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Real Life

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.

Real Life The Resistance

Writing at the Intersections

January 24, 2017

Blogging — really, writing in any form — is a strange enterprise, in that it’s so intimate and so impersonal at the same time. Hearing from readers always feels like finding out I won the lottery. Every single time. This morning, I received a long note from the mother of a woman I was friends with in junior high. Among other things, she wrote,

“I though you might be amazed that a 70 year old mother of a childhood friend who is not a writer (but an avid reader and a seeker) is drawn to and deeply touched by your posts.”

I slept crazy late and am sitting on my couch with a tissue literally stuffed into my nostrils (real life, yo). I am such a baby when it comes to being sick; just ask Mani and she’ll corroborate (and I will say this — she is so so good to me when I’m sick, super patient and indulgent). It’s easy to fall off the edge of the planet, as if it were flat indeed (alternative earth shape?) and everything — all the words, all the meaning, all the work, all the connections — could just go *poof* the way my writing groups do when they’re over, in an ongoing cycle of impermanence that asks me, time and again, to let go, let go, let go, and not lose a thing.

That’s what Diane’s note this morning reminded me of. We write, or create, or even just share a snippet from our day or bump into a friend at the grocery store, and it’s in the witnessing and connection that our humanity is affirmed and restored. It’s important to me to keep doing this, even (especially) when I’m feeling doubtful, when my faith is frayed and I’m literally sick and tired. This state of vulnerability connects me to every other vulnerable human — reminding me that we ALL deserve wellbeing and witness, and the “ALL” part of this equation was not written into our country’s founding documents nor integrated over time in the ways so many have fought and continue fighting for.

How did I get from a lovely note about my writing to the fundamental flaw of American ideals in a few sniffling paragraphs? How can I not is the more accurate question. Because to have a voice is to bear some responsibility for others, and as long as there is “other” we are not all free. My own intersections of privilege and “otherness” are many — the “chutes and ladders” analogy in the piece I posted yesterday (How to survive in intersectional feminist spaces 101) explains this in plain and brilliantly accessible terms:

“Oh man. Ok. Sensitive topic time. CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE. I know. It’s a scary aggressive commanding statement. But it doesn’t have to be. See, all these intersections are like a big game of chutes and ladders. Our privileges are ladders that move us toward the top of the heap, our marginalizations are chutes that slide us down.”

I am a cisgendered, white, and educated. I am also a gay, Jewish woman, dependent on the ACA for affordable health insurance, which has been literally life-saving for Mani over the past 18 months or so. My household covers several letters in the LGBTQ soup and if Trump and his cronies had their way, my beautiful marriage would legally be null and void.

I have a cold. Boo-to-the-hoo. I write and wonder why I write. And then I read that a painter friend — the one I bumped into at the grocery store last week — is questioning why bother painting right now, when, in her words, “it’s 1984.” I get it. I really do. And yet, instinct kicks in and I respond to her, “Because it’s 1984. The question contains the answer.” And then I read these words, posted by Dana Schwartz, from Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark:

“Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. When you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.”

And then I read a post from a beautiful and fierce community leader in Vermont, a woman of color who is tired and whose continuous efforts to address oppression — as the road to “unity” — are being met with accusations that she’s being “divisive.”

We have got to stop this shit and listen to each other. Our words matter. Our silences matter. I am trying mightily to address my own places of white fragility and fear (thoughts like “am I being ________enough?” that essentially betray internalized racism to begin with) so that I can root them out. It’s not a good feeling, but guess what? It’s not about feeling good, and if there’s one common thread in this learning, it’s this: It’s not personal.

So full circle back to the writing. It’s both searingly personal and flung wide-open to the world. How can both be true? I don’t really know, except that most true things are not one-dimensional but rather multifaceted, challenging, and resistant to platitudes, quick fixes, or easy answers. This is why it’s work, and this is why I’ve noticed the times when I want to write something pithy like, “We’re just getting warmed up” but them wham! Check my privilege, indeed. There are a lotta lotta women and some very good men, too, who are not just getting warmed up. Who are tired. Who have been marching this march and fighting this fight for years, decades. I’m standing on their shoulders.

My deepest desires remain like steady flickers deep in the belly: To listen. To learn. To grow. To be honest. To cultivate joy and to nurture courage — but not in pretty, feel-good, superficial ways. No, in ways that are demanding here, delicious there, and everything in between. That, to me, is real life. That is really living. Getting really down in it together, not afraid of dialogue but saying, yes, please, talk to me. Tell me what it’s like for you. Ask me about my life. Let’s not tell stories about each other but rather hear and read and really take in each other’s lived experiences.

All of this is a way of saying hello, and thank you — for showing up. For wherever you are in your own honest process of learning, resisting, fighting, questioning, and becoming more and more HERE. Life is so many things, and I am wishing you pockets of ease and sweetness today in the midst of whatever bumps or barriers you might encounter.

Art by Jen Lemen :: thewayofdevotion.org/downloads

“Download this DIY printable zine–double-sided on a piece of 11×17 paper that you can fold into a little book to share with a friend, pass out at a march, save in your bag or wheat paste wherever your heart desires. Created by self-taught artist Jen Lemen, this gentle call to action, invites you to decolonize your mind, relinquish your silence for the good of all. 

This art is FREE, so distribute freely. May we all learn how to deeply resist any powers that be that would make us less whole, less brave, less devoted to one another. May we embrace resistance and love as our path forward, now & always.”

Real Life

Laughter Is the Best Medicine

January 22, 2017

This weekend, Mani and I went to a “laughter yoga” meet-up. A new friend of hers who lives in Southern Vermont had suggested it, and we figured it fit into the catch-all “Why not?” category and said sure, we’d be there.

Saturday, driving over the river and into Northampton, there was a thrill in the air: The thrill of people showing up together and for each other. The undercurrent of urgency and defiance that laced this growing gathering by the fairgrounds, where the marchers were assembling. We drove past Aviva, who was getting a ride their from her dad, on the bridge; I rolled down my window and waved and she flashed me her “My Body My Choice” sign. I honked enthusiastically as we passed small groups of walkers on the sidewalks; people waved back at us.

But we did not join them. Instead, we parked behind the Forbes Library, entering the building through a side door that deposited us into the children’s area (which made us both nostalgic). We eventually found the Community Room, where we were the first ones. A few other women trickled in, then one man, and we chatted a bit.

One woman asked if Mani and I were roommates, and looked supremely uncomfortable when we said no, we’re married. Was she uncomfortable because we were a same-sex couple, or because she was embarrassed for having assumed otherwise? It was hard to say. Someone else mentioned the march — clearly having been caught off-guard by the traffic and not someone who might have had to choose between such a protest and some other activity that day. In other words, it was clear we were in what you could call mixed company. If the name “Trump” had come up, I’d have been out of there like a shot; for better of for worse, I’m not that evolved and any efforts I’ve made since November to “communicate” with Trump supporters have been dismal and discouraging.

But this was not a space to discuss anything political, which frankly, feels like everything. Instead, we waited until the “Laughter Pharmacist” arrived, which he did promptly at 12:15pm. And for the next hour, we laughed. Mark Sherry took us through a series of “games” designed to banish self-consciousness and release endorphins, ranging from having a “Vowel Movement” (my favorite) to greeting each other as roosters at daybreak. If it sounds ridiculous, it was– and that was largely the point.

Did you know that laughing immediately breaks down the stress hormone cortisol in the body, boosting the immune, digestive, and endocrine systems and increasing blood flow? Or that babies laugh as early as three weeks, not because you told them a great joke from the Borscht Belt, but because it’s as natural an evolutionary response as hiccuping?

Call me a convert.

What was really fascinating was to leave this hour feeling both more relaxed — I’d woken up Saturday a ball of agitation — but also realizing that we’d just connected with a dozen or so humans in a way so universal that perhaps, given the opportunity, some reciprocal dialogue and listening might have been possible. I never thought “Laughter is the best medicine” was so literal, but it could well be one of the things that enables us to stay resilient and steadfast in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.

Real Life

We Will Protest by Living

January 19, 2017

The Witches’ Brooms, by Enzie Shahmiri

We’re going to a laughter thing this weekend. Mani and a friend heard about it and thought it sounded fun, and I agreed. I imagine we will either love it or laugh at it or maybe both, but either way it should make for a good story.

Last week, a few days before my birthday, I dreamed I looked in the mirror. For a moment — perhaps it was three or four seconds, the kind of seconds that feel long — I saw my mother’s face returning my gaze. I shook my head and blinked my eyes, disbelieving, and then it was me again on the other side of the glass.

The night before that, I dreamed I was driving and an ambulance was speeding towards me, in the same lane. I swerved just in time to avoid a head-on collision.

Today the sun came out for long enough that I couldn’t ignore its call. I laced up my sneakers and went for a thirty-minute walk. I thought about the books that have been written about boredom — I heard a story on the radio this morning about this, so it was fresh on my mind. How we’ve “lost our ability to be contemplative.” I think about the number of tabs open on my desktop, the number of apps on my phone, and wonder if this is true of me.

Have I lost my ability to contemplate? Sometimes I feel like all I do is contemplate. There must be some relationship between contemplation and action. As with most things, there’s no right answer. I get home with sweat trickling down my back under my sweatshirt and hop on a coaching call with a writer who excitedly reports many discoveries from the past week. She speaks of shame and how it distorts, and later tells a story that exemplifies clear seeing and the compassion that comes with it.

Later, a shower. “I feel like I’m behind,” I call to Mani in the bedroom, then remember that I’m not behind, I’m in the shower. I turn the valve clockwise and feel the water get hotter.

Aviva is cleaning her room. She comes into the kitchen to get a garbage bag and more Oreos. I am trying to work. The kitchen is my office, and I’m used to interruptions. So many interruptions. This morning in the car when we were talking about our Dream House, I used the word “tolerating.” As in, I am tolerating my work space situation. Would it be nice to have a room of my own? Yes. Would I love for Mani to have a yoga room? Yes. Am I unhappy? Truth be told, no. I’m not. I am weary of coveting what I don’t have; I’ve been to that rodeo and it wasn’t so fun. It sucked, in fact, like the speaker in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29:

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;

I swept the kitchen floor today. Later, I spotted a man with a toddler out for an afternoon walk, stopping to watch two dogs play in a yard. I love the feel of a little hand in mine.

Many friends are going to marches on Saturday, in D.C. and Oakland, in Boston and Northampton, in Philadelphia, in Tulsa, , in Raleigh and Portland and Chicago. All over the country, women I call my sisters will be marching. I will be here, with my wife. We’ll meet a new friend and see what it’s like to laugh in a room full of strangers. We will have no idea what to expect. We, too, will leave our house, step out into the day, and protest in our own way: By living.

January is so many shades of grey, and Trump’s inauguration (gag) is one of those events that is decidedly not grey. There is no nuance, no subtlety, no argument for the possibility of good in this abomination of democracy, dignity, and humanity. None. I will not waver on this. And while yes, I understand that this is our reality, that we must work with “what is,” I will still insist after tomorrow that no, he is not my president.

An old friend messaged me today. She said she’d been thinking of me and missed our coffee dates. I wrote her back: I miss you, too. We made a phone date for Sunday. This is what we must do — what we’ve always done: Tell each hello. Show up and say, when can we talk? I want to hear your voice. I want to see your face. Thank you for reaching out.

Share this post with a friend you miss seeing. Make a date to talk, to drink coffee, to give each other a hug. You’re not behind, you’re right here. And I’m right here with you. We’re in this together, and if nothing else, that will keep being true.