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

Waking Up Is a Prerequisite to Reckoning


What we need right now aren’t fantasies for the future. Calls for unity, healing, and kindness are beautiful, and they may make us feel better for a spell. But my fear is that they are also the stuff of national anesthetization and temporary amnesia that allow too many of us to go about our lives between marches or shootings, numbing out just enough to shrug at the status quo.

We’re tired, we say. There’s only so much we can do, we say. We feel hopeless, we say. There are about a bazillion ways to opt out of reality, and fantasizing tops the list.  I’d like to think we’re beyond this as a nation, but I know that that, too, is a fantasy.

As a younger woman, I used to have fantasies. Lots of them. Not psychic flashes of the future or winning-the-lottery type wishes, but more like a constant, distant mirage of where life was going and wouldn’t it be great when we finally got there?

In these fantasies, my then-husband had a job he loved, preferably one that allowed him to be outdoors a lot. In these fantasies, I had a thriving coaching practice that included Jennifer Aniston as a client, and we lived in a house with stainless steel appliances and a big mudroom. In these fantasies, money was never a source of stress. In these fantasies, I’d “get to” have a sexual experience with a woman, but just one, just enough to check it off my bucket list, nothing that would threaten the life we’d built. In these fantasies, I would reach a lot of people with my words and be known as a writer. In these fantasies, gay marriage was legal in all 50 states (why I cared so much, I wasn’t sure). There was peace in the Middle East. Racism was a thing of the past.

There was more, I’m sure, but those are the parts that come to mind right off the top of my head.

Later, after life undid the house of cards I’d so lovingly constructed, I sat in the rubble for a while. In my grief and emergence, fantasies seemed like folly or worse, a form of betrayal. On the one hand, I didn’t know how to trust myself. On the other hand, trusting myself had turned out to be the only solid ground.

Solid ground is where life is real and undeniable and perhaps scary and confusing to confront. It’s where things aren’t working and we’re willing to examine our role in that. It’s where we’re not telling the whole truth — usually out of fear, and usually out of fear that we will lose something. Solid ground is what we willingly trade for fault lines when we gloss over reality in the name of being good and/or trying to “make things work.”

Imagining a fantasy America that has healed (not heeled) from “its painful past,” sound nice — and should give us serious pause. The past isn’t the past when it’s the very ground we’re walking on. The past isn’t the past when it’s present in our everyday lives, in ways many white Americans continue to diminish, downplay, and downright deny.

If only we raise the vibration. If only we come together to sing in perfect harmony. We are the world, we are the children. My 80s are showing; these are the tropes of my growing-up years, and they’re not only tired, they’re dangerous. Why? Because skin color does matter. In a country built on racial hierarchies, it has everything to do with how we are perceived and treated, what obstacles or opportunities our children encounter, and how safe our bodies and psyches are in the world.

To pretend otherwise is its own kind of violence — and too many of us are perpetuating it. Sure, we may be perpetuating it inadvertently — but that is exactly my point. We need not to fantasize, but to be awake. We were taught not to generalize, not to lump whole groups of people together. But what I don’t remember reading or discussing in grade school or in middle school or in high school was the fact that as a person of color, the deck is stacked against you from birth. Period.

I was taught to remember how hard people — black and white alike — had fought for civil rights. In the past. We watched South Africa fight against Apartheid — and it was “over there,” surely something much worse than the racism that still existed in America. We were taught to envision a future where race wouldn’t matter. The privilege deeply embedded in all of this makes me wince.

Waking up might hurt, but it’s nothing next to the millions of ways white supremacy hurts real people every single day. And we most certainly cannot envision tomorrow without first taking responsibility for where we are today.

This fantasy of an America that has healed from its past will never exist if a majority of Americans won’t acknowledge the fundamental premise on which our country’s economy, popular culture, and capitalist ethos depend: That the lives of people of color are worth less than those of people with white skin — or worthless, period.

Fantasy is white people sharing rainbows and hearts and good vibes and calling it “healing.” It’s also the epitome of privilege, to paint pretty pictures of what’s possible but refusing to acknowledging the rot that is destroying us from the inside out — and our role in keeping it that way.

No, we have to do better. How? By dealing with what actually is. Without that, talk of a better America simply feeds this insatiable desire to look away. To not be accountable. To point the finger at “real” racists. To distance ourselves from racism. To insist that “we’re not like that.”

Reality — the only soil in which a true vision can grow roots — is where we wake up and say, “Yes, me too. I am part of this. I have to start looking at and confronting and shattering the ways in which I am complicit in perpetuating an inherently racist culture.”

It occurred to me, somewhat out of the blue the other day, that I don’t have a lot of fantasies for my life these days. Sure, I picture my kids getting older and think about their futures, and I imagine the seasons turning and the years passing. But I don’t really spend my time thinking about what I’ll be doing or how things will be different — or better — for us. On the heels of this realization came a quiet knowing: I am actually here, in my life, accepting all of it. The parts that are really fulfilling right now along with the things that are uncomfortable, uncertain, or scary.

When a patient is bleeding out, you don’t stand around talking about how great it will be when they’re all better.

I don’t use the word “woke” to refer to myself. But what I have written a lot about over the years is being awake. While this may seem like splitting hairs, to me there is a distinction. “Woke” isn’t  my word to use, to claim. To do so is appropriation — just one more example of me, a white woman, taking something that isn’t mine and making it about me.

But being awake? That is a prerequisite to reckoning. And reckon we must, every single one of us.

What beliefs have I internalized about race over the course of my 43 years here on the planet? What myths have I perpetuated that need to be smashed in order for us to have a clean slate as a country? Is a clean slate for our country possible? Not until we deal with what is right here, all around us, and right here, inside of each of us. 

starlings--Mark Hearld

The Intersection of Jewishness + Whiteness


The discussion of the intersection of Jewishness and whiteness is one I’ve been having for decades in many different contexts, and I imagine it will continue to occupy my mind and heart for the rest of my life.

One thing that has never wavered is the acknowledgement and full recognition and naming of the fact that as a Jew, I can choose whether to conceal or reveal my Jewish identity, just as I can with my sexual orientation. I can gauge a situation, setting, vibe, etc. and determine how safe I feel. People of color of no such option. There is nothing to debate here.

So there is zero question, for me, about white privilege and that being first and foremost the fundamental issue our country is seeing the inevitable outcome of today — the fact that our (and I say OUR, as Americans) collective identity is rooted in genocide, slavery, and white supremacy in ways that continue to go unacknowledged and unchecked, with unquestionably devastating impact on people of color. Antisemitism is also alive and well and that, too, is woven into our country’s history.

Antisemitism is important to raise as a point of awareness and attention if you look at the language and beliefs of white supremacists and the history of a people that has endured and survived thousands of years of expulsions and genocides. As a people, these live not only in memory and history but in the lifetime of our grandparents, genocide at the hands of those whose vile beliefs have been kept alive and revived by the people we’re now seeing empowered to come out of hiding by the current political climate and “leaders.”

I cannot see and hear men — and women, mind you — with burning torches chanting “Jews will not replace us” without feeling alarmed and chilled.

Also imperative to note: NOT ALL JEWS ARE WHITE.

As a white, Jewish woman, do I benefit from the systems of oppression? Yes. Do I feel the need to protect myself as a Jew, as well? Yes. Do I feel the need to use the privilege I have as a white person to further the work of anti-racism? Also, yes — and not only as an individual need or choice but as an obligation and embodiment of living Jewish values. So many things are true at the same time, and personally, my Jewishness serves to strengthen my commitment to racial justice, not in any way diminish, dilute, or whitewash it.

My Jewish identity is inseparable for me from my voice as a writer, an activist, a mother, and an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement. This probably goes without saying, but feels important to articulate tonight.

As Rabbi Hillel said in the 1st century: “”If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”


One thing that keeps going through my head is that we have no leader. No single person to whom we can turn for reassurance or guidance or instructions or context. There’s no sitting around the radio, listening with heads bowed. No single steady voice. (Maybe this has never been the way and is simply a warped form of false nostalgia? Or actual nostalgia for #44.)

What we do have may be what we’ve always had: Communities large and small around the country, organizing. The voices of those who’ve been talking, writing, studying, facilitating, and educating about racism for decades, standing on the shoulders of the ones before them.

And there is us. Us includes you. We all have to step into leadership here, in whatever ways we can. What this looks in our real lives is something those of us who have any semblance of privilege need to be addressing. Don’t think big. Think concrete. Think today. Think one thing at a time.

I know many of you have been doing this your whole lives. Many of you have devoted your careers to this work and risked your livelihoods, relationships, and bodies every singe day by speaking out. For many Americans, every single day is an act of resistance, just leaving the house. Thank you. I see you and my respect runs deep.

I’m addressing those of us who have looked to someone else to do it. Now would be a good time to be that someone else — yourself.

starlings--Mark Hearld

We’re in Hot Water Here, Folks

We were driving back to Amherst today and stopped at a rest area to pee, the kind that has a McDonald’s, a convenience store, public bathrooms, and some other places to get fast food, plus a little outside seating area.

Mani had already dried her hands when I came out from my stall. She told me that several of the sinks’ automatic sensors weren’t working; sure enough, several other women were hunting for which faucets worked. One woman advised me to try waving both hands under. Finally some hot water sprayed out.

Yesterday in Hudson, we walked through an incredible exhibit by a photographer named Jacob Elbaz. The photos feature searing, intimate portraits and real-life moments in Crown Heights and Israel, as well as stunning images from 9/11 and its aftermath in the City. We definitely experienced this description of his work, from Wikipedia: “His own work focuses on tension between communities.”

I wondered about tension between communities as I wandered around downtown Hudson, where modest and run-down-looking homes sit alongside newly restored beauties. The racial and ethnic diversity of such a small town (pop. 6.713), the charming farmers’ market and mash-up of stoop-sitters and hipsters made for an interesting place to explore a bit. I have no idea what the local vibe is when it comes to how these different communities interact, but I can only imagine it’s complicated.

In the foreground is life happening. Kids back and forth between my place and their dad’s, various summer camps and activities, loving my clients and writing peeps, watching Queen Sugar with my baby, and appreciating the beauty and meaning in everyday life, where it’s literally everywhere. We’ve got a couple other things planned before September really hits: Pearl and I are headed to a family camp in a couple of weeks, and Mani and I are taking an early fall trip to southern Maine to celebrate her 40th and our third anniversary. Aviva starts high school at the end of the month!

And all the while, the news — think “locked and loaded” — is in the background, kind of like a terrible radio station you can’t seem to switch off. Like everyone else, I’m uneven when it comes to how closely I’m paying attention to every last tweet. On the one hand, you can’t exactly make a difference if you refuse to stay informed, and on the other, I’m not sure the kind of difference I’m capable of making has anything to do with the latest asinine assault on humanity.

Driving along the Taconic Parkway in New York State on Tuesday, I felt teary for no particular reason. The same sensation washed over me again today as we headed north. Lupines and Queen Anne’s Lace billow the lengths of the wide median between directions; everything is so green, so lush, and so fleeting. Sometimes the veil feels thinner than others, and this week I’ve been intensely aware of how big the love is, how impermanent our lives are, and just how much I want to be here for all of it.

Walking back to our Airbnb yesterday at the end of a run, sipping my iced latte and nibbling on a muffin, I felt an inexplicable surge of love for everyone I saw. I asked myself, “If you saw a neo-Nazi skinhead right now, would you still feel that surge of love?” Not so much, I answered to myself. Not so much.

Which brings me back to the rest stop today. As we exited the bathroom and headed back towards the parking lot, I told Mani how I was thinking about  how, if some shit really went down — a shooting rampage, a bomb dropped —  these would be the people we’d huddle next to and pray with. Would we pause to ask, “Who did you vote for?” Would someone try to help us any less if they knew we were married or Jewish? Not so much.

No, just like on 9/11, just like in every fucking horrific shooting, just like when a plane goes down, we would all be mere humans, terrified and wanting nothing more than to live to see another day, to tell our loved ones how much we love them, to keep being here. We would weep for the dead, not ask if they were red or blue. Or at least I’d like to think so.

Maybe this is idealistic on my part. Maybe it’s fatalistic. Maybe I’m just tired and need to unplug for Shabbat. A woman who has been writing and coaching with me continuously for nearly two years now and whom I adore is in Massachusetts (from Oregon), and she’s renting a car tomorrow just to drive out to Amherst for a visit. We’ve never met in real life, and I can’t wait to give her a hug and have one of our marathon conversations — over actual coffee. Pearl and I may ride on the bike path Sunday to get ice cream. I open a brand new 2-week writing group on Sunday and get to welcome 12 beautiful humans to a zero-pressure writing practice.

Life is so many things. To say there is “tension between communities” is an almost laughable understatement. And yet — in the rest stop, we all just have to pee and figure out how to get those wonky sensors to work. We’re in hot water here, folks, and not the kind that comes out of those cheap faucets.

As usual, I offer no answers. Just these rambling thoughts, and love. Thank you for reading, for caring about the world as much as I know you do.

Shabbat Shalom.

starlings--Mark Hearld

Poetry, Politics, and Privilege

I feel unequipped to write about politics.

But yesterday, I posted the following on Facebook:

Do you ever have to suppress the urge to ask someone if they voted for Trump? But a) it’s impolite and b) it’s none of my business and c) I don’t really want to know. Oy.

A thread of comments followed. Some were thoughtful and others flippant, but I appreciated the conversation, however dispiriting is may have been. At one point, I mused:

The more comments I read, the more I think, why bother knowing. I think the folks I wonder about most likely DID vote for him. And the fact is, I have not had a single productive conversation with a Trump voter since the election. I truly wonder if it’s possible.

In the midst of that online conversation, one Facebook friend messaged me that she’d lost a life-long friend because of their political differences. Another sent me a photo of the stop sign at the end of her street, with a swastika spray painted on it. She had just called the sheriff’s office. “I don’t trust any of them,” she wrote.

Today, I received another private message, from someone I don’t know well. This person, who has never commented on my writing before, wrote:

i’m a little surprised at your comments in the post that you made on trump at midnight last night. I’m a libertarian but I really try to understand both sides. Both sides have valid concerns. I’m surprised as a poet and writer that you wouldn’t dig a little deeper and try to understand what a huge chunk of this country is feeling right now. I don’t mean the fringe that both parties have at their edges. I mean what is underneath the support. There is both fear and idealism underneath both parties platforms. For you to give up kind of shocked me. Clearly your newsfeed reaches only those with a homogeneous view.

I was triggered by this, but also know enough about social media to recognize that it could very well have been written in good faith. It can be so hard to read tone, especially when you’ve had no other contact with someone. After several hours of consideration, I responded:

Your note gave me a lot to consider, and in fact, I am writing a blog post now exploring this further — so thank you. Nowhere did I say I was giving up, nor do I see it as my responsibility to welcome everyone’s view on my personal FB page.  

Sure enough, he responded that he meant no harm.

Today, I was in the dentist’s office.

I was making the kids’ six-month cleaning appointments. And the four women working at the reception desk behind the sliding glass windows were all lovely and kind and helpful. One of them, followed by two others, complimented my dress — the dress both kids poo-poohed earlier in the parking lot. We laughed about that. We wished each other a good weekend.

 Did they vote for Trump? They might have voted for Trump. If they did, are they pleased with how things are going? If they regret it now, what does that mean? Now what? Are they speaking out, talking to their friends and family?
 
I wanted to ask them. I don’t know what would happen if I did. If they said yes, would the be less lovely, kind, and helpful? What would change in that moment? Would I start ranting in the waiting room? Doubtful.
 
I suppose I would ask why. I want to believe this is possible, this seeing each other. This listening. But — and there is the “but.”
 
What about the xenophobic, misogynistic, embarrassing, homophobic, racist, tweeting, dangerous, isolationist, sociopathic, narcissistic, manipulative, unrelenting greed and ignorant dismantling of democratic ideals?
 
How does one reconcile overlooking or approving these? I don’t know if I can, friends. I just don’t know.
 
But I didn’t ask. It’s not done, right? And this is how we go through the days.
 
Who are we?
 

Here’s what I mean by unequipped.

Writing about this feels nearly impossible. But that is a cop-out. We can’t leave this kind of wrestling to the pundits and the experts. We all have bodies. We all need air and water and food that’s not poisoned and health insurance and safety and education and legal protection. And by all, I do mean ALL. 

This is where I have such a difficult time staying open, since a vote for Trump essentially said, no, not all. Just some of us.
 
I am neither a journalist nor a spokesperson for anything. I am a mother and a poet. I am Jewish and queer. I am white and was born to parents with higher degrees and the means to provide me and my sisters with private education.
 
Truth be told, I generally interact with very few people whose political and moral beliefs vary dramatically from my own. When a woman in one of my writing groups shared that she had voted for Trump — the week of the election — I tried to create space for her writing, only to be personally attacked. In a word: It sucked. 
 

Is it my job as a poet not to have strong opinions?

Is it my job as a woman to be a nice hostess and make sure everyone is comfortable? Not everyone is going to be comfortable. God knows I’m not comfortable speaking up in this way when in fact I shy away from confrontation, suck at debate, and generally love it when everyone’s getting along. This is not my forte, people. 

And yet here I am, writing. I am writing because this is such sticky and difficult terrain, and we are all walking on the same ground — which is crazy, given how little ground we seem to share within these borders. I am writing, because I fear for my children’s future, and for the children who are learning from their teachers, parents, siblings, peers, and role models in office that bullying and hatred are American values. I am writing, because climate change is accelerating and we’re the frogs in the pot and our president just nominated a climate change skeptic to USDA’s top science post.

I am writing because I care so fucking much.

I have no answers.

I am a bundle of fear and rage and love and confusion. I went for a run this morning, and I looked at each person’s face I passed by. A delivery guy. An older gentleman walking his dog. A woman with a briefcase waiting for the light. A man smoking a cigarette on a bench. A child watching in awe as the firetruck backed out of the station, holding his grandfather’s hand. I ached.

What do we do with the ache, with the love, with the rage, with the fear?

How do we listen?