I went to Vermont for 24 hours (well, 27 to be exact, door to door) to get Aviva. She was wrapping up two weeks there as a camp counselor. I squeezed in a run by the lake, saw one old dear friend who put us up for the night, whose house feels like home, and wished I had time to see so many others. Burlington is beautiful and my body knows it intimately, as it was my home from ages 26 to 38. My babies were born there. Jobs and businesses came and went. I started writing again. The writing eventually led me home — which meant leaving .
And sometimes, it also feels a little like the scene of a crime — generally, not something one returns to lightly. So the reality is that my trips there since we moved nearly five years ago have been sparse and brief, and as a result, I haven’t stayed in close touch with many people whom I still hold dear. I have let go and learned that for me, looking back equates to living like Lot’s Wife and crumbling. Instead, I’ve chosen to be here and build something solid and real. This is a hard-won blessing.
I did not work for this whole time. We enjoyed a rainy morning at Burlington’s amazing Farmer’s Market, went out to breakfast, and then V played her ukelele and sang in the car before we turned to the “Dear Evan Hanson” soundtrack. I dropped her off at her dad’s house, came home and unpacked, then crashed for a bit. I woke up starving and ate some food, then sat down to catch up on emails and messages and new writing in my groups. And I felt overwhelmed. My mind jumped to negatives and extremes — thoughts like, “I will never be able to take a whole weekend off.” I made dinner for Mani and then sat down at my computer to start.
And after not so long, I had finished reading lots of new poems in the Dive Into Poetry group, and I noticed that I felt lighter and even energized by the writing, by the reading, and by the participation. The comments and camaraderie buoyed me and reminded me that I love what I do. And also that the world doesn’t stop spinning or anything remotely like that when I’m offline. It’s all there, waiting for me, and once I’m in the DOING, I am simply here.
PART THREE (THIS IS WHERE YOU COME IN)
Thinking about doing something is so much harder than actually doing it.
Do you think about writing? Do you have the urge to write but get stopped in your tracks, by fear, by voices telling you that you’re a bad writer, or not a writer at all?
If you do write, do you find yourself sometimes at a loss for a subject, a way in?
I so get this. The blank screen, the blinking cursor… meh. What’s in the fridge?
The idea with my prompts + groups is to write for 10 minutes every day, with a timer. Not to spend all day mulling it over. Not to delete and edit and tinker and perfect as you go, driving yourself batshit crazy. Just to start and keep going and have total, unabashed permission to suck.
Then we share!
Does that make you want to throw up? Yes? Then you are *definitely* ready!
JOIN ME JULY 10-21
There are a few spots left in the “Unspeakables” 2-week group that opens tomorrow and begins Monday. Feel the fear — and do it anyway. You won’t die from it, I promise.
Hell, you might even have a blast and connect with some fabulous folks who don’t think you suck!
Trickle of sweat between breasts
down the insides of thighs
underarms, lower back — I wake
this way every single morning,
tangled in soaked sheets and you.
This, the same body I lived in-
side of when a boy, Maceo,
pointed out my pert nipples
during gym class, when I showered
at camp and stole glimpses
at the older girls — the way
their bellies rose ever so
slightly between hip bones.
I thought I was comparing
all that time. I thought I wanted
their bodies, but not like that —
I thought, if only I looked like
that, like her or her or her.
In fact, I did want their bodies
tangled around mine, lying
around someone’s bedroom
listening to Joni Mitchell
or Phoebe Snow or Bob Dylan.
If I could go back and disentangle
the messages I received then,
the ones that made queer weird
and gay something not even
on the radar, if I could go
and tell my gorgeous young self
something, it would go
like this: Eat the food, kiss the girl.
Fill up on pleasure and meat
and skip a class or two and
you don’t have to be the cold,
Anyway. I don’t go back, I don’t
say these things. I don’t tangle up
with how things were because
there is no rewriting history, only
learning from it — or so they say.
They say a lot of things. Maybe
that was the problem —
their voices so loud in my head
that I could not listen
to my own poetry unless
I was all the way alone,
and solitude swallowed me like
a snake eats its own tail,
like a story the digs its own
And so I rise now,
sweaty, hair tangled, legs tangled
with a woman who knows me
from the inside out.
I rise and step into the shower
and run my hands over where
my belly rises now between hip bones,
breasts round, skin soft
from the wear of years,
no longer comparing myself
to who I wasn’t but coming,
little by little, finally after all these
tangled years, all the way
into this being.
and downright squirmy sometimes —
old angry voices from the past
don’t like being tossed
to the wolves. But I do
just that, make an offering
of what once ruled my life,
all of the demands, the vicious
not-enoughness that plagued
me into chronic restlessness.
I watch as they tear into
the tangle of sinew and bone
and artery, standing back
and seeing what will become
of all that I am no longer am.
My whole body is a bit tweaked from the fall I took two nights ago. The rather magnificent bruise on my right buttock (which turned into quite a fun #rightbuttock joke on Facebook) has deepened into a shocking and marvelous set of purples, and I thought that was that.
But yesterday, my neck started feeling achy and I was nauseous, to boot, enough so that I rescheduled an afternoon client so that I could take an Epsom salt bath and a rest rather than pushing through and pretending to be present. There are few worse and more disrespectful things than pretending to be anything, especially present. I was fine the day after the fall; amazing how these things can both take time to become apparent and creep up on you.
Earlier in the day, I’d listened as a different beloved client 3,000 miles away told me about a moment of sitting in her own tangled places — emotional, personal, professional. The entire call, I’d been watching a huge sheet of ice and snow melt in slow, steady drips just outside the south-facing kitchen windows. I told her about it, as it seemed symbolically fitting somehow, then sent her a photo after our call.
This morning, she reciprocated with a texted picture of a Buddha outside in the rain, pointing out that the face was half wet and half dry. It reminded me of the both/and of things; how we can be ok, be calm, be, period, even when we are exposed to the elements.
Sometimes I feel like I’m just recycling the same thoughts and ideas over and over again. I commit to things and then find myself unprepared, literally scrawling noted on the back on an envelope minutes before it’s my turn to speak. I judge myself harshly for being out of my league, but not unkindly for showing up in the first place. Ego is apparent here in many ways: Ego says, you suck. Ego says, you’re amazing. I’m wary of both messages.
My bruised right buttock slowed me down this weekend. After a shower, coffee, and breakfast, Mani went to work on a puzzle in the front hallway. I was debating between reading a book and taking a nap when I heard a crash.
I ran to the other end of our apartment to see if she was ok; she was fine, but her puzzle table had gone down the front steps (what’s up with us and the stairs in our place this week?!), and pieces had gone flying everywhere.
It was while picking them up that I came across a folder filled with short bits of writing, report cards, awards, and recommendations ranging from 1982 to 1991. I didn’t realize it was in that wooden peach crate with all the photos we’ve been meaning to hang in the front hallway for the last two and half years.
Once she got back to her puzzle, I sat down in the bathroom doorway and started reading through the contents of the folder.
“The most intellectual member of her class,” wrote my guidance counselor in 1990. “Jena is a warm, empathetic, articulate, and spirited individual with a twinkle of humor in her eyes. She is a good listener, and her peers actively seek and value her opinions. Jena is comfortable with herself, and she has a gift for making others feel relaxed whenever they are around her. It is difficult to describe Jena in a few words as there is much depth to this strong-willed, generous and engaging young woman.”
Now, it’s evening. I sit here with that folder at my side, the folder with newspaper clippings announcing national prizes I won for poems and essays about the Holocaust, short stories I started and never finished, a drawing from fifth grade of African-American anti-slavery activist and poet Charlotte Forten Grimké, and the one that really cracked me up, from a P.E. teacher who said I had “weak abdominals” (some things really never change).
There’s an uncomfortable sensation but I can’t fully put my finger on it. And then it hits me: I am wondering if I have lived up to this girl’s promise. And then something even bigger hits me: She wondered the same thing.
Suddenly, here we are, the two of us, my 43-year-old self and my 10- and 15- and 17- year-old selves. And I want to sit and look her in the eyes. I want to say: Hey you, in there. You don’t have to be amazing, you know.
As I sit here, another wave of thought comes rushing up to me. It goes something like this:
See? This is why it’s best to close the doors and leave them closed. What purpose is there in revisiting this old stuff? You can either use it as evidence of how totally YOU you were back then, or of how totally NOT you you were then. You can make it a badge or a weapon. You can spin any story you want, and they will all be true and none of them will be true.
I find a collection of ten poems I put together in 1998, after my first year of grad school. One is called “After an Absence,” by Linda Pastan. It begins:
After an absence that was no one’s fault
we are shy with each other,
and our words seem younger than we are,
as if we must return to the time we met
and work ourselves back to the present,
the way you never read a story
from the place you stopped
but always start each book all over again.
Sometimes life is like this. We start the same book all over again. And again, and again. We forget who we were, carrying only memory ghost imprints of our younger selves. The once who were bursting with ideas. “Enthusiasm and delight” is how my Amherst College professor described my relationship to the Spanish language; I was 15, a junior in high school.
And then there is “Kannon” by Sam Hamill. How bizarre; he doesn’t know me from Eve but we are Facebook friends now 20 years later, and I watch from afar as his health dwindles. As a woman in my early 20s, his poetry spoke to some deeply human and impossible part of me.
I adore you. I love you
completely. Nothing to ask in return.
Each act of affection a lesson:
I fail, but with each failure, learn.
thirty blows if I can’t answer,
thirty blows if I can.
And William Stafford’s “Awareness,” yet another hint of what I knew I didn’t yet know. Here are the final two stanzas:
Of hiding important things because
they don’t belong in the world.
Of now. Of maybe. Of something
different being true.
And Mary Oliver’s “March,” which ends:
“Something touched me, lightly, like a knife blade. Somewhere I felt I was bleeding, though just a little, a hint. Inside, I flared hot, then cold. I thought of you. Whom I love, madly.”
The girl I was, the teenager, the young woman, the young wife, the new mother — all of these matryoshka dolls stacked one inside another. I sit here this evening as the light fades. Much of the snow on our neighbor’s roof has melted from the storm a few days ago, and soon soon soon, spring will come for real. I feel like a grown up, even though I question what that actually means.
Oh, life. You have such a way about you.
I think it has to do with a bruised buttock — a fleshy one, too, not like the underweight ass of my youth. It has to do with mad love and evenings in, with poems as portents, with potential unfolding and dying in every single moment, rather than as something to bottle up and stash for emergencies. It has to do with being the mama now, who is strong enough to sit still, to say, “you are safe.” To mother and live in such a way that my kids can find their way to being truly themselves. And it definitely has to do with what happens when I stop trying to be good enough and instead, just love the person I’ve always been.
I look out the window at the dark, then turn to myself and say:
Keep reading for hints and watching for clues. Keep scribbling notes and paying attention to which poems grab you by the heart. Keep sharing delight and enthusiasm — for language, for learning, for stories and poems. Keep showing up, whether you feel prepared or not. Keep diving in where things are tangled and keep coming up for air where the sun shines and melts away what seems impossible and permanent. Let the seasons change. Listen to the body. It knows how to heal. Healing is possible.
Today, I was not just late for a meeting. Today I missed a meeting altogether. I’m loathe to tell you why, but you might guess so here it goes: I was sleeping. I had forgotten to double check my calendar before deciding to take a mid-morning nap with Mani, and sure enough, when I woke up I realized I was 30 minutes, also known as “too,” late to make it.
This morning, I had two copies of “Why I Was Late for Our Meeting” sitting on the little chest where we keep the dishes in the kitchen. I knew they were both books I set aside to give away. The problem was, I had no idea whom they were for. Over the course of two or so hours, some Facebook messages and emails tipped me off, and I remembered. But oh, the forgetting is disconcerting.
As I write this, Mani is in the other room doing her hour of “brain gym” exercises. She is becoming a veritable amateur scholar when it comes to neuroplasticity and our ability to not only rewire our brains but also strengthen them and keep them agile and able as we age. You might think we’re too young to be thinking about this stuff, but no. It starts now. The slipping. The “why did I come into this room again?”
I threw out my iPod shuffle last weekend. The brand new red one that I had especially engraved with words that seem slightly ironic now: “Everything counts.” I didn’t mean to toss it, mind you. I was bringing the trash down to the garage after a short run, and somehow I didn’t notice till later that the iPod was nowhere to be found.
On Monday, our landlord sent an email to us and our downstairs neighbor: “Anyone missing a small red iPod? Music’s terrible, but might be one of yours.” Hey, what? I responded with a yes, and a wink about needing to get better music. He wrote back, sounding a bit sheepish and blaming his kids for their musical taste. Last night, he dropped it off for me. End of story.
But clearly part of a bigger story, one where I begin to worry about my mind.
I used to worry about my mind being overactive. Now, it’s a lack of focus I find distressing. Mind you, this is not a constant state. I can tell you what year it is. Unfortunately, I can even tell you who the president of the United States is. I know my social security number, my kids’ birthdays, and people’s phone numbers I haven’t called in years. I keep track of multiple writing groups at any given moment, try to remember when we’re low on toilet paper, and write down appointments in my handy-dandy paper calendar. My 2016 taxes are even done. All things considered, as a working mama with my own business, I’m holding my own. I may have thrown out my iPod, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater here.
But I want to do more than keep up and keep track of all the moving parts. I want to be intentional about what gets my time and attention and yes, where I hung up the car keys. (By the way, last year, I threw out my whole keychain in that same garbage can — true story. I never recovered those, though. Mani and I have been sharing keys ever since.) I want to be present to whatever I’m doing, not jumping up to make a cup of tea mid-sentence, or clicking over to one of the other 18 open tabs (I just counted) on my desktop when I’m still in the middle of writing something here.
I’m not even going to bother writing about shame. Bah, we don’t have time for that old story.
And I have no pithy words of wisdom about multitasking and how terrible it is for our brains. There are a million studies and books and websites addressing what we already now. Instead, I’m coming here to write about this simply because it’s true. It’s getting my attention and is the kind of thing where small concerns can quickly become big problems when they go untended.
I hear the beeps and boops of Mani’s computer program and see us: Two middle-aged women, not even three years married. Five kids between us with an 11-year age range. A peaceful apartment in a quiet neighborhood in a college town in the northeast, with plans to move to Southern California after my two have turned 18 (or sooner, should the universe conspire on our behalf). I see us on this mission to be healthy not only of body but of mind and spirit, too.
I just spoke with a friend today, whose partner’s father has brain cancer. The surgery he had required cutting out part of his brain, the part that controls empathy and emotion. I want to rush into the next room to say, “I love you.” In fact, we do this many times each day — stop and give thanks. It’s a near constant. Even on days when I am rattled or rushed, a conversation with her will bring me back to something softer and kinder inside of myself.
I leave in 10 minutes to pick kids up early from school for eye doctor appointments. My work day is chopped up; I will return to the computer to catch up with all of my writing peeps later, most likely while Aviva and Pearl are at the rock gym with their dad. But right now, I am here. I am writing this blog post. I am taking a breath in, and I am taking a breath out. I hear the rhythm of it and realize I’m doing ujjayi pranayama — ocean breath — without even meaning to. It’s soothing and centering.
I hear the “ding” of another Facebook notification; at least 12 have occurred in the 20 or so minutes since I began writing. I choose to ignore it, for now. I will finish what I started, before beginning the next thing. And see if I can bring some kindness to myself as I keep practicing this.
Last night, I wrote something about not being unnecessarily hard on myself, then realized that being hard on ourselves is never necessary. Yes, we can identify things that need our attention. Sometimes these are even urgent. There is so much waking up to do. But beating ourselves up really doesn’t expedite the learning; if anything, it makes me want to run the other way.
No running away. No lashes on the back. Just honesty with myself and a willingness to be real here, too. It’s a good place to start again. After all, everything counts.