wasting poetry

I’m not sure the world needs more great poets. I do know that it needs more people who write poetry. 

And by “write poetry” I mean read poetry, and strive to understand poetry, and talk about poetry with other people, and in this way get closer to languaging the truths of our lives and our worlds.

Because if we do this, we’re less alone. And our alone-ness, our desperate clinging to the illusion of our separateness, is part of our ruin as a species. 

When we talk about poems together, especially poems that engage in a bravery or vulnerability to which we aspire, the vigilance that keeps us alone in the guise of keeping us safe can relax. Of course it doesn’t always -- certainly it doesn’t in spaces full of multisyllabic jargon we barely understand or in hierarchical spaces full of writers jockeying for a grade or a professor’s attention.  

But when it does relax, when we are in spaces that feel safe and open and holding and fueled by curiosity, we can find or make a community that saves us. 

And we all need saving, every day. Every day I need to be rescued from my loneliness, and some days, some really good days, it’s poetry that does it. 

Another part of our ruin is the way we are trained to accept things as they are, or to be so daunted by things as they are as to be at one end of the spectrum immobilized and at the other, catapulted to the singular answer of burning it all down. 

It’s all so human, each response. Freeze, flee, fight. 

But so is the instinct to tinker, to pull apart, to reassemble, to seek patterns and recreate them, to look at nature and make a machine, to look at a machine and make art, to look at art and remember the lake by the tree we climbed until there were no more branches, no more leaves, and we could see the sky above it so clearly it comes back to us annually in dreams. 

Looking at poems as made things, taking them off their dusty shelf or down from the tower and deeply inquiring about how they function, how they might be different if different choices had been made, about the thousand possible whys behind each decision that led to this complete thing presented to the world as whole -- that’s a practice that can help un-ruin us. 

We spend so much of our lives presented with things as they are -- the church with its rules about who gets to spend eternity where and why, the school with its bell schedule and single-file lines and principal-teacher-student hierarchy, the judicial system with its specificities and their wildly and purposefully inequitable application… and it’s an illusion. We labor under this illusion of these and so much else as permanent, impermeable, unchangeable, whole.

And this is how poetry is taught. Here is a poem. What does it mean? What techniques do you see exhibited from your vocabulary list?  

Which tells us, even art is for someone else. By someone else. Not to be questioned, not to be pulled apart or used for our own ends.

And this is some of how the ruin continues, by wasting poetry. 

How different it is to say, this is a thing a person made. A person like you, making choices every minute of every day. This is a thing made by a person, the way old white men invented the court system, the principal determined the bell schedule, the Pope wrote the latest edict on the timeline and parameters related to the annulment of marriage.

How different it is to say, let’s look at those choices. Let’s think about how this thing, the system of this poem, would be different if other decisions were made. Let’s talk about why a certain choice may have been made, how it affects us as the reader. Let’s look at the structure, the components, the techniques, and see how we can turn those into tools for our own use. Our own making. 

And if we are, even for a moment, not alone. And if we are able to look at the built systems around us, even on a miniature scale, and see them as things we can transform. Then I think there’s hope for us. I know there is. I know there is. 

 

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p.s. -- I wrote a book about how to do this, even if you're not a poet (yet) or a teacher of poetry (yet). It's called Gathering Voices, and you can find it here

 

the gentle harvest

In my spiritual tradition, there are three progressive harvest festivals -- one in August, one in September, and one in October. As we approach the first harvest this year, I’m thinking about the three and how they differ. I’m thinking about this first harvest, the lightest of the harvests. Lightest as in, the furthest from the darkest part of the year. Lightest as in, more gathering flowers than reaping wheat or bundling hay. A gentle harvest. 

Gentle harvest. A drawing together of what’s bloomed and ready to be gathered. 

Pansies were one of my maternal grandmother’s favorite flowers. She had them by her house, and we had them by ours, and in the garden by the family cabin in Wisconsin. Pansies have this almost animal face, this variegation of color and black splatches in pattern on their fur-soft petals. There’s a theory that the word pansy has its origins in the French phrase pens ée, meaning lost in thought. The idea being that when a pansy blossom bobs from the heat, it looks like a person nodding yes, yes, to an idea. 

What has me thinking about pansies today is the way they respond to the process of being pinched back. When a pansy flower withers and withdraws toward its stem, it’s time to pluck it gently so the plant knows to put its energy toward new growth.

Sometimes what our life needs is a full reaping followed by a plowing under of whatever isn’t useful except as fertilizer, so the field can lie fallow for a season and prepare for the next planting. Sometimes we have to get sober, quit the job, call off the wedding, sell the house and travel the country selling beaded bracelets and caricature drawings in the parking lots of concert venues.

And sometimes we need to get really close to the ground, kneel before the flowerbed and lightly, with thumb and forefinger, pull away what’s done to make energetic room for what’s next. Give up dairy for a year, try a new set of prayers, cancel plans made out of obligation, stop apologizing when no harm’s been done.

And sometimes, sometimes what we need is to go to the garden and gather what’s still blooming. We take it inside, put some pansies in baskets, sprinkle a couple of blossoms over ice cream, press a few faces between the pages of books to dry and be retrieved, colors lasting long past their season. 

This is the gift of Lughnashagh, the first harvest: to honor not just the major revisions, the total life overhauls, the massive transformations, but also the shifts in perspective, the almost missable transcendences, the incremental victories. These too are sacred, and worthy of pause and recognition. 

Welcome to the gentle harvest. Gather away. 

the map is not the territory

I was talking the other day with a coaching client about her plan to create an amazing company, including the roadmap she designed during our initial work together. The roadmap and the concept are thoughtful and altruistic and built with a focus on collaboration and equity -- they are things of beauty.

And that’s dangerous. Because sometimes when we design things of beauty, we fall in love with their thing-ness rather than their essence. We yearn for a goal we can see, so we create one and instead of holding it in our minds as a possibility, a horizon, a useful sketch of the self or organization or relationship or life we are questing toward, we lock it in hard. We get attached to it in its imagined form.

The phrase that always comes to mind for me in this is by Ken Wilber: “the map is not the territory.” He’s using it to describe the ways in which we get so attached to our concept of reality and time -- useful illusions to be sure -- that we neglect to look up from the map and see that the landscape, the territory, true reality, may be far different. Is often shockingly more beautiful and terrifying.

The company Belinda is building will be awesome. It will also not be what she imagines. If she strikes the right balance between moving boldly forward into and through the plan and embracing the brilliant possibilities that emerge along the way, it will be better. No matter what, it will be different. That’s how this works.

I used to struggle a lot, A LOT, with changed plans. It seems silly now to say, but even if plans changed for the better, I had a really hard time enjoying myself. Reschedule a date with me? Expect one furious human at the other end of that phone call. I can still feel in my body the visceral discomfort when plans for a few friends hanging out turned into a full-fledged party, or vice versa.

I was afraid, for a range of reasons unpacked in therapy and poetry over the decades between then and now, but the fact of the matter is that I wanted to control everything around me so that I could know what was going to happen next. Which is, of course, impossible.

I was holding the map so hard the edges tore. Which is good, because eventually that meant it fell out of my hands and a wind carried it off leaving me guideless in a wild territory. But that’s another story.

We need plans, goals, a horizon to beckon us onward across the seas we encounter or invent. But the thing about the horizon is that it’s always retreating. Because it’s an illusion. There is no there there. There’s only here, and where we’re headed, and the beautiful and risky possibilities populating the way.

There are destinations to be sure, but when we look up from the map and its reassuring red X saying you are here, we realize there are always further destinations, brighter stars to follow, further inward or onward to go. And when we realize this, when we really know it, the wild pressure releases. The clock’s ceaseless ticking becomes less time bomb and more a walking tune. We can relax into the journey, eyes on the horizon and the glory around our feet in turn, knowing as long as we are moving we are blooming and something just meant for us awaits.

May Day (oh oh oh I'm on fire)

Spring fever: when every cell calls on you to lay in the light, to fling open the windows, to find a body that relishes your body and relish that body back. At Beltane, the world catches fire again, finally, after the long, good work of winter.

Whether or not the literal weather cooperates, we feel this pull to stir and stretch, to match the earth’s gradual awakening with our own. We look out into the world, look into the light half of the year and the possibilities it illuminates.

As the wheel of the year turns, I’m thinking about balance. How the light half of the year is necessary to balance the dark half. How what we receive from the world and its inhabitants must be balanced by what we give, and vice versa.

When we think about what we would like the world to offer us, what invitations and seductions and sweet temptations we would like laid at our doorsteps, it’s essential to think also about not what we give in direct trade – the universe doesn’t function on a barter system – but in what ways are we cycling good energy back into the world in the ways we move through it. What opportunities are we creating for others as well as ourselves? How are we generating more and more light and radiance in our everyday actions, in the ways we treat others – and the ways we treat ourselves?

I’m also thinking about balance in terms of hold and release. May Day is about the impetuous embrace of the possible, and it’s also about release. Crops will not grow if seeds are not planted, but they also will not flourish if they are over-watered, excessively pruned, obsessively tended.

We planted the seeds at the spring equinox, and now we pass into the growing season. We celebrate, we fertilize, we dream and dance. It is work to tend these fields of possibility, but it is a pleasure too. It is work to build a fire, but it is a joy to watch it burn. Today we are invited to see endless opportunities unfolding, and to commit to the joy and task of each as it arrives.

Thought exercise: As you sit on the greenest lawn you can imagine, or in the wildest field, dig your left hand into the earth. As the dirt and fragments of what’s growing there sift through your fingers and off your palm, something emerges. It is the seed of some kind, a bulb or husked thing. Holding it loosely, let it show you what is inside, into what it might grow. This is what the world is offering you. Will you receive it?

Dig your right hand into the soil as well. Let what you pull up sift through your loosely cupped hand. In it now is an object, a small box. Let it open or unfold to show you what is inside. This is what the world is asking of you. Will you offer it?

Feel the weight of each hand. Is the weight even? What might bring it into balance? See if you can bring your hands together, so both are in your field of vision. When you are done knowing what is in each hand, and feel a balance between them, put them back in the earth. Or put them up in the sky, or somewhere in your body – wherever they belong, wherever they will receive what they need to bloom.

Merry Beltane. Be gentle with your good self.

making it sacred

I’m trying to make everything sacred. 

I have a friend who, after travelling to China and seeing first-hand the working conditions in clothing factories, has declared that this year she will buy no new clothes, only swap and second-hand if any. This makes her wardrobe sacred. 

My vegetarian friend told me recently that she plans to eat venison her partner is going to hunt and have butchered for them. The act of eating what was once sentient: sacred. 

My wife and I are watching this old show whose primary plot line is about polygamy and entwinement with a corrupt leader. But what echoes in me is how the lead character pauses in the most fraught moments to pray. Dear Heavenly Father, he says, and it’s Bill Paxton who did sincerity better than almost anyone so you can hear the earnest plea in the simple phrase. Dear Heavenly Father, give us your guidance

I didn’t pray for a long time, less out of rejection of the church than out of disconnection. But I’ve come to understand that in calling on God we are calling on ourselves, on the sacred in us, and that can sound like prayer or spells or chanting or poetry. 

Yesterday I was struggling hard with questions about how to launch a major project with a nonprofit client. I was tangled up in timelines and spreadsheets and contract language, caffeinating mightily in pursuit of coming up with the right answer. Praises be for my business partner who said Enough for today, enough. We’ll come back to it. We’ll figure it out.

This morning I understand that I took the sacred away from it. I still don’t know what the answer is and that’s OK. What I know is that this afternoon I will look at it and ask, What is my role here? What makes this a sacred task? How do we begin?

Dear Heavenly Father. Oh brilliant universe. I’m trying to stay knowing that everything is sacred, and to live from the center of that knowing. Often I am off course, but always this knowing is there, waiting for the return and the beginning, the beginning and beginning again. 

Blessed be. 

Friday night confessions

Whenever something gets cancelled, I feel like I’ve gotten a piece of my life back. Even if it’s something I’ve looked forward to or was sure to enjoy once I got there, once it was happening. Probably it’s because I spend so much of my life doing and doing and doing, so I crave those moments of nothing. And I hate them, and I crave them, so I make plans and cancel to construct these sweet little pockets of blessed empty, I sit there and think, 10 minutes. An hour. A whole gorgeous open evening and then the agitation and the soothing something, something, something. And listen, I spend most of my time doing things I want to do. I’m a rare, blessed bird in this way. We cleared up most of the Christmas decorations, or my wife did anyway, pretty soon after the holidays. But dangling amid the vines from one of our hanging plants is this cardinal on a spring in ice skates. No matter how I’ve positioned him he ends up looking out the front windows at the boulevard. He’s halfway camoflauged so she missed him and I love him. All day he sits there, sometimes bouncing a little if he’s knocked by the occasional watering arm or someone turning the switch on the wall sconce. He’s my hero. My little plaster idol. It’s a horrible snowstorm out there tonight supposedly -- the presentation I had scheduled for the morning got rescheduled which is almost as good as cancelled, better in this case since on the other side of the presentation is maybe six month’s rent and a dent in my tax debt. You see what I mean. The snow’s actually light but steady, hard to say if we’ll make the foot and a half predicted. In any case I had this bath and my wife is out with her friend for his birthday, he wanted to play the harmonica in a blues bar open mic. A lot of things tonight got cancelled for the snow, but that show went on. I got this bath and another week to think about my PowerPoint. It’s hard to see the snow unless you look at the lamplight, then there it is. A million somethings falling. All the air, almost nothing. Not an inch or snippet of the moon to be seen. 

the want behind the want behind the want

I’m thinking today about what desire has to teach us. I believe that the body and the spirit always desire the right, the healthy, the true and bettering. But how can that be accurate when sometimes we desire things that restrict our growth, that we know are “bad for us” or at least offer no clear path to betterment of ourselves or the world? The answer to this, I think, is that beneath every unhealthy desire is a healthy one which has been mistranslated or distorted in some way.

What happens when we desire something and can’t have it, whether because we will not allow ourselves to or because the world prevents it in some way? Often, we shut down. Some poisonous, familiar voice inside us says that we don’t deserve it, that we are wrong or flawed for having this desire. And sometimes that voice keeps us from acting on the desire, temporarily or permanently, which may keep us safe from unhealthy behaviors for a time but also stops our growth at the moment of desiring, prevents us from learning anything from the desire.

But what happens if we are gentle with that desire?

When we’re very young, we don’t know that the feeling of being tired means that we need to sleep. We only know that we feel uncomfortable and upset. So the attuned parent finds a way to introduce us to a situation where we can figure out that the tired feeling is the body’s way of telling us that it desires sleep.

Can we be gentle but firm with our desires, like small children we love? Can we put ourselves in situations that enable us to learn what’s underneath the surface desires? And how might it change that interior voice and our external actions if we were to know what it is that we truly desire? How much deeper a satisfaction might we be able to permit ourselves?

In the Charge of the Goddess (by Doreen Valiente, in her Book of Shadows,) we read “I am that which is attained at the end of desire.” Many times, I have heard this as the divine being found when desire is extinguished, when it is over, transcended. But today it reads to me as the endpoint of desire, its ROOT – that the divine is found when we go deep within, dig down, and get to the most authentic core of our desire.

Here's a thought exercise: Think of a something you desire but know or believe to be an unproductive or unhealthy or surface desire. Imagine that desire as the topmost leaves on a tree. Visualize it in your mind or draw it on paper. Trace that desire down to the branch from which it stems. What is that branch? And to what is that branch attached? Is that branch attached to another branch, or to the tree trunk?

Trace the desire step by step, with each lower part of the tree offering you the opportunity to name a deeper desire. Maybe you stop at the base of the trunk, knowing that is the core of the desire. Maybe you go to the roots, or maybe it goes further into the soil and the nutrients that enter those roots.

When you find yourself at what feels to be the centermost desire, sit with it awhile. Honor the will it took to find it and to recognize it. Place it at the center of your decisions, actions, and thoughts around the initial desire you named for the next week. Write, draw, or construct yourself something to carry around that will remind you of this centermost, foundational desire.

Be gentle with your good self. 

 

this dizzy living (Happy New Year's!)

Yesterday, my sister sent me a picture of myself at somewhere around age 2, alongside a shot of her 2-year-old daughter wearing the same dress.

Earlier that day I was thinking about mistakes. About my terrible credit rating and how our car may not make it through the winter. I looked at that little girl in her smocked dress and I thought, oh, the things you’ll do. My heart stretched as it always does in seeing my niece’s rosy face, but something else… seeing my own small clasped hands, my own soft 42-years-ago face, I lit up with remembering and loving the gentle, little-knowing thing I once was.

Then I thought about 24, and 31, and last month, the years that yawn between, the who I was, this life, its series of switchbacks and gravel paths and those stretches of horizonless highways with no gas station in sight and the gauge on empty.

It’s so easy to love that little girl. All that promise.

Today, New Year’s Eve, my task is to look at and love my other younger selves as well. The less easily adored, the pained or damaging or unpretty. Without the benefit of a photograph, I breathe into one of my worst minutes. I feel the hotel bed beneath me, the jittery dark alone of the room, the hundred lies scaffolding my then-life, and for-so-long-after-life, and I just love her. I just do. I let her live in this good, honest, now-body, and we cry together for a while.

My god, memory is a tricky beast. I have moments of such nostalgia, and such regret. And between them, stretched like some weird putty, everything, everyone I’ve been.

I think now the job is not just to love all those mes with their brilliant and horrible choices, essential as that is, and not just to love this moment’s me as the synthesis of all that, but to come to understand these selves like mirrors reflecting mirrors reflecting mirrors, this long series of beings stretching in both directions. Forwards and back. Retreating and advancing. Was and to come.

And if it is dizzying, as it always is to look at anything deeply, then to love the dizziness. To let the dizziness remind us of love. To be off-balance and in that remember how many times we’ve fallen, and what that’s taught us.

On Christmas, I asked my niece if she remembered learning to walk. She said, Yes. It was slippery.

Memory is slippery. The future is dizzying. But if I can love backward, inward, I can love forward, outward, into the big dark distance of who I’m becoming every minute of every day. And if I can love, then I can trust. I can reach my hand toward the mirror and through, and move. A little dizzy, and so very living.

Happy New Year’s. Blessed be. 

 

 

Solstice -- the necessity of imagination and the gift of the dark

Everything you desire requires first that you imagine it. This is your most important job.

And it needs the dark. This is why we close our eyes to visualize. This is why we dream while asleep. We come unfixed from what our awake, light-loving brain wants to name “reality.” And in this state we go wild. We go child. We go deep and broad and infinite.

Only in the dark can we see clearly what is possible, unlimited by the physical nature of what’s around us, what is presented to us as reality

This is as true of what we imagine for the world as it is of what we imagine for ourselves.

But we disregard, devalue, fear the dark.

We see the winter solstice as a time to move steadily toward the light, the promise of spring, instead of dwelling here, in the present moment, in the gift of this rich and abundant darkness.

When I think of how much we need the dark and the imagination it offers, I’m reminded of this poem by Martín Espada, Imagine the Angels of Bread:

This is the year that squatters evict landlords,
gazing like admirals from the rail
of the roofdeck
or levitating hands in praise
of steam in the shower;
this is the year
that shawled refugees deport judges
who stare at the floor
and their swollen feet
as files are stamped
with their destination;
this is the year that police revolvers,
stove-hot, blister the fingers
of raging cops,
and nightsticks splinter
in their palms;
this is the year that darkskinned men
lynched a century ago
return to sip coffee quietly
with the apologizing descendants
of their executioners.

This is the year that those
who swim the border's undertow
and shiver in boxcars
are greeted with trumpets and drums
at the first railroad crossing
on the other side;
this is the year that the hands
pulling tomatoes from the vine
uproot the deed to the earth that sprouts
the vine,
the hands canning tomatoes
are named in the will
that owns the bedlam of the cannery;
this is the year that the eyes
stinging from the poison that purifies toilets
awaken at last to the sight
of a rooster-loud hillside,
pilgrimage of immigrant birth;
this is the year that cockroaches
become extinct, that no doctor
finds a roach embedded
in the ear of an infant;
this is the year that the food stamps
of adolescent mothers
are auctioned like gold doubloons,
and no coin is given to buy machetes
for the next bouquet of severed heads
in coffee plantation country.

If the abolition of slave-manacles
began as a vision of hands without manacles,
then this is the year;
if the shutdown of extermination camps
began as imagination of a land
without barbed wire or the crematorium,
then this is the year;
if every rebellion begins with the idea
that conquerors on horseback
are not many-legged gods, that they too drown
if plunged in the river,
then this is the year.

So may every humiliated mouth,
teeth like desecrated headstones,
fill with the angels of bread.

In Espada’s poem, he states “This is the year…” and we think, no it isn’t. It can’t be. These are impossible things. Unchangeable things. At best, long-term incremental change things. But we love the daringness of stating it. And then he tells us why those daring statements are necessary:

If the abolition of slave-manacles
began as a vision of hands without manacles,
then this is the year;
if the shutdown of extermination camps
began as imagination of a land
without barbed wire or the crematorium,
then this is the year;
if every rebellion begins with the idea
that conquerors on horseback
are not many-legged gods, that they too drown
if plunged in the river,
then this is the year.

He’s gone into the dark and sees HOPE there. Sees what is required for change for this to be the year: imagination. Vision. Possibility.

If no one believed legal slavery could end, it would never have ended. If no one had believed the Holocaust could stop, it never would have stopped. If we continue to believe in our demons, our saboteurs, our invaders as immortal, they cannot be stopped.

But if we do imagine, if we do envision, then this is the year. This is the year.

At the winter solstice, we have the most dark we will have all year. What do we want to do with it? How will we use this gift of the dark, the wild and fertile imagination? What will we find or make in that pitch black room?

At Yule we celebrate POTENTIAL energy -- stored energy, chemical, gravitational, mechanical, and nuclear. This is the energy of the dark half of the year, underground energy, dark energy, and this night is the peak of that potential. (The summer solstice brings us the peak KINETIC energy -- electrical, heat, light, motion, and sound.)

So here is a winter solstice practice for you:

Write seven or more almost impossible things you’re going to imagine into being this year -- remembering that aiming high, imagining big, helps move the needle toward at least incremental change. That big change can’t happen without big, clear imagining.

What will end this year? What will blossom? Don’t worry about the language being pretty or smart, but be as specific as you can. 

This is the year

This is the year

This is the year

This is the year

This is the year

This is the year

This is the year

This is the year.

marking time

At some point in early November, when Walgreens in its full commercial absurdity started piping in smooth jazz versions of Away in a Manger, I said to a friend, “I’m really not that into Christmas.” 

And it’s true, there is a mile-long litany of reasons to be disenchanted with this holiday. The gross commercialization and clanging urgency to spend, the terrible ways Christianity has been used to oppress and marginalize and rationalize violence, all those pasty Santas in all those malls reinforcing the lie that generosity and judgment of good and bad is the purview of white Christian folks primarily or even exclusively…

But here’s the thing: I bought a tree. And took out the decorations, untangled and strung up lights in the window, drank cider with my wife as we decided which star would go where and how to hang the stockings in this apartment with no fireplace, no mantle. 

Because the fact is, I’m really into holidays. If I’m into anything at all, it’s the marking of time. I think it’s different for people who have kids, because there are grade progressions and developmental milestones, things that point to the passage of time in really clear ways. But even then, I imagine, time can slip by for the parents and their human progression. 

It could be nostalgia or a trick of memory, but I feel as though seasons used to mark time more clearly: the hot summer, the crisp fall, the snowbound winter, the warm and blooming spring… as the climate in this country changes, temperatures fluctuating and interweaving (60-degree weeks in December!), time feels ever more complex and in some ways, undifferentiated. 

In any case, the older I get, the more I crave these opportunities not only to mark time, but to do so with joy. If the deterioration of my rotator cuff is going to remind me of my steadily aging body, let me counterbalance that with the annual act of bringing an evergreen into my living room and stringing it with lights and ribbon and ornaments from childhood. 

Let me enter every holiday as an opportunity to exemplify and intensify how I want to enter every day: intentionally, with vivid attention, saturated with gratitude for this time, for this life, this choice and this chance to live. 

Good Yule to you. Happy holidays. Merry Christmas. 

all the possible

I used to love people mostly for their potential. For that light I saw behind the drawn curtains, for the genius beating under the bullshit and ego, for the next, the almost, the if only.

I thought this made me kind, or insightful, or special.

It made me terrible.

It made me wish change upon everyone I loved. Good change, sure, but what business of mine was that? How do you love someone not for who they are, but for who you think they should be, could be, may become someday? Not well, let me tell you. Not presently.

When I met the woman who is now my wife, she was struggling with some pretty serious auto-immune disorder symptoms. I knew enough about myself by then to know that I could not love her with the hope that she would get “better.” I had to love her as she was, or not at all.

I still love potential. I still love looking ahead and dreaming of what can be, especially with the people I love. But now I also love the now. And I love the process of growth, not just its ends.

This is the long-game of living: to love the making of a life more than the products of that life. To be so fully that the self, the life, blossoms of its own momentum.

This reminds me of a beautiful poem by Timothy Liu. Here it is:

The Tree that Knowledge Is

I do not want to die. Not for love.
Nor a vision of that tree I cannot
recollect, shining in the darkness
with cherubim and a flaming sword.
All my life that still small voice
of God coiled up inside my body.
The lopped-off branch that guilt is
is not death. Nor life. But the lust
that flowers at the end of it.

 

try a little tenderness

I’m thinking today about how boundaries and defense mechanisms are kind of cousins. I haven’t always had healthy boundaries, but defense mechanisms -- those I had to spare. Sarcasm, hypervigilance, making myself the most useful person in any room… when I didn’t know how to protect my vulnerable self-parts in healthy ways, these helped.

When I met my now-wife, one of the things she was able to reflect to me was the way I distanced from feeling through sarcasm, self-deprecation, and teasing. So I tried to stop. I would catch myself just before or (more often) just after speaking and feel terrible about it, shame myself for not doing better, being better.

Surprise: that didn’t work.

The only thing that did work was examining what was behind these words, what purpose they served. And once I did that, once I unpacked for myself the WHY behind these actions, I was able to let them go. Not squash them or pretend they didn’t exist or build detours around them, but look at them, thank them for the part they played in my survival, and release them from their work.

So often, we try to willpower our way through change, when what we need is some gentleness. To be able to look upon our flaws with love, and gratitude, and let them go so that something else can take their place.

If there’s a task before me this lifetime, that’s probably the one. I know the perfectionists in the room hear me. Let’s just today, just tonight, lift up something that once served us, thank it, and release it into the good air that sweeps everything clean.

44

I started this birthday by killing a handful of sugar ants circling a spot where there used to be food. Two days ago a crumb fell to the floor ignored and they found it and swarmed. Ever since they’ve been coming back hunting for more. So this is my birthday commitment, my 44: I will never again return to the echo, the ghost, the illusion of food where food is no more, but seek out new sources, new satisfactions, new fuel. So this is my wish for myself, and you: not to follow old outmoded paths to and out of suffering, but to seek, to find, to make new.

the magical power of not tidying up

At the end of one particularly tearful therapy session, I was scrabbling through my backpack for the check I’d purposely pre-written to pay my therapist. Dammit, it’s in here, I had it all done, where is it, so stupid. My sweet therapist, seeing my out-of-scale irritation, said, Marty, breathe, it’s OK. And when I found it, You know, you’re just not the kind of woman who has everything perfectly arranged in her purse. And it doesn’t diminish your greatness.

I think about that a lot, when I’m using these arbitrary markers to hold myself accountable to some invisible, unwritten set of rules. Would my life be easier and marginally better if my out-in-the-world belongings weren’t spread across two backpacks and a purse? Sure. Does that lady in the tidying up book have a magnificent existence primarily because every day when she arrives home, she removes her immaculately arranged purse items from the purse that brings her great joy, thanks it for its service (I am not making this up, it’s in the book,) and places it on its specified hook in her extraordinarily organized closet? No.

This isn’t a treatise in defense of messiness. The rituals of order in our minds and our homes and our workplaces (if/when those are different) matter. The trouble comes when what we think defines us gets in the way of what really matters, what truly affects our quality of life, and aligns with our core values.

If the throw blankets are unfolded and last night’s tea mugs and wine glasses are sitting out on the coffee table, if the rug is a few days overdue for vacuuming and my wallet is in one of four bags or maybe the tote I used at the grocery store, it’s OK.

What I do need is for my bookshelves to be in order so I can find what I’m looking for. The keys go in the key box, every time. At least one clean towel in case of unexpected guests, food in the fridge, extra toilet paper because nothing, nothing makes me feel more wretchedly adolescent than running out of toilet paper.

These matter. And I will fold the throw blankets, I will find my wallet, I will vacuum and do laundry but I won’t shame yesterday Marty for not having done it. I won’t rant to myself about turning 44 without a 401K or a mortgage or flat abs. I’ll sit at my messy desk and notice how the wood of the windows in this gorgeous old apartment I do not own is different from the wood on the trees leaning into and away from the wind down the boulevard, how a live thing becomes a set thing, a newly purposed thing, and the grace in that.

And for a minute, I will feel the measuring tape drop from my hand -- the one not marked with inches but with money, tidiness, treadmill time, publication credits, job title, progeny. I will inhale this one and only minute in my one and only life and not diminish it. I will not diminish my greatness by surrendering to the trivial.

Let’s go be great. And maybe, a little messy. 

light thoughts

Happy solstice, readers! This day offers the most light of any day of the year; from the winter solstice until now the days have been steadily extending themselves, offering incrementally more light cycle by cycle, building to this moment, the bright center of the blooming season. From here on through the year, the offered light will wane, though we still have weeks, even months, of bright warmth ahead. (Interesting scientific facts about the solstice here!) 

And this does not change -- the world will always offer us the same amount of light, the same stretch of day. It is up to us to decide how open we will be to it, how we will receive it, and what we will do with it once it is received.

The universe offers us a multitude of gifts -- there is abundance all around us at all times – but how open are we to receiving them? On this longest day, will we commit ourselves to seeing the brightness, opening ourselves to it, taking it in and letting it transform us? Or will we focus on the fact that come tomorrow, the days will begin to shorten again, sorrowing at how quickly the seasons pass?

Among the gifts the universe offers us is light, and among them is darkness, both in their own place and time, both with abundance to offer. Also among the gifts the universe has to give us is fire, which purifies and burns, brightens and brings to ash.

I’m reminded of the ancient ritual of jumping the fire in order to invite fertility, strength, and signify commitment. I have to wonder if this was not at least in part a recognition that no exceptional path is without obstacles, that something must be endured in order for progress to occur.

Or maybe it was a reminder that what seems like a barrier is often a door. If what you truly desire is on the other side of the fire, you will pass through that fire to get there. You will hold fast to your love’s hand, or to your own hand, your own driving desire, and you will leap the fire.

How will we receive this offering? What will we do with all of these bright and burning gifts?

Thought exercise: Know that in front of you is a blazing bonfire, its flames as high as your head. As you stand before it, feel its heat move over your skin. Close your eyes and see its brightness move even through your shut eyelids. Draw the light into your body, down into the core of your belly.

Once there, in the cauldron of your core, the light begins to take shape. It moves and dances as flame does, but also has the solid quality of molten gold. It is as though the sun itself is moving in you, but malleable and transforming from moment to moment.

What shapes does it take? Does it form a solid immediately or morph from one to the next? Let yourself watch and be entertained, because this light is pure joy and ecstatic possibility – and it is yours.

Once its form solidifies and becomes evident, take a step back and observe. Is this something you give back to the bonfire and then leap over, committing to movement and progress? Or is it something to make part of you, to absorb into every cell of your being, spreading its light throughout your body? Do what feels right and true in this moment, knowing this fire is yours to return to anytime, no matter how dark the year turns, no matter how far from it you walk.

Happy solstice. Be gentle with your good self. 

there should be a term for the fear of on-trend octogenarians

I’m terrified of the incredibly fashionable seventysomethings trend because it means no end to this longing and striving. No settling into polyester and flabbery. Also, they’re all so thin. I’m getting married this summer, at what if I were pregnant (I’m not) would be called “advanced maternal age.” Or maybe by this point (it’s been years since I checked), “dangerously advanced maternal age.” Which is not to say I wish I’d married earlier (the air from those bullets dodged still cooling my ears), only that the level of effort I’ve put into getting in shape for the photographic marathon while hardly Herculean would, likely in my 30s and doubtless in my 20s, have engendered far greater an impact on what I am striving mightily, day by day and magazine by magazine, not to call my “problem areas.” There’s a slim woman passing on the sidewalk below in a flowing and re-fashionable caftan. I know her slimness because she walks past often with her small dog and a man I assume is her partner or roommate. He and I work at the same coffeeshop, at our laptops on tiny tables. He’s friendlier than I am with the baristas, though I’ve been taking a cue and upping the effusiveness of my greetings and compliments and notations on the weather or news. The other day this effort was rewarded by an entirely unsolicited compliment on my outfit by the barista whose impish twentysomething figure makes the seemingless effortless 80s-90s Goodwill combos she rocks adorable. My dress had also been purchased at a second-hand store, though originally by someone else from Ann Taylor, and I cut off the sleeves which crowded my muscle- or wine-and-chocolate-bound upper arms so much as to make hugging or lifting my backpack impossible. I told her as much, and she said it made the dress look “futuristic,” which may have been a reference to how the shoulder seams rose slightly into points without the weight of the sleeves they were designed to bear, or perhaps she meant modern, less old-fashioned, or that this is my future, the modus operandi of the way I will dress the second half (everything willing) of my life -- find something well made and figure out what part of it to leave behind.

The Next Right Thing

We spend most of our childhoods struggling against being told what to do. When to go to bed, when to get up, what to eat, where to go. 

Then we grow up, and man, do we want someone to tell us what to do. This is the most common question I hear from the people I work with: What should I do? Generally we don’t want someone dictating our bedtime or dinner choices, but along with the glorious and wide-open horizons of adulthood comes, with some frequency, the anxiety of which road to take, with whom, how far, how fast, and how on earth did I get here?

This human thing is very strange. And very ancient. Certainly our choices are different than they were a hundred, a thousand, thousands of years ago, but choice itself, conscious choice, considered choice, is such a fabulous human dilemma. When I pause long enough to consider it, when I look around me at the million tiny gestures and decisions that make up my day and the day of the people around me, I’m delighted. And I’m calmed.

We get overwhelmed by the question What should I do for a few reasons. 

First of all, we tend to think that there is only one path forward, ignoring hybrid options, radical tangents, the option to double back or just stay still for a time. We’re socialized to think in dichotomy: this or that. Here or there. Door #1 or Door #2. Sometimes when we’re at a crossroads, the thing to do is take neither road, but forge ahead into the between. Sometimes we need to sit awhile, and sometimes we need to head back the way we came. What matters is to remove the either-or from our thinking. Seldom are the choices as limited as they seem. 

Which brings us to the second reason What should I do is so often overwhelming. “Should.” I have spent years living in should-land. It’s not fun, or productive. How do you leave this airless place? Do what you want to do, and/or what you need to do. If you don’t want to do it and it doesn’t need to be done, why bother? 

And of course, there’s the question of “do.” The moment of choice. How do you decide what to do, especially in the face of limited information or an uncertain outcome? 

I like to start with the absurd. What’s the worst choice you could make right now? What would happen then? 

And I like to play with opposites. Who do you know that is as close to your opposite as possible? What would that person do? What would happen then? 

And admiration. Who do you admire for how they live their life? What would they do? What would happen then? 

What decisions have you made that delighted you? Where have you gone so right? What twists and tangles have brought you to this moment, today’s choices, and all that awaits?  

navigation

I’d prefer the moth beating itself against the window glass not be an allegory, but probably it is. Who stands behind me with giant hands, wanting to help but unable until I abandon the impossible path? I feel ready to abandon something, but what? Which path is the window glass, which the open door? The house is full of bugs that belong out of doors, stink bugs and sugar ants and that large flapping moth. The power to fly is the most common impossible desire among human animals. As if somehow by being able to move differently than we do, we’d somehow know where to go.

strangers maybe in their chairs

Grey days like this one make the bodies of joggers even more improbable. How do they push so quickly through the sky’s immobility? A habit of motion is, I guess, as strong as a habit of stasis. I have a habit of this chair, this blanket, these books, this thinking which is a kind of motion, a jogging of the mind. I tell myself this, from my chair. I watch the sky and even the trees are still. I drink my tea even though it’s cold. I think about the phrase cold comfort. If I study the sky, I can see that it is not in fact flat. The low part with its faint striations of white, to the west a darker patch. Through the sun room door a stretch of almost blue. I cast my mind out there, past the stoplight, past the dark tree’s arterial branches, past the just-visible chimney on some building housing no one I know or love yet, strangers maybe in their chairs, drinking tea one of them has warmed and brought to the other without prompting or agenda. A small motion, setting it down on the broad arm of the chair, their hands faintly brushing as the other picks it up.