A Drive, a Dog, and a Question

Maybe I’m avoiding politics, or maybe it’s the restlessness that sometimes accompanies my cycle, even as it grows shorter and less reliable. Maybe it’s the fall air, warm for September yet still hinting at change. Maybe it’s being home with a puppy and Mani not feeling well, that sudden need to get out of the house.

I piled her into the backseat, on top of the seat cover we got so as not to destroy the car with fur. Pulled up a podcast I’ve been wanting to listen to, hit play, and started driving. As soon as we got on the highway, I felt like I’d made a mistake. Somehow, Chalupa had gotten herself underneath the seat cover, so now it was above her. Like a toddler in a fort, she panted and paced, and I regretted not harnessing her. I regretting getting in the car at all.

A wave of anxiety came over me.

With the dog panting, her head between the two front seats, eyes on the road — no joke — I kept my hands on the wheel. The internet cut out, and with it, the podcast, so it was just me, dog, traffic, and the question of why I had thought this would be a good idea. She was shedding all over the seats of Mani’s car. I imagined telling Mani about the whole outing when we got home. How it had seemed like a good idea at the time.

You may be wondering: What is she even talking about? Why is this a big deal? And rationally speaking, it wasn’t. An impulsive outing to a town 30 minutes north of here with my puppy in the backseat — maybe not the most relaxing choice, but certainly nothing to beat myself up about. And yet, that’s exactly what I found myself doing as I drove, trying to soothe her, vividly reliving the days of having a baby and needing to do anything but stay home and driving, but instead of falling asleep, the baby just cries and your stress levels go up instead of down.

I pulled over at a Dunkin’ Donuts and walked around the side, then the back. Chalupa peed. She sniffed an abandoned stroller and I wondered what had happened there. Then Chalupa pooped and sniffed some more, before we walked back around to the front of the store. I opened the entrance door wide enough to ask the woman at the counter if we could have a cup of water, and she kindly brought one outside. Chalupa lapped it up, leaving a small puddle by her front paws, and I heaved her back into the backseat (she’s not quite tall enough to leap up herself).

It was not a relaxing outing.

I didn’t listen to the podcast. I didn’t even listen to music. Driving with doggles did not make Kavanaugh go away, nor the cold that has hit my family, one of us at a time over the past week. It didn’t alleviate my unfounded anxiety or give me any great ideas. I was just glad to get home. Apparently, Chalupa was, too; she is crashed out under the kitchen table now.

Some days, I feel this tug I can’t name. It’s part sad, part dull, part blank, part tired. It’s the parts of me I think of as less appealing. I am quiet, introverted. I don’t have much to say. I don’t have sparkles or glitter or pizzazz. I am just here. I am breathing. I am alive. It is a day.

When my kids were little, there were days when their dad would get home and I would be so done. Crazed to “get out” for a while. I would go bring my notebook to the lake, but didn’t always have much to write. I think it was more of an accompaniment, a gesture to myself, as if to say: I am still a writer, even though I have nothing to say.

Having nothing to say is scary for a writer.

And sometimes, it’s true. The words don’t form. The thoughts don’t click. The impetus misses its cue and leaves you alone on stage with no lines. The audience, though? There is no audience. Just a floor. a raised curtain, and row after row of red velvet seating.

In moments like these, the temptation is to make something of it. Like Daniel, Fudge’s little friend in the Judy Blume series, who always puts up his fists: “Wanna make something of it?”Always ready for battle, for struggle, for meaning, for implications — none of them good. But maybe that is one of the things I’ve learned in the intervening years since my babies were babies: There is no need to create a big story around a low-energy day, or a bout of restlessness, or a spike of anxiety. The world gives us plenty reason for all of these.

Still, I want to know why.

Why do I feel sad? Why do I feel blue? Why do I get myself into circumstances that exacerbate rather than alleviate stress?

It’s quiet now. Quiet outside — just Chalupa’s little breathing noises — and quiet inside. Thoughts of not being enough flit through my head, and I try to observe them the way you can at Magic Wings, the place on Route 5 where you can sit on a bench amidst hundreds of fluttering butterflies. They land, they alight. They hover, they lift. They feed, they rest.

The state of our country is weighing on me heavily today, like watching a train wreck in slow motion, car after car after car. Grief wells up in me, and I want to dive inward to find its source even as I know its source may be older and deeper than memory. Moments from my own childhood bubble up — moments when one of my parents was fearful or angry, moments when I froze or retreated. Consciousness feels like a strong current some days, and I worry about getting swept down the river.

On the way back this afternoon from the drive I might as well not have taken, I crossed the blue bridge over the Connecticut River. The water looked impenetrable from above, and I found myself imagining swimming across from one shore to the other. Would the water be warm or cold? Would there be a current? Would I make it?

Will we make it?

This is the question I’m carrying. At the beginning of the day when all is once again new, in the middle when hunger soars or energy dips, at the end when it is time to surrender all that remains undone, I wonder if we will make it. As a country. As a species. As humans with such deep capacity to love and also such terrifying ability to destroy.

I take refuge under a prayer shawl, in a pew, in a people. I seek shelter in ancient prayers and everyday tasks that give life meaning. And I hope it is enough. Yom Kippur is coming, and the stakes feel higher than ever.

Being the Tree, Surviving the Winter

I want to say something about this tree, and since I’m not sure where to start, I’m just going to start.

First of all, a couple of weeks ago, I was losing faith in this tree. After a relatively cold April, the other trees in the neighborhood were starting to bud. But the only sign of life for this tree was the moss growing on its trunk and branches. I took a look at it from my daughter’s bedroom in the front of our second-floor apartment, feeling concerned.

The front yard of our house is small, hardly a yard at all. But this tree is its defining feature, providing a swath of shade all summer and a gorgeous, brief show each fall.

A few mornings later, the neighbor and I were chatting, admiring the quince bush blossoming between our driveways. I gestured towards the tree, expessing my worry, but it was more small talk than anything else. In my head, I wondered: Was it ok? Was it dead? Would it thrive once again? Is this how it’s supposed to look in the early spring? How long do we give it? Oy.

This morning, a perfect 66 degrees, not a hint of humidity in the air and not a cloud in the sky, I took our new pup outside to pee. These frequent potty trips tend to turn into mini adventures as she explores her new environs. Today, we met a dog walker and a friendly golden retriever, with whom Chalupa was eager to play.

The light filtered through the red leaves and suddenly it dawned on me that somewhere along the way, sometime during all the times I came and went and passed the tree, drove, walked, and ran in and out of the driveway, focused on the coming and the going, the errands, the running, the lessons, the meetings, the tree did something. It had come back to life.

* * *

When I was a teenager, my parents once gave me a book called The Tree That Survived the Winter, written by Mary Fahy and illlustrated by Emil Antonucci. The book was published in 1989, so I was probably 15 or 16. Resilience was not a word we used back then, at least not one I remember hearing. I wonder if they looked at me and saw the tree as I saw our tree, i.e. with worry. Would I be ok? Would I thrive? Would I get through a difficult time? When would I blossom?

Blossoming was something I was actively not doing at that time in my life; if anything, I had arrested myself into a semi-permanent state of non-pubescence, by losing weight and entering into amenorrhea, despite the fact that I’d started menstruating and had had a regular cycle since I was 11. I staved off womanhood and swallowed my own voice, the way a snake eats a small animal while it’s still alive. In 1993, the year The Piano came out, I wept, so strongly did I identify with Holly Hunter’s character who had chosen to be mute as a form of protest, though she poured all of that emotion into the keys.

I did survive that winter, and blossoming came in fits and starts for the next 20 or so year. I blossomed, quite literally, during both of my pregnancies. I loved the fullness of feeling the life grow inside of me. I loved nursing and napping and discovering the world through their eyes. And I struggled, too, with depression, during and after both pregnancies.

I agonized over whether to go back on anti-depressants when I was in my first trimester with Pearl, and finally deciding that my falling apart would ultimately be more harmful to the baby than the smallest possible dose of Zoloft. I wondered what was wrong with me when, three-weeks postpartum with my first child, my then mother-in-law commented that I sure was taking a long time to get back on my feet. I saw women jogging with their newborns in strollers and couldn’t figure out how they did it.

My winters came intermittently, but they always came. And each time, I would feel convinced that this was my default state, and that the blooming was a fluke. The fear that I wouldn’t bloom again scared me, and the fear didn’t help matters. Writing became one of my sources of staying anchored inside of myself and my life, rather than drifting off. Everyday life, too, with its rhythms and routines, grounded me. But I would still sometimes think, in order to really bloom, something big must change. I should be different. I should be better, bigger, different, other than this.

The therapist who witnessed me through my second pregnancy and the transition to having two kiddos introduced me to Tara Brach and the notion of radical acceptance. After more than a decade of reading Thich Nhat Hanh and other Buddhist teachers, this opened a new door for me of practice, one that led me more deeply into mindfulness and meditation practices. I continued writing, too, as well as running, connecting with friends, and making time as best I could with a young family to listen to my own small voice.

* * *

When I first came out, I experience a profound, life-changing understanding of myself and my life up until that point. From body dysmorphia to depression, I was now able to see for the first time the toll it had taken to contain myself in this careful way for so long. It was messy. And I was also convinced, briefly, that that was the end of the line. I’d figured out why it had been so hard for so long, and now, smooth sailing ahead!

Well, yes and also not so much. Periods of intense discovery and growth can be disorienting and thrilling and confusing and blinding in their own ways. So, when I realized I had in fact taken myself with myself into this brave new world, there was something of a letdown. What do you mean I still all this other work to do?!

That “other work” over what is now nearly eight years continues to teach me. Radical acceptance and staying present remain cornerstones of my spiritual practices, as does writing. Learning how to weather occasional emotional storms without getting swept out to sea is a lifelong process of self-love, trust, and patience.

Seeing the ways I expect too much too fast — just as I did with the tree not long ago — is a place of ongoing awareness and subtle shifts, as is the temptation to compare myself to how others are growing. Noticing when I go into fear mode is always an internal signal that it’s time to regroup and return to what is — and allowing what is to be enough.

The tree is in its full spring glory now. Sure enough, its revival happened without external help, because it’s programmed to move through these cycles of death and rebirth. Perhaps we, too, carry these deep instructions, each of us carrying our own unique code of becoming.

To grow more at ease with the process — that seems to be my work in this lifetime. Thankfully, I have some beautiful teachers, one of them right in my very own front yard. The tree survived just fine. Just look at her.

Holiness Is in How We Teach Our Children

Photo: Josh Appel, Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, Oświęcim, Poland. “This is Siggy Weiser. He is a Holocaust survivor. 75 years later he is in looking as Jewish kids praying at the death camp Auschwitz, Mr. Wesier’s previous living area where he was threatened with death daily.”

My daughter’s shaving her head.

Well, actually, her cousin’s friend is doing the honors, in a college dorm room.

My daughter told me she has written something about the why of this. She forgot to send it to me, but says she will tomorrow.

I am looking forward to reading it.

My daughter is 15 going on a shaved head.

It’s just hair. This is what I tell myself. This is where I land. I listen to her voice, her dreams and ideas and fears and hardest places. I look at her eyes. Not her hair.

She studied the Holocaust last fall with her grandfather, my dad.

She has seen the shaved heads.

I have a tattoo. Two tattoos, actually. I might get more.

When Jews, Catholics, the Roma, gay and communist and disabled humans, reached Auschwitz, they were divided into two groups: Those who went straight to the gas chambers, and those who were stripped, shaved, tattooed, and sent to the barracks to work. Really, to die, just more slowly.

Some survived. They swore, never again. They whispered it. Secrets burned on skin, never to be talked about. Never a shaved head. Never a tattoo. The unspeakable.

What is it to take things things back, to reclaim, to honor the dead, to choose life, to take back ownership of the body?

What is it to express the spirit on skin?

How is our hair a symbol of autonomy and agency and choice — just as what we wear, how we speak, and how we love are all ways of declaring existence, selfhood, peoplehood, sovereignty, and worth?

My daughter is shaving off all of her hair.

Not because she is sick.

Not because she is unstable.

Not because she is rebellious.

Not because she is dishonoring memory.

I do not know her reasons yet, but I believe her when she tells me she has her reasons.

And what will I say, when I see her?

I will say: You are beautiful.

I will say: I love you.

I will say: Your being is a song to those who died.

I will say: Your songs soothe the ones who survived.

I will say: I can see your soul, your neshama, even more brightly.

I will say: This world needs you in it.

These are harrowing times for growing up. I call on my ancestors to light the way, to remind me that hair is just hair and that hair, too, can be holy.

That holiness is in how we teach our children and how we learn from our children.

That this dance across time is how we keep being here, despite the odds.

Necessity Is the Mother of Invention

“When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back.”~ Paulo Coelho

I’ve noticed something. The more time I spend online, the less I remember what it fully feels like to be me. And when I do have a spell of time away from the computer and less plugged into the apps on my phone, something shifts internally. It’s a shift you can’t really put into words, kind of the way someone could explain swimming to you but until that moment where it’s your body moving through water, it will only be a concept, divorced from experience.

I’ve noticed something else. I have created a monumental story in my head about the time I spend online. The biggest, most dire of the plot lines is this: If I spend less time online, I won’t earn a living.

Let me explain.

I led my first online writing group in December, 2014. Not three months after marrying my beautiful wife, her health had begun to unravel, slowly and mysteriously at first, and then rapidly and at such a precipitous pitch that it felt like we were sliding right out of our lives, the lives we had really just begun together. Nothing was what we’d expected. I had a full-time job at a local college, but with Mani’s ability to work quickly eroding, my income became barely sufficient to carry the four of us. Winter solstice was approaching; it was dark when I left for work in the morning and dark when I got home. I was lonely and scared. She was playing private investigator to her own deterioration, eventually self-diagnosing (accurately).

It was in this context that I wrote my very first 10 prompts and opened the doors to a secret Facebook group for 12 people. Some I knew already, others had found me through mutual friends or old-fashioned serendipity. What happened during those two weeks I could never had predicted. We wrote like crazy. For 10 minutes a day, we put pens to paper or let fingers fly over keys. It was terrifying and exhilarating and liberating to just write after a long dry spell without words, without expectation, without judgment (from others, at least). In the safety of this container, stories poured out.

The resulting writing was funny, heartbreaking, surprising, wise, ridiculous, wry, and real. The writing was not a means to an end. It was simply itself. Nobody had to perform or compare or compete for airtime or worry about who was better (though oh, how we do).

It was, in a word, magic.

So I did it again. Another 10 prompts, another two weeks, another 12 folks — many returning, many new. And again. And again! It was thrilling. I had no idea what I was “doing.” All I knew was that I loved it, it came naturally to me, it felt effortless and like the thing that threaded together the strands I’d been trying to combine for decades: Writing, connecting, coaching, creating, and community building.

By May, I was leading two groups at a time. By May, I was squirreling away money in a PayPal account. By May, I was planning my first in-person retreat for June.

And by May, we were reaching a crisis point.

She was living on water and white rice. She could no longer tolerate any other foods. And she had developed neuropathy in her feet and lower legs so severe that she barely slept, cried in pain at a feather touch, and listened to Jon Kabat-Zinn meditations on chronic pain literally on loop. We had been to a dozen specialists, and not even her immunologist who was familiar with her rare disease — Mast Cell Activation Disorder — knew what was happening. We wound up at the ER several times, but she didn’t go on pain medication since we didn’t know if she’d react to it.

I went on unpaid medical leave from my job as it became clear that I needed to be home full-time. Mani could barely stand to walk to the bathroom, much less cook or drive or do anything for herself.

By the time I led my first Unfurl retreat, the people in my writing groups had become not only a creative community but a support network that seemed to appear as if on some kind of crazy cosmic schedule. We fell into each other in the best sense, spending a weekend freewriting and sharing, alternating between cathartic laughter and cathartic tears, and consuming copious amounts of chocolate. Within days after that, Mani and I were checking into the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. I extended my medical leave from six to 12 weeks. Friends — many of whom I’d only met in the previous months through my writing groups — donated money and meals alike. The generosity was breathtaking.

This was never about building a business for me. This was about survival. This was about need. This was about love and devotion and fear and not knowing what to do but doing it anyway because what is the alternative? This was not about “being brave” or “taking a leap of faith” or 10 steps to following your dreams or how to quit your day job in six months flat. This was about learning to ask for help and just taking the fucking donuts.

It was all and none of those things. It was real life unfolding in ways that threw both of us into roles we never imagined and frankly, didn’t favor. Contrary to what many might assume, being nurturing — as opposed to being nurtured — triggered all kinds of stuff for me that I had no choice but to confront. And for her, being so dependent was about as identity-stripping as things could get. We were both in limbo, holding on to each other for dear life and determined to get through.

My leave from work came to a close and I gave my official notice. Going back was not an option; Mani was taking heavy-duty pain medication and her climb back to health would be steady, but long and slow and steep.

Two years later, here we are. The wheelchair she needed at one point to even leave the house for a short trip to Target sits getting dusty in the garage. She is up to nearly 30 foods and beverages and adding more every week. We just got back from a long weekend, where I co-taught a writing + art workshop Saturday morning. We go to Kirtan on Tuesday nights and read books together and say “I love you.” A lot.

My writing groups continue to fill up and have evolved into a variety of offerings, from quarterly intensives to poetry workshops. I have coaching clients again for the first time since I closed the doors on that work seven years ago, and I love my clients so much I can’t stand it. I pinch myself every day. I keep experimenting and growing. Some things fly and others flop.

And. I worry.

Maybe this just comes with the territory. In many ways, we take ourselves with us (as Kabat-Zinn writes, “Wherever you go, there you are”). I worried about money when I had a full-time job with a predictable monthly paycheck. Now I worry other things:

What if this is the month when everything just… ends? What if this is the month when everything just… ends? (This one is on repeat.)
Then we will figure it out, Mani reminds me.

What if people decide they are bored with me?
This is not about me entertaining people or being liked, I remind myself.

This is about genuine connection, safe space, and room to enter or re-enter writing practice and a creative process — something I know many of us don’t make time for. Or if we do, it’s under such relentless and vicious attack by self-criticism and perfectionism that we’re lucky to write three sentences before we erase or edit the life out of the rest.

In other words, it’s out of my hands.

Facebook can be such a mindfuck, like a hall of mirrors that meets a high-school reunion. It can also be a miracle. I love it. And I feel beholden to it. I’m trying to find my way with this and for the first time — maybe this is a gesture of trust — I am writing about it. After all, writing is how I find my way. It always has been and now is no different.

There is a proliferation of writing groups out there. I cannot and will not get sucked under a dark current of competition. I don’t want to and it feels awful and I’d sooner throw in the towel altogether. But that doesn’t mean I’m not susceptible to it, especially on days of self-doubt.

At the end of my groups, after a few days to collect our words, the space goes *poof*. I’ve done it this way from the very beginning. It was an intuitive decision that has continued to feel right; the energy of the words and connections like soap from inside a bubble, like sand from a mandala, go out into the world, though their forms will never again be the same. Impermanence is not an accident; it is a fundamental component of practice.

Impermanence is all we have for sure. In this work, in this life, in our writing, in our relationships, in our health, in our friendships, in our communities. That doesn’t mean there aren’t real, lasting things. In fact, I think it’s the opposite: Impermanence deepens my awareness and appreciation of just how precious these are. It has also helped me through some of the hardest and darkest times in my life.

I love what I do for work. I love that I have learned that I am capable of so much more than I ever imagined. And every time I can catch myself in the worry, I take a breath, acknowledge it, and say a thousand thank yous. In this moment, we are ok. In this moment, my wife is next to me adding more books to her library holds. In this moment, the right people will find me and choose to write and practice with me. In this moment, I get to be here. If we could get through the past few years intact, we can get through anything.

I want my work to continue to grow in ways I can’t necessarily yet envision fully. All I know for sure is that I want to keep connecting with people in ways that are real and deep, in ways that heal and don’t harm, in ways that foster community rather than divisiveness.

As I come to a slowing-down point for an outpouring of words I didn’t see coming this evening, I realize that this isn’t really about how much time I spend online. It’s about integrity and authenticity and continuing to live and work in ways that feel deeply real and genuine.  These happen both online and off; it’s the intention that matters.

Lately one of the things that is calling my soul is the desire for more unplugged, unstructured time. That’s why my next group is not a writing group per se, but a group where each day for two weeks, we’ll practice different ways of not doing. We start a week from today.

If spending a minimum of 15 minutes a day doing things like sitting on a bench, lying on the floor, listening to music, and eating mindfully make something in your soul stir a little, please join me. Our secret group will be a place to share our discoveries, experiences, surprises, and struggles.

Feast On Your Life
June 5-16 :: Register Now

We are all in this alone, but I am so, so thankful that we also get to be in it together.

* * * * *

Other Upcoming Groups

Dive Into Poetry
July 1-30 :: Register

Jewels on the Crown (Summer Session)
July 3-September 22 :: Register

The Unspeakables
July 10-21 :: Register

Laughter Is the Best Medicine

This weekend, Mani and I went to a “laughter yoga” meet-up. A new friend of hers who lives in Southern Vermont had suggested it, and we figured it fit into the catch-all “Why not?” category and said sure, we’d be there.

Saturday, driving over the river and into Northampton, there was a thrill in the air: The thrill of people showing up together and for each other. The undercurrent of urgency and defiance that laced this growing gathering by the fairgrounds, where the marchers were assembling. We drove past Aviva, who was getting a ride their from her dad, on the bridge; I rolled down my window and waved and she flashed me her “My Body My Choice” sign. I honked enthusiastically as we passed small groups of walkers on the sidewalks; people waved back at us.

But we did not join them. Instead, we parked behind the Forbes Library, entering the building through a side door that deposited us into the children’s area (which made us both nostalgic). We eventually found the Community Room, where we were the first ones. A few other women trickled in, then one man, and we chatted a bit.

One woman asked if Mani and I were roommates, and looked supremely uncomfortable when we said no, we’re married. Was she uncomfortable because we were a same-sex couple, or because she was embarrassed for having assumed otherwise? It was hard to say. Someone else mentioned the march — clearly having been caught off-guard by the traffic and not someone who might have had to choose between such a protest and some other activity that day. In other words, it was clear we were in what you could call mixed company. If the name “Trump” had come up, I’d have been out of there like a shot; for better of for worse, I’m not that evolved and any efforts I’ve made since November to “communicate” with Trump supporters have been dismal and discouraging.

But this was not a space to discuss anything political, which frankly, feels like everything. Instead, we waited until the “Laughter Pharmacist” arrived, which he did promptly at 12:15pm. And for the next hour, we laughed. Mark Sherry took us through a series of “games” designed to banish self-consciousness and release endorphins, ranging from having a “Vowel Movement” (my favorite) to greeting each other as roosters at daybreak. If it sounds ridiculous, it was– and that was largely the point.

Did you know that laughing immediately breaks down the stress hormone cortisol in the body, boosting the immune, digestive, and endocrine systems and increasing blood flow? Or that babies laugh as early as three weeks, not because you told them a great joke from the Borscht Belt, but because it’s as natural an evolutionary response as hiccuping?

Call me a convert.

What was really fascinating was to leave this hour feeling both more relaxed — I’d woken up Saturday a ball of agitation — but also realizing that we’d just connected with a dozen or so humans in a way so universal that perhaps, given the opportunity, some reciprocal dialogue and listening might have been possible. I never thought “Laughter is the best medicine” was so literal, but it could well be one of the things that enables us to stay resilient and steadfast in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.