Gentle Lena

Lena was patient, gentle, sweet, and German.

Gertrude Stein, “Three Lives”

I have been thinking lately about Lena, and how much I miss her, and how exceptional she was.

I met Lena the summer of 2012, when my three children and I moved with our fourteen suitcases to Astana, Kazakhstan to join my husband, who had preceded us by six months. I was told that Lena came with the apartment, which was owned by a local government official. I didn’t think I’d need a housekeeper every day, but I didn’t have a choice. And she seemed nice.

Like Stein’s quote, Lena was patient, gentle, sweet, and German. She had married her Tatar husband when she was fourteen and he was twenty. Before she met him, her dream was to see the sea, in Turkey perhaps. She wanted to try exotic foods and feel sand in her toes. But when she met her husband, he gave her an ultimatum—marry me now or forever you will be alone. So stayed in Kazakhstan, married, and had one child before she graduated high school. Two more children would follow.

Lena had never met Americans before. She’d never met a feminist before. She didn’t think Kazakhstan had any gay people, and she thought if a woman didn’t have sex she’d go into early menopause. Let’s just say, we taught each other a few things.

Once, when it was time for Lena to go home, she stood with her coat on, shaking outside the guest bathroom.

Lena, why didn’t you go home?

 Because, I am waiting for Eva to finish her bath. I need the bathroom.

Use my bathroom.

I can’t, that is for you. The last girl who worked her did that and she got fired.

What??? I couldn’t believe what she was saying. I quickly ushered her toward my bathroom, told her about the film, “The Help” and that everyone in my house could use whatever bathroom was available.

Over the course of the nearly three years we lived in Kazakhstan, Lena taught us how to make beef stew and bake bread and fold napkins and iron a silk shirt and how to water and sing to plants and pick the perfect head of cabbage and how to love and sacrifice, how to work hard, and how to dream.

But she died before she saw the sea. And her life and her death continue to teach me and my children—to love big, dream big, and never ever ever limit your potential. I hope that somewhere, wherever Lena is, she is lying by the sea.

Cutting Greens

I have been thinking a lot about connection. The Pandemic has been hard for many of us. We have felt alone in our pain. We have been angry about vaccines and lockdowns, and frustrated with people who don’t share our masking beliefs. And it’s hard at times like this to find the balance between honoring our experience and our perspective while also recognizing our interconnectedness with all beings, irregardless of their perspective.

I think we can do both, or at least try. One of my favorite poems by Lucille Clifton explores the bond between all living beings. It is a short poem, and I include it here in its entirety:

Cutting Greens

by Lucille Clifton

curling them around

i hold their bodies in obscene embrace

thinking of everything but kinship.

collards and kale

strain against each strange other

away from my kissmaking hand and

the iron bedpot.

the pot is black,

the cutting board is black,

my hand,

and just for a minute

the greens roll black under the knife,

and the kitchen twists dark on its spine

and I taste in my natural appetite

the bond of live things everywhere.

When I read this poem I am reminded to be kind, because we all know pain. I am reminded that I am not alone and that if I am sad or depressed, there is probably someone else out there who is feeling the exact same thing. And I am reminded to acknowledge the perspectives of all beings. And I am reminded to respect all creation and consider my connection to the natural world.   

I bought some collard greens today; I think I’ll make them for dinner tonight.

Reckless Abandon

Reckless Abandon

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the term reckless abandon. And how much it bothers me.

Probably because of how I read the word abandon.

For me, abandon means rejecting external voices and conditioning in favor of one’s internal truth.  I think of Patti Smith who said, “In art and dream may you proceed with abandon”. And Wynonna Judd, who said, “I’ve promised my inner child that never again will I ever abandon myself for anything or anyone else again.” So why would that be reckless?  

It is reckless if your act of abandon threatens others.  It is reckless if you challenge the status quo, if you demand respect, if you raise your voice, if you dress in a manner that confuses, produce art that confounds, tell the truth about a family accustomed to telling and re-telling lies, and if you put your needs above the needs of others. These are definitely acts of recklessness.

Or are they acts of self-assertion? Authenticity? Self-love?

I think it is more reckless to abandon ourselves. Perhaps, then what needs to be abandoned is the need to please and the shame that drives it. I am reminded of a line from Melissa Febos’ collection of essays Girlhood,  “Free from the gaze of another, my own softened.” Let us all be free, and soft, and maybe a little reckless.

Consider a Tree

I’m struck by how fast we move these days. We rush from Point A to Point B. We start our days with agendas and we approach moments in our lives with fixed expectations.

But what about everything in between Point A and Point B? What about surprises and serendipity? What about slowing down and smelling the proverbial roses?

The other day I was taking my morning walk and I was in a hurry. I had an obligation that required me to be home about fifteen minutes earlier than usual.  I walked at a brisk pace; my eyes were solely focused on the road and sidewalk, and my ears were attuned to a news podcast playing in my ear buds. Halfway through the walk, I got a call; meeting cancelled. I instinctively slowed down, and out of nowhere—trees appeared. Trees that were beginning to experience the beginnings of autumn with yellow and red and orange leaves. They were everywhere!

Where had I been for the previous hour?

I recall a quote by Martin Buber: “I consider a tree… The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no value depending on my mood; but it is bodied over against me and has to do with me, as I with it—only in a different way. Let no attempt be made to sap the strength from the meaning of the relation: relation is mutual.”

I slowed my pace even more. I channeled my inner-Thoreau and imagined myself alone in the woods. My midwestern suburban neighborhood came to life. I saw squirrels and dog walkers and students riding their bicycles to school and cross guards and the trees. I watched it all play out—the falling leaves and children in uniforms and babies in strollers, and the eyes of every dog on a leash, wise eyes that pulled me in.

These moments of mutual relation are essential to our wellbeing. They humble us and open our eyes and hearts. When we rush through life and impose our preconceived ideas and agendas we can become hardened, limited, and we can miss out on the many magical moments peppered throughout our day.

So today,  rather than rushing and imposing, I encourage you to consider a tree. What is this moment saying to you?

Sadness

Lately, I’ve been thinking about sadness.

Maybe because I’ve been trying for five years not to be sad, not to say that I miss having my kids at home, not to admit that I feel a bit lost.

That lost sad woman just didn’t fit with the version of myself in my head. I had carefully been planning for years how I would handle this period of my life and what kind of parent I would be. Definitely not one of those needy clingy ones, always calling and checking up on their kids, driving them to cut off contact or just give the G-rated version of their lives. I was close to my kids when they were at home. We enjoyed each other’s company.  We traveled, had adventures, climbed mountains and visited museums, weathered storms, and ate some fabulous meals—most of which we made ourselves. I didn’t want that to end. So I imagined that my children would sail into the proverbial sunset, we’d stay close, and I would resume my pre-parent passions.

Except…

They didn’t call because they were separating, as they need to. And, I didn’t want to do anything. I tried, really tried, but everything paled in comparison to taking long walks with Dietrich, having coffee with Elly and singing with Eva. I was just so sad. And I hated that I was sad. So I tried everything I could not to feel sad. I drank green juice and traveled to the Sedona vortexes and meditated for hours and hours and hours and did more downward dogs than my dog and read every book about sadness and empty nest and change and transition.

Still I was sad. And I wondered if I would ever not be sad. And that really made me sad.

Then one morning I woke up, sad, and I thought, I’m tired of apologizing for being sad. I’m tired of feeling like an anti-feminist because I miss my kids. I’m tired of feeling like a total mindfulness loser because I can’t meditate myself into joy. So I got rid of my “be happy now” books, and adopted the Ram Dass approach—“be here now”.

Here in the reality of my thoughts and feelings—whatever they are, however light or however dark. And when I stopped trying to be some version of myself, the sadness didn’t hurt as much. As Martha Beck says, “The degree of our psychological suffering is our distance from our own truth…when you come back to integrity, even if there is physical and emotional pain there is not this horrifying suffering that sends so many people into depression and despair.”

There is nothing wrong with being sad. There is nothing wrong with anything we feel. It’s all information. It’s our heart telling us what is going on, what needs tending to. It also opens us up to the suffering of others. I’m not the only one who is sad. When I own my sadness, I encourage others to own their sadness, and then we can hold each other’s sadness. And then the load becomes just a bit lighter.

You are a beautiful beautiful soul. Wherever you are today is exactly where you need to be. Reach out to your deepest self-love and self-compassion, reach out to your loved ones, be held and hold. We are all on this journey together, on happy days and sad days. Be easy with yourself and know you are loved.

Conditional Love?

My eldest daughter and I have started our own mother/daughter book club. She reads a book and sends it to me. I read a new book and send it to her. The choice of book communicates what matters to us, what we are curious about and what conversations we want to have. She chose Plath’s “The Bell Jar. I chose “Unbound”. She chose Ruth Reichl’s “Save me the Plums”. I chose “Bastard out of Carolina”. Usually, we pick the books on our own, but this time, Elly wanted feedback.

“I’m thinking of reading Sally Rooney,” she said.

I groaned. I told her I didn’t love “Normal People,” but blamed it on my age.

“She is the Millennial writer, and she just came out with a new book.”

I knew this, because I’d just listened to the NY Times Book Review podcast, where author Brandon Taylor reviewed Rooney’s new book “Beautiful World, Where are You”. The host, Pamela Paul, like me, had not loved “Normal People”, but after Taylor’s review decided she’d give it a try.

I told Elly I’d give Rooney another try.

And I loved it. Yes, it deals with a demographic different than mine—30-somethings in Ireland. But woven throughout the book are the universal themes of love and friendship. And it got me thinking…

Is love conditional? Unconditional? Does loving really mean never saying sorry? Do we love everyone in the same way? Does loving mean not having boundaries?

Definitions are important and I think some of our most challenging problems in relationships comes from having different definitions of love.

At one point in Rooney’s recent book, one character asks another why she is still friends with this character (I’m not giving any names away…) if the relationship is so problematic. The character asks, “You have to ask yourself, if they wreck with your head so much why bother? There must be some reason on your side why you care.”

I think we all have people in our lives who wreck with our heads. We might share DNA with  them. Or work with them. Or be partnered with them. Or maybe they are friends.

I hear the phrase “this just isn’t working for me” a lot now—in social media, from my friends, on the psychology podcasts I listen to. It’s important to honor ourselves and our needs. So, does that mean that if someone “wrecks with your head” you chuck them? If that were true, then no marriage would last beyond the Honeymoon period and parents and children would cease all communication. And we’d all quit our jobs.

There are going to be moments when it is definitely not working. So, love is unconditional?

Loving another doesn’t mean you have no boundaries. It’s not ok to give carte blanche to everyone in our lives. No you can’t talk to me that way. No, cancelling at the last-minute is not kind. No, lying is not ok. So, then love is conditional?

I think love, real love is unconditional. Because, in my opinion,  love  is love of the soul, of potential. It’s Plato’s theory of forms; it’s what we all are, in our essence. When I say I love, it means I love who you truly are, the pure soul–underneath all the pain and reactivity and withdrawal and self-absorption. But loving myself means that I can love your essence and recognize that my soul may need not to be in relationship with you. If my head is just too wrecked then maybe we need to part ways. But I still love you.

At the end of the day, it’s got to feel right—with those we hold close, and those we let go of.  If we ask our hearts for honest answers, and not those fool you to feel good answers, then we’ll know  who is wrecking with our heads, why we care, and how best to love ourselves.

A Perilous Thing

My three Gen-Z kids worry about their futures. Are they doing enough? Will this messed up world get any worse? What is their life’s purpose? As their mom, I worry too.

Last week, thinking about my kids, I went down the YouTube rabbit hole, as one does when one has a hundred other things one should be doing. I typed in “FOMO”, which seems to be the umbrella term explaining the general anxiety experienced by Millennials and Gen-Z’ers.

At the top of my search results was a TED Talk from last year by Chloe Hakim-Moore titled “Stop Chasing Purpose and Focus on Wellness”. Sounds interesting, I thought. Maybe Fear of Missing Out could be addressed by exercising self-care. But the algorithm had erred. This wasn’t about FOMO; it was about, what I call FOMU—fear of messing up.

And that’s a whole different kettle of fish.

Whereas FOMO asks, “When my one and only chance to claim my golden ticket comes, will I be there to grab it?” FOMU asks, “How do I so orchestrate my behavior so that I never make a mistake”? FOMO says, “If I DO miss that chance, I might not get the right job or meet the right person who will change my life.” FOMU says, “If I make a mistake, I will be abandoned, harmed and maybe even killed.” Or at least that is what it feels like. Many of these fears are irrational, but the feelings aren’t.

Where do they come from?

Some of it is biology. We have a negativity bias that allows us to sense danger. This is a good thing. It protects us. But if we experience trauma, especially at a young age, we develop coping skills that, while they help us survive our childhoods, aren’t beneficial in our adult lives.

I grew up in a home, where messing up had dire consequences.  I learned early on that to avoid beatings I had to be perfect. I couldn’t just NOT do bad things, I had to do excellent things. So I did. And at the ripe old age of five, I trained myself to be the best of the best of the best…or else. When I got older, I got involved in Christian youth movements that reinforced the message that there was something wrong with me, and I had to behave beyond reproach to save myself from hell. But it was never enough. There was always an angry father. And there was always a vengeful, ever-watchful God.

Beliefs are so powerful, especially when they are wrong.  Beliefs become the words of the stories we create about ourselves and our lives. And the only way to release ourselves from false beliefs is to look honestly at the stories we’ve been reciting by heart, to do a deep analysis, word by word, line by line, and pick apart all the threads that make up our concept of ourselves. And we keep what is true. And we discard what is not. But this takes time. It’s hard, and we need lots of support—from friends, partners, therapists, from good music, good coffee, and lots of warm baths.

We are going to mess up. It’s part of life. It is how we learn. I’m learning how to rewrite my story. I am learning not to believe the old ideas in my head, filling me with anxiety as I attempted to plot out my perfect future. I am learning to let go of any idea of a perfect future, and instead put my energy into healing, into loving myself and loving others. And I find a lot of solace in the poetry of powerful women. My newest find is “The Renunciations” by Donika Kelly. She begins her powerful new collection with the following quote by Anne Carson, which I offer to you as an invitation: “To live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing.”

Walking each other home

I had postpartum depression after the births of my three children. It was the worst after my second child, because I am an only child and had no clue how to manage the needs of two children. When I had two-year old Eleanor wanting me to draw with her and newborn Dietrich needing to be held, I felt overwhelmed. I was convinced that regardless of what I did, I would be letting one of them down. I was terrified that I would be teaching my children that their needs would not be met, and even worse, that their needs didn’t matter.

I have always had a problematic relationship with needs. I didn’t like needing. Or wanting. Anything. All it did was open me up for disappointment. So I tried not to want, and admired strong, independent, single and thin and beautiful women, like Wonder Woman, Gloria Steinem, Barbra Walters, Maya Angelou and yes Madonna. I tried to erase all my needy, sticky, passionate, confusing parts so I could be like them.

But, that was not sustainable. As Melissa Febos writes, “Erasure is never simple. Whack the mole and another one pops up behind you. Scrub the page or the skin or the senses, draw the curtain and you don’t disappear. You only replace yourself with darkness. Hide a body and the harder it will fight to remind you what it feels. The longer you starve it, the hungrier it gets.” We can’t erase our needs for food or shelter or human connection. Our needs tell us what needs tending to.

And we’re not meant to meet our needs alone! We need safe people who honor our needs, help us make sense of ourselves, and help us heal.

As psychologist Stan Tatkin writes, “This longing for a safe zone is one reason we pair up. However, partners, whether in a romantic relationship or committed friendship, often fail to use each other as advocates and allies against all hostile forces. They don’t see the opportunities to make a home for one another; to create a safe place in which to relax and feel accepted, wanted, protected, and cared for.”

But it’s also possible to care for another so much that they never learn how to care for themselves. And this can create a very unhealthy and unsafe codependent dynamic; think Edward and Bella in “Twilight”.

Things started to change for me when I stopped judging my needs so much. I just named them, like a shopping list—milk, sugar, bread, time with a friend, more sleep, a hug from my husband, more time to write, maybe a piece of dark chocolate, and coffee, always coffee.  And after many dysfunctional codependent relationships, I worked hard to find the right people to need—people who see me, love me, make me feel safe, don’t judge me, help me hold my pain, laugh with me, help me get back on my feet, because they want me to be my best most vibrant self.

Life is sticky and confusing at times. Some days are better than others. On days when I struggle, feel complicated and too much for the world or even myself, I step back and ask myself what my priorities are for that moment, what I really need and I call up a friend or cuddle with my husband and remind myself of my favorite Ram Dass quote, that we are all “just walking each other home”.

The Path

My life has been circumscribed by music.

Roseanne Cash

Every significant memory I have is steeped in music. “Silver Bells” calls to mind childhood Christmases. I was humming “You are My Sunshine” just before a drunk driver ploughed into our car when I was ten, sending us all to the hospital. “Nothing Compares to You” became my first break-up song. For years, I would sing my babies to sleep with Ella Fitzgerald’s “How Much do I love you?” And when I hear Adele, I remember the winters we were “rolling in the deep” in Kazakhstan.

I come from a long line of musicians, some of them famous, like Aunt Patsy, whose cowboy boots are in the Country Music Hall of Fame.  My mom’s parents, Texas Lil and Ken Montana, opened for Hank Williams. But most were self-taught bluegrass and country musicians, who played the banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and guitar. They were farmers and factory workers who performed at local folk festivals and entertained us at family gatherings. But some of them, like my grandparents, exhibited a darker side of music—one of alcohol and drug abuse, infidelity and broken relationships, long stays in federal prison and sexual and physical abuse.

This legacy gave me complicated relationship with music. With the creative life, and with my family.

My grandparents were at their best on stage. Grandma stood four foot, eight inches tall, but she was formidable, even when she stood behind the bass fiddle. She always wore a costume, recalling her vaudeville days. And Grandpa, if he wasn’t at San Quentin or working the carny circuit selling corndogs, would join her on stage, where they played the part of the adoring couple. Grandpa would sing “Have I Told You Lately that I Love You?” and there would not be a dry eye in the house. And Grandma would have everyone laughing with her rendition of Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”.

Thanksgiving and Christmas at our house didn’t mean long tables filled with fine linen and home-baked pies, dinner conversations about politics, philosophy, or literature. We had kitchen counters lined with paper plates, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, store-bought apple pies and mounds of Cool Whip. We had jam sessions with family and anyone who could play an instrument. We specialized in picking up strays who needed a family at the holidays—as long as they could sing or play an instrument. Those were some of my happiest memories. I loved to hear Grandma yodel, Aunt Dana’s rendition of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”, and Uncle Curly’s old timey classics.

But the joyful singing wouldn’t last the evening. As the empty beer cans would pile up, things would turn ugly and fearful. Aunt Linda said-wrongly, it turned out-that the Blevins clan had a touch of Choctaw blood and so couldn’t hold their drink. And when they got drunk, they got mean. My stepdad wasn’t a Blevins, but he fit right in. He didn’t get mean, just stupid. And unfaithful.

I gradually began to hate country music. It reminded me of the slumber party my drunk stepdad almost ruined. It made me think of the car accident, the affairs, prison, Meth and too many dead cousins. This hatred ruined other creative things I had loved, like poetry, drawing and dance. The life of the artist seemed selfish, sad and destructive. I threw away my poetry, my journals, and all my writing.

I left my family. I left America to study and live in Europe. I wanted to re-create myself, to build a life free from prison, abuse, and chemical addiction. My success was only partial, thankfully. In looking back, I realize that music and creative pursuits never left me, and they became a legacy that I passed on to my own children.

My eldest daughter, now a senior in college, and I correspond by sending each other song clips; this is how we express our moods and feelings. Last week, she sent me “Sun on Shade” and I teared up listening to the chorus: “Trying to find a way to slow down time; growing like weeds, these babies of mine; everything changes that’s the natural way; all I want to do is spend time with my babies.” I think it was her way of saying, “I know this empty nest thing is hard for you Mom.”

My youngest, who just started art school in New York City, writes her own songs—soulful poetry set to music. She’s got a country twang I tell her she inherited from her kinfolk. My favorite gift she ever gave me is a Hannukah gift from a few years back—a collection of her poems and artwork. I proudly place it on the coffee table and oftentimes take a big cup of coffee and sit down, looking  through its beautiful pages. Her words bring me to tears.

And this past summer, at the exact moment when I was feeling particularly worried about my son in the Israeli Army, he calls and says, “Mom, I just taught myself how to play Grateful Dead’s ‘Ripple’! Want to hear?” And, 8,000 miles away, he played and sang: “There is a road, no simple highway; between the dawn and the dark of night; and if you go, no one may follow; that path is for your steps alone.”

And I pulled out my journals and favorite poetry collections. I’ve started writing again, and it feels right. My dysfunctional family left deep scars that will last generations. But they also gave me music, which finds its way into the rhythmic way in which I write. And they showed me artistic passion and depth of feeling. I am grateful for this legacy; I can take it and tweak it and make it mine, because as Jerry Garcia sang, “that path is for your steps alone”.

Hey, you got a minute?

We all have stories that need to be expressed.

Some of us dance our stories, others sing their stories or cook their stories or paint their stories or yogasize their stories. Me? I write my stories–mostly as poems, sometimes as blog posts, and now and then as an essay or memoir.

When we express our stories, our joy and pain, our questions and revelations, we release energy. We balance our minds and bodies, and as Carl Jung said, we “distinguish ourselves from the unconscious elements”. And this heals us. Our perspective widens. We begin to see why people who can’t merge on the freeway exasperate us. Or why why we reorganize the kitchen when we are stressed. Or why we hate making the bed. Or vacuuming. And instead of shaming ourselves, we say, “there there, lovey”, and we just send ourselves a little love and compassion.

When we express our stories, we also heal others. This is one reason why memoir has become so popular of late. There is an epidemic of loneliness; we are all seeking connection. And when we read Tarana Burke’s inspiring story of survival in “Unbound” or anything by Mary Karr and about her struggles with alcoholism and love and motherhood or watch “Ted Lasso” or make the chocolate buttermilk cake from Claire Saffitz’ best dessert cookbook ever written, “Dessert Person”, we feel a little less alone. And we realize we aren’t the only ones having a rough go of it. We realize that we are all just figuring it out as we go along. And maybe we gain some small piece of wisdom we can carry into our day. And maybe our families. And maybe on our drive home so we don’t scream at that driver who can’t merge on the freeway. Hope springs eternal!

In a recent interview, writer Anne Lamott was asked why we are here. She answered that, for herself and other writers, we are here to “share through words and paper and the spoken word what we make of it all. And we say to our audiences and readers just what the tribal storytellers did 3,000 years ago, hey you got a minute?”

What do you make of it all? Maybe you can find your audience and ask, “hey you got a minute?”