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 All Our Past Selves

I’m writing this from a hotel room in Chicago.  My room service cappuccino (is there’s anything nicer than a room service cappuccino ?) is by my side.  The Do Not Disturb sign hangs on the door.  I have several hours of peace and quiet before my event this afternoon.  Hourglass was published exactly two months ago, and I have been traveling around the country to give readings and talks ever since.  I’m down to the last weeks now — next up, Minneapolis, Denver, Aspen — and as the official tour comes to an end, I’m filled with conflicted feelings.  These last couple of months have been a blast. I’ve met amazing readers, seen dear friends in far-flung cities, learned how to pack an overnight bag as efficiently as George Clooney in Up in the AirThe pace has been intense.  I’ve been a literary road warrior, moving through airport terminals determinedly, but also softly, as a dear yoga teacher friend advised. I’ve had some extraordinary surprises along the way: the biggest of these was my therapist from when I was in my early twenties — during a terribly difficult stretch of years — in line at a book signing in Connecticut.  Let’s have coffee, I said to her.  I’d love to catch up.  What does it even mean to catch up on three decades?  High school friends, college friends, even friends from my childhood neighborhood have made the effort to come see me, and the effect of all of it is not unlike the effect I was hoping to convey in Hourglass itself.

Time. In my book, I quote Grace Paley as saying that from ages fifty to eighty, it’s not minutes, it’s seconds.  I’m near the start of that stretch of years and it already feels true. But time doesn’t only zoom forward. It also loops around. It collapses. It reverses itself, in our minds, our memories, as if the years see-saw back and forth, back and forth.  Our younger selves are always with us.  The ones we think we’ve put to rest — they cannot be put to rest.  Nor should they be.  They remain alive, and, as Didion once wrote, they knock on our mind’s door at the most inconvenient times.  So much of writing Hourglass was my way of exploring this sense that my younger selves are all still within me.  I’d like to tell my twenty-year-old self a thing or two.  I’d like to give her a hug.  But of course I can’t.  All I can do is hope that in some other dimension she can see herself, grown up, a wife, a mother, a writer, a teacher, a friend.  My editor, when she acquired Hourglass, told me she felt it was like a companion to my first memoir, Slow Motion.  The girl reaches out to the woman.  Here I am!  And the woman calls back to the girl. I see you!

I’ve come to believe that we all — each and every one of us — has a certain, central, task of the psyche to perform while we’re here, alive on this earth.  After all, it’s so unlikely to be here at all, born into this human body, on this grid, this place, this moment in time.  Mine, I’ve come to think, is to become whole.  To integrate a lifetime of complexity, challenges, secrets, luck, privilege, the inheritance of pain, of misunderstanding, the recompense of all the gifts I have been given with which to explore.  I am a digger. I gnaw. I hope to come to know my own bone.

And so I sit in my quiet, solitary hotel room high above Chicago.  My room service cappuccino has grown cold.  I need to get dressed now, fix my hair, slap on some makeup, and head over to my event.  As I move (deliberately, softly) through this city I hope I can keep all my past selves and perhaps even my future selves with me, on time’s crazy continuum. I need the whole unruly crowd. 

 

 

On Finding the Quiet Within

When I’m home, I have a first-thing-in-the-morning ritual.  I splash cold water on my face, brush my teeth, pad quietly downstairs to pour myself a coffee. My husband is often sitting at the kitchen table — he’s an earlier riser than I am — but we don’t exchange more than a few words.  I head back upstairs and enter my tiny meditation room.  This room was once an abandoned room, the place where everything we didn’t know what to do with piled up. It was a sad, forgotten space.  Now, it’s spare and peaceful: a futon, two lamps, a couple of meaningful photographs.  On the futon I keep my traveling altar filled with crystals, and my traveling kit of essential oils

I take a few sips of coffee and set it on the window sill. I have an atomizer, and I pour  in a few drops of an oil (this morning’s was called Gratitude) and it begins to fill the air with a soft scent. I don’t know what the scent means or does, or how it inspires gratitude, but it helps me get set up. It’s the ritual that makes it happen.  I open the altar (really just a small tin) and place the crystals around a heart given to me by the same amazing yoga teacher who brought me the crystals. I already have Insight Timer on my iPhone set to twenty minutes.  I close my eyes and begin.

Here’s the thing, what I really want to say. It’s hard. It’s hard to sit, to watch, to notice, to witness what’s in the mind. My mind is chaotic, even more so than usual these days. I’ve counted how many readings and talks I’ve given in the past six weeks since Hourglass was published. I’m at twenty-eight and nowhere near finished. I’m overstimulated, and on a  less-than-nodding acquaintance with my inner world. I’m not writing. I can’t — not while I’m on the road. And when I’m on the road, I find it much more difficult to meditate, even with my traveling rituals, because I’m waking up in unfamiliar rooms, in unfamiliar cities. I remember, many years ago, one of my best friends came to visit us with her very young son, Manu. They slept on a pull-out sofa in my husband’s office, and when the little boy woke up, he spoke his first sentence: Where Manu?

That’s how I feel a lot of the time. Where Dani?

But I know that when  I’m in this state of intense, outward living, it becomes even more important to ground myself in the rituals I know and love. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, I resist — oh, how I resist. But I feel the difference, the space inside me that I can only access when I crack open the door to the infinite quiet.  Wherever I am — if only I get out of my own way, remove myself however briefly from the noise and chatter —  I am able to return home. 

 

On What A Mother Means

As I write this, I am lying in bed — trying to restore myself after ten days on the road to promote Hourglass, with many more days of travel coming up.  It’s Mother’s Day — a day that arouses so many feelings in so many of us — and as I was blearily scrolling through my Instagram and Facebook feeds this morning, looking at images of my friends with their mothers, my friends with their children, I was struck by the intensity of the day — even though it’s a manufactured “Hallmark Holiday,” it makes us think.  It makes me think.  About being a mother, yes. And also about having a mother. Having had a mother. Next month she will have been gone for fifteen years. 

Being a mother to my amazing, beautiful son is profoundly uncomplicated. It is pure love, pure unconditional love. He is my light and he has my heart. Later today, my husband and I will go hear his band play, and then take him and some of his friends out to dinner.  We’ll hug a lot. We’ll say “I love you” a lot.  We’ll laugh a lot.  I will look at him across the dinner table and feel myself exploding with pride. 

Having a mother was not so easy or uncomplicated.  My mother was beautiful and tempestuous.  She seethed with a constant rage, like a bubbling cauldron threatening to spill over at any moment.  She loved me but she also hated me, and I could feel that hate — that sense that I had taken something valuable and essential from her by my very existence.  She competed with me and was envious of me.  She certainly did not want me to surpass her.  As I write these words I want to erase them — to erase the ugliness of them — but I can’t because they’re the truth, and digging for that truth is what has saved me.

Still, on this day, I mourn her.  I mourn what never was, what couldn’t be, and the waste of it all.  We’re here for such a brief time.  We can reach toward each other or away from each other.  We can fill our hearts with kindness or with bile.  Some of it is a choice and some of it isn’t.  But on this day — on every day, but this one in particular — I want to wish something for all of us, whether we’re motherless, mothers ourselves, or would prefer not to think about any of this mother stuff.  Let’s try to be good to each other, and be good to ourselves.  This go-round is what we’ve got.  My mother missed it.  I’m trying like hell not to.

 

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.