Holding Hands Across America

handsRemember the time
you pulled me over to the side
when memory stampeded
down the middle of Main Street?
How it kicked dust to our mouths
and later we stuffed our pockets
with dusty rose petals smashed
by the feet of what can never be
undone or revisited?
Remember how we made out
in the middle of Main Street
and schemed about making
a documentary called
“Holding Hands Across America”
where we’d walk on sidewalks
all around the country,
a ramshackle crew, just one
camera or two along
for the reactions
from men driving and ladies
lunching and kids holding
hands on field trips, each one
with a buddy, stay in line,
stop at every corner
and don’t, by any means,
let go?
Remember when we thought
this was a novel idea,
and Obama was still president
and the future was bright
even though those drivers
didn’t stop for pedestrians
and more than once
you had to pull me to the side,
me, with my New York chutzpah,
jay-walking as if this was
Morningside Heights
rather than downtown Phoenix?
We could never have known
which of our ideas would
survive the changes
yet to come, that were there
riding shotgun all along.
We could never have known
that we were, even then,
forming new pathways
of memory that would save us
all these years later,
from our own cross-wired brains.
Here’s what I know, babe:
I’d make a movie with you
any day, love you eight ways
to Sunday, hold your hand
and bear your name in ink
in every city, sea, and border
in this place called America,
this place called two bodies,
this place called marriage,
this place where the dust
never settles and the roses
grow outside our door
no matter how ugly things get,
I will keep claiming myself
yours, and yours, and yours
again.

The Art of Becoming a Boring Writer (and Embracing It)

No, thanks. I'm good.

No, thanks. I’m good.

There was a time when I feared that without drama, I might become a boring writer.

I’ve since concluded that this is a risk I’m more than willing to take. Everyday life offers me endless material, with so much less angst and ache. In fact, we make a pretty good team. In fact, when I’m no longer oriented towards the next shoe dropping or the next big drama, writing requires a new kind of courage and creativity.

It’s the creativity to recognize that everyday life is teeming with writing-worthy moments. And it’s the courage to show up not only when everything’s chaotic, not only when I’m in a place of unrest or searching or heightened emotion or shifting ground, but from inside of everyday life, against a backdrop and in the context of extraordinary conditions. Because for better or for worse, the world is not short on extraordinary conditions.

Everyday life is, of course, all we ever get. It’s where we all live.

It’s where the trash can and the kitchen sink both and the laundry basket fill up, no matter how many times you empty them. It’s where you get things stuck between your teeth, break your phone screen, and change the cat litter. Everyday life is where you oversleep, see a cardinal in the bare tree outside your kitchen window, and forget to change the calendar on the first of the month.

Isn’t it amazing to stop and realize we all live in the same place, in this way?

As I’m writing this, it’s occurring to me that everyday life and drama may be inseparable, in that being human is pretty damn dramatic, no matter how you slice it. The whole having-a-body thing, being-in-relationship thing, and making-a-difference thing? Dude.

When I look at it this way, that is plenty o’ drama for me. Throw in politics that make your head spin, cost of living, and ever-changing dynamics with self, partner, kids, family members, friends, and colleagues, and let’s just say we’ve all got our hands full.

Maybe this is where the idea of “creating” drama comes in. There’s the complexity of everyday life, already plenty to contend with, and then there are the everyday choices we each make about where to place our attention, our energy, and our time. This is where we — ahem, I — can get derailed. But knowing this, and practicing an alternate way of responding to things as they come up, I see more and more that “drama” is often unnecessary and avoidable.

How do I tell the difference between everyday life and “unnecessary drama”?

The body, baby.

Everyday life involved a mish-mash of ease and stress, routines and detours, plans and surprises. Navigating these when I’m not creating “extra” drama generally means I can maintain some composure, think clearly, make decisions with some degree of confidence, speak up for myself, experience compassion, identify sources of frustration or anger, and ask for help without shame. Mind you, it’s a rare day that all of this happens without a hitch. Come to think of it, I may yet to have experienced a 24-hour period where all of this went down without a snafu or three. But hey man, ideals are useful and give us something to practice and a place to return to when we get lost in patterns that no longer serve.

Patterns that no longer serve live in the body, and that’s where drama originates, too. My body isn’t trying to create drama; it’s just reacting in the way I’ve trained it to.  I’m betting that you have at least one person in your life whose presence has historically caused your blood pressure to go up — and not in a good way. Let’s say this person’s name popping up — in a text or message — is enough to make your heart race (and not in a good way). This is drama — but it’s not your “fault.” It’s a learned response, one your body came up with to protect you.

The only drama now is in how to choose to respond. Maybe responding at all is not in your best interest, or choosing as neutral and direct a route as possible is how you can keep your presence of mind and heart intact, rather than letting outside forces drive you into a dust storm of blinding emotional proportions.

Sound vague? That’s because drama, for all of its love of every last detail — often is, at its core, just that. Vague in the sense that if you stopped me in the middle of a class-act rant and asked me what this was really about, I might not be able to give you a specific answer. I am too busy handing over to someone who doesn’t deserve it a big platter of my power.

When there was a lot of drama in my life — in the throes of coming out, ending a decade-long marriage, navigating a new love long-distance, losing one job and finding another, moving, and moving through a scary period related to my wife’s health — there was no shortage of writing material. In fact, coming out alone could have been swan song.

But.

I do not live in these places, nor do I want to be defined by them.

I do not want to recycle my stories or fear that without extreme, usually difficult, conditions, my writing will suffer. This way of relating to drama is not all that different from any other form of addiction and the stories we tell about ourselves.

Try it out for yourself. Has this ever been true for you? “I can’t write without ___________.” Fill in the blank: Smoking on my back porch. A glass of whiskey with a single ice-cube. A broken heart. A betrayal. A burning question you will never, ever find the answer to.

Leaving drama-laden life behind and opting to become a boring writer doesn’t make you a boring person. If you are returning to more dramatic periods of your life, you’ll be able to see and write about them with a different kind of clarity from a distance. And if you’re looking for new subjects and stories and open to what’s really happening, within and all around you — you will never, ever have a shortage of material.

“How Can I Help You” and Other Three-Dimensional Questions

i-in3cvejg-evan-dennis-2

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
— Lilla Watson

My first year at Barnard, I was part of a tutoring program where we went into public schools each week. It was called Students Helping Students. I loved doing it and can still picture sitting on the floor in a hallway, quietly cheering as a kindergartener made his way through “Are You My Mother?”

I also see now that it was White Students Feeling Good About Themselves by Helping Kids of Color in Underfunded Schools. Both of these are true, because truth is never one-dimensional. And I am still unlearning aspects of my amazing education, and educating myself about how not to be just another nice white lady.

But I have always remembered the name. And for as much as I’ve changed and hold myself to waking up, some things really are threads. The seeds of being of use, of using my skills to connect with other people — those are still here, in the form of women helping women and writers helping writes and humans being good to each other.

Questions of what I want feel short-sighted, and as always, I need to find that place where “what I want” intersects with “what do you — what does the world — need?” It’s a strange interplay, because needs are often most powerfully met by making an offering of some kind, the truest one you have, rather than taking a poll first and then scrambling to see what you can give. In other words, there has to be a balance, a meeting place, between self and world. Service and need. You and me. I and thou — minus the holier-than-thou crap.

This week, I finally dove into working on a manuscript of poems. It will be my third collection, and I’ve felt it swirling around for months now, a wispy suggestion to start that I couldn’t quite grasp. I don’t know what clicked — maybe it was writing a poem a day for a month. Or the urgency to connect, and this being one of my ways.

It’s too easy to write in generalizations. To write about bodies, to write about color, to write about religion. To use words like “justice” and “equality” and “safety” that must withstand so much battering. I fail when I attempt to write about these words. But I can assemble a book of poems. I can say, come in, sit down, and write what’s true for you. I can and will continue to ask what makes you happy, what brings you joy, what frightens you most. Where is your conviction?

I’m sitting here at my kitchen table, as I so often am when I come here to write. I’m sitting here being white. I’m sitting here being Jewish and gay and female and short and big and small at the same damn time. On my run this morning, I thought about all the times in my life I’ve had to remember how to dream, because dreaming got drowned out by the competition and walked not through but right into the doorway.

I do this, you know that by now, right? I sit down and start typing (actually, I sat down and started this hours ago), and just connect the dots and usually have no idea where I’m going. This is no different. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know where our country is going, though all I have to do is be awake to see that this is not a difficult one to guess. It’s going exactly like this.

It’s more polarized than ever, and all the movies about good and evil, about light and dark, have come true. Life imitates art and art imitates life until there is not point in distinguishing the two. Reality TV is politics and politics is the usual and not becoming jaded requires fierce strength, which we might enjoy momentarily but no one can sustain for long alone.

Which is why we need each other. Today, a coaching call. I heard: “Stuck, frustrated, embarrassed, want to help, white, privileged.” These were words that came up again and again. And we talked about how to be present and keep moving forward, rather than spiraling into stagnation, which is about as self-focused as it gets. We talked about showing up, as a learner, as an observer, and what it means to know you get to trust yourself.

“How can I help you?” takes on a whole new dimension of importance, and the answers are not always clear, nor is that always the best question. So be patient — and remember that this fight, like truth, like life, is three-dimensional. It’s happening in real time, and it’s not about feeling good or meeting our own needs, but about our liberation being bound up in each other.

Courage and heart and risking sounding like we don’t know what we’re doing, because sometimes we don’t, and the only way to start getting clear and making any kind of impact is to stumble through. Not one of us is some kind of savior, but uprisings happen when enough individuals refuse to play by the rules, especially when the rules are a sick and twisted distortion of reality, revisionism, and willful ignorance.

As a writer right now, it’s easy to feel pretty deflated. But to give up my voice that easily would be a betrayal to everything I care about. It may or may not matter, but I will keep offering my words. I will keep being as kind a human as I can, and as awake a white person as I can (though I will not use the word “woke,” as it does not feel like mine to use).

And I will assemble this next collection of poems, as an offering from my heart to yours, because it’s one of the only things I know how to do for sure.

30/30 Poems in November: Beautiful Wild Thugs

ufomxgheugk-todd-diemerThe last day of November, 4:00pm.
pouring rain, nearly dark.
If you’ve ever lived in New England,
you know what I mean– dank, the kind
of chill that’s hard to get out
from inside your bones,
and how what you want more
than anything is to cancel everything,
climb under the covers,
turn on the twinkle lights
and off the news,
and get cozy.

As we ducked into the car,
I said this would be great
in the spring– just think of the flowers!
And that’s when she reminded me:
The rain rots the leaves,
and that rot becomes the most fertile
place for beautiful and wild things
to grow. Obviously you hear
the metaphor and run home
to write about it, but then autocorrect
changes things to thugs
and suddenly beautiful wild thugs
are growing out of the rot,
taking the dark humor
and making it into something new,
something with a whiff of hope
you might catch on your way
from this season to the next.

Let’s be beautiful, let’s be wild,
let’s turn things into thugs
and thugs back into things
that grow from the mulch
and have survived this and worse.
It’s the last day of November
and nothing is what we imagined.
I will not tell you to get over it,
but here — stand under my umbrella
until the skies clear.
The sun’s up there somewhere.

30/30

**

Thanks to all of you for keeping me going writing 30 poems in 30 days. Because of your generous support, I met my personal goal of raising $500 for the Center for New Americans. (If you’re so moved, you can still contribute.

This was a fabulous practice for me, and sparked me to finally get cracking on my third collection. “Why I Was Late for Our Meeting” (working title) is in the works. Stay tuned!

29/30 Poems in November: Hipster Coffee Shop

hipstersWhat is it about hipster coffee shops,
always some achingly sexy song playing
like Modern English or The Cure,
Mazzy Star or Joy Division —
something you might have listened to
25 years ago when your own ache
was like a distant star
that had exploded but would still take
decades to reach your life?
Over in the corner at a tiny 2-person table,
a mama with a newborn
nursing in a sling. The scent of rosewater
wafting over. A lonely-looking guy
wearing red headphones
drinking from a lime-green mug.
A social worker on her lunch break,
rainbow ribbon hugging her name tag —
she looks so familiar
you can hardly keep from asking
are you someone?
Of course she is someone. You are someone,
too, sitting there at your laptop
typing a poem
nobody here will see,
not the young man with Down’s Syndrome
eating quiche,
not the dude with the funny winter hat,
not the grad student with her Mac
and soup
or the cute baby dyke couple
looking like long-lost twins.
It’s raining, just like last time
I sat here, two weeks ago
while my wife retrains her body and brain
just up Main Street,
and I wonder what it is about these gloomy
grey days that brings a certain comfort,
what it is about hipster cafes
and people-watching
and being anonymous in a public space
that is so very freeing.
I’m wearing a faded green t-shirt
that shows off my tattoo
and tight-fitting jeans
with red leather boots,
and this is about as dressed up as I get.
Let’s paint the town red, I want
to say to her when we reunite
in 20 minutes.
Then a woman so skinny
I think her legs may snap
walks in and I cringe,
the mama holds the baby up
for a burp and kisses that tiny head,
and I breathe in wondering
about all of the ways
our lives pass each other by,
our lives pass and yet
no time has passed at all
since I sat here 25 years ago
listening to that same song,
that same sexy ache,
that same refrain.

29/30