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

Thoughts on Subtlety


Movement is life. Life is a process. Improve the quality of the process and you improve the quality of life itself.
~ Moshé Feldenkrais

Today I’m interested in subtlety. We go a million miles per hour — sometimes even when we think we’ve slowed down.

And I’m thinking about the nuns we saw at Whole Foods, with the beige habits and the little boy who was clearly theirs in some way. How Mani and I both wondered about their story, and as soon as we hit the parking lot, brought it up almost simultaneously.

I was going to ride on the bike path today, from Amherst to Northampton. I’ve never actually done this. But all day long, the rain kept coming. And so instead, I made myself brunch, read a book, and took a nap. Later, we went to TJ Maxx and bought spoons. That’s right, six teaspoons. And one condolence card.

Now I’m sitting exactly where I was sitting 24 hours ago, in the velvet chair I had custom-made for Mani for our anniversary last year. Do you sit “in” a chair or “on” a chair?

I joined Mani this morning for 40 minutes of Feldenkrais, a method of movement that (according to the website) “uses gentle, mindful movement to bring new awareness and possibility into every aspect of your life.” She found an online teacher named Alfons Grabher, whose YouTube videos are as instructive as they are engaging. He has an Austrian accent and such an awesome, quirky sense of humor. The best part was the subtlety of the movements, and how the emphasis is on exploration. The idea is that the body knows what to do — and it isn’t supposed to hurt. It doesn’t look like much is happening, and yet after just one session, I noticed more space in my rib cage and mobility in my shoulders.

Naturally, this struck me as a perfect parallel to the way I feel about writing and creativity in general; so much becomes available to us when we free ourselves from right-way, wrong-way, “should” and “supposed to,” and instead give ourselves to the discovery of what occurs naturally when we decide it doesn’t have to be painful and torturous. Writing, bodies; how we relate to one thing is how we relate to all the things.

What if you’re a writer and you don’t even know it yet? What if you stopped thinking you had to write a book or make money or be well-known as prerequisites for saying, “I am a writer”? What would shift for you if you really allowed everything, every small movement, every word, to count?

The forecast for tomorrow is clear and sunny, high of 78. I am going to give the bike ride a go. I expect my ass might hurt at the end of it (no pun intended). I intend to take it slow and to meet my wife on the other side of the river.

Moment by moment. Life is happening. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t reflect on how to make sure I’m contributing to repairing the damage we cause each other, rather than adding to it. I pray for humility. I recall these words, spoken at the end of every class taught by Emily Garrett, one of my earliest yoga teachers back in Burlington: “May peace in our minds, in our hearts, and in the world.”

The sun just came out against the bruised sky. It occurs to me, that subtlety could possibly save lives.

starlings--Mark Hearld

Ten Minutes Instead of Three Hours

The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls. ~ Pablo Picasso

5:26pm

Pearl at the pool

Do I wait to have a three-hour chunk of time to write? No, I do not. I sit my ass down right here in the middle of it all and begin. The washer and dryer are both spinning — I’m halfway through six loads of laundry. Aviva and her friend are watching The Office in the living room, having just returned from town where they got fries. She’s at that age, where you go to town with friends and you get fries, with your own money, in an actual restaurant. I hope she left a good tip. Pearl’s at a friend’s house; I dropped them both off after a post-camp swim at the town pool. I’ve been alternately working and doing life things all days long — the kind of stuff that’s easy to put off day after day until days have turned into months and the oil change is 1,000 miles past due.

5:28pm

Something is wonky about my body today. It feels kind of like I’ve had 15 cups of coffee. I took an Excedrin Migraine this morning for the first time, and I’m pretty sure that’s the culprit. It’s not a good sensation and I want it to be over. I know it will pass, so I’m just kind of hanging out, noticing that vaguely weak, shaky, jello-y feeling. The heat and humidity index may not be helping matters.

5:30pm

I had that itch earlier to write. For hours and hours. To figure out where I’ve been and pull all the different colored ribbons together in a big bright bow. Alas. That is not this. This is more like lurching towards the writing, like driving a stick-shift when you’ve only ever driven an automatic. I insist that when the time comes — and it’s coming fast — I want my kids to learn how to drive a stick. Learning how to smooth the lurching, how you are closer to the whole experience, a bit more coordination and body awareness is required… God, I sound like a stick-shift snob, don’t I?

5:32pm

Showering in the summer feels extra good. Something about washing off the sweat and and how my skin is browner than I should let it get but oh, I love it, and the way the droplets of water cling just a little to whatever sunscreen residue clings after soap, pulling on a tank-top and skirt made of India cotton, something I would’ve worn in, say, 1987. I love all of it. I love slipping on sandals and walking outside without a thought as to coats or sweaters.

5:34pm

So many doctor appointments this week. An orthodontist here, a physical there, a bout of poison ivy, a specialist, teeth cleanings. I think I had a dream the other night that our insurance had changed and the cost had skyrocketed. It was truly frightening. Like many — most? — families, we have things that would be prohibitively, astronomically expensive without the coverage we currently have and can afford. It makes me crazy to contemplate.

5:36pm

Ten minutes have passed. There’s an odd, off-kilter feeling in my mouth and jaw. I am going to keep tabs on it while ignoring it at the same time. Is that possible? So much death lately, so much loss. My heart aches. I love being alive. Writing — even for just 10 minutes — is one of the ways I stop and take it all in. All the daily life that can seem like so much dust settling on our souls. Writing is my quest to invite my soul to surface, like a mother whale. Have a look around, I tell her. And she does.

starlings--Mark Hearld

Who Am I and What’s for Dinner?

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.

starlings--Mark Hearld

Survival and Sunlight

“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.