How I Spent My Summer Vacation

A Complete Blank

Do you ever get stuck in an “I can’t write” jag, where every time you sit and try to start, you sputter and stall and think “I can’t write” and give up? That’s pretty much where I’ve been for a few days now.

What’s funny is that I actually wrote plenty in August — I wrote over on Patreon, my new playground (come join me!). I wrote on Mondays at 11:00am and on Wednesdays at 6:00pm, when 2-3 women came to my living room to write with me. I wrote lists of 11 things. I wrote two poems while I was walking in Gloucester, where Mani and I spent five blissful nights.

And yet, for some reason, coming here to write a blog post has felt nearly impossible. I think I’m just putting pressure on myself. I came back to Facebook a few days ago after taking a month away, and truly felt like I’d forgotten how to do social media. I said I’d write a post about what I did on my summer vacation, and I really do want to tell you about it.

But when I try to remember, when I stop to think, ok, what is it I did and what do I want to share, I’m drawing a complete blank. It already seems like a long time ago, like a dream that was super vivid and then vanishes the minute you wake up or start telling someone about it. It’s like it gets lost in translation.

Diving In

The first week of August consisted of a daunting amount of sleep. I thought maybe I would just sleep through the entire month. I took a few epic naps — we’re talking in the three-hour range — along with early nights and lazy mornings. I read a LOT, including an incredible memoir called Maid, by Stephanie Land, which I couldn’t put down and highly recommend you preorder.

The week after that, I had a surge of energy. I felt fantastic. So fantastic that I was actually… working more. I met with a few coaching clients — in person and on the phone and via zoom, in Amherst, northern California, and Prague. I had an idea for the next Dive Into Poetry, which will be in November, and emailed all past participants to submit poems I will use as prompts. Several folks responded and I felt really jazzed about trusting myself a few months ago, when I knew I needed a break from what had become a quarterly offering.

Sure enough, taking that time without a plan allowed new ideas to arise. I also got to connect with a wonderful teenage writer, whose poetry is conquering stigmas around mental illness and recovery. I marveled at the way work kept coming in, as if to prove that Facebook is not the one and only way to connect with people. This was a big YAY.

Mid-August, Pearl and I drove to visit Aviva between camp sessions. She’d spent three weeks on an epic road trip through the south — beginning in Asheville, then onto New Orleans, and ending up in Atlanta. In each city, they visited and learned about different urban farms, while camping in local state parks, making their own meals, and discussing Jewish perspectives on environmentalism. Needless to say, she had a life-changing experience. Before spending another three weeks at camp in New York state, there was a family visiting day.

We set out in the morning — turns out Pearl is an excellent DJ, who kept us in good music all the way across 84 West. About half hour before our arrival, I got a call from the camp nurse. It was possible, she said, that Aviva may have broken her toe. We would have to scoop her up and take her to urgent care for x-rays. Approximately $500 later that I am now wrangling about with insurance, she hobbled back to camp on crutches with a sprained big toe. Seeing her was so so good — and I could feel how grounded she was after her few weeks on the road.

Then, the third week came… and I got sick. It’s as if my body was saying: “Um, helllloooooo. We thought you were taking a break?” and knocked me back onto the couch. By then, I had filed all of the papers that had been stacking up for the past month or two, cleaned the car, and taken a huge stack of books to the bookstore to trade for credit.

What began as a tickle in my throat quickly became a full-blown head cold. Mani will tell you I am a big baby when I get sick, and she heard plenty about how miserable I was. I had to cancel Week 6 of the Wednesday living room group, and we packed for our trip despite how crappy I was feeling.  Five nights near the ocean could only do a body good, right?

Right. Right, right, and right some more. Aaaaaaah.

Ocean Medicine

If you ever don’t know what you need, find a way to get to salt water.

The tiny cottage we’d found on AirBnB turned out to be pretty much perfect for the two of us. You could see the water from the little loft bedroom, with a small cove less than 1,000 steps from the sweet outdoor patio with its Buddha statue and fountain. Sitting there the first morning, drinking our coffee, I felt I’d landed in a slice of summer heaven.

Each morning, I set out on a walk and explored side streets, community gardens, cemeteries, neighborhoods, and million-dollar house-porn views. In the afternoons, we checked out a few different beaches, drove around, went to thrift stores and found some adorable items for cheap, and saw a movie at the world’s funkiest movie theater, where viewers have their pick of couches and armchairs.

We finally saw the Mr. Rogers movie and loved it. We also found our dream neighborhood in Rockport and schemed about how we will someday live near the West Coast ocean in the winter and perhaps the East Coast ocean in the summer. Girl’s gotta dream, right? I got excited about bringing the kids back to the coast for a day trip, before the High Holidays and while it’s still warm enough to jump in the water.

Chalupa stayed at her breeder’s house for the duration of our trip. We were admittedly a bit anxious about leaving her, even though we knew she’d be in bulldog-loving hands. Picking her up was *very* exciting for us all, so exciting that I got back on the Mass Pike heading west instead of east and added a full hour to our return trip.

Clusterfucks and Paddleboards

Getting home from Gloucester was a little bit of a crash course, in that there were some last-minute school-related questions to sort out for Aviva. Which is putting it mildly; truth is it felt like a complete clusterfuck on confusion and a tumble of disappointment after such a grounding summer. However, I will say this: These moments always, always come, in some form or another. And how we meet them matters.

After a few days of chaos and uncertainty, things resolved in a way that I am quite sure is for the best, and the best part was seeing my girl dig deep for her own resilience– which was right there ready.

We attended her community college orientation. She even got her official student ID, her hair in two adorable tiny vertical sprigs (it’s growing out from when she shaved it all off last spring).

The next afternoon, Pearl and I borrowed a car and headed north to our second consecutive year of family camp. He was cranky about going at first, but by bedtime in our little cabin had turned a corner and settled in. It was great to see him with the friend he’d stayed in touch with via email all of last year, reconnect with some of the people we met last summer, and meet new families. I even had my Karaoke debut!

Paddleboarding was a high point, especially the moment when Pearl and I traded boards in the lake and I lost my balance. Nothing like losing one’s balance to get a good, old-fashioned dose of humility.

The leaves were already beginning to change in New Hampshire as we drove home on the last Monday of the month. Chalupa was *very* glad to see us; finally everyone under one roof! I think Mani was happy we were back, too, in part because the doggles had a tummy bug the whole time we were gone and she’d been “on” with her round-the-clock.

School-supply shopping the next day rendered a “holy shit” moment at the total we spent, which I chalked it up to new beginnings. Mani, meanwhile, is devouring Your Money or Your Life, and this month we are kicking off some hard-core budgeting and savings goals.

Pearl not only survived his first day of middle school, but came home in a great mood. I met one of the new principals, a man of color in a snappy suit who greeted every student and parent with a handshake by the front door. We rode bikes three mornings in a row, and I found myself feeling happy, grateful, and optimistic as I cycled home without him each day.

Books & Writing

Oh! I meant to tell you: I am reading “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,” a collection of essays by Alexander Chee. I posted about it on Instagram and had a total fangirl moment when he left a comment saying, “I hope you love it.” And I do. I fucking love it. The writing is brilliant and if you write and/or appreciate good writing and true stories, run out and get this book.

I also started “Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved)” by Kate Bowler. I wanted to love this book. I thought we had a good shot at bonding. But I put it down about halfway through. It’s clean and accessible, and I haven’t fully put my finger on why it didn’t hook me. It’s almost too highly edited; something is missing for me in terms of depth and detail and voice. Such a mystery, really, why some writing speaks to us and other writing doesn’t — and it’s not necessarily a reflection of the writing, more the alchemy or lack thereof between book and reader.

This month, you can write 11 things for 11 consecutive days with me, as we listen for the sounds of real life happening. You can also come look for the words for two weeks, with the help of 10 new prompts and a small group of brave souls, in Word Search, a new 2-week group. I feel a bit rusty when it comes to everything internet- and work-related, but I know I will find my way back to the candy house with your help.

Juicy Parts

My friend Doug asked me not to leave out the juicy details from my quiet month. I keep scanning my mind for these, sure there must be something more. It’s funny; I hear the word “juicy” and automatically relate that to a) sex and b) scandal. Thankfully, the former is alive and well in my relationship, due no doubt in part by the lack of the latter. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

Takeaways

Trust yourself. Trust yourself. Trust yourself. When you know, you know. The hard part is so often making room to fully acknowledge what you know, especially if you *don’t* know what to *do* about the knowing. Sometimes you don’t even have to DO anything.

Sometimes what is needed is the full acknowledgement, the space to actually allow yourself to feel the thing that’s arising. In my case before August, this was a degree of exhaustion and burn-out, a need to get very quiet, to immerse myself fully in my here-and-now life, without extending energy to people I cannot actually see, touch, and hear.

If you ask me whether I’d rather have experiences or things, I will always choose experiences. As long as there’s good coffee.

It was scary. But the scary parts are so rarely as bad once you’re in them as what the imagination may conjure. The definition of courage is always feeling the fear and doing it anyway, whatever it happens to be.

The result? I feel softer. My heart literally feels plumper, if you can believe it. And also like I’m bringing a degree of intention and clarity back into my writing, life, and work as we edge towards a new season.

“There are days we live”

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

— Li-Young Lee, “From Blossoms”

There are days we live

we live the days the days pass us by we pass each other by we pass by windows we pass through doors we pass through moods we pass the salt we don’t eat meals together we pass the kids’ stuff back and forth we pass gas we let it all hang out.

We pass by roadside vegetable stands

where asparagus is called Hadley Grass where flowers so full they’re verging on obscenity hang from rusty hooks we pass through countryside landscapes windows down tobacco barns and storm clouds and air thick with impossible weight of all the grief we’ve not let bury our joy we pass over into joy.

We pass riverbanks we pass school playgrounds

old cemeteries and painted window boxes we pass stop signs and hospitals and we pass through all the times we wanted to lash out at life we pass karma and the smiling faces of saints who walk among us we pass the homeless woman who stand in the median on Route 9 her skin darker by the day we imagine track marks on her arms, withdrawal or overdose we pass her a dollar or three we pass the ATM to get cash.

We pass streams of ancient chants

we pass stories we pass saliva we pass hope we pass patience we pass it along we pass it back we are impossible we are here being and what I want to say is

What makes you blossom?

What I want to ask is

How can you think anything is impossible?

What I need to hear is it is really ok

to stumble to forget a peach to miscount to miscalculate to fall to let go to let down to stop smiling to stop striving to stop worrying to stop proving to stop stop stop. Stop.

That is the impossible and that, too, is the blossom

I long to devour. All I want is to close my eyes in the new hammock swing, to be fed cold peaches, to stop clenching my teeth, to sit back. And here is where resistance comes rearing its head up, dragon fire breathing.

I want.

I want the summer by the lake, the ocean.

I want — it feels impossible to say I want, to allow for that moment of wide-mouthed honesty. I am so tired but that is the impossible truth where words have led, where truth and blossom coexist, coffee and impossible sweetness conspire, where inspiration grows in well-tended soil.

Neglect is not a strategy.

So sit with me and

let’s watch these fields grow wild with peaches, let’s pick them slice them bake them devour life devour these days not let them pass us by unnoticed.

If I’m tired, let me rest.

I am to here to serve, please keep showing me how.

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.