Real Life

The Impulse to Know Each Other’s Stories

April 15, 2017


On Thursday evening, I drove over the Notch to pick my daughter up from rehearsal a couple of towns over. For a couple of miles, the car behind me was so close on my tail I thought it was going to hit me. I could see the drive in the rear view mirror; he looked liked he might have been bopping out to some tunes.

At one point, he fell back, and I felt relieved — until I saw his crossing the yellow line. I had no way of knowing if he was drunk or high or just totally distracted. All I knew was that he then sped up and was right on my tail again, showing zero signs of slowing down.

“911. What’s your emergency?” I pushed away the thought that I was overreacting and told the operator that an extremely erratic driver was behind me and I didn’t feel safe. She asked if he was being aggressive towards me. I told her I didn’t think so. I managed to read his plate  number backwards in my mirror, trying not to make it obvious that I was looking at his car as I spoke the letters and numbers into the receiver.

The operator connected me to the local police, who asked me for my name and the make and model of my vehicle. I supplied this information and about a mile later, I turned right while the car in question continued straight.

I wondering what would happen if they pulled this guy over. Was he intoxicated or high? Would he know it was me who’d made the call? I felt a rush of fear, fear I knew was unfounded. But adrenaline serves a purpose in small doses and appropriate situations, and I allowed myself a few minutes in the school parking lot to calm myself before Aviva came walking towards the car. I will admit that I Googled the license plate number, thought honestly I can’t say why I bothered or what I thought I would find. Maybe there was an impulse to know who this guy was.

I always want to know people’s stories.

This morning, I finally stopped by the Hospice Shop to donate the bags of clothes I’ve been hauling around for weeks. It was just warm enough as the sun rose higher in the sky to be to go to the free vacuums on Route 9, and believe me, the inside of our car needed a once over. At one point, my vacuum seemed clogged and I asked the guy next to me if I could use the one closer to his minivan, which he was detailing. No problem, he said. He had tunes pumping from inside the car. He didn’t look like the minivan type.

I wondered about his life. I wondered who he voted for in November.

Later, at Trader Joe’s after a short run on the bike path behind the mall, I asked the cashier how her day was going. She said she couldn’t complain, since she has a short shift tomorrow. “Oh, right — Easter! I forgot,” I told her, “since I don’t celebrate it myself.” After she finished bagging up my stuff and I paid, she wished me a good weekend, “not celebrating Easter.” Then she added, “but maybe celebrating Passover.” For a second, I wondered how she knew I was Jewish, but before I could say a word, she pointed at the Hebrew letters inked on my left arm. “Thanks — take care,” I said.

I wondered about her life. Her eyes were deep-set and sad.

We encounter each other in so many ways. Every day, encounters close and distant have the potential to change our lives. Mostly, they don’t, at least not in big, obvious, dramatic ways. But I keep thinking about that driver. The woman whose eyes met mine for a millisecond while I sat inside Starbucks yesterday and she walked down the ramp. Faster than fleeting. Unmemorable, mostly.

And yet — all the time, we are meeting eyes, gauging what feels safe, deciding where to connect and where to stay in our own sphere. So much plays into this: Prejudice of all kinds, assumptions that may be wildly false, instincts that defy cognition. Often all of this plays out so quickly and subconsciously that our actions are reflexive.

I’m not sure what my point is. Something about developing the wherewithal to see myself and choose with awareness how I interact — or don’t interact — with the world as I encounter it. Something about separateness and connection, choice and force. These play out every single day in so many minuscule ways, and also every single day in so many global, unfathomable ways.

Knowing where we are — both physically in our bodies, in the very vehicles that carry us through space, and also in terms of the beliefs and biases we bring to every single interaction — can make such a difference in what kind of energy we bring to the world. More often than not, we won’t actually stop and get to know each other’s stories. But all of this has me thinking about what would change if we did.

Real Life

There Is No Perfect Life

April 12, 2017

There is no perfect life.

There is no perfect marriage. There is no perfect family. There is no perfect job. There is no perfect health. There is no perfect house. There is no perfect child. There is no perfect partner. There is no perfect balance.

There is no perfect life.

There are bumps at best and chasms at worst. There are chasms that turn out to be blessings and bumps that bring on irrevocable damage. There are days when you think everything is impossible and you’ve really done it now, the ship is headed for an iceberg and you can’t turn it around. There are days when things are swimming and humming and you’d wear a Life Is Good hat if you had one. There are days when you fall in love with everyone you meet. And there are days when you wonder how it happened that harmony seems so far-flung, so impossible to grasp, that all you can do is cry at the sink.

There is no perfect kitchen. There is no perfect parenting. There is no perfect upbringing. There is no perfect friendship. There is no perfect life.

There are perfect songs, though. There are perfect avocados — for about 20 minutes. There are perfectly beautiful birds and oh, you envy the birds sometimes. This morning, there was a mockingbird on a roll right outside the bedroom window. And you thought to yourself, “a mockingbird on a roll,” and pictured a cartoon of a waiter serving a mockingbird on a roll on a silver tray. Your brain does that.

There is no perfect brain. There is no perfect nervous system. There is no perfect breath. Breathe just breathes. Birds just bird. What if life just lives?

It’s hard to accept imperfection, especially where there is dissonance or discord, when the various people under a shared roof aren’t humming in perfect harmony. There is no perfect harmony. Except damnit, there is and you’ve heard it and you could spend your life trying to replicate it but then you will miss all the other perfect moments that come and go as quietly as all the breaths you don’t notice throughout the day.

Here’s the thing: You can’t fix it, whatever it is, whatever that narrow place, that rock, that hard place, that difficult emotion, that situation that can seem intractable sometimes. You want everyone to be happy and we know how that story goes and never has a happy ending. There is no perfect story. There is no happy ending. There are happy moments.

Where were you all that time you thought you were practicing being present? Some questions have no answers. There is no perfect question that will bring forth the perfect answer as if a wish from a bottle washed up on shore with instructions. There is no perfect book that will serve as a perfect manual. You will get this all wrong ten thousand times and ten thousand more.

And you will still be loved.

You will still be loved.

You will not fall off the edge of the planet. You will disappoint people. You will let down the ones who need you most. You will say the wrong thing. There is no perfect response. There is no perfect outcome. There is this moment. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

And yet in the moment, in the moment when you think to yourself, “I am having a moment,” it’s not simple at all. It’s a storm and you are tossed all about and you know it well but still think this one’s different, this is the one that takes everything down with it.

And then it’s over and the house is still standing and you still love the people you love and they still love you and another day is passing, a day we’ll never get back, a day some people would do anything to have just one more of with the one they love and miss and lost.

You don’t want to lose the people you love. That’s what it all comes down to. There is no perfect way to say this: We will all lose in the end. Every single one of us. How we will live is the only question. And so you said to her, “There are the things we can change, and there are the things we can’t change. What we do with that is everything.”

There is no perfect teacher. There is no perfect program or class or course of action. There is only showing up as honestly as you can. There is moving through the moment and there is resistance and there is fear and there is distance and there is intimacy and there are countless things happening in any given moment. Energy bounces and we absorb and reflect and refract and distort and shine and obscure. It all happens, sometimes simultaneously, too much too fast and you can’t catch it and then later, you look and see how you contributed. You cut yourself some slack, which is better than the alternative.

Breathe.

Write.

Jewish Life

Take Off Your Shoes: Rachel Naomi Remen and Passover Blessings

April 10, 2017

Originally published on April 8, 2009.
** 

Jordan Whitt

Unknowable questions are on sale today at Price Chopper, right there next to the kosher-for-passover marshmellows. There is a confluence of ingredients here, cleaning out the pantry, feeling the gentle pressure on the top of my head of a living god dancing. Where once mastery was the goal, now it is mystery that overflows from the shelves.

What exactly am I talking about, you ask? I’m not sure yet, but I’m hoping to find out.

**

We went to hear Rachel Naomi Remen speak two nights ago. One of her books, My Grandfather’s Blessings, sits in duplicate on the bookshelf next to my desk here; two close friends have given it to me unbeknownst to each other over the past few years. When I began writing here about some of the longing and angst, the searching and seeking and finding home having to do with my Jewish journey, it is the book I read in three hours flat. And here it is, signed now by Rachel herself. “I’m a writer,” I stammered, second in line after the applause ended and the lights went up. “May your words shine!” she wrote.

She is an incredible storyteller. She also became a physician at a time when there was no place, no right, scarcely even the thought, to acknowledge the sacred and mysterious aspects of illness, of healing, of death. She spoke of creating space for this, quoting from Jewish sources here and there: Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground. No, not holy ground over there, not in the holy land, not in the temple or the church, the labyrinth or the sanctuary, but here, right here on your bathroom mat, in your oldest robe. Right here, in the kitchen where you spend so many of your waking hours, feeding and taking care. Right here, holy, as you weigh yourself or rush to work, late again, trying not to yell at your kids. Right here, it is holy ground. Take off your shoes.

“We have traded mystery for mastery,” she said. “All of our beliefs are provisional, and life may be quite different than what we presumed it to be.” Surely it’s no coincidence that these words are so similar to the ones I quoted from Joseph Campbell recently: “We must be willing to get rid of the life we planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” She described meeting Campbell at Esalen in the early 70s; she was part of a group of medical doctors at the frontier of exploring mind-body connections, at a time when “holistic medicine” didn’t exist yet in the West. (There she and her colleagues were on their first evening there, sitting down to dinner in their suits and twinsets (she was the only woman), only to realize that half of their dinner companions were stark naked!) Anyway, Campbell went on to show a slideshow of sacred images and icons, including a life-sized projection of Shiva, who is dancing on the head of a little man. The little man is so caught up in examining a leaf, so intent on the physical world, so myopic really, that he doesn’t realize that the living god is dancing on his back. The doctors were humbled.

And we, the listeners Monday night, all saw ourselves I think, saw all the ways in which we miss it, miss the mystery and the magic that is happening all around us, right this very minute, right at our feet and on our heads. How our bottomless searching, striving, aspiring, consuming, improving and proving is all provisional. How we carry around such small beliefs about ourselves and about the world that limit what we see, how we see.

**

I want to see, to stand here, to sit, with enough stillness that the constant swirl of information and input can whirl around me without me spinning like a top. I want to open my eyes, like I did this morning after a ridiculous and particularly failed episode of parenting, when I sat down on the floor cross-legged, across from Aviva, took a couple of breaths, then spoke to her in such a hushed voice she was startled into listening. This led to a hug, and I decided to learn something from the botched morning rather than beating myself (or her) up about it.

Mystery demands nothing but our very presence, nothing but that we show up, recognizing where ego has become a fortress, acknowledging the answers we’re so attached to, the unknown simultaneously a source of fear and relief. It is mastery that enslaves us, for there is no there there – you just keep striving, trying harder, working towards, setting more goals, never really stopping to take off your shoes and stand on the holy ground of being exactly as you are, where you are, with whatever questions or answers might be flying about.

**

Passover begins tonight. Oy, how the Jewish holidays are still so fraught for me, such a mish-mash of connection and rejection. And I’m done. I’m just done. Not done finding my way, but done with the struggle. I went back yesterday and re-read an article I linked to this time last year. I appreciated its call to discover our own meaning in the holiday and its symbols, and have decided to give myself permission to experience the holiday in my own way, without the worrying about _____ and ______ and _____ (what goes in these blanks doesn’t matter one bit).

What am I enslaved to? Mastery, maybe, or at least the pursuit thereof. What can I give up, let go of, clear out of my mind/heart/house/life? The need to know. The unwinnable attempts to control, consciously or not, everything and everyone. The habit of being SO overwhelmed, SO busy, SO many moving parts. The attachment to drama, to story.

What will be my nourishment in this time, my simple source of sustenance, my matzo? Stillness comes. Not trying to change my thoughts, but simply letting them happen without having to be so invested in them, what they mean, where they’re from, where they lead. Just let them be, the voice says. The voice of the Universe, that ultimate source of mystery and comfort. Let them be and be still. And then you will be free.

I want to wrap this up neatly, something about the dance, about Shiva and Miriam and the women, the Red Sea parting, about making our way to freedom individually and collectively. But that’s not what this is, a sermon or a package. It is a practice, a waking up, and opening of eyes, an offering. The answers change from year to year, but the questions remain, and our task is to ask them. The questions are gateways.

**

May this season liberate you from whatever personal Egypt (Mitzrayim in Hebrew means “the narrow place”) enslaves you. May this season bring us all to freedom, to greater seeing. Now let’s take off our shoes and dance together on this holy ground.

Real Life

The Man Who Spoke Too Soon

April 7, 2017

Just when I think I’ve learned the art of the pause, of waiting before speaking, of being all tuned in and blissed out. Just when I’m taking a walk in the rain and the rain’s picking up and I’m singing out loud — I have found a way to live / in the presence of the lord — and finding my stride. Just when I am taking some credit for my own hard work, knowing that it’s not dumb luck that has landed me in love and livelihood. Just when I’m giving thanks for smooth sailing and an iota of awareness. Just when I’ve moved from stagnant to sweat, from heavy load to lightning pace, from struggle to ease, from doubt to devotion.

Just then, the phone rings. The familiar voice on the other end asks me a question. I answer “yes” without thinking, though my body tells a different story, a hard-won story, a story of loving boundaries and fought-for clarity. I have betrayed my own knowing again.

I return to the song, the chanting, my voice merging with the rain, which is coming down hard now, hard enough that I cut through the woods from street to field, bare prickly branches grabbing at my wet pants as I make my way where there is no trail to open ground. Mind is on the loose, a poorly trained dog who won’t come when I call it home. I call my beloved, who is finding her own ways of living in the presence of that which has so many names and only one name, always the one. She says it is not dumb luck.

I tell her I forgot to pause. Old injuries — fears, stories — came rushing back, like rivers you can tame but take years to dam up all the way, and with them my mouth opened and words came out I didn’t mean. You can’t put them back.

I remember the Yiddish tale I once told to a group of students who had been careless and hurtful with words. A rabbi tells a boy to cut open all of the pillows in the village. This sounds like a fun assignment, one the boy readily agrees to and carries out with gusto. Before long, thousands of feathers float all over the little town. He goes back to the rabbi, greedy for praise.

But there is a second part to his mission: Now he must go and collect all the feathers and return them to their containers. The boy’s face falls and his heart sinks and his soul grows limp. “But rabbi,” he cries. “It is impossible.” He has learned his lesson. Until the next time, when he forgets its toll and once again speaks out of turn, too impulsive, not thinking. The pause has gone missing like a sacred bird to some hiding hole.

The rabbi is not easily exasperated. But after many times, he turns to the boy who is now a grown man, a father, a provider, respected in name and deed by his fellow villagers, and asks: “Why are you still throwing feathers all over town?”

The man sits down. He sits and sits and thinks perhaps he will never speak again, though he knows this is nonsense. Finally, he turns his face upwards to his teacher with tears in his eyes. He knows this old man will love him till his beard grows to his toes, far beyond the grave.

“I keep thinking I’ve found a way to live — to live in the presence of the lord. To live without clinging to dead truths or flinging feathers to the four winds. I keep thinking I’ve found a way to live that waters peace in my heart the way the rain waters our crops and sustains life. I keep thinking…” Now the man is crying. He has no more words.

The rabbi takes the man’s face in his hands and looks him in the eyes. In this moment, a bird lands on the sill beside them. It is not a special-looking bird, but an ordinary one, the kind that collect by the dozens in the treetops at dusk.

“The smallest birds make the biggest racket,” says the rabbi. He then kisses the man’s forehead, holds out a finger, and stays very still until the bird hops from the open window to his hand. Then he leaves the man to sit alone. “You cannot fix this,” he says, turning back once before closing the door. “But you can sit still.”

The man nods, and begins to sing once again, his voice a bit fuller, a bit deeper. And if you listen very closely, you will hear the honesty in his heart, slipping out like so many feathers.

Shabbat Shalom.

Real Life

Mindfulness, Mad Milk, and Running Low on Dream

April 4, 2017

I look around the room, as if it’s going to tell me what to write. The dryer is spinning in the small pantry attached to our kitchen; my back is to the fridge and I’m facing a wall that’s painted a southwestern red, with lots of irregularities beneath the paint. To my left, my calendar sits open, with appointments scattered throughout the days in three different colors of pen — not by design but as a result of whether black, blue, or purple was closest by at any given moment. Just beyond that is a 90-page manuscript I’ve had the privilege of reading twice now, once last fall and a revised copy just recently; I have a call with the author in a couple of weeks to discuss her edits. To my right is my unlined notebook, the kind with the blue cover that I replace every couple of months at Hastings, the local stationery store that special orders them. The face-up page is divided into boxes — six for various writing groups and a couple more for other to-dos. Mani just informed me that the milk is bad and we’re almost out of cream — though with typos before I just fixed them, that read “the milk is mad and we’re almost out of dream,” which one could argue is how some poems and new ideas are born.

I used to blog this way, a long time ago. I’d sit down and just write. Sure, sometimes I’d have a thing I wanted to write about — a moment or collection of moments from my day that were swirling around my head, seeking some semblance of synthesis and accidental alliteration. These days, not so much. Maybe it’s because I do so many short freewrites in my groups, or frequently write little bits on Facebook; these are definitely factors. I could say it’s because I’m busy, but HAHAHAHA. When wasn’t that true and who among us couldn’t claim as much? Really, it’s not useful. Just say you chose not to make time write; there is always ten minutes, especially if you are willing to write something that may not amount to anything.

Today was a day of adulting: Parent-teacher conferences, conversations with my kids’ dad about various kid things, when the separateness of our parenting collides with the “co” part of it to which we’re both committed. Pulling together tax-related documents for a state audit notice that came in yesterday’s mail. I even walked to town to the copy store before remembering that our printer doubles as a copy machine! Um. Brain?

Around 3:45pm, I crawled under the cozy covers for a short nap. After thinking I would never fall asleep, I must have crashed hard, because when the alarm sounded, not only was I in a deep sleep, but I also had that strange sensation of time have shifted somehow, as if the earlier part of the day was long ago, like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. I noticed my mind doing some obsessive-leaning theatrics reminiscent of some of my most reptilian tendencies, and managed to share with Mani some of my thoughts as a way of not letting them work me up or take m down.

Then I got up and confronted the kitchen sink, which over the course of the day’s meals had piled high with dishes, a daily result of not having a dishwasher + neither of us leaving the house for work. I sudsed up a sponge and adjusted the water temperature to where it was just hot enough not to scald my bare hands, and washed. Dish by dish, just like Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Peace Is Every Step, the very first book about mindfulness I ever encountered and read, back in my senior year of college. That was 22 years ago. I am very much still practicing and very much still failing and very much still growing and very much still human and alive — all of which is ultimate very, very good news. I’m alive!

And oh man. Life, yo. It keeps being interesting, that’s for sure. And after listening to wrenching news this morning as I wound my way over the Notch — the tiny mountain pass between Amherst and South Hadley — about the chemical attack in Syria, I see that what I might label as stressful or challenging is real but also needs to be held in perspective. Comparing lives is not useful, but awareness is one of the sources, for me, of compassion. When I lose track of myself by getting tangled up in the nets of what I can’t control, I’m of no use really to anyone. But one thing I really appreciated and needed to hear this afternoon was this: “That is a lot.” Mani said these words, or some version of them, and I felt the tears spring just for a moment then to my eyes. I didn’t need a big heaving cry, only just that acknowledgment. Someone to say, “Hey, it’s ok. You’re allowed to feel overwhelmed.”

Making the space for it helped me move through it.

I dreamed last night that a man I worked with was working, it turned out, three days a week, but getting paid the same as if he was working five days. I was furious and there was nothing I could do about it. From a Jungian perspective, if I am all the people in the dream, then maybe I feel like I’m working way more than I’m being compensated for. Welcome to motherhood. That is the nature of the beast, and a beautiful beast it is. One I give thanks for every day, no less so when we’re bushwhacking through all kinds of uncharted jungle with a hand-held machete. Turns out there are some pretty stellar guides who are familiar with these jungles, and while no one else has answers, I am not alone, and neither are my kiddos. This is comfort and courage alike.

And this, I remember as I wrap up — must go to the store now before it gets much later — is why I used to blog this way, dropping into the moment without a clue as to what would come out. Practicing writing is how I navigate through these days of mad milk and stocking up on dreams.

ESL

No Mud, No Lotus

April 3, 2017

Our conversations start out at the counter, where we order drinks. Something inevitably comes out that lends itself to a language lesson… this time, it was “lemonade.” Luping is determined to order something different each week, and she decided to try one of the fancy-schmancy Starbucks iced teas.

Peach or mango? White or black or green? And last but not least, what is lemonade? I asked her if she knew what a lemon was, making a sour face. Yes, she nodded enthusiastically. Add water and sugar — a lot of sugar, the cashier added — and you get lemonade. Ah! Understood. Mango black tea lemonade ordered.

Our conversations zig-zag all over the place. I don’t know who delights more in it, and perhaps part of the pleasure of this weekly hour is that the enjoyment is so mutual. At one point — and honestly, I’d have to take notes to remember how things like this come up — I was trying to describe cilantro to her, without cheating and looking up the Chinese character on Google. A college student who was sitting one table over and getting up to gather her things chimed in.

“Hey! I think I know that! I have had exactly this same conversation!”

“About how to say ‘cilantro’ in Chinese?” I asked, a little incredulously.

“Yeah, I tutor grad students at UMass and one of them is from China. We were just talking about cilantro the other day.” What were the odds? I told her that’s what we were doing. She asked if it was through UMass and I said no, through the Jones Library Volunteer Program. She was friendly and just on this side of pushy.

“You should look into getting a tutor through UMass,” she said to Luping. “Depending on your TOEFL scores, it’s free.”

Luping looked slightly unclear and I repeated what the student had told her. Then she gestured in my direction and said, “But I like her!” At that, all three of us laughed and the young woman left. Luping and I continued our conversation, meandering this and that way. We wound up talking about her village in China, which she told me has been ranked the second prettiest town in the entire country. It is surrounded by small rivers and every single family has a field for growing vegetables.

In the mornings, people boat over to their field to pick vegetables for that day. “Your green peppers,” she told me, “they are very big. But they have no flavor.”

Her parents both work in the hospital and don’t have time to go to the field each morning, so when she lived at home, she would wake up in the morning and find a basket filled with vegetables by the door, not knowing which relative or neighbor had picked extra and left it for her family.

Nearby, there is another town known for its wildflowers and stands of bamboo. We talk about bamboo, and how it is a symbol of integrity and uprightness. To be compared to bamboo is to possess desirable character traits. She says many lotus flowers also grow in the rivers near the fields around her town, which look like tiny islands from above. I ask her if the lotus has much symbolism in China, as it does here in the States. I try to think of the famous Confucius saying about the lotus growing in the mud.

“Oh, yes!” she exclaims. I get out my phone. According to one source, Confucius wrote: “I have a love for the Lotus, while growing in mud it still remains unstained.”

No mud, no lotus. Best. Metaphor. Ever.

But rivers filled with lotus blossoms and summer days that begin by boating to one’s field to pick fresh vegetables? At this point, I am downright romanticizing Luping’s hometown. I’m picturing the aisles of the grocery store — even the ones featuring expensive, brightly colored, organic produce — and lamenting how automated and distant from the land my life is. Sure, I live in a valley surrounded by farms, but my daily existence doesn’t involve paddling a boat or hands in the dirt.

Meanwhile, Luping tells me about the edible lotus seeds and I suggest that she come over to our place someday for tea. “It’s close by?” She asks. I nod and pull the little notebook she keeps out between us for notes to my side of the table so that I can draw a little map.

From Starbucks, one block south, a few blocks west… then I draw her a little diagram of our apartment: Kitchen, living room, three bedrooms, bathroom. “Your house. It’s so big!” I think about the other houses on our street — the old Victorians that dwarf our old yellow farmhouse, which has been divided into two apartments. I wonder how big her house is and make a mental note to ask about this next week.

As our hour comes to a close — I glance at my phone and see that we’ve actually gone over, she looks at me with a more serious expression. “When I am talking with you,” she says, searching for the words, “when I talk with you, I don’t just learn English. I learn about living. You have so much freedom here.”

“What kind of freedom?” I ask.

“Freedom to live the way you want. You can walk to the town from your house and make your work the way you like it.” She knows I am self-employed, and I am always trying to stress that in America, there are so, so many ways of life, and some, if not much, of how one lives life is based on class, education, and other factors. I try to talk about privilege, and find that as a concept, it doesn’t translate easily.

“In China,” she continues, “we go to the university, then we must get a job to support our family and our parents some day when they are old. If you are woman, you will have to go live with your child when they have their own children.”

She sounds wistful. She plans to go back to China next spring. I’ve seen photos of her brand new baby niece, whose precious beauty nearly knocked me off my chair. Her mother will soon go live with her brother — not temporarily, but full-time, forever. She will leave her job as a nurse at the hospital and live a few hours away even from her husband, Luping’s father. Luping basically knows what her future holds. Do I?

So there we were, after another hour of cross-cultural conversation, admiring and perhaps idealizing each other’s cultures. Facebook and Google are both illegal in China. Most Americans don’t know where their tasteless green peppers grew.

I would like to travel to Luping’s village someday, to see the wildflowers and the lotus blossoms and the boats and the bamboo, which is cool to walk amidst on hot summer days. I would like to get up before sunrise to row out to the fields. I would like to see the world and I’d like to share these experiences with my children, too.

I can’t say with any certainty whether these things will ever happen. But for now, I am grateful to have a window into someone else’s world, while offering a glimpse, through language and friendship, into mine. Like two cardinals flashing red on different branches of the same tree, we sit and chirp away. What is mud, what is lotus blossom? Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to see which is which.

First Sentence Interview Series

First Sentence Interview Series: Nancy Stearns Bercaw, Author of “Dryland: One Woman’s Swim to Sobriety”

April 3, 2017

First Sentence is a series featuring a monthly interview with a writer — poets, novelists, essayists, memoirists, as well as those who do not fit into any of these neatly defined genres. Each month gives us a glimpse of a variety of writing approaches, philosophies, habits, quirks, and publishing options.

My guest this month is Nancy Stearns Bercaw, who has written for publications around the world including the New York Times, Huffington Post, Korea Herald, Atlanta Journal Constitution, MariaShriver.com, U.S. News & World Report, and Abu Dhabi’s Tempo Magazine. She is the author of Brain in a Jar: A Daughter’s Journey through Her Father’s Memory. In 2009, Nancy was inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame at the University of South Florida where she swam on scholarship from 1982-1986 and was a 17-time All-American, National Champion and Olympic Trials qualifier. She has coached swimming at James Madison University, New York University, Stevens Tech, and the University of Vermont. Nancy was an invited speaker at The Examined Life Conference at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. She is on the Board of the Vermont Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

You say your forthcoming memoir, Dryland: One Woman’s Swim to Sobriety, took a lifetime to write. When did you realize it was time to write this book?

I should probably say, instead, that it took a lifetime to live. Over the course of my 51 years on Earth, I went from champion swimmer to world traveler to raging alcoholic. I’ve covered a lot of territory in five decades! I’d tried to write my story, including the horrific murder of a friend in Seoul, many times when I was still drinking. Getting sober a few months before I turned 50 gave me a new way to see my life. With that clarity, I was able to dig deeper and more honestly into all that has transpired and my own role in some of the chaos. Turns out that being an alcoholic was the real story, and everything else was a sidebar to the toll of addiction. I had it backwards.

There’s the myth — an over-romanticized one, in my opinion — of the struggling artist. It ties right in with addiction and writing going hand in hand. How did getting sober affect your writing life?

I once feared that I wouldn’t be able to – or want to – write if I weren’t drinking. I used to love drinking wine in bed with my computer on my legs. In fact, the thought of it used to get me through my days – the proverbial carrot on a stick. For the first six months after I quit, I was really scared that all of me was gone: the swimmer evaporated; the traveler lost; the writer dried up. But slowly as came into myself again, the writer emerged as the strongest of all my identities. And, I found that I was writing better, more clearly, and I am now writing about the things that really, really scare me in the world – like living in it without booze. I’ve come to appreciate fear for all the courage that came with it. As a drinker, I held back. Sober, I burst forth. The difference is astonishing.

You’ve lived all over the world. What role does place play in your new book?

Identity and landscape are the key themes in my life and in my writing. How does a place create a people? Who are you when you are elsewhere? As a swimmer in my youth and through college, I always imagined that I was a mermaid and would, therefore, be unable to thrive on land. My fairy tale fantasy came true in many ways. On land – from Kenya to Korea – I poured liquid into my body instead of swimming through water. I used booze as a way to connect with people in foreign ports of call, and to hide from myself. Still I managed to learn a lot about the world in those days and how other people survive their circumstances and/or prevail in their settings. But it wasn’t until I landed in the Arabian Desert that I went dry for good. I know for certain that the Muslim non-drinking culture and the arid setting both played a huge role in that transformation. Thus, the essence of my memoir DRYLAND.

Many unpublished writers get overwhelmed by the business aspects of the writing life — online platforms, publishing, etc. Do you have any advice to navigating this world?

It can be overwhelming that’s for sure. The flip side is that there are a lot more opportunities to publish than ever before. I used to spend so much time sending manuscripts to “big name” magazines and waiting months for a response – usually a rejection letter! These days, I can blog my own stories, and publish on Medium.com, without anyone’s approval or any wait time. And I can do all my own publicity! I still look for new writing opportunities with newspapers, as I am a journalist as well. When I was in the Middle East, working at a university, I read that U.S. News and World Report needed someone to write about Arab campuses. I queried the editor and got an article out of it. The lesson, I think, is find YOUR thing and then find a publication that connects with you. Match your writing identity to the media landscape. Don’t jump into the middle of nowhere.

What’s your take on balancing writing with work and motherhood?

I work full time for the University of Vermont, and have a 12-year-old son with my husband of 20 years. Yet, I was still able to find the time to write a 250-page memoir of my darkest secrets and greatest victory. How? I got up at 4 a.m. every day for six months to write. Those sacred hours before my family awoke, and before the day was underway, were the secret to my success and to my recovery in some ways too. Women still need a room of their own – or a time of their own. But you have to carve it out because no one is going to hand it to you. I fiercely protect my writing schedule, and I say no to a lot of socializing in the evenings. I go to bed at 8 or 9 p.m. to take care of myself and to be ready for my new “happy hour” in the wee hours of the morning.

Who and/or what inspires you on a daily basis?

Existence inspires me. How do people make it through the day when there’s so much with which to contend? How do they escape their suffering? How do they rise above challenges? How am I helped by what I see? How can I help someone? Why are we here, wherever we happen to be on a map or in time? I’ve witnessed so many responses to these questions – whether in Africa, Asia or the Middle East. The answers, in each place, are profound. Therefore, stories abound.

How does the current political climate inform your writing life?

I’m glad you asked this question! One byproduct of the current state of affairs is that people are talking more about the President and politics than art or books. Social media, once a great place to share stories, is now overrun with political commentary and reactions. (And rightly so!) The President is considering cutting funding for the arts but he’s already cut interest in the arts by his mere existence. Sigh. Clearly, though, there’s a lot to write about now. We need writers to deconstruct the status quo AND to give us other things to think about. We need stories – and emotional truth – to inspire, rally, comfort and even distract us. I’m still committed to writing about the global community and how we can rise up in the face of all our troubles whether political or personal. The two are, of course, conjoined in many places – including the United States of America. Compassion – reflected in art – is what makes a country truly great, in my humble opinion.

Enter a Goodreads giveaway of Dryland here!

Read previous First Sentence interviews and see who’s coming up next.

Dive Into Poetry

EVE

March 23, 2017

1.
Back in the garden:
Three stone slabs,
trees bending in close

but not too close.
Ranunculus flowers,
orange blooms.

A bird on a step,
a small creek below.
And beyond that,

an open green space
where my child
was playing.

I was so happy here,
finally home, my own
place, my own garden.

I called the child
to come, let’s follow
the stream.

It led to a street
we drove down,
a wasteland

of failed suburbs
dead-ending
at a concrete wall.

Both of my kids
and I agreed
not to go

that way again,
then turned back
to the garden.

2.
All day, I sat
in one place,
picturing paradise

lost in fatigued
thoughts about
buying and selling

and how lovely
it was to return
to where even

the fruit was free
for the taking.
I wonder now

if this garden
lives within me
or if someday

I will know it
when I see it,
exclaim out loud,

there it is
and make an offer
on the spot

where I was
given my name:
Chava, Eve.

National Poetry Month is right around the corner. Refuel your spirit after a long winter with Dive Into Poetry, a month-long celebration of poetry, April 1-30. Tiered pricing and all welcome!

Real Life

The Perils of Nowherelandia

March 21, 2017

Geetanjal Khanna

I dreamed about a misused apostrophe.

It occurs to me that this is my subconscious way of finding things within my control, when the fact is that most things are not. I can control what I put in my body. I can control what and I how communicate. I can control what thoughts to focus on and which to filter out (easier said than done, but still). I can control getting up out of my green kitchen chair and out into the day.

I can have the illusion of controlling my schedule, kids’ appointments, and future plans. Take that, Oxford comma! I sneaked three things into one neat and tidy sentence there. Illusion, indeed.

I can control whether I am paying attention to the thing I’m doing, whether that is commenting on someone’s writing, listening to my wife when she is talking to me, washing the dishes, taking a walk, reading an article — you name it.

Truth is, much of the time, my attention is spliced and split and splattered. It’s like I’m playing mental Twister much of the time, rather than standing where I am.

The perils of nowherelandia.

On Sunday afternoon, Mani and I went out to get some groceries, but we made a little date of it. Sometimes it’s just nice to get out of the house together, no matter what the reason, and after the recent cold snap, we haven’t been outside as often. On our way to the Starbucks drive-through, she put on the newest music from her iPod — a song by Laura Marling.

We listened quietly for a few minutes, and then I asked her, “Do you think I’m a gentle person?”

I can’t say exactly where this question arose from. But that’s the nature of driving and listening to music — it can induce the kind of beta state where the soul has a chance to come out of one’s mouth in the form of words and questions.

This opened to a deep conversation as we wandered the aisles of Famous Footwear, Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and Whole Foods. A conversation about what makes each of us feel nurtured by the other, and how feeling loved and feeling nurtured are not always identical.

I think people who know me through my writing groups and social media presence feel that I am a deeply nurturing person. And one thing this outing with Mani got me reflecting on is that our interactions with others — be they in person or virtual — are only as genuine as the way we meet and care for those closest to us.

If I am gentler or more generous with people I’ve never even met in real life than the ones under my own roof, who am I?

It is admittedly cringe-inducing for me to honestly acknowledge just how often I don’t put my phone down or lower my laptop screen when my wife or kids are talking to me, or when I’m talking on the phone. Or how often my body is doing one thing but my mind is a million miles away in nowherelandia. I’m increasingly convinced that whatever anxiety or depression I experience has its roots in this place that is no place at all.

Operators are standing by.

Instead or cringing and being hard on myself, I’m trying something different. I’m calling my very own personal AAA 800-number: Kavanah, a Hebrew word meaning “intention” or “sincere feeling, direction of the heart.” It has everything to do with devotion and what gets our full attention.

Benefits of kavanah include acceptance, awareness, and action.  In fact, we all have instant access to this wonderful service: All you have to do is dial in and (your inner) operators are standing by. You were born with a lifetime membership guarantee, and best of all? It’s free (and no, you don’t have to be Jewish to call.)

Acceptance of myself as human. As flawed. As so very susceptible to distraction in its many guises. Acceptance of the inevitability of losing my way. Acceptance that I will stray off the path, stumble in the dark, and let some people down. Acceptance that I have blind spots, and by their very nature, I don’t know what these are.

Awareness of how it makes me and others feel when I’m not fully present. Awareness that my most sacred priorities and deepest values are only as good as my actions. Awareness is like the moment when you see the blind spot, stripping it of its power. The flood of visual or emotional information that may come with this moment can be temporarily overwhelming. Awareness that the overwhelm is temporary.

Action based on these discoveries. Action as a kind of return to self and other. Action is “put your money where your mouth is” and “actions speak louder than words.” Action is making my love a cup of tea, without her asking. It’s following through on the thing I said was so important. It’s listening, all the way. It’s one tab at a time. It’s one dish at a time. It’s one word at a time. It’s awake and evident.

Consider these words from the 12th century Spanish rabbi and philosopher, Maimonides. See what happens when you replace the word “prayer” with awareness, acceptance, and/or action.

“Prayer without kavanah is no prayer at all. He who has prayed without kavanah ought to pray once more. He whose thoughts are wandering or occupied with other things need not pray until he has recovered his mental composure.”

These three As coexist. They tumble through the space-time continuum that is individual consciousness. Sometimes one gets eclipsed by the rush of the day or lost, like a missing sock. But as I sit here writing this morning, what strikes me as miraculous is that we can always come back. Like the writing itself, each of these is a practice and requires commitment and repetition.

Practice, not perfection.

Acceptance is a practice. Awareness is a practice. Action is a practice. (I suppose it would follow that prayer is practice, too, if you like.)

This is the part where perfection tries to hijack the whole damn post. Here it is:

I’m so far from perfect. My life is far from perfect. I have no idea what “perfect” means. The mourning dove on the branch outside my kitchen window is perfect. This moment, for all I know, is perfect. I’m tempted to delete this whole paragraph, since I’m not sure how the stranglehold of perfection factors into this particular conversation. But for the sake of seeing what happens, I’m going to leave it here.

OK, here it is: Perfection ties right back in with that part about cringing. If I get stuck in shame — in other words, fuck, I suck for looking at my phone while Mani is talking to me or while one of my kids is asking me a question — then I’m really not even close to the AAAs. Hanging out in a place of guilt and shame is just another way of being self-absorbed and missing in action. This notion of getting it right as a fixed target has got to die.

It doesn’t feel good to live on autopilot. At some point, life throws cold water in your face and says: WHERE ARE YOU? WAKE UP!

I think it’s possible to experience this reawakening ten thousand times a day. For me, a key question is whether I can bring some gentleness to it. Going through the motions leaves me feeling like a shell of a person, with that vaguely empty feeling in bed at night: Where was I all day? Who was I all day?

Come Back.

As surely as the light of day comes with morning, we all have the face we put on for the world. More than anything, I want to be genuine. The thought of having a “persona” makes me want to go live in a cave. Being honest with myself — without the cringing — is the doorway I must come back to throughout the day.

I can’t control where things go, but I can be intentional about the direction my heart is facing and the orientation of my mind. That’s the bottom line. Come back, come back, come back. Be all the way here, wherever “here” happens to be at any given moment.

Accepting the complexity of this being alive thing, awareness that there are few things I control but taking responsibility for the ones I can, and acting accordingly — this is my kavanah.

What’s yours?

Creative Process The Body

The Blessing of a Bruised Right Buttock

March 18, 2017

My whole body is a bit tweaked from the fall I took two nights ago. The rather magnificent bruise on my right buttock (which turned into quite a fun #rightbuttock joke on Facebook) has deepened into a shocking and marvelous set of purples, and I thought that was that.

But yesterday, my neck started feeling achy and I was nauseous, to boot, enough so that I rescheduled an afternoon client so that I could take an Epsom salt bath and a rest rather than pushing through and pretending to be present. There are few worse and more disrespectful things than pretending to be anything, especially present. I was fine the day after the fall; amazing how these things can both take time to become apparent and creep up on you.

Earlier in the day, I’d listened as a different beloved client 3,000 miles away told me about a moment of sitting in her own tangled places — emotional, personal, professional. The entire call, I’d been watching a huge sheet of ice and snow melt in slow, steady drips just outside the south-facing kitchen windows. I told her about it, as it seemed symbolically fitting somehow, then sent her a photo after our call.

This morning, she reciprocated with a texted picture of a Buddha outside in the rain, pointing out that the face was half wet and half dry. It reminded me of the both/and of things; how we can be ok, be calm, be, period, even when we are exposed to the elements.

Sometimes I feel like I’m just recycling the same thoughts and ideas over and over again. I commit to things and then find myself unprepared, literally scrawling noted on the back on an envelope minutes before it’s my turn to speak. I judge myself harshly for being out of my league, but not unkindly for showing up in the first place. Ego is apparent here in many ways: Ego says, you suck. Ego says, you’re amazing. I’m wary of both messages.

My bruised right buttock slowed me down this weekend. After a shower, coffee, and breakfast, Mani went to work on a puzzle in the front hallway. I was debating between reading a book and taking a nap when I heard a crash.

I ran to the other end of our apartment to see if she was ok; she was fine, but her puzzle table had gone down the front steps (what’s up with us and the stairs in our place this week?!), and pieces had gone flying everywhere.

It was while picking them up that I came across  a folder filled with short bits of writing, report cards, awards, and recommendations ranging from 1982 to 1991. I didn’t realize it was in that wooden peach crate with all the photos we’ve been meaning to hang in the front hallway for the last two and half years.

Once she got back to her puzzle, I sat down in the bathroom doorway and started reading through the contents of the folder.

“The most intellectual member of her class,” wrote my guidance counselor in 1990. “Jena is a warm, empathetic, articulate, and spirited individual with a twinkle of humor in her eyes. She is a good listener, and her peers actively seek and value her opinions. Jena is comfortable with herself, and she has a gift for making others feel relaxed whenever they are around her. It is difficult to describe Jena in a few words as there is much depth to this strong-willed, generous and engaging young woman.”

Now, it’s evening. I sit here with that folder at my side, the folder with newspaper clippings announcing national prizes I won for poems and essays about the Holocaust, short stories I started and never finished, a drawing from fifth grade of African-American anti-slavery activist and poet Charlotte Forten Grimké, and the one that really cracked me up, from a P.E. teacher who said I had “weak abdominals” (some things really never change).

There’s an uncomfortable sensation but I can’t fully put my finger on it. And then it hits me: I am wondering if I have lived up to this girl’s promise. And then something even bigger hits me: She wondered the same thing.

Suddenly, here we are, the two of us, my 43-year-old self and my 10- and 15- and 17- year-old selves. And I want to sit and look her in the eyes. I want to say: Hey you, in there. You don’t have to be amazing, you know.

As I sit here, another wave of thought comes rushing up to me. It goes something like this:

See? This is why it’s best to close the doors and leave them closed. What purpose is there in revisiting this old stuff? You can either use it as evidence of how totally YOU you were back then, or of how totally NOT you you were then. You can make it a badge or a weapon. You can spin any story you want, and they will all be true and none of them will be true. 

I find a collection of ten poems I put together in 1998, after my first year of grad school. One is called “After an Absence,” by Linda Pastan. It begins:

After an absence that was no one’s fault
we are shy with each other,
and our words seem younger than we are,
as if we must return to the time we met
and work ourselves back to the present,
the way you never read a story
from the place you stopped
but always start each book all over again.

Sometimes life is like this. We start the same book all over again. And again, and again. We forget who we were, carrying only memory ghost imprints of our younger selves. The once who were bursting with ideas. “Enthusiasm and delight” is how my Amherst College professor described my relationship to the Spanish language; I was 15, a junior in high school.

And then there is “Kannon” by Sam Hamill. How bizarre; he doesn’t know me from Eve but we are Facebook friends now 20 years later, and I watch from afar as his health dwindles. As a woman in my early 20s, his poetry spoke to some deeply human and impossible part of me.

I adore you. I love you
completely. Nothing to ask in return.

Each act of affection a lesson:
I fail, but with each failure, learn.

Like studying
under Te-shan:

thirty blows if I can’t answer,
thirty blows if I can.

And William Stafford’s “Awareness,” yet another hint of what I knew I didn’t yet know. Here are the final two stanzas:

Of hiding important things because
they don’t belong in the world.

Of now. Of maybe. Of something
different being true.

And Mary Oliver’s “March,” which ends:

“Something touched me, lightly, like a knife blade. Somewhere I felt I was bleeding, though just a little, a hint. Inside, I flared hot, then cold. I thought of you. Whom I love, madly.”

The girl I was, the teenager, the young woman, the young wife, the new mother — all of these matryoshka dolls stacked one inside another. I sit here this evening as the light fades. Much of the snow on our neighbor’s roof has melted from the storm a few days ago, and soon soon soon, spring will come for real. I feel like a grown up, even though I question what that actually means.

Oh, life. You have such a way about you.

I think it has to do with a bruised buttock — a fleshy one, too, not like the underweight ass of my youth. It has to do with mad love and evenings in, with poems as portents, with potential unfolding and dying in every single moment, rather than as something to bottle up and stash for emergencies. It has to do with being the mama now, who is strong enough to sit still, to say, “you are safe.” To mother and live in such a way that my kids can find their way to being truly themselves. And it definitely has to do with what happens when I stop trying to be good enough and instead, just love the person I’ve always been.

I look out the window at the dark, then turn to myself and say:

Keep reading for hints and watching for clues. Keep scribbling notes and paying attention to which poems grab you by the heart. Keep sharing delight and enthusiasm — for language, for learning, for stories and poems. Keep showing up, whether you feel prepared or not. Keep diving in where things are tangled and keep coming up for air where the sun shines and melts away what seems impossible and permanent. Let the seasons change. Listen to the body. It knows how to heal. Healing is possible. 

Dive Into Poetry Writing Groups

Where Does the Sky Begin?

March 13, 2017

Photo: Murashkame

Where does the sky begin?
Empiricists say, “Right under your feet.”
For additional answers, look within.

Ask a child and you’re in for grin.
With that kind of logic, you can’t compete.
Where does the sky begin?

Or is it sky, anything that’s not skin —
invisible source of rain, snow, and sleet.
For additional answers, look within.

Science sends my mind to a tailspin.
Poetry moves the chaff from the wheat.
Where does the sky begin?

Me? I’d rather read the notes in the margins
than believe everything on the bubble sheet.
For additional answers, look within.

Come sit and ponder, before we turn in.
This time by the fire cannot be beat.
Where does the sky begin?
For additional answers, look within.

*

Written in the Focus on Forms group during Week 3: The Villanelle.