zoltan-tasi-273195

Forgive Yourself for Each Time

Photo: Zoltan Tasi

For each time the words flew out of your mouth and you wished you could unsay them.

For each time you remained silent, only to wonder why you swallowed knives.

For each time you searched for but couldn’t find the perfect thing to say, and so you just sat with her, put your hand over his, kept company that which could not be consoled.

For each time your kids proved wiser than you (“she will see it as support later”).

For each time you hung up the phone and immediately wanted to call back to say, “I love you.”

For each time you were sure you’d fucked things up for good. For each time you learned to forgive yourself. For each time you spoke your heart with no way of knowing how it would be received — if at all. For each time you felt the ache of the world in your sinus cavity, your chest cavity, your belly — all of the hollow places where the body fills with breath, with longing.

Last night, you dreamed of a kitchen in a small apartment. It was elevated, modest in size, painted all white, and brightened by sunlight. A bank of windows overlooked sparkling blue, blue water in the distance. It was such a peaceful space, and you’d lived there once though you couldn’t remember when.

Standing there overcome by longing, you didn’t know if you could stand the leaving again. But you had to and you did, waking to a new day and a world of bright beauty and impossible pain, determined not to worry about getting it right but instead to be present. To love without interfering, to support without the pretense of saving, and to know that you aren’t here to be a saint but a person.

Today, you notice what quickens your pulse. What makes your stomach drop. What gives you a glimmer of hope and what seemed to urgent yesterday that you can simply set aside. You let the bread rise under its damp covering and the child grow towards her own sources of light. You learn, just a little bit, to let things be, thus becoming more available to what actually needs tending.

In the words of Ernest Hemingway, “Go all the way with it. Do not back off. For once, go all the goddamn way with what matters.”

zoltan-tasi-273195

Free Associating and the Analyst’s Couch

Photo: Jimmy Bay

I’ve been clicking away from this screen on and off for a while now, maybe half-hour or so. I’m reminding myself of a moth — the way it will flutter and bang up against the same light over and over again. What is it trying to do or get, anyway? And why is “The Moth” storytelling show called “The Moth”? This, my friends, is what we call free associating.

I had a great therapist back in Burlington. Well, I had a few great therapists back in Burlington, but the one I am thinking of now was actually an analyst, with a couch for lying on facing away from her and everything. After my initial self-consciousness faded, I loved it. I loved her disembodied voice behind me, and how I could lie down there and just start sobbing, or be quiet for a long time. I loved how we unraveled some things that have remained deeply instructive to me, some fundamental ways of relating to myself and life that I came to see, during that year or so, I no longer needed.

Free associating has its benefits.

Friends with benefits, for example, is the next thought I have. The woman I launched into relationship with when I first came out — we tried that for a while, as a way of tempering the fact that being in a capital-R Relationship kept not working, but on the other hand we couldn’t seem to stay away from each other, either. But it was too murky for me, that territory. Turns out I didn’t much want to have sex with my friends — and that she and I weren’t really friends at all.

Stretched out on Jeanne P.’s couch is where I began to understand that I was deeply conditioned to look inward. All my life, I’d had the sensation that my internal landscape was something of a kaleidoscope; you could look and look and look and get lost in there, always more hidden, more to seek, and an inherent sense of something being missing. In a way, this was my safest place. I could maintain a focus on relationships with other people, but at the end of the day, I was alone with myself. Life with someone else, truly being seen and met and known, felt wistfully impossible.

It’s no coincidence that one of the poems I related most to was Emily Dickinson’s #640, which begins:

I cannot live with You –
It would be Life –
And Life is over there –
Behind the Shelf

The Sexton keeps the Key to –

I wanted more than anything to be alone, or so I thought.

I still love being alone. As I write this, my wife is sitting across the room. Her back is to me; she’s at her computer, too. We are in the same room, breathing the same air. The kids are at my sister’s house with their dad, celebrating the Jewish new year with a potluck feast. I got sick this week and had to forego services and gatherings.

Our third anniversary is in six days, though we’ve been an item for closer to six years. In those six years, I have learned how to maintain my relationship with myself AND to wholly give myself to another. To get to have room for my needs, my experience, my desire, and my emotions AND be present for hers. That these aren’t mutually exclusive was a learning curve for me.

Bottom line: We all have real lives. There is no greener grass. And for the first time perhaps ever, I am not locked up inside of myself but rather right here. I’m free associating and giving myself permission — to to write, to free associate, to ramble, to see what happens when I explore the connections between things without an agenda. Permission is cool that way, isn’t it? And even cooler is that we get to give it to ourselves. Thanks, self!

Much of my writing about my kids these days happens behind closed doors, i.e. in secret spaces where I can write freely about my experiences as a parent without risking my kids’ trust or betraying their privacy. It’s such a huge part of life, and yet not one I write terribly much about publicly at this point. I know this is true for many women who started out blogging years ago when our little ones were, in fact, little. Now, they are not little. They are big. They are 11 and nearly 15, and there is plenty I know I don’t know about their complex inner lives and their day-to-day experiences. I try to be present to and available for them without hovering or smothering, though the latter can be a challenge for this Jewish mama who favors hugs and sharing.

See? That was a complete non sequitur. The inevitable has happened: I don’t know what I’m writing about. Kind of like towards the end of the therapy session when you can’t quite track how you got here, what you came in thinking about. I stand up and pop my sternum — it’s sore from so much sneezing and coughing over the past couple of days, but I’m on the mend.

I’m getting hungry. I glance at the clock. There is no billable hour here, no astronomical fee, and no analyst sitting behind me taking notes, nodding, occasionally making an observation or asking an insightful question. There is just me and the sound of the keys and the quiet in the room and the acceptance that this is it. This is not only what I said I wanted — it’s actually what I want.

zoltan-tasi-273195

The Days of Awe: Time to Return

Image: Mark Hearld

It’s the last day of the Jewish year. This is the time of year when Jews practice what’s called t’shuvah (Hebrew: תשובה‎‎), which literally means return. It’s usually translated as repentance, but honestly that never resonates with me. The idea of returning, however — turning back towards what’s important, what’s true, even what some of us may consider sacred — this is a beautiful practice.

Take some time today to write about returning.

It may be something specific in yourself or your life that you’re ready to return to, or a more general reorientaton on your writing + life path. Whatever comes to mind, trust that. Don’t overthink it — just start and keep going and let it be a kind of meditation, knowing the words will lead you exactly in the right direction.

Surely there have been times in the past year when I fell down on my intentions, got sideswiped by the two-sided sword of self-doubt and self-importance, and otherwise distracted from what was right in front of me. I dreamed last night that I had a hurtful fight with someone I love; I wonder if it was my subconscious reminding me these the Days of Awe are for making amends, for saying, I’m sorry. For sitting fully with the fullness of our experience and honest evaluation of what needs to fall away.

I made mistakes knowingly and unknowingly. I stumbled, tripped, and got back up again. I caused pain without meaning to, and for this, too, I must hold myself accountable. And in the coming months, in the new year, I know I will be imperfect as I continue to feel my way on this path of right livelihood, of marriage and mothering, of sisterhood and friendship, and of resistance and communal responsibility.

I come here today not only with a writing prompt, but to ask your forgiveness for ways in which I have let you down, or may disappoint in the future.

If my life is a prayer, I hope it’s one that aspires to the mountaintop but loves the overgrown trail, too. I hope it’s as clear and present on the difficult terrain as the parts that are well-tended. Whether weary or energized, may I remain aware that my thoughts, words, choices, and actions all affect others, as well as to remember that I am but a speck of stardust in the unfathomable grasp of creation.

I don’t know if I’ll make it to services tonight, as I’m working in bed with what has turned into a nasty cold and I sure wouldn’t want to sit next to me at the moment. I realized yesterday that I often come down with something in September; it’s as if my body knows it’s time to slow all the way down, to nourish and take stock in ways that require a degree of stillness. Stillness feels like a luxury item in this season of my life — which is all the more reason to make room for it.

There are knots in my shoulders and knots in my heart; some will loosen easily while I may work to undo others for the rest of my life. As it’s written in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers): “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Every year, every day, every moment is an opportunity to return. During the Days of Awe — between the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when it’s believed that the Book of Life lies open — this work is more densely concentrated.

These ten days always carry for me a quality of intense exposure. I do my best not to hide, not to mask, not to dodge and duck what’s true. Instead, to sit and say, Hineni — I am here. To take my seat in the sanctuary and reflect on what it means to live a life of authenticity, integrity, and meaning.

The birds are going particularly crazy right now; I hear them out the window behind me and see them through the windows across the room, darting in and out of the still-green branches. I am, in a very literal sense, surrounded by the song of returning. And there’s an urgency to their movements and sounds, starlings like jet-black barometers of the changing season, as if they, too, are congregating.

Whether you’re Jewish or not, in the spirit of the holiday that begins tonight at sundown: May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year. May your days be filled with sweetness, health, and creative juices. May justice prevail and may we dismantle oppressive systems that rely on greed, ignorance, racism, and a disdain for the poorest among us. May we have the wisdom to turn inward to face our own limitations rather than lashing out in accusation or judgment. May we be fierce in our self-love as a force for loving others, and may we place our respect for life, for the planet, and for humanity above our own material wants and desires. May we be part of repairing what’s rent and healing what’s broken.

L’shana tova. 

zoltan-tasi-273195

Big Y, Tuesday at 9:00pm

I went to replace a gallon of bad milk and return a bag of mealy peaches, plus we needed potatoes. The cashier, who couldn’t have been older than 16, admired my tattoo and asked me first what the Hebrew meant and then what *that* meant to me.

I told him “Aya” means hawk and is one of my wife’s Hebrew names. He went on to tell me that he’d have to think long and hard about getting ink, and I told him that had been the case for me, too. Then I asked if he had any ideas.

“Well,” he said, “I had a brother who I never met because he was strangled by his umbilical cord, so I always thought maybe I’d do something about that.”

“Did he have a name?” I asked. “BJ,” he told me. “My parents just called him BJ.”

Then the bagger, also of high-school age, chimed in. She gestured to her back and told us about the Banksy image she imagined spreading across her left shoulder blade– the butterfly girl. “Suicide has been a big part of my life the last few years,” she said. “And I’m a writer so I love defiance and symbolism.”

When I mentioned that I was also a writer, she brightened and told me she is a published poet and takes workshops with a local group for teen writers. She looked so proud.

I left the store with milk, potatoes, and a reminder that all of us carry so many stories, whether they’re visible to the outside world or not.

zoltan-tasi-273195

9/11, My Biological Clock, and Healing a Broken World

Just a few weeks before September 11, 2001,

I’d come home from an evening class, put my arms around my then-husband’s waist — we’ll call him Bryce — and said: “It’s time.” I meant time to start trying to conceive our first child. We’d been married just shy of two years, I was 27 and he was 35, and my clock was definitely starting to tick.

We had moved to Burlington, Vermont about a year and a half earlier and bought an adorable duplex downtown, back when housing in the Champlain Valley was still reasonably affordable on two modest full-time incomes. And while he had some fears about becoming a father, we knew from early in our relationship we wanted a family. I was the director of a Jewish student group at the University of Vermont, and he was newly self-employed, doing work related to renewable energy. The Master of Fine Arts degrees we’d each earned in creative writing sat untouched, his rolled up and mine framed, both collecting dust as we went out the business of figuring out how to support ourselves and make a life.

That day in late August as I walked down Maple Street from the tiny yoga studio on South Union, the light on Lake Champlain looked not unlike the way I’d imagined the light people describe who’ve after near-death experiences. It didn’t just reflect on the water; it seemed to be the water itself, consuming, warm, and white. I heard a voice, the inaudible kind that’s hard to explain to other people: “I will be your teacher,” it said. And I knew right away what, if not who, it was: The child who was ready to be ours.

Students returned for the fall semester and my work at UVM kicked back up into high gear. As the Hillel director, a significant part of my job was to organize high holiday services on campus. We borrowed a Torah from a local synagogue and I made Xerox copies of services into welcoming booklets.

At 27, I was barely a decade older at most than the students I was leading, but I took my role as a leader and mentor seriously and wanted to create a spiritual and meaningful container for us to come together during this sacred time of year. I’d even bought a special outfit for the High Holidays: A silky tank and peach-colored skirt, run through with deep orange stitchwork and tiny mirror-like beads. Wearing it, I felt professional. Like a real grown-up. Like what I imagined a woman and a wife and someone ready to become a mother. must feel like.

On the morning of September 11, I drove to Cherry Street to pick up my newly pressed outfit. The sky was a piercing blue, the kind that makes you want to sing out loud, burst into tears, and talk to strangers on the street — all at the same time. I parked at a meter, crossed the street, and jingled the door as I entered the small dry cleaner’s. A woman behind the counter and a customer were talking and looking up at the small TV screen hanging in the corner of the room. “What’s happening?” I asked. “Something about a plane crash in New York,” one of them said. I felt a wave of concern, though neither of them seemed particularly worried. I collected my clothes, paid, and rushed to turn on the car radio. I started to realize that this was something. Something big.

I sped home and yelled for Bryce to turn on the TV. The previous owners had never disconnected their cable, a fact that had allowed us to enjoy West Wing. ER, and Friends each week on their respective nights. We sat down on the couch, the first “real” piece of furniture we’d bought together. One of the Twin Towers was on fire. I burst into tears, trying to get a handle on what was happening. As we watched, mouths agape, a plane flew directly into the second tower.

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” I repeated, the shock of what we were witnessing coursing through my veins. I felt convinced I knew hundreds of people at the scene even though it would turn out just a few people I knew were downtown that day. My roots as a New York Jew were three generations deep; I’d gone to college uptown but ventured below 14th Street often for a homecooked meal at an aunt and uncle’s loft in Tribeca. I had taken many walks to Battery Park with my aunt Nancy, who had died in a 1998 plane crash. I remember being grateful that she wasn’t there, to witness what was now happening.

The terror of that morning together with my position as a campus leader gave me a sense of purpose; after making shocked calls to a handful of close friends and family members, I reached out to some students and put out the call that the Hillel office would be open that evening for anyone who wanted to come be in each other’s company. There was no comfort to give, but being together felt urgent, like something to cling to.  Rosh Hashanah began just five days later, and Yom Kippur ten days after that. Reciting the Unetanah Tokef prayer, described as “a religious poem that is meant to strike fear in us,” took on an extraordinary and chilling depth of meaning that year.

A few weeks later, Bryce and I marked our second anniversary at a resort in Stowe. A colleague of his had won a free night and for some reason offered it to us. Not ones to splurge, we took advantage of the opportunity to do something special. I was still deeply shaken by the events of September 11 — and to say I was still feeling ready to make a baby would be an understatement. We had a long talk about the kind of world we’d be bringing a new life into: An already over-populated world, groaning under the weight of its inhabitants, suffering from climate change, and apparently teeming with people who wanted to kill us.

On the drive back to Burlington — October 7 — I turned on the radio and heard that we had just bombed Afghanistan. We were at war.  The tears kept coming, life went on, and I was undeterred in my need to start a family. Though it took a few more months, we conceived the person who would become our daughter sometime around my 28th birthday, in January of 2002. I knew it wasn’t a good time in the world to have a child, but I also knew that it never would be. My logic wasn’t logic at all; it was intuition, trust, and all kinds of things that fly in the face of reason.

A year after that night in the kitchen and that horrific nightmare of a September day, I was in my third trimester and “all belly” as my OB-Gyn friend and unofficial doctor affectionately said. The extra 30 pounds showed up on my petite frame in a perfectly spherical shape — a basketball that everyone insisted meant I was carrying a boy. I was lucky in that I’d had a relatively easy and altogether healthy pregnancy, and now that our baby’s October 8 due date was approaching, the realness that a new human would be coming to live in our house was beginning to really sink in.

My nesting impulse was off the hook, manifested in immaculate cupboards, organized bookshelves, and happy houseplants, not to mention the glider I’d received from the grandparents that sat by the front window. I imagined myself spending hours there nursing, and felt my pulse quicken. I couldn’t wait to meet this person I’d sung and written to for nearly nine months. No matter what kind of world we lived in, I believed with all my heart that it would be better with them in it.

Aviva Lou was born on October 10, 2002, just over a year after that terrifying September day. We brought her to rallies and marches against climate change and racial injustice, but she wasn’t much interested in politics or the environment, preferring as she grew and showed us who she was to sing her heart out, read books, and write stories. But something happened while we were busy caring, changing, and witnessing so many more global and national tragedies: It was as if she’d been soaking everything in all that time, and suddenly she began to find her own voice, her own passion, her own devotion to tikkun olam — repairing the world.

Very little is the same as it was 16 years ago. A second child, Pearl, joined us in 2006. My marriage to Bryce ended was I was 36; four years later, I married the woman of my dreams. The world — and our country’s role in its swift deterioration — has continued to stun, anger, and awaken us on a daily basis.

The privilege of just “getting on with life” is no longer an option and really never should’ve been. And these kids — these babies who were then barely here and are now in high school — they’ve inherited an unbearable burden that they must transform into opportunity: To live in a time when remembering days like 9/11 is critical, but no more so than looking at the world each and every day as a place in desperate need of truth, beauty, and justice.