The Art of Humility

Photo: Kyson Dana
Photo: Kyson Dana

There’s a humility that lives deep on the inside of confidence. Call it an acorn or a beating heart, a knowing that the hot sun will also come to its ending, that these full green leaves will soon turn to reds and yellows, and fall.

There’s a humility that lives deep on the inside of love. Call it the kind of welling up that happens when you see a child growing up right before your eyes, knowing she has her own life and that it’s the biggest privilege ever to be included.

There’s a humility that lives deep on the inside of making art and writing words. Call it a mystery, some blend of mind and matter and mysticism, intellect plus that which defies explanation or language.

There’s a humility that lives deep inside of each moment. Call it a breath. A swell. A contraction. Call it eye contact. Call it listening. Call it aliveness or awareness. Call it thank you.

No Matter What

This stellar swarm is M80 (NGC 6093), one of the densest of the 147 known globular star clusters in the Milky Way galaxy. Located about 28,000 light-years from Earth, M80 contains hundreds of thousands of stars, all held together by their mutual gravitational attraction. Globular clusters are particularly useful for studying stellar evolution, since all of the stars in the cluster have the same age (about 15 billion years), but cover a range of stellar masses. Every star visible in this image is either more highly evolved than, or in a few rare cases more massive than, our own Sun. Especially obvious are the bright red giants, which are stars similar to the Sun in mass that are nearing the ends of their lives.
This stellar swarm is M80 (NGC 6093), one of the densest of the 147 known globular star clusters in the Milky Way galaxy. Located about 28,000 light-years from Earth, M80 contains hundreds of thousands of stars, all held together by their mutual gravitational attraction. Globular clusters are particularly useful for studying stellar evolution, since all of the stars in the cluster have the same age (about 15 billion years), but cover a range of stellar masses. Every star visible in this image is either more highly evolved than, or in a few rare cases more massive than, our own Sun. Especially obvious are the bright red giants, which are stars similar to the Sun in mass that are nearing the ends of their lives.

No matter where you are tonight. No matter what you’re going through.

No matter how busy or bored, confused or tired, pissed off or content.

No matter if you’re grieving or celebrating, wound up or unwinding,
healing or crumbling, discovering or forgetting
or sitting in that place where these meet that has no name.

No matter if you’re hungry, full,
or consumed by some unspoken craving.

No matter if you’re satisfied or searching.

No matter if you’re scared or in denial or facing the facts.

No matter if you’re home or away,
here, there or neither here nor there.

No matter if you’re alone or surrounded, or surrounded yet alone.

No matter if you’re playing games on your phone or watching Netflix
or reading a book or trying to stay awake at work
or tucking kids in or wishing you were somewhere else
or unable to sleep or deep in a dream.

No matter what, I am so glad that we get to be here on the planet at the same time. I mean, what are the odds?

Billions of years, billions of people. And here we are. Here we are.

#biglove

The Thing I Thought He Should Know

Unfurling Tattoo

It is morning and I am writing
about a book from 1940 about sex
and men and women and the rules
that no longer apply to me
and maybe never did.

And suddenly it’s 1997, July:
I’m remembering that first time
he and I swam across the pond
together — my 23 to his 31.

How right about in the middle
I stopped to catch my breath
and, treading water, looked at him
and said, gravely,
“There is something you should know.”

He waited, eager to know
all the things about me
that would seal some agreement
we didn’t even know we were making.

(I look up from the writing
for a moment at my wife,
who is stretching side to side,
her naked body soft and mine,
the undone tree inked on her back —

a reminder that
we don’t always finish what we started
in the way we planned way back when.)
I swim at this pond all summer long,
and sometimes, when I am floating

on my back in the middle,
I remember that moment
when I told him I’d been bulimic.
I shake my head in such a way

that you wouldn’t even notice,
marveling at the way life
unfurls and we, with it, as if thrust
from the unfolding itself

into the thing behind the thing
that I didn’t know yet
and so didn’t say:
“You’re really nice,
but I’m really gay.”

The Art of Staying Positive

Tiny Light Catchers
Tiny light catchers

Friday. A few weeks in to our new week-on, week-off co-parenting schedule. Aviva is at overnight camp, so it was just Pearl here with us for the past week. I juggled and balanced coaching clients, reading and reflecting on my writing group participants’ work, creating prompts for several upcoming groups, hanging with Pearl, keeping us all fed, and the usual household responsibilities, of course — a daily series of dishes and laundry that I sometimes enjoy and other times feel never ending.

The other day, I told Mani about the never ending part, and then quickly followed it up with the obvious — it ends when we can no longer do it, or when we’re dead. Kind of blunt, right? But essentially true.

Moments of absolute delight, loving my work, loving my kid, loving my wife, loving our neighborhood, loving my people, loving summer. Moments of absolute exhaustion, emergency naps, wonky blood sugar, not eating well enough, not exercising enough, and the slippery slope of these to all-around not-enoughness.

Moments of despair and outrage. The little boy in that Aleppo ambulance. Insane white privilege. Louisiana flooding. The man in my own town who, after 12 years in the States, was just deported back to El Salvador because of a 2012 DUI. He was a chef at a popular Amherst restaurant and has four kids in the public schools here, ages 5-15, and a wife. And now he is not here with them, and this just made me so sad and angry.

Moments of floating, quite literally, in the pond.

This afternoon, we crashed pretty hard. Mani has been unusually tired this week, a mystery of her Mast Cell Disease — some weeks she has more energy than others. I see it all as part of a long-term healing process, and she is doing so well; not a day goes by that we’re both not incredibly grateful for the trajectory. So after bringing Pearl over to a friend’s house and some of my time-specific work things today, I crawled into bed with her and slept for a little over two hours. When I got up, I whispered to her that I was going for a swim, then kissed her goodbye and slipped out.

The swim was delicious, the pond not as crowded both due to less scorching weather and the dinner hour — by this time it was around 6:00pm. I alternated breast and back strokes with periods of simply floating, listening to the undefinable sounds beneath the water and my own breathing. I appreciated my own strength and ability to swim and the solitude of sky above. And then at the dam, I rested a bit, noticing the light on my wet hands on rock.

After towel drying off and doing some seriously stealth moves to get dressed, I drove into town and decided to get a couple of tacos and a soda for my own dinner. I knew when I got home, Mani would most likely be awake and hungry, but also was guessing she was still asleep since she didn’t respond to a text I sent. It felt good to lengthen out time, not to rush.

And that’s really when I noticed it. I was bluesy. I had walked right into that Friday-night, wish-my-baby-and-I-could-go-out-on-a-date, coming-down-from-a busy-week funk, and it felt like an old friend, this loneliness. We don’t see each other nearly as often as we have in periods past, but from time to time she makes an appearance.

We don’t spend much time focusing on the “can’t” of Mani’s illness. We are so intent on genuinely living, on health, on togetherness, creativity, presence, joyful plans, and gratitude, that it seems like almost blasphemous to wallow. From time to time, a little wave will come, though, when one of us is just fucking sick of it and would do anything to be able to go get margaritas, chips and guacamole at some nice outdoor patio.

Needless to say, I came home with my tacos and my minor blues and ate and read the newspaper. I thought about people asking me, “How do you stay so positive?” And it’s a funny question, in a way. Kind of like people calling you brave, when really you’re just figuring out your life. But there is some truth to it, too. Let me be clear — I’m not talking about copping a positive attitude being something you can just choose when you’re suffering from depression and shit’s just really hard. This is not about simplifying things that are indeed complicated.

But sometimes, things aren’t actually that complicated. This got me to thinking — is there an art to staying positive, one that feels real and not superficial?

Here’s what I came up with:

1. Keep It Real

Has anyone ever told you to “snap out of it” when you were down? Sometimes, the worst thing to hear when you’re lonely, sad, overwhelmed, angry, or frustrated — all passing states but very much real ones at the time — is a solution or suggestion, or worse, an override of your experience. Give yourself a chance to just say it sucks. Set a timer if that helps (I learned this from Mani), and have an all-out tantrum. Scream underwater if you have to, or in the shower. Confide in a trusted confidante. Have a big, snotty cry, the kind where you are in awe that yes, you are STILL LOVED afterwards.

Denial is a breeding ground for negativity. Keeping it real is a true of act of kindness towards yourself.

2. Move Your Body

As much as sometimes I hate to admit it, this one is tried and true. It is very, very difficult to stay stuck in a shitty head space when you’re moving. Whether you run, walk, swim, dance, take a class, hit the gym, or just lie down on the floor and feel the full weight of your body against that solid ground, finding a way into the body gives us access to ourselves and can do a lot of the heavy-lifting for us emotionally. Give it 15 minutes and see how you feel after that. For me, the swim was what gave me access to the feelings themselves, which had otherwise been looming but not landing.

3. Perspective, Yo

Getting some perspective doesn’t mean feeling guilty. It just means keeping things in perspective. That is all. When I’m bummed that my wife has this stupid-ass disease and wish we could just go out on a date and have an awesome meal somewhere, the minute I put myself in her shoes, my experience shifts. Self-pity gives way to empathy. After all, I just got to swim and eat tacos, while she is still limited to 14 foods, including water, and every outing is a notable occasion for celebration.

I quickly remember the insufferable “grass-is-greener” syndrome, one I’ve had many, many times in my life, and boom — I know that if it wasn’t this, it’d be something else. Never being satisfied might make for some amazing “Hamilton” songs, but oh my God, it’s not a very happy or fulfilling way to live. Getting perspective is not about denial (see #1), but it is about realizing that you, like the Jewish teaching about two slips of paper, the world was created for you alone AND you are but ashes and dust. Plenty of people wish they had something you have, you wish you had something they have, and meanwhile, everyone misses what’s right there in front of them.

4. “Fake It till You Become It”

A few days ago, we watched a TED talk by a social psychologist named Amy Cuddy about body language. As the youtube trailer states:

“Body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see ourselves. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy shows how “power posing” — standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident — can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain, and might even have an impact on our chances for success.”

She talks about how smiling actually signals the brain to be happy. I thought of this earlier, while I was walking back to my car, alone, with my tacos in a brown paper bag. I tried smiling and it felt forced and fake. Then I sang a little song quietly. Here’s how it went:

I wanna go on a date with my baby
to get a big ice-cream cone
Instead I got these tacos
And I’m just going home…

I got the blues, baby, I got the blues
I got the Friday night blues…

And sure enough, you know what? I chuckled? I cracked myself up a little, because it was so goofy. And you know what else? It helped.

I came home then, and said hello to Mani and devoured my dinner. Then I sat down to write. Which brings me to my final suggestion for staying positive. Ready for it?

5. Write It Down

You knew this was coming, right?

For me, empirical evidence is more important than studies and data. In other words, I can just ask myself: Do I feel better after I write? The answer is almost always yes. I say “almost,” because there are times when the only thing that helps is time. And sleep. Sometimes the thing you don’t even know you need comes in some completely unexpected form, one you never could have planned on or conjured. But left to my own devices, does writing help me feel “positive,” if by positive I mean more centered, more peaceful, and more present? Yes.

That said, if you’re the kind of person who prefers science, just read something like this study, “Writing about emotions may ease stress and trauma” from the Harvard Medical School, which likens expressive writing to taking a brisk walk.

Writing it down — whatever “it” may be — is another way of externalizing whatever you’re feeling. As with #1, a timer can help create a kind of container for this. Start with five or ten minutes of fast and furious writing. If you need a “hook,” try starting with super simple and neutral. “Right this minute…” or “the thing is…” can be anchors for writing in this way, phrases to which you can keep returning if you get stuck.

6. See What Happens

Sometimes life does feel black and white. Sometimes you have to crouch down and look closely for the light catchers. Sometimes things just suck and all you want to do is eat your first-ever chili dog with your wife, but you can’t because she happens to have a rare disease that makes eating such a thing potentially dangerous — at least for now.

Everything changes.
Everything changes.
Everything changes.

The light changes. Conditions change. Moods change. Relationships change. Jobs change. The number of dishes in the sink changes. Finding things that are steady for you in your life can make all the difference, when it comes to climbing out of negativity.

7. Trust Your Own Experience

There’s one more thing I feel I must say, before I wrap this up: I usually hate posts like this. Posts that have these pithy, simplistic-sounding ways for life to be better, happier, easier. Posts that I can easily turn into weapons against myself (which is exactly why I tend not to read this kind of thing!).

These suggestions for “staying positive” are essentially my “notes to self,” reminders for me to reach for when I’m slipping into the kind of negativity that eats its own tail for breakfast. They aren’t a one-size-fits-all or an abacadabra. Life is a lot of things, usually at the same time.

Be so loving with your whole, beautiful self. Feel the feelings. Try some things. Find what works for you. Most of all, trust your own experience — you are ultimately your best cheerleader, advocate, and witness. And please, if you’re so inclined, share in the comments what helps you stay positive when the light starts to flicker.

Salt + Honey by Isabel Abbott

salt+honey

“We are all deserving of the words of devotion.” – Isabel Abbott

From the moment I started reading, I knew this book would change me. Because of lines like these, as searingly personal as they are inclusive:

the love that decides when and where it will be spilled out, without apology (from “To Frida”)

For all the inevitable regrets, the mystery to which I offer all of
me, and the move toward freedom for all people. (from “adaptation”)

all the thousands of years of stories about the hollow inside me (from “wandering womb”)

And the way Isabel’s verses make me feel accompanied on this beautiful and harrowing journey:

So bring what wrecks you and what sustains you,
what haunts you and heals you.
Come, again and again.
I will stay with you. (from “an invitation”)

Many of her poems are full of want, full of hunger. Full of permission and clashing contradictions and room for everything, reverence as much for what’s broken as the healing that comes from letting life have its way with you. It’s one of the things I’ve long loved about her writing, the way it leaves nothing out, the way her mind-heart-eye surveys inner and outer landscapes and makes a home of them.

From city skyline to monsoon to desert to open road to white walls and back doors, from clutched fists to “hands open like the unfurled fronds,” from the “slit cavern that houses a heart” and “closed over skin and forever raised welt” (“hearts and bone”), these are poems of grief and presence and love for life so big you can’t help but feel like the poems themselves are wrapping their arms around your whole body and saying, “Come in. Come inside of your own waiting life.”

Today is as good a day as any, to love what we love,
and be as we truly are, and decide
we are done waiting for our real lives to begin. (from “beginning again”)

Rather than back away from real life, Isabel dives into it in the tradition of Adrienne Rich. A footnote to the short but powerful poem, “ni putas, ni santas—sólo mujeres” — offers this alternative to sanitizing the past to make it more sellable: “Tell the most real story instead.” And as if in conversation with Frida Kahlo, she embraces loss and brokenness as the raw material for a real life fully lived:

i am standing in the thunder
and gardens grow in the ashes (from “surviving”)

There will be no gold stars at the end of this life given out for
how much we suffered,
denied ourselves or displaced our desire. (from “I’d rather live in sin”)

Make a religion of your contradictions,
make a nest of your broken parts and
become a place you come home to. (from “after the fall”)

One of my favorite pieces is “think in ways you’ve never thought before” — a list of 11 things, every single one of which makes a reader stop and think and feel and reconsider her entire reality could be bigger, both more solid and less fixed than she ever imagined.

Isabel’s poems do this. They say: Come, come inside and swim around and lose yourself and find yourself here. Her not only willingness but fierce devotion to truth and beauty, “fists of flowers” and so many names for the heart, have this effect of both softening and emboldening me as I read. One of her footnotes “integration is not merger,” speaks to the independence born of not leaving oneself.

Salt + Honey is nothing short of a love letter to Life herself, from a powerhouse poet and activist who embodies the all-the-way-in-ness of living without leaving anything out, or knowing that “no” is a complete sentence, and that survival is at once expensive and priceless. It’s the rare kind of book you can sit and read all at once, or savor one bite at a time for weeks, months, and years. Don’t miss it.

Visit Isabel’s online home to learn more about her work to order your own copies of Salt + Honey. And be sure to stop by her Virtual Book Party on Thursday, August 18.