tenderness

heartYesterday afternoon I drifted into one of my favorite emotional places. I think it’s been building for a while, and then my miserable experience with the writers’ conference walked me the rest of the way there. I feel tender toward the world, cracked open, wistful. (Wistful is my favorite feeling, wrote about it here.) Yesterday was actually less about wistful and more about tender, but those live in the same neighborhood.

Right now, as I move around the world unencumbered in my own little life, I know a number of people who are dealing with the imminent death of a close loved one, or are dealing with a frightening health crisis of a dear loved one, or are grieving a loss. I gather this will happen with greater frequency, the older I get, as loss happens more regularly. And of course our own hearts, in my family, are still crisscrossed with fresh scars from losing Gracie; the scars are now strong enough to resist tugging, but tugging hurts a lot. For me, big happiness and this kind of tender feeling are wrapped up together so inextricably I’ll always find one when the other is present.

On the first day of the conference, Peggy and I were in the car on the way to New Haven and she asked casually if I liked The Wailing Jennys, because they were on her iPod and we could listen as we drove. I love The Wailing Jennys! The mention of them opened my heart because Dixie introduced them to me by surprise-sending me their “Bright Morning Stars” CD. Beautiful three-part harmonies, gorgeous melodies, wistful songs. One song on that CD in particular carries a huge weight in my heart, the song called Away But Never Gone. I couldn’t remember the name of it, so I told Peggy that I especially loved one song, I’d know it when I heard it.

She started the music and tears filled my eyes — that beautiful music was imprinted with the moment, the happy happy moment of being with Peggy, on our way to the writers’ conference, that moment of such importance to me. All the elements were right there: Peggy, the gorgeous day, being in that moment, everything. I knew that forever more, when I heard anything from that CD I could be swept right back to the moment with Peggy, and Dixie would be there with me too.

Several songs into the playlist, the song I loved came on and I said, “That’s it! That’s the song I love so much.” It’s a very wistful song, as you can imagine from the title (Away But Never Gone, lyrics here). For me, it carries the heaviness of that period when I told Marc we should let each other go, because he was so incredibly lonely. I sent him that song and told him that it’s how I felt, that he would never be gone from my heart. I can’t listen without feeling that moment and thick, fat tears fill my eyes.

But Peggy has her own exquisite moment with the song too, her story not mine to share, but she shared it with me as we drove and the morning sun was like a kaleidoscope through our tears. I’ll remember that shared moment with her always.

One of my friends is nearing the end of a difficult treatment. One of my friends is not doing very well and life is feeling small and limited, and possibly changed in a long-term way. I think about those two people, I close my eyes and see the lives they’ve been living, lives spent with loved ones, lives spent helping others, doing things they love, ordinary lives, really, of the happy variety. Like mine. And I feel so tender toward the whole thing, toward what it is to live a life, to sweep up the happiness into our arms, to have our hands forced open as we lose things, hopes, experiences, plans, people. There is something so poignant to me about being here in a human life. We help each other live, we help each other die. We help each other with tiny loads and big ones. We help each other with joy, because it’s so much better shared, and we help each other with disappointment — also better shared, than managing all alone. My heart is full of fear and loss and anxiety and excitement and the future and the unknown and this beautiful moment.

it was horrible.

Well that was the worst. And how terribly sad, given how much I was looking forward to attending the Yale Writers’ Conference, as you know. It is a long conference, two sessions, and the second session (the one I attended) primarily comprises a daily 3-hour workshop, an individual conference with your workshop leader, and social time with others in the workshop.

Except my workshop leader was horrible. Truly. She was so bad I am not attending the rest of the conference. She was surely the most narcissistic person I’ve ever encountered; I came to think of the session as The P Show (when I really think it, I use her name). I just can’t convey how disappointed I am, though those of you who have been part of this with me surely do understand.

Today I am hanging out in CT at Peggy and Sherlock’s lovely home, having a day to myself in the peace of their beautiful house. I’ll walk into town and have breakfast. I’ll spend the day reading and writing, I’ll have dinner with Sherlock, and then Saturday I’ll drive back to New York and just be done with it. If we hang out in person anytime soon, you’ll have to put with me going a bit on and on like this: Jesus! God, I can’t believe it.  It was horrible. Jesus.

My chapter didn’t get workshopped yet, so it’s not about anything to do with my own work. It’s not that I got critical feedback I couldn’t handle — though I did get some very lovely and helpful feedback from two women who were as aghast as me. We went out for drinks after the session ended last night and spent a good long time saying different versions of Jesus! Can you believe it? That was horrible. Jesus.

Awful. I cannot wait to get home to Austin.

finally me

obviously not me, but oh how many times have I stood in front of such a poster...
obviously not me, but oh how many times have I stood in front of such a poster…

Ever since I started graduate school, I have attended conferences. In grad school, it was about presenting your work and making connections. Being seen. Becoming known, becoming familiar to faculty who might one day collaborate on research, faculty who might be on search committees for junior faculty. I always felt like a faker, plus I’m a shy kid. So I’d dutifully stand by my poster, avoid eye contact with people who might drift by looking for their friends, press copies of my results into obliging hands. It was a kind of show I was putting on, playing the part of scholar. Had I more courage, more insight, I would not have been doing social psychology. But there I was, me and my discriminant function analyses (or whatever), line graphs and < .05s.

I could stand here in my sleep -- and I kind of did, many times.
I could stand here in my sleep — and I kind of did, many times.

And then I was in publishing, attending social psychology conferences. My tribe(ish)! My people. But this time I knew everyone, and because I worked for a very prestigious academic press, people wanted to know me. I courted and wooed, and scholars courted and wooed me. Conferences were exhausting — especially for a shy kid like me. The first breakfast meeting at 6am, usually, a second breakfast meeting at 7am, then coffee meetings every half hour until lunch, then two or three lunch meetings back to back followed by coffee meetings every half hour until ~4:30ish, then drinks meetings every half hour until the first dinner meeting, then a dessert meeting, then a drinks meeting or two, and then usually a party. Then off to bed to begin again the next morning at 6am. Exhausting. It was about me, but it wasn’t at all about me. It was about signing books, getting other people to write books for me, talking about books, books they would write, books I was trying to win against other publishers, books books books. That they would write. I was the acquiring editor, the midwife, for the glory of the publisher. I had my signing goals, my first year sales goals, and it was stressful, even though it was at least with my people, my social psychologists. But it wasn’t me. It wasn’t about me. It was just my job, my income, my livelihood.

That crazy-eyed giddy insane look in the eyes of a bookish person. You know the one.
That crazy-eyed giddy insane look in the eyes of a bookish person. You know the one.**

And now here I am at Yale, at the writers’ workshop. Here I sit with other people who are desperate to tell their stories, whatever they are. Science fiction, non-fiction, humor, mixed genre, memoir. I am in the memoir/family writing group — and I’ve read the 4,000-word pieces submitted by all 12 people in my group. The writing ability varies, of course, but the stories are amazing. Wrenching in various ways, because easy happy lives/years don’t make for compelling books. I spent hours reading everyone’s pieces without knowing them, and then last night I sat across the table at dinner from three members of my workshop. And I knew that this beautifully charming, socially skilled woman had been dropped off at an orphanage because her father couldn’t deal, after her mother died. And I knew that the lively woman sitting across from me, who talked about Canadian politics, had tried to rescue her children when her Jordanian husband kidnapped them and took them to a tiny village in Jordan. The woman sitting next to me, talking about her 14-year-old daughter and the faculty meetings she attended? She grew up watching her desperately depressed city-loving mother grapple with being stranded in a forest when her husband, the writer’s father, took a job as a forest ranger. And I knew this about them, just as they knew about the pain and struggle in the chapter I’d submitted. There we sat, introverts doing our best to be social and lively, and we knew these things about each other and shared the various struggles of doing that kind of writing. The need to do that kind of writing. The need to transform our lives into art, even as we have no idea how to do that. Even as we have various levels of ability to do that . . . but the same level of need.

It was profoundly moving, sitting and talking with people engaged in the same kind of work. We are all writers, and here we are presenting our selves publicly as such, many of us for the first time. I didn’t grow up scribbling stories, I never wrote, never fancied myself a writer. I was a reader, and that was the world. So unlike all the other conferences I attended, where I hid behind a role — graduate student hoping to become a professor, acquiring editor hoping to score the next big book — here I am just myself. Lori, the writer of that chapter. The writer of a book.

**Before we met our groups for dinner, Peggy and I dropped by the Beinecke Library on the Yale campus, home of an extraordinary collection of rare books. I snapped that picture in front of the central core of rare books, and the glee on my face is a shadow of what I really felt. One of the largest buildings in the world devoted entirely to rare books and manuscripts, the Beinecke library has room in the central tower for 180,000 volumes and in the underground book stacks for over 600,000 volumes; it now contains about 500,000 volumes and several million manuscripts. It was amazing to be there, and especially to be there with my very dear sister Peggy. I wouldn’t have done this without her, no way no how, and so I will forever owe her a debt of gratitude for this experience. And life is so so long. Here I am, 55.5 years old, attending a selective workshop for writers at Yale University. Me. And I belong here, that’s the dizzying thing.

the day before

Thanks heavens for everything. That could be the sole content of my daily gratitude email response. Thank heavens for everything. Today what I mean by that, in addition to everything is:

  • Thank heavens for Sherlock, who saw a mention of the Yale Writers’ Conference and told Peggy about it.
  • Thank heavens Peggy suggested that we both apply.
  • Thank heavens for my plan, formulated at the beginning of this year, to take myself seriously as a writer.
  • Thank heavens for friends—including Katie, Traci, Peggy, Dee, Nancy, Bob—who read the options I was considering submitting as my application and gave me not only their best opinions, but also their deeply heartfelt encouragement and beautiful kind words that I pull out and polish again and again when I get scared.
  • Thank heavens for Nancy, who was working outside when I came home having just learned of my acceptance. I pulled sideways into the driveway and jumped out (thank heavens I put the car in gear!) and ran straight to her. Her sharing that moment with me is something I will remember all my days. And then Bob joined us, and something about the way he was totally unsurprised makes me laugh out loud.
  • Thank heavens for my loved ones who share my happiness and tell me again and again of their happiness for me.
  • Thank heavens for Peggy and Sherlock for their geez-its-obvious assumption that of course I would stay with them during the conference.
  • Thank heavens Peggy and I were both accepted, although we’d have been so happy for each other in any other circumstance (and consoled each other if we weren’t accepted).
  • Thank heavens Peggy attended the first session already so she knows what to expect, how it goes, and is helping me get over my nerves through her unusual overuse of exclamation points and all-cap words in her wonderful emails sent during the first session.

yaleschedAnd so today I head up their way. Session II starts Wednesday and runs through Sunday, and I imagine I will not have much time or spare mental/emotional energy to post here, although you never know! I might just post something full of WORDS and lots of exclamation points!!!!

Thank you for the way you have encouraged me too, in all the ways you do. Your off-line emails to me in response to posts, your out-of-the-blue “hey, I was just thinking of you” notes, your constant encouragement simply by reading this blog, not to mention your comments. Thank you, thank heavens for you.

If you sense the air quivering, if you feel the universe doing its thing, if something suddenly seems all vibratey and frizzy, that’s just me.  xo

opinionated

opinionLately I’ve been aware of, thinking about, noticing the fact that so often when I open my mouth I am spouting opinions. I hadn’t particularly thought of myself as opinionated, before, but now I think I am very opinionated. And I don’t even have to have thought about an issue before — hell, I don’t even have to have heard of it before, I will instantly have an opinion.

Opinions, “things I hate,” “things I adore,” “things that are outrageous!” Lots of categories of opinions. It makes me wonder, though, what I mean by opinion. Is a preference an opinion? I think so . . . is it? Here are some definitions:

  • a view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge
  • an estimation of the quality or worth of someone or something
  • a personal view, attitude, or appraisal

I have a favorite nine-word phrase! Do you? Mine is from Ulysses: “the heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.” That rolls around in my mind like a loose marble, always echoing. And then that line connects to my favorite poetic description of evening:

Evening (Rainer Maria Rilke)

The sky puts on the darkening blue coat
held for it by a row of ancient trees;
you watch: and the lands grow distant in your sight,
one journeying to heaven, one that falls;

and leave you, not at home in either one,
not quite so still and dark as the darkened houses,
not calling to eternity with the passion
of what becomes a star each night, and rises;

and leave you (inexpressibly to unravel)
your life, with its immensity and fear,
so that, now bounded, now immeasurable,
it is alternately stone in you and star.

I could go on and on, one preference/opinion connecting to the next, to the next. My favorite cities: Hanoi, Luang Prabang, Ubud, Cusco. My favorite countries to visit: Vietnam, Laos, Bali. My favorite month: May. My favorite sound: baby laughs. My favorite spot: my sweet little home in Austin. My favorite drink: my coffee early in the morning. My favorite this my favorite that I am full of opinions.

no attachmentPerhaps I’m thinking about it so much because I’m spending so much time with Marc — just over a month, now — and he is an advanced student of Buddhism. He takes classes every week and attends workshops and weekly meditation meetings. So the whole idea of attachment / not attaching is in the air around him, and I realized he doesn’t state opinions all day. There are aspects of that position that I struggle with and disagree with, but I don’t want to throw the whole idea away. So I’m thinking about this opinion thing. Keeping them to myself isn’t the solution — it’s less about saying them and more about the question of having so many of them. (However, I think my most common experience is to have constantly growing categories instead of points. A growing list of favorite cities instead of a favorite city, for instance. An increasing number of “our best trips ever” instead of a revolving point.) (Somehow I think this makes it OK.) (Though I’m not sure what’s bad about having opinions, as long as you aren’t using them to hurt other people.)

Are you this way too? I’m hoping you are. Please say you are.

I’ll leave this post with some sayings from a Jewish Buddhist — Marc is a Jewish Buddhist (a JewBu, as they’re called), but not as funny as this:

Be here now.
Be someplace else later.
Is that so complicated?

Drink tea and nourish life;
with the first sip, joy;
with the second sip, satisfaction;
with the third sip, peace;
with the fourth, a Danish.

Wherever you go, there you are.
Your luggage is another story.

If there is no self, whose arthritis is this?

Accept misfortune as a blessing.
Do not wish for perfect health, or a life without problems.
What would you talk about?

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single Oy.

There is no escaping karma.
In a previous life,
you never called,
you never wrote,
you never visited.
And whose fault was that?

Zen is not easy.
It takes effort to attain nothingness.
And then what do you have?
Bupkis.

The Tao does not speak.
The Tao does not blame.
The Tao does not take sides.
The Tao has no expectations.
The Tao demands nothing of others.
The Tao is not Jewish.

Breathe in.
Breathe out.
Breathe in.
Breathe out.
Forget this and attaining Enlightenment will be the least of your problems.

Let your mind be as a floating cloud.
Let your stillness be as a wooded glen.
And sit up straight.
You’ll never meet the Buddha with such rounded shoulders.

Deep inside you are ten thousand flowers.
Each flower blossoms ten thousand times.
Each blossom has ten thousand petals.
You might want to see a specialist.

Be aware of your body.
Be aware of your perceptions.
Keep in mind that not every physical sensation is a symptom of a terminal illness.

The Torah says,
Love your neighbor as yourself.
The Buddha says,
There is no self.
So, maybe we’re off the hook.

yeah, do this everyone

Wage Peace

Wage peace with your breath.
Breathe in firemen and rubble,
breathe out whole buildings and flocks of red wing blackbirds.
Breathe in terrorists
and breathe out sleeping children and freshly mown fields.
Breathe in confusion and breathe out maple trees.
Breathe in the fallen and breathe out lifelong friendships intact.
Wage peace with your listening: hearing sirens, pray loud.
Remember your tools: flower seeds, clothes pins, clean rivers.
Make soup.
Play music, memorize the words for thank you in three languages.
Learn to knit, and make a hat.
Think of chaos as dancing raspberries,
imagine grief
as the outbreath of beauty or the gesture of fish.
Swim for the other side.
Wage peace.
Never has the world seemed so fresh and precious:
Have a cup of tea and rejoice.
Act as if armistice has already arrived.
Celebrate today.

Judyth Hill

“broken”

crackFirst, guru Leonard:

Ring the bells that can still ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.

It’s absolutely fascinating the way there can be a convergence of things. Two mornings ago that lyric came into my head, just that little fragment, just before I woke up all the way. Ever since, of course, the whole song (Anthem) has been running through my head non-stop. Late yesterday I went to my gorgeous friend Traci’s apartment to hang out with her for a while, after having lunch with her the day before. She’s one of those deep-souled people who nourish, and she’s a friend who shares honesty with me. We talk about things we often can’t talk about with other people. Over lunch she was talking about a person she knew that she thought I would probably like, and the friend has had a difficult life in some of the same ways that Traci and I have experienced.

In the course of that conversation we both used the shorthand phrase “broken” — as in, “she is broken too.” Without even thinking about it I said that the people I love most and connect to most easily are broken. Broken broken broken. We both knew what we meant, and it really was just a single word meant to encompass a whole lot of things that might start with broken but end with going beyond the breaks.

And then when I got home last night I saw this piece on Thought Catalog, “Your Brokenness Makes You Beautiful.” I couldn’t click that thing fast enough, you know? My kind of topic! But as soon as I started reading it, it galled me. It wasn’t trying to celebrate being broken, but something about the whole idea rubbed me the wrong way.

kintsugiDo you know the Japanese concept of kintsugi? When a vessel, like a tea cup, breaks or cracks, they will fill the cracks with a precious material like gold, so the cracks are seen, they’re part of the beauty of the thing that now is so much more, now it is more beautiful, it has more character, it’s strong.

Of course you don’t have to think much at all to see the relevance. Broken becomes beauty, the breaks aren’t meant to be hidden, but it’s not exactly the case that they are celebrated, either, even though something precious binds them. They are part of, central to, evident, but merely a part of the original piece, which is whole. It isn’t broken. An essential part of the beauty of the thing itself still exists as it always did, and yet it is more beautiful as a result. I love that and it touches me.

And so yes, a whole lot of life has happened to me. A whole lot of life happens to a whole lot of us — most of us, perhaps. Traci and I were talking about how we connect so much more easily to people who’ve grappled with stuff than those who have had an easy ride. Good for them! And we mean that! But there’s a kind of trust and ease with others who have had to face the dark, maybe face themselves in the dark, or face the kinds of things that etch, that break, that stain. And so I am etched, I was several times broken, I was stained.

I know broken people. And you see them regularly, especially in a big city like New York. The truly broken, the deeply homeless people who are thrown so far out of the realm of ordinary life, they sit broken on the sidewalk, they live in a shadow and may never find their way back. Some people don’t.

But I am not broken. That bowl is not broken. The crack is just where the light gets in, and the light is so damn beautiful. Without the light it’s just dark, right?

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