starlings--Mark Hearld

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”

starlings--Mark Hearld

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.

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.