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Real Life

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.

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.

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?

Real Life The Resistance

We Have to Learn the Whole Script, Not Just Our Own Lines

March 12, 2017

Photo: Allef Vinicius

Saturday, 4:30pm

The indoor soccer stadium is teeming with movement and noise. Boys’ and girls’ teams of various ages on multiple fields — from fifth grade on up through high school. On my right, two girls climb on the underside of the stands, their dreads flying beneath them as they dangle from the crooked slats. My youngest, Pearl, has a game at 5:00. It’s the first time I’ve ever brought my computer here to write while her team — the Amherst Hurricanes — practices.

Today, she yielded to my suggestion of wearing long underwear beneath her soccer shorts; after all, the wind chill is well below zero. But the moment we got here, she bee-lined to go change. Since Pearl presents as male and prefers to use the men’s bathroom, I stood sentry near the door, far enough away not to crowd her but close enough to sate my inner mama bear.

I love watching these kids play; they’ve got the teamwork thing down — their pats on the back and fist bumps after near misses, successful blocks, and, of course, goals all make me melt a little.

She’d probably die that I wrote that, and full disclosure, hormones make me even mushier than usual, which is already on the high side. But I really am a sucker for the friendship thing.

This weekend, Aviva took the train with her cousin — they are three months apart and we’ve called them the Bobsy Twins for the entirety of their 14+ years on the planet together — to NYC to visit a posse of summer camp friends. They planned meticulously; in addition to saving money for the trip, part of the “yes” on behalf of all of the parental units was that they take charge of the logistics (rules for unaccompanied minors and a detailed plan for the weekend itself, from phone numbers to sleeping arrangements).

Needless to say, I got a little teary at the photo of them standing on the Amtrak platform, on their way not only to the City but clearly to the Rest of Their Lives, too.

Pearl and I attempted to brave the cold this morning with a new frisbee, but the wind forced us to toss it back and forth under some bleachers at the Amherst College lacrosse fields — not ideal. We threw in the towel after 10 minutes or so, opting instead of hot chocolate at home. The fact that she wants to spend time with me feels like this thing that could go *poof* at any minute. And since there’s no way for me to know when that will be, I’m inclined to say sure, let’s play frisbee even though it’s colder than a witch’s tit out there (OMG don’t you love that expression?).

I did glance ever so briefly at Facebook this morning. I saw headlines and stories that made my blood run cold: A rally in Maricopa County — Phoenix — where pro-Trump folks called for “liberal genocide” and the deportation of Jews. A move that can only be called a purge of the Justice Department. An interview with Nigerian feminist author and activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in which she states that experiences of trans women shouldn’t be conflated with those of [cis] “women.”

Then I closed the computer and said to Mani, “Who do we think is going to save us from this?”

This is why I take one day a week “off” — mostly, somewhat — from interacting online. This is why we do Shabbat.

Shabbat saves me.

Sunday, 7:30am

The birdsong conceals these temperatures; you’d think it was a balmy 60-degree morning by their exuberant greetings. Daylight Savings Time means moving slowly this morning. With Aviva still in New York and Pearl having had a sleepover, the house is otherwise quiet.

This weekend was Purim. It falls among the nine-word Jewish holidays and festivals: They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat.

In this case, it was Haman, leader of Persia, who plotted to destroy the Jewish People. The hero in this story is in fact a heroine, Esther. And interestingly, Purim takes place during the month of Adar, a fortuitous month when joy is said to increase, ushering in a season of miracles that culminate with Passover, the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.

One Purim tradition is to dress up and wear masks, making all kinds of loud boo-ing noises every time Haman’s name is mentioned in the story (we read Esther’s scroll, aka “the whole megillah”). One thing I love about Hebrew is that words all have roots that reveal more layers of meaning: in this case, Adar has its origins in Adir, suggesting strength and power.

Just take a quick minute to let that sink in: Joy has its roots in strength and power.

OK. So we wear masks on Purim, and recall the story of this greedy king, Ahashverosh, who has one primary policy: Himself (read more). I tend to agree with this interpretation by Jay Michaelson, presciently written a year ago, before nominee Trump was so-called elected to be President Trump. Bannon is the real Haman here.

Will the women save us? Will we throw off our masks or don them in mockery of demagoguery and evil?

There is, of course, more to the story. But in the night, it was the masks I kept returning to the tradition of dressing up on Purim, trying on different aspects of ourselves even as we condemn evil and celebrate victory.

“It is our practice to cross-dress on Purim – find the other in yourself. Dress up and try on Esther’s role, be Haman the villain, the king and the assassin. The Scroll of Esther invites you onto the stage of history. For what cause would you risk giving up your privilege, position, and lifestyle? For what would you risk your life? For what principles or causes ought a person to risk life? Is the King of unawareness and apathy, Ahashverosh there inside too? Better to discover these qualities in play than to act them out and destroy what it means to be a Jew.” ~ Rabbi Goldie Milgram :: read more

I think often of blind spots: What don’t I know I don’t know? How do I remember what I’ve forgotten and further pull back the opaque curtains of my own ignorance? How do I save my people and where am I unknowingly contributing to my cousins’ peril?

We have to put ourselves in the shoes of all the players. We have to learn the whole script — not just our own lines — in order to fully grok the show. And a show it is — a comic-tragedy of epic, real-life proportions.

Against this backdrop, right on this stage, my kids are coming of age. They are learning how to play fair in a landscape that’s anything but. They come with many advantages — not the least of which are fair skin and good looks. This alone is so many kinds of wrong my head wants to explode, but rather than wringing my hands, I must keep helping them see what everyday experiences they undertake that would not be imaginable for an undocumented kid, for example.

Also in Jewish tradition, I seek out more questions rather than claiming to have answers:

What does my white privilege have to do with agreeing to allow my teenager to travel unaccompanied by train? What does class privilege have to do with allowing my biologically female child to use the men’s room in a public arena? What does being Jewish have to do with our role in this unraveling world, where in our tradition, we are commanded to ditch all of the commandments if it means saving one life — Jewish or not?

Time for another splash of coffee. Time to kiss my wife good morning (again). Time to shower, get dressed, and look in the mirror, directly into my own eyes, to make sure I’m all the way here. No masks. No deceit. May I move into the day awake. No one is coming to save us.

“That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary — [and now] go study.” ~ Rabbi Hillel :: read more 

Real Life

The Time I Threw Out My New iPod: Taking Care of My Brain

March 1, 2017

Today, I was not just late for a meeting. Today I missed a meeting altogether. I’m loathe to tell you why, but you might guess so here it goes: I was sleeping. I had forgotten to double check my calendar before deciding to take a mid-morning nap with Mani, and sure enough, when I woke up I realized I was 30 minutes, also known as “too,” late to make it.

This morning, I had two copies of “Why I Was Late for Our Meeting” sitting on the little chest where we keep the dishes in the kitchen. I knew they were both books I set aside to give away. The problem was, I had no idea whom they were for. Over the course of two or so hours, some Facebook messages and emails tipped me off, and I remembered. But oh, the forgetting is disconcerting.

As I write this, Mani is in the other room doing her hour of “brain gym” exercises. She is becoming a veritable amateur scholar when it comes to neuroplasticity and our ability to not only rewire our brains but also strengthen them and keep them agile and able as we age. You might think we’re too young to be thinking about this stuff, but no. It starts now. The slipping. The “why did I come into this room again?”

I threw out my iPod shuffle last weekend. The brand new red one that I had especially engraved with words that seem slightly ironic now: “Everything counts.” I didn’t mean to toss it, mind you. I was bringing the trash down to the garage after a short run, and somehow I didn’t notice till later that the iPod was nowhere to be found.

On Monday, our landlord sent an email to us and our downstairs neighbor: “Anyone missing a small red iPod? Music’s terrible, but might be one of yours.” Hey, what? I responded with a yes, and a wink about needing to get better music. He wrote back, sounding a bit sheepish and blaming his kids for their musical taste. Last night, he dropped it off for me. End of story.

But clearly part of a bigger story, one where I begin to worry about my mind.

I used to worry about my mind being overactive. Now, it’s a lack of focus I find distressing. Mind you, this is not a constant state. I can tell you what year it is. Unfortunately, I can even tell you who the president of the United States is. I know my social security number, my kids’ birthdays, and people’s phone numbers I haven’t called in years. I keep track of multiple writing groups at any given moment, try to remember when we’re low on toilet paper, and write down appointments in my handy-dandy paper calendar. My 2016 taxes are even done. All things considered, as a working mama with my own business, I’m holding my own. I may have thrown out my iPod, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater here.

But I want to do more than keep up and keep track of all the moving parts. I want to be intentional about what gets my time and attention and yes, where I hung up the car keys. (By the way, last year, I threw out my whole keychain in that same garbage can — true story. I never recovered those, though. Mani and I have been sharing keys ever since.) I want to be present to whatever I’m doing, not jumping up to make a cup of tea mid-sentence, or clicking over to one of the other 18 open tabs (I just counted) on my desktop when I’m still in the middle of writing something here.

I’m not even going to bother writing about shame. Bah, we don’t have time for that old story.

And I have no pithy words of wisdom about multitasking and how terrible it is for our brains. There are a million studies and books and websites addressing what we already now. Instead, I’m coming here to write about this simply because it’s true. It’s getting my attention and is the kind of thing where small concerns can quickly become big problems when they go untended.

I hear the beeps and boops of Mani’s computer program and see us: Two middle-aged women, not even three years married. Five kids between us with an 11-year age range. A peaceful apartment in a quiet neighborhood in a college town in the northeast, with plans to move to Southern California after my two have turned 18 (or sooner, should the universe conspire on our behalf). I see us on this mission to be healthy not only of body but of mind and spirit, too.

I just spoke with a friend today, whose partner’s father has brain cancer. The surgery he had required cutting out part of his brain, the part that controls empathy and emotion. I want to rush into the next room to say, “I love you.” In fact, we do this many times each day — stop and give thanks. It’s a near constant. Even on days when I am rattled or rushed, a conversation with her will bring me back to something softer and kinder inside of myself.

I leave in 10 minutes to pick kids up early from school for eye doctor appointments. My work day is chopped up; I will return to the computer to catch up with all of my writing peeps later, most likely while Aviva and Pearl are at the rock gym with their dad. But right now, I am here. I am writing this blog post. I am taking a breath in, and I am taking a breath out. I hear the rhythm of it and realize I’m doing ujjayi pranayama — ocean breath — without even meaning to. It’s soothing and centering.

I hear the “ding” of another Facebook notification; at least 12 have occurred in the 20 or so minutes since I began writing. I choose to ignore it, for now. I will finish what I started, before beginning the next thing. And see if I can bring some kindness to myself as I keep practicing this.

Last night, I wrote something about not being unnecessarily hard on myself, then realized that being hard on ourselves is never necessary. Yes, we can identify things that need our attention. Sometimes these are even urgent. There is so much waking up to do. But beating ourselves up really doesn’t expedite the learning; if anything, it makes me want to run the other way.

No running away. No lashes on the back. Just honesty with myself and a willingness to be real here, too. It’s a good place to start again. After all, everything counts.

Real Life The Resistance

Don’t Burn Out or Numb Out: On Pacing Myself for Long-Haul Resistance

February 22, 2017

I’m having a moment of feeling so sad. Just so sad.

I’m watching live video from Standing Rock. Reading about the revocation of transgender rights, such as they were extended by the Obama administration. An “approach” to gun violence in Chicago so racist it made my head spin. And so much more. I have been trying to be intentional about staying focused on community and connection, truth-telling and self-care, all as the basis for long-term resisting. But I worry about my own blind spots and will keep coming back, knowing that I don’t know what I don’t know but determined to keep peeling back the layers so as not to be a walking part of the systems that got us here in the first place.

I know that’s what we’re up against — the long-term part. Sometimes I seriously doubt that we’ll ever “recover” from this moment in American and world history. We were already so broken, so much unfaced, unacknowledged, unhealed, that this feels like a chasm in the earth that will just grow wider and wider, with more and more people falling into it. The ones who will fall in fastest — we all know who these groups are. Immigrants. Muslims. People of color. Poor women. LGBT folks. Jews. Groups of people that are each so diverse it’s a preposterous failure of language to even list them this way.

I’m sitting here at my kitchen table feeling sad and angry at the greed and white power sitting in the highest office of this country, while those who try to protect the water that serves 18 million Americans are being forced off of their own land. While those whose blood, sweat, and tears built everything we’re sitting on get sold down the river. While hardworking business owners and mamas and fathers and students and musicians and children and the people who change the goddamn sheets at the nice hotels where these politicians lay their unconscionable heads at night fear for their safety, their homes, their livelihoods, their families, and their lives.

I say “their” knowing full well that any idea that my world is more secure is an illusion, one I refuse to get lulled into believing, though must also confront everyday as directly as possible if I’m going to be of any use to the collective. So tonight, my friends, I’m just feeling all the feelings. I have no actions to put forth or suggestions to make or knowledge about how to deal with this. I know there are a zillion resources and I’m plugging into ones I feel like I can commit to, rather than flitting around, both in real life and virtually — in the forms of giving small amounts of money (believing everything counts), time (believing everything counts), and learning (my own, because lord knows I have so fucking much to learn and unlearn).

The question of “is it enough” isn’t one I spend time worrying about; we each have to pace ourselves in order to neither burn out nor numb out. It’s no accident that Mani and I are boot-camping a new schedule starting this week; I’m already seeing just a few days in just how much I need this structure in order to take better physical care of myself, and that my work — both in the sense of livelihood and providing for my family as the sole earner right now, and in the sense of contributing to the Resistance in meaningful ways — all hinge on this.

Sleep, water, food, friends, moving the body, time to write. All of this needs to be tended to every single day — something I have typically sucked at for a long time. I’m not saying that as self-abuse; it’s just true, and even though it’s often hard, saying what’s true and acting accordingly really is the path to freedom. My freedom. Your freedom. My sisters. My brothers. I hurt for us. And I’m not giving up. I will never, ever give up.

No matter what else, find people you can share with. Find spaces where you feel safe to come and just be — where you know you can show up as you are and be met and supported. We have to keep being here for each other. This so-called government wants us to implode. To be scattered in so many directions we lose steam. Please keep reaching out, writing, and showing up in whatever ways makes sense for your life.  And maybe even in some ways that disrupt your life, too.

How and what are you doing when it comes to finding your footing here? All I know for sure is that there is a lot of stumbling, and that we are truly stronger together.

* * *

If We Divide, We Don’t Conquer by Carmen Rios :: Read
White Guilt is Actually White Narcissism by Emma Lindsay :: Read
I Am Not Your Negro :: GO SEE THIS FILM

Real Life

This Day Brought Me to Tears

February 17, 2017

“We speak loudly but no one understands us.
But we are not surprised
For we are speaking the language
That will be spoken tomorrow.”

~ Horst Bienek, from “Resistance” (trans. Michael Mead)

Everything is making me cry today. My heart feels so exposed. Like I took off my armor and left it somewhere. Like I spun the prayer wheel so fast it didn’t give me time to worry about doing it right.

David Tennant’s face throughout this surprise tribute.

Bashō (translated by Robert Bly):

The temple bell stops–
but the sound keeps coming 
out of the flowers 

My kid’s fear about a trip without her parents, and the big sign she placed in her suitcase (after she emptied it out this morning) that didn’t mince words: I’M NOT GOING. Please.

Questions like: Who would I be without my work? Without my writing? Without my people? Without “my”?

Would I know, deep down, my worth?

Mani’s words:

“You can’t receive when you have clenched fists.”

Open your hands. Open your mind. Open your heart.

“The best-laid plans are are my open hands.”

(Which Mani can’t remember if she heard in a song or if she wrote herself.)

This song.

The way our names contain us — and how we can find either comfort in being held in, or the courage to push beyond the limitations of those syllables and the energy they carry.

I am not surprised if you don’t understand. I might be speaking tomorrow’s language already. I might have wondered if tomorrow’s language would ever come or if I’d be stuck speaking the same sentences over and over for all time. But no. Time won’t have it. The hardest things shapeshift as surely as the sun is melting the snow. And they also bring clarity, in the way fire burns and purifies but is impossibly hot to stand near for long. You won’t think you can stand it, but you can.

You can.

“I will write in words of fire. I will write them on your skin. I will write about desire. Write beginnings, write of sin. You’re the book I love the best, your skin only holds my truth, you will be a palimpsest lines of age rewriting youth. You will not burn upon the pyre. Or be buried on the shelf. You’re my letter to desire: And you’ll never read yourself. I will trace each word and comma As the final dusk descends, You’re my tale of dreams and drama, Let us find out how it ends.” ~ Neil Gaiman

The last big cry I remember was in the fall. I remember because I cried in the car all the way to the base of a small mountain, then parked and walked furiously uphill over leaves so deep and wet they decomposed before my eyes giving way to earth and winter coming. I remember because I reached the peak and looked out over the river and the valley and felt my dry cheeks and the relief of burning off the tears and getting some perspective.

Then last night I lost it, which isn’t true if you read it literally. I didn’t lose a thing. I just stood at the kitchen sink with the hot water on my hands, blood from where the potato peeler nicked the nail on my left middle finger, and the soapy sponge and the glasses and plates from a late dinner. And I didn’t lose anything, really. But I did cry. I started and I couldn’t stop right away — clearly this had been sitting there, just when I’d begun wondering if I’d ever cry again, a faint hint of concern cropping up that I don’t cry more often given the state of the world.

Well no worries. I can still cry. This is good, even if it freaked my kids out a little. (“Are you OKAY??”)

Last night, lying in bed, Mani put her hands on my back. Then she said just the right words, which she has a knack for: We aren’t here to save each other. We don’t need saving. We all come in with our karma and no one can burn if for us but us.

Then you love people and things get sticky sometimes; it is so painful to see someone you love suffering and to not know the answer. But there’s a reason you don’t know the answer. Your love is enough. It doesn’t feel like enough. It feels all wrong; surely you should be DOING something and the impulse to DO something is the same thing as the impulse to FIX it, SAVE THEM, make it BETTER.

There’s no saving.

So my heart is open and I cried and today, right now, I look out the kitchen window and the branches of the pine trees are swaying in the breeze. The sun is strong, and I’m surprised to glance at the clock and see that it’s after 4:00pm. The earth is turning and the seasons are changing and this is one of those moments when I can SEE time. And how bendable it is, and how it both requires so much faith and also none at all. All at the same time.

“We can know a lot. And still no doubt, there are rash and wonderful ideas brewing somewhere; there are many surprises yet to come.” ~ Mary Oliver

The mind loves to catastrophize. To seize the moment but not in a carpe diem kind of way, more like in a we’re-so-fucked kind of way. But it is a lie. A trap. Don’t fall for it, I tell myself. We no more know that things will be awful than we do that Mary Oliver’s “rash and wonderful ideas” are brewing and surprises are yet to come. Good surprises.

You want to write? So write.

You want to cry? So cry.

You want to love? So open your heart and know that it will break over and over and over and over.

And you will hug someone you love so tightly and suddenly your two bodies will be the shape of sky, which of course is impossible to imagine but perfectly reasonable in the ways of being.

After the fire, you will feel cleaner somehow, and heightened of senses. A bird in the morning will tell you winter is just a word, and you’ll spit out those two syllables with your toothpaste while the shower’s running and you’re standing there naked in the small bathroom looking at all that grey hair around your temples.

Time is not passing us nor are we passing time. Young people will be grown adults someday, full-bodied and with memories of their own, and someday we — you and I — will be the memories themselves. Long, long after we’re gone.

So yes. This day has brought me to tears. Because of love. Because of how empty-handed I feel sometimes. Because of how unbearably beautiful it is to be alive.

Real Life

Love Asks Nothing

February 14, 2017

There are explanations of love in all languages
and not one found wiser than this:

There is a place where love begins and a place
where love ends—and love asks nothing.

Carl Sandburg, from “Explanations of Love”

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ESL Real Life

Grande Lattes, Treason, and the Universal Sign for Empathy

February 1, 2017

Photo: Anete Lusina

Two sparrows pecked away at a chunk of discarded donut in the snow outside the door to Starbucks as Luping and I dove into conversation today. The moment I walked in, she asked if I was feeling better (I had cancelled last week’s session due to being sick). I told her yes, but that I still wasn’t 100%.

The very moment those words came out of my mouth, I asked if she brought her notebook. She had. I wrote it down and explained this expression — how it means I’m feeling better but not all the way better. She nodded in understanding and told me coffee today would be her treat.

We walked over the register to order. I asked for a grande latte with one Splenda (I’ve cut it out completely at home, but still get one in my latte, go figure). She said she’d have the same, then she told me that she wants to try a different drink each week.

“You’re branching out!” I said, then immediately added that it’s like expanding, trying new things. “Oh, yes!” she said, as my little interpretive dance and definition clicked in her brain. She paid for our drinks, the cashier said something about how it’s cool to “get out of your comfort zone” and that we were “all set,” and we carried them back over to our little two-person table by the window.

“Do you know what ‘all set’ means?” I asked her. “What about ‘comfort zone’?” She didn’t know either of these. It occurred to me that in our first five minutes together, roughly half of the words spoken had been idioms she probably hadn’t learned in English textbooks or classroom lessons, nor in the lab where she is doing graduate research at UMass. So she got out her notebook and we continued the “lesson” that had begun the moment we said hello to each other.

I suggested we write down each of these expressions, as a way of “keeping track” of what she’s learning. Turns out “keeping track” is yet another one. I gave some examples. “I can’t keep track of my keys; I’m always losing them.” “I can’t keep track of my kids; I never know where they are.” (That made her laugh.) “I can’t keep track of my books; they’re all over the house.”

From there, we both saw how closely related “branching out” is to “comfort zone.” The more I described the former, the more I naturally found myself talking about the latter. I wound up drawing a little pot (labeled “pot”) with several branches growing out of it. Actually, I should say “drawing,” since drawing itself is out of my comfort zone and a good example of me branching out.

We talked about how people often prefer to stay inside their comfort zones, and how it can be scary to branch out. And how personal this is, too. For me, chatting with the barista is not a stretch. It doesn’t require any real “branching.” But for someone else, chatting with the barista, or any stranger for that matter, might be WAY out of their comfort zone.

Now I’m thinking of another one, for next week: “cookie cutter approach.” I wonder if they even have cookie cutters in China.

After this, I got a lesson from her in Chinese poetry from the Han dynasty. I learned that many Chinese parents choose baby names from these ancient stories, not unlike how in the West many people are named after characters in the Bible. Luping told me the story of Qu Yuan, which is recalled each year during the Dragon Boat Festival.

As I listened, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Qu Yuan’s “treason” against the Emperor (as she put it, he was honest and shared his disagreement openly), subsequent exile, and ultimate suicide with what we are facing right now under Trump, who is acting more like an emperor than a president of a democratic nation. I couldn’t help but think of the bravery of so many people, both throughout history and just in the past few days, who have spoken truth to power — even at the expense of their personal or professional security and safety.

Somehow this led to the word “tragedy” (as opposed to “comedy”). Luping mentioned the Titanic as an example, then told me that she prefers tragedies to stories with happy endings. They stay with her more, she said. I told her I knew just what she meant. I put my hand on my heart and suggested that it was because of the empathy we may experience with the characters in a tragic story. She looked up “empathy” in Chinese, then put her hand on her heart, too. (Universal sign for empathy, I think.)

And then I taught her one last word of the day: “Tearjerker.”

Luping may not have realized just how riveted I was by her Qu Yuan story, nor how relevant I found it to what we’re currently facing. As we were saying goodbye, I did mention politics. She put her hand on my arm. She could lose her visa. Our leaders are throwing nuclear threats at each other. And here we were, two women drinking grande lattes with one Splenda each, each of us branching out, learning, connecting.

I felt energized and uplifted and grateful, and also sad that more people don’t have — or don’t seek out — the opportunity to connect with someone from another culture, or even just a different background than your own. Xenophobia withers under these conditions. For many people, this means leaving comfort zones in the dust.

“It seems a bit unfair,” I said, as I buttoned my coat. She looked puzzled. I continued, “I think I’m learning more than you are!”

She said she is surely the luckier one. We left it that we could both be lucky, and agreed on our meeting for next week. As we walked out together, I saw that the sparrows had polished off that donut. I hadn’t noticed them fighting over the crumbs, flying away.