zoltan-tasi-273195

Forgive Yourself for Each Time

Photo: Zoltan Tasi

For each time the words flew out of your mouth and you wished you could unsay them.

For each time you remained silent, only to wonder why you swallowed knives.

For each time you searched for but couldn’t find the perfect thing to say, and so you just sat with her, put your hand over his, kept company that which could not be consoled.

For each time your kids proved wiser than you (“she will see it as support later”).

For each time you hung up the phone and immediately wanted to call back to say, “I love you.”

For each time you were sure you’d fucked things up for good. For each time you learned to forgive yourself. For each time you spoke your heart with no way of knowing how it would be received — if at all. For each time you felt the ache of the world in your sinus cavity, your chest cavity, your belly — all of the hollow places where the body fills with breath, with longing.

Last night, you dreamed of a kitchen in a small apartment. It was elevated, modest in size, painted all white, and brightened by sunlight. A bank of windows overlooked sparkling blue, blue water in the distance. It was such a peaceful space, and you’d lived there once though you couldn’t remember when.

Standing there overcome by longing, you didn’t know if you could stand the leaving again. But you had to and you did, waking to a new day and a world of bright beauty and impossible pain, determined not to worry about getting it right but instead to be present. To love without interfering, to support without the pretense of saving, and to know that you aren’t here to be a saint but a person.

Today, you notice what quickens your pulse. What makes your stomach drop. What gives you a glimmer of hope and what seemed to urgent yesterday that you can simply set aside. You let the bread rise under its damp covering and the child grow towards her own sources of light. You learn, just a little bit, to let things be, thus becoming more available to what actually needs tending.

In the words of Ernest Hemingway, “Go all the way with it. Do not back off. For once, go all the goddamn way with what matters.”

zoltan-tasi-273195

The Days of Awe: Time to Return

Image: Mark Hearld

It’s the last day of the Jewish year. This is the time of year when Jews practice what’s called t’shuvah (Hebrew: תשובה‎‎), which literally means return. It’s usually translated as repentance, but honestly that never resonates with me. The idea of returning, however — turning back towards what’s important, what’s true, even what some of us may consider sacred — this is a beautiful practice.

Take some time today to write about returning.

It may be something specific in yourself or your life that you’re ready to return to, or a more general reorientaton on your writing + life path. Whatever comes to mind, trust that. Don’t overthink it — just start and keep going and let it be a kind of meditation, knowing the words will lead you exactly in the right direction.

Surely there have been times in the past year when I fell down on my intentions, got sideswiped by the two-sided sword of self-doubt and self-importance, and otherwise distracted from what was right in front of me. I dreamed last night that I had a hurtful fight with someone I love; I wonder if it was my subconscious reminding me these the Days of Awe are for making amends, for saying, I’m sorry. For sitting fully with the fullness of our experience and honest evaluation of what needs to fall away.

I made mistakes knowingly and unknowingly. I stumbled, tripped, and got back up again. I caused pain without meaning to, and for this, too, I must hold myself accountable. And in the coming months, in the new year, I know I will be imperfect as I continue to feel my way on this path of right livelihood, of marriage and mothering, of sisterhood and friendship, and of resistance and communal responsibility.

I come here today not only with a writing prompt, but to ask your forgiveness for ways in which I have let you down, or may disappoint in the future.

If my life is a prayer, I hope it’s one that aspires to the mountaintop but loves the overgrown trail, too. I hope it’s as clear and present on the difficult terrain as the parts that are well-tended. Whether weary or energized, may I remain aware that my thoughts, words, choices, and actions all affect others, as well as to remember that I am but a speck of stardust in the unfathomable grasp of creation.

I don’t know if I’ll make it to services tonight, as I’m working in bed with what has turned into a nasty cold and I sure wouldn’t want to sit next to me at the moment. I realized yesterday that I often come down with something in September; it’s as if my body knows it’s time to slow all the way down, to nourish and take stock in ways that require a degree of stillness. Stillness feels like a luxury item in this season of my life — which is all the more reason to make room for it.

There are knots in my shoulders and knots in my heart; some will loosen easily while I may work to undo others for the rest of my life. As it’s written in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers): “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Every year, every day, every moment is an opportunity to return. During the Days of Awe — between the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when it’s believed that the Book of Life lies open — this work is more densely concentrated.

These ten days always carry for me a quality of intense exposure. I do my best not to hide, not to mask, not to dodge and duck what’s true. Instead, to sit and say, Hineni — I am here. To take my seat in the sanctuary and reflect on what it means to live a life of authenticity, integrity, and meaning.

The birds are going particularly crazy right now; I hear them out the window behind me and see them through the windows across the room, darting in and out of the still-green branches. I am, in a very literal sense, surrounded by the song of returning. And there’s an urgency to their movements and sounds, starlings like jet-black barometers of the changing season, as if they, too, are congregating.

Whether you’re Jewish or not, in the spirit of the holiday that begins tonight at sundown: May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year. May your days be filled with sweetness, health, and creative juices. May justice prevail and may we dismantle oppressive systems that rely on greed, ignorance, racism, and a disdain for the poorest among us. May we have the wisdom to turn inward to face our own limitations rather than lashing out in accusation or judgment. May we be fierce in our self-love as a force for loving others, and may we place our respect for life, for the planet, and for humanity above our own material wants and desires. May we be part of repairing what’s rent and healing what’s broken.

L’shana tova. 

zoltan-tasi-273195

Underwear, Avocado, and Being Loved Inside the Hunger and the Mess


The year I was 43,  maybe even this year, I swear I stained half our wardrobe. You could blame the fact that I still cooked most of Mani’s meals at that time, and most of Mani’s meals at that time were cooked in copious amounts of butter or ghee. You could, but the truth was that I bought an adorable apron with gnomes on it for the express purpose of saving our clothes from ruin, and for all the stained tank-tops and t-shirts we’d had to toss in the trash, I had only myself to blame.

Today I read a response by Rebecca Solnit to someone who’d left a comment, referring to climate change, that read: “We have only ourselves to blame.” She wrote, “Who is we, and what good is blame?”

So, it didn’t matter whose fault it was that I kept splattering and wasting our wardrobe with grease (though clearly it was mine). What mattered was that she didn’t get angry and I didn’t grow fearful of her becoming angry, and this, in a nutshell, characterized our entire relationship.

One day, maybe even today, on our way home from her having a procedure at Cooley Dickinson, the hospital in nearby Northampton, we stopped for me to zip into Whole Foods to pick up a few things. I was shaky with hunger; in feeding Mani and my kids and due to stubborn, old habits, I wasn’t always so on top of feeding myself.

I took a hand basket and ventured into the produce section, selecting one ripe heirloom tomato, a bunch of fragrant, fresh basil, and a perfectly ripe avocado for myself, three bunches of organic broccoli, a bag each of local yellow squash and zucchini, and a bag of organic gold potatoes for her. As I walked past the antipasto bar, I spontaneously decided to fill a small plastic container with fresh mozzarella to eat with the tomato and basil rather than spending more money on a pre-made sandwich.

As I lifted the small circles of cheese onto a serving spoon, olive oil flew onto my dress in a vertical line, from the midpoint to the hem. I immediately heard a pang of self-criticism in my head. Damn! Really, Jena?

After we got home, I stripped off the dress and doused the splotches with detergent, hoping I’d caught it in time. I threw on a t-shirt, forgetting to remove my sandals. then put away the  groceries and proceeded to assemble my sandwich: Whole wheat pita, sliced mozzarella, thick slices of heirloom tomato, half of the avocado, salt, pepper, a drizzle of olive oil, and a heap of fresh basil. I clapped it all together and sat down on a green kitchen chair to eat.

Mani had just finished a bowl of Rice Chex and was talking to me cheerfully about something I forget now. I was ravenous and mostly focused on my food and how quickly I could consume it before a 4;00pm coaching call. And that’s when it happened.

It’s in the little things we see love in its purest form.

“You have avocado on your cheek,” Mani pointed out, raising her hand to her own face to mirror mine. Her eyes filled with a look I can only describe as adoring. There I was, devouring a falling-apart sandwich in a hurry in my underwear, the stained dress in a delicate cycle in the adjacent pantry, and my wife was suddenly overcome with love for me. We laughed about it, recognizing both the ridiculousness and preciousness of the moment, so exquisitely ordinary and belonging to us alone.

Later, after I’d finished eating, I got on the phone. “I’m in my car eating a pop tart and drinking coffee,” said my wonderful client. “I’m in my house in my underwear and a t-shirt and I just wiped avocado off my face,” I replied. We laughed and went on to talk for an hour about writing and real life, measuring up and what bullshit it is, what courage feels like, and the oppressiveness of trying to keep up with the idea of what you think your life (or writing, for that matter) “should” look like.

This is the life I want, where we can splatter butter, ruin outfits, drive each other to the hospital, laugh, and listen. I want the life where I tell you I’m sitting here in my underwear waiting to see if the stains come out, and where you tell me you’re eating a pop tart and your heart is broken or healing.

Give me this life where I don’t cringe at the sight of my own flesh or wish I were someone else, and where I am not only tolerated but loved most of all, most adored, in my hunger, in my mess, in my half-naked sandal-wearing ruined beauty.

If you get lost in a fog of fantasy or sucked into fear that your ordinary life isn’t interesting enough, send me a picture, send me a message, send me a sign — and I will return yours with one of mine. We can remind each other to laugh.

There is no one to blame for how lovable you are, except whatever name you give to the mystery that gave you to this human form, gave you a body to feed and clothe, and gave you this love, where you learned to truly forgive yourself for being all-the-way human.

* After the first line of Anne’s Sextons’s poem, Courage: “It is in the small things we see it”

zoltan-tasi-273195

There Is No Perfect Life

There is no perfect life.

There is no perfect marriage. There is no perfect family. There is no perfect job. There is no perfect health. There is no perfect house. There is no perfect child. There is no perfect partner. There is no perfect balance.

There is no perfect life.

There are bumps at best and chasms at worst. There are chasms that turn out to be blessings and bumps that bring on irrevocable damage. There are days when you think everything is impossible and you’ve really done it now, the ship is headed for an iceberg and you can’t turn it around. There are days when things are swimming and humming and you’d wear a Life Is Good hat if you had one. There are days when you fall in love with everyone you meet. And there are days when you wonder how it happened that harmony seems so far-flung, so impossible to grasp, that all you can do is cry at the sink.

There is no perfect kitchen. There is no perfect parenting. There is no perfect upbringing. There is no perfect friendship. There is no perfect life.

There are perfect songs, though. There are perfect avocados — for about 20 minutes. There are perfectly beautiful birds and oh, you envy the birds sometimes. This morning, there was a mockingbird on a roll right outside the bedroom window. And you thought to yourself, “a mockingbird on a roll,” and pictured a cartoon of a waiter serving a mockingbird on a roll on a silver tray. Your brain does that.

There is no perfect brain. There is no perfect nervous system. There is no perfect breath. Breathe just breathes. Birds just bird. What if life just lives?

It’s hard to accept imperfection, especially where there is dissonance or discord, when the various people under a shared roof aren’t humming in perfect harmony. There is no perfect harmony. Except damnit, there is and you’ve heard it and you could spend your life trying to replicate it but then you will miss all the other perfect moments that come and go as quietly as all the breaths you don’t notice throughout the day.

Here’s the thing: You can’t fix it, whatever it is, whatever that narrow place, that rock, that hard place, that difficult emotion, that situation that can seem intractable sometimes. You want everyone to be happy and we know how that story goes and never has a happy ending. There is no perfect story. There is no happy ending. There are happy moments.

Where were you all that time you thought you were practicing being present? Some questions have no answers. There is no perfect question that will bring forth the perfect answer as if a wish from a bottle washed up on shore with instructions. There is no perfect book that will serve as a perfect manual. You will get this all wrong ten thousand times and ten thousand more.

And you will still be loved.

You will still be loved.

You will not fall off the edge of the planet. You will disappoint people. You will let down the ones who need you most. You will say the wrong thing. There is no perfect response. There is no perfect outcome. There is this moment. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

And yet in the moment, in the moment when you think to yourself, “I am having a moment,” it’s not simple at all. It’s a storm and you are tossed all about and you know it well but still think this one’s different, this is the one that takes everything down with it.

And then it’s over and the house is still standing and you still love the people you love and they still love you and another day is passing, a day we’ll never get back, a day some people would do anything to have just one more of with the one they love and miss and lost.

You don’t want to lose the people you love. That’s what it all comes down to. There is no perfect way to say this: We will all lose in the end. Every single one of us. How we will live is the only question. And so you said to her, “There are the things we can change, and there are the things we can’t change. What we do with that is everything.”

There is no perfect teacher. There is no perfect program or class or course of action. There is only showing up as honestly as you can. There is moving through the moment and there is resistance and there is fear and there is distance and there is intimacy and there are countless things happening in any given moment. Energy bounces and we absorb and reflect and refract and distort and shine and obscure. It all happens, sometimes simultaneously, too much too fast and you can’t catch it and then later, you look and see how you contributed. You cut yourself some slack, which is better than the alternative.

Breathe.

Write.

zoltan-tasi-273195

2/30 Poems in November: Fault Lines

fault-linesWhen your mind turns
to the litany
of failures and detours
of fault lines
you fall through
when you fault yourself
for the mess
of being fully human

When you tie your laces
and go out
into the world
with its sidewalks
and people and strollers
and bus stops,
its dogs on leashes
and women crossing themselves
against the light

When the light changes
from harsh to forgiveness
and the body that blinks
through space
and time
remembers
all of the decisions
you made
good and bad
and maybe

When the poem steeps
all day waiting
for you to come back
and you do
because you said
you would
drop everything
and run home
to make sure
she knows
your yes is as golden
as the late-day light
and it sounds like
I’m sorry.

2/30

**

30 Poems in November! is a literary fundraiser for Center for New Americans. Center for New Americans welcomes and serves immigrants in Western Massachusetts with free English classes and a range of support services. For more information, please visit cnam.org This year, we aim to raise $30,000. Writers do their part by writing one poem each day in November. Friends and family do their part by donating to support this effort. Powerful new poems and financial contributions translate to community support for immigrants.

Some of the most meaningful work I’ve ever done was in my early 20s at the Riverside Church in NYC, leading English-language conversations with new Americans from countries all over the world. It was then that I was privileged to witness the courage, resilience, patience, and grit that immigrants and refugees must have in order to navigate life in a new language and culture.

Since poetry is one of the way I practice showing up in the world, for the month of November, I vow to write one poem a day as a small gesture of respect for and in solidarity with those who land in the Pioneer Valley as new Americans. Your donation will spur me on and, more importantly, support the newest members of our community.

Make your donation here