Moments of Being

“Every day includes much more non-being than being. This is always so. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; washing; cooking dinner. When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger.”

– Virginia Woolf

On the Whirlwind

I’ve been doing my best to meditate for twenty minutes each morning  These twenty minutes are always essential, but now more than ever as my life kicks into high gear due to the publication of Hourglass.  My mind — hungry, searching, grasping, anxious, hopeful, eager, comparing, nervous, scanning the future — needs all the help it can get.  It’s easy to get caught up in stuff I can’t control.  To attempt to micromanage the universe.  And, as we know, the universe doesn’t respond so well to micromanaging.

This morning, as I sat in my little room, the house quiet, my husband downstairs in his office, the fluffy white dog sleeping by the closed door, I had the vision of myself sitting on the edge of a cliff.  It wasn’t a scary cliff. The jagged edge, the precipitous drop didn’t feel ominous in my vision.  Instead, I felt lashed by the weather.  I sat still as a statue as the wind howled, the rain pelted me.  I welcomed it.  This too, this too, this too.  When faced with a whirlwind, there are only two options, it seems to me.  Fight it, or ride it. 

I have spent too much of my life afraid.  Thinking small.  Keeping my dreams manageable, making sure not to ask or hope for too much.  This stance was self-protective, adaptive.  If we don’t dream big, we won’t get hurt, or so this way of thinking goes.  A week ago, my husband and I were still in Italy, walking the steep winding paths of Capri with friends.  The next day was my birthday, and it was a day full of joy.  We basked in the afternoon sun in Ravello, and talked about real things, big things, some painful things, surrounded by staggering beauty, as we ate the most delicious food and drank the palest rosé.  This too, this too, this too.  The thing about birthdays, and about publications, is they are markers — a way of reminding us that time is passing.  Are we seizing the moment by living inside of it — by being fully present for whatever is? 

 

Sometimes when I sit silently in the mornings, I feel tears pricking my eyelids. The deep welling of a lived life rising within me.  All the beauty, all the terror.  This is where I want to stay — right here in the dead center of my inner life as the whirlwind does what it will, what it must. 

 

On Not Knowing

I recently hung a piece of artwork in my office, made my my friend Debbie Millman.  In a simple black frame, matted in white is a large page of what looks to be notepaper, and written in Debbie’s wonderful script in a corner of the notepaper are these words:

this, just this, I am comfortable not knowing.

All lower case, and in the corner, as if the artist is whispering, even though her hand is strong. 

I bought the piece on a whim.  I had been having trouble working in my office.  In fact, I had been having trouble spending time in my office at all.  Some inner shifts in my psyche had made it difficult to write in the place where I have always written.  And so I had moved my whole operation downstairs to our library, where I have spent the last number of months curled in a big chair, my laptop on my lap.  (A masseuse recently asked me if my work station was ergonomically correct and I burst out laughing.)  I have been comforted by the thousands of books that surround me in the library, and the view of fields spreading out in the distance.  But still, whenever I have been in my office, my eye falls on Debbie’s piece:

this, just this, I am comfortable not knowing.

I have spent my life wanting to know.  Needing to know.  Love, health, success, happiness – I have grasped at these the way we all do, thinking that if I only do just the right thing, think hard enough, do well enough, I can will all my desires into being.  So why, then, do I feel a a profound sense of comfort each time I glance at Debbie’s words?  comfortable. not knowing.

This afternoon I unrolled my yoga mat for the first time in a very long time.  Something about these inward shifts in my psyche, along with a shoulder injury, have made it difficult to practice each day the way I have for nearly twenty years.  And so when I stood on my mat and began my practice, there were poses I couldn’t do.  My body didn’t want to twist quite so far, my hands most definitely did not wish to meet in namaste behind my back.  I did manage to stand on my head, but my shoulder twinged and I thought better of it.  My practice definitely was not pretty.  I was glad there was no mirror in which I would see just how out of alignment I really was.  But do you know what?  As I continued to move through the asanas, as I listened to new music on Spotify, as the fire crackled in the fireplace, it occurred to me that this was the yoga.  this, just this

Nothing, not a single thing in my life, has happened the way I thought it would, the way I thought it should.  Actually, scratch that.  Some things have gone the way I thought they should — at the time — and those have always been my greatest mistakes, er, opportunities to learn.  Marriage, motherhood, my writing life, my teaching life, my closest friendships, my house in the country – each of these grew out of not knowing. 

That little word – comfortable — strikes me as the key.  That softening.  That ease.  Days pass, years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.  My favorite Sabbath prayer.  If I can continue to open my eyes to what is – this,  just this – I will not miss the miracles.  None of us will.  And even though the news is grim, the world is haywire, and life is relentlessly challenging, miracles are always everywhere.  

On Doing What We Can

During the past several days I have started to write a post, and then stopped.  Started, then stopped.  And I’ll tell you exactly the thought process, verbatim, that has raced through my mind each time I sat down to write.  Who cares?  Why me?  How can writing possibly help with the state of the world is in such profound chaos?  What makes me think I have anything to contribute? Isn’t writing somehow self-indulgent? Shouldn’t I be out there in the world, at every possible waking moment, making some sort of real difference?

Sound familiar?  I have felt this way twice before in my writing life.  The first time was when my son was terribly sick as an infant with a rare disease, and the odds were stacked against him.  Each day, as he slept, I sat in my office and stared at the wall.  Why be a writer? I asked myself. It seemed the  most frivolous thing I could imagine.  People were out there going to medical school, or becoming nurses, or developing experimental treatments that saved lives.  And what was I doing?  Making things up.  I stayed stuck for a good long while.  I stayed stuck until one day, while having coffee  with a writer friend, I was talking about my terror about my son, and she said: write about that. And so I did. I wrote an essay, and then a novel, about maternal anxiety.  It was all I cared about. All I knew about.  I poured my heart and soul onto the page because that’s what I am and that’s what I do.  Which is to say, I am a writer.  I’m not a doctor, a nurse, a scientist.  I’m a writer, and a writer writes.

The second time I stared at a wall for a long time was after 9/11.  Every artist and writer I knew was doing the same.  How to create, from inside the devastation and the madness?  How to make meaning when all felt meaningless?  We walked around, shadow selves, ghost-like, as we attempted to metabolize a level of collective pain and trauma that seemed impossible to absorb.  During that time, William Faulnker’s Nobel acceptance speech was circulated, sent from writer to writer, pressed from hand to hand, a reminder to get back to work despite fear, despite terror, despite a sense of futility.  Get back to work.  “There are no longer problems of the spirit,” Faulkner rails against precisely that sense of futility. “There is only the question, when will I be blown up?”

Problems of the spirit.  It seems to me that this is what writes grapple with every single day when we sit down to work.

Love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.

Which is not to say that I am not filled to the brim with a sense of moral outrage and that every cell in my body does wish to protest during these dark, dark days.  I’m doing what I can in that regard — as we all must.  But there is another kind of protest, another way of refusing to succumb to despair.  And so we sit down to write.  We ignore the inner voice telling us that there’s no point, it doesn’t matter.  We grapple with the problems of the spirit, of the human heart and all it contains.  It matters more than ever.

 

On Living in the Present

Whenever I’m in the yoga pose of Warrior II, I think about finding that elusive balance between the past and the future.  Lean back, and we find ourselves mired in what has already happened.  Regret, remorse, guilt, sorrow, grief — whatever the emotional residue may be, we go there.  We go there again and again, even though going there changes nothing.

Notice I say “we.”  I’m distancing myself even as I write, moving away from the “I” and from the welter of feelings that arise when I attempt to tell the truth of myself.

So then: I.  

When I lean forward, into the future, I am also off-balance, out of alignment.  Hope, fear, excitement, anxiety, grasping — I go there too.  I go there again and again, even though going there also changes nothing.  I cannot control the future any more than I can change the past.  All I can do is be present.  But I shy away from the present because the present is full of terrible ambiguity.  It changes from moment to moment to moment.  Breathe in, breathe out, and all is changing.  If I don’t know what’s going to happen next, and if I can’t make sense of what has already happened, then where is the ground of the present?  And if the present is groundless, what is there to hold onto?  What are these tears just behind my eyes?

It has been a hard year.  We’re all ready to see it go.  (There I go again!)  The world is a newly alien, terrifying place.  There is such a collective sense of grief and loss – and also of community and gathering.  Personally it has been a year of enormous challenges.  Many days I’ve felt overwhelmed to the point of numbness and despair.  And so when it came time to write this last post of the year, I’ve found myself starting and stopping, writing and deleting, thinking that most toxic of thoughts, at least for a writer: I have nothing to say.  The truth is that I am spilling over with so much to say that the words start dueling with each other.  This is a year in which I have learned more about shock, loss, grief, secrets, heritage, strength, kindness, courage, family, home, and above all, the ways the human heart can stretch and enlarge to accommodate new truths.  I’ve learned that I am surrounded by enormously loving people who will catch me if I fall, if only I am strong enough to let them.  This is counter intuitive, I know.  It takes strength to say: I’m hurting.  Strength to say: I’m vulnerable. I’m fragile. This is hard. This is too much to bear. But the moment I do, I find I am given just what I need.

And so, my friends, I wish every single one of you the gift of presence. To quote Mary Oliver:  “And that is just the point: how the world, moist and bountiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. ‘Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?'”

Happy Hannukah, Merry Christmas, and a peaceful 2017 to us all.

On Being Singular

Lately I’ve started each morning by reading for a while before turning to my own work, spurred by Jane Kenyon’s beautiful instruction: keep good sentences in your ears.  A day that begins with reading – as is also true of a day that begins with meditation – will inevitably lead to more internal spaciousness.  Just yesterday I pulled Elizabeth Tallent‘s masterful collection Mendocino Fire from my pile.  A few pages into the first story, I came upon these good sentences:

“This was life then, this bravery, this scaredness, this love of the truth in your possession, the thing  you had seen that set you apart and somehow was you.  You and no one else.”

You and no one else.  I spent a lot of my early life trying hard to fit in.  Most kids do.  And because we are, each of us, singular, this is a futile, disheartening battle, this work of attempting to be just like everybody else.  When I was a little girl who didn’t fit in at the yeshiva, I believed the problem was me.  When I was a slightly older girl who didn’t fit in at the prep school, I was certain the problem was me.  I spent part of my well-documented twenties careening from man to man, trying to define myself not by who I was (since I was the problem) but by who I was with.  Finally, finally, I landed in my thirties and began to untangle this sense that there was something wrong with me, something that needed fixing, and once that thing was fixed, I would feel like I belonged.

I remember  — well into my life as a writer, having published four, five, six books — turning to my husband one day and saying: but who are my role models?  I couldn’t point to a writer who had taken my exact path.  Who moved between fiction and memoir, who wrote a spiritual memoir, who shifted from academic teaching to leading retreats.  I wanted to fashion myself after someone instead of hewing ever-more-closely to myself.

Finally — one of the greatest gifts that comes with having been around for a while – I think I’m beginning to get it.  This was life then.  The thing you had seen that set you apart.  When I bring a new book, story, essay into the world, when I give a speech or lead a retreat, I am reporting from the front of the thing I have seen.  The thing that sets me apart.  Each of us is as individual as a snowflake.  Each of us is set apart.  It is in all of our individuality, in the sum total of our life experiences, the specificity of our paths, that we have most to offer one another.

Or as that great literary icon Dolly Parton once said: Find out who you are, and do it on purpose.

 

 

On Going High

I am writing this from an artists’ colony in Florida.  I flew here yesterday morning, after waking up — as we all did — to a changed world.  A terrifying, disorienting world.  A world we didn’t know existed – or  perhaps denied its existence – until denial has become no longer possible.  With a broken heart, I boarded a plane I didn’t want to board, to come teach on a day I desperately didn’t want to teach.  I walked through two airports, one foot in front of the other, looking at the sea of faces passing by me, feeling a bewildering sense of separateness, of alienation.

To be a writer, and to be a teacher of writing, is to constantly, steadfastly open oneself up to what is.  To not shy away.  To feel fear and embrace that fear — otherwise known as courage — and to find a voice for what feels impossible to say.  Yesterday, I was reminded of one of the “sins”  listed in the holy Yom Kippur prayer of Al Chet: “For the sin of succumbing to despair.”

Twice in my life, I have wondered if I would ever be able to find words again – if finding words is even something worth attempting.  The first was when my son was terribly sick as an infant, and we spent a year not knowing if he would survive.  During that year, I sat at my desk — when I could bring myself to sit at my desk — and stared into space.  The futility of my own endeavor loomed large.  What could my small pen do, when faced with the enormity of that impossible loss?  The second time I wondered if I would ever find words again was on September 11, 2001.  On that day, a writer friend sent around William Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Acceptance speech.  Just about every writer I know received or sent that rousing cry, those healing words.  I decline to accept the end of man.

And so, this morning I will leave my solitary room and walk to a classroom where students will be waiting — people who also boarded planes yesterday morning, who also put one foot in front of the other, who also did not succumb to despair.  I decline to accept the end of man. 

I will lead them in meditation.  I will read them poems.  I will ask them to write from the deepest parts of themselves.  We will talk about grace, courage, commitment, endurance, and kindness.  We will transcend.  It’s all we can do.  We will go high.

On Authenticity

I’m writing these words from my chaise in my small home office.  Outside my window, leaves are falling.  There’s a chill in the air.  This morning we were awakened by our dog barking at two deer who came so close to the house it seemed they wanted to come in for breakfast.  Autumn has always been my favorite season – all that back-to-school energy in the air – and since moving to New England it has only become more so.

I’m just back from an intense stint of teaching two back-to-back workshops — one large, one small.  On the first evening of the large workshop, I was jittery, not exactly nervous — I’ve done this many times, after all — but on edge.  This is a familiar feeling.  I’m getting up in front of a crowd of people, all of whom have different hopes, dreams, expectations, fears, desires for their time with me.  Some of them have ideas about me.  About what I might be like, who I really am.  They may have read some of my books, stories, essays.  They may have seen me talking with Oprah.  I don’t want to disappoint them.  But I also don’t want to play a part or act in a role.  And so that jittery feeling is one in which I am gathering all the parts of myself and pulling them within me, inside my own outline.  I want to be me…only sharper, smarter, more lucid…better.  Probably much like a professional athlete, or dancer, or musician, I psych myself up to be my best self.

Self being the operative word.  The concept of authenticity is much over-hyped these days, and it seems to me a sad state of affairs that it’s something we need to cultivate — as if being authentic is just another act.  A few weeks ago, I came across a term online that stopped me in my tracks: identity fatigue.  We are getting tired, it seems, of creating and fashioning our personas in a world filled with personas.  We’re confusing persona with personal life.  If I check Instagram and Twitter and Facebook in the morning (and I try not to do this first thing) I see images of perfection.  Just this morning (okay, I checked) I saw photographs of friends in Tuscany, Singapore, Copenhagen, and Hawaii.  I saw kids on horses, people giving speeches, doing yoga, writing by lamplight at dawn.  I read clever tweets and click on links to smart responses to the day’s news. All before coffee!  It’s no wonder that just about everyone I know is plagued by the feeling that other people, elsewhere, are having a better time, or a more meaningful life.

I do the same thing, don’t get me wrong.  I post pictures of pretty places and on the rare occasion I have something clever to say I say it.  There is a thin but very real layer that separates the me that performs publicly from the me that wakes up in the morning with all my usual vulnerabilities, weaknesses, worries.  I suppose I would liken it to one of the differences between writing fiction and memoir.  When we write, we know when we’re inclining ourselves in the direction of imagination — and when we’re hewing to memory.  The feeling is unmistakable.  So when it comes to that overused word authenticity – and the sad concept of identity fatigue — I’d rather err in the direction of being too much myself, rather than too little.  Is that a little scary?  Sometimes it is.  But the alternative feels deadening and untenable.

 

On Embracing it All

I’m writing this from a cottage in Provincetown, at a place where  I have spent a week teaching each summer for the past six years.  My husband is at a cafe down the road having breakfast with our son.  It’s early, quiet.  In half an hour I will walk across the courtyard to my workshop where we will spend several hours talking about matters such as loss, grief, sorrow, family, love, and all the attendant joys and terrors.  We’ll discuss what it means to attempt to shape these inchoate, chaotic feelings, these random events, into stories that have form, order, and logic.  Essay: to attempt.  It never fails to move me when I watch people trying to make sense of their lives, sense of this world.  They don’t have to.  They all have busy lives, filled with responsibilities.  They could go on auto-pilot and move through their days, weeks, months, years, without stopping, without asking what it all means.  They could do that — we could all do that — without even registering the cost of psychic inaction.

When my mother was dying, at the age of eighty, she once turned to me, her face clouded with puzzlement, and said: but I was just getting my life together.  That statement terrified me, and subsequently instructed me.  I didn’t want to feel, on my deathbed, that I had just been getting my life together.  A few years later, Sylvia Boorstein shared a list of the eleven benefits of practicing metta meditation, and the one that stood out most for me was: to die unconfused.

These are challenging times for many of us.  The state of politics, of poverty, of inequality, of racism, homophobia, hunger, small-mindedness combined with the sheer speed of life makes it all too attractive to put our heads down and barrel through life, fueled by fear and our natural instincts for self-preservation.  But my daily life as a writer and a teacher reminds me that there is another way.  Look, I tell my students.  Stop.  Witness.  The beauty and terror — Rilke‘s phrase — is all around us.  If we avoid the latter, we will also miss the former.  Embrace it all, I want to say.  And perhaps, some day, you will be able to whisper to yourself: I have lived. 

On What it Means to Grow

The night before Devotion was published, I was alone in a hotel room in New York, anticipating the next morning, when I’d be appearing on The Today Show to promote the book.  My mind was a see-saw, teetering back and forth between excitement and abject terror.  Who the hell was I? What did I know? What right did I have to be an authority on anything? I was pretty sure The Today Show had made a mistake and booked me in error. It was a classic case of imposter syndrome, sure, but it felt very real.

I couldn’t fall asleep.  I called my friend the great Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein at her home on the west coast, where it was three hours earlier and stuttered out my fears to her.  After a gentle pause on the other end of the phone, Sylvia delivered a sentence I’ve never forgotten.

“Sweetheart, you’ve written a book about what you know now.”

IMG_3122

I felt instantly liberated by Sylvia’s wisdom. After all, we can only know what we know now, right? Implicit in this is the idea that we can only work with what we have, and our truth is built on that limited understanding. I took this to heart, and have repeated it to students over the years. Recently a student asked me how to handle the fact that in the time that it takes to write a book, we change, we grow. The self who finishes a book is not the same self who started it. And so, how do we reconcile these selves? How do we continue to evolve when what we know also continues to evolve? If we are our own instrument – we are the viola, the cello, the paintbrush, the chisel – how do we continue to tune ourselves when life changes us?

In the past month, I have made a profound, seismic, traumatic discovery. I don’t say this to scare anyone. I’m not ill, thank god, nor is anyone I love. My little family is perfectly fine, healthy, intact.  But nonetheless I have learned something that has rocked me to the core, and has changed everything about what I have ever known to be true.  This may sound dramatic — because it is. At the same time that this discovery is shattering for me, it is also – I recognize, even in my shock and grief – a stunning and remarkable opportunity to learn and to grow.  Because all I have ever done, all I have ever been able to do with heartache is to make meaning from it.  I could fall apart, I suppose.  I could cave, collapse.  I could succumb to despair.  To cruelty and disregard.  But instead, I will attempt to do what I’ve always done.  In the quiet aftermath, using nothing but language – the only tool I have – I will write my way into it and through it, and discover how the pieces fit together anew.

Wallace Stegner, a grower if there ever was one, wrote this: “Largeness is a lifelong matter… You grow because you are not content not to. You are like a beaver that chews constantly because if it doesn’t, its teeth grow long and lock. You grow because you are a grower; you’re large because you can’t stand to be small.”

Here’s to growing, my friends. It’s all we can do.

On Betrayal

It’s the question that always gets asked. When I’m teaching, or giving a reading, or an interview, at some point, someone will raise her hand: what did your family think of Slow Motion? Or Devotion? How do you write about those you love, those you’ve lost, those who have hurt you? Is anything or anyone off limits? Is there a line you won’t cross?

As many times as I’ve responded to this line of questioning – and as much as I actually enjoy exploring the thorniness of the issue – I feel myself tense as I begin to answer, because there is no answer. I know it, and I feel my interlocutor must know it too. After all, writing is – as Joan Didion inimitably put it – “the tactic of a secret bully.” Writing about other people is, according to Janet Malcolm, “morally indefensible.” When Still Writing came out, Cynthia Ozick, a writer I admire enormously, sent me a note saying some very nice things about the book which also included the following thought: But you are not a monster.

She did not mean this as a compliment. Implicit in her words – and Didion’s, and Malcolm’s, I think – is the idea that it is essential, in the name of art, not to care. A scorched earth philosophy, in opposition to morality. Art trumps ethics. Self-expression takes no prisoners.

I don’t know.

From where I sit in my office, on my chaise, I am surrounded by family photographs: my husband on a rooftop in Mogadishu, cupping his hands around a cigarette. my father and my aunt when they were children; my husband and me on our wedding day; my grandmother elegant in a fur stole; my husband swinging our then four-year-old son in our backyard. They watch over me as I write, and they serve as a reminder that I am part of a family, part of a community. I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a daughter-in-law, a sister-in-law, an aunt, a niece, a cousin, a friend, a teacher, a mentor. There’s a responsibility in all this – to others, as well as to the art.

But when I sit down to write a first draft — the one in which I discover what I’m trying to say — I look away from these photographs.  This is when I grow fangs, and my breath turns fiery. This is when I come closest to being a monster. I write to find out what I know, what I think, what I fear. And I can’t do that if I’m censoring myself. I don’t need to worry about anyone else, because no one else will be reading this draft. This is such an important point for writers to remember. We can always dial it back, revise, rethink, later. In fact, we had better do all these things. But until we let the monster out of her hiding place, we won’t even know her face.

And so, no, when it comes to releasing my work into the world, I am not a monster. I would never willingly, consciously hurt anyone I love. I would, in fact, never willingly, consciously hurt anyone at all. Does this mean no one has ever been hurt? No, no it doesn’t. But I can say that I try. I consider carefully. I weigh every word. To write is to attempt to tell a truth. Not the truth. Not another person’s truth. But a truth. And in order to tell it, first we must find it. All we know, all we have, is our own experience, our own consciousness, memory, and imagination. These are our tools. And so with deliberation and consciousness and care, we wield them.