Ribbons

My daughter’s ribbons, yellow and deep red, hang on the wall over her desk. She earned them a year ago competing in track in the spring and summer. She doesn’t care about the colors or the place they indicate—second, sixth, fourth. To her, each makes an equal decoration.

She keeps their meaning personal and small.

I haven’t yet met the person who doesn’t treat the specific circuit of their life as universal, as the template for human striving. And each one is right. What I live is the brightest glimpse of universe I’ll ever know. But each of us is also wrong for the very same reason.

No one feels the specific pulse of another. No one soaks in another’s sweat or smells the other’s stench as their own.

Humanity’s original sin lies in not accepting this. In insisting that the skin of my existence can clothe your limbs. That the vessels of my brain can know the paths along which your electrical impulses flow.

I wonder whether learning to perceive the distances within me, the various selves that vie inside me with one another at different times throughout my days, might humble me enough to respect the space between me and others. I wonder if it might teach me the perils—and the uses—of extrapolating my experiences onto others.

The writer E.B. White once said, “Remember that all writing is translation, and the opus to be translated is yourself.” I love writing because it repeatedly teaches me both the perils and necessity of attempting that translation.

To share words meaningfully with another, I have to try perpetually to accept that my ignorance will always stretch much wider than the small scope of what I know and understand.

But rather than acknowledge this, too often I clash with others while grasping ribbons of certainty I’ve stitched in my imagination into a vast banner of (supposed) understanding that I wave as I fly into battle.

Reluctantly, I’ve arrived at the theory that knowledge isn’t where we fail. What we’re terrible at is admitting our ignorance, the land in which we much more commonly dwell.

Various threads of Buddhist and Taoist philosophy I’ve encountered talk about “beginner’s mind,” which I understand to be a state of open expectation. Not even a beginner comes to learning empty-handed. But what if I could treat my certainties as the ribbons they are rather than try to drape them over everything I perceives?

I think it might be possible to translate ourselves to one another. I think it might be possible to exchange our ribbons and see where they meet. The key lies in the attitudes that I and the other bring to the exchange.

I’m working on it. I’m trying, like my daughter, to keep my certainties personal and small, even as I hang them on the wall for all to see.

I’m Not Strong

Here’s what I did when I awoke today.

I climbed out of bed, and encountered my daughter, who has taken to coming up to sleep with us because she feels anxious alone sometimes at night.

After I fed her breakfast and she went to play in her room, I wrote for 15 minutes whatever came into my mind. This is the writing meditation that I try to do each day. Then I went to the basement and performed 15 minutes of stretching and tai chi. After that, I ran the dishwasher, put away towels from yesterday’s laundry, trimmed my hair and beard with my clippers, took a shower, shaved, and dressed.

Depending on how you’re feeling today, or these days in general, the narrative I’ve presented may sound like a lot. It may sound like I have it pretty well together. Or not.

But here’s the reality: I got up because I have kids who need me, and because my partner works hard and late and needs her sleep. And I did the other things not because I’m focused or organized or strong but because I need to do them.

I’m not strong. That doesn’t mean I think I’m weak, but like a lot of people I see on social media, at times I’m hanging by a thread. Actually, I should say several threads because I’m lucky enough to have a great partner and my children and friends to whom I can text or tweet.

But that doesn’t keep me from at times feeling angry or terrified or full of despair. I still spend too much time on Twitter or news sites reading about how bad our prospects could be, thinking about the stupidity and bigotry that got us here. I idly fantasize about how this could be a turning point that leads to change.

And at times I just want to be by myself in my bedroom and stream TV shows.

Sometimes I meet my goal of three 15 minute writing meditations a day; sometimes I only do two or one. Yesterday, I did none. Sometimes I achieve my three 15 minute tai chi breaks each day; sometimes I only do two or one. Yesterday, also none. Sometimes I do my hour of reading, and of working on the Patreon page I hope to launch; yesterday I didn’t do the reading but I did do some of the work. Sometimes I remember to brush my teeth; sometimes I take a shower; sometimes I do neither.

At my best, I realize that this pandemic isn’t a test of individual strength. I have a history of depression and a stash of anti-anxiety meds that convince me I’d have difficulty passing that test.

Instead, it’s time to find and hold on to what keeps me together: working with words, exercise, household tasks, and people who love and support me. For other folks, different things may serve this purpose. There may even be some, the universe bless them, who churn along pretty much on their own, somehow unaffected.

But me? No, I’m not strong. And thank creation I don’t have to be. Because if you’ve found these words you know that none of us are in this alone. I struggle to let go of the idea that it’s supposed to be otherwise, and we’ll see how this day goes. But so far, right now, I’m doing okay. And right now is enough.

 

 

A Name I Call Myself

I am in the weeds.

Each day, I sway one way or another depending on the voices that call me. Voices of despair. Voices of hope. Voices of doom. Voices of anger. Voices laying blame. Calls to action. Confused calls asking, “How did this happen?” Calls that say, “How could you not know?” Calls to say, “I told you so.”

They each pull on different dimensions of who I am. Hero. Victim. Savior. Pawn. Writer. Father. Citizen. Worker. Dreamer. I lose myself in the jumble of roles I’m asked to play. In the various ways the world wants to name me.

My mind wants to find the name that makes me powerful and safe. I want to identify myself with the ones who “get shit done.” When we get control, we’ll make everything right (again? forever?), and that certainty about our singular name and aim justifies whatever we do, including dehumanizing any in our way.

But I become most dangerous when I try to understand and control any aspect of the world without first and always trying to name myself accurately. Otherwise I can easily damage myself and all around me, the same way a toddler lashing out in a tantrum—not realizing where their turbulent inner sensations end and the world outside them begins—becomes dangerous to themselves and anyone else nearby.

Suffering comes when I choose to refuse to see reality about myself: that I don’t have control over others; that alone I can’t make things the way I think ought to be; that I insist on clinging to various visions of myself that I’ve been fed. I don’t mean that I can’t change the world; I only mean that I don’t know whether I can.

The decisions I make in my dialogue with existence will sum up my life. At the same time, I need to recognize that I possesses more inside than the things I choose. I need to be honest that I contain 10,000 elements, and to live the truth, I have to accept my complexity.

Every pain I’ve felt, every hope I’ve clung to, every reaction of disgust, every act of love or trust or hate or disdain—all of it belongs to and needs to be seen by me. Everything. Only after that can I start to sort illusion from truth. Until I begin that work, my every intention—good or bad—risks turning into ashes in my mouth.

I can pick a path through this tumultuous self and call that path my name, but I can’t flee the rest of me. Whatever I try to leave behind only grows more powerful by absorbing the energy I spend avoiding it. I can’t dispatch my fear; I can’t reject my depression; I can’t excise my anxiety. They’re all blended together with the rest of me, with my courage and my joy and my sense of possibility.

The attempt to parse myself into “good” and “bad” only leaves me in pieces; I have to swallow myself whole, every bit in its own way sacred. But I can choose the parts I’ll occupy. I can call the whole city or nation I live in “home,” but that doesn’t mean I dwell in every street or neighborhood. I’m tied to them all, but some I drive by or pass through; some I return to regularly. I accept the entire community as mine, but what particular places become the center of my life?

The epidemic has demanded that I pause to decide what’s primary. It challenges all the names I call myself, and with that my illusions of control. That’s why, even beyond the dangers of sickness and death, it unsettles me.

What’s essential to my identity? What will I call myself now? I don’t fully know. I only recognize that I need a better, more comprehensive name to help me dwell with myself and others in this reality.

 

“Words in a Word”

And now for today’s word play. To review the rules, you begin with a starter word containing 8 to 12 letters. Then you use any combination of the letters to make many words as you can. You can only use each letter as many times in each new word as that letter appears in the starter word. Here’s an example:

perspective

respect         ire                  tire                 seep
peer              prise              sire                 steer
ripe               stir                 rite                 tic
pert               seer               sect                 eve
veer              sieve              sip                  piece
pipe               tip                  pit                   spite
spit                steep             site                  evict
sprite            pet                step                 rep
pest               trip               rip                   tripe
peter            spire             peep                pee
pep               prep              perp                épée…

If you’re so inclined, you might even come up with a poem or short bit of writing, using as many of your derivative words as you choose.

Today’s starter word: interrogate. Or come up with your own (remember, 8-12 letters). You can share your list and/or poem here or @mar_de_palabras on Twitter.

 

Still. Here. Now.

My daughter’s taken to leaving her bed in the middle of the night and snuggling with her mother. We wonder, out of fear? Or because the change in our days, and the absence of needing to go to school, has created an excuse?

I take the opportunity to go down to her room and write at the desk under her loft bed. So here I am, caught in the quiet of the tail end of darkness, before the light rises.

I turn off the white noise machine she falls asleep by, and at first what follows sounds like silence. But my initial impression lies. The radiator hums; the wooden floorboards creak and groan; rushing air outside brushes its fingertips against window panes and walls and slides over the roof.

A wider silence seems to lie over the houses and streets, over the city, the nation. Or does it? The more I pay attention, the more everything I perceive turns into something else, a perpetual shell game. One intention slips into another.

Are we boxing each other and ourselves in, or making space for safety? Are we isolated or strangely linked at this social distance from one another? Am I keeping my neighbors safe, or just keeping them away from me?

One feeling slips off its veil to reveal a different face. Fear turns to reverie. Anxiety slips into calm, then back again. Am I caught in inactivity? Or am I perceiving what I never did before, between the busy-ness and the entertainment and the chores?

How can it be that, surrounded as I am by the walls of this house, the rest of the world seems more urgently real to me. How can I be more bound up with what’s outside than I was when I walked to the car, drove to work, stopped at the store, chauffered children back and forth from their activities?

I keep feeling the urgent need to make something of this potential calamity we face. Is it an exaggerated panic? A dire defining hour? A hoax? A symptom of broken government and community? A cautionary tale? An epiphany?

I consider all of this, of course, behind the safe hiding place of a comfortable home and savings and access to the things I and my family need. For those with fewer resources, there’s nothing philosophical about this situation.

And already the conversation has begun about getting “back to normal.” We need an end date, some say, for this upheaval. The economy and our nerves demand a concrete plan. We want a definition in the face of the uncertainty.

But its only true name is “the present.” We can’t banish that with some illusory label or timetable. We can map a program that shows beginning, middle, and end in order to comfort ourselves. But the stubborn realities of this moment will persist. We can’t push time or speed up events.

It’s still here now. We have no other time or place to go, and no one to face but ourselves. We are not in control.

Sitting at my daughter’s desk, I watch morning throw its light high and then creep down the wall, and I ask, what I will make of myself today.

 

“Words in a Word”

The rules: Begin with a starter word containing 8 to 12 letters. Then you use any combination of the letters to make as many words as you can. You can only use each letter as many times in each new word as that letter appears in the starter word. Here’s an example:

delicate

deli                 cat                  tail                  date
dial                 cite                 tale                 late
deal               tea                  tile                  lee
detail             eat                  lead               eel
clad                lad                  tie                   dale
ideal              lit                     idle                 tad

If you’re so inclined, you might even come up with a poem or short bit of writing, using as many of your derivative words as you choose:

cat statue clad in lead
hides on the deli’s lee side
hidden from wind; a tad of
tea scent clings to the lad
sitting idle at the tile
counter, awaiting a date
who’s late

Today’s starter word: bewildered. Or come up with your own (remember, 8-12 letters). You can share your list and/or poem here or @mar_de_palabras on Twitter.

Hinge

“So is there a that and a this? Or Is there not a that and a this? Where that and this cease to be opposites, you’ll find the hinge of Tao. Keep that hinge at the center of things, and your movements are inexhaustible. Then yes this is whole and inexhaustible, and no that is whole and inexhaustible.”

Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters, Translated by David Hinton

Did you feel it?

The tectonic shift in attitudes. The new consensus that’s emerged, everyone suddenly flowing in one direction about all the most urgent issues of the day. The coming together all across the political and social and racial and economic and cultural bands of the spectrum.

The rising of a single voice. A single intention. At last.

Surely you felt it.

No?

Neither did I.

But you wouldn’t know it from the earnestness of some of the arguments I’ve entered.

I’ve churned through my points and marshaled my logic and evidence. I’ve parsed the supposed flaws and contradictions in my opponent’s position, looking for a place to pounce, as if the universe depended on it.

And the world’s situation has altered…not an ounce.

So when I woke this morning, talking to myself about how I could have should have made this point or that differently, I caught a glimpse of myself in my mental mirror, and suddenly I laughed.

Not at the seriousness of the situation we’re in, because that isn’t funny, not when I think for even a second about the consequences for people around the world. Not when I contemplate the ongoing suffering of millions—the threat to billions—because of the poor choices we humans have made. And that only speaks to the consequences for human beings. Add in the way other living things, and the earth itself, have been affected, and the picture is grim.

There’s nothing in this to laugh at.

Except me.

Because once again, in all this arguing, I place my ego at the center of all things. I have to be right, and demonstrate it to some other I don’t even know.

To save the world?

Or simply to validate my sense of myself?

I spin, a single being, on this small ball racing around a random sun hung in a vast dark sea of a universe.

And again and again and again, I forget that my purpose in this life is not to wrest power over the controls.

After a beautiful morning meditation yesterday, I promptly let myself be caught for the umpteenth time in the current of Solving Everything. And deep in that ego disease, I lost the threads of writing and moving my body and dwelling in the present that are the only paths to peace for me, and that help me respond with the compassionate words and actions that this world so deeply needs.

I fell asleep to my better self and woke to my ego.

Fortunately, I have this new day breaking, barely light as I write this. Fortunately, I have this new moment, where all it takes is a laugh to begin to set myself right.

Every moment offers the opportunity to share and act on what we believe about the world, but when I pursue some mode of control, when that takes over my intentions, time and time again, I lose myself. I grow tired. I drown.

This morning, I’m awake again. Let me stay that way. My ability to be me hinges on it.

 

“Words in a Word”
And now, today’s word play. The rules: Begin with a starter word containing 8 to 12 letters. Then you use any combination of the letters to make as many words as you can. You can only use each letter as many times in each new word as that letter appears in the starter word. Here’s an example:

delicate

deli                 cat                  tail                  date
dial                 cite                 tale                 late
deal               tea                  tile                  lee
detail             eat                  lead               eel
clad                lad                  tie                   dale
ideal              lit                     idle                 tad

If you’re so inclined, you might even come up with a poem or short bit of writing, using as many of your derivative words as you choose:

cat statue clad in lead
hides on the deli’s lee side
hidden from wind; a tad of
tea scent clings to the lad
sitting idle at the tile
counter, awaiting a date
who’s late

Today’s starter word: deliberate. Or come up with your own (remember, 8-12 letters). You can share your list and/or poem here or @mar_de_palabras on Twitter.

 

Answer carefully

My yesterday was difficult.

They’ve closed my children’s schools—the right move—and my son’s school had sent a message that students without their district-supplied iPads could pick them up so that they could continue their schoolwork at home. Since my son already had his, I that we were fine.

Until my partner called to say she’d heard otherwise. Now they were suggesting that students clean out their lockers since no one knows when or whether school will resume. I had half an hour before they closed. Annoyed and confused, I hurried to the school and helped my son retrieve his notebooks.

My daughter’s school had set specific time slots for families to come and retrieve each child’s iPad, assignments, and supplies. But earlier in the day, I received a recorded call encouraging families to come if they hadn’t already. Since our assigned time window hadn’t arrived, the message confused and annoyed me.

I went at the appointed time, frustrated and concerned at how closely some parents approached school staff. In my agitated state, I gave the staff person my son’s name rather than my daughter’s, further scrambling the situation. Eventually, I realized my error and retrieved my daughter’s material.

My day continued like this. I exorcised myself over minor issues with my children. When my partner returned home from work, I ranted about decisions at her work that I disagreed with, but over which she had no control. On line, I spewed frustration at the state of the world.

And all my actions accomplished…nothing.

I could blame this on the virus, on the time we’re spending inside, on our government’s poor choices, on all the things this epidemic underscores about our nation’s inequities, about the way we promote greed over community.

But my takeaway revolves more around me.

To put it plainly, I lost my shit because I focused on the inessential.

You see, I had no control over any of the circumstances that set me off. I couldn’t change the way the schools organized the day; I couldn’t stop my kids from doing the daily annoyances that kids do; I can’t remake the way my partner’s work operates; and I have no magic want to wave to change our country’s faults.

I don’t mean to say those things don’t matter. They do. They affect my life and those I love, and everyone else, and you.

But I’m not in charge of how the universe works; that’s way above my pay grade. What I can control is my response to it: How do I treat others? How do I spend my time and money? How do I express my values in my actions and words?

Some years ago, I read a book on meditation that suggested each reader come up with a four-word mantra, a brief way to focus our intentions for how we want to be in this world.

I made this one for myself: Answer each hour’s sanctity.

That is, seek and center and respond to what in front of me is sacred. Answer people and their needs and their humanity. Answer grief and sorrow. Answer honesty. Answer compassion. Answer joy.

Now, I’m no pollyanna. I have no idea which way the arc of history bends. I don’t know whether things will get better or worse. And I’m well aware that answering the sacred doesn’t always lead to peace, especially in a culture that seems intent on grinding the sacredness of nature and humanity into the dirt.

Sometimes answering the sacred means inviting, and sometimes it means fighting, win or lose.

Today, for me, it means returning to the meditation and exercise and writing that I lost sight of in yesterday’s preoccupation with my impotent anxiety. Today it means doing my part to keep my neighbor’s safe by maintaining healthy space between us. It means lavishing my children and my partner with all the patience and kindness I can muster, to help prepare them for the difficulties we all have to face together.

I wish for you that you find joyous ways to answer what’s sacred for you too.

 

“Words in a Word”
And now, today’s word play. The rules: Begin with a starter word containing 8 to 12 letters. Then you use any combination of the letters to make as many words as you can. You can only use each letter as many times in each new word as that letter appears in the starter word. Here’s an example:

delicate

deli                 cat                  tail                  date
dial                 cite                 tale                 late
deal               tea                  tile                  lee
detail             eat                  lead               eel
clad                lad                  tie                   dale
ideal              lit                     idle                 tad

If you’re so inclined, you might even come up with a poem or short bit of writing, using as many of your derivative words as you choose:

cat statue clad in lead
hides on the deli’s lee side
hidden from wind; a tad of
tea scent clings to the lad
sitting idle at the tile
counter, awaiting a date
who’s late

Today’s starter word: audacity. Or come up with your own (remember, 8-12 letters). You can share your list and/or poem here or @mar_de_palabras on Twitter.

Fever Dreams

My anxiety climbs in strange ways.

For example, during everything that’s happened so far with the Coronavirus, and despite the fact that I’m in my late 50s, I’ve never really feared for myself, at least not that I’ve been consciously aware of.

My disquiet expresses itself mainly at the micro level. When I’m anxious, I obsess much more about the break-up of my family or my relationships with my siblings or the limited level of my social life–or even about the state of my writing–than I do about any impending apocalypse. But that doesn’t mean those closer interactions are actually causing my distress.

This occurs, I think, because growing up, the greatest sources of turmoil were always the ones closest to me: my parents’ fraught relationship, the long-running cover and overt warfare among my brothers and me, the drama of schoolyard frenemyships and unrequited adolescent crushes. Oh, I was always interested in the wider world, and arguing politics, television, films, music, and ideas was very much the family sport.

But the reality of my lack of control over the world has always been easier for me to accept when applied to the far away part of life than the close in. (That also probably explains my propensity for depression.)

So when I wake up multiple times in the night, when I go what I call “sleepless stupid” and start to ask myself how much my partner really loves me and how much she keeps me around to avoid the inconveniences of the alternative, and when I start to argue with myself that she and my children might be justified in that attitude, eventually I suspect that something larger might be going on.

Last night was such a night.

I found myself in front of the TV at 2 a.m. trying to decide whether Netflix or Amazon or the Lifetime Movie Network offered the best chance for distraction. I returned to bed at 3 or 3:30, and still only drifted in and out of sleep a bit. And all the while, my shortcomings chased themselves around and around in my head.

And for a good chunk of today, I’ve felt restless and on edge.

I have a perfectly normal temperature, but I’ve been feverish all the same. Grasping for something familiar to hold onto, even if it just amounts to reading to myself my various flaws. It’s so much easier to be angry and judgmental about the elements of life that float within my small sphere than to face the scale of how this might go wrong.

This afternoon and tonight, I’ll try to meditate and exercise my disequilibrium down to manageable size and keep myself to the day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute.

I wish you better luck than I’ve been having, but if you have the misfortune to be in much the same place, try to remember to be kind to yourself. I’ve come to believe that fear is really nothing to be afraid of; it’s what I do with it that matters most. Tonight, I’m going to try to live with mine a while.

 

“Words in a Word”

And now for today’s word play. To review the rules: Begin with a starter word containing 8 to 12 letters. Then you use any combination of the letters to make many words as you can. You can only use each letter as many times in each new word as that letter appears in the starter word. Here’s an example:

delicate

deli                 cat                  tail                  date
dial                 cite                 tale                 late
deal               tea                  tile                  lee
detail             eat                  lead               eel
clad                lad                  tie                   dale
ideal              lit                     idle                 tad

If you’re so inclined, you might even come up with a poem or short bit of writing, using as many of your derivative words as you choose:

cat statue clad in lead
hides on the deli’s lee side
hidden from wind; a tad of
tea scent clings to the lad
sitting idle at the tile
counter, awaiting a date
who’s late

Today’s starter word: absolute. Or come up with your own (remember, 8-12 letters). You can share your list and/or poem here or @mar_de_palabras on Twitter.

 

Speak But the Word…

It was dark when awoke, a little after 5 a.m., my partner and my children all asleep. It’s part of my routine to rise early so I can write a while in peace, before the day begins to hurry me along.

Of course, today I have nowhere to go. The daycare where I work has closed its doors for now, as have the schools my young children attend. So I am home with them trying to find ways to pass the hours that we know will stretch into weeks at least.

Yesterday gave us bright sunshine; today offers only a damp, gray chill.

No one we know is showing any symptoms. To all appearances here, nothing has changed, but we know better. Yesterday, a friend and her young daughter dropped by to deliver Girl Scout cookies. It took an act of deliberate will on my part not to approach for a hug, as we would have done normally. And that was when I began to understand both emotionally and physically how difficult this is going to be.

Later in the day, my daughter’s best friend from a few houses down the block wanted to play, as they do every day when they get the chance, at one house or another, giggling behind the bedroom door, playing with Barbie’s or American Girl dolls, stringing beads on elastic bands to make necklaces and bracelets.

We and her parents compromised, allowing them to play together so long as they stayed outside and maintained some distance. But I know that to keep all of us safe, that’s probably going to have to end. Already when two of my son’s friends came to play with him, we turned them away.

I feel the powerful impulse to cling to a veneer of normality, to keep living our lives as if there’s no threat (“No one’s showing symptoms yet…”), when we know that if we wait to change until someone’s sick, it will be too late, the disease too strong to stop.

So as I sat this morning, surrounded by dark in the circle of lamplight, I knew that I needed to do something different with myself. I think I’ve never needed words more than I’m going to need them in the coming weeks. Words directed at myself. Words exchanged among my partner and children, exchanged with the others we love and care about, friends and family near and far.

We have to keep our bodies at a distance, but we have words to connect us, and we have technologies to send them to one another across these distances we have to construct. They can communicate what, for an unknown interval of time, our bodies can’t. We need to make this a time for kind words that can bind us together. It may be at this moment that only words can salvage our connections, our sanity, and our lives.

We need, out of physical solitude, to speak to one another, and with those words to soothe each other’s souls. I know I need that.

So I’m sending out these words to you, as I hope to do each day we remain home bound. I hope they help you. Take care. Stay safe.

“Words in a Word”
I’m a writer and a former writing teacher, so I thought I’d also offer you another kind of word diversion. I call it Words in a Word. You begin with a starter word containing 8 to 12 letters. Then you use any combination of the letters to make many words as you can. You can only use each letter as many times in each new word as that letter appears in the starter word. Here’s an example:

delicate

deli                 cat                  tail                  date
dial                 cite                 tale                 late
deal               tea                  tile                  lee
detail             eat                  lead               eel
clad                lad                  tie                   dale
ideal              lit                     idle                 tad

If you’re so inclined, you might even come up with a poem or short bit of writing, using as many of your derivative words as you choose:

cat statue clad in lead
hides on the deli’s lee side
hidden from wind; a tad of
tea scent clings to the lad
sitting idle at the tile
counter, awaiting a date
who’s late

You can use today’s starter word: perspective. Or come up with your own (remember, 8-12 letters). You can share your list and/or poem here or @mar_de_palabras on Twitter.