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The Darker the Night… Reflections on 2017


The past few days found me in a funk. Nothing major, but sometimes that makes moods even harder to bear; you feel like you should at least have a reason for being irritable or sad. But this was free-floating, hormonal, and seasonal, with nothing to do but try my hardest to just stay with myself, not be a jerk to my wife and kids, and self-manage as gently as possible until it passed. (Would it pass? This is always the question. And the answer is always the same.)

Emily Dickinson must’ve experienced many a similar mood. After all, she’s the one who wrote:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

This morning, the sun is shining on the newly fallen snow. It is falling in shimmery drifts from the pine boughs just outside my bedroom windows, and the southeastern light looks like something pure and hopeful. I may not be super psyched to dig out my car later, but there’s no denying the particular beauty this season offers in moments like these.

Perspective is one of the first casualties – temporarily, thank god, of the kind of mood that hangs out dangerously close to the border crossing into depression. It’s more like a white-out; driving snow, limited visibility. I’m relieved and grateful as I sit down to write this morning that the sky seems to have cleared and I can see a bit more clearly again. A tiny sparrow dive-bombing a snow drift 100 times its size; a hawk overhead, sun illuminating its underside; and room to breathe.

Yesterday, room to breathe felt more difficult to come by, even though nothing externally was really all that different than this. That’s the thing with aliveness. We must learn how to sit with ten thousand states of being, some ecstatic and others downright sucky. Squirmy, uncomfortable, climb-out-of-your-skin, and ever so easy to want to draw your bow and aim the sharpest arrow for the person closest to you.

If you have a spouse or partner or kids, yikes. You may become convinced it’s their fault, in ways that may not make an iota of rational sense. Or you might start pummeling yourself with darts, instead, losing sight of your amazingness, convinced you’ve fucked it all up, failed at everything you’ve ever tried, and are, in three succinct little words, a lost cause.

Ouch.

It can really, really hurt, this place of scary driving conditions. Probably best not to go out. Maybe a good a time to clean the bathroom, sweep the kitchen, plow through stacks of papers where even the stink bugs found safe harbor when the cold weather came.

Meditation may tell us to sit with these difficult emotions, and the cushion is definitely one good place to practice surviving them and observing the shitstorm passing through your mind and body like a short-circuiting machine. I also believe there are many ways to meditate, and sometimes being in motion and touching the real, tangible things in my immediate sphere is incredibly grounding and can help me come back to a more forgiving heart.

This morning, I woke remembering a film reel of disturbing dreams. Mani brought coffee. I plugged in the twinkle lights. And as I began to wake up and feel my way into a new day, I realized something: I felt better. I noticed on Instagram that several friends had created “best nine” photo montages from 2017, so I decided that might be a fun exercise. As I scrolled my camera roll through hundreds of images, something beautiful occurred: I began remembering and letting myself really appreciate the fullness of the year that’s coming to its end. The sense of not-enough-ness that plagued me the past few days dissolved in the face of so much evidence to the contrary.

Concerts with Mani – Laura Marling, numerous kirtans, Ben Sollee, Iron & Wine, and Regina Spektor. An overnight to NYC with Aviva. Swimming at Puffer’s Pond with Pearl. Two writing retreats, one in Amherst and one in Wisconsin, and a summer writing group down at the Nacul Center, back when it was still light out as we wrapped up at 8:00pm, and more than a dozen online writing groups. Visits with friends, tears, outrage, words, typewriters in town, and all the ups and downs that make a life a life. Seasons changing, bodies changing, relationships changing, kids changing. Mani weaning off of hard-core pain meds, devoting every ounce of her being to recovering her health. Kind neighbors. Steep learning curves. White privilege and misogyny and heteronormative lies falling like flies. Trees and trees and trees and trees. Shabbat, week after week. COFFEE.

I’m reminded of the song from Rent: 525,600 minutes… How do you measure, measure a year?

Those lyricists nailed it.

This post goes out to all of you. You who offer me so much kindness and encouragement to keep going. You who choose to write with me. You who make me laugh. You who challenge me to shed harmful beliefs and ways of being. You who inspire me with your own perseverance and courage, though it may not feel like courage to you. You who teach me how to have and hold boundaries. You whose everyday existence testifies to the fact that the world holds so much fierce truth and beauty.

With a special dedication to Emily Dickinson, Susa Talan, and Tia Finn — who all share a birthday today, and who teach me how to pay attention and stay true. I love you. 

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Writers, Authors, and People Who Write

Photo: Aliis Sinisalu

It’s not at all uncommon for my father to give me a volume of poetry from time to time, usually when I’m stopping by my parents’ house to say hello. A few weeks ago, he handed me a slim but dense collection called On Balance, by contemporary Irish poet Sinéad Morrissey. I keep coming back to a single poem called My Life According to You. I think it’s one of the best titles of all time.

We spend so much time trying to figure out our lives according to others, negotiating rules we didn’t create, and bumping up against systems that shape our very sense of self-worth, usually according to external, quantifiable factors.

“What do you do?” we ask each other, right after “What’s your name?” and perhaps “Where are you from?” If your name is unfamiliar or your skin color difficult to categorize, you might even get an extra special, “Where are you really from?”

If “writer” is your lucky answer to the question of doing, you might be familiar with subsequent questions, such as: “What do you write?” “Have you written any books?” “Do you make a living doing that?” Depending on how you respond, you might be met with a blank look, something like pity, or just a polite smile.

I hear from so many people who write but hesitate to call themselves a “writer.” Why is this?

Maybe we’ve grown attached to the idea that a real writer rises before dawn and writes until noon, then enjoys a simple lunch and takes a walk around the acres surrounding their 1800s farmhouse. Maybe we think real writers must down half a bottle of whiskey every night, collapsing in a post-cathartic heap in the wee hours.

What if ALL writers are –gasp! – regular people?

People who have to read the laundry instructions and remember to defrost the chicken for dinner. People whose day jobs are demanding and draining, fulfilling and anchoring, or some combination thereof. People who are navigating family dynamics with siblings and spouses and aging parents. People who are raising children or looking around an empty nest wondering how it went by so fast and now what. People with bills to pay and health issues to contend with and a stack of unread books on the night table.

Many of us who are writers simply love writing and cannot imagine life for long without the blank page, without the solitude of the writing process, without the journal or the iPhone notes or the pen and back of the envelope snatched from the glove compartment to grab a fly-by poem at a rest stop on the interstate.

There are as many ways to be a writer as there are ways to be a person.

When it comes to life according to someone else, be that “someone” an authority figure from your past, society at large, or a vicious inner critic, what rules have you come to believe, consciously or not, about being a writer and who gets to claim such an identity? Ironically, the very word “authority” contains “author.” What if you could be the authority about your own writing?

It’s not a new conversation, but it’s evergreen in its relevance to the creative process. Why? Because a rigid definition of what constitutes “real” writing keeps you from exploring what could be possible in your writing if you allowed yourself room to be totally imperfect.

Permission to suck is as close to a magic bullet as I’ve ever encountered — and I don’t really believe in magic bullets. What I do believe in is showing up, day after day or at least some of the time, to play with words. Sometimes this feels awful and cringe-y. It’s tempting to select all and delete without saving, or rip the page out of the notebook and toss it in the recycling bin.

I get it.

When I think of friends and colleagues who are authors – commercially successful, published authors, with advances and publishing contracts and agents and the whole megillah – I know they weren’t born that way. Well, they may have been born to write. But the “success” part of the equation is the part of the iceberg visible to the naked eye. Beneath the books is a mountain of uncelebrated hours, shitty drafts, abandoned ideas, unfinished projects, questions, conversations, doubts, and uncertainties.

There may also be something else at work: Commitment. And not allowing society’s prescription for success to define what gets written, what gets tossed, and what ultimately gets shared with the wider world. Believing in your voice isn’t a one-time thing. It happens gradually, as a result of working alongside whatever tells you to give it up already.

Often, when you hear about that best-selling debut novel, what you don’t hear about are the 15 unpublished novels that came before it. If publishing is a priority for you, you will plug away at it and it will happen. I really believe this. And if it’s not, or if it’s simply lower on the list of things that matter most, that doesn’t make you less of a writer.

Something begins to shift the moment we loosen the reigns and declare, “I am a person who writes. I am a writer.” And this is the crux of the matter: A writer is a person who writes, and not all writers must be authors.

Writing can infuse other fields of work. It can be oriented towards personal growth, political commentary, or a prolific imagination that imagines entirely different realities and brings them to life. It can be a practice that reminds you who you are. It can be a form of communication with yourself and with the people you love most or relate to least. It can be something you work at or something you do for pure pleasure.

Your writing life can change over time. It can ebb and flow. Sometimes, it might feel Sisyphean in its effort. Other times, the words might pour out of you, like rain from the sky through the vessel of you.

What it doesn’t have to be is torture.

And if writing is torture for you, consider what rules you’re agreeing to. Whose are they? Where did they come from? What would be possible without them?

When it comes to creativity, a little permission can go a long way. Once you relax the expectations of what being a writer must look like, what the results should be, and what counts as “real,” you might start to find that it’s actually not so torturous after all. It might even be… fun.

Imagine that.

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Want to end the year revisiting what it means to be a writer? Celebrate the return of the light during my 2-week online writing group, What If You Knew, December 11-22. As a holiday gift and gesture of my appreciation for this writing life, I’m offering a 25% discount! Register here.