Binney Street, 5:13am

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Binney Street, 5:13am. Four benches. Dana-Farber Cancer Center on my right, Brigham and Women’s to my left, where Mani is in Room 14A-14. On one of the benches, a man just woke up. He didn’t notice me sitting here at first, and I saw him unzip his fly and turn towards the bushes. He must’ve sensed my presence, though, as he turned around, zipped back up, and left. I see him walking now, a grey backpack disappearing towards the corner of Francis Street.

A few minutes ago, I met a woman in Au Bon Pain. Both of us were standing in front of the drip coffee options, as if being faced with a difficult test question. “Get any sleep?” I asked. “No sleep, but good news,” she answered. We agreed that that’s a welcomed trade-off. Her 78-year-old mother has stage 4 pancreatic cancer. That’s not the good news. The good news was that she can go home today instead of five or six days from now. Turns out Linda, the daughter, herself suffered from Lyme for years. She developed neuropathy as a result, which I learned after sharing with her why I am here with my wife.

In the ER last night, where we sat for four hours in the waiting room and then another three in a room before Mani was admitted, one of the nurses, a woman seven months pregnant with kind eyes, walked in, took one look at us, and said, “Can I just ask, what is your relationship?” I knew right away what she was thinking, having now heard this so many times. “Not sisters…” I said, smiling at her. “We’re married.” Then I couldn’t resist. “Legally!” She threw up her hands and told us where she was when she heard the news on the radio Friday morning.

So we are here again. Mani’s pain has been incapacitating, and as a result, she can barely sleep or walk or eat. Eating and getting nourished, all the doctors keep agreeing, is what will reverse the neuropathy that makes her feet feel like they are on fire in a way I truly can’t imagine but know what it’s like to watch and witness. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation, one that some days inpatient probably won’t solve but at the very least she needs pain relief and nutrients beyond the Ensure and rice cereal she’s been able to stomach at home.

Watching her lose weight and writhe in pain has been unbearable; or rather what by yesterday was beginning to feel irresponsible and scary and frustrating as I fielded calls to various providers and we waited one day, two, three for this or that next appointment or conversation. So we agreed, that driving back to Boston was the only and best option right now.

In a few minutes, I’ll go back up to her. Around 8:00 or 9:00, we will meet another group of doctors, probably GI and neurology and a pain management team. I don’t know if we’ll stay for two nights or several, only that we are here again, trying to do the next right thing to get her help.

Last night, after she’d been in touch with her girls in Phoenix, I talked to mine on the phone. They are still up at their Grandma’s house in Vermont, and I plan to go up there Wednesday for a night, to see Aviva’s play and to bring Pearlie back to Amherst before she heads to Maine for a week with her dad and my sister’s family. My other sister will come to be here with Mani for the night, if she hasn’t been discharged yet.

We will keep taking things one day at a time. I will keep reaching for faith that I and we are doing everything possible to help her get well, and reminding myself that esperando is both waiting and hoping–and that there’s nothing passive about love.

The Roar Sessions: Jen Lemen

Finding Your Roar When You’ve Lost Your Voice
by Jen Lemen

I had never considered the idea of having a roar, but then I became a mother.

Her birth was difficult and traumatic. I had labored long and hard to no avail as the nurses implored me during the pushing stage to “get angry and really give it your all.” I tried to give them the fierceness they described, but the best I could do was go through the motions. Lying there on my back, exhausted, I wanted to believe it was because I was just tired, but the deeper me knew it was more than that. There was no fight in me. Not on this day or any other day. I didn’t know how to show up for what I wanted, even while a surgeon hovered over me with a knife. For most of my twenty-nine years, I had been conditioned to wait for things to happen to me and then adjust. I was schooled from as long as I could remember in having a “good spirit” and doing my best. And by doing your best I mean some approximation of staying in the lines so as to avoid making anyone else unnecessarily upset.

Still, nursing my c-section scar and my confusion, in those first few weeks I noticed something not exactly like a roar–maybe something more akin to a quiet purr–rising up in me. I wanted my husband up in me in this strange new primal way. I wanted my friends to shut up and be quiet when the baby slept at their houses even though we had always filled our evenings with racket and noise for as long as any of us could remember.

Normally, I would be playful about such things, making sure to add a good dose of self-deprecation to any unusual request. But all of the sudden, I couldn’t be calm about it. I wasn’t polite. You want this my eyes commanded as I poured my post-baby body into clothes that felt curvy, sexy, round, real. I’m not fucking having it my actual mouth said as my friends nicely asked me to chill out about the baby, the edge in my tone so definitive, so sincere that total compliance was their only option.

I felt a wash of shame with these things. I wasn’t quite sure that this was a “normal” way to be, as if normal is even a thing. I worried that new mothers weren’t supposed to want sex raw or messy, let alone feel all juiced up or sexy. And I was positive that being exacting or rude to your friends and family for not being on your page with the baby was acceptable in anyone’s book.

Even so, some tiny sound was rising out of me, even as I continued to fold into a particular kind of conformity that was natural and automatic for the way I had been raised. Even though my agitation wasn’t a good fit for the kind of traditional marriage I had chosen, like a raven arriving at a doorstep or a crow flying away before a storm, it felt like a sign.

Something alive and real and pulsing and human had come out of my torn open body, leaving me feeling a sexual emptiness I hadn’t known before. A tiny amazing infant sucked on my actual breasts for hours and days on end and as a result turned fatter and fatter until she was so round and glorious my arms ached from carrying her. Something was happening, leaving me with an itch in my throat and an ache in my thighs that felt like fire.

I might have been going through the motions, being nice, staying in the lines, doing as I should, being a good sport, trying in my own pathetic way to uphold the general idea of agreeability I had been taught as a young girl. But something had been activated on the cellular level.

For the first time since my girl self had turned everything quiet and dead to survive, I wanted to feel something. For the first time since I myself was not protected as a naive teenager, I wanted to protect someone else. For the first time since I drank all the kool-aid on the perils of sex and desire and the body, I wanted to create a safe space around me so that something amazing could get inside of me, quick and hard and raw, more like an animal than any civilized man (or woman) had been with me before. And for the first time since mastering the art of obeying everyone else’s rules and laws, I wanted everyone to shut the fuck up so I could lay down my own law and say exactly how I thought things should be.

I wish I could tell you this was the beginning of a great and glorious emancipation, but it was not. It was more like an induction into my own personal private shame-specializing torture chamber. My purr, my pussy, my growing roar felt more akin to a foreign substance in my body, something to be managed and controlled and manipulated so that I could get back in line and stay there.

But the cat was already out of the bag.

I had a baby girl now. And she needed my roar, or else she’d be suffering the same way I had, without even knowing it. I had to find a way to live with the difficulty and horror of not being easy, not always being nice, not really wanting what everyone else wanted. Of feeling rebellious and ashamed and different and strange for not really liking girl scouts or after school clubs or kisses that were tame and reasonable with not a scratch or a love bite in sight.

I turned in on myself and tried to swallow my tongue.

I gagged myself on spirituality and theories and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator which I prayed would explain my difference once and for all.

But it was no use really.

And that’s the most beautiful and amazing thing about a roar.

If you try to tame it with your head, with your mind, with your ideas, you may have some success for a little while. Especially if you decide to live in a cage or with a keeper in a town that loves to watch you do tricks and be tamed over and over again and then finally once and for all.

But let that door crack, let that keeper turn his or her back–find the landscape of your own sensation, your own emotion, your own body–and your true nature will emerge, complete and whole and intact, surprisingly undamaged, though you may be afraid of moving the way you always knew you could.

Learned helplessness is a real thing. But it is also a grave and dangerous thing that can be unlearned. And any return, even for three minutes, to the sound of your breath or the heat in your thighs or the pounding in your chest or the burning in your throat, will help you remember that you forgot something important. And then you can begin to remember once again.

For me, the safest way to do that was through helping others. Helping was an officially sanctioned approved behavior of nice women everywhere. I could listen to the secret stories of women with ferocious roars who had only temporarily lost their way unlike me who had lost mine completely. I looked good, while they looked helped, and I gathered intel about what it meant to be brave or strong or outspoken through their amazing stories.

Listening to those stories and then looking into the face of that baby girl, was like being let out of the yard for a little bit longer everyday, until I didn’t see any need for a cage anymore. And every time my shame would return to condemn me for being different or wanting something different or something more, that girl would ask me an innocent question or share a simple dream about me being stronger than I was or more powerful or more engaged in the world and I would get the message from her old soul to mine, that I had to keep going, that I had to keep wanting what I wanted until I could actually say it. Until I could push something out of me through the most amazing part of me and know that anger was not required but the most stunning form of devotion to everything most alive in me, most holy, most true.

Stories and helping gave me a map to follow as well as a cartography of my own soul. I learned where I lost my purr from the very beginning and where I’d have to go to get it back. Doing good for others was the best cover for my task, but deep inside I knew I was doing it for me. So that I could be free, so that my daughter could feel the strength of a mother who wasn’t afraid to defend someone else and consequently her own self: a woman who wasn’t afraid to roar.

There are a thousand stories in between these lines, as I’m sure you can feel, reading these words. I’m in a place now in my life where telling those stories are of the utmost importance, so that others can catch their own clues to find their own way. And I’m also at a stage where I don’t need the cover of helping anymore, so I’m slowly and systematically letting that go.

As the mother of a baby girl now turning seventeen, I’m okay with not being nice now. I’m okay if you know that I want you to fuck me so hard and so silly that we both can only laugh, we are so connected, things are so incredibly real and raw and good. I’m okay with you disapproving of the sounds I make and the things I don’t believe and the love I want and the wisdom I have.

I make sounds now when I cum, and my heart sings when you make sound too.

I’m not afraid of you being afraid if I defend myself or if I insist on the kind of protection for my soul that at first I could only insist on for others’. And maybe most importantly, I am not ashamed, because I’m learning, finally and thank God not too late, that I am, for all my flaws and failures and disastrous misunderstandings, a thing of real beauty on the earth, who will fade and disappear and be no more, because this is what nature does to us and to everything that is real and unfabricated and true.

So what now, you ask? What of my roar? What of my path? What of my pain? To this I say, don’t worry. A roar can be forgotten, it can be stifled, it can be shamed, but it can not be stopped. It rises of its own accord in the right way, in the right time, through the beating of your own heart, through the sorrows of your own body, through every horrible and shameful and desperate thing in you that screams failure when all you wanted was a seamless, simple success.

It is through your brokenness and your cracked open, torn apart places that you’ll hear your purr again. It is through your passions, through your small and simple loves, like the way the baby holds your finger or the way you crave that dream that never was. Sit there and the roar will find you. It’s your birthright, it’s your destiny. It’s your true animal nature. It is all that is you and ever was.

**
IMG_5935Jen Lemen is a writer, mentor and co-founder of hopefulworld.org. Jen recently experienced the second Nepal earthquake while meeting with young emerging leaders finding their roar in Kathmandu. You can read about her experience here.

The Roar Sessions: Patti Digh

When Roaring is Discouraged, Learn to Roar Anyway
by Patti Digh 

Patti pics patti + emma look alike b208When I was young, I believe it was clear to my parents and teachers that I had a gift of some kind. I was unaware of it, but all my straight A report cards and audiences with the Governor and visits to a psychologist for IQ tests and summers at Gifted and Talented Camp would point in that direction, if I had ever bothered to add them up. I just thought this was how it was—this was my “ordinary.” I was recruited to grade the papers of others in my first grade class, for example, which I see now would have been insufferable in a child less humble, less intent on being like every other kid.

I wasn’t just smart with a genius IQ—and preternaturally so—I was wise and I was a leader, and that scared some adults, I can see now. It didn’t scare my fellow classmates because I never spoke of it. I just lived it, with a humility that bordered on self-deprecation and a loss of self, I now see.

The two messages I got in my youth were these: “You can do anything you put your mind to” and “You are smarter than other people and need to not outshine them.” Those two messages have translated through 55 years of life to these: “You can do anything you want—and you’d better” and “Play small so as not to overshadow others.” Only now do I realize how contradictory those messages were.

I have played them so well in my life, like a dutiful kid—the first by becoming an overachiever of the highest order and a perfectionist; the second by never owning my gifts, but good golly-ing them away as Gomer Pyle might do. I still do this—at a recent interview to become a Board member for a local nonprofit, we all introduced ourselves and told some of our background. I finished, and the Executive Director of the group said, “Wait a minute, Patti, haven’t you written a number of books?” Even still, it is hard for me to acknowledge what I have done, because I feel conspicuous when I do, and I have done a lot.

My parents and others in the community did not mean to give me instructions that were so contradictory, but they did. And all of us, when given the chance to examine our patterns, will likely find messages that work against one another, leaving us somewhere in the middle, unable to roar. I find it in myself when asked to give a speech and unconsciously lower my status as “expert” in the very beginning of the speech, to level the playing field. I would also prefer to not speak from a stage, but from a place level with the audience where, tellingly, many of them cannot even see me.

This has translated, too, in the dissolution of any boundaries between me and other people, because I am going out of my way to be with, instead of elevated above. To help others at the detriment of myself, to be unable to say, “I am a writer,” for example. There are so many ways in which I have perfected this.

As I read over this essay, I am cringing with what seems like egotism to me. I have, all my life, never said these things about being brilliant and wise and a leader. Ever. And in never owning these things about myself, I have not only diminished myself and the ways in which my gifts might help others in a bigger way, but I have diminished others around me. This became evident to me in a meeting with a psychiatrist a few weeks ago when these and other issues had become too much for me. I described this “playing small” directive and how it had played out in my life. He paused, raised his right eyebrow, and said words to me I had never considered: “Can you see how insulting that is to other people?”

And in that moment, I could see. I could see how playing small paradoxically assumed the inabilities of others. I had never seen it that way. I could see how being self-deprecating was insulting to people who thanked me for my gifts. I could see how humor had become my deflection of choice when someone noticed my gifts and offered praise—playing small had so deeply become the only way I could think of to minimize my own roar and help others roar, to insist that others had a roar in them as big as my own and that my job was to help them find and use it, rather than roar myself.

Now, with the help of Dr. Eyebrow and others, I see otherwise. I see that my own roar is a call to that roar deep within others. I see that my leadership abilities don’t serve anyone if I hide them. I see that my wisdom—my “old soulness”—is a gift I am not to squander by refusing to acknowledge it or by hiding it. I see that I have been living an either/or story: Either I could be humble, or I could be an egomaniac. Either I could be silent, or I could be an egomaniac. Either I could never acknowledge my accomplishments, or I could be an egomaniac. I now see that playing small or being brilliant are not an either/or equation, but a both/and one, and that I need never buy into a story of ego that seems unhealthy to me, that seems detrimental to me–but that there is another story of ego I can live, and healthily so. My psychiatrist gave me an RX: “Support and encourage people, but no problem-solving. No self-deprecating language.”

I now know that I am not here to fix other people’s problems, but to encourage and support their journey. I now know that by not having my own clear boundaries, I have encouraged others not to. So I am working hard to step away from my smallness, not by taking more on, but by taking on less. I am working hard to create boundaries that until now have felt like “playing too big,” but I now know are “playing to be healthy,” for me and others. I now know that when people say “thank you” in such lovely ways to me for my work in the world, I can simply say “thank you” without making small, which in turn diminishes their gift of thanks.

In truth, I have seen who I am as a liability all these years. I am finally ready to allow myself to roar. Sometimes, these things take time.

This is my first roar.

**

Patti profile pic

Patti Digh is the author of 8 books, including Life is a Verb, one of 5 finalists for the prestigious “Books for a Better Life” award. She is also the Founder of Life is a Verb Camp.

The Shortest Distance

This past week has been jam-packed. Kids returned on a red-eye from a ten-day road trip in California with their dad, just in time for the last few days of school, Aviva’s graduation from sixth grade, and my nephew’s deeply moving bar mitzvah weekend.

The Charleston attack. The loss of those beautiful individuals. Bible study. Bible study!

My heart hurts and I’m sad and angry and I’ve been talking a lot to the girls about it, thinking about friends of color who can’t ever shut this off and not wanting my own white privilege to make me an implicit bystander to the racism that defines America for many, many people who are just living their lives. Fuck.

Shabbat services Friday night at the JCA, where I wept by the second song after my sister caught my eye and the music melted all the holding places in my heart. Later, Aviva and Pearl wanted to know why I’d been crying, something I often do on the rare Friday night I find myself in the sanctuary, surrounded by community and the most beautiful, grounded music, prayers that don’t change even as we change. I told them it is a kind of landing for me, not unlike the way yoga can open me that way. Sadness, yes, but also the relief of sitting with people I love in a holy space of quiet and song.

Now those two are off to spend a couple of weeks in Vermont at their grandma’s house, going to mountain bike and theatre camps and seeing old friends. I miss them and find that I cherish our time together even more when they’re on the go. Pearl was up in the middle of the night not feeling well, and I sang to her and rubbed her back and snuggled till she got back to sleep, just so grateful to be there with her. This morning was a flurry of packing before brunch at my parents’ place, water bottles and raincoats and hiking boots and hopefully enough clean underwear and lots of hugs from me.

In the car when I got all sentimental, V said: Don’t be one of those moms who has no life outside of her kids. And also: Don’t be one of those moms who’s just totally wrapped up in her work. I’m pretty sure I’m not either of those, I said. Striking a balance is practice. I think she agreed, in a tweeny kind of way.

Mani’s pain in her feet has been intense and nearly round the clock. We’re doing everything we can to address it, though sometimes I feel a burden of what if I’m not doing enough. Last night we had a shared moment of: Ok. Enough already. Beyond ready for her to be pain-free and healthy again please God. And then I left for a dance party filled with family and friends and a passel of 12- and 13-year olds who give me hope for the future and who are a joy to know and watch grow. I kissed her goodbye and said I’ll be back, I’ll always come back. And she made a list of 18 good things and 18 things to look forward to.

And it’s a new day again and the sun is coming out after heavy rain that made the whole house feel like it was going to float away. I need to read Tina Fey’s “Bossypants” because I read the first two pages yesterday in the bookstore and laughed and insisted on reading four paragraphs to Aviva, and it will be a good book for us to read out loud right now. The library’s closed, so that will have to wait till tomorrow. For today, I think I’m going to put my pajamas back on and climb under the covers for a little while. Whatever else needs doing–dishes, groceries, retreat planning–can wait till tomorrow. So much can feel urgent because it is–and urgency robs me of presence when I need it most.

I’m trying not to stress about my FMLA leave ticking down; we can’t assign any kind of easy timeline on Mani’s prognosis and healing. So it’s best to not trip over the unknown and instead to stay with what’s clear: I am so lucky to be their mama, and so blessed to be her wife. People say she’s lucky to have me, and I always agree and add that she saves me in so many intangible, essential ways. Reminds me that there’s plenty of room and plenty of time. Thankfully, it’s a package deal.

In so many words, everything is going to be ok. In this moment, everything already is. We’re here, together even where we’re apart, and the love does pour in and I feel it, especially when I unplug and plug into nothing but the floor under my bare feet or the way the sheets feel tucked under my chin or Pearl’s soft, soft skin or Aviva’s hugs and texts or Mani’s eyes. Always her eyes.

To you reading this, whatever your color, whatever your life’s aches and joys, know that it brings me great comfort to write here and to hear from you and to rest in the fact that we are closer than we think.

Patti Digh, whose words will grace this space tomorrow, writes: “The shortest distance between two people is a story.” And it strikes me as so true. We need spaces to share stories. To learn each other’s names and to sear the names of those murdered by bigotry and hatred to memory, never to vanish in vain. Why does this have to be such a tall order?

That’s all I’ve got for now. Sunday’s thoughts, catch and release, and on we go.

The Roar Sessions

04-i-am-woman-hear-me-roar1More people shared my recent Hear Me Roar post than perhaps anything I’ve ever posted here. It was pretty  incredible for me, especially given I almost didn’t put out there.

Recognition. Mirrors for each other. A shared, unifying desire to speak. To be heard. To take ourselves seriously. To stop apologizing. To ditch the “maybes” and the “kind ofs” and the “does that make sense?” and all the other ways we diminish ourselves with the words we choose. A pull to connect, a disinterest in competing, a common denominator of creating strong, supportive communities.

Some days my voice is quiet and unsure, other days the quiet is the surest thing I know, and yet other times, I want to shout it all from the rooftops. What moves me most consistently–literally moves me into action–is balancing the quiet and the shouting. Sometimes I’m unmoored by the stories I create in my head and the intense emotions that accompany them; these come out of left field, and like summer storms, they’re amazing to watch–from a distance.

We all roar differently. Our own voices change over time.

With this in mind, I’m excited to launch The Roar Sessions, a series of guests posts here. Beginning on Monday, June 22–with words from my roaring comrade Patti Digh–I’ll be featuring a weekly perspective on what it means to roar and to “own it,” to ground an overused phrase in real-life experiences. I’m so excited to run with this idea, and hope you will read, comment, share, and engage as the weeks and our stories unfold.

Image from Toby Lubov’s blog

Her Hands Haven’t Changed

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Engaged | September 2012

A few times in these recent months, people who know Mani well have made comments about how she “has changed so much” and how “illness changes a person.” I’ve wondered what they meant exactly. How does she seem different to them? I wish they’d elaborate on these vague statements, but haven’t asked.

On Monday, as she was standing by the door on the porch about to go back upstairs, I looked at her and saw a softening. So many years a healer herself--she has delivered close to 200 babies, helped bring them “earthside” in the parlance of midwives. A Reiki master whose hands have helped bring healing to many, including me.

Janna, an acupuncturist, had come over earlier that morning. She didn’t even end up using any needles. Mostly, she worked with her hands. At one point, she told Mani, in the kindest, most sincere way, ” I am stronger than you right now, so let me do the work. Just take.”

To “just take” is a radical piece of instruction for one who naturally just gives. To take, to need. And so it was, when I looked at her standing there later, that I, too, saw something new. Not her physical frailty; more of an inside-out transformation. A woman learning–and not by choice but through illness and surrender–to receive, to be the one on the healing end of the healer spectrum. Earlier, Janna had seen it in her eyes, too–an outside perspective affirming what we believe to be true: She will be well again.

All of this is to say: Her hands, though weaker now, haven’t changed. Still the hands that she placed on my shoulders on January 14, 2012, my 38th birthday and the first night of us, and asked: “Do you ever relax?” These hands that now struggle to open a bottle of spring water, they will grow strong again. They will write her novel again and plant a garden again and heal others again. These hands, though lacking physical strength, still do heal. Still cause my whole being to soften when she touches my upper back, sacrum, head, heart center.

Yesterday, she knew just where to place them as I curled into her, reserves thinned out and tenuous. And that was all it took to unlock the tears of my own need for healing, for taking. Still, she gives and gives.

The more she takes, the more I yield to reality. The more she needs, the more she softens and accepts. Until together, it’s true–we are both changing, the sheer oceanic force of life as it happens eroding our sharp edges, making us both into someone, something, new.

Hear Me Roar

b9fde5c69ef544f4ab7daa8607721921Exactly six months since I offered my first online writing group with a well-timed push from Shawn Fink (thank you, amazing Shawn), this morning I decided to figure out how many individuals have participated.

I counted 79 people altogether (not counting returners), another 45 who have done self-paced writing prompts, and 42 members in the ongoing Get Your Muse On group (newcomers always welcome!).

Then I went through a ton of surveys and put together five ten-point, single-spaced pages of testimonials. I have no idea what, if anything, to do with this amazing document, but reading it over kind of floored me, in the best sense.

All of this got me pondering women and self-promotion, and the conventional wisdom that “we” collectively abhor it. I thought back on this interview with Tara Mohr, which I came across a few days ago via Marianne Elliott. Marianne wrote these words with the link on her Facebook page:

“I think it’s time we all agreed that women have to be in the business of promoting their own work, or the world will keep missing out on all the great work women are doing. So let’s cheer each other on when we get over our own discomfort and do the work of promoting our work.”

If self-obsession is abhorrent, being of service isn’t. And I think after many years of searching, I’ve stumbled into a way to serve others using the things that bring me the most joy: Writing, photography, connecting, and creating community.

But wait. Why “stumbled”? Would a man say he stumbled? Well, maybe. Depends on the man.

I check my own language, struck by some internalized passivity as if this happened to have happened. Reading through all of those testimonials today didn’t “kind of” floor me “in the best sense,” “I think.”

No. Reading them floored me. Period. And while I might not be sure yet how to integrate them into expanding my work, is it really true that “I have no idea”? Also no.

While I’m at it: Maybe I didn’t stumble. Maybe I worked my ass off, and listened hard and struggled and surrendered, and got up at dawn and went to sleep way too late and tried to keep being an attentive mama and loving partner. Maybe I paid attention when I was feeling lonely and disconnected and craving community last fall. Maybe I saw that my salary alone was not enough to support us right now, and found a way to earn more money doing something I love. Maybe I took creative risks, some that fell flat and others that are paying off in wonderful ways.

And now, let’s revise this paragraph, without a single “maybe,” and see how it shifts, how it feels to read:

I didn’t stumble. I worked my ass off, and listened hard and struggled and surrendered, and got up at dawn and went to sleep way too late and tried to keep being an attentive mama and loving partner. I paid attention when I was feeling lonely and disconnected and craving community last fall. I saw that my salary alone was not enough to support us right now, and found a way to earn more money doing something I love. I took creative risks, some that fell flat and others that are paying off in wonderful ways.

Yes, better. Did you feel that?

According to this week’s Capricorn horoscope, I have no control over the situation! Well, that’s a relief.

AND, we have more control about what our lives look and feel like when we decide how to represent ourselves. Enough with the “stumbling” and the “maybe” and the “I think” and the “kind of.”

Just own it, already. How old do we have to be before we stand up and say our work matters, whatever that work may be?

The fifteen-year old in me who had her mind set on going to Barnard and the 36-year old in me who came roaring out of the closet and the 41-year old in me who is sitting here typing these words as fast as they fly out from mind to key–it’s all one me, one life, this crazy unfolding, this mish-mash of privilege, intention, luck, drive, passion, doubt, and patience.

When I decided to share that 79 number, I didn’t realize I’d end up writing a feminist statement on semantics and self-promotion and the light and language we hold ourselves in. It was going to be a short Facebook update, but as soon as I typed it, I noticed my discomfort and the familiar questions: How would it sound? What was my intention? What would people think? 

I come back to an underlying core belief: We are here to see each other, and to affect real change in the world. We talk about showing up. As women, this means seeing and revealing ourselves with honesty, forthrightness, and ownership–of what goes into making a living, shaping a life, and claiming ourselves worthy, powerful, capable, and successful.

And I also circle back to the words we use to describe and share ourselves. They matter. All the nice cushion-y words we add to soften what we fear might sound like (god-forbid!) self-promotion are superfluous ways of not taking up too much room, of insisting that we’re still not sure. I know a lot of women who are a whole lot more sure than they let the world know, myself included.

You may or may not ever write with me. But the question I’m asking tonight is: Who wants to roar?

Why Not Enjoy the Precipice

women-landscapes-night-stars-digital-art-artwork-_467587-31

Forget fancy footwork.
Standing on the precipice,
what you need is not to think
about your feet.

There was a woman
who journeyed to the edge
of the world without
ever leaving home.

Light from billions of stars
traveled around her body
with every blink,
and she wept.

Her soul poured out
from the top of her head
and her green eyes
were oceans of tears.

Bodies as containers
and sky as container
and earth as imprint
and fear no longer.

Look at this beauty
she said, just as God
had insisted she trust
the bigness of breaking.

Open, open, open
and close–be a flower
and a featherweight
as dense and light

as starlight, as death,
as chest out, head up
hands open, heart
ease of receiving.

Give up the fancy
and the footwork.
Stand still here
on the edge.

The wind is glorious,
warm, an embrace.
Words don’t have
to be perfect.

All the moments
of waiting, the questions
the thinking,
rest on this platform

of stone, of solid
ground, the stars
on her head, yours,
mine. This moment

in time already
gone, a flourish
and a flash, glory
come and you done

good girl, grown up
from fetal to crow
to the half-moon
herself, dark side

and light as one.
Come. The cliff calls
again, at night she beckons.
Accept her invitation

when you are willing
to say yes again
to risking everything
and nothing is at stake

but your heart,
your art, your life–
that’s all. No wrong
way to move here

so why not enjoy
being so beautiful
and believing, standing
tall under all the stars.

Image source unknown. 

What Shape Are You?

11391104_10206199343599097_5255072066676539581_nSometimes I come across abandoned and forgotten lists of ideas for writing prompts, like this one:

Tell me what shape you are.

Not what shape you are IN. Not what KIND of shape you’re in. But your shape. What is the shape of your thoughts, your days, your heartbeat? What imprint does your presence leave as you move through space?

Sometimes I read these abandoned and forgotten prompts and think, ah! There is a reason I didn’t go with it. But maybe a reason, too, I didn’t nix it altogether.

The creative process is messy. Caterpillar soup–an image that has now come back to me twice in 12 hours. As Jon Katz writes so eloquently: “Death paves the way for life.”

What is the shape of your life? Of your death? Of the path you walk to knowledge–and I mean that quite literally.

Mani and I watched an incredibly beautiful and evocative documentary yesterday called On the Way to School. One of the children, a boy no older than 12 in India, says: “We come into the world with nothing and we leave the world with nothing.”

I look around my room, the shape of it filled with familiar objects and possessions. Things.

I did not come here with any of this, and I will not leave here with any of it, either. My wife is sleeping beside me as I write. I did not come here with her, and I will not leave here with her, unfathomable as that is. My children, my beautiful girls, are in California for a 10-day road-trip-of-a-lifetime with their dad. I did not come here with them, and I will not leave here with them, a thought that is simply too vast, too heart-breaking and heart-bursting, to contemplate. And yet.

The middle is where we get to come together.

What shape are you? It reminds me a little of a job interview question.  What kind of tree are you? If you were a season, which season would you be? These can be fun, and they can be… ugh. And they can be portals, especially if I don’t roll my eyes and instead roll up my sleeves and say, ok. I’m game. Let’s play.

What shape am I?

Formless form and voidless void. Curve of hips and nipple lift. Feet on fire and hands on spine. The way it feels when you hug someone, really hug them, the way my friend Nyarkoa insisted we hug, not like white girls but belly to belly, breast to breast, cheek to cheek. I miss that friend. Better call her up.

This week, I said: Angels. Listen up. And then it dawned on me, oh my god! They are listening.

They’ve heard every last word and sigh and whisper and shout. All I have to do is look around and the evidence is everywhere. This doesn’t mean it’s all easy, but as Mani was saying last night, where on earth did this idea that it’s supposed to be easy come from? Probably the same place as the one where we stress about not being enough and other refrains of privilege.

The movie we watched — these children walk to school. A Kenyan brother and sister, blessed by their father, avoiding elephants to get there in time for the flag-raising. Three girls trekking a dozen miles across the Atlas Mountains, with a hen in a bag to trade for pastries later, a bum ankle, and friendship. Brothers in India, one paralyzed, a jerry-rigged wheelchair and the kindness of strangers, the littlest one cracking us up the whole time. A sister taking the reigns across the Patagonia plains, hair whipping in her face–don’t tell mama! They do this round-trip every day, with the exception of the Moroccan girls, who board at school for the week.

To say they go to great lengths in order to go to school is an understatement.

What is the shape of this world? My girls schlep to the end of the driveway and hop on the bus, complaining about the mean driver.

My hand on my heart, I watched this film and thought: We need to see it again, with them. Then thought: We need to visit these places. To be humbled out of our first-world stupor.

The world is not just one small pool of stories, of shapes.

I said to Mani: “We refer to ‘People of Color’ as other!” Ha. The whole world is “of color.” And here–a bubble. A grocery store, brightly lit, filling my cart. And the women I saw the other day walking on the sidewalk-less side of the road away from Target, large tote bags balanced on each one’s head. Home is far far away.

It’s a big world, and we’re all in it, a billion shapes moving around each other like stars. Blink, as Ferris Bueller reminded us thirty years ago, and you could miss it.

For my children, it may be a joke: When we were kids, we had to walk ten miles each way uphill in the snow to get to school…

But for these children’s grandchildren, this will be no joke. I have always wanted to disappear into the world. This is why: To learn. To see. To be minuscule in what I think I know and broken open by what I don’t. To play with children who–every single one–know the language of: eating. drinking. laughing. authority. safety. danger. silliness. burping. blessing.

Nothing has ever called me more than the children. Every single one of them–which may sound preposterous, but it feels true. The shape of it fits inside the valves and the ventricles, the atria, the chambers–the very ones I came here with that will one unknown-to-me day cease to keep me breathing.

I’m in love with the shapes of the stories and with the formless and the unseeable, the thing you have to squint to get a glimpse of. The fox in the driveway. The deer in the headlights. The bird on the wire. The child, now a woman. A man. A teacher. A father. A tree. A field. A shape like a river or the voice of my maternal grandmother: “Too ethnic!” This, just as the old country came pouring out of her mouth in song.

I write like this sometimes, with no shape. No intention. No premise or point. If you asked me why, I’d say I am the snake charmer and the snake itself and the vessel and the child wide-eyed watching all of this. Five feet and half an inch and one hundred and five pounds with hair that adds at least another two inches to my barefoot stature. I’d say read it as if you’re half-asleep, read it liminal and underwater and porous. Read it as you would a poem. Receive.

Not what shape are you in, but what is the shape of you? If you decide to tell me, don’t stop first to think about it, for this is the place where we get to enter not knowing together. Not having to make sense or sound smart. There’s no one to impress and no right answer, for we are no longer schoolchildren, and chances are if you’re reading this, you’re not digging two feet into the sand to get the day’s drinking water. We spend waaaaaay too much time worrying about shit that is really not a problem.

Cupping my hands, the shapeless water just for a quick second takes the shape of the bowl they make. I lift them to my mouth, and drink. I take it in. The more my shape changes, the more essence remains.

The only thing as big

Aviva at Blue Star, 2014 | Photo: Doug Anderson

There’s a little bell in my back pocket
and a bundle of sage in my bag.
There’s a world of women and men
grieving and giving and lilting and lifting
each other up by the hands.
There’s a rope and a swing
and a riverbend flowing with the sparse
spring rain, and some solace
in knowing that the only thing
as big as the pain is the love–
these were the words that came
rushing through me last night
when I wept for the man who took
his own life. It’s not mine to say
the horses he rescued couldn’t save him
from shame. Maybe they did.
And maybe he rose before dawn
to say thank you and goodbye.
There’s a fire burning on a farm
and a circle remembering him
in ways that I can’t. There’s a poet
who jumped to her death
and a women who set her house
on fire. A portal that opens, a veil
that fades, an illusion shattered
when great spirits fill the sky.
There’s only so much we can cry.
There are children to feed
and listen to signing, dishes to wash
and a breeze on skin not to miss.
There’s a hawk, another one,
that’s two today now, first so close
I could see its wings’ details
and this second one soaring
against the comfort of a grey sky.
There’s a little bell in my back pocket
and a bundle of sage in my bag.
A broken Buddha and for every breath,
another beat of an errant drum.
We all do our best.
To live. And to love.

This poem is dedicated to the life and memory of Paul Rickenbach-Moshimer, his wife, Pamela Rickenbach-Moshimer, the entire Blue Star Equiculture family, and our beloved friend Doug Anderson, who brought us into the fold of the farm. Please visit Jon Katz’s blog to read an incredibly beautiful piece about Paul, Chronicle of a Hero’s Death.