly weaves stillness and action, movement and meditation, inquiry and experimentation; no matter a reader’s background or reason for choosing this book, she will discover whole inner worlds and new ways of interacting with the outside world, too. Hiro reminds us that we are all inherently beautiful, powerful, and whole, and that joy and integrity are byproducts of curiosity and the creative process.

Without a hint of dogma, Hiro holds that we each have the ability to transform our own suffering into a “balm to heal the world’s wounds.” Her writing – lush, grounded, and often breathtaking in its precision – makes poetry out of liberation, reminding us that we are ever-changing. This work calls us to look closely and unflinchingly at the systems that shape us and that we in turn shape, and offers practices that help us untangle ourselves from these very titles and roles. In Hiro’s words: “Make a plan. Put it into motion. Begin today.”

Part poetry collection, part how-to manual, this book transcends easy categorization – which is exactly what makes it so unique. With the steadiness of water against stone, Hiro’s gentle voice encourages us, again and again, to let go of that which holds us back and to move towards authenticity. Some of the pages here have just a single line, and I found the white space itself as potent an invitation into contemplation and exploration as the words themselves. Soul riddles, intended not to stump but to challenge our usual ways of processing and analyzing information, plunged me into participation in ways that surprised and changed me. “Stand for the world in which you want to live,” Hiro instructs, with an authority that makes me trust her – and myself.

Use it as a guide on the path of becoming, the path of freeing ourselves from a lifetime of accumulated beliefs, the path to greater understanding of ourselves and how we meet the world, the path to true healing and accountability, and ultimately, to allowing our innate creativity to shine.

This powerful book lives up to its subtitle, Adventures in Creative Consciousness. It has the ingredients to change not only your life, but the world – but each of us must roll up our sleeves to experiment with our own recipes. I can think of no better companion than Hiro Boga and the gift of this book.

To Be Soul, Do Soul is available to purchase now. Order your copy by December 31, 2017, and receive two exclusive bonuses.