Posts tagged: everyday life
June 5, 2013

The Poetry of the Everyday

In my high school sophomore English class, our desks were separated along the two long sides of the room facing each other, half of us with our backs to windows that looked out into a courtyard.  A walkway passed between the desks, and it was here one morning after the second bell rang at 7:35, that my teacher stood and read What the Living Do by Marie Howe. Before the last lines I was in my seat, facing two different boys I had crushes on, crying before 8AM.

That was seventeen years ago. How little we change, really. I thought of this recently when I climbed onto the brown leather seat of my bike and was filled with the same thrill I had on the sidewalks of Drexel Drive, streamers flying from my handle bars. We love what we love, and what we hold dear we hold dear, from the first moment on and on.

And so it is with Marie Howe. Each Friday, I have a long stretch of rote, yet time-consuming tasks to accomplish at work. I listen to On Being each week while I go through them. And guess who was on recently, speaking in a voice I never imagined would be so round and robust. She read her poems, and I was back in moment just like that one in 1996, breath caught in my throat like so much rushing life. Listen to it.

I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world
would be the space my brother’s body made. He was
a little taller than me: a young man
but grown, himself by then,
done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet,
rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold
and running water.
This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.

This is why I love On Being so much, and why, when I am programming modules on a webpage while I listen, it is an especially welcome distraction. I imagine Krista Tippett sitting in a dark studio with her guest, and Minnesota’s bright snow-sun or mosquitoes outside the room. There they talk about what we don’t always have time or energy or even the language to ask when we’re meeting someone for a coffee. What’s at the heart of meaning in your life? How do you create beauty and change and delight?

Or: Folding sheets, rinsing glasses, mustard sandwiches. What makes a thing suffused with so much more than it is? Why does it matter so much?

Later in the talk, Marie explains an assignment she gives her writing students. They must write ten observations. No metaphors, no interpretation, just life as it is.

It’s very hard for them. Tell me what you saw this morning, like in two lines. I saw a water glass on a brown tablecloth, and the light came through it in three places. No metaphor. But to resist metaphor is very difficult because you have to actually endure the thing itself, which hurts us for some reason. We want to say it was like this, it was like that, we want to look away. And then they say, well there’s nothing important enough, and that’s the whole thing. The this, whatever it is.

Weeks later, everything’s changed.

The fourth week or so, they come in and clinkety, clank, clank, clank, onto the table pours all this stuff, and it so thrilling. I mean it is thrilling. Everybody can feel it. Everyone is just like wow, you know. The slice of apple, and then that gleam of the knife, and the sound of the trashcan closing, and the maple tree outside, and the blue jay. I mean it almost comes clanking into the room. And it just, it’s just amazing, you know […] On the fifth or sixth week, I say OK, use metaphors. And they don’t want to. They don’t know how. Why would I? Why would I compare that to anything when it’s itself?

Why are the details of our world so important? Why do I love Marie Howe’s poetry, and care so much about the table set with low candles and sweet williams in jam jars, the begonias I planted  on Mother’s Day, and the streaks of mud still on my calf two days later? January’s soft-bright winter light, that the coffee is hot in its little white cup, and that the cherry trees down the block erupted in ruffles of prom dress pink and a few weeks ago turned into a thrash of green leaves just as suddenly.

Here’s the best I’ve come up: our lives are speeding forward on a timeline we may or may not find agreeable. Either way, there will never be a moment just like this one. Just as soon as we notice the light hitting the water glass in three places, we’ll be off: onto the late train, the to do list, the minutes on the clock. But if we can first just notice that thing, whatever little reality it is, the world around us becomes more animated and our connection to it moored there for a moment. Clinkety clank clank clank. Is that grace? I don’t know. Whatever it is, when I notice it, I feel alive from hair to heel.

Which brings me to this, as close to gentle instruction as I can come. I was returning home to Brooklyn after planting those begonias in a shady spot in front of my mom’s porch. We were saying goodbye in the dark cool of the TV room. “Don’t take anything for granted,” she told me as we hugged, and I answered into her shoulder, “That’s hard.” And she said, “Enjoy. It’s the same thing, isn’t it?”

May 3, 2013

A Body as Full as a Canvas Sail

After my birthday, I spent a sunny weekend at my mom and step-dad’s that felt like a super dose of fun. I held my niece upside down, we buzzed our lips back and forth and played a game where I touched her on the nose and said, “boop!”, all of which made her break into a smile that revealed all seven of her tiny teeth. I had a birthday dinner with my family. My sister decorated the porch with branches of plum, magnolia, and forsythia blossoms cut from the yard. Pink, orange, and yellow tissue paper spheres hung from a string of red wooden beads pilfered from a box of Christmas decorations, and we ate barbecue catered by a charming pit master from the market nearby. It was the best potato salad I’d had in my life, and we sat outside drinking daiquiris until a thunderstorm rolled in long after it had gotten dark. On Saturday there was coffee, a long walk, and digging in the dirt with my mom. We made a new compost pile, and I carried the raised beds to their new home. When I lifted the short black walls out of the dirt, damp soil and worms clung to the sides, and I hoisted them over my shoulder. And while it sounds too convenient to be true, there are wild violets blooming in the yard and between the patio stones, and none of us remember them being there last year. I dug some up with a trowel and patted them down into the wet earth near the entrance of the vegetable garden, hoping they’ll spread. This is not an adventure tale, just the joy-filled details of a nine-month old, the world in bloom, being outside with people you love. But at the end of the weekend, as we rode the bus back into concrete midtown, I felt like sunshine was pouring out of my skin.

Sometimes I bemoan that my life in New York can feel like a Woody Allen movie, everyone sitting in restaurants talking about their feelings. But when I am able to really do––to be active and present in a fun physical process––it’s as replenishing as good night’s sleep or emerging back into the world after a spa afternoon. Moving raised beds, rearranging piles of squirmy worm-filled earth, and tucking demure, winking indigo blooms into a new spot of earth made me feel like my best self again.

What role does doing play in your life? It’s an interesting question for reflective, emotional people, and an especially tough one for anyone who battles the blues. Getting going can be the toughest part of any day. Spring seems to have breathed enough life into my bones so that my body feels full as a canvas sail. Doing feels natural and good, so that whether I’m pedaling my bike uphill, playing peek-a-boo, or sorting through bunches of spinach at the greenmarket, I feel alive, engaged, and happy. It could be considered like flow, possibly, but while flow can happen while writing or painting, mindful doing feels best to me when there’s some kind of movement.

One of my friends has a fear of not doing, and so adopted a challenge as a way to get over it. Every day, she has to do something she’s never done before. You can imagine how difficult this would be. When I last saw her she had a notebook open under the window with a list of numbers running down the left-hand column, one for each day of the month. There were more new daily doings next to numbers than not. It was not only impressive but inspiring.

I prize my usual Monday nights because I have no appointments. It’s my night to go to the gym and make a proper dinner without feeling harried and hurried. But this past Monday, I did something quite goofy and frivolous for the first time. I stepped off the F train at West 4th street after 7pm and it was still light outside. Walking west toward the water, the brightly-lit sex shops and karaoke bars gave way to narrow, leafier streets, with jewelry boutiques and darker, more den-like sex shops. The sidewalks were filled with women in their workout clothes and tiny little dogs, and under the marquee of a theater, people stood in small groups wrapped in dark wool coats and sweaters waiting for a performance. It was a part of New York at a time of day that is not part of my usual daily doings. It felt like village life in all those period BBC dramas I love, filled with characters and daily dramas in one small pocket of the world unlike any other. I felt curious and alive and nervous. I was on my way to my first tap dancing class.

I signed in on the second floor of a windowless studio on Christopher Street, and rifled through a tub of tap shoes marked “7-8 1/2” on the outside. I found a shoe that fit, and then couldn’t find its pair, so resorted to wearing two different shoes. I fit right in. We were a collection of oddballs, overly loud theater kids who had grown up into overly loud middle-aged women, an elderly woman, stooped and nervous, and a young girl in her twenties dressed for her first session of Absolute Beginners Tap like she was auditioning for Flashdance. I rather admired her chutzpah.

Inside our little studio, we stood in front of a mirror and tapped our toes and heels against a scuffed wood floor. Then, in time to the slowest jazz you’ve ever heard, tried for simple combinations of shuffles and ball changes the long way across the room. We wound up against the opposite wall a crowd of exasperation and laughter. It was pure delight.

Is this spring fever, this affection for doing? The longing to get out of our heads and homes and into your bodies? Whatever’s brought it on, it’s a  welcome antidote to the hours our modern life requires spent in front of a computer, typing out characters and numbers and rearranging widgets. This is real movement, and doing, to the time of slow jazz and birdsong on a stage of sun and damp, blooming earth.

What will be your bit of frivolity and delight and doing?

April 5, 2013

Easing into Spring

“May” by 5ftinf

At the vernal equinox, I stayed with a dearest friend in two bright rooms in the rear of a bungalow in Los Angeles. The setting felt like a tropical version of The Secret Garden: just off the street, in the middle of a vibrant neighborhood, was an L-shaped garden curling around the side of her house, so that from every window and through the screen door the view was close, fragrant, and green. I kept asking her to say the name of each plant, just so I could hear the extravagant words again. Kalanchoe. Bougainvillea. Ranunculus. Honeysuckle and jasmine perfumed the air like a grande dame, and riotous pink flowers climbed over head. Waxy, dark green succulents sat in orange clay pots along the brick walkway. I’m not one to talk about the energy of a physical place, but looking out her windows in the morning at all that lush growth, I felt something special there.

We went on a couple of hikes. The view was obscured by fog one day as we scrambled up a steep, narrow path my friend had never wanted to take alone. The way down was long and dusty, our sneakers slipping on the too-smooth surface. At one point I looked up from my shoes to see how much further we had to go. It was a long way and I groaned and cursed. Don’t look, my friend said. And then she said something meant as a practical piece of advice to keep me from skidding on my ass and knocking her down in the process, but which sounds really cheesy and instructive in this context. It was something along the lines of keeping my eyes on the next step.

We sat later in her garden with frozen pineapple vodka drinks (hello, California!), and  I thought again of that passage from Bird by Bird I had just excerpted recently on the blog:

E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.

I have been exhausting myself with thinking lately. If I see another article about 10 ways to live your passion or 5 steps to embracing abundance, or if I make another list of what makes me feel most alive, or write a mission statement, or craft a 5-year plan, I might just pack it up. This happens sometimes. I’m comfortable in my inner world, but sometimes it starts to get a little claustrophobic in here. It is too plush and confined, with way too many thoughts and feelings not acted upon. It’s like a Victorian drawing room.

And so it is spring! What a perfect time to get out of thinking and into doing! Only not so much. An encouraging April horoscope had me frozen in my tracks. Wait, what new path am I supposed to be forging? I am (and you, too, Aries sisters!), apparently, unstoppable during our “cosmic birthday” April 10. But for what purpose? Circulate, put it out into the universe, make those dreams manifest! I can’t take the pressure. That, too, feels exhausting.

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure I can think myself out of every problem. Lists are helpful to a point, but I keep forgetting the two bits that come after brainstorming: surrendering (full stop here to really think about that one) and putting one foot in front of the other. I get stuck in a giant, swirling whirlpool of ideas and plots about how to scale the mountain ahead of me, when what I need to do is close the notebook, and feel my way. Put one foot in front of the other.

On Tuesday night, another friend told me about the Taoist concept of wu wei, which she described as the action of non-action. It’s not doing nothing like a purposeless layabout; it’s “the cultivation of a state of being in which our actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the ebb and flow of the elemental cycles of the natural world. It is a kind of ‘going with the flow’ that is characterized by great ease and awake-ness, in which––without even trying––we’re able to respond perfectly to whatever situations arise.”

I think this concept is hard for a lot of us. We are goal-oriented doers, achievers, and list-makers. If I gave all that up, how would I get anywhere? Tara Brach’s recent podcast on self-compassion broke this same wall down in such a startling way, I couldn’t embrace the basic idea. What would it mean to be OK just as we are? What the hell would happen if we gave up all the busyness of improving ourselves and our lives? I mean, honestly: can you even imagine? I’m afraid that releasing a vise grip of what looks like control will plunge me into complacency. But complacency is a far cry from “effortless alignment” or “great ease and awake-ness.”

I don’t have answers, but I hope asking the questions counts for something. I do know that perhaps more than ever, this spring feels like an opening. Not to leading with intellectual force, but taking a cue from subtler models, like the neighborhood crocuses who had a false start in mild January and are back for good this time. We just have to hold out hope for how natural the process of blooming really is.

March 14, 2013

Keeping It Simple

In the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a book about Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda that had a bit of advice that’s stuck with me: the more complicated life is, the simpler your meals should be. It was such a lovely reminder that even when much of life feels out of our control, there are small ways we can take back the reins each day.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of simplicity lately. There are scores and scores of great blogs devoted to it (and its cousin minimalism), and even still, I don’t have a clear sense of what it would actually look or feel like in my life. How to live more simply came up when chatting with a friend recently, and it felt as mysterious and out of reach to both of us as a nighttime ride on Falcor. We both knew we wanted it, but we didn’t know how to go about introducing more of it into our lives.

When I asked my mom recently what she thought a simple life looked like and how I could create more of it, she encouraged me to think about the roles I wanted to play in my life. It flies in the face of what Eckhart Tolle writes about, but I think it’s kind of a clever, side-door way of getting at the heart of the question. What do you want to occupy the most space in your life? Artist, friend, mother, breadwinner, athlete, advocate, leader? You can keep your life simple, she suggested, by keeping those primary roles top of mind in the choices you make each day.

What would a simpler life look like to you? This is not a rhetorical question. Because while I feel drawn to the concept, I also feel unsure of what its real-life application looks like in a busy, messy, full, and super-connected world. I’m still working it out myself, but a simple life to me is tidy and organized, lived within my means, and low-stress. I have stream-lined systems that provide ready answers to what to wear and what to make for dinner. I have a regular routine, with time carved out for creativity and exercise, weekends filled with friends, family and nature. A simple life also has to have some whimsy and bouts of adventurous fun, or else it may start to feel too spartan. And that wouldn’t do.

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