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Missoula

It feels like that morning in Missoula.

We’d driven from Seattle with the incessant thump of the U-Haul.

Hannah, still a puppy, nestled against me and awoke to the sight of cows —

Big, unwieldy animals that did not fit her still narrow universe

And so she peed right there in my lap.

It was dark when we pulled into the little house of your college friend,

The windows’ eyes of the rustic rental opened brightly against the plum black sky.

We knew there were mountains all around, but their quiet was complete.

Alexis made us a Greek pasta that was something like spaetzle but not quite —

Buttery and homey, the little rectangles probably shipped to her from her parents in New York City.

In the morning, when we climbed out of our bags into the September day, the sun misled us.

Warm it declared, but the ground had a thin dusting of snow and our breaths, when we stepped outside with Hannah, were full bodied-visible.

We were driving our late-20 selves to Iowa:  me returning home after a decade on the west coast,

You taking a chance on the middle of the country, a mystery spot on the map.

Once we arrived in Iowa, there would still be lingering heat and humidity, mosquitos and the final green tomatoes.

But here in Missoula, it was already that kind of crisp that makes you smile and wince all at once —

So gorgeous golden in the moment, yet saturated with the inevitable darkness to come.

What if we’d stayed right there? I sometimes wonder. Stayed in that crispy, mountain town, made a home among strangers. Raised Hannah on hikes and deer antlers.

I can see the veins and arteries of that existence spreading out, surprises and repetitions among them. We still come apart, it seems inevitable. But would there have been kids? Would there have been two of them? What we each be doing for work?

So many paths that lead from these hearts, the heart sensitive to that dusting of snow, those darkened mountains. The heart empathizing with the dog who peed at the sight of the cows. The heart that knows so much more than our silly brains give it credit for.

My heart, I now see more than two decades later, was ready to stay in Missoula.

 

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stardust

And so they pray for me.

Leap of faith – foolhardy or wise.

And so they pray,

For nine days, five men across the world

Will pray. For me.

And I will receive. Whatever I can.

Open into heart and roots, into limbs and womb

Receive and surrender to whatever this ineffable

Spirit carried across oceans and through stardust may bring.

And so they pray for me.

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hard sleep

“I met a young woman whose body was burning.” – Bob Dylan

 

This morning as we made eggs and packed lunches, my kids were talking about the storm – how it woke them up, that they had to close windows and comfort the dog. The lightening was so bright. The rain so hard.

I heard none of it.

My sleep lately has either been difficult to come by or the kind of hard, deep slumber that feels drugged. The kind of sleep in which I’m so caught in the undertow of the unconscious — my dreams full of patterns and faces, a gondola and a hotel on a mountain, a French restaurant and steaming, glacial pools.

I sense that I am rebuilding, recouping energy. Toward something Next.

A friend texted this morning that he’ll soon be in town to start rehearsals for a musical. But wait, I wrote back, I thought you’d lost your voice? After four months of its total disappearance and the doctors scratching their heads it came back – resurfaced in full, not uttering a word of explanation, just ready to sing forth.

My sleep feels the same. Pushing me down into this deep rest, forcing me to abide, rebuilding cells, soothing my system, preparing me to sing forth. Just wait, it whispers. Just wait. It’s coming.

 

{My sleep feels akin to Dylan’s classic Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall — and especially this amazing performance by Patti Smith: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4&v=941PHEJHCwU}

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the invisible work of holding space

“The work of holding space and deep listening is largely unseen and definitely uncompensated in our culture.” – leader of a storytelling workshop 

Here is the work at which I excel:  Organizing events that bring people together, often in unexpected ways; creating safe space for inner listening through movement; writing about my life in a way that listens deeply to my own experience and, I hope, allows others to hear/see themselves anew; challenging the status quo not through shouting but from the creative and quieter margins.

Try to put these things on a resume. They too often sound contrived or “soft” compared to the square-jawed, action-driven items that are supposed to line such a document. When I updated my resume a few years ago, a friend who was reviewing it insisted that I add an objective. After acquiescing to what felt like a silly game, I wrote one that included the phrase “to hold space.” My friend contended that no one would know what that meant. I kept it in, stubbornly sticking to my values.

What does it mean to hold space? According to one facilitator who I admire, Heather Plett, “It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.”

I do not want to belittle the patience and presence that holding space entails, nor the very real training that is offered to help people become better at this work. However, I do believe that women hold space for our culture all of the time without being celebrated or appreciated for it. Whether it is sitting with dying parents or sick children, whether it is looking out for colleagues in times of emotional distress or helping organizations through rocky segues, women do this work daily and weekly without reward or recognition.

Much like when a man pushes a stroller and people suddenly hold doors open for him, as opposed to not even seeing the woman with the stroller and letting the door close just a second too soon, men who hold space are much ballyhooed. And even those who are kind and well-intentioned, tend to revel–probably unconsciously so–in being the good guy and of having discovered a kind of work that seems exotic to them.

Once, when I had a group for dinner that included multiple women who subtly, gracefully hold space in their communities, who took up most of the energy and conversational time? It was two men who do this kind of work in a much more public way, men who get recognized via newspaper articles and awards for their work. These are men who are indeed doing good work, and work that I appreciate, but who are doing it with a sort of public panache that few women I know seem to require or build into the task.

Another example came from a public artist whose talk I just attended. He was kind and clearly brilliant, and yet so much of what he’s been rewarded for–connecting communities, creating shared meals, listening–felt like the work that women do all of the time. Gosh, I kept thinking to myself, I’ve done that; I could do that. I felt like some baffled, uncouth parent seeing a Pollack for the first time and claiming their first grader could do the same. And yet truly, I know a lot of women who do work similar to this artist at a totally unsung level.

What that workshop leader said about listening and holding space not being compensated in our culture struck me in the moment as exceedingly, annoyingly true. I wrote it in my notebook and underlined it and circled it! Weeks later as I sit with it, I wonder if the truer statement might be that this work is not compensated for women.

Which makes me wonder about the way we talk about work — how we organize a resume or CV and the principles that underly it. How we present our skills–or perhaps we could call them gifts, especially those that can’t be sliced and diced by consumer culture.

The next time you’re in a position to create a space for others that provides an open-hearted, safe opportunity for them to see themselves and/or their community afresh, wonder if it’s something that a price can be put on. Wonder what it would be like if no one did this work. Wonder what families and neighborhoods, schools and entire towns would be like without the people who do this work for little to nothing.

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Highway 1 Sutra

I carry a needle as I drive down the coast

Plunging it into places on that map that have pierced me

Pulling it up from the earth with specks of blood,

Remnants of memory that echo back my becoming.

 

The headlands where I sat just a year ago

Recommitting to an us that was already more illusory than I knew.

The town at the elbow of river and ocean

A place where we’d stopped many times for coffee and a view.

 

The restaurant on the side of that most magical of roads

Where I’d once asked a man why I should stay with him

And he’d paused much too long before giving an answer

Pale, simplistic, from the mind, not the heart.

 

The tree, my talisman, its crown visible as the path turns

Its roots reaching deep through the sandy mantle

Toward the sea and her endless arrival and departure

My alter for releasing and receiving, embraced by the damp fog.

 

The tree, where I’d brought my daughter

And the surrounding land and water that provided rich offerings,

Proving to the girl-woman’s heart the magnificence of the world:

Elk, elephant seal, fox, coyote, wolf, seals, and dolphins.

 

At dusk, driving past the beach where we married.

The Buddha and the Pacific were our witnesses,

Blindfolded Sea Scouts engaged in a practice of trust on the cliff above us,

Our beautiful, ephemeral words stitched only into our hearts.

 

Finally, enveloped in heavy clouds and darkness: The bridge.

Its russet arches lost to the unknown murky charcoal night

Its base planted deep into the insurmountable cold bay

Sentry between endless mystery and human sense making.

 

I cross her in silence

I cross her alone

I cross her toward home

As the ghosts trail behind by translucent threads.

 

 

 

 

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Calafia

Do I choose to live somewhere I wildly love — where I love the wild — where I feel I belong on a cellular level? Or do I live in a place where I am held by people and stories — where my children and I were born in the same hospital and where my father is buried? Do any of us live in our hearts and take our homes with us, or do our homes become a place around which to build our hearts? Is it the new story of the world is our home and we can go anywhere, or attachment to the old story of roots and generations?

I heard a talk the other day in which the teacher counseled: “Do not live in a foreign land.”  Her “foreign land” was among people who do not nourish you, among habits and ways of being that are not in line with your essential nature. I cannot decipher which is the foreign land — the place for which I long or the place I’ve come to know so intimately. Can the intimate actually be the foreign, disguised by our habits which make us blind to all of the ways it doesn’t fit us, while the seemingly unknown holds our true home?

When I was a kid, it never occurred to me that any place other than Iowa could be home. I spent a summer in Maine in college and became smitten by her rocky shores and endless cool green days, but still it wasn’t home. That Maine accent also sounded a million miles away from familiar, and lobsters, though delicious, were exotic as all get out. I lived in Seattle for nearly a decade and never stopped ceased longing for lightning and fireflies. The skyline became more familiar on every return drive back from the airport, unfolding on the ribbon of the I-5. “Home?” I’d ask myself. “Yes, a little.” But always a little. Never a lot.

Though I’ve adored many places I’ve traveled to–Ireland, breathtaking; London, natty; New York, lively–it was Provence where I had a sense of recognition, that sort of past-life ping of yearning. It was something about the land.

It’s that same undulating, full of growing things, no straight lines, small towns and mountains with the ocean just over there that draws me to California. So much so that every time I arrive, I cry. Every time I arrive, I am back in some alignment with self.  Every time I arrive, I count the hours to when I’ll have to leave.

As though madly gone for a lover who is down on her luck, I love this complicated place. California is on fire. She is bursting with one in eight Americans. She is in threat of losing her beautiful coastlines. She awaits to tremble and shake and break open, the very plates underneath here pulling apart. She is out of water. And yes, she is costly; a lover who demands unthinkable riches from anyone who danes to stay.

It makes sense that California, the word itself, is the imagined kingdom of a novelist. Queen Calafia was a creation of a popular 16th-century Spanish writer named Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo. “Know, that on the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise,” he wrote, “and it is peopled by black women, without any man among them, for they live in the manner of Amazons.”  Although she fights, the Christians and the men win the battle for the queen’s heart and sovereignty. She succumbs.  I’d say Queen Calafia is overdue for a Marvel-esque remake in which she never loses her lush island, never gives her heart away, never bows to the US government.

I wonder if Calafia is selling legal weed in Oakland. Or running an Airbnb in Sebastapol. Maybe she waits tables at a diner outside of Death Valley, or repairs the roads of the fabled Highway 1. Calafia picks grapes in the Russian River Valley and fights fires in Escondido. She’s a barista in Davis and a vet tech in Modesto. She sleeps in Los Angeles and wakes up in Eureka. Calafia spreads herself from north to south — pointing toward Canada and dipping her toes into Mexico — while always cradling Mother Pacific in one arm and the Sierras in the other.

Her kingdom is indeed magical, a direct line to something beyond. While hiking in Big Sur in my twenties, the Buddha, who has never come to me before or since, tapped me on the shoulder and told me I was home. I’ve never forgotten the scent of bay laurels that intoxicated me in that moment. Two decades later at Muir Beach, I was married in front of a stone Buddha, an ethereal wise witness, and the ocean. Stay, I heard. A few years later, standing on a cliff over the Pacific, I suddenly received words that I am still pondering: Grace, Grace, grace, make me a vessel. She is magic.

Under her thrall, I search room-for-rent ads north of the Bay (because a house in California is a foolish dream). I listen to the local news while I make my coffee in the morning and sigh over the traffic and the fires. I imagine jobs, humble and out of the way jobs, like those of Calafia herself. Mostly, I think about the conundrum of home, a puzzle I may never put together.

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hyssop

“Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.” – Psalm 51

The storm forced the hyssop to the ground. The gangly plant was already exploding beyond its too prim spot, blocking the stairs, encroaching on the sidewalk. The bees were all over it, hovering and humming with pleasure.

I’d meant to cut it down last week but couldn’t bring myself to do it — the human wrecking ball to the vibrating creatures’ pollen palace. But after the storm, there was no choice. I took scissors to the thick stalks and cut. Cut. Cut. Down to the nub. The nub that I’ll move next spring to a place where it can more amply spread and thrive. The nub that I sense, I hope, is resilient.

The words reverberate in my heart: Cut. Nub. Storm. Spring. Thrive. Resilient. After a break, everything seems familiar. Everything is a mirror. Even a hyssop plant at the end of its season. It all echoes in my heart.

My heart:  A palace of chalk, so breakable.

My heart: A palace of lead, so dull.

My heart: A palace of sticky residue, too much.

The bees are gone; their landlord kicked them out. The scissors are back in their drawer next to the knives. And I wait for winter.