Improvising (Wherever You Go, I Shall Go)

10403364_10206037095222989_8676968453124620162_nNot lost. Turned around just enough to enjoy the challenge of walking as the crow flies. Longwood, Shattuck, Tremont and Huntington, surrounded on all sides by imposing edifices of medical research, practice, teaching–Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s, Dana Farber and families who’ve taken up residence here because this is how life is now, residents and med students and doctors, men and women wearing suits or scrubs in a hurry.

I don’t hurry, but walk purposefully, the way I do in cities, feeling that return of self that’s never far and comes to life when there is sky above rooftops and the hum of the morning and just blending in, improvising my way to Starbucks even though I briefly turned the GPS on, but felt better just winging it, knowing I couldn’t go all that wrong. And the satisfaction of finding my way back to this courtyard. Oh, there it is!

I like improvising and thankfully it seems to like me back. We’re a good team, set loose in search of a big iced latte and to take in my surroundings a bit, get my bearings, bearings that in hospitalandia can get warped by rounds and nurses and time a pinpoint of pain meds and attempted rest and up and down the escalator to the café.

Today I will get a stuffed animal at the gift shop per Pearl’s tearful request on the phone last night. Whether they realize it or not, my girls are learning this art, too–of improvising because life asks this of us, won’t take no for an answer when we love and will do whatever it takes to get the right and best care for our people.

I would lie down for them and I hope they know this. I told her wherever you go, I shall go. And here we are. She is on the 14th floor and I’m here on the street, wondering if everyone around me thinks of themselves as improvising, too. Aren’t we all?

I’m not sure what else there is but to enter the dance and stay on the floor, to leave a little and get lost a little but not too much and then come back. Don’t forget to eat. Take a walk. Sleep when you can. Turn off the GPS. And tune in to those instincts when you need them most. Which may be always.

post-script: We’re heading home later today after a few days at Brigham & Women’s in Boston. Thank you to everyone who has sent love and good wishes this week.

Down to the River to Pray

11200604_10205999998975606_1000277961261736070_nConception: The first one is clear. An egg and a sperm were the beginning of me, the one who came in winter to a cold, mixed-up world, to Buffalo, to two sisters and two parents and one body, the one I grew into and eventually, slowly, painstakingly earned my right to and learned to inhabit.

But every seven years, I hear, we are new.

I don’t know how many cells make up the human body. But somehow, over the course of seven years, every single one of them dies and is replaced by a new one. I suppose the genes don’t change, though the more my wife reads to me, the more questionable even that assumption becomes.

Everything alters us: What we put into our bodies, food, drinks, chemical sweeteners and three Advil at a time for every migraine, and the things we breathe everyday knowingly or unwittingly, and the hands that touch us, whether by force or by welcome, the words we read and ingest and spit out and recycle, the books we read and the shows we watch and world events and the walks we take through old cemeteries, through cities, exposure to gardens and driveways and traffic and dreams and computer screens and windshields and poems–everything finds it way into the organism that is ever-changing and dying and being remade.

Every seven years, am I reconceived, perhaps more reconciled to reality even as it shifts and shakes and settles again? If this is true, I’m nearing the completion of six cycles of selfhood. This morning, one of my two said, “I do have a sixth sense, you know.” Yes, I do know, I told her.

If the third time’s a charm and the sixth time’s a sense, maybe the seventh cycle is the arrival to the center of some great labyrinth, the one I’ve been walking since before I knew how to walk, the one I’ve been talking to since before I could speak, the one I’ve fought and fallen in love with and, at times, stopped trying to figure out how to speed up or stepped out of completely.

Seven cycles means standing still in the circles that surround me so far. Maybe this is when I turn around and begin a new walk, one step at a time, in the other direction, outward and expanding. Maybe I will come to face you there, as you, too, make your way, whose to say ahead or behind me on this path where lines only curve and contain.

Wherever you go, I shall go. Take me down to the river to pray; take my hand and I’ll grasp it, my cells mingling with your cells, my heart at once distant and in synch with yours, with the downward current that carries us when we let it. All I know for certain on this overcast morning is that my body is changing and yours is, too.

And I’m so glad, so lucky, sad and happy and knowing it’s all mystery and it’s all plain as the day, as the breeze on my skin, as the myth of sin and the magic of merging and apart, sitting here on stone, conceived by love and altered by life, and choosing, something, that is yet to be named.

{Shabbat Shalom.}

The Gift of the Burden, and Laying It Down

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Photo credit: Dorothea Lange

Oh, I want to write something here. All week long, I write for ten minutes at a time. My life as a writer right now consists almost exclusively of short bursts of freewriting. It is just not time right now, to be working on something longer, more sustained.

I read beautifully crafted essays sometimes with longing; wonder what would emerge if I had, or made, the time to work on a piece in that way. I have more book ideas than I can keep track of.

And then there is this space, where I come sometimes more and lately less frequently, always unpremeditated–no prompt, often not even an idea or topic or reason, except that I miss the writing I do here, the free associating of it and the way it has been a landing place for me for so many years now.

It’s a loyal emptiness that seems happy to see me when I show up and forgiving when I don’t, like a friend who doesn’t hold a grudge when weeks and months and sometimes years go by without being in touch. The connection is there.

But just in the way I have pangs of how I’ve not spoken with some close friends for too long, lately what is becoming clear is that I need to make time for saying hello to myself. For not forgetting that caring for others cannot come at the expense of self-care–something that doesn’t seem to really become clear to me until the ignored whispers and neglected needs come roaring out, and something small and in other times inconsequential, like realizing the chicken breast isn’t skinless and so will require another trip to the grocery, puts me over the edge, and I’m crying in the kitchen because my blood sugar has tanked and I’ve had way too much caffeine and not enough quiet.

Writing here quiets me. And being able to apologize to myself, accept my own apology, and then do something differently–this is a practice not unlike moving my cell phone to the opposite side of the bedroom, turning out the light, and willing myself to get a good night’s sleep. To get up and make myself eat breakfast before work, rather than waiting until I’m shaky with hunger because I put other things first and felt too busy to make food. To bring my kids to an evening work event rather than feeling like I’m missing the time with them after they’ve been with their dad for five days. To accept that I cannot take away my wife’s debilitating pain right now, and that I can care for her and love her without leaving myself. To lead writing groups and witness others’ stories and share my own comments and responses thoughtfully, without hurry–which might mean waiting, not responding in the moment.

Not everything has to happen right this minute. And at a time in my life when I find myself working more than I’ve ever worked in my life–some by choice, some by necessity–a breadwinner by circumstance and ability and privilege and luck and innovation and employment and creativity; at a time when it is on me to take care of household chores and meals and kid schedules and not wanting to disappear from any of it, not wanting to forget or lose the joy in all of it (ok, maybe not all of it) — in this time, after this very long sentence that I have not and perhaps will not reread before posting, I remember that writing here brings me not to my knees in overwhelm but back to my feet, where I am capable and also not as essential as my ego or inner critic would have me believe. (They are in cahoots, those two. I’m sure of this. I just gave them $20 and told them to go get a slice of pizza.)

So I am here, writing. And Mani is here, near me. And Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s question is here, that came with her poem last night, the one that was so timely and reminded me that God is here, too: “Can you think of a time when you took on, or wanted, to take on a loved one’s burden? What gifts did you find in that act?”

I didn’t think about this question today, not consciously. But as I come here, as I come here for a sliver of time but without a timer to say hello to myself and see what she has to say back, I realize that that is the question I’m living right now, and that I’m answering it, letting answers come, not by pushing or vanishing or flipping my shit, but by loving and letting myself be loved back, even when it’s hard, even when I’m tired, even when it feels like there isn’t time.

There is always time to be loved. And tonight, there is even time to write it down. To lay it down. To wrap my arms around my own chest before reaching for hers and rubbing her back in hopes that the pain will subside enough to sleep a while.

Day 38 of the Omer: Burden
a psalm of comfort

by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (a.k.a. the Velveteen Rabbi) 

Set down your pack.
Wrap your arms around your chest.
Let your shoulderblades unfurl like wings.

Let me rub the knots from your palms,
smooth the shadows from under your eyes.
Lean back: my hands are here.

Your fragile glass heart is safe.
The light which shines through you —
I don’t want you to hide it away.

The stones you’re lugging, both whole
and broken: they’re mine too.
You’re mine too. Let me carry you.

In Sickness and In Health

10710707_10204255076353631_7973461933437247856_nI had such a gay marriage advocacy moment last night. While others were celebrating Pride in nearby Northampton, Mani and I were in the ER. Her ongoing, intense pain landed us there, not in any kind of life-threatening way but more as a preventative and ultimately reassuring call, to have her get more labs and do what we could to rule out causes other than mast cell issues.

As she got changed into a Johnny, I was offered paperwork to verify and complete. My relationship to the patient? Her wife. The one who could sign on her behalf. The one who carries our family’s health insurance.

As we sat for hours and hours, watching a parade of people leaving in tears from a nearby room where it was clear someone had passed away, listening to the young woman just down the hall moaning on a stretcher, her fever close to 104 while they tested her for sepsis, no one there at her side, holding her hand, which instead gripped the cold metal (I was relieved when her boyfriend showed up), as we read, cracked each other up, sat in silence, played Candy Soda Crush, and intermittently answered doctors’ questions–through all of this, I imagined living in a state or country where she’d have been there alone, perhaps uninsured, with me in the waiting room wondering what was happening.

Gay marriage is a lot like the gay agenda, in that it’s a construct designed by and dependent on biases and fear. And I don’t spend a whole lot of waking hours feeling like my life is a political act or statement of any special importance beyond what makes all of our lives special and important.

But last night, not leaving her side as the pain ebbed and then came on strong again, I cringed thinking of all the couples who don’t have the legal right to rise to those vows, to stay, on hard nights, to throw overnight things in a bag just in case. Just to sit there, next to their beloved, through the not knowing.

I don’t assume that because you are my friend of Facebook or read my blog, you support marriage equality. And if posting this changes or opens one mind, one heart, it will be worth it to me.

Make Room

God said,
make room for me
in your day
that crow swooping low
as you drive to work
the trash heap
beneath the budding trees
falling-down fence
partitioning
wild from civilized
a child’s question
Mama, what does civilization mean?
Make room for me
is what I heard God say
broken glass
on pavement
emergence from caves
of safety and
the genius of survival
Make room
and don’t look too hard
or mistake the moment
when that plump robin
hops to your feet
for anything but my presence
Many poets have died
trying
and the ones who wrote
the truth of a battered
and broken world
saw the beauty, too
and knew the difference
between the act and the word
the jester and the gesture
the seamless unfolding
of one season to another
Make room
Make room
Keep your eyes open
and tell me what you see

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I wrote this poem–this poem wrote itself–yesterday morning, with the timer on my phone set for five minutes. This was all the time I had, between leaving home and trying not to be late for work. And just as I was feeling that squeezed, pressured, rushed feeling, thinking, OK that’s it, I’m at full capacity, I heard those words in my head. Make room. So I pulled over and got out of the car and listened.

I sent it to Mani and a dear poet friend. And almost left it at that. It was only later that I decided to share it on Facebook. The response was so moving and unexpected, and reminded of these words from Nayyirah Waheed’s stunning book, Salt (read it!):

listen to my poems. but do not look for me. look for you.

This is why I pull over. This is why I write. This is why I set a timer and call it practice. This is why I share. This is why I no longer shy away from God.