Whose Light Then Do You Reflect?

I love making lists. Food shopping lists. Packing lists. To do lists. How to organize my life lists. Lists are my happy place; they bring calm to a very active (overactive?) mind. They are a kind of meditation; they take all that is spinning at light speed inside my mind and give me permission to lay my burden down.

Thoughts—often feel like a burden.

So when I recently read a craft essay by Gregory Orr on the “list poem”, it all made sense. He was writing about the craft of poetry; I was thinking…the craft of living. He writes, It doesn’t hurt to think of poems as a project of ordering disorder—of turning lived confusion into structured coherence by translating ‘the world’ into ‘words’, then shuffling those words into some cohesion that feels like a poem.

Yes, exactly, Gregory. Ordering disorder.

And speaking of Yes, Gregory Orr wrote a poem on the subject of yes:

If to say it once

And once only, then still

To say: Yes.

And say it complete,

Say it as if the word

Filled the whole moment

With its absolute saying.

Later for “but,”

Later for “if.”


Only the single syllable

That is the beloved,

That is the world.

So it got me thinking (yes, the irony is not lost on me…thinking…) that saying yes is about being present and the overactive overthinking let us call it anxious mind is about anything but saying yes. All this thinking is about planning the perfect conversation, scenario, life, shopping list, relationship, poem or essay or book. And it’s got a lot of expectations. And conditions. Something like…I will be ok if everything on this list actually happens. And if not, well, then I give myself permission to absolutely lose it. Or just be in a bad mood and snap at people who piss me off.

Big things, small things. I want my external environment, hell—even my internal environment—to be what I want it to be! But, as Orr reminds us, the yes is the now. The yes is the only single syllable that is the beloved, that is the world.

So I am thinking about this a lot as Rosh Hashana (The Jewish New Year) is upon us, and the fact that the new year is often a time when we make the what can I do to absolutely revamp myself list.  And I’m trying to reconcile the benefit of lists—the ordering of disorder—and the practice of saying yes.

Is it possible?


It is possible to use the list, as a creative tool, as a way of bringing order, as a means to understand what is disturbing the soul, as a cognitive device to get stuff done, and simultaneously to say yes to what is.


We make our lists, because we want a better world, because we do need to buy the ingredients for Israeli salad, and we do feel a poem simmering inside and because we do need to exercise, and be kinder and maybe get a new job; how else will we progress? We also need to be present, because—well, that is all there is. We can say this is where I am today—with all my internal struggles and my external reality—and I accept it unconditionally and I will also work toward an even more loving and peaceful and kind internal and external reality.

I can remind myself to return to my breath, and I can ask myself, in the gorgeous words of WS Merwin, Whose light then do you reflect as though it came out of the roots of things…


I have been a beginner many times. As have we all…first day of school, first moments leaving home and fooling ourselves into believing we are already adults, first love, first days of parenthood, first day of a new job, and moving…to a new city or neighborhood or country or continent…

And there is always this feeling of freefalling, of just not knowing anything and feeling dependent icky and wishing you just already (again, that dangerous word already) knew how to mail a letter or where the Israeli version of Kinkos was or how even to begin looking for an apartment or what your circle of friends will look like.

And there can be a tension between that desire for the already (which is usually a combination of expectations collected from dreams, anecdotes, and sometimes Hollywood) and the right now.  The right now that most spiritual paths explain as the only reality. And not only is the right now the only reality; it is also always new.  

And in the newness of every single moment there is an opportunity. For what they call in Zen, beginner’s mind. It is that childlike wonder we get when fascinated with something new, when the lemon tree on the balcony of my Airbnb fascinates me because, when have I ever been this close to a lemon tree? Who knew the leaves were so big and wide and the stems thick and thorny? It is the joy I experienced yesterday while landing at Ben Gurion, when the Israeli three-year-old behind me was belting at the top of his lungs the Shawn Mendes Camila Cabello song, Senorita, in a mixture of English, Hebrew and maybe…Spanish? (But I speak enough Spanish to know that he wasn’t speaking Spanish; maybe it was his idea of what he thought Spanish sounded like.) And there he was, laughing, singing, as I was gripping my seat because it was a rocky rough turbulence-filled landing. (I don’t like those.) But his laughter distracted me. He was in the moment and loving the sound of his voice, and his mother laughed and sang with him. You go Mom!

Being new anywhere for anything is just a reminder that we are always beginning again. Nothing is a fait accomplish. Nothing. And, I think of this in particular because we arrived in Israel just days before the holiest days, when we celebrate the sweetness of a new year on Rosh Hashanah, and we repent and reflect on Yom Kippur.

My cup runneth over (with amazing Israeli coffee…best way to start the day!), as I sit in my new home (ok, temporary Airbnb but permanent city) reflecting and writing and listening to the sweetness of the birds…

The Languages We Speak…

I had a friend whose lawyer husband’s real passion was music. And while nursing cups of coffee one afternoon, she shared with me a particular upsetting incident, the details of which (now 25 years later) I can’t recall. But I do remember asking if everything was ok and she smiled and said of course and I asked, how? what was said? what was apologized for? what was forgiven? She answered, he played Moonlight Sonata.

My friend’s husband didn’t need words; he needed the language of music.

And my language, for as long as I can remember, has been the written word. I know I’ve said this before, but here I go again, some of my deepest connections are with writers and poets who were gone long before I was even born. But their words help me make sense. Of all of it. Me, the world, God. The why’s that we’ve all been asking since forever.

And the written word is how I communicate best with others, sometimes better than with the spoken word. (Though, side note, when I write poetry, I hear my poetry as spoken word poetry, so I will definitely have to explore the significance of that further.) Back in the day, when there actually were bookstores everywhere (okay there still are some, but they are harder to find), my husband and I would love to disappear into bookstores, each to his or her own favorite corner; he’d disappear into military history; and I’d roam the stacks—visiting poetry, cookbooks, and of course women’s studies…always looking for a new edition of Room of One’s Own or Madwoman in the Attic. Even now, in our post-plethora of bookstore world, some of our favorite moments are sitting together and reading, sharing what we read, and returning to our beloved words.

And writing and reading are how I connect with friends—sharing our favorite books we are reading, sharing quotes, belonging to book clubs (I’ll be joining one in Tel Aviv soon and I can’t wait!) and reading books together with friends and family. My eldest and I started our own book club of 2 during the first year of the Pandemic; we’d take turns choosing books. Thanks to her, I discovered food memoirs! And now that she’ll be based in DC and I’ll be in Israel, one way we’ll keep in touch is by reading together. So, last week I sent her a list of books (6 I think) and she’ll pick the winner. My youngest sends articles on the trope of the Romantic artist and the meaning of Impressionism and my son and I discuss his forays into Jungian psychology and Hemingway; he discusses van Creveld and other military historians with his dad.

So it made complete sense that one way my mother and I would spend our special moments together would be through the written word. And what better words to read than the beautiful, heartfelt, expertly crafted words of my friend Caroline Goldberg Igra, in her book, From Where I Stand, which explores three generations of women—mother, daughter, grandmother—their relationships, their trauma, their struggles, all with a delicate hand, giving everyone a voice. We see inside the motivations, the pain, the joy, the desires of all the players. We feel where they stand. It’s not so black and white. (Note to Caroline—thank you for writing this book!)

My mother and I read From Where I Stand out loud to one another. Taking breaks to get tea or coffee. Taking breaks to reflect on how this particular scene affected us. It opened some difficult conversations. Good conversations. Reading the book helped us look inside our relationship and maybe begin to see where the other was coming from.

It’s not all about me. Or her. Or my kids. Or anyone really. It’s all of us.

And that is what good books do! They open our minds; they open our hearts. And reading out loud to another opens up something as well. The late great writer and critic Harold Bloom (my eldest would take issue with the word great because she took issue with Bloom’s assessment of the Canon, and I have some issues too, but that’s a conversation for another time…) said once in an interview that great books should be read out loud. And sometimes in his Yale classroom, a whole lecture would be spent with his students taking turns reading Moby Dick or King Lear out loud.

I fly out tomorrow, and I am feeling so much…happy, sad, excited and scared…but one thing I feel very clear about is how grateful I have been for this time with my mother, this time which has almost felt like a metaphorical return to the safety of the womb, a reset, the caterpillar before the butterfly. I’ve been grateful for the conversations we’ve had (many of which arose from reading Caroline’s book!), the sorry’s that were said, and the I forgive you’s and hugs and I love you’s.

Find a good book and read it with a loved one; and if that loved one is your mother or your daughter, read From Where I Stand.

Peaceful Valley

There are songs that are like Rorschach Tests. Sometimes in a whisper, sometimes in a scream…they reach out and reveal the truth of the moment, of your inner world. One such song for me is Patty Griffin’s Up to the Mountain.

Which streamed through my airpods this morning while I walked past my alma mater. The alma mater I graduated from thirty years ago. The alma mater that still smelled of eucalyptus leaves, hot dry dust, and salty sea air. The alma mater that had nearly doubled in size since I graduated, adding two new colleges. And today there were construction crews and cranes and people in yellow vests, and lots of orange Detour signs.

And I wondered, as I ignored the signs and kept walking, if I had taken any detours in the past thirty years.

Would I have imagined, at age 22, eager to leave my hometown of San Diego, eager for adventure, bound for Russia to study women’s literature, that I would be here 30 years later, again saying good-bye? Though, this time for Israel. And this time with more permanent intentions. Would I have imagined that, in those 30 years, I would get married, have three amazing children, embrace a religion, a people, a path that always felt like home?

No, I don’t think there were any detours. Because I am exactly where I am meant to be. And going where I need to go.

But smelling the eucalyptus reminded me of the girl I was 30 years ago. And listening to Patty Griffin made me realize just how far I’d come.

Up to the Mountain was written in 2005 to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr’s 1968 speech, the last he ever delivered before he was killed,  I’ve Been to the Mountaintop. And it was always these lines that got me, We’ve got some difficult days ahead, but it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop…I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.

These lines of course speak to the terrible injustice of slavery and racism. They also speak to that truth that we are all born free. That is the promised land. That place where we are all free. The late politician and activist John Lewis elucidated this by explaining that the approach in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was to act as if you are already free, to embody the freedom, to know you are free. Not to ask for freedom, but to know that you were born a child of God and already free. But I think that, in addition to political freedom, King and Lewis, as God-fearing activists and leaders, spoke also of an inner freedom. That spiritual promised land of freedom.

And that was the promised land that I realized, amongst the eucalyptus trees, I was already inhabiting.

No, not the promised land of milk and honey and Mediterranean beaches and the best hummus around; I am talking of the spiritual freedom that comes from no longer being a prisoner to the past. To the legacy of abuse and dysfunction. Forget college degrees and other academic accolades, I am the only cousin of my generation not to have served time in prison! Three of my five cousins are dead, two from drug abuse. I’m not bragging, just to say that I think I am something of a miracle. Everything in my upbringing would have prepared me for something more akin to Hillbilly Elegies than well, I can’t really find an equivalent to my story.

But, suffice it to say, there were moments when I believed the lies I had been told—by abusers and haters, that I was nothing and would always be nothing. My childhood nickname was Fatbrat.

But the eucalyptus was cleansing my nostrils, cleansing my heart. The anger was long gone. But, I didn’t realize the sadness was still there. The sadness of a little girl who was trying so hard to let go of a dark past, remake herself into something loveable…she was the one crying today, as a 52-year-old. She was realizing that it was ok; she had escaped.

With much help, of course. With the help of a loving mother and husband and children and friends. I knew I wasn’t here alone. And then Patty sang her words into my ear,

Some days I look down

Afraid I will fall

And though the sun shines

I see nothing at all

Then I hear your sweet voice, oh

Oh, come and then go, come and then go

Telling me softly

You love me so

The peaceful valley

Just over the mountain

The peaceful valley

Few come to know

I may never get there

Ever in this lifetime

But sooner or later

It’s there I will go

The Emptiness of Hands

I will take with me the emptiness of my hands

What you do not have you find everywhere

I read and reread these final lines of WS Merwin’s poem “Provision” a few dozen times this morning. Merwin reached out from the grave, as so many dead poets do, to speak to me this morning, as I sit and reflect and now count my days, even hours remaining. Here. In America. Here—in San Diego. Here—with my mom.

My mom, who would always say to me, we come into this world hungry with love, and it’s the parents’ job to give that first visceral knowing that we are loved and if they don’t we go out into the world with empty hands. Seeking.

And she tried. And she did. But she couldn’t protect me from everything. Everyone. Nor could I, when it my turn to become a mama.

But now, reading Merwin’s words, I wonder if maybe that ache to know we are loved is maybe an existential longing that can never be fully felt. Or filled. That longing, what CS Lewis described as …the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not visited, can actually never be fully filled. Those empty hands maybe are designed always to be wanting.

For, if we are satisfied, we stop looking.

Yet, simultaneously, Merwin is telling us that, that which we seek is there. It is everywhere, he says. As Rumi wrote, the grief you cry out from draws you toward union. Or Rilke, open your depths by plunging into them and drink in the life that reveals itself quietly there.

Maybe it’s so hard to leave my mom because I always looked to her to be the filler of my cup and she did, so well, as best she could. But, it’s not her job, nor anyone’s really to fill it. Completely. Nor even ours.

Perhaps this is what the artists and poets and philosophers and mystics and scientists and parents and lovers have done since the beginning of time—is try to fill the emptiness of hands. And perhaps it is only in the emptiness we feel, we see the flashes of light, the secrets hidden in every moment, of what cannot be named, only alluded to, but fill the soul and the hands with knowing.

Planting Seeds

I’ve been thinking lately about ideas, thoughts, feelings and where they come from. Whether they are the monkey-mind type that erode our sense of well-being or the creative inspired ones that produce art. Poems. Books or juicy letters.

Philosopher and spiritual teacher Krishnamurti once said, You might think you are thinking your own thoughts. You’re not. You’re thinking your culture’s thoughts. About a hundred years earlier, Mark Twain said something similar, Substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources. Perhaps Krishnamurti took his idea from Twain!

So, when it comes to intrusive and unhelpful thoughts and feelings, if they are really a collection of what I am exposed to, maybe I don’t have to take them so seriously. Maybe I can step back and jump off the hamster wheel and just watch. Hmmm…that is actually liberating. It doesn’t mean I don’t take ownership of my inner life, but I don’t have to personalize them so much. I can see them as thoughts and as feelings and not me.

And when it comes to creativity, which I think about a lot as a writer, the fact that ideas are second-hand, means that I am free from coming up with the earth-shattering new breakthrough perspective that will definitely will me a Pulitzer or Nobel. Rather, I can share my particular take (which, as we established above will be a reflection of my world through my lens) on what I experience.

That means that we all have something to say. We all have our particular take on this particular place in time. And much of this exposure is unavoidable—unless you live in a bubble. But, there are things we can do to expose ourselves to things that nourish our hearts and minds—good books, good people, good music, nature. Meditation and yoga help too!

Yes, we are affected by our world and thus our thoughts and emotions are affected by our world. But we can also do our part, and plant little seeds inside of love and kindness and joy.

Dance with what is emerging…

The word synchronicity keeps appearing. In dreams. Conversations. In synchronicity itself, things just happening.

I did a personality test this morning and apparently I resist facing difficult emotions. And I loathe criticism. What? Me? Little ol’ diplomatic get along with everyone me?

Or so I thought…till an hour later, when out on my morning San Diego dessert-like walk I had a conversation with an unnamed family member who challenged me in a way that touched a nerve. That made me feel, I don’t know, bad. Wrong. So I exploded. Right there in Southern California suburbia. But we talked it through, this wonderful unnamed family member and I. And were resolved by the end of the conversation.

But I wasn’t resolved, with myself. I felt bad about exploding. About not expressing my point of view clearly. About digging up the old stories of defenseless victim needing a hero. And I just stewed in this bad-ness, walking in silence. Till the noise of my brain was too much and I flipped on a podcast, randomly…about what? Resilience.

A word I usually loathe. A word that coldly communicates, suck it up buttercup.

But Danielle LaPorte sees it a different way. She says, dance with what is emerging. She says, Want to be more resilient? Want to get unstuck? Love more.

And just at that moment, something catches my eye. I have no idea what it is. Looks cactus-like. But pink? Pretty, but rough on the outside. And then I start laughing, right there on the burning-hot sidewalk.

And I think—synchronicity. The personality test saying I resist difficult emotions, that I resist criticism. The conversation and the old story of victim needing a hero. The pink cactus-thing. And the podcast encouraging me to dance with what is emerging. To get unstuck by loving more.

What was emerging was an opportunity to let go of the story. To stop thinking of my emotions as prickly untouchable cactus-like things. To see their beauty. Their gifts. To not be so afraid of my fear. To be my own hero.

Hmmm…all of this in one morning. Wonder what tomorrow morning’s walk will bring…

Living Fully

There was always St. Louis, my husband said the other day, as we were reflecting on our upcoming home. Though we’ve only lived here for the past almost eight years, we’ve spent a good chunk of our marriage here. We got married here, had a baby naming here, spent summers and spring breaks here. The kids learned to ride bicycles and drive here. And they embarked on their adult lives from here.

Leaving is hard. Change is hard, even when the change is your choice. Because we are creatures of comfort, and the unknown is well…unknown. And we don’t like the unknown. We like things we can count on. Predictable patterns. Reliable friends. A weather app that is actually a predictor of actual weather in real time. (I have an issue with weather apps.)

But that need for 100% certainty is somewhat limiting. It can keep us at home and safe with the known, instead of venturing out and risking. It can keep us stuck in old paradigms and structures—doing the same old thing with the same old people—even if we are bored and uninspired.

Risk the unknown.

But risk is scary. But so is boredom. And limitation. And fear. In truth—we are bigger than the fear and the doubt and the guilt and the shame. We are beings of unlimited potential. So if this is true, what does living fully look like to you?

In a recent edition of The Marginalian, Maria Popova shares various quotes from the correspondence of artist Georgia O’Keeffe with her friend and agent-manager, Anita Pollitzer. Though different in many ways, they shared a true passion for life. O’Keeffe writes: Your letters are certainly like drinks of fine cold spring water on a hot day — They have a spark of the kind of fire in them that makes life worthwhile. — That nervous energy that makes people like you and I want to go after everything in the world — bump our heads on all the hard walls and scratch our hands on all the briars — but it makes living great…

Amongst the bumps and falls and hard patches and losses, I think living should be great. I think it can be great. If we tap into our hearts and souls and we listen to that voice, waiting to be heard. It doesn’t mean that we chuck the house and the husband and head off into the hinterland to discover ourselves. It means opening our hearts and maybe risking a bit of familiarity to live fully.

I leave St. Louis in a few days. Yes, it will always be here, but shortly my home will be elsewhere. Scary. Also exciting.

One Step at a Time

I am almost finished reading Brene Brown’s Atlas of the Heart; actually I am listening to the audiobook, narrated by Brown herself, and let me just say—feels like Brene is talking directly to me, like we are having a conversation and she is revealing to me the secrets of my heart. When she got to the chapter on shame, which is something I am very familiar with, I was a little scared but also eager to hear what she had to say.

Shame, she says, is the fear of disconnection. Shame is normal. We all feel it to some degree because we are hardwired for social connection and thus fear disconnection. And perfectionism, which I am also all too familiar with,is a common response to feelings of shame; we hope to stave off any feelings of shame by well—just being perfect at everything. Perfect mom, wife, perfect not-ever-aging woman who can do a downward dog and file her taxes and speak ten languages. Maybe then I won’t be alone…

But, come on…does perfectionism ever feel healthy? Purposeful? Good in the bones? Not for me. Nor does shame. The I fear being rejected so I’ll try to be perfect  just doesn’t work anymore. Actually, it never did.

What is the cure? Well, there’s no cure for shame. Again, we are hardwired to be in connection with others. But here’s the thing, if we change who we are to belong or we stress ourselves out on the pointless path of perfection, we will never find peace. EVER. EVER. EVER.

So, we start by seeing belonging within ourselves. We live within our value system. We love and accept ourselves with ALL of our messiness—unconditionally. And then we seek belonging with others who love and accept us unconditionally—with all of our messiness. Not everyone will. That’s life. We can’t and shouldn’t expect everyone to like us or even want to be around us.

But the more we love ourselves by connecting deeply to our truth, we will find others who are doing the same. And then it spreads. The love, it just grows. One little step at a time.

Soothing the Soul

I am very affected by sunlight. I favor summer over winter, prefer tank tops to scarves and gloves, and love late spring and summer fruits like cherries and watermelon. And dark grey autumn days, cold that gets in your bones—not really to my liking. Yet, (strangely perhaps?) I find the early morning hours, before the sun has risen, inspiring, comforting, safe and warm, almost womb-like. It’s when I am most creative, when I feel most connected to the Divine, when I feel most inspired. And part of me feels somewhat sad when the first flecks of day appear, as if my special time is fading in the hot bright sun.

Confusing…which is why Hanif Abdurraqib’s poem I Was Told the Sunlight Was a Cure, really spoke to me. He explores the flimsy math of how daylight hours and nighttime hours can fool us…we can suffer in the sunshine and find comfort in darkness. Which, to me says that we can be surprised by what brings us comfort, what eases our soul, what brings a smile to our face.

I am reminded of one of my favorite lines from the 1988 film “Working Girl” when Cyn, played by Joan Cusak says Sometimes I sing and dance around the house in my underwear. Doesn’t make me Madonna. Never will. Well, I don’t agree with Cyn; I don’t think the issue is whether we are Madonna or not. OR, whether daylight is good or nighttime is good. I think it’s about tapping into ourselves and our needs—which change—and allowing ourselves to be inspired and comforted by what speaks to our soul.

It might be the wee hours of the morning. Or a cloudy day. Or Madonna. Or Lizzo. Or Leonard Bernstein.

Or maybe silence. Whatever soothes the soul, that is what should be honored.