Friday, August 28, 2015

Back to School 2015

This past Tuesday was the first day of school I had been planning for two years, the very first day all three of the girls would be dropped off at the same school.

I had come to plan it with precision, over the course of months, imagining myself returning to the fading velvet chair in my garage office to write.  This peaceful vision, which I’ve carried with me like a favorite stone for a couple of months, obvious now, but it was not generated out of a gentle journey.    

It had its beginnings in a dark, awful feeling I experienced the day I dropped Gwendolyn off at Fourth Grade and Chloe off at Second two years ago.  After leaving the girls in each of their classrooms, each with a teacher I knew would light up their days, I turned my back to the school gate and sobbed giant, swampy, complicated sobs.  I felt like I had been excavated, dug out to a dark hollowness, like inside me was a vast cave I had not encountered before.  It was denser and more frightening than the sweetness of missing girls.  I did not like it.  

Without allowing myself to delve too deeply into the feeling, which I don’t think I had the capacity to do at the time, I attached a simple explanation to it.  I imagined that women who worked, say at places like Google or Facebook, did not feel this gaping hole.  I fantasized that because they were valued by a company or a team, because they had an experience of who they were without their children, that they had a fullness I did not.

I vowed to myself that over the next two years I would figure out how I could also understand myself in this way.  I set out to discover a more about who I might be in the world, beyond the walls of my house, beyond my relationships with my children and partner.  It was time.

So that fall I enrolled in a program called Professional Reboot, organized by a Coach named Sherri Lassila.  Every Friday morning for two months a circle of about eight women gathered together to take stock of their values and to start take new action in the world around us.  One of the women wanted to create a program for sound healing.  Years ago she had had a mystical experience of sound in a french cathedral that had led her to take courses about the healing properties of sound.  The curiosity and desire to do more with music had been continuing to hang around her.  

One day she arrived at the circle and with a question in her voice said, “I had this idea the other day.  I thought maybe I could go over to the local nursing home and offer to do my sound healing for the residents over there.  I could do it for free, just to try doing it with people?”  The idea was clear and precise, and even though it came out of her mouth riding on an inquiry, it traveled to rest of us like the sound of a bell ringing on a sunny day.  The whole circle experienced the sensation of yes, our bodies humming, almost sizzling with excitement and support.  We responded to her, telling her, “Yes, you can do that, you totally should do that!”  That week she made the proposal to the nursing home, to which they also said yes.

After that, yes became contagious in the circle.  It was as if the physical feeling of “yes” had turned on for all of us, making it easier to recognize our own yeses.  The next week one woman was off investigating the possibility of creating multicultural placemats for kids, another was exploring her photography, I started to get more practical and realistic about becoming a writer.  I signed up for a class and submitted my work to a magazine.  And the magazine said yes.  Every time someone made progress, the circle took on a feeling of celebration and possibility.  Together we were breaking through the stagnation that had prompted us to sign up in the first place.  It was wonderful and juicy and so good that I decided I also wanted to train to help other women do the same.

It felt good to feel different than feeling excavated.  I was making progress, and a high pitched energy zipped me forward week after week.  With each leap I learned more about what I could do.  It was fun, but moving faster than expected.  By last April, the vision of myself in my faded velvet chair on the First Day of School had solidified.  

It’s been a whole summer since I’ve been blogging, and I’m not sure if you’re with me here, but can you feel how low I was two years ago, and then how speedy and high my growth forward was?  It was very herky jerky, just like one of those developmental spirals of disequilibrium that we see our children go through.  By April I could see it for what it was, and could feel that equillibrium was likely to return by September.

So this past Tuesday, the first day back to school that I had planned for two years, arrived.
Three backpacks paired with back to school shoes were laid out in the front hall.  School supplies were purchased.  Calendars set.  I was as organized as I’ve ever been.  It was their first day of school, and my first day leaving them off to go back to work, the beginning of a new chapter for all of us.  I wore a new dress to celebrate.

But after Eloise’s teacher sounded the rainstick and said, “OK Kindergarteners.  It is time to give your parents a big hug.  And moms and dad be sure to let your Kindergarteners know what a wonderful day they will have.  It is time to say goodbye,”  and Eloise and I had a very big hug and she ran to the rug, and I took one last look before I snuck out the door to begin the walk to my office that I had imagined for so long, there it was, that empty excavation feeling.

The sky was gray, and the red wagon I had walked Eloise to school in, bumped behind me feeling so light and so empty.  All at once I felt how over it was.  These last eleven years of babies at home, of mornings in the park, of naps, of food cut into bite sized pieces, of the homey feeling of preschools and the saintly women who work in those places, of girls just the right size for my lap.  And even though there were a thousand times that I yearned for the freedom of this day, and even though I have grown into a role that I love and will love for a long time, it did not protect me from feeling the emptiness in the end.  The reality of having the girls with me so closely, as they are in the summer, and then having them gone.  Of feeling so taken up, and then, in a way, left behind.  Perhaps it is a pattern of parenting, maybe mothering in particular, that you feel the weight of the child so very close, in your belly, in your arms, in your home, and then the absence of that weight and its aftermath.

These two years, I had been mistaken that there were other women who did not feel this.  There is no possible other role that could protect a person from the reality of the loss.  What I had been up against two years ago, and what I was up against on Tuesday was the truth about endings--that they come.  And when they do we are often depleted, empty completely.

Our lives require, well, all of our life.  We parent our hearts out so that our children can grow to become independent of us.  We live as fully into our days as we can, until we have no more days.  We are candles that will burn to the bottom of a wick and the only thing left after the the glowing light will be ash.  

Oh shit.  This again.

And that’s why I was laughing.  I had just passed through a stage in which I had temporarily forgotten that this is what we’re up against. The dark feeling of two years ago wasn’t just a dark feeling, it was the dark feeling.  

If I had understood this more clearly at the time, and I’m almost certain I was not able to, I don’t know if it would have mattered.  Understanding is not the same as experiencing. It is possible to anticipate in advance that loss will hurt, but how it will actually feel in the midst of the thing cannot be known until the moment itself arrives.  Preparation can only prepare us so much.   

At the same time, my herky jerky ride, and the zippy energy that has propelled me these last couple of years, have conspired to bring on some important strengths that are helping me today.  I have grown into work that gives me a way to take care of life in a daily.  My writing practice and my coaching practice both build muscles that me keep me close to the pulse and the infinite texture of things.  The vision of myself in my faded velvet chair, the one I have been holding like a favorite stone these last few months, has arrived.  It showed up accompanied by the same dark cloud I was working so hard to avoid, but yet, here I am.  Steady in my chair, lifted by the opportunity to write for a morning. I am looking at the difficult thing more clearly today than I did two years ago, and I still don't like it. But I have some new strengths that help me be with it a tiny bit more. And there is some peace in that.

So for as many days as I have to sit in this seat, I am grateful.  

Blog friends, I have missed you.  More than you know.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Dear Baby Mama

The other day I woke up before six to make my mother's blueberry buckle, it's a coffee cake we make when blueberries are become plentiful in summer.  I had just gotten word from a friend's husband that their baby had arrived safely on July 4th, just a few days after Gwendolyn's 11th Birthday.  It had not been an easy birth for this friend, and in a number of ways reminded me of Gwendolyn's (an experience I wrote about here).  

I woke up that day wanting to deliver her a coffee cake.  This felt irrationally important, but as I creamed the butter and the sugar, I understood it to be a instinct toward healing.  Among all the upside down confusion of my own difficult medicalized birth, one happy thing I remember is the banana bread my friend Katherine brought me.  It was sweet familiarity wrapped in aluminum foil, an anchor of loving normalcy, a reminder of the things that could still be counted on while everything else changed by the minute.   

Somehow offering that to another mom, showing up in her hospital room as evidence that the blueberries are still fresh and a coffee cake can still be made was important to me.  Maybe more important to me than to her.  She did me a great service receiving my cake, and for that I am grateful.  

When I walked into her room and saw her leaning back into the mechanical hospital bed, wearing a black nursing gown just like the one I had, it was like looking at an old picture of myself.

"Hey, friend, how are you?" I asked.

Her baby was swaddled tight, but not in her arms. She was nuzzled in with her grandma while Dad stood nearby.

"I'm ok," she said.  "The baby's good, " she smiled looking over to the left toward her own mother holding the baby.  "I'm ok."

We stared into each other's eyes, and for a brief moment, water rose to the edges of our lashes.  Neither of us would let ourselves cry.  She and her baby were safe and healthy.  This was a happy occasion, and yet, the tears were there.

So many tragic things can happen in a life, a c-section seems hardly cause for grief and anxiety, and yet for me, and I think maybe for my friend too, it was a difficult thing, made especially so by the fact that I had the idea that an educated, healthy, feminist woman should be able to avoid that kind of medicalized birth.  It turns out, this was the first of many ideals that motherhood was going to complicate for me.  

When I think about it now there are so many things I would tell myself.  So I decided to write some of them down.

Dear Baby Mama,

I hear you wondering what happened to you and wondering what you could have done differently to avoid the c-section and all of what felt so violating and wrong.  I know there is a part of you that wonders whether this is your fault, whether you should have negotiated harder with the doctor, or taken less drugs, or more drugs, or changed the outcome.  I know you wonder if you are a cog in some medical-political machinery and that you have absorbed the words of all those amazing birth activists who speak of gentle and ecstatic births. And the way you have absorbed it has made those births right and yours wrong.  

What I want you to know is that in this lifetime you will get to have normal births too, and what you will learn is that the minute your first daughter's cells started dividing inside you, you started to live a new kind of life that you have no idea about yet.  A life that you are not prepared for, a life that will catapult you into territory in which the ideas of good and bad, better and worse, or doing a "good job" won't serve you.  

You will learn in no uncertain terms that there are things that cannot be undone.  There will be scars and imperfections and disappointments.  You will not be able to improve things sometimes.  This will be terrifying for you.  But ultimately it will also be one of the best things for you.  It will be like an existential bell ringing to remind you that your job here is to live the experiences of your life--not to fix or control them, but to live them, to meet them honestly, and with as much love as you can muster.

You will learn this and forget it a thousand times.  You will want to recover from your surgery quickly and you will want want the baby to sleep through the night already and you will want your life to feel "yours" again as soon as possible.  You will want so many good normal things to come quickly, as if they will be signs that everything is alright.  

What I really want is to lean close to you and smooth your hair and whisper quietly into your ear, sweetheart, you are alright, it is alright, it is ok to let all this go.  In a hushed voice I want to say that that the bud breaks before it blooms.

People will tell you that in three months it will get easier, which is true in a way, but what really will make it easier will be to let your life be different, to let yourself be a little broken, a little tired, a little overwhelmed, or maybe even a lot of all of those things.  

This is the best thing that motherhood is going to teach you, that even at your worst, you are still ok, that good grades and promotions, publications and achievements, none of that can ever compare to you, just you, showing up for your life.  That, sweet one, is the beginning of love.  It is the beginning of everything good.  And as hard as it is, Baby Mama, you are doing it, on these first hard days you are doing it.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Widening the Circle

As we celebrate today, I am feeling indebted to the couples I know and the couples I don't know, who in the past were brave enough to claim their desire for love and for lifetime commitment.  This was daring and an enduring example of how individual fulfillment ripples out, widening the circle of what is possible for others.

I am also feeling grateful to Tom Lyons, my American History teacher who taught a  Constitutional Law class my Senior year of high school.   We studied Brown v. Board of Education, Bakke v. University of California, Bowers v. Hardwick and others.  In each case, Mr. Lyons presented us photocopies of the original US Supreme Court Decisions.  Reading the original texts, absorbing fundamental concepts in that classic seraph font, learning to recognize the italicized case names, and coming to know the legal voices of the various justices (Thurgood Marshall and Earl Warren became personal favorites), these learning moments characterize the pinnacle of my life as a student.  I cannot recall a class I loved better than that one.

When I graduated and spent a year at Georgetown University, I learned how our class came to have the opportunity to study those briefs.  In the years when history existed on paper, Tom Lyons always had an alum at Georgetown that he called upon to make the trip to the Supreme Court and photocopy briefs for him.  For a short year, I was that young student.  I can remember walking the rising white marble steps, filling out the order form for the briefs and standing at the Supreme Court copy machine.  Never has photocopying been so empowering.

My teacher planted in me a great love for these Supreme Court opinions, for their project and their beautiful language that is always aimed so precisely toward creating history.

So with my dear friends and my beloved history teacher in mind, I took great pleasure reading today's decision (and dissent too).  Rather than write one more word, I invite you to savor Justice Kennedy's legal voice.  Here are some of my favorite excerpts from his opinion.

"From their beginning to their most recent page, the annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage. The lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life. Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secular realm. Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone, for a marriage becomes greater than just the two persons. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations."

"To the contrary, it is the enduring importance of marriage that underlies the petitioners’ contentions. This, they say, is their whole point. Far from seeking to devalue marriage, the petitioners seek it for themselves because of their respect—and need—for its privileges and responsibilities. And their immutable nature dictates that same-sex marriage is their only real path to this profound commitment."

"The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning."

"These new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution of marriage. Indeed, changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations, often through perspectives that begin in pleas or protests and then are considered in the political sphere and the judicial process."

"The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation." 

"Same-sex couples, too, may aspire to the transcendent purposes of marriage and seek fulfillment in its highest meaning."

"The right to marry is fundamental as a matter of history and tradition, but rights come not from ancient sources alone. They rise, too, from a better informed understanding of how constitutional imperatives define a liberty that remains urgent in our own era."

"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civiliza- tion’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth
Circuit is reversed.
It is so ordered."

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Merry Month of May

Last week our family in various configurations attended two school picnics, one musical, one end of year school board celebration, a last baseball game, three dentist appointments, a performance of Alice in Wonderland, an ice cream social welcoming new students to our school, and a volleyball game.  We hosted a party during which ten third graders played Minecraft for more or less four hours straight.  We had the good fortune to be guests at a barbeque where one of our favorite friends tested out his DIY rotisserie grill made out of bike wheels powered by a windshield wiper motor.  And we hosted two, much less creative barbecues at our own house.

I have missed, just flat out failed to show up, for at least two different appointments.  I've been the last contributor to the gift for the girl scout troop leader and the baseball coaches, thank you gestures that hardly come close to matching the gift of time offered.   I'm in danger of missing the boat on the end of year card in third grade and the end of year gift in preschool.  Both of those need attention this week, and I'm hopeful I will rise to the occasion in one way or another.

So yes, it really has felt like May is another round of December.  

Recently I asked a mom friend whose children are both out of the house whether May had slowed down for her.  The report she shared had me understand that with college aged kids the rhythm is a lot the same only the distance between engagements is far greater.  So now I know.  This May routine won't let up anytime soon, considering that Eloise will graduate from college in or around 2032, a year that sounds so foreign to me it feels like it's arrival is improbable.

The facts of this matter have caused me a fair bit of distress this month.  Until about last week, anxiety sprouted like like weeds, threatening to choke the life out of my life.  I had a hard time sleeping as I tried to work out how I might still hit deadlines I had made up for myself about the wedding book project.  I catastrophized, this is a particular specialty of mine, that after all this time, the thing would never actually happen, that my work was dead in the water, and the book was a figment of my imagination, though, it is so close to being complete.

But luckily, I am probably a reader before just about anything else--before writer, before meditator, before mother, maybe not before daughter, but before many things, I am and always have been a reader, and because of that, though writing is a solitary activity, I am never really alone in it.  Teachers sit at my desk, offering their stories like balm.  And while the intimate encounter on the page, never can compare with the, real encounter in the flesh, there is always enough there to find a crumb of hope, and often a lot more than that.

This month, I have been slowly working my way through a collection of essays, poems and stories by Raymond Carver.  The book is called Fires.  I have it here in front of me now, opened to the passage I underlined in purple last week.  It's just a few lines on a page, and yet it got to the bone of something so true for me that just a glance at the purple lines chokes me up.

"I remember thinking at that moment, amid the feelings of helpless frustration that had me close to tears, that nothing--and brother, I mean nothing--that ever happened to me on this earth could come anywhere close, could possibly be as important to me, could make as much difference, as the fact that I had two children.  And that I would always have them and always find myself in this position of unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction...At that moment--I swear all of this happened in the laundromat, I could see nothing ahead but years more of this kind of responsibility and perplexity.  Things would change some, but they were never really going to get better.  I understood this, but could I live with it?  At that moment I saw that accommodations would have to be made.  The sights would have to be lowered."

Permanent distraction....The sights would have to be lowered.  

How does that sit with you?  That the sights would have to be lowered.  I think by now, the whole world knows that there is something afoot in Palo Alto on this topic.  Whether you are reading the New York Times or watching the sitcom Silicon Valley, you've probably caught wind of the galactic absurdity of high expectations that have come to symbolize, characterize, and satirize my hometown.   And when I say my hometown, I don't mean a place I just happened to end up.  I mean a place I chose to live, a place where I consider myself, for better or for worse, to be living among tribe mates.  Lowering expectations is not a popular position around here--and by around here, I mean, with me.   

Carver's passage is just the medicine I needed.  Because it was in this moment in the laundromat when he accepted something true about his life, in particular his life with his children.  "During these ferocious years of parenting, I usually didn't have the time or the heart, to think about working on anything very lengthy...The circumstances of my life with these children dictated something else."  Carver did what he could.  His life dictated something else. He wrote short stories.  He wrote essays.  He wrote poems.  He did not stop writing, he simply wrote what he could write in the time that he scraped together.  He made something of what he had rather than waiting for the the perfect circumstances to appear.  

Something magical happens when we accept the life we are actually having, rather than pining for the one we don't.  Things tend to get more practical, less grand.    We start to collect the pennies of our small change life (stealing a Carverism here) rather than overlooking them for the bigger bills.  It's not what we wanted, not nearly enough, and yet at the end of the day there might be a couple of pennies more in the jar than there were yesterday.  For Carver, his small change ended up accumulating into a body of work that any writer would kill for.  That he stopped fighting his life, that he lowered his sights--this decision of his delivered the words I needed to read last week.

They allowed me to release myself into the December that May has become, to actually join in the celebration rather than rail against it.  To be sure, as with everything in Palo alto there is an element of overdoing it, but the truth is, the longer days of May, June, and July have always called humans to festival.  The hours of sunlight tell us it is time to be out and about with our fellow humans.  In ancient Greece, this was the countdown to the Olympic Games, for Native Americans it was the season of the sun dance, and across time this has been the season for weddings, probably because mild weather makes for easier traveling to see kin.  

What trips me up is when I imagine that my "work" might be more important than the attending the ice cream social at school or celebrating my daughter who was voted most improved hitter on her baseball team where she played as the only girl.  Which is not to say that each of these little bits at the end of school year are the end-all-be-all either.  I don't want to romanticize the explosion of end of year specialness that could stand to be toned down.  The point is, there is both.  There is a time for one and a time for another, and a time for other things too.  For me to write and parent and participate in my community, I need to be willing to deal in small change and to switch gears when necessary.  And thanks to Carver, and other teachers I love, I remembered.  

Which was wonderful, because I would have been a fool to miss this.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

What a coincidence

I haven't been posting as much lately, because I've been working on a project that I started awhile ago.  It's a book about how to write your own wedding ceremony.  When I started it I lived in the house in the photograph above, and I worked at a desk that was pushed right up to that window with shutters by the porch.  That desk and I, we have some history, and it includes the moment that I realized I was not prepared to finish the project I started.  I posted about what that was like for me here.  It was a hard time.

Even though I wasn't in the best place at that moment in my life, I had the good sense to plant a few rose bushes.  Looking back, gardening was one of a few decent choices I made, along with learning how to sit still and breathe and deciding to trust my new husband.  The three activities have offered dividends beyond what I could possibly have imagined when I started them.  As for the roses, the are in a terrible, not sunny enough place for rose bushes, and they have received minimum care over the last fourteen years.  I honestly did not have a lot of hope they would survive.  

But it just so happens that this school year, my youngest daughter goes to school just two blocks from this house.  I pass it often, and have wondered daily at the fact that the roses have made it this many years.  I have spent the year watching their cycle, and like clockwork, they continue to do what roses do.  They bud and bloom and fall away. It brings me great comfort to see them in a healthy rhythm that was started when I felt so unsteady.  

On my end, it has taken me awhile, but I'm completing the project I started when I planted them, and it seems almost too synchronized to believe that I would complete the project when these roses are in bloom.   But that is how it is going to happen.  It feels very sweet.

I hope you all are enjoying May with its usual madness (someone just said to me, "Well you know, May is a lot like December."  What a bizarre, and true, and unfortunate tangle we've made for ourselves!).  And that you have your own reasons to appreciate its blooming.  


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

About me

I struggle mightily with my About Me page.  The bloggers I enjoy tell these wonderful stories about themselves, the oatmeal they ate when they were kids, the boots they thought were great but now just don't seem right.  Jaunty yarns that give a real peek into who they are.

Every time I started one of these things, I ended up down a rabbit hole of my own making.  The worst kind!  So I put a stop to that and did something else.  I wanted to make something simple that would tell you about me, what I love, what compels and confuses me, and how I approach things.  Lately, a lot of that is coming with color.  Go figure.  

Thanks for stopping by my blog.  

This is Me in Color.

Here I am, walking along the side walk in Palo Alto, California.

Or hanging out in my backyard.  

It's pretty suburban if you look at it one way,
but if you look at it another way
it is also something else.

Standing here makes me think
there is something strong
at the center of all of our lives,
that is unique and universal,
here forever
and disappearing
in an instant.

And if this is true,
I want to know
how to dance
in the light
with less fear.

Can we do the tango
then shake it off
with Taylor Swift

Looking closely
can help.
Especially in water.

Snorkling is good anytime.

Now this ends too.
The winter arrives
in every spring bud.

So let's make haste.

It is time to decamp,
to put on our jackets and venture outside,
time to be regarded by other eyes.

Want to come?

*Straight up stolen lines from
It's painfully obvious which ones they are.
I "heart" decamp.  

Homage to Jena Schwartz
whose nearly daily poetry
and lovely book
Bring me a great deal of happiness.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Notes from a workshop with Cheryl Strayed

Last week I was at a writing workshop with Cheryl Strayed, the author of TorchWild, and Tiny Beautiful Things.  I signed up for it almost a year ago, and as the trip approached I had no more idea what to expect than I had the day I registered.  In the back of my mind I imagined writing a crisp travel article about how writing workshops were unique opportunities for experiencing new places.  It would be thorough, and have some flash from my own personal experience with Cheryl.  I'd sell it, for sure, and I had a list of magazines that I would pitch in order.

Ha!  I should know by now that when I come up with that kind of neat and tidy plan, it's a cover up.  The truth is I was scared, scared of what it would be like to be surrounded by other writers, scared that in the presence of this writer I would feel small, and scared of everything I didn't know--which once I arrived at the workshop felt like quite a lot.

On the first day, Cheryl asked, "How many of you are here to produce art and to work on the craft of writing--writing that you hope might be read by others someday?"  Half of us raised our hands.  Then she asked, "How many of you are here because you write or you journal as a way of understanding yourself or healing your life?"  And the other half of us raised our hands.  

Over the next four days, we received her teaching on the craft writing.  She presented many examples of literary strategies, she offered prompts, she described her own process as a writer, and in between all that--in the gaps when she wasn't talking about the nuts and bolts and two by fours of the practice of writing, there was a shimmering.  Mystery, magic, and soul appeared among the seventy of us.  The way I write it, it sounds so lovely.

But what it took for that to happen was the quiet tiptoeing back into the room after responding to a prompt,  faces streaked with tears and wondering.  It was writing down a secret, the one you could hardly bear to put down in actual words, and then reading it to a fellow traveler.  The free fall of reading those few unspeakable words aloud, knowing you had nothing to lose really, but feeling like deep down, that everything was at stake.  That creating the art you were learning to create with Cheryl would always come down to this moment and your own ability to tolerate telling the truth. 

The honest and unmannerly bits, the stolen girl scout cookies, the secret pleasure, the venomous judgements.  All those things not fit for Facebook or the dinner table.  F. Scott Fitzgerald called it selling your heartwhich he believed to be especially essential for novice writers.  Many of us made our best effort at truth telling over of those few days.  And even though I don't believe any of us walked away with any tangible writer's achievement, we were rewarded nonetheless.

Cheryl asked us,"Can't you feel the sacred in the room?" And we could.  

It's hard to imagine writing that travel article now.  One of my new friends marveled, "I've been in Maui for a week and I haven't even seen the beach."  She said this with a sense of stunning satisfaction.  We had managed to discover to savage and holy shores, wide open vistas and subterranean rivers, but none of the sights we encountered can be found on the island of Maui.  They were made in the gap between a teacher and willing students, in the safety of community, in the work of turning toward the heated battles in our own hearts, in the quiet moments spent staring while our deep wordless minds spun whole new worlds we did not yet have the words to describe.  A journey, to be sure, just not the one I expected to have.

Cheryl asked us to track her speaking and send any good quotes we jotted down for an up coming project of hers.  These are some that I managed to grab.

"To make art demands something more than making sense."

"The hard thing about memoir is the unfortunate presence of other people."

"First write everything and then make decisions."

"Art is not anecdote."

"Answer the question beneath the question."

"The writer's job in the world is to be an illuminator."

"I hate fucking writing."

"Wild is a story about objects and talismans."

"As a writer you are the conduit of the light."

"Honest writing is being unmannerly."

"Story is dangerous stuff."

"Intuitive knowledge is a super big part of my writing."

"Most of us were sluts in the 90s"

"Success in the arts is measured differently than in any other profession."

"We are always capable of transformation and we are always the same old song."

"You're a writer when you know yourself to be a writer."

"The highest standard of any art is its humanity."

Monday, March 30, 2015

Holding the Chuppah

You can't see me in this picture, but I was there, one of the four friends holding up the Chuppah.  It was June 18, 2000.  The wedding was a fine gathering of friends on a June day, and fulfilled many of the hopes one might have for a wedding celebration.  The gaping exception, of course, was that my friends' union did not benefit from the usual privileges and protections offered by the law.

Eight years later, June 18, 2008 I had the honor of performing the legal wedding ceremony for these same friends, two amazing women who by that date had made multiple moves together (at least one cross country!) and had started on the journey of parenting their two sons.  

One way we described that second ceremony was as, "a celebration of the sweet and stunning normalcy of their lives...a celebration of the...tender chaos of raising two sons, and the growing thirst for more time with each other as they juggle the demands of parenting and work."  It was a day that we celebrated the fact that the defining features of their day-to-day had less to do with being a same sex couple, and more to do with parenting.  

As we head toward this Spring's Supreme Court hearing, I feel deeply indebted to Kirsti and Mychal and to same sex couples everywhere who, like it or not, are doing important cultural work to evolve our shared scope of love and family.  Their heavy lifting is ushering in a new normal for marriage that emphasizes the potency of a lifetime partnership between equals, and affirms a true, just and humane perspective on our highest and most difficult human calling--to love one another.   

Couple by couple, marriage by marriage, this evolution is improving on a tradition of lifetime partnership, that despite crummy odds, continues to call on the human psyche.  I support same sex marriage, because it is just, I am indebted to same sex couples because their cultural work enhances the meaning of marriage in a way that broadens the foundation of my own marriage--enabling me to belong to something that feels bigger and more true to me.

This is why I am supporting Kirsti and Mychal in fundraising for Lambda Legal, and it is also why, this spring I will self publish a short book called How To Write Your Own Wedding or Commitment Ceremony.  I hope both efforts will benefit couples who seek to define this adventure called marriage for themselves. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The last baby tooth

Gwendolyn arrived home yesterday and I was reminded how this oldest child grows me up.  The river of her life is always the first to cut my banks, always the first to rut out new territory, always the first to show me:  this comes next.

In her hand she held a tiny orange box from school, the last of it's kind for her.  A tooth kicked around inside.  It was a molar, wide and substantial, there was nothing babyish about it.  

Instead, it looked ancient, another one of life's artifacts, something that could have been dug from the ground, just as easily as from the dense gum of her jaw.   It marks the end of an epoch, and the history lays beneath us, solid as stone. 

The feeling of this ending has been hovering around me lately.  I felt it this weekend when I stood next to a woman holding a tiny infant, it's fragile, animal head and claw like fingers all huddled in a bundle near her shoulder.  The baby's tininess so foreign to me, and at the same time, so familiar.   

At that moment I was sure that it had happened.  That I had grown old--yes old, no longer young, no longer the mother with an infant in her arms.  There was a certainty to it that I had not felt before.  I felt it again when Eloise, our baby, read the word should, and again when I looked in the eyes of our aging dog.

Then Gwendolyn came home with her tooth, round and solid like a period, marking, very definitively, the end of something.  

There is nothing to do really but rest, 
right here on the solid grown of now.  

So I get on my knees, 
bow my forehead low, 
and pour my tears out like an offering.
May Gwendolyn and I go gently
into the dark mystery. 
May we stay tender.

May our next epoch together, 
and its great crossing,
show us our strength.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Your last post really spoke to me. Now how the "f" do I do it??

My last post about reducing stress for ourselves, resonated with a lot of people, and my favorite response was the one above.  It gets right to heart of the matter.  Sure reducing stress is a good idea, but how the "f" do we do it?

This post has taken me a long time to write, because I struggle with stress myself.  Some days are better than others.  Progress, in this area, at least for me, both comes slow and requires slowness.  

I did eventually figure out how to crawl out from under that desk I wrote about in the last post, though, and even all these years later, I still return to what I learned at that time.  One strategy that I bumbled into then, and still use now is something like "no solution," or taking a breather, or redirecting your energy.  Very simply, the strategy is to put your life goal aside, and deal with your life instead.  For me, these days it looks a lot like not writing (my goal) and cleaning the kitchen pantry instead, which is exactly what I did last weekend.

It was high time the job was done too.  Since December brown bugs had been appearing.  Tiny as the head of a pin, they buzzed under cabinets and perched themselves on the top of cereal boxes.  I kept hoping they would go away but they didn't.  When I found one swirling in a pot of boiling pasta, I finally reached my limit.  

It was time.

You'd think things had become desperate enough that I would have been committed to the whole effort of cleaning the pantry from the beginning, but I wasn't.  I imagined I'd root out a single box that was housing the family of brown bugs, clean a couple shelves off, and be done with it.  But after playing tetris with the cans for awhile, I was struck by a shock of hope.  Even a small amount of work was bringing a sorely needed sense of order, so I decided to go for broke.  I pulled everything out onto the kitchen counter and began the task in earnest.

Here's some of what I found.  Four bottles of toasted sesame seed oil, three opened boxes of baking soda (one expired in 2012), Indian curries that I can’t recall how to spell, cake flour, bread flour and two entire sets of ingredients for making gluten free muffins.  Capers from Greece, a opened box of orange jello that had never been made, and preserved apricots I made a few years ago.  

This is to say nothing of the spice collection, which astonished me, both in its breadth (what was I thinking of making the day I bought asafetida?) and its depth (how did I not know that I had four bottles of bay leaves?).  And that was just the beginning.  The pile spilled down the length of the counter and rose up like a small mountain.

I learned a lot looking at that pile.

The first, undeniable, realization was just how big it was.  There was a lot of food, and a lot of it was going to go to waste.  To even be able to see what I had, I needed to get rid of a lot.  The heft of the guilt felt as heavy as the food itself.  I felt awful.  It can be so hard to look at the mess we make for ourselves that we let the mess continue.  The pantry seemed to fall in this category.

And then memory came.  It was my first apartment, the one on Stanyan and Fredrick, the first place I ever lived all by myself.  It was a sunny studio with an ample pantry and old gas stove held together by a bungee cord.  I loved that apartment.  And in particular, I loved the pantry.  I loved it so much I took photographs of the first three cans of tuna and two bags of spaghetti I put in there.  It was a milestone.  Forget the new car I had just bought, it was storing my own cans of tuna that made me feel like I had finally become an adult.

And then returning my attention to the matter at hand, I saw the box of Kosher salt.  I thought of my mom.  She has taught me everything I know about cooking.  Many lessons have to do with salt.  It's the ingredient that balances a vinaigrette, that deepens a chocolate cake, that corrects sour.  Salt opens the window to all kinds of tastes and makes food come alive.

I thought of her when I glanced at the four bottles of bay leaves.  I use them in chicken soup when my kids are sick.  Bay leaves are the only non perishable ingredient in that dish, and so they are as much a part of my first aid kit as Advil or Tylenol or bandaids.   Which accounts for how I ended up with four bottles.

And I even thought of her when I touched the asafetida.  I had the gumption to think I could take on that Indian recipe, not because my mom taught me how to make Indian food, but because my mom taught me I could handle anything in the kitchen.  I fear nothing and make everything, because my mom didn't just hand down her recipes, she showed me the way to cook.

And so as terrible as I felt, I could also see that there was a good lot of love in that mountain of food.  For awhile, as I made my way through the mess, my thoughts toggled between these two kinds of feelings, back and forth between love and shame.

Soon, though, a bit of order started to emerge.  Space reappeared on the counter, logical piles started to cluster, and I could imagine how I was going to put things back to rights.  I stood back for a moment, took a deep breath and what came to me was not a thought.  It was a sense.  It was that voice that blows in from above, that feels like not me, that reveals the wise thing.  It said, "Sweetheart, it's simple, you need less."

And it wasn't just less food.  It was less time spent in Whole Foods.  It was less pressure to cook the perfect home cooked meal every night.  It was less guessing about what I had in the pantry.

My pantry had gotten clogged up with a problem of plenty.  I had plenty of everything, good intentions, healthy food, and financial resources.  What I had been lacking was time spent taking stock of what I already had.  Not knowing, or not taking the time to find out what was already in the pantry, meant that I had been buying the same thing over and over and over again, from baking soda to bay leaves.  The repeats were everywhere.  And storing them was making it difficult to see what I had, which led me to buy more, making the problem worse.

Sweetheart, it's simple, you need less.
With sorting--navy beans with navy beans, cereals lined up where the kids can reach them, Asian ingredients together--the mess settled out.  Everything found its place.  I found the box housing the brown bugs (an unopened box of number 12 spaghetti, if you want to know), and discarded it.  I discovered a delightful jar containing all of the ingredients needed to make minestrone, a gift from a friend.  I learned I had run out of simple granulated sugar--a staple I actually need.

In very concrete terms my life had become less stressful.  The kitchen was bug free and I was free from gnatty feeling that comes from avoiding the thing that really needs to be done.  The pantry, once the locus of potential hazard for the whole family, looked calm and balanced, like a Barnett Newman painting.  My twenty-five year old, pantry loving self, was present and pleased with the job.  It felt good.

And it made me wonder.  What else am I loading up on that I already have?  

My pantry was showing me that I cram up my life with the mistaken notion that I'm missing something, when in fact I have it in triplicate right under my nose.  This is a real cause of my stress, and maybe yours too.  We move around so fast, that the movement alone stimulates the vague sense of forgetting something, or missing something, or about to miss something.  And it's not true.  It is a feeling, a feeling that can lead toward over doing things.

A correction can come from taking a break from the pursuit, whatever the pursuit may be.  Time taken to clean out a drawer or a closet or a pantry or a garage--it can make a real difference.  It sounds unrelated, but it's not.

Establishing clarity somewhere, makes clarity more possible everywhere.

That's how the "no solution," take a break and deal with your life strategy works (or the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, if you're into that).  Our lives are always talking to us, calling us toward wholeness.  Our homes, our cars, our relationships, they are showing us the way.  All we need to do is offer ourselves the time it takes to listen.