btn_subscribe_SM

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”

btn_subscribe_SM

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.

btn_subscribe_SM

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

btn_subscribe_SM

Forgiveness

book

“How does one know if she has forgiven? You tend to feel sorrow over the circumstance instead of rage, you tend to feel sorry for the person rather than angry with him. You tend to have nothing left to say about it all.” – Clarissa Pinkola Estes

In my tradition — Judaism — tonight marks the beginning of the Days of Awe. For ten days between the Jewish new year (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), it is believed that the Book of Life lies open. During this time, we do what is called t’shuvah. Literally, this word has to do with “turning.” We turn inward and reflect on the past year, paying particular attention to the places where perhaps we stumbled, faltered, missed the mark, or just really f*&!ed up. We take stock of our lives. We reach out to those we may have hurt, knowingly or unknowingly, and ask forgiveness. And we come together communally, to recognize all of the ways we must return, as an in people.

I find equal parts gratitude for and resistance to this practice. Gratitude, because inherent in its imperative is this: We are human. We are human and thus, we are going to make mistakes. We cannot avoid being human, but as humans, we can grow. We can learn. We can say, “I’m sorry.” We can look into our own hearts and face the places where armor replaced permeability, where anger overtook compassion, where pride eclipsed humility. These are not small things. These are the biggest things of all. And while we can cultivate the habit of being self-aware year-round, there is something about having a concentrated period of time each year to focus on our missteps — communally and individually — that brings those chickens home to roost. Thus, the resistance: These aren’t always easy to sit with.

What this isn’t: An excuse to beat ourselves up. What this is: An opportunity to really sit and consider where we’ve veered off-track, away from our values and priorities. Life gets busy and busier, full and overflowing, and not always in a good, abundant kind of way. I know I get swept into the current of everyday responsibilities, sometimes to the detriment of being fully present to the people right in front of me — including myself. This time of year, for me as a Jew and for the Jewish people, is a chance to turn back to what is holy and important and sacred in this life of ours.

Some people go to temple, to sing ancient songs and read the same prayers as Jews around the world. Some people go to the woods or the water to listen for God’s still small voice or mighty roar. Some ignore such rituals altogether. There are so many ways up the mountain.

Some acts are easy to forgive. “I’m sorry I was mad at you that one time,” a child might say to a parent, and it is not difficult (one hopes) for the parent to soften, to take the child into her arms and say, “Oh, my sweet love. I forgive you!”

Others are stickier and take longer, a lifetime even, to work on. I imagine we all have many examples of these. Forgiving someone for hurting us takes a tremendous amount of courage. It is not always possible for all parties involved to come together. And so whether or not we know for sure someone we’ve hurt has accepted our contrition, the courageous thing also becomes to forgive ourselves. For me, this always boils down to being human: looking honestly into my own heart to understand why I did or said something that hurt someone else; listening honestly for whether I’m being truthful with myself; and hopefully learning and growing in ways that will positively inform and affect my future actions.

We don’t always know when we’ve hurt someone else, and it is a great gift when someone trusts you enough that they come forth to tell you: This hurt. Because it is only then that true reflection and healing can happen.

Jewish or not, forgiveness is among the most universal of things we face as humans. This week, what if you sit down to write a story of forgiveness? Whether it is an old story, one you can return to easily, or a new one that still hurts to touch, explore its different nuances. How did things like pride, ego, humility, and self-reflection play into the way things played out? Were you able to resolve things and find peace, or does the experience feel like it’s still an open book and you don’t know how it will end? What shift in perspective or even words — to yourself or another person — would change things?

“Forgiveness does not mean that we suppress anger; forgiveness means that we have asked for a miracle: the ability to see through mistakes that someone has made to the truth that lies in all of our hearts. Forgiveness is not always easy. At times, it feels more painful than the wound we suffered, to forgive the one that inflicted it. And yet, there is no peace without forgiveness. Attack thoughts towards others are attack thoughts towards ourselves. The first step in forgiveness is the willingness to forgive.” – Marianne Williamson

L’shana tova u’metukah. May 5777 bring you a sweet new year, filled with ease, connection, humility, forgiveness, joy, solace, justice, and renewed presence and peace.