starlings--Mark Hearld

Big Y, Tuesday at 9:00pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

starlings--Mark Hearld

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

Just a few weeks before September 11, 2001,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

starlings--Mark Hearld

Tell Me About Moving On

Photo: Tj Holowaychuk

Regret is like striking a large bell in an empty field and then running through the empty grass trying to gather the sound of the strike back into the bell. It’s impossible. ~ Mark Nepo

Moving on. From the squabble. The sugar crash. The bad mood. The old moon. The first marriage. The mortgage. The last zip code. The eggshells. The old guard. The tension you carried in your esophagus. The pushing. The holding. The silence. The wishing. The wanting. The better life you never got to by trying to get to a better life. The binge. The bender. The way you berated yourself. The inhale. The exhale. The need to “go out.” The constant escaping, as if your self might be waiting for you on the outcropping of rocks at Oakledge Park or in the alley between buildings or on those three back steps behind the old white barn with the gnarly apple tree in the yard. From the hovering over kids and harboring resentment over money. The face tired from smiling. Doing the right thing. Keeping the peace. Making everyone happy like it was your Job. Keeping your guard up. Keeping your weight down. Keeping your anger down. Keeping your life together.

Moving on made room for you to learn new things.

Like how to relax. How to stop putting so much pressure on yourself to get it right. How to recognize the way perfectionism and comparison are no better than the mean girls your own daughter confronted in fourth grade (and fifth, and sixth). How the voice in your own head wasn’t a reliable narrator, and you could start to tune out much of the noise you used to take so seriously. How to be silly and lack all accountability and still be loved. How to stop jumping through hoops. How to have fun. How to wear tight jeans and shake some booty. How to get out of your own way and just try stuff. Take risks, fail, disappoint, and not die as a result.

Learning these things, you find yourself here, full of ravioli, about to have a conversation about everyday magic with a kindred spirit, knowing it’s neither luck nor blessing that landed you here, but something more akin to love and truth.

starlings--Mark Hearld

Flying Spatulas and Holy Donuts


We kicked off September, the month when Mani turns 40 and we celebrate our third anniversary, with a few nights in Maine. We listened to hours of Regina Spektor in the car, getting psyched to see her in concert in November. We hit a natural foods store when we rolled into town, always our first stop these days since we still do most of our eating at “home” in an Airbnb. This little ritual of checking out the local coop in whatever place we’re visiting is one of our favorite things about our getaways. Then we found the place we were staying and were greeted by the owner, a 60-year-old woman with a shock of white hair and a friendly smile. She reminded me a bit of Kathy Bates (in some of her friendlier roles, thankfully).

Our hostess showed us the way to our cozy one-bedroom apartment, which was on the second floor of an old barn. We sussed out the apartment; it was decorated with white lace curtains, a combination of red and pink furniture and accents, and a decidedly quaint New England feel. A mobile of seashells hung in front of the windows above the kitchen sink, and a three-ring binder filled with brochures and menus sat on the table. We tested the bed out immediately (acceptably firm), and made some dinner.

While Mani was cooking, the spatula she had resting against a pan slipped onto the stove top. She propped it back up, and a second later it literally flew onto the floor. We didn’t feel scared, though we definitely both had the thought that someone or something wanted to announce their presence.

Slow mornings in bed with strong coffee followed, along with a visit with my oldest friend in her Portland home, where she moved about a year ago. We walked on the Eastern Promenade and soaked up every ray of sunshine, watching kayaks, paddleboards, and sailboats out on the blue, blue water. It could not have been a more beautiful afternoon to enjoy by the ocean.

We went to see The Glass Castle (wow) and still managed to be in bed by 9:30pm. A chilly, rainy Sunday followed, and with not a parking spot to be found in downtown Portland and content to just be together, we decided to go see another movie (Wind River). After that, we spent the evening cutting up magazines and making collages at the kitchen table.

In one of my many secret lives, I have an alter ego as a filmmaker. I love films that make me feel, think, laugh, cry, and have great conversations afterwards. I love being provoked, disturbed, turned on, and transported. I love laughing out loud in the theater or sitting long past the credits, stunned or sobbing. I love good writing and acting and directing and cinematography. I marvel at all of it and have such respect and admiration for the many people who make this form of magic real.

As a kid, I often thought of my life as a movie, being filmed somehow from above, from the sky. Not surprisingly, I was the main character. Songs like “I’ll Stop the World and Melt with You” were on the soundtrack, and David Bowie’s “Heroes,” and I wondered when I would find my one true love. To say I was a lonely romantic would be accurate, if an understatement.

I read this quote tonight, shared in one of my writing groups. It’s from a longer post, Afloat on Shreen Water, by a writer named Melissa Harrison.

“Creativity, to me, is nothing less than a belief that one can change the world. It means looking at the world as it is, and deciding, utterly audaciously, that it would be better – that it would be improved – by you adding something new to it. Creating something from your own innermost self and putting it out into the world is a transformative act.”

Before we headed home today, we went about 10 miles out of our way so that I could find The Holy Donut, which I’d read about in the binder. In the past, when I was just a wee bit chronically underweight forever and ever up until the last year or so, I would not have eaten the donuts. It is a bit hard for me to admit this. I want to say my joie de vivre and appetite for life suffered no body dysmorphia or fear of certain foods, but that wouldn’t be true.

Now, I weigh at least 10 pounds more than my “highest” weight in the past, and I got not one but three different donuts (blueberry lemon, sweet potato ginger glaze, and dark chocolate sea salt). (As an aside, how is it that even when I restricted calories, I wouldn’t have eaten donuts but I polished off many, many pints of ice cream by myself? Eating disorders are twisted and irrational, my friends.)

Anyway. Movies. Donuts. Where was I?

I ate the donuts. Not all of them, but enough — washed down with a large latte made with whole milk — to feel full, satisfied, and giddy at how delicious they were. I also looked at a photo of people in Mumbai wading through waist-high water — while I ate the donuts — and groaned. “And I’m eating donuts,” I said to Mani, who reminded me that my not eating donuts wasn’t going to make the flood waters recede.

And such is the reality of our world. All of the simultaneity — the very thing I felt like “my” movie was about when I was young, rushing up like high tide. Life is a crushing collision of epic normalcy and nuance and tragedy and love stories and teenagers and crickets and donuts and heroes. We are all bad guys and good guys at one time or another, and if we dare to be creative, maybe, just maybe, what we find interesting and worthy of our attention will catch the light for someone else, too. Will alter their way of seeing or being. The thing is, we often never know — and must keep going (living, creating, loving, writing, being, working, learning, giving) on faith.

It’s that faith that keeps me going. Makes me show up here to write, which I was imagining all weekend long, even though I stared at the blank screen and thought, I can’t. I can’t do it. I have nothing. But I have this — back home in my own kitchen, my wife listening to Krishna Das in the other room, a cool breeze through the open window, and a month of milestones I feel insanely blessed to be here to meet. I can truly say I don’t take any of it for granted.

Last week, I had an unexpected cry the night after the kids’ first day of school. It surprised me, how the tears just came pouring out after I’d said goodnight to them both. That poignant, intense, unmitigated sense of time passing hit me so hard, in a way that it hadn’t for quite a while. I’m always aware of time, but mostly these days feel more like I’m just kind of in it, here. This was different, more like a blast of air moving through the room, spatulas flying, chest tight. My babies are growing up and it is the most beautiful, moving thing I’ve ever witnessed.

I stand back now, just enough to see Mani eating a bowl of ice cream (she came in while I was writing). Just enough to see that my sweet family is solid in ways I could only have prayed for some years back. Just enough to see my own body — curves and graying hair and a deepening sense of equilibrium, or at the very least a growing ability to reel myself back in without too much drama when I drift out to the seas of self-doubt or perfectionism.

The world needs courage. It always has, and I suspect it has always felt like now — whenever and wherever that “now” has been — is more urgent than ever. And so it is. And so we keep stepping forward from these ordinary days, all the way into the needs that present themselves, the songs that come on, the strangers we encounter, the delicious surprises and the horrific disparities and injustices that don’t but should plague us all.

From this place of already being enough, it becomes possible to be and do more than perhaps we realized possible.

starlings--Mark Hearld

Not a Mirror Image: A Daughter Starts High School

Having skipped third grade and with a January birthday, I was only 13 at the beginning of ninth grade. Back in 1987, that was still junior high, though I started taking Russian up at the high school and would walk between the two buildings at least once a day.

The summer between 8th and 9th grade was a truly transitory one; soft, flowing Indian dresses and Camel Lights gave way to an all-black uniform and Marlboro reds. Guns ‘n Roses and the Sex Pistols overtook Suzanne Vega and Van Morrison. I still didn’t wear much makeup, but dark-red lipstick became part of my mask. It was the summer we grieved the deaths of Jon Fisher and Elie Aizen, who’d died in a car accident at the tail end of the school year. It was the summer of babysitting, getting stoned, and listening to Pink Floyd; of making out and drifting apart and losing a kind of exuberant creativity and innocence that, for me, had marked the second half of eighth grade.

Nearly 15, my daughter Aviva starts high school next week. She signed up for the cross-country team, a commitment to run six days a week that took all of us by surprise. At her age, I was started to shrink, whereas I see her starting to take up room. It’s fascinating, to step back and see the ways in which time moves apart, like two magnetic poles pulling in opposite directions, and also how it seems to circle back in on itself, an invisible dance of existentialism, quantum physics, and downright mystery.

The weekend school started in 1987, a friend and I went camping at the Shutesbury Reservoir. Two girls, two boys, and two tents: You do the math. Some Peachtree Schnapps might have been involved, though even then I was never much for drinking. The inevitable pairing off happened, and just today I learned the term for it while I waited with Aviva for the city bus that would take her back to her dad’s house. We’d walked from her high school orientation to town, where I took her out for breakfast. And as we waited and I continued to hear bits and pieces about her recent summer camp experience, I learned this acronym: HAKWACO (pronounced HACK-WAYCO). Hugging and Kissing with All Clothes On. Well ok then!

Labor Day weekend, 1987, I may have gone a little further than hakwaco-ing, though I would not lose my virginity until four and a half years later. The camping trip resulted in my first boyfriend, Eric Mabius (later of acting fame). My kids LOVE this story, especially the part about our time as boyfriend and girlfriend lasting all of three weeks.

Ninth grade. This morning, I sat in the very same office that once belonged to my guidance counselor, getting Aviva’s schedule straightened out. She’s signed up for Spanish, ecology, history honors, acting, English, and a study hall for sanity’s sake. She’s making her list for a Staples outing this weekend. She’s interested in volunteering at a local organic farm and counting the minutes to go back to her beloved Jewish hippie summer camp next year as a counselor in training. She’s her usual wry, independent, serious, sarcastic, sensitive self.

There’s surely something about parents saying, “When I was your age…” that automatically makes kids tune out most of the time. But then there are the occasional questions, especially when it comes to sex, drugs, and other taboo topics that — in my estimation — ought to be on the table when it comes to communicating with a teenager. She knows some but not all of my stories, just as no doubt I will get to hear only a selection of hers as these next years unfold.

The school has changed so much in the last 30 years — a number that still makes me pause to make sure I’m counting the right number of decades — that I had to ask where the library was. But then a voice came over the loudspeaker asking so-and-so to come to the office, and time crashed over my body like a wave, crashing one lifetime against the shores of another. Mine and hers, forever and inextricably intertwined, and utterly distinct and separate. She is not me. I am not her.

As we walked past my parents’ house, which sits between the school and the center of town, I recalled wearing her in a front pack to the high school in 2002, so proud was I to introduce my baby to the couple of teachers I’d stayed in touch with over the years (history and Russian). Fast forward nearly 15 years and here we were, here she is, stepping into the next thing, as I do my best to step aside and watch her go.

I wrote a song for her on the first day of kindergarten and shared it on my blog; she’d be mortified if I followed suit for high school. Instead, I’ll write about this moment, when time expands and contracts like a pair of healthy lungs, downplay my bursting pride in this young woman I get to love and nurture, and try not to be too “extra” on her first day of high school.