Gratitude List

  1. Fuzzy wool socks for cold feet at night
  2. A 3:1 household ratio of blankets to humans
  3. Cooler weather means the memory foam in our bed doesn’t give me night sweats anymore
  4. We finally paid off the bed
  5. A doctor who reminds me that the symptoms of my illness are not moral failings, that I don’t have to suffer through them in order to be a productive member of society
  6. A job that allows me to work from home AND provides me with office space (now with new, improved window cube!)
  7. Listening to Sharon Salzberg’s audiobook Lovingkindness while taking baths
  8. A partner who loves and accepts me in spite of my flaws
  9. A community of friends who love, accept, and support me in spite of my flaws
  10. It’s finally frickin’ Friday
  11. Getting two more hours of sleep last night after a solid week of insomnia.

 

Yin Work in the Summer

Farmers let fields lay fallow. Bears hibernate. Human beings sleep. And artists take a break from creating. I decided to take July and August off from workshops, from submissions, from all the “work” of writing — especially anything to do with shameless self-promotion. I call this doing the yin work.

It was good timing.

This July, I resumed a full-time work schedule. And even though a 40-hour work week can feel like a luxury in this day and age — especially when you work in the tech sector — it’s been a struggle for me to re-acclimate this time. It’s hard to say how much of the struggle has to do with my current state of health (overall, pretty good) and age (if I were a man, I’d be old enough to study the Kabbalah), or if it’s always been this difficult and I just didn’t realize it. I’ve been learning to be kinder to myself, to lower my expectations to be more in line with what most human beings might reasonably be able to accomplish.

Lowering one’s standards can be more difficult than you’d think.

Lowering one’s standards can be more difficult than you’d think. All children grow up thinking that what happens in their families is just the way things are. Their parents teach them by example how to be in the world. I’ll be forever grateful to my mother for the courage it took her to leave an abusive marriage with two kids in tow, and then to raise them without a dime of child support. But it does mean that I grew up thinking that stretching myself to the very limits of my own abilities — and often beyond them — is just par for the course.

This expectation enabled me to survive a difficult childhood, excel in school, win a scholarship to a fancy liberal-arts college, and eventually stumble into a field lucrative enough for me to move to a home in the metro Boston area that has birds and trees outside. But — as my nurse boyfriend tells me on the regular — the maladaptive coping techniques that worked for me then don’t necessarily work for me today. Expecting myself to hold down a full-time job AND become a Successful Writer TM AND keep from ruining my health again might just possibly be unrealistic. Which makes me feel a little better that I haven’t been able to keep all three of those balls in the air for the past couple of decades.

The return to full-time work chafes especially hard because M and I are in the process of executing Project Okelle Career Change. This plan might sound familiar to anyone who lived through the irrational exuberance of the 1990s. If increasing shareholder value in Okelle, Inc. were my only motivation though, I’d stay in my cushy corporate office job until (hopefully) I retire or (more likely) they kick me out the door during the next big re-org. But while I enjoy living in a pleasant place, eating food other people cook for me, having health insurance, and keeping my creditors happy, money cannot be the only reason I work.

Parts of me are terrified at the idea of upsetting the status quo — and given the rollercoaster of last winter and the slow road to recovery that followed, I can understand their concern. Parts of me are less than thrilled about all the things that buying a home symbolize: loss of youth, loss of hip-ness, initiation into the Top Seekrit Club for Middle-Aged People Who Know about Stuff Like Fixed-Rate Mortgages. And hiding deep behind all of those tiny Okelles is the anguished artist who’s been wanting so badly to pursue her dreams, but is also terrified of achieving  them.

No matter how I succeed, it won’t be as good as my fantasies of success.

My inner artist is terrified of what might happen if I do, in fact, throw all caution and pragmatism to the wind, follow the bliss instead of the money, make sacrifices, go without, eat rice and beans, claw myself to the top of the caterpillar pile, and end up with an expensive piece of paper, another three decades of student loan payments, middling success as a professional writer (for a given definition of success), and an unfulfilling job that pays less than the one I had before. No matter what I do, I doubt I’m going to achieve the aura of fantasy-fulfillment that has been surrounding the idea of being a professional writer for me since age 10. Existential angst is a fact of existence. Nothing will change that, not even the Nobel Prize. Especially not the Nobel Prize, according to Doris Lessing.

Whenever the possibility of my fulfilling this dream occurs to me, I find myself tearing up. The energy behind those tears is deep and complex. I’m not sure I’ll ever unpack it. I’m also not sure that I need to before I start walking toward the thing I fear. Fear is an old companion, one who rises to swamp my boat when I run from it, and who bouys me when I steer into it. As a way of working with this particular snarl of fears, hope, grief, and resentment I’ve begun reading Pema Chödron’s book The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. She talks a lot about being a warrior in this book, which is comforting since I’ve always wanted to be a warrior but never wanted to bother with military service or, you know, actual fighting. The warrior she describes, though, reminds me of the internal jihad Muslim teachers talk about: the warrior who is courageous enough to run toward the dangerous, frightening places within, and who chooses to allow pain and fear make her flexible rather than more rigid. This passage in particular spoke to me:

The irony is that what we most want to avoid in our lives is crucial to awakening bodhichitta. These juicy emotional spots are where a warrior gains wisdom and compassion. Of course, we’ll want to get out of those spots far more often than we’ll want to stay. That’s why self-compassion and courage are vital. Staying with pain without loving-kindness is just warfare.

“How to stay with your own pain in loving-kindness” was not on the core curriculum of the public schools when I was growing up, but then again neither was “how to start your own business,” or “how to pay off a massive amount of debt,” or “how to be a queer woman in a straight man’s world.” I’ve been able to bungle my way through the rest of those lessons. School was pretty easy by comparison, really. You memorize the Pythagorean theorem, regurgitate it for the test, and get on with your life. The constant practice of being a grown-up, however, can be much more difficult. As can reminding yourself that yin work is a necessity, not a luxury. Any artist will tell you so.

 

 

 

 

National Poetry Month in the Year of the Horse

crocus-yam-2014It’s national poetry month again. My website was briefly down because Gmail did such an amazing job of sorting my email for me, I never got the notices reminding me to renew the domain registration for Gardenofwords.com. That was a killer way to start off national poetry month.

I noticed the outage when I was pitching a website redesign to a poet whom I greatly admire. I’m fortunate to be able to pick and choose my clients in a way I wasn’t always able to in the past. As a result, my very short client roster is full of interesting, creative women. This latest client would probably point out that I am an interesting, creative woman myself, to which I respond “pshaw.” It’s nice to have friends who say complimentary things about you. In the Po-Biz, that’s how you get blurbs for the back of your book.

April has been surprisingly un-cruel in the past couple of days, especially given March, February, January, and December, all of whom I want to roll up into a big ball, flatten with a giant rolling pin, dry in the sun, and then fold into lots of sharp corners and stick up the posterior of  this past winter. It’s very easy to forget that things are exponentially better for me today than they were this time last month, and the month before. Just the other morning I forgot about it while packing my lunch. M. and I got into a lively discussion* about his tactical decision to forgo buying lettuce on Monday night rather than buying me non-organic lettuce which I might not eat. It wasn’t about lettuce, of course. It was about my own severe anxiety at having less than $10 in my checking account the day before I got paid. And the very uncomfortable dynamic that develops when two people fall in love and move in together, and then one of them takes a hefty pay cut.

On the plus side, we worked it out, as we always do. I’m continually amazed at M’s ability to handle situations that have baffled me for most of my life. Emotional intelligence comes in all kinds of packages — some of them former infantrymen. Also on the plus side, I’m steadily plugging back up the hill toward a full-time work schedule. Also also on the plus side, I took a walk yesterday afternoon and TOOK OFF MY COAT. And didn’t put it back on once. Which just goes to show you anything is possible.

Spring is late this year, but it’s here. The hills are still grey and brown with bare trees, but the moss has turned bright green and the grass won’t be far behind. Snowdrops have been out for weeks now, lingering in the cool spring air. Crocuses are here, and may even be gone in another week. The daffodils in my back garden have been poking their little green heads up. Ralph chases the squirrels until well past 6:00 pm.

Poetry-wise, I’m doing less and more than I’ve done in years past. Whereas in past years I’ve adhered to a strict regimen of a poem-a-day, I find myself moving more fluidly now. I’m making inroads into new techniques for revision, attempts to cut away the dross and find surprising turns of phrase. A sort of Orb-style remix, but with random poems instead of sound clips.

The bout of illness and the 40th anniversary of my birth made me stop and think about what I’m doing with my life, and if it’s what I want to be doing, and what I can do about all that. When I’m very ill, I will often decide that This One Big Change is what will fix all of my problems. Past experience has taught me that it usually just creates more instability and makes it harder to get back to a baseline. A cursory search of the Intartubes (“year of the horse” plus “horoscope” plus “2014” plus “water ox”) gives me highly scientific** evidence that this is not the year for me to make any sudden changes. In the Year of the Horse, things gallop along. You might find yourself miles from where you started, only to discover you’ve gotten on the wrong horse. For a person born in the year of the water ox (1973), it’s not a good year to be moving and changing. But it is a good year to send out hidden feelers under the earth, gathering information through the mycelium that binds us all together.

The seed inside unfurls with the longer days, reaching toward the light. I watch it, worry, pray it won’t be killed in an early frost. April is cruel in a different way every year. I am curious to know its cruelty this year, in the year of the horse. Maybe there will be a kindness to its cruelty, as I slog and toil and trudge into something warmer, something sunny, something else.

 

*which our neighbor could hear through the walls, no doubt

** and by “scientific,” I mean the opposite, of course

Beltane 2013: Union and Loneliness

Beltane fell on a Wednesday this year. It’s my favorite holiday, but even though it is a holiday of union, this year it leaves me feeling rather lonely. On Sunday I’d intended to rise early and make the trip across the river to my old church for the annual Beltane service — a tradition I resurrected when I was a part of the congregation and the Women’s Sacred Circle. It’s good to know that it still happens without me, but bittersweet. Even before M and I took the plunge and moved in together, I’d begun to pull back from the community at First Parish. It’s hard to say exactly why, although it’s definitely for more than one reason. Since the church is in Cambridge, there’s a regular turnover in membership. People finish their schooling and move away, or they pair up and move off to more affordable parts of the world. Once I’d looked on those people with disdain, but like so many of the people whom I’ve judged in my life, I came to find myself following that same natural progression.

I still remember the incredulity and joy I felt the first time I walked into the First Parish Cambridge Meeting House on a Sunday morning and heard an old, white man in a black robe saying things from a high pulpit that I actually agreed with. Things about the inherent worth and dignity of all people, the interconnected web of existence, the importance of social justice, the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. There was a banner above the door that said “Support Marriage Equality — We Do” — and this was long, long before the tipping point of public opinion on that issue.

Before I ever made it to the Meeting House on a Sunday morning, I’d attended the CUUPs rituals in the Barn Room. Two warm and wonderful Texans I’d met at a public ritual on the Boston Common brought me to my first Yule in the Barn Room. Then later, after I’d left Quick and moved to Cambridge, after I’d reveled in my freedom for a while and dated lots of people, after the rather disastrous end of a rebound relationship, I found myself sinking deeper into depression and isolation.

A woman I met on Craigslist–a recovering Southern Baptist–took me to the rounds of potlucks and parties in the winter. It sounds trite, but those potlucks and parties saved my life. At the time, I was looking up the lethal dosage of my medications, seriously considering death as an option. But I had a party to go to instead. One night, the movie I Heart Huckabees convinced me not to end my life. That same woman started rousting me out of the house on the third Friday of the month for Women’s Sacred Circle. I’d known about the group for years, but was intimidated by the fact that it was closed to new members except for once a year. And Fridays are tough in general, but Fridays in October, the month they open to new members, are brutal.

The community at First Parish was so cohesive and yet so varied. College professors, software developers, non-profit do-goodniks, menstruation rights activists, environmentalists, atheists, pagans, Buddhists, old-school UUs with Puritan pedigrees, a few token queers (I was one), believers and doubters and  folks who showed up for the community and the cookies — all these people came together to the Meeting House for a service where they sang hymns like “For the Beauty of the Earth,” and listened to sermons about Martin Luther King and the importance of comprehensive sex education. It was a place where anyone, even a woman, even a lay person, even me — sinner and witch and lapsed Catholic that I was — could organize a service. It was the first place I truly felt that I belonged since I moved to Boston from Hartford almost 5 years before.

After a year or so, though, the bloom came off the rose. Some members of the thirtysomethings group decided to invite all the “cool” people to a Christmas party the same weekend as one my girlfriend was throwing. I noticed the stranglehold of the current leadership of CUUPs; they said they wanted new members, but they didn’t actually let the new members participate in any planning decisions. Friends paired off, got married, moved off and had babies, never to be heard from again.

Even the Women’s Sacred Circle, with all its magic and mystery, began to feel like a chore instead of a place of union and spiritual growth. During my stint on the leadership council, it was not unusual for meetings to run for five hours. And I realized, as perhaps all of us realize as we push on into our late 30s, that my time and energy were sadly finite. I wondered where else I might be spending it.

I began to direct it elsewhere. Slowly but surely, M and I began the careful steps to bring our households together. Settling in took longer than I thought. I mourned my old life in Camberville: the friends an easy T ride away, the streets, the back way from Arlington to Harvard Square, the Trader Joe’s at the Fresh Pond rotary, the summer meadow just beyond it, next to the Fresh Pond Reservoir, the water itself enclosed in a chain link fence. Some of them I still keep in touch with, but the meetings require planning, long drives. Weeks and months might pass before we see one another. Sometimes one or the other of us cancels, and so more weeks and months pass. We keep in touch on the Intartubes, but there’s no substitute for physical presence.

Nine months after the move, I joined a poetry workshop one of my circle sisters has been attending for years. The critiques were tough, but I appreciated the focus on concrete results — publication — and the practical tips given and shared to help us all achieve the same goal. In December I had my first success: my work was accepted at Lyrical Somerville and will be published next week. In April I read at Porter Square Books, and I am scheduled to read again at the Newton Public Library in October. After the reading, the workshop leader said “you surprised us!” She’d never seem or heard my finished poems, only the unfinished ones I brought to workshop. Buoyed by the praise I’d coveted for so long, I submitted to two journals.

Finances demanded that I take a hiatus from the workshop for a few months. With the world’s sap rising, I find myself composing more and see how my own eye has changed, my writing more careful — sometimes for the better, and sometimes not.

As I write this, the sun shines in the back courtyard on the forsythia bushes, all yellow in the bright spring light. Birds come and go from the feeder I installed last year; this spring I know most of their names. The leaves and spines of my garden wave in the breeze. The cats wander in and out of the treeline. For the first time ever in my life, I have a room in my home that is three walls open air, the solid brick behind me. The oaks have just begun unfurling their leaves, but for now the sun shines unimpeded on the bed I planted one week ago, on the pots I brought with me from Camberville. A nature-worshipper, I have access to more actual nature than I’ve ever had before. It’s right outside my door, front and back, and yet I’m a five-minute drive from Jamaica Plain, Boston’s answer to Cambridge.

It’s not the same, though. I am too far from my old circles. It’s a distance through both space and time. We’ve scattered and settled elsewhere. The bonds grow weaker. And I’m not sure I have the energy, the strength, or even the inclination, to build another circle from scratch around me here.

I don’t regret the union I entered into when I moved to this new green and alien place. I bathe in it every day, and the water is sweet. But I do regret the interconnected web of existence I left behind in Cambridge.

Four Way of Looking at a Homeland

1.
Embarcadero backwards
lady firefighter in Victorian dress
bronze plaques trailing behind us

At the Ferry Building, I explode in hunger
sad-eyed, you explore on your own

On the terrace,
             a seagull as big as my head
begs, expectant
        then pigeons
                 a corbin I’ve never seen before
     (blue-black, but not a grackle)
puffs his feathers and collapses
making a noise that makes us laugh

2.
Muir Woods. Scottish father
Mother from the deep
In silence we repair, foot-sore,
the light that shines between us

In the mist all things are possible
trees mightier than the sword
walk far enough and you will find silence

3.
Road a sacred spiral
there the stand of eucalyptus
there the hills
there the fog
there the houses
there the ocean

4.
The elk, unexpected, in the hills of St. Helena
regard us without much interest

raptors on the wind above hills
tall as mountains
gentle as hips
wider than a mouth can contain

The Drama of the Disoriented Traveler

M thought we’d postpone the trip until June, but he underestimated the pull of California. I may be Yankee-bred, but I’m California-born, and that handful of years I spent there shifted me in some fundamental way a born-and-bred New Englander can’t comprehend. If I don’t feel the humid air and smell the eucalyptus once a year — preferably before the cherry blossoms burst out on the East Coast — I get very cranky. And nobody likes a cranky Okelle.

So what if we had just expended time and energy taking two households and combining them into one? Since when has an empty bank account — or exhaustion — ever stopped me from hopping on a plane to someplace warm?

When I’m feeling ashamed or embarrassed, M will say, “I love you because you’re a woman of strong passions.” Which calms me down a bit, strips away the old intensity of perfectionism. And allows me to forgive myself for dragging him off to my homeland before either of us was really ready.

On the upside, I’d been saving for the trip in advance and definitely stayed within my budget. On the downside, he bought the rip-off rental car insurance and couldn’t say the same thing. On the upside, we tooled around in a Mustang convertible so new, we had to break open the shrink-wrap on the owner’s manual. And he finally me the rest of my family. And after almost 800 miles negotiating the tiny roads that run from valley to valley, he was ready to admit that maybe California had a certain appeal. The upsides have it.

About 24 hours after we arrived at SFO, after an extra-long day that took us from the Embarcadero to Muir Woods and then to the rest of San Francisco, we met his brother at a Boston bar called, ironically enough, Connecticut Yankee. The aroma of 100 years’ worth of spilled beer greeted us at the door. Since I can no longer drink the tasty, hoppy, liquid bread — and since I’d spent the better part of the day pounding pavement and mud with my jet-lagged legs — I was more than a little cranky by the end of dinner. Cranky enough to make a bratty declaration and go for a walk before the check came.

Here’s what I wrote while standing at a mailbox outside of a boarded-up dot-com startup, taking deep breaths and regarding the San Francisco skyline while hipsters bar-hopped all around me. I won’t apologize for it, but I will say it’s very much worthy of my inner 13-year-old, who was very much running the show at that moment:

stand with legs closed
san francisco’s silhouette in the distance

inhaling, heart pounding
one breath, one moment, one breath

sometimes nothing heals but time
sometimes nothing fills the god-shaped hole

all day walking
through the city
through the redwoods

foreign city, foreign parts
foreign homeland

distress of disconnection
a technology deeper than time
wider than space

one moment, one moment
and then the next

The Move: After the Solstice

Thursday 12/22/2011

All the carefully ordered placement of yesterday has been overlaid by a new layer of boxes, furniture, packing materials. And a layer of dust that traveled with M’s furniture from the old house to the new. Waking up this morning with ultimatums in my mind, afraid to come downstairs…

Dot dot dot. And here we are among our boxes and our stuff and our dust and our detritus and our dreams and fantasies and emotions and sometimes we sit and stare at one another with forlorn expressions, and sometimes one or the other of us is mad or frustrated, and often we stop to hug one another. And last night at ten-oh-something I said to M “come to bed” because I could see that his brain was beginning to wind down like a giant clockwork or a music box, just tut-tut-tut-ing. And he did, and I rubbed his front and I rubbed his arms and legs and back and he was happy and we fell asleep.

This morning, a burst of pure hatred for clutter and disorder drove me to start unpacking the china barrel I’d filled with his kitchen’s contents the day before. He wisely ran away for a little while. I have boxes and boxes of books and papers and I don’t feel like resigning them to the great ash-heap of history. Already there’s so much I have given up and let go of.

And God will come with her lion claws and split open the rest of my dragon skin and turn me back into a girl.

The Move: After

Wednesday 12/21/2011

Solstice. The Longest Night. The shortest day. We wake at 6:00 a.m. or thereabouts, with the windows outside still black. Day dawns rainy, chilly, but not freezing cold; it’s in the 50s on the solstice. Still, we know that January and February — the real bitch-winter months — have yet to come.

I’m hurrying to get through these pages because M has already left and the movers are coming to his house at 9:00 a.m. They were late, so very, very late, when they came to my house on the 17th. Five hours late. By the time they were done unloading the truck, it was 10:00 p.m. And I tipped them anyway.

Stop for a moment and be still. Know that the Goddess is with me always, the door as close at my own heart. Invite Her to walk with me today, to travel with me.

And with the invitation comes gratitude for M, my life’s partner, my heart’s desire. The first man in this lifetime I’ve trusted enough to intertwine with like this. Gentle soul, sensitive and real — and still a man, unaware of his privilege and its effect on me, as unaware as I must have seemed to Quick, as a white woman partnered with a Puerto Rican.

Echoes of Quick, echoes of April, all the myriad mistakes I made in the past and learned from — and learned from. All the bumps and stumbles in the dark we made in our marriages, because lesbians have always known what the state denies: that marriage begins when you rent the U-Haul and put two sets of china in the same cabinet, not when you rent a church and put two sets of relatives in the same function hall.

All the bittersweet lessons I learned from my lovers, and all the savory friendships and sisterhoods I’ve been blessed with since.

Anaphase and I, two bright minds burning in the darkness. Lucy’s gentle soul, pregnant and fulfilled, endless source of love and compassion. Two things I’d never expected to have in this lifetime: straight women as my good, good friends.

The Goddess in all her guises, made manifest around me.

What joy and passion to be alive, in this place, at this time. Oh brave new world, that has such wonders in it!

The Move: During

Saturday 12/17/2011

Moving day. 8:30 a.m. and I have time enough for tea, time enough for love.

Sipping the tea from my to-go mug (all the china is packed). Laptop laboring away with its asthmatic fan. Surrounded by boxes, and still my house has its elements of humanity. The plants. The Chinese fan, the bodhran, and the calendar still hanging on the wall. Most of other the artwork bubble-wrapped and stacked.

Stop. Breathe. Feet on the floor. Be present.

And the day begins with the eleventh step.

The Move: Before

Friday, December 16, 2011

Twenty minutes. Half the house in boxes, half my body in distress, half my mind in disarray. The movers come tomorrow. Yesterday I wrote the checks and opened the door and walked in to the empty apartment and it was bare and freshly painted and beautiful.

Relax and let it go. Move forward. Relax and move forward. Relax and let go and move forward.

So grateful for so many things right now. And I still (the manager in me sure loves this expression) have to do the work. Knuckle down and buckle under and do the work. When Lucy and Desi come today, I can go ahead and give them their Christmas presents, half-wrapped or almost wrapped. Everything doesn’t have to be perfect. Relax into the imperfection, keep moving forward, rest on the page, and do the work.

Work as a spiritual practice. Can I have fun while doing the work?