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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.

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A Little of Everything (When Everything Is Everything)

Photo: Elijah Hiett

Sunday consisted of a little of everything. Dreams as vivid as films, forgotten in a blink but returning in flashes throughout the day. Coffee. A run alongside Pearl on her bike up to my parents’ house, where I dropped her off to work for a couple of hours. My mom got her shining silver, sweeping the porch, and weeding the garden. I ran home, aware of some tension I couldn’t place but that hung on most of the day.

Later in the afternoon, it morphed into irritation, then fear, then I put my face up close to Mani’s and asked her to remind me to come in off the ledge. “Yeah, no ledges,” she said.

No ledges. How often do you find yourself there — on that imaginary edge of the world where with a single misstep, you might fall all the way off? It’s silly, maybe, but can seem oh so real. It amazes me how convincing certain states of being are, especially what I deem the “hard” ones. But then I think of this line from the novel I just started (Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi):

The need to call this thing ‘good’ and this thing ‘bad,’ this thing ‘white’ and this thing ‘black,’ was an impulse that Effia did not understand. In her village, everything was everything. Everything bore the weight of everything else.

I see the impulse to label everything. The “bad” states of being — anxiety, fear, anger, agitation, irritability, tension, stress — are all interrelated, like the reunion of the side of the family you do your best to avoid but comes over unannounced no matter. Then there are the “good” states of being — joy, ease, flow, gratitude, curiosity, connection. In their absence, I can worry (will they ever come home?). And when I’m experiencing these, aaaaaah, my ability to trust life expands exponentially.

But what if everything is everything? How does it shift my perception, if everything bears the weight of everything else? Well, for one thing, I can see a bit more clearly, the ephemeral nature of ALL of the above. It becomes easier to step away from the ledge, because I know the ledge is imaginary, no more real than tomorrow. When everything bears the weight of everything, everything is somehow more bearable.

Sometimes, a superstition haunts me a little bit. It goes a little something like this: I will somehow, unknowingly and inadvertently, cause the well to dry up.The well of blessings. Even reading these words makes me shrug my shoulders; obviously I don’t have that kind of power, nor are there some distant Gods watching my every move who will show their pleasure or displeasure with me on a whim. We are beings with free will; bad things happen to the best of people and the most evil of humans get away with atrocities every day. From this standpoint, it’s easy to get kind of hopeless and nihilistic about it.

But to me, it’s actually a positive thing that we are more than just chess pieces in some cosmic game. Why? Because it means that while we may have little control about what life brings to us, we get to choose how to meet life. Today, I felt tense. I swept the kitchen floor. I tried to take a nap but got interrupted five times in 45 minutes, got up feeling groggy and cranky, and then said yes when my sister invited us over for a bite to eat. Later, we got ice cream and saw some roosters. Now, day is done. Kids are clean. Mani’s eating. I’m typing in the quiet kitchen. Night has fallen. The crickets offer up the  tiniest of bells.

The fear that everything will crumble, the missing in advance, the love that sometimes gets eclipsed by moods and minor annoyances, the smile that quickly turns to a squall — all of the daily dynamics that happen not only within each of us but as part of any family unit — none of it stays. None of it.

What stays is this, the coming back. The sitting down. the writing as a way of returning to everything that is everything, where I don’t have to be so quick to say good, bad, hard, easy, black, white. I can just be here, feeling the full weight of this body, and letting the thoughts dissipate, as transient and insubstantial as the day itself.

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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.

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A Little Bling Goes a Long Way

It has been months since we slept in past 8:00am. Today, getting up two or three hours later than usual felt downright delicious. Still wrapped in dreams and clean sheets and each other’s softness, waking slowly in our time. “I’m glad we woke up today,” she said, her profile looking timeless in the morning light. “Me too,” I said, giving her a kiss before throwing on a nightgown and going to make the coffee. Mmmmmm. Coffee.

In the afternoon, we went out for a few hours and had fun at Luxe, a consignment store in Northampton, trying on all manner of dresses and jewelry and each finding a couple of things that fit us perfectly and felt good to wear. It’s no small thing, to choose to feel pretty and sexy — not for anyone but ourselves and each other and because we enjoy it and we want to.

This was not always the case for me; in fact, the very first weekend Mani ever came to visit me, not three weeks after our supposed one-night stand in January 2012, we went through every item in my closet and I realized I’d been hiding my body for years.

Back then, I considered it an indulgence to buy things for myself and getting a new article of clothing was a big deal, an exciting event. I’m still not a huge shopper, but there is a certain joy in playing dress-up and occasionally coming across something I love. It doesn’t hurt when said something costs $11 or $16 or $23 and looks brand new. Mostly, though, it’s her company I enjoy.

“Happy Mother’s Day,” I said as she slipped on an unbelievable bracelet shaped like Ganesh and covered with pink rhinestones. I chose a bling-y ring that sparkled irresistibly. We drove home listening to Leonard Cohen and Laura Marling and the “American Honey” soundtrack.

I’m sitting in the quiet of the living room now. It’s 5:15pm. This morning, I shook out the little rug we bought at TJ Maxx to go under the coffee table, and it was so dusty we both started sneezing. Plus, it’s white and shaggy, the kind of thing that looks great when it’s new and clean but is irrecoverable a year or two later, not to mention impossible to vacuum. I cringed a little before tossing it, then swept and tidied up a bit. Now the space feels relatively peacefulas I look out at the rain. The sun never did make it out today.

When I woke up this morning, before I checked the time and saw how late it was, my mind was like a ransacked consignment store — articles of discarded thoughts, strands of song lyrics, and remnants of dreams like mismatched shoes strewn all over, not even remotely organized by size or color or style. After breakfast, we each chose a card from my Vintage Wisdom Oracle deck. Hers was “Centering.” Mine was “Protection.” Driving home from Northampton, I looked at the ring and thought, that’ll do.

Now I want to write something smart about protection, but truthfully I’m just feeling my way into what it means for me right now and have no wisdom whatsoever to impart. That’s how I feel most of the time about everything, come to think of it. We take for granted the things we know the most about; they seem obvious to us. We think, I have no special knowledge to share or story to tell. But the fact is, your whole day is special — the nature of your mind and the rhythm of your day are unlike any other and I, for one, want to hear about it.

Mani is on the phone in the other room and I hear the washing machine in the pantry. The books on the bookshelf are beckoning me and suddenly I want to take them all onto the floor along with magazines and glue and posterboard and markers, to dive deep into what wants to be found. There’s so much wrong with the world, and I am finding that a big part of how I’m dealing with that is to stay close to what is right here — my family, the spring flowers, poetry, and a little bling that goes a long way.

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12/30 Poems in November: Real Life

pinball

Didn’t write a poem today.
Went to see some art.
Played pinball.
Took a nap.
Had a hard conversation
with my wife.
Listened even harder.
Cried. Shared. Felt better.
Then she made me laugh.
Now we’re in bed.
And I thought, oh shit.
Didn’t write a poem today.

12/30

**

I’m more than a third of the way through a month of daily poems, to support the Center For New Americans in Northampton, Massachusetts. I’m halfway now to my $500 goal. Want to chip in? No amount is too small.