within the discomfort

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I’m sitting in the sukkah on our back deck. Poles of PVC tubing hold up three walls of plastic tarps, while the fourth side of the square structure remains open. The “roof” is wooden lattice, we didn’t get around to covering it with fallen branches from the trees in the woods across the street before it started raining. The rain stopped yesterday but it still smells wet, clean and fragrant. And it’s still humid from the hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico that caused devastation in Nicaragua but was only a storm by the time it reached northern Georgia.

The sukkah reminds me of when I first went to the Burning Man festival, where friends and I constructed a geodesic dome – also from PVC – covered by a translucent white parachute. I can’t remember how many rolls of duct tape it took to put that thing together so that it created some semblance of shelter and shade from the hot desert sun. But I do remember the massive high desert dust storm that blew off the parachute and almost blew away the structure itself and everything that was inside while we kept cover inside our cars.

Everything is temporary.

So striking – and humbling – when you are in the middle of a vast empty desert, in a temporary “city” that only exists for a week. This was back when very few people came to the festival in RVs and most people slept in tents or domes like ours.

That’s one of the lessons of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, one of the reasons we build this “temporary dwelling” and spend time within it each fall. We’re also supposed to invite people into the sukkah, including the spirits of our ancestors.

Everything is temporary.

I feel incredibly uncomfortable right now. Last night I couldn’t fall asleep, my body was restless, my skin felt itchy and dry, my belly rumbled, my mind swam with unsettledness, and I was annoyed that I was so tired but still awake.

My beloved California – where I grew up, where I come from – is burning and I am so far away. One calamity follows another right now, before we are able to catch our breath, before there is time to recover. No time to heal, no space to hope.

Everything is temporary.

I think about all of the people in the world for whom this is their always. The constant worry about where their next meal will come from. The loss of babies from malnutrition. The temporariness of homes and jobs when there is income insecurity or no jobs at all. The fragility of health. Fear of violence. And even the ability to summon up hope for something better, perhaps, one day.

Somehow the discomfort feels like my responsibility right now, like this dwelling I need to sit in and stay connected with. Especially as someone whose actual home is intact, whose family is safe and well, whose pantry is full, whose job is secure, whose car runs well, whose children get to go to school, whose skin is white.

Are most of us feeling this right now, or are there people, maybe entire communities out there that remain untouched, that don’t feel troubled, that are not concerned? Is it business as usual for anyone, or is this now our new business as usual? Is there anyone who doesn’t feel like we have fallen into an irreversible dystopia fit for fiction? Because I’ve read a lot of those books and it doesn’t feel as though we’re headed there, it actually feels like we may well have arrived. Dystopian fiction is written as a warning. What we need now are prescriptions…

for resolution

for answers

for unity

for justice

for healing.

Please tell me that everything – even our collective discomfort and all of this pain and destruction – is temporary.

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capacity & tears

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“Well some say life will beat you down
Break your heart, steal your crown…”

~ Tom Petty (1950-2017)

I cried at my desk today. The tears fell quietly as I was reading…

About Las Vegas.

Puerto Rico.

The Virgin Islands.

Mexico.

Houston.

Florida.

West Coast wildfires.

About the genocide against the Rohingya people in Mianmar.

The violence inflicted on innocent people by Spanish police during Catalonia’s elections for independence.

The relentless disease of racism in our country.

The brutality and militarization of American police.

The mass incarceration of black and brown people on American soil.

About our national addiction to the right to bear arms over the right to live free from the fear of violence.

The destruction of the EPA because who cares about climate change when there’s money to be made.

Last night I cried into my daughter’s belly as we listened to Tom Petty, who may have, in that moment, been breathing his final breaths. I remembered details of when I’d seen him in concert in 2009, on one of the most beautiful spring nights I have ever experienced, watching the most gorgeous sunset over the San Francisco Bay. Quite possibly the most incredible live performer I have ever seen and heard.

Last night it felt as if all of the rock stars of my childhood and teen years in the 1970s and 1980s were being taken away, one at a time. Last night I felt every single one of my years, hyper aware that when you’re in your forties, the people around you start to die more steadily. Should I be getting used to this by now?

Today I learned that a childhood friend had died of cancer in the past year. That was the piece that got me in that deepest place in my gut, and then the tears fell more quickly, less gently.

A dear friend recently told me that she thinks my “heart and mind have tremendous capacity.” Most of the time I think I can hold all this, the deep pain that is all around me.

The wounds I know my refugee clients hold from their experiences escaping war and losing everything they had known before.

The brokenness and injustice, in plain view or hidden, in every corner of my city, my state, my country, my world.

The image of the two black people who were pulled over by two white cops a few weeks ago when my family and I turned a corner in our car and we pulled over to film what was going on, just in case things went south and somebody with dark skin ended up dead. Thankfully they didn’t this time, but the imprint of the potential injustice that was happening before my eyes as the cops searched the car for what…? An excuse to lock up – or kill – two more black people for a broken tail light? For driving while black?

When I was younger I used to feel like a sponge, super sensitive to all that was around me. But I’ve learned with age that it’s possible to connect with the pain all around without being quite so absorbent. How to hold the pain without it getting stuck inside. Still, though… Last week I took Facebook off my phone, with no regrets. I needed the reminder that I am the one in charge of what information I take in, and when.

* * * *

Last Friday night and Saturday was Yom Kippur. For the first time in many years, I felt moved to actually fast completely. I still drank water so that I wouldn’t get a three-day headache, but this year it felt good not to put anything else in my body. I also powered off my phone for the day, which felt amazing. During breaks from the services I read and wrote in my journal. I walked around and talked to people. I sat with two very tiny babies and their moms whom I’d just met.

I cried a lot. Not just during the Yizkor memorial service, but at other moments too. While the most incredible cellist played the Kol Nidre melody, accompanied by organ and choir and cantor, and even more magically, when he played the melody solo. While I closed my eyes and connected with each of my relatives who have died, picturing each of their faces in my mind’s eye, feeling them close.

The veil between life and death feels thin at Yom Kippur, and I held both the humbling awe of that understanding and the comfort of feeling held by my ancestors and even my tiny baby daughter who died before me.

I don’t take any of it for granted. I’ve been through hardship, tragedy, loss and struggle. I know how incredibly lucky I am for the stability and goodness of my life. For all of the people I get to love and hold dear. For my health. For my home.

For my life.

It feels like an incredible responsibility, to hold that gratitude along with the awareness that things are so bad and so hard and so incredibly messed up in so many places outside my safe little cocoon.

The awareness that there is so much work to be done, so much light I need to summon up and magnify to help balance out the dark.

And the awareness that it is all so temporary and fleeting. And so precious and beautiful. Even the tears.

 

resilience

Cracks

re·sil·ience

rəˈzilyəns/

noun

1.

the physical property of a material that can return to its original shape or position after deformation that does not exceed its elastic limit.

2.

an occurrence of rebounding or springing back.

3.

the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.

****

Resilience is a big word right now. There are studies about teaching resilience and grit to children in schools. Which I think is awesome, and much more helpful to becoming a functional human than understanding geometry, or even global politics.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose husband died suddenly two years ago, is making the media rounds speaking about her new book and foundation, Option B, which “helps people build resilience and find meaning in the face of adversity.” I admit that there is a part of me that is resistant to the idea of a celebrity making this into a movement – giving us collective permission to grieve properly and in our own ways through our losses, and teaching the world around us how to better support us. I’ve been talking to some of my friends who have also lost young children and our conversations seem to go like this: What do you think of this? Haven’t we been going there for years now? This stuff – this really tragic, really hard, really bad stuff happens so much more than people want to know. Why does tragedy need to happen to a celebrity for it to become okay for our society to finally talk about it?

But the nagging feeling I get when I look at the Option B website is this: Do we have to make something out of our losses, our challenges, our trials? What happens if we don’t?

I think most of the time, when it happens – when we develop resilience – it’s not because we did anything. It just happens. And sometimes it doesn’t, and the hard things are just hard, and they suck, and you don’t come out the other side feeling more capable of handling anything that might come next. You are just tired and you want to shout, Enough already! This effing blows!

And that’s okay. You are not a failure if you don’t come out the other side of your awful tragedy feeling stronger, wiser, or more resilient. You are not better than with resilience than you are without. There is nothing about resilience to be proud of. Resilience doesn’t have to be the goal. In fact, there doesn’t have to be any goal when life is hard except getting through a day.

Recently I had the thought that I have earned my resilience out of all that I have suffered or struggled through or overcome. But have I really? Or did the resilience I have just develop on its own? Maybe it’s even something I came into this life already possessing.

I just don’t know that I buy the notion that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger or more resilient. The idea that we are transformed into better people out of what we have lost, what we have grieved, what we have suffered. Because I would give up my resilience and strength and wisdom in a heartbeat if it meant that my baby didn’t die eight years ago and instead was a healthy girl about to finish third grade and celebrate her ninth birthday. Or that my parents hadn’t turned my world upside-down at age 15 when they divorced. Not to mention how quickly I would give back the autoimmune condition I have struggled to live a normal life with for 20 years.

Because living children are better than resilience. And physical health is better than the emotional strength gained from surviving an illness. And a stable family of origin is better than the wisdom I gained from being independent and responsible beyond my years as a teenager. All those hours in therapy and doctor’s offices and the neonatal intensive care unit took a lot of time, energy and money I would joyfully have spent otherwise. Like on a beach in Hawaii.

I get it: The human search for meaning, especially building meaning out of adversity. It’s what keeps us moving forward. It helps us to rebuild. Otherwise nothing makes sense, and it all feels like a big cruel joke.

But what if we can let it be okay to just live through adversity and arrive at the other side cracked, or even completely broken? What if we don’t have to overcome or become stronger, but just figure out a way to put one foot in front of the other and wake up each day feeling a little less shitty than the day before? What if there will always be a part of you that is keeping an eye over your shoulder for the next unexpected kick in the back of the head?

This is the thing: I don’t think we bounce back out of adversity to how we were before. Adversity changes us completely, forever. Even in our cells, our DNA. (see: epigenetics)

I think the idea of rebounding or springing back – which is often part of conversations about resilience – can be a setup for feeling 100% like a failure, even if you do manage to come out the other side a little stronger. You don’t bounce back because there is no back to go back to. You just do your best to move forward, maybe evolve a little, maybe transform a little – or maybe you just find yourself in unfamiliar surroundings, hardly able to recognize yourself, but accepting your changed self anyway. Because that’s your only option.

That kind of acceptance can require an enormous amount of forgiveness. Towards ourselves, mostly.

Maybe – not even by doing anything intentional – you even exceed your elastic limit, and you become bigger. Not better, just more expansive. Because we aren’t static. Even when we feel like shit, part of that feeling comes from knowing that there is something that feels just a little bit better. Even if we don’t exactly know how we might get there, or if we even want to.

After I lost my baby daughter, people would say things to me like,

I just don’t know that I could survive what you’ve survived.

And also:

You’ve been through so much.

With all you’ve been through, how are you as grounded and balanced (as you seem to be; meaning: How are you not a bitter, angry mess?)

You’re so strong. (Meaning: From now on, this is how we expect you to be.)

You’re so wise. (Really?)

And I would reply, But you would survive. Because you just do. Because you aren’t given any other choice.

I’ve surprised myself with what I can survive. People around me surprise me constantly, too. Friends and family battling cancer. My refugee clients at work. Everyone I know who lives with a chronic illness. I just don’t know that surviving is any great feat. It’s just what we do when shit happens.

I don’t get knocked down easily anymore.

I have survived “the worst” already, but I also know that doesn’t mean there definitely isn’t any more “worst” to come.

I know that I can handle what life is going to dish out next.

Maybe partly because of resilience, because of strength, because of wisdom.

But mostly because I just know I have to.

Perhaps that’s all resilience is. One step in front of the other. Forgiveness. And being really, really gentle with ourselves and each other.

Because life is hard, and it can be good too. That much I believe.

the way back

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As I got into bed last night around 2:30am, I told my husband that I felt like I had fallen through a hole in time and landed in an alternate reality. Like the dystopian fiction my father introduced me to when I was my tween daughter’s age: Huxley, Orwell, Bradbury, Camus. As if real life were still moving forward somewhere in the place I had fallen from, and I just wanted more than anything to find my way back there.

I lay awake for a while, knowing sleep was going to be elusive even though I was physically, mentally and emotionally sucked dry. I thought of all the people celebrating the 2016 election while I was lying in shock, the depth of sadness I feel today only barely registering. I practiced the words I would tell my daughter in the morning, when she woke up and realized that we hadn’t woken her up from sleep to hear the victory speech of the first woman president.

I don’t believe people are inherently bad, but I do believe that when we act from a place of scarcity rather than abundance, of fear instead of trust, of individualism over connection and collaboration, that we can do incredible harm and create rifts that can take generations to heal. I don’t want to be a part of that.

I woke up this morning and recognized a familiar feeling. It’s hard to describe, but it reminded me of the day over eight years ago when I woke up from a dark and brief sleep and realized that I had – the night before – said goodbye to my baby daughter Tikva as she breathed her final breaths. In that remembering, I felt a combination of shock, bewilderment, disbelief, the beginnings of a grief that I would (will) never quite completely shake, and this question:

How will I ever reconnect with hope?

There is one difference between that morning in 2008 and this one today. I have the gift of hindsight, the gifts of my experience, and the big picture of all I have gained since then. I know how I found my way back to hope.

It was a dark time, and for days, weeks, months, and even years I felt it all – anger, sorrow, fear, regret, doubt, hopelessness, aloneness, grief. So much grief. I cried and I wrote and I cried and I wrote and I questioned every single moment of my daughter’s short life and I screamed WHY at the universe, which had no answers for me.

And then, as I did all those things, I began the long, slow work of healing. And I did it, without realizing at the time, like this:

I connected. I met other parents who had lost their babies. It was painful and terrifying because all of a sudden there were a million ways babies can die, and I became aware of how often it happens and how many cracked hearts there are in the world. But those parents – they saved me. We saved each other. Connection saved us. It saves us every day.

I wrote. I wrote as if my life depended on it. I shared my experience for my own survival. I shared in others’ experiences as a witness, as a friend on the most difficult road. I put aside shame and self-consciousness and fear of not being good enough and I spoke openly about my experience. And I heard from others that they understood, that they felt understood. And I was able to turn some of my pain into a love that I could share with others.

I owned my story. I took responsibility for it, recognizing it as the greatest gift my daughter had given me. I started to practice radical self-love, forgiving myself for the ways I thought my body had let her down. I told my story in a new way – as a story of the mighty power of unconditional love. As a story of resilience. Even as a story of hope.

I reached way beyond my comfort zone. I sat with the discomfort until its edges softened and ease sneaked in. I trusted that I could contribute to the collective healing even as I was struggling to heal myself.

I became relentlessly determined to be a light in the world. Because I have held both life and death in my arms, and I don’t take anything for granted. Because on my daughter’s headstone are the words, “Love is all you need.” Because I know that I came here in this lifetime simply to love and to connect.

This morning I said to my husband, “I really need to read something today that is going to give me guidance on how to move forward. How to regain hope in order to dissolve the fear and sadness I feel.” I held my children tight before sending them off into a world that feels changed from how it felt yesterday. I went on Facebook and found comfort there, in community. I cried. I listened to Paul sing Let It Be and Hey Jude. I cried some more.

I don’t know that I’m going to find that single piece that will tell me what to do because I think the knowledge of how to move forward is going to come out of each one of us – together. But I am determined to find my way back to hope, so I promise you this:

I will connect.

I will write.

I will be responsible for the story I choose to tell and the words that I use.

I will dare to do uncomfortable things and put myself in uncomfortable places in order to bring about justice for all people.

And I will remain relentlessly determined to be a light in the world.

Will you join me?

for b.

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There are two trees in front of the house next door. They bloom twice a year, once in the spring along with all the other trees, and again in the fall after they have lost their leaves. I never knew trees could do that, and even though I’ve seen them bloom twice before, this year again it amazes me. It feels rebellious, audacious. Generous. These beings of nature that do their own thing but manage to give of themselves in the process.

I’ve been connecting with some very old and very dear friends the last few days, some with whom I haven’t spoken in years, following the passing of a friend we all shared. It hit me that I am at that age – when friends my age start to go. I’ve lost important people in my life – grandparents, friends, my child. I’m not new to death or loss or grief. But this hit me differently.

Life feels tenuous today. I feel hyper aware of something I know but manage most of the time to ignore: that nothing is guaranteed.

And yet here we are. We bloom when we can, we fall when we can’t stay up. And then sometimes we manage to bloom again, like those trees.

Like those trees, we reach out to each other, but sometimes not enough. Sometimes it takes a loss to remind us.

This is for you, B. Thank you for your adventurous and generous heart, for your wit and humor, and for all you gave of yourself to all of us who love you.

 

essence

I’ve been listening to podcasts a lot lately, mostly about the mind and our thoughts and how we work, and about science. The thinker in me, the cells in my brain love the stimulation. This morning as I made my tea and started my day, I listened to this one from Radiolab called Fetal Consequences. I can’t really stay away from a title like that, even if I know it might stir something up. And it did, but not in a bad way. More in an, “Okay, whoa!” kind of way.

The science, according to the show, is this: Fetal cells and maternal cells do not stay separate during gestation. In fact, fetal cells intermingle with maternal cells, and they remain in the mother’s body for decades, possibly an entire lifetime, after a baby is no longer in a mother’s womb. Even fetal cells from miscarriages, stillbirths, abortions. Even fetal cells from babies who are no longer here. Scientists studying what the role of these cells is in a mother’s body believe they can both help and hurt. Help in that they have been found in areas of women’s bodies who have an illness, say in the liver of someone with hepatitis. Hurt in that they may also contribute to auto immune conditions like arthritis.

I’ve been pregnant five times and I have one living biological child, my daughter, and my son grew in another womb. So my heart leaped at the thought that my babies’ cells remain inside me. I love that I carry a piece of those I’ve lost inside me and always will. It’s like when I learned years ago that all of our eggs are already in our tiny ovaries when we are growing inside our mothers’ wombs, so that for nine months of pregnancy we get to carry not only our children but also our grandchildren inside us.

For the part about how these cells might do harm? I’m not sure what to think, and the science is not conclusive about any of this. But I do have an auto immune condition, and I’ve always been intrigued to think that, in me, it happens to be located in that second chakra place close to my womb. It’s an emotional place for me, still marked by the faint vertical line that appeared on my lower belly during my last pregnancy, the line I was happy to see never quite faded completely after that pregnancy ended. A reminder that I carried them all, even if they are not all still here.

I wonder about my son’s birth mother, and what she carries of him, literally and emotionally, almost two years since his birth. What she may carry for the rest of her life. How he will remain in her.

How he has so quickly made his beautiful way into my heart, if not my cells.

I know there is still healing that remains. And I know that there is a way in which we never completely heal from the loss of a child. And that’s okay. In six and a half years since losing my daughter, and the losses before and since, I’ve learned not to force myself to be anywhere but where I am. I’ve learned that grief is cyclical and not linear, that it can be repetitive while it propels us forward even when it can feel like we are moving backwards. I’ve learned that I carry each of them inside me always, their essence, their spirit.

And now their cells.