starlings--Mark Hearld

9/11, My Biological Clock, and Healing a Broken World

Just a few weeks before September 11, 2001,

I’d come home from an evening class, put my arms around my then-husband’s waist — we’ll call him Bryce — and said: “It’s time.” I meant time to start trying to conceive our first child. We’d been married just shy of two years, I was 27 and he was 35, and my clock was definitely starting to tick.

We had moved to Burlington, Vermont about a year and a half earlier and bought an adorable duplex downtown, back when housing in the Champlain Valley was still reasonably affordable on two modest full-time incomes. And while he had some fears about becoming a father, we knew from early in our relationship we wanted a family. I was the director of a Jewish student group at the University of Vermont, and he was newly self-employed, doing work related to renewable energy. The Master of Fine Arts degrees we’d each earned in creative writing sat untouched, his rolled up and mine framed, both collecting dust as we went out the business of figuring out how to support ourselves and make a life.

That day in late August as I walked down Maple Street from the tiny yoga studio on South Union, the light on Lake Champlain looked not unlike the way I’d imagined the light people describe who’ve after near-death experiences. It didn’t just reflect on the water; it seemed to be the water itself, consuming, warm, and white. I heard a voice, the inaudible kind that’s hard to explain to other people: “I will be your teacher,” it said. And I knew right away what, if not who, it was: The child who was ready to be ours.

Students returned for the fall semester and my work at UVM kicked back up into high gear. As the Hillel director, a significant part of my job was to organize high holiday services on campus. We borrowed a Torah from a local synagogue and I made Xerox copies of services into welcoming booklets.

At 27, I was barely a decade older at most than the students I was leading, but I took my role as a leader and mentor seriously and wanted to create a spiritual and meaningful container for us to come together during this sacred time of year. I’d even bought a special outfit for the High Holidays: A silky tank and peach-colored skirt, run through with deep orange stitchwork and tiny mirror-like beads. Wearing it, I felt professional. Like a real grown-up. Like what I imagined a woman and a wife and someone ready to become a mother. must feel like.

On the morning of September 11, I drove to Cherry Street to pick up my newly pressed outfit. The sky was a piercing blue, the kind that makes you want to sing out loud, burst into tears, and talk to strangers on the street — all at the same time. I parked at a meter, crossed the street, and jingled the door as I entered the small dry cleaner’s. A woman behind the counter and a customer were talking and looking up at the small TV screen hanging in the corner of the room. “What’s happening?” I asked. “Something about a plane crash in New York,” one of them said. I felt a wave of concern, though neither of them seemed particularly worried. I collected my clothes, paid, and rushed to turn on the car radio. I started to realize that this was something. Something big.

I sped home and yelled for Bryce to turn on the TV. The previous owners had never disconnected their cable, a fact that had allowed us to enjoy West Wing. ER, and Friends each week on their respective nights. We sat down on the couch, the first “real” piece of furniture we’d bought together. One of the Twin Towers was on fire. I burst into tears, trying to get a handle on what was happening. As we watched, mouths agape, a plane flew directly into the second tower.

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” I repeated, the shock of what we were witnessing coursing through my veins. I felt convinced I knew hundreds of people at the scene even though it would turn out just a few people I knew were downtown that day. My roots as a New York Jew were three generations deep; I’d gone to college uptown but ventured below 14th Street often for a homecooked meal at an aunt and uncle’s loft in Tribeca. I had taken many walks to Battery Park with my aunt Nancy, who had died in a 1998 plane crash. I remember being grateful that she wasn’t there, to witness what was now happening.

The terror of that morning together with my position as a campus leader gave me a sense of purpose; after making shocked calls to a handful of close friends and family members, I reached out to some students and put out the call that the Hillel office would be open that evening for anyone who wanted to come be in each other’s company. There was no comfort to give, but being together felt urgent, like something to cling to.  Rosh Hashanah began just five days later, and Yom Kippur ten days after that. Reciting the Unetanah Tokef prayer, described as “a religious poem that is meant to strike fear in us,” took on an extraordinary and chilling depth of meaning that year.

A few weeks later, Bryce and I marked our second anniversary at a resort in Stowe. A colleague of his had won a free night and for some reason offered it to us. Not ones to splurge, we took advantage of the opportunity to do something special. I was still deeply shaken by the events of September 11 — and to say I was still feeling ready to make a baby would be an understatement. We had a long talk about the kind of world we’d be bringing a new life into: An already over-populated world, groaning under the weight of its inhabitants, suffering from climate change, and apparently teeming with people who wanted to kill us.

On the drive back to Burlington — October 7 — I turned on the radio and heard that we had just bombed Afghanistan. We were at war.  The tears kept coming, life went on, and I was undeterred in my need to start a family. Though it took a few more months, we conceived the person who would become our daughter sometime around my 28th birthday, in January of 2002. I knew it wasn’t a good time in the world to have a child, but I also knew that it never would be. My logic wasn’t logic at all; it was intuition, trust, and all kinds of things that fly in the face of reason.

A year after that night in the kitchen and that horrific nightmare of a September day, I was in my third trimester and “all belly” as my OB-Gyn friend and unofficial doctor affectionately said. The extra 30 pounds showed up on my petite frame in a perfectly spherical shape — a basketball that everyone insisted meant I was carrying a boy. I was lucky in that I’d had a relatively easy and altogether healthy pregnancy, and now that our baby’s October 8 due date was approaching, the realness that a new human would be coming to live in our house was beginning to really sink in.

My nesting impulse was off the hook, manifested in immaculate cupboards, organized bookshelves, and happy houseplants, not to mention the glider I’d received from the grandparents that sat by the front window. I imagined myself spending hours there nursing, and felt my pulse quicken. I couldn’t wait to meet this person I’d sung and written to for nearly nine months. No matter what kind of world we lived in, I believed with all my heart that it would be better with them in it.

Aviva Lou was born on October 10, 2002, just over a year after that terrifying September day. We brought her to rallies and marches against climate change and racial injustice, but she wasn’t much interested in politics or the environment, preferring as she grew and showed us who she was to sing her heart out, read books, and write stories. But something happened while we were busy caring, changing, and witnessing so many more global and national tragedies: It was as if she’d been soaking everything in all that time, and suddenly she began to find her own voice, her own passion, her own devotion to tikkun olam — repairing the world.

Very little is the same as it was 16 years ago. A second child, Pearl, joined us in 2006. My marriage to Bryce ended was I was 36; four years later, I married the woman of my dreams. The world — and our country’s role in its swift deterioration — has continued to stun, anger, and awaken us on a daily basis.

The privilege of just “getting on with life” is no longer an option and really never should’ve been. And these kids — these babies who were then barely here and are now in high school — they’ve inherited an unbearable burden that they must transform into opportunity: To live in a time when remembering days like 9/11 is critical, but no more so than looking at the world each and every day as a place in desperate need of truth, beauty, and justice.

starlings--Mark Hearld

Already Whole: Day Two

My mother has blue eyes. So do both of my kids. Mine are green, with tiny brown flecks in them.

My mother’s hair was pin straight when she was a young woman. I think later she got a perm. Later, it seemed to get curlier on its own, but nowhere near as curly as mine.

People came up to me on the street my whole life, asking if my hair was naturally curly, telling me how much they spent to get hair “like yours.” My kids have straight hair, but Aviva has recently started showing signs of curls. To my surprise, she’s happy about this.

I married a woman with curls, and people have often asked us if we’re sisters. I have two sisters; they have straight hair. Genes don’t make sense so much of the time.

My Grandma Lee, or Nona, was the curly-haired one. It’s said I also got her eyes, the way they squinch all the way up when I smile. When I was little, kids used to ask me if I could even see when I smiled. Nona chain-smoked & fed everyone, which frankly doesn’t sound so bad to me. She was also known as a psychic and a seamstress.

Today Pearl and I went to a funeral. Someone told her she looks just like me. She doesn’t agree. She does look a lot like her dad. In fact, when she was born, my ex-mother-in-law pulled out a baby photo of him, and we couldn’t tell them apart. Meanwhile, Aviva has started looking more and more like my mini-me, and to my surprise, she doesn’t seem to mind the resemblance.

I didn’t know I was Jewish growing up. It wasn’t a secret but it also wasn’t common household knowledge, at least not to me. I loved Christmas morning & later spent years as a young adult trying to figure out where I belonged. I cried in synagogue after synagogue, feeling at once alienated and home. I dreamed of the ground itself in Israel & decided to become a rabbi, them instead kept being a poet and found other ways to whisper to God. I wanted to be a translator. I wanted to learn all the languages, disappear into the world completely. Instead I got married, had babies, and wrote my way to what I’d always known was true.

Women are my home. Challah and dancing and justice and poetry are my home. Babies, all the babies, and the kind of fierce listening I do when I’m alone.

What stories are you ready to shed or share?

Written as a member of the support team for Already Whole, a 3-day storytelling campaign created and hosted by Andréa Ranae Johnson and Cameron Airen to launch Whole Self Liberation

starlings--Mark Hearld

The Blessing of a Bruised Right Buttock

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.

Like studying
under Te-shan:

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. 

starlings--Mark Hearld

Heart Wide Open Hurts

hanumanYou know how sometimes the water is so hot it feels cold? Or you are so overcome with emotion that it’s almost hard to distinguish between feeling and numbness? That’s how it felt as soon as we turned out the light.

I had been too tired even to watch our show, so it was on the early side — before 10:00pm. The meditation music began, and there it was — the constriction in my throat that somehow coupled with a sensation I can only describe as one of being a much younger woman, early 20s say. I’m reminded of how a few weeks ago, Pearl shared with me that she suddenly understood that we are ALL THE AGES we’ve ever been. So, she shared by way of example, if she’s really mad, maybe in that moment she’s actually four. It made perfect sense.

I lay there for a few minutes quietly while Mani pulled me in close; we take turns as we fall asleep with who’s the “big spoon,” and usually start out with her wrapped around me and me skooching my bum against the hollow of her belly as close as humanly possible. It’s my safe place, at least one of the top three.

And suddenly, I choked out these words with a sob. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve been lost my whole life.”

With that, I cried and cried, tears rolling one after another from my eyes down the side of my face, drenching the pillow. She didn’t say a word or ask any questions, but just kept her arms around me tight. I let myself sink into the body memory of living inside of myself in other cities, other moments in time, but with the common feeling of not quite knowing how to BE in the world. How to translate the boundarylessness of being, or if not translate it, contain it and apply it in some useful way. In other words, how to feel at peace, inside and out.

Eventually, I got up to blow my nose. When I came back to bed, Mani asked what brought that on. Apparently, I wasn’t done crying yet, as her question triggered another round of heaving sobs. Flooded by how much I love my kids, more than perhaps they will ever know, and feeling in my bones that this is how much my mother loves me. The immensity of love felt almost like too much to bear. Because it is also pain, and it is also loss. There is no picking and choosing here.

And she told me then, about an image of Hanuman, a Hindu god in the form of a monkey. In the depiction she was recalling, he has ripped open his chest to expose his heart. Here’s one version of this moment, excerpted from a longer story:

Hanuman is given a string of pearls as a token of appreciation. He immediately breaks the necklace and begins cracking each pearl open with his teeth. When asked why he is doing this,  Hanuman replies that he wants to see if Rama’s name is present in the pearls. If it isn’t, then the necklace has no value to him. Sita then asks Hanuman if Rama is inside of him as well. At this point, the monkey god rips open his chest to reveal the name of Rama inscribed on every organ, muscle and bone, and the images of Sita and Rama are found on his heart.

Heart wide open hurts. Heart wide open means alive, human. Chest wide open means heart exposed, and heart exposed means not numb. Means withstanding intensity of aliveness. Means riding waves of all the ages, more moments than would ever be possible to contain or count. We are uncontainable, really much too big for that. And yet here we are, walking around thanks to gravity inside of these skin-shaped vessels called bodies.

Someone gave me a string of pearls and I broke it open to see if God’s name was written there. It was as if I swallowed the pearls whole and took them into my heart, or strew them about in a fit among falling leaves. And then, the chest, the heart, the dark, the music, the holding and the letting loose of all the ages and all the ache and all the love that is too much to carry sometimes.

This morning, I saw their faces, the children I bore who I can only pray know my love. It’s literally in the brownies I made last night, and the way I sat while they ate breakfast and we chatted about this and that dream one of us had last night. It’s in my touch when I squeeze a shoulder or a thigh, my gaze when I’m doing that embarrassing mama thing, and it’s even underlying my annoyance or frustration when they’re fussing at me or each other. I wish my love was the very air they breathed, and I suppose in a way it is. Bigger than me or any of us. And no guarantee of ease.

It hurts sometimes to feel this much. And yes, sometimes I feel like I’ve been lost my whole life and still am. Because what is its opposite — found? Like “Amazing Grace,” is there such a moment when one arrives at the other shore? I’m not convinced. It’s more like a tide that carries me out and back, sometimes violently, sometimes so calmly I don’t even see how far I’ve drifted. There is floating and there are bouts of panic: Where are my people? Where is the ground?

And then there is surrender. To the currency of salt water and tears and ocean and the big sky that might be spacious enough for all of this, and the tightest hold that weathers me through.

starlings--Mark Hearld

The Art of Stopping Time

cccpIt went by so fast. I thought it would feel like forever. I thought it would be awkward. But it wasn’t at all. It was the most natural thing in the world, to meet myself there for a whole minute. To look into my own eyes in the way I would a child, or someone I love so very much. The relief of it. The tenderness of it. The way when I played with the deep furrow lines between my brows, my expression changed. From loving and kind to amused to angry to simply relaxed. I watched my pupils grow large in the dim living room. I saw the ways in which my face hasn’t changed at all since childhood, and I saw the depth in my eyes of being.

I looked into my eyes and thought about how thought had nothing to do with it. Just to be. Just to be here, with myself. That is why when the one-minute timer went off, I was startled. That was a whole minute?

As I write this, Mani has a hypnosis on – a man with the most wonderful Scottish brogue. He is talking about procrastination. He is talking about stopping time, and how long one second feels when time is stopped. He is talking about suffering, and how one minute is 60 times longer than one second, and an hour 60 times longer than one minute, and so on, and really, how long do you want to prolong your suffering?

Looking in the mirror for one minute was a bit like stopping time for me, which may explain why the timer came as a surprise. I realized just how rare it is that I stop and just see. Take one full minute to see. To just see myself or whomever it is in front of me. We avoid eye contact, at least prolonged eye contact. Culturally, it’s considered rude or even aggressive. Yet to meet someone’s eyes, especially your own, is such a gift. To stop and really just see. Not listen. Not take turns even. Just see equally – I am here, you are there, here we are.

Can you imagine if in a presidential debate, the opponents had to sit and just look at each other’s eyes for even a minute? No words, no rebuttals, no interruptions, no arguments, no evidence, no attacks, no defense. Just looking. Seeing. Two humans sitting together.

To look at myself in the mirror without words is to see my humanness. I am flawed, which is to say human. I am worn, which is to say human. I am creased and marked by time, because time does not stand still. And yet the illusion of it – that time is a thing I am bound by – that also melts away.

I don’t know what else to write. The hypnosis is ending with the words, “Wide, wide awake.” Maybe that’s it. Maybe taking a full minute to look in the mirror is a worthwhile daily practice. A way of saying, I am here. I am here and I am wide, wide awake. My eyes are deep with love and pain and care and little brown specks in the green and black pupils wide wide and awake in the dim room.

My face is my daughter’s face – this morning in the car, she said how every time an adult meets her for the first time, someone who already knows me, they exclaim how much she looks like her mother. “Sorry,” I say, faux-apologetically. But I can tell we are both ok with it.

I have this face that is timeless and not timeless. I resist the urge to look at the timer. I hear the clock on my dresser ticking. One second after another.

**

This was an unedited ten-minute freewrite in one of my current writing groups. If you’re looking to jumpstart or deepen your writing practice, join me for “What If You Knew?” (October 10-21), my next two-week group. Limited to 12 participants. More details and registration here.