Free Association, Levitating Trees, Insecurity, and Psychedness Up Ahead

I had a cleaning fit just now, in more ways than one.

It started actually by making dinner for me and the girls–for tomorrow. Tonight, they are at their Dad’s. But last week, for the first time in recent memory, I planned out meals for the nights they’d be here (which implies something about my dinner-making habits when they’re not), and I have to say, it was nice. It was nice to know what we were going to eat. It was nice to have the ingredients to cook the things we were going to eat. It was nice to eat the things. It was nice to have leftovers Sunday night. It was nice that Pearl even ate the leftovers after saying she wasn’t hungry. So this week, I decided to try it again. But since on Wednesdays, I get home from work just in time to pick V up for her bat mitzvah lesson and then we don’t get home again until around 6:30, I decided to make tomorrow’s dinner tonight. By “make dinner,” I mean this, which is about as June Cleaver as I get these days. But it’s something. Something edible.

And then I washed all the dishes and ate cold leftover kale standing up and then a couple of fingerfuls of chocolate-chip cookie dough that Pearl stashed in the fridge last week. Don’t worry. (Were you worried? If you’re my mom reading this, you might have been worried.) I will eat something else later. Right now, Mani is making her rice and boiling chicken breast. We take turns in the kitchen because of Mani’s health stuff.

While I was eating the kale and cookie dough, I clicked on a link someone from a couple of my writing groups shared on Facebook. It took me to Renegade Mothering. I read it. And then I clicked around on her website and read some more. And some more. At first, here’s what happened: I was blown away by her voice. And I was intimidated. It was crazy how quickly it happened, like the comparing neurons had been sitting around in their party clothes complaining that there was nothing to do, and then all of a sudden–disco balls and John Travolta, Saturday Night Fever in there. Picture the minions from Despicable Me. That’s how many of them there were.

There’s an open tab on my computer with the TED talk Monica Lewinsky gave, “The Price of Shame.” I have seen it going around the internets. I haven’t watched it yet. But the title alone takes me in so many directions. I am not proud of the fact that my initial response to this incredible–I mean, really, really awesome, real, funny, brilliant, smart, raunchy, tender–writing activated this nightclub that might as well be called Ego. I don’t even go to nightclubs. WTF? But that happened, and I wasn’t ok with it. Not at all. It didn’t feel good.

IMG_20150324_122012It didn’t feel anything like I felt this morning on my commute to work–if you can call three miles a commute. Driving to work today, I got stuck behind a school bus. But I didn’t feel stuck. I felt happy. I liked watching the little groups of kids and parents standing on corners as it slowed to a stop. I liked slowing down behind it and having no choice but to sit there while parents kissed the younger ones goodbye and the older ones ran ahead because parents are embarrassing.

This happened a few times between town and the elementary school that’s about halfway between my house and my office. After the bus turned left, I turned on the song I like to listen to on my drive to work. I only have one CD in the car, so the choices are that, flipping the radio looking for a good song, and silence, which is usually when I talk out loud to my angel posse. Today, I chose the CD, skipped to track 5, and turned up the volume. I can’t even tell you the name of this song or the artist, because the disk was a gift from a friend and none of the songs are labeled. But the first line of it says: “There is no need to worry. Things will work out when the time is meant to come.” It has a slightly techno sound, and I love the singer’s voice, and it has become a soundtrack for me of that three-mile drive. So I was listening and singing along and feeling teary, in that lucky-lucky-lucky-I-must-have-done-something-right-in-a-past-life-or-this-one kind of way, so grateful just to be alive. And then traffic–if you can call it traffic–slowed again. Because of this:

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There was a tree up ahead. IN THE SKY. It looked like it was levitating. Mani gave me that word because I couldn’t quite think of how to describe it. (Thanks, Mani. For being my wife and my word person. I know you are reading this because I asked you to, because I ask you to read everything I write before I share a word of it with anyone else, and you always do, and what’s more is that you seem to enjoy this, and I cannot even begin to tell you how this thrills me.)  Anyway, the tree. The tree looked like it was floating in the air. There were a few cars ahead of mine, and we all sat there with no choice, just as I had a mile or so back behind the bus. It felt magical to me. Now that’s not something you see everyday is the phrase that immediately came to mind.

And then I was at work. And I had a day. Eight hours minus a short walk at lunchtime in the office, doing the things I do at work. At 4:30, I left the building and the sun had warmed up considerably. The air was cold but with just enough of a hint of warm (warm being 36 degrees) that it felt like a spring afternoon. It felt so good to be outside. I drove home. I greeted Mani and did dishes and ate kale and cookie dough and had an ego nightclub party.

And then I called in the bouncers. Which looked like going into the bedroom and saying, “You have to read this.” And so Mani read a couple of things on Renegade Mothering. And then a couple more things. And pretty soon, we were both laughing out loud and wishing Janelle Hanchett lived down the street because we would definitely be friends. I watched as the comparing–which I should clarify is code for insecurity–that had put on its dancing shoes earlier in the kitchen transformed into something else I can only call psychedness, which is better than any drug ever. Psychedness is what it feels like to be on-fire inspired by someone else’s writing. Writing that calls out “bullshit masquerading as authenticity.” Writing that pulls no punches, makes you pee your pants, makes you nod and say oh, thank you thank you thank you for writing like this:

In other words, Swami dude, you’re just as captured in the ego structure as I am. You’re convincing yourself you’re “deep” and “spiritual” because you’ve learned a bunch of scriptures and chant and live in an ashram and shit, but real teachers aren’t pretentious, and they don’t spout deep thoughts all the time. They’re on the ground, right here with me and you and all the other Groupon humans, and when they talk you know they’re speaking truth because it is you in the deepest part of you, not just some fancy idea that sounds good but has no practical application.

We feel more human in the presence of these teachers. Not less. :: Renegade Mothering

Mani read and read. I had a fit of clothes purging while she read. I pulled sweaters and sweatshirts from hangers and threw them into a heap on the floor. Opened each dresser drawer crammed with so many things I never wear and don’t even like, clothes I’ve had for years and years, most of them from thrift stores or consignment shops in the first place, and held up things for her to pause from reading long enough to say “No” before she continued reading and I added to my growing little donation mountain. At the end of each post she read to me out loud, she’d read to herself for a few seconds before saying, “Oh, wait! We have to read this one! This one’s even better than the last one!”

And then I got out my typewriter, which for some reason has been folded up in its case, and placed it back on the little folding table next to my now-much-emptier dresser. I got out the broom and swept the floors. I got out some cleaning spray and scrubbed the sticky spots on the kitchen floor from God-knows-what, and then I cleaned the toilet and started a load of laundry. Intimidation, insecurity–pffffft. That is some bullshit. I felt on-fire inspired by reading (listening to, actually, which is sometimes even better) this incredible writer. And I remembered that I love writing. And I remembered that I want to write and read things that are true by people who are real. And by people who are real, I mean: People. Who are writing. I love the way poet David Tomas Martinez says this: “I indict myself in so many poems. I think that to a certain extent, you have to be unafraid to make a fool of yourself.”

I might be making a fool of myself here, with this very long post that might or might not “come together,” might or might not be pretty, and is certainly not crafted. But goddamn it feels good to write. To be inspired. To feel awed by another writer and suddenly realize I am so lucky because I clicked on a post and found another amazing teacher, and I know this because I feel more human after reading her writing. I feel more, not less, like myself.

Just then, I heard a little “ping” on Facebook. It was a message:

I just have to thank you! I used yesterday’s prompt today. It is easily the first thing I’ve written in over 20 years. that wasn’t a grocery list or a teachers note. I am ridiculously pleased with myself!  

The End. The Middle. Best yet: The Beginning.

And now, I am going to eat something.

There Are Surprises

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He sat in the blue chair, I sat in the green chair.
Our knees were almost touching, a twinkle in his eye
borne of having seen the unseeable, reunited with lovers
once luminous, now diminished by disease,
of having learned the languages of dogs and horses
and the land and sky that give us the poems
and take them back into rivers, return them as rain,
as death, as spring, and as friendship.

“There are surprises,” he said, then spoke
of the Trickster whose reputation rests unfairly
on wreaking havoc, but who comes, too, as invitation
and opening our daylit imaginations couldn’t conjure.
The Trickster takes the train and wears a fedora,
scours the wide-open countryside, ravished hearts,
the unlikeliest of abandoned sites breathing dark life
into old places we long ago surrendered.

When he said, “There are surprises,” I saw a door,
the light at the horizon between frame and floor,
heard a hint of the party in the room that is the world
on the other side of knee-to-knee on the second floor,
a party of two, a span of seven decades
holding us together like the glue beyond
what we can measure.
So naturally, I nodded and said: Yes, surprises.

The Trickster’s private car speeding through the blindspot
towards us until his hand is reaching towards mine
and I’m grabbing hold, sliding onto a leather bench seat
by the window, smart enough not to ask for answers–
this train has no time and no tables–
clambering onto the conductors’ shoulders, dangling
legs over ledges, raising arms to catch what comes
when balance is lost and surprises are slow,

when the hard-won poet who has softened says
to her who sees herself as young, sitting in the kitchen
living the questions of the room, the wheels, the unknowable
yes: “There are surprises.” Watch for the Trickster. Just wait.

~ for Doug Anderson

On Practice and People in Person

Wings

A poet I loved loved sparrows.
We sat at Rao’s once, at an outside table,
watched them hop around and peck
at crumbs of scones and muffins.
Yesterday, a dozen of them
cam tumbling from a bush
right before my eyes.

Every time someone I’ve known or loved
dies, I feel the sky expand.
Wings are mighty things.
And also belong to the small,
most fragile-looking birds.

Do they belong to me,
or I to them?

I curl my shoulders
forward and back,
side to side, up and down,
feeling for the invisible.

I have a friend in Chicago.
She fashions her own wings.
A white pair, a black pair.

Have you ever watched a bird
ride air currents above
the ocean?
It looks effortless. I imagine
it may actually be effortless.
One element, two elements.

And then the wings
that were taken down
by fire, all the lives
they carried–were designed
to transport from New York to Zurich–
expired in seconds.
It may have been faster
than seconds.

And I did not expect
this crash landing, but
my aunt’s teeth and wedding ring
were rescued from salt sea floor
and sealed into evidence bags
Evidence of wing failure.

To clip a bird’s wings
seems the greatest cruelty.
To clip one’s own wings,
even crueler.

April is coming. I disagree
it is the cruelest month,
No, it will be a great
unfurling of wings too long
tucked tightly against
the narrow sides of a body,
a building, a sky that says:

Fill me. Come. Expand.
Look at all you can see
from here through my eyes–
everything that seemed
unnavigable, unnameable,
yours to survey. Then choose your landing.

**

tumblr_mzrg0hfHED1qg3lgko2_500This poem was today’s freewrite for my current writing group. The wind is wild today, and it’s so cold again. But as Katrina wrote in her beautiful post today, “Something ineffable has changed. It’s as if the air itself is richer.”

Spring is just two days away. Mani’s oldest is visiting from Phoenix–and actually hoping to catch a glimpse of snow falling! It is so, so good to have her here with us.

I have had a fierce, inexplicable headache on and off for days, but I was able to sleep in a little as today is a spring-break day off from work. I’m enjoying sitting in a coffeeshop with my laptop, a rare treat. I’m picturing daffodils. Hawks and sparrows. Ladders and bridges. And I’m looking out the window at the middle of the day, when I am usually in my office, at faces of people I don’t know. I’m playing this game where I pretend that any one of them could be someone in one of my online writing groups. It’s bizarre but true to think that I wouldn’t necessarily recognize them on the street, yet am lucky enough to read and witness their writing practice online.

“Never have I felt so befriended: by the page, by a group of fellow writers, by a teacher and coach. Jena provides a lovely mixture of inspiration, invitation, and validation. And then she throws in something else, something wonderful and ineffable which I can only describe as magic. For how else could a bunch of strangers become so intimate so quickly? Within this sacred circle, we came to trust not only one another, but also our own voices, our process, and most of all, the value of sharing our stories.” – Katrina Kenison

There are some exceptions, but most of the participants in my groups are not people I know in “real life.” We are all over the country, the world even. I love the way this affects how I see strangers; it makes everyone feel more familiar in a way. I wonder if that makes sense, but it’s the best I can do to try describing it at the moment.

Thinking about these things makes me all the more excited for the in-person weekends I’m cooking up for this summer. To bridge that space between words on screens with words in a room, words coming out not only through pens and keyboards but through the body–belly, heart, throat, mouth. Voice. Eyes. People in a room. (In fact, it’s the very room where Mani and I got married almost six months ago! How sweet is that?).

I can’t wait. And more than ever, am trusting that things are unfolding. To quote Katrina’s post again: “…whatever is happening in this moment is already in the process of turning into something else.” Exactly that.

For today, these are my words on a screen that began as words this morning on the page. Ink and paper. Prompts and practice. A person you might not recognize in person, I am here. Just waiting to meet you.

**

Learn more about & register for Unfurl: A Weekend of Writing Practice here, or visit this page for dates of upcoming online groups. (As always, a reminder: You do not have to be a writer to write with me!)  

Or just drop me a note. I am so very open to questions and connections. 

Image: The Walking Library

Towards Freedom

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“You Parting Your Red Sea” by Michael Black

We are teaching ourselves to crochet. Yesterday, we started by making yarn balls. Mani observed that hers came out hard-packed, like snowballs that would seriously leave an egg on your forehead if for some reason they were to collide with your face. Mine were soft, no doubt more likely to unravel. We chuckled at the obvious. I unravel more often, which is one the ways I move towards freedom. Every time, I come back a little stronger.

*

Passover is coming up. It’s that time of year. The anniversary of Selma just passed. How many people are walking today towards freedom? Each of us alone, all of us together? We will tell the story again, as we do every year, of enslavement, of injustice, of deprivation, of leadership, of plagues and of miracles. And then the Red Sea will part and the women will dance with timbrels, and it will be on us to not stop there but to keep walking the talk that is very much a reality for millions of people, and I don’t mean people faraway, or people in terrible news stories or YouTube videos we can pause or click away from. I mean people in our own schools, neighborhoods, cities, and towns. I mean people under our own roofs. I mean us. I mean myself.

*

Towards freedom looks like standing on one leg on a green yoga mat in the bedroom where we eat, sleep, write, read, crochet, talk, laugh, cry, get dressed, get undressed, stretch, yawn, moan, complain, give thanks, and wake up. It means stretching as something that never, ever just happens all by itself. It’s not an autonomic function, though the breathing part is. Tree becomes dancer becomes half-moon. Towards freedom means transmutation.

*

Last night, on that same mat in fact, I sat facing the wall after the stretching. Everything became very quiet. And I saw things, kind of like cave drawings of my future, some old markings on a new path. And there was a message these came with. It said: Don’t worry about it. Just let things happen. Move towards freedom by moving through the days as they are, and the rest will unfold without effort. Just leave your phone on and keep your heart open.

*

I was washing the dishes. My thoughts were doing that useless swirling thing about things not even worth naming, and then I got pissed off, not at myself, not at the housework, but at the gnarly collision between ego and inner critic. So I lifted the plastic drain cover and swooshed the water around, washing both away. And then I got on my mat. This was not complicated. It was good. It was a move towards freedom.

*

Today’s freewrite prompt, courtesy of Mani. Want to join me? Set your timer and keep your hand moving. What you write doesn’t matter. It’s just practice. It’s moving towards freedom, 10 minutes at a time.

Image: “You Parting Your Red Sea” by Michael Black

everything went right

33e87376f55881e8909dc98fbd8db0b7everything went right
the snow melted
and spring came
and the air was so sweet
and everywhere were flowers
and we were able to fling open
the windows and deep clean
and you could breathe
breathe easy and deep
and what a relief
everything went right
one day at a time
led us in all the right directions
and our lives began to fill up
with friends again
and money in the bank
and our days began to feel
like music that had a rhythm
we could dance to
everything went right
my work took on momentum
and your book finished itself
and living the dream
unfolded because we were awake
and stopped sleeping
through any of it
because we took ourselves
seriously and didn’t take anything
too seriously
everything went right
we looked back
but not often and when we did
we laughed at what we feared
once and wondered why
we were ever afraid
of this amazingness
everything went right
we didn’t fall off of any cliffs
the net always appeared
god listened and loved it
when we talked to him
god invited himself over
and stayed
everything went right
I stayed home with you and
we started going out more and
soon we were in the South
of France and we were on planes
with girls and together
we were seeing more and more
of the world
and eating our way
through life and it was so so good
everything went right
I met you
and married you
the kids all grew up and
were more than ok thriving and
in close touch with us
because we had done everything
right to keep them safe but also
to let them find their own ways
everything went right
and we tried to remember fear
tension holding patterns
but couldn’t remember
so we stopped trying
because life was too wonderful
to waste on that
because everything, everything
went right

**

Mani & I both do the writing prompts from my groups, and read to each other after ten minutes of early-morning freewriting during the week. This morning, she said, “Oh! It’s Saturday. I’m going to have to write without a prompt.” So we gave each other prompts. Mine was (you guessed it) everything went right. And this is what came.

Tell me about everything going right. Because couldn’t we all stand to spend more time on that?