Category

The Body

Creative Process The Body

Who Am I and What’s for Dinner?

May 22, 2017

Image: Nancy Vala Art + Words

Some days, I’m afraid. I’m afraid I’m not tuned in at all — to the body, to other people, to my angels, to my kids, to my wife. I wonder if I’m missing something significant and important. The proverbial boat.

I glance over at the sink full of dishes and sigh. There’s no boat, of course. I know better. But that vague sensation — am I missing something big? — tugs at me like a little child, or a dog who wants to go out but then when you get outside, just stands there and looks at you with an expression that says, “So? Why are we out here?”

Ask me to “tune in” to the body and I draw a blank. The question shoots me straight into my head, where I’m likely to get all cerebral about how to do that. Thinking about how to do anything is a sure way to not tune in, in fact.

But on the mat, tuning into the body just happens. There is no thinking about it. Inhale arms overhead, slowly lower down, fingertips to floor, exhale to downward dog; even writing these words steadies my breath and reminds me that writing isn’t the only practice.

I find myself wondering about things like who I am and what’s for dinner in the same thought. The mat is a merciful place where both questions can wait.

When I really tune in, what do I find? A child with the sweetest smile, whose first book she named Bad Days for Jennifer at age five. A dreamer, literally, who remembers and reviews multiple dreams every morning before waking. Trains and forests, memories of other lifetimes. Someone who has left the body and returned to the body many times.

Where are the animals? A nest, a den. Inside of this body is both child and parent, hunter and gatherer, one for whom there can never be enough deep silence but who was known as a kid for chattering nonstop. A mockingbird. A thousand languages to learn.

She opens her eyes and thighs and mouth and out rushes sound, sound kept for years inside a cave no light could reach. Who is this body? I don’t know, but I want to her hear sing.

The Body Writing Groups

Survival and Sunlight

May 19, 2017

“Life seeks fulfillment as plants seek sunlight.” ~ B. K. S. Iyengar 

{a 10-minute freewrite from today’s prompt in The Republic of the Body group}

My first wrinkle. Literally, the very first one that appeared. Mexico, the winter of 1997. My skin had turned a copper color and I walked everyday up and down those hills. I read Frida Kahlo’s autobiography and dreamed in Spanish and wrote poems about midwives and dogs howling and the moon.

Winters in northern Vermont. Short days. Brilliant blue sky How the sun was a gift then, a welcome visitor from far, far away. Don’t go, I’d cry, don’t leave me here alone. I don’t know what I would do without you.

The jade in my kitchen. It began as a small cutting from a thirty-year-old plant from my mother’s house. It is outgrowing the black porcelain pot where it sits in a kitchen window, south-facing, growing like crazy, always reaching for the light.

Cowering. Imploding. Moods. Black holes. Yoga mat. Hamstrings. Strap. Block. Pulling myself up and out of the vacuum that threatens to hold me hostage. Twelve minutes. It actually helps.

We are hardwired for survival, but just about everything else about our brains is a result of training and can change. My wife tells me we are a different person every single second, we are changing constantly. We think, “This. This is who l am.” We hold ourselves hostage to what we think we want and who we think we are and what believe to be true.

Lay it all out there. Not out there for the world necessarily but out there for yourself. One thing at a time. Question all of it. Is this mine? Do I still have a use for it? Did I inherit this and does that obligate me to keep it and cart it around with me to the end of my days, however long that may be?

Tension in my throat and upper chest. I feel the tightness. It is signaling me: “Hey, you. Yeah, you. Make some room for me today.” I make some room. Just a little, just enough. An opening where I can crawl out and have a look around the rest of the body, the wider landscape of whatever is happening within and without. Be the observer, I tell myself.

Constantly seeking safety and shelter will lead to atrophy. Of the spirit, of the mind. I do not want to shrink with time into a scared, small version of myself.

Space is internal; this much I know. I move towards it the way the jade traces the sun from east to west, the way a young woman once walked so close to the sun, the way a young mother once walked her babies bundled in snowsuits, the way a seeker craves silence and a song seeks its singer.

The Body

Tangled (new poem)

May 18, 2017

Photo: Krista Mangulsone

Trickle of sweat between breasts
down the insides of thighs
underarms, lower back — I wake
this way every single morning,
tangled in soaked sheets and you.

This, the same body I lived in-
side of when a boy, Maceo,
pointed out my pert nipples
during gym class, when I showered
at camp and stole glimpses
at the older girls — the way
their bellies rose ever so
slightly between hip bones.

I thought I was comparing
all that time. I thought I wanted
their bodies, but not like that —
I thought, if only I looked like
that, like her or her or her.
In fact, I did want their bodies
tangled around mine, lying
around someone’s bedroom
listening to Joni Mitchell
or Phoebe Snow or Bob Dylan.

If I could go back and disentangle
the messages I received then,
the ones that made queer weird
and gay something not even
on the radar, if I could go
and tell my gorgeous young self
something, it would go
like this: Eat the food, kiss the girl.
Fill up on pleasure and meat
and skip a class or two and
you don’t have to be the cold,
quiet moon.

Anyway. I don’t go back, I don’t
say these things. I don’t tangle up
with how things were because
there is no rewriting history, only
learning from it — or so they say.
They say a lot of things. Maybe
that was the problem —
their voices so loud in my head
that I could not listen
to my own poetry unless
I was all the way alone,
and solitude swallowed me like
a snake eats its own tail,
like a story the digs its own
burial plot.

And so I rise now,
sweaty, hair tangled, legs tangled
with a woman who knows me
from the inside out.
I rise and step into the shower
and run my hands over where
my belly rises now between hip bones,
breasts round, skin soft
from the wear of years,
no longer comparing myself
to who I wasn’t but coming,
little by little, finally after all these
tangled years, all the way
into this being.

It’s uncomfortable
and downright squirmy sometimes —
old angry voices from the past
don’t like being tossed
to the wolves. But I do
just that, make an offering
of what once ruled my life,
all of the demands, the vicious
not-enoughness that plagued
me into chronic restlessness.
I watch as they tear into
the tangle of sinew and bone
and artery, standing back
and seeing what will become
of all that I am no longer am.

Dive Into Poetry The Body

I Know a Woman

May 11, 2017

Photo: Jeanette LeBlanc

I know a woman
forget flowers in her hair
she is queen of the crossroads
she will lay it all bare

I know a woman
forget her sweet smile
she is storming the castle
she is beauty and bile

I know a woman
forget empty words
she is forging a path
and feeding the birds

I know a woman
perhaps she is scared
she is telling the truth
she is defying the dare

I know a woman
on a corner she stands
she is taking her name
back into her hands

I know a woman
forget what you thought
she is the sole owner
of what can never be bought

Creative Process The Body

The Blessing of a Bruised Right Buttock

March 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like studying
under Te-shan:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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