starlings--Mark Hearld

Big Y, Tuesday at 9:00pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

starlings--Mark Hearld

Mindfulness, Mad Milk, and Running Low on Dream

I look around the room, as if it’s going to tell me what to write. The dryer is spinning in the small pantry attached to our kitchen; my back is to the fridge and I’m facing a wall that’s painted a southwestern red, with lots of irregularities beneath the paint. To my left, my calendar sits open, with appointments scattered throughout the days in three different colors of pen — not by design but as a result of whether black, blue, or purple was closest by at any given moment. Just beyond that is a 90-page manuscript I’ve had the privilege of reading twice now, once last fall and a revised copy just recently; I have a call with the author in a couple of weeks to discuss her edits. To my right is my unlined notebook, the kind with the blue cover that I replace every couple of months at Hastings, the local stationery store that special orders them. The face-up page is divided into boxes — six for various writing groups and a couple more for other to-dos. Mani just informed me that the milk is bad and we’re almost out of cream — though with typos before I just fixed them, that read “the milk is mad and we’re almost out of dream,” which one could argue is how some poems and new ideas are born.

I used to blog this way, a long time ago. I’d sit down and just write. Sure, sometimes I’d have a thing I wanted to write about — a moment or collection of moments from my day that were swirling around my head, seeking some semblance of synthesis and accidental alliteration. These days, not so much. Maybe it’s because I do so many short freewrites in my groups, or frequently write little bits on Facebook; these are definitely factors. I could say it’s because I’m busy, but HAHAHAHA. When wasn’t that true and who among us couldn’t claim as much? Really, it’s not useful. Just say you chose not to make time write; there is always ten minutes, especially if you are willing to write something that may not amount to anything.

Today was a day of adulting: Parent-teacher conferences, conversations with my kids’ dad about various kid things, when the separateness of our parenting collides with the “co” part of it to which we’re both committed. Pulling together tax-related documents for a state audit notice that came in yesterday’s mail. I even walked to town to the copy store before remembering that our printer doubles as a copy machine! Um. Brain?

Around 3:45pm, I crawled under the cozy covers for a short nap. After thinking I would never fall asleep, I must have crashed hard, because when the alarm sounded, not only was I in a deep sleep, but I also had that strange sensation of time have shifted somehow, as if the earlier part of the day was long ago, like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. I noticed my mind doing some obsessive-leaning theatrics reminiscent of some of my most reptilian tendencies, and managed to share with Mani some of my thoughts as a way of not letting them work me up or take m down.

Then I got up and confronted the kitchen sink, which over the course of the day’s meals had piled high with dishes, a daily result of not having a dishwasher + neither of us leaving the house for work. I sudsed up a sponge and adjusted the water temperature to where it was just hot enough not to scald my bare hands, and washed. Dish by dish, just like Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Peace Is Every Step, the very first book about mindfulness I ever encountered and read, back in my senior year of college. That was 22 years ago. I am very much still practicing and very much still failing and very much still growing and very much still human and alive — all of which is ultimate very, very good news. I’m alive!

And oh man. Life, yo. It keeps being interesting, that’s for sure. And after listening to wrenching news this morning as I wound my way over the Notch — the tiny mountain pass between Amherst and South Hadley — about the chemical attack in Syria, I see that what I might label as stressful or challenging is real but also needs to be held in perspective. Comparing lives is not useful, but awareness is one of the sources, for me, of compassion. When I lose track of myself by getting tangled up in the nets of what I can’t control, I’m of no use really to anyone. But one thing I really appreciated and needed to hear this afternoon was this: “That is a lot.” Mani said these words, or some version of them, and I felt the tears spring just for a moment then to my eyes. I didn’t need a big heaving cry, only just that acknowledgment. Someone to say, “Hey, it’s ok. You’re allowed to feel overwhelmed.”

Making the space for it helped me move through it.

I dreamed last night that a man I worked with was working, it turned out, three days a week, but getting paid the same as if he was working five days. I was furious and there was nothing I could do about it. From a Jungian perspective, if I am all the people in the dream, then maybe I feel like I’m working way more than I’m being compensated for. Welcome to motherhood. That is the nature of the beast, and a beautiful beast it is. One I give thanks for every day, no less so when we’re bushwhacking through all kinds of uncharted jungle with a hand-held machete. Turns out there are some pretty stellar guides who are familiar with these jungles, and while no one else has answers, I am not alone, and neither are my kiddos. This is comfort and courage alike.

And this, I remember as I wrap up — must go to the store now before it gets much later — is why I used to blog this way, dropping into the moment without a clue as to what would come out. Practicing writing is how I navigate through these days of mad milk and stocking up on dreams.

starlings--Mark Hearld

A Side of Breakthroughs with Extra Ketchup

I’ve been staring at a blank screen on and off for well over an hour. I tell people, just start, and keep going. But fuck me, it’s hard. I could start and delete and start and delete — this is where the “keep going” part comes in. But keeping going is not easy when nothing is flowing and you are doubting that you have anything worthwhile to say at all. Couldn’t the world use more silence? How is it contributing to write this kind of unedited dreck? I just listened to Julie Daley on Facebook Live talking about the status quo and about creativity and how creativity is so much more than what we relegate to what we call “The Arts” but really life itself. Life force.

And, there is also this balance — one I’m so aware of — between listening and speaking. Reading and writing. Taking in and adding to. I share my practice in part because it’s the behind-the-scenes stuff we too rarely get to see, of how creativity actually happens. It happens in fits and starts. Sometimes it’s insufferably stuck-feeling and you need to step away and get into some other state, some beta state let’s say, like walking or showering or reading, where your creative brain can catch a breath instead of you breathing down its back, demanding output. It doesn’t work like that. We are not machines. Creativity-on-demand doesn’t exist. Can you imagine, if we could just put in our order:

Hello, yes, I’d like three chapters of my novel today, two epiphanies, and a side of breakthroughs with extra ketchup?

I came down with a cold today, a bad one. It came on like bam, out of the blue. I worked and napped — a fairly usual Monday. And then I stared and started and deleted and thought, this whole start and keep going thing may be bunk. It doesn’t work. It’s awful and stupid and I hate it. Ever thrown a tantrum and realized it had nothing to do with anything and maybe was a sign to wave a white flag of surrender to effort and try again tomorrow?

It is ok to try again tomorrow. It is ok not to be creative all the time. It is ok to read, to listen, to absorb, to ring it all out in a hot bath or a cold sweat, and to notice the ways in which sitting still is squirmy. Where creativity is in its dormancy, where beauty is the growing mountain of Kleenex telling you to get in bed, sister, and get some sleep. We have miles and miles to go, and so much to learn. If we worry so much about saying it right or waiting until it’s perfectly crafted, we might never step foot outside our comfort zones again — which is exactly where the world needs us.

Can both be true? I think of the old “two Jews, three opinions” axiom and chuckle. Yes. Both can be true. Be gentle with your creativity, your spirit, your words — but ask a lot of them, just as you might with your own children. Love means holding each other to the highest expectations, while forgiving each other’s constant and inevitable failings. And I’m here writing, not deleting, because I love you and this life and this work and this world. And because the world needs your patience and your urgency. Your imperfect offerings. Your best effort and your unwavering commitment to growing things that feed others — literally and creatively.

Now let’s order another basket of fries. I’m buying.

starlings--Mark Hearld

Evening Prayer

evening-prayerPlease let me never lose my humanity.
Please let me never lose my empathy.
Please let me never lose my open mind.
Please let me never lose my patched-up heart.
Please let me never lose my priorities.
Please let me never lose my patience.
Please let me never lose my perspective.
Please let me never lose my compassion.
Please let me never lose my integrity.
Please let me never lose my humor.
Please let me never lose my creativity.
Please let me never lose my humanity.

And when I do, please let it be brief
and please bring them back one by one
as the ocean brings stones and sea glass
to our searching hands
and empty pockets.

starlings--Mark Hearld

Finding Refuge in Ourselves and Each Other

sundownI know better than to say anything external can make my life a living hell, but when Mani was very, very sick, I thought just that: Maybe her being very, very sick was making my life a living hell. In some ways, this was true. It was also making her life a living hell.

There was this one time, when I was writing about looking at that situation from someone else’s perspective, standing in someone else’s proverbial shoes, that I finally stepped into hers. Mind you, this was at a time when even a feather touch to her feet could send her through the roof with pain. No doctor could say what the source was of this peripheral neuropathy, but it definitely fell into the “living hell” category. I wrote and wrote. I got out of my own head. I got over myself for ten minutes, and then read her what I’d written. And it was one of those moments, a turning point — she felt heard and seen in a new way, and I felt less imprisoned by my own selfishness.

I spent the morning in synagogue. Not everyone, but many people were wearing all white, as is customary on Yom Kippur. I remembered for once to bring a tallit, or prayer shawl; when Mani and I got married two years ago, we ordered a two-person one from Israel, and they accidentally sent us two. So I brought the one that is all white and linen-colored. When we arrived (Pearl came with me and we sat in a row with my middle sister’s family; Aviva slept in as she attempted to fast), I lifted the tallit over my head as I’ve seen many others do. I did not say the actual blessing for wearing a tallit (Jews have a blessing for pretty much everything), but I did hover underneath it for a good long minute alone. And you know? It was a kind of paradise in there. It really was.

Under the tallit, I felt sheltered. I remembered that that space is always available to me, and asked myself in that silent place why I don’t take refuge there more often.

Same reason I don’t take refuge more often in general, comes the likely answer. On the yoga mat. In the woods or a bathtub. On a chair under a blanket with a book. Even in the kitchen, making a slow-cooked meal rather than a quick and easy one. So many places to find that readily available sensation of peace, and yet — I take detour after detour and then wonder, as if it’s some great mystery, why I am (fill in the blank — exhausted, headachy, grouchy, overwhelmed, etc).

The next hours were spend singing. Alternately sitting and standing. We got there when the sanctuary was pretty much filled up, so I did not have a machzor, or prayer book. And this was ok. It was paradise, too. Nothing to follow along with, no page numbers to keep track of. Just my voice joining with the ones beside, before, and behind me, following some ancient rhythms of collective responsibility and second chances.

This afternoon, Mani had a doctor’s appointment with her immunologist; he was blown away by how well she is doing — no wheelchair, no cane even, no epipen for over a year, and she has weaned herself off of some of the most hardcore opiates out there. (Can I get an amen?) He also brought up politics, and told us he’s been asking all of his patients for the past month or so who they’re voting for. We joked that seeing as we Jewish gay women who would very much like to stay legally married, he could probably guess.

While we were in the waiting room, I saw a post from writer Lesléa Newman in my Facebook feed. It was a photo of Matthew Shepard — his young, beautiful face accompanied by her words:

“In Judaism, the number 18 stands for life. Today is the 18th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death. It is also Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This feels very significant to me. Matthew Shepard believed passionately in social justice. Let us carry on his legacy today and every day by working hard to make the world a more peaceful and kinder place for all.”

matthew-shepard
Seeing this the day after National Coming Out Day after spending the morning in communal prayer ushered me home to everything I hold dear: Being free to live one’s truth — and our collective responsibility to make sure doing so is safe and — better yet — embraced.

In fact, something Rabbi Weiner said this morning, while offering a blessing for those who rose with an intention to stand up and speak out for social justice in the new year, spoke to me so personally: Sometimes a thing has to be broken in order to be repaired.

Sometimes a thing has to be broken in order to be repaired. This was certainly true for me of coming out. And I can’t help but wonder — with a cautious tinge of optimism — if it could be true for our country, too.

And yet, for many people, coming out is not safe. There is no place of refuge for this emergence, one that so often requires breaking with one’s own past in profound ways. There may not be a welcome committee imagining life in your shoes, or waiting with warm cookies and a toaster oven. For many people, to come out — be it along the LGBTQ spectrum or in other ways, as artists, as activists, as women with stories we’ve never shared, as speaking in fierce opposition to power, as spiritual — is not only scary but unfathomable.

And that is truly a living hell: To have to wear a mask inside of your own life.

As Yom Kippur came to a close and I heated up a bowl of homemade chicken soup to break my fast, as the light began to go down over the blaze of October leaves, I considered the ways in which I want to seal the year behind us and welcome the one just now beginning. As an individual, yes, one who takes responsibility for my words and actions and their impact on others. And as a member of a community — the Jewish people, the American people — who is also responsibility for doing my part to ensure that ALL of us have safe spaces.

If my wife is in pain, I must step outside of myself to imagine her experience. If my fellow human must hide who she is, may my words and presence contribute some small dose of safety to her emergence. Refuge should not fall into the category of privilege or luxury. It can’t be bought, sold, or traded, nor are some of us more deserving than others.

May 5777 — and November 8 — bring evidence that we will uphold this truth not only as self-evident, but as sacred and civic duty, individually and collectively.