Real Life

“There are days we live”

June 26, 2017

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.

Real Life

Tiles in a Laborious Mosaic

June 21, 2017

“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.

Creative Process

Fifteen Minutes

June 19, 2017

8:33pm
I just read a book to Pearl — an old favorite we hadn’t read in ages called “Mrs. Katz and Tush,” by Patricia Polacco. Just when I think Pearl — who turned 11 in April — is done with me in all of the appropriate, growing-up ways, she surprises me and asks if we can read a picture book. Sure, I said, and that is the one I chose from the shelf. As I reached for it, a smattering of dust floated from the neglected shelf. When the book was over, I turned out her light and kiss hered cheek. “Love you,” she said quietly, as I left the room. “Can you come check on me in 10 minutes and whisper, Pearl!“? I told her I would, then came to the kitchen, got a bowl of ice cream, and sat down to write.

8:38pm
This kind of thing used to be a cornerstone of my writing time. I’d get through another day of life and work and kids, then go to my blog to sort it all out (or not, as the case often was). To sift through the pieces and see what could be named. I wrote to find out where I was. A lot of the time, it even worked.

8:40pm
Over the years, this practice has shape-shifted more times that I can count. Facebook has taken over my blog to some degree since it’s entirely possible I have more “readers” there than I do here at this point. But I didn’t start writing for any readers at all. Not a single one. I started — and kept going — because the writing itself, the very act of sitting down to say hello to myself, to find out where I’d been all day, sustained me. It was like an old friend I’d reconnected with after so many years — you know the one? The one you think about every day but for some reason never pick up the phone to call, secretly hoping you reconnect before one of you dies, then wondering it that’s a weird and morbid thought that maybe you shouldn’t say out loud.

8:42pm
One paragraph every two minutes. Already I am remembering something, a language I learned but stopped using on a regular basis. Was I really fluent once? I find it hard to believe. I sit down here, in the space between saying goodnight to Pearl and going back in to her dark room to whisper, “Pearl!” just as she asked me. There’s a bowl of nectarines on the table and a cool breeze after the heavy rain we waited for all day.

8:44pm
Aviva just graduated from 8th grade. When I started blogging, she was four. In September, she starts high school at the same school I graduated from 26 years ago. I can’t even tell you what she’s like because she’s so… herself. This morning in the car, we were talking about her resemblance to me. I told her all those years of sun and smoking didn’t do me any favors in terms of my skin and aging, but didn’t suggest I’d have changed a thing, either. How could I?

8:46pm
I don’t believe in looking back and thinking about changing things. I don’t ask myself questions like, if you could say anything to your younger self, what would it be? She had to experience all of it — moments of utter rightness, when laundry was hanging on a line in the backyard and the light was just so, and moments of wretched loneliness and pain, when every choice seemed impossible. What could I possibly tell her, when she ended up here, when we ended up as one?

8:48pm
This blog has always been a space of a single word: Hineni. I am here.

I see now that it still is.

The Resistance

How Do We Hold All of This?

June 14, 2017

Photo: Ayo Ogunseinde

Yes, the fires. Yes, the shootings.
Yes, the arrogance. Yes, the brutality.
Yes, the denial. Yes, the ignorance.
Yes, the lies. Yes, the corruption.
Yes, the greed. Yes, the misogyny.
Yes, the disregard. Yes, the heartlessness.
Yes, the same old made new again.
Yes, the exhaustion. Yes, the retreat.
Yes, the front lines. Yes, war.
Yes, end times. Yes, it’s time.
Yes, ecosystems crashing. Yes, ice melting.
Yes, public spaces. Yes, the end of privacy.
Yes, secrets. Yes, tapes. Yes, hearings.
Yes, rampant narcissism. Yes, we did this.
Yes, we are screwed.

Yes, it’s all real. No, you are not crazy.

Yes, everything is not ok. Yes, everything is ok.
Yes, both can be true.
Yes, you must keep going.
Yes, you can rest.
Yes, let’s sit here.
Yes, listen to the birds.
Yes, there is more bad news.
Yes, I saw the video.
Yes, I read the article.
Yes, I have a deadline to meet.
Yes, but did you look into her eyes?
Yes, but did you see her expression?
Yes, say I love you.
Yes, like you mean it.

First Sentence Interview Series

First Sentence Interview Series with Vanessa Mártir: “You have to make time”

June 9, 2017

My guest this month is Vanessa Mártir, a NYC based writer, educator and mama. She is currently completing her memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings, and chronicles her journey on her blog. Vanessa’s essays have appeared in The Butter, Poets & Writers Magazine, Kweli Journal and the VONA/Voices Anthology, Dismantle, among others. In 2011, Vanessa created the Writing Our Lives Workshop, through which she’s led hundreds of writers through the process of writing personal essay.

Vanessa has penned two novels, Woman’s Cry (Augustus Publishing, 2007) and The Right Play (unpublished), and most recently co-wrote Do Something!: A Handbook for Young Activists (Workman Publishing, 2010). She’s the founder of the wildly successful #52essays2017 project. Vanessa is a five-time VONA/Voices and a two-time Tin House fellow.

When did you first start writing? Do you remember the first time you called yourself “a writer”?

I started telling myself stories when I was just five or six years old. I would climb up the plum tree in our backyard in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and there I would imagine a different life.

When I told my mother I was a writer, she told me a story of when I was in kindergarten. The teachers complained that I was distracted during storytime. Instead of sitting on the rug in a circle with all my classmates, I would walk around, dig into the bookshelves, do everything but sit and listen to the story. When she scolded me, I told her: “But mommy, I already know how the story goes. I get bored.” “Oh, really,” she said. “So how does the story go?” She said I got really excited. I stood up and started, “Once upon a time…” I proceeded to tell a story of my own making.

My mother was telling me that I’ve always been a writer. Still, it took me a long time to name myself that. I used to say it out of the side of my mouth when I was in my teens and twenties, but I wasn’t writing the way I wanted to, I wasn’t taking workshops or classes. I wasn’t invested in it as much as I wanted to be. After the elite education I received via boarding school and Columbia University, coupled with the immigrant ideals that were instilled in me by my family, I felt like I couldn’t go into the arts. I had to go into corporate America where I’d get a steady paycheck, have health insurance, and could save for retirement. The arts was too unreliable to go into. I had to keep in mind that my family came from the kind of poverty you only see in Save the Children commercials. Taking such huge risks like pursuing my writing was in many ways a dishonor to them and the sacrifices they made that in turn made my blessings so possible.

I wrote here and there. Was even published a few times, but it wasn’t until I was pregnant with my daughter that I assessed my life and realized that I needed to make some big changes. I was miserable in corporate America, and I knew firsthand what misery could do to a family. I didn’t want that for myself, my child or my family. I asked myself: “Where is your heart?” The answer was clear: in my writing. So I followed it. I filled six journals while I was pregnant, and wrote my first novel, Woman’s Cry, while I was nursing my little girl. I left corporate America and never looked back. I was also finally able to call myself a writer and believe it. 🙂

Who do you write for? Do you have a particular reader or audience in mind when you’re writing?

When I write, I write for Loba Pack. They are a select group of folks with whom I can be my full, vulnerable, soft-but-unfuckwithable self. I can laugh and cry and rage and dance. I imagine we are in my kitchen. We have just eaten a meal I just cooked–pollo al horno, a caldero of arroz con fideo, a salad. We are sipping on bourbon and I am telling them my stories.

Where does fear show up for you — and how do you deal with it?

Fear shows up often for me. I write about trauma, mine and my families. I am revealing secrets that have had my family in a choke hold for generations. I write about my life, who I am, what I’ve learned, how I exist in this world as a queer woman of color. I have spent much of my life being told directly and subliminally that I don’t matter, my people don’t matter, our stories don’t matter, so when I dare to write them, to publish them and get them out into the world, fear leans in hard. I more often than not push back at it.

I think fear is natural. It’s how we react to fear that matters: we can let it catalyze us or paralyze us. I have been both catalyzed and paralyzed. When I’m paralyzed, I read a lot, go to therapy, and I spend time in my body hiking and biking and rollerblading and working out. Trauma exists in the body so moving it helps me work with it to get these stories down. It’s a journey. I’m still working on it. But this is my journey and what works for me may not work for others. It’s important you find what works for you.

What do you tell folks who say they “don’t have time” to write?

The only people who have time to write are in prison. You have to make time. Make time in the morning. Or make time at night. Write in the cracks: on your commute to work, while waiting on line at the market or elsewhere, while waiting for your dinner to be done. Write a page. Write a few sentences. Write for ten minutes or write for an hour. Give your art the time it requires and you want. You can’t want this life and not be willing to put in the time and effort it requires. It just doesn’t work like that.

One essay a week is a lot to show up for. How do you decide what to write? Do you have any “rules” about this process?

I don’t usually know what I’m writing until I actually sit down and write, but I do pay attention to what’s coming up all week. What stories have been circling. What energies are in the air. Then when I sit, I write. I’ve written on the train, in my writing room, in the park while sitting on a bench under a tree. My one rule is: show up and write. Don’t try to control the process. Just write. Get out of your own way.

How long have you been working on “A Dim Capacity for Wings” and when will you know it’s done?

I’ve been working on this book for ten years. When will I know it’s done? I’ll let you know. 🙂

Do you have any favorite words or expressions?

The only way out is in.

Be relentless.

First Sentence is a series featuring interviews with writers — poets, novelists, essayists, memoirists, as well as those who do not fit into any of these neatly defined genres. Each conversation is intended to offer readers and fellow writers a glimpse of a variety of writing approaches, philosophies, habits, quirks, and publishing options.

More about the First Sentence series, including links to previous author interviews

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