July 31, 2012 § 18 Comments
I can’t read Jena Strong’s beautiful memoir in poetry, Don’t Miss This, without thinking of Jena herself, whom I had the pleasure to meet last December. Last year, after I read on her blog that she was in Washington, DC, I emailed her, and the next thing I knew, I was pulling up in front of her hotel and she was folding her tiny body into my car. We ran along the Potomac and later, went out for breakfast. And somehow, after that brief morning visit, I felt as if I had known Jena for years.
While we were running, I rather obnoxiously asked about, what she calls in Don’t Miss This, “the shattering realization” that she was gay. “How did you know?” I wondered, wanting to know less about the specifics and more about how someone can so courageously make such a leap of faith. Jena graciously answered my questions and for the next six miles, we discussed what living authentically means, how much courage that takes, and how confusing it can be, how difficult it is to determine if we are doing it right.
In her memoir, Jena describes the “undiscovered rooms, the Chinese boxes I kept trying to get to the bottom of …There were the velvet boxes holding round golden promises, the dented cardboard boxes containing journals, crushed repositories of my existence.”
Reading Don’t Miss This is almost like sitting beside Jena herself. Her words on the page contain her warmth, her grace, her fearlessness. Her writing is mesmerizing and sharp, taut and fluid. In structure, the memoir in poems is divided into three parts: She Who Stays, Landmine, and What I’ll Miss.
For me, She Who Stays, was the most searing section of the book. She writes about what happens before the earthquake of her coming out, those days of so much suffering, of keeping so much inside. One poem in particular, “How the Light Gets In,” made me shiver in recognition:
Later, after the dishes and the laundry,
the diapers and the dishes again,
I felt the tightening in my chest,
martyrdom rising in me like an unstoppable wave
when the family breakfast ended
in spills and tears and anger
as I sat feeling powerless
to the shadow side of their closeness.
Jena writes of the harrowing task of telling the truth, of becoming who we are supposed to be, about who we have been all along, those parts of ourselves that we try to squirrel away and hide. In the second part of her book, Landmine, Jena writes with the stark discipline of a warrior, when, as she beautifully pens in “No Retreat”:
There is nothing left to do.
Only to look back
at the path of jewels you’ve walked
to arrive here at this place of no retreat.
In “When It Happens,” she writes about what no retreat looks like:
having learned to be calm
having learned to be patient
to stay still in a storm
that swept our houses clean.
Reading Jena’s poetry, it is impossible not to harken back to your own dear life, to call to yourself the times that you stayed when you should have fled, when you ran when you should have stayed, when you failed to listen to the small, insistent voice inside yourself that always tells the truth. And reading her poetry is to become at peace with that precious voice, to hear it ringing clearly in whatever tone and note is true for you. In “Night Poets,” you can’t help but be called to:
step out at 2:30am,
the moths banging against
the bare fluorescent bulb,
do as she taught and listen hard –
Jena’s final section of the book, What I’ll Miss, is a unromanticized narrative of what is gained when you tell the truth, and also, what is lost. In “Falling Seasons”:
Tonight is all flickering flame
and a prayer to the waning moon
high above my children’s beds,
a head bowed in gratitude
for the strong medicine
I received today,
all four directions
answering the quiet call
for a longing I couldn’t name.
This section, more than the other three, contains a hush, a silence, a heart that is at peace. This final part of the book is about the quiet after the explosion, the calm after the storm. It is a paen not to banging down doors and breaking into a new life but to moving through fear “An animal on all fours, quietly and with measured steps.”
More than anything, Jena’s poems open up the bottles full of emotions we have corked tightly, hidden in the back of the closet, buried in the recycling bin of a bright supermarket at midnight. She gives voice to everything that doesn’t quite fit, that refuses to be named in the light of day. And yet, Jena’s memoir is also full of unbridled joy and the victory that comes from staying present, even when that present moment aches.
Your shame, all those moments
when you wanted to hide,
to disappear, to retract and retreat –
these are your gifts.
Look inside. Don’t run.
To win a copy of Jena Strong’s book, leave a comment below and I will pick a winner at random on Thursday, August 2. You can read Katrina Kenison’s review of Jena’s book here and Lindsey Mead Russell’s review here.
July 23, 2012 § 7 Comments
I am the ritual and the worship
the medicine and the mantra
the butter burnt in the fire
and I am the flames that consume it –
Bhagavad Gita 9.16, Translated by Stephen Mitchell
I first tried reading the Bhagavad Gita in high school. It was an old Penguin edition from the late 1960s and I couldn’t get through even two pages of the introduction. It was so disappointing to me that I couldn’t understand it. I had just finished reading Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, which served as my introduction to eastern philosophies, and I was enamoured with Seymour Glass and even more so with his brother Buddy. I had an idea that the Gita held secrets or answers or at least smarter questions.
When I was still living in Alexandria, Virginia, before we moved, I was desperately missing my yoga teacher training so I went back over the reading list Rolf gave us. On the list was Bhagavad Gita, A New Translation by Stephen Mitchell. Honestly, if it didn’t say “New Translation,” I wouldn’t have ordered it, and even when it came, I waited a few weeks to open it. And then one night, I skipped the introduction completely and dove into poetry so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes.
The story itself is simple. The Gita takes place on the battlefield at the beginning of a war between two clans in India a few thousand years ago. Arjuna is a warrior who has friends and teachers in both clans, and before the battle begins, he has his charioteer Krishna drive him out to the middle of the battlefield where he realizes the futility of such a war. In my mind I think of Kurukshetra as the Battle of Gettysburg – each side connected to the other – and of course, the ancient story symbolizes the war between our divine nature and our egos, our heads and our hearts, each of them both friends and enemies to the other.
Arjuna decides he is not going to fight in the war because it’s violent and wrong, and as a spiritual text, you would think this is where the story is going to go. But Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer – who also happens to be God (or the Divine) incarnate – tells Arjuna that he must fight and he launches into a long teaching about the nature of life and death, the inevitability of war, and the importance spiritual practice. Until I moved to Jacksonville, North Carolina, this element of the Bhagavad Gita baffled me.
I am the butter burnt in the fire and the flames that consume it. Those lines in the Gita, when Krishna tells Arjuna that the secret to life is Faith, bring me to my knees each time I see them. And yet, this spring, I still didn’t understand them. I still puzzled over the connection between Love and War. Why did the Gita take place on a battlefield? How could God be in both the butter and the flames that consumed it? In May, I still thought that God should pick a side.
When I first came to Jacksonville, I was appalled by this town. If it had a smell it would be hot asphalt and cigarettes. If it had a color it would be a bruise, the blood-red of the Marine flag and the indigo of the ocean, the blue-black of the daily thunderstorms and the angry orange of the sun as it rises each morning, the heat both searing and liquid, like something squeezed from a bottle.
But slowly, the color began to subtly change and shift: I began to see the white undersides of the storm clouds, I detected the silver scent of ocean in the air and the yellow stretch of languor in the heat. I took the boys to a park one day where grass-colored dragonflies the size of candy bars flitted around us. I discovered a tiny red market where the owner sold me fresh-caught scallops and called me “Sugar.” When I went into Barnes and Noble one day, a young Marine held the door open. “After you Ma’am,” he said. We sat near each other in the cafe, both of us on laptops, and soon, four other young Marines gathered in front of him and started talking quietly. I looked up at one point, surprised to see them standing the way children do around someone with a new toy. They were so young still, like puppies with oddly shaven heads.
“So how are they treating y’all?” the boy who opened the door for me asked them.
“Well, OK I guess,” said one of the newcomers.
“I’d have to say pretty good,” said another. “Except we have to listen to the speeches they give all the eighteen year olds about how we shouldn’t buy a BMW on a Private’s pay.”
As I listened, I learned the oldest among them was twenty-one, that a few of them were probably going overseas soon, that another one was having an elective surgery next week, the announcing of which made the rest of them stand quietly for a few moments.
There is a butt-naked quality to Jacksonville that is both exhilarating and terrifying, appalling and refreshing. I have seen mothers smack their children in the grocery store and have seen Marines riding high up in Humvees wave at my boys. One day at the beach we almost left because the cigarette smoke was so thick and on another day, while I was swimming in the warm waves, five dolphins popped up so close to me I could have touched them. I was mesmerized by their bright, clicking conversations, their small neat teeth, the speed with which they whipped and rolled under the waves.
The other day, driving behind a car with a bumper sticker like the one in the photo, I felt myself melt and soften into the sadness and salt of this town. I surely felt God – or whatever you might call It – while I was swimming with dolphins, but I felt it just as surely when I was sitting in front of those young soldiers in the bookstore, when I saw that mother hit her child, when I turn on the news and hear Syria, Aurora, Famine, Flood. I certainly don’t understand the Bhagavad Gita, but I do understand a bit better now that love doesn’t pick sides, that sometimes there is no side.
Kindness and hatred, faith and fear are so entwined with each other, each choice so near to the other that it can leave you breathless at times. But even in the darkest moments love is there, always, melting in the fire, willing itself to be consumed. It hovers over our heads like the black and gold butterflies here, like the heavy bodies of the MV-22 Ospreys, which lift up and into the sky, going off wherever it is they are going to go, doing whatever it is they are going to do.
July 16, 2012 § 46 Comments
Your story and mine are sure to be different, but if hearing my story allows you a moment away from yours, if it leaves you with a sense of hope, then this story was worth writing down – from Preemie, by Kasey Mathews
So begins Kasey Mathew’s beautiful memoir, Preemie: Lessons in Life, Love, and Motherhood. I was in the passenger seat of my car when I first read this sentence and Scott was steering the car down the 395 out of Alexandria, out of Virginia, out of my life for two years and into North Carolina. We had left the boys with my parents for four days and were going down to try to find a house near the Marine base, Camp Lejeune. What I remember about that April day was the sun through the windshield and the blue sky and Mathew’s words: if it leaves you with a sense of hope, then this story was worth writing down.
The next few pages took me surely and swiftly away from my life and onto the pitching and turning roller coaster that was hers in late November of 2000 when she went into the hospital halfway through her pregnancy because she hadn’t been feeling well. Mathew’s writing is clean and sharp with intense imagery and dialogue that makes you feel as though you are eavesdropping. Add to this that Mathews is a masterful story-teller, creating not just a narrative about what happened but a thriller that will whip you around sharp corners and through the blinding chiaroscuro of light and dark that was her life the during first five years after giving birth to her 1 pound 11 ounce daughter, Andie. Before I read Preemie, I knew that Mathews had set out to write this book to comfort other women who had or will give birth to premature babies, the ones who have to defy odds in order to take a single, unassisted breath. But what she did was to write a book that is both a comfort and a tribute to anyone who has had to stare disaster in the face. In the first chapter, she writes with shattering clarity about those early hours in Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. when she found out that she wasn’t ill but in labor five months early.
“Why is this happening?” I asked. “What did I do?” My voice sounded far away.
“You didn’t do anything.” The nurse on my right held
my hand without looking at me. “This isn’t your fault.”
Their shoes squeaked as they jogged alongside me.
“I know I did something.” The nurses exchanged a look.
My body started shaking. I was so cold. “I never should have
played paddle tennis.”
“It’s nothing you did,” several nurses said at once.
I thought if I could figure out why this was happening, I
could make it stop. I searched for clues, chronicling the past
week’s activities and ingestions. The bath I took Saturday
must have been too hot. I ate sushi. Just vegetables, but
maybe it was the ginger. “I put ginger on some sushi.” They
gripped my ankles tighter. I could see their hands on my legs,
but realized I couldn’t feel them.
Finally, I clutched a nurse’s arm. She was walking back-
wards, facing me, guiding the gurney down the hall. I dug
my fingers into her flesh. I needed to know she was real. She
looked at me. Her eyes, framed in dark circles, softened. I
thought I’d found my sympathetic audience. “You don’t un-
derstand,” I said to her in a more coherent, controlled voice.
“This sort of thing doesn’t happen to me.”
She held my gaze for a moment, and I waited. A gold
cross swung at the base of her neck. She continued to look at me. And then she said, “It does now.”
The voice and structure of Preemie are as impressive as its pacing. Often while reading, I flipped the pages back, trying to determine how Mathews had managed such a skillful flashback, such sparse but evocative details, such humor, even as she depicts events that must have been excruciating to live through. She describes the smell of paint in the first house she and her husband lived in, the beer they drank in the summer, their conversations as they lied in bed, sleeplessly staring up at the ceiling. Her sense of structure is both subtle and precise. Mathews places a gentle hand on the reader’s back and loops us through the past and the future until we finally look up and realize we are back at the middle, right where we started. Preemie is a book that reads like a race car.
Preemie is also a book about growing up, about how we transform from a twenty-something into a grown-up and about how growing up is less an age or a decision and more about the choices we make, the steady accumulation of days until we realize we are no longer auditioning, but rather, that we have gotten the part. Throughout the book, Mathews writes with a raw honesty about how it took her days until she was ready to hold her newborn, how hard it was to leave her healthy, two-year old son Tucker and head to the hospital, how she was both overjoyed and overwhelmed to finally take Andie home. “We had so many dreams,” her husband says at one point. “And now everything’s changed.”
During the first precarious months of Andie’s life, Mathews and her husband remodeled their home in record time (because they could not do any construction once Andie was home), suffered a cancer scare, and navigated an almost-daily commute to the Boston hospital to visit Andie all while trying to maintain a normal life for Tucker. And yet, these challenges were only warm-ups for Mathew’s ultimate challenge, which was learning how to trust herself.
Mathews turns to alternative healthcare for reasons that are a mystery even for her. She pursues, Reiki, energy work, and cranial-sacral therapy first as a last resort and then later, as a believer, as someone who has learned that babies need to be protected from the bright lights of the NICU, that to truly heal requires more than hospital beds and prescriptions.
In one of my favorite sections of the book, in a chapter entitled, “Healers,” Mathews describes her first visit to Karen McCarthy, an energy healer. On the phone, McCarthy explains that we humans are not just physical bodies, that we have emotional and spiritual bodies as well. Because Mathews doesn’t understand this at the time, she tells her curious husband that they are going to “a mind-body kind of thing.” Mathews describes the Berber carpet in Karen McCarthy’s house, her turtleneck, and firm handshake. She writes about the sometimes mystical events that surround her life from the perspective of a doubter, who believes only because she can no longer disbelieve.
As Andie continues to grow, so does Mathews. She becomes in equal measures, softer and more fierce. In peeking down every dark alley that might somehow reveal a possibility for her daughter, Mathews details the elliptical journey of her own healing as she travels fearlessly into the center of her own beating heart. She writes about her own transformation with humor, grace, and gritty honesty. This is a story about what happens when the worst happens. It is not so much about rising from the ashes as it is about being reborn in the flames. It is about learning how to trust: in ourselves, in the unknown, and in impossible miracles.
To celebrate this beautiful book, Kasey is giving away a copy of her book to lucky someone. Leave a comment and I’ll randomly pick a winner on Thursday, July 19th.
July 2, 2012 § 11 Comments
Too often we give away our power. We overreact. We judge. We critique. And we forget to breathe. – Seane Corn
In mid-June, Scott’s parents flew in from Oregon and my own parents drove down from Pennsylvania to visit us here, in North Carolina and to attend Scott’s change of command ceremony on Camp Lejeune. Because I couldn’t possibly imagine our families in this strange extended-stay hotel with us, we rented a house on Topsail Island for a week. It was such a relief to be able to open a door and let the boys run outside, to sit on the beach without driving there, to walk near the warm waves at night and wake up and do yoga on the deck outside our bedroom.
And then it was time to leave. My little blue Prius was so full of suitcases and sand toys, cardboard boxes full of peanut butter and oatmeal, raisins and spirulina powder, a pint of berries and an eight-dollar jar of red onion confit I bought at Dean and Deluca in Georgetown before we moved because I had to have it. The boys could barely fit into their car seats, and on the passenger seat next to me was a laundry basket full of bathing suits, my Vita-Mix blender, a Zojirushi rice cooker, and a Mason jar full of the seashells we found on the beach.
It was a little after eleven in the morning. It was past the time we were supposed to be out of the beach house and hours until we could check into our hotel. We had already spent the morning on the beach, and as I steered the heavy car out of the driveway, I realized I had nowhere to go.
You’re homeless, you know, said The Voice inside my head. You are 39 years old and you have no place to live.
I am not, said the Other Voice. I am not homeless.
And yet, you have no home, said the Voice, So what would you call that?
We spent some time at the Sneads Ferry library and checked out some Magic Treehouse books on tape to listen to in the car. We drove to a park with a big boat launch in Surf City and boys watched with fascination as pickup trucks hauling fishing boats expertly backed up to the water and set their boats free. We watched a big blue crab walk sideways in the brackish water and the boys threw leaves at the tiny fish that shimmied near the docks. We went to a pizza place for lunch because I knew there were clean bathrooms there and we went back to the beach where the boys were cranky and kept grabbing each other’s shovels.
The night before, when we were still in the beach house, I felt a lump on the side of Gus’ neck and my heart leapt up into my throat. I asked my father-in-law to take a look and he told me it was nothing. “Don’t waste a doctor’s time with that old thing,” he said, which comforted me greatly, but still, while the boys stole each other’s beach toys on that homeless day, I was on the phone with a pediatrician’s office. “Why don’t you come in tomorrow?” the receptionist asked me and I felt my unreliable heart writhe and squirm again.
I gave the receptionist my name and my insurance information. She asked for my address just as Gus hit Oliver on the head. We had gotten a PO box the week before, but I hadn’t memorized it yet, and it was clear that if I didn’t get off the phone, one of the boys would hit the other with a plastic dump truck or the bright yellow buckets I bought a few days earlier. “I don’t have it right now,” I told the receptionist. “We just moved here. Can I bring it tomorrow?”
The next day, we arrived early for Gus’ appointment. The waiting room was nearly empty and as I was filling out form after form, a nurse came out and stood by the receptionist. “She didn’t have her address yesterday, so I couldn’t start the file,” I heard the receptionist say in a loud whisper. “Honestly who doesn’t have an address? Who are these people?”
I felt tears start in my eyes and my whole face ached with shame and fury and a feeling of desperation so great that I wanted to jump in my car and watch the entire state of North Carolina recede in my rear view mirror. Hey, I wanted to say, I can hear you. Instead I said, “I’m almost finished,” and watched the receptionist jump and turn around. I walked up to her desk with my completed forms but couldn’t look at her, my face hot with the shame of having no address, no place to go, no home.
Afterwards, when the doctor told me I had nothing to worry about, that the lump was just a swollen lymph node, I was so relieved I took the boys for ice cream. The main road into Jacksonville – Western Boulevard – is particularly ugly, but the week before, on a walk, I found a little ice cream place called Sweet, which looked brand new and cozy. It was sandwiched between a Five Guys and a Popeye’s, but inside Sweet were velvet couches and soft chairs, a coffee bar and an old-fashioned ice cream counter. A sign on the wall announced that there would be a benefit tomorrow and NFL MVP Mark Moseley would be signing autographs and footballs.
The boys and I sat on a couch and ate our cones and a few seconds later, an older man sat down in a chair next to us with a coffee. His white hair was slicked back and he was wearing a black button-down shirt, black jeans, and a belt with an enormous buckle. On his right hand was a garish gold ring and on his feet were the most amazing pair of cowboy boots I had ever seen. The brown leather rippled in shades of light caramel and gold and deep chocolate. My first thought was to sneer at his outfit. Where do you think you are, Texas? asked The Voice, and then I thought of the receptionist we just left and was flooded with a new shame.
I wanted to be nothing like that receptionist, nothing at all like her, so I looked at the man and said, “Those are some really nice boots.”
The man stretched out his legs and lifted the toe of one boot into the air. “Thanks,” he said. “They’re gator skin. I have four pairs.”
“Four pairs?” I asked, delighted, as I always am when someone has exactly what they want, when they unabashedly showcase more than I think any of us are allowed to have.
He nodded at me and I tried to imagine four pairs of those boots lined up in my bedroom closet. In my head I thought of the tiny wooden closet in our old Virginia house and once again, I remembered I was homeless.
“So how do you like our ice cream?” the man asked me and I nodded and then said, “Oh so this is your place?” because sometimes it takes me a while.
The man nodded again and I watched the sunlight flash on his tacky ring. “I own the Five Guys and the Popeye’s and I wanted to bring in something different,”he said.
I told the man that my friend owns a Five Guys at the ballpark in DC and the man said, “Charlie? I know Charlie. Are you from DC?”
I said that I was, that we just moved here. “Your husband on the base?” he asked and I told him that Scott was a Seabee, that he was part of the huge construction project on Camp Lejeune. “I met with some Seabees last week,” he said. “I’m trying to get Five Guys on the base.” He asked me more about Scott’s job and then we talked about DC for a while. Oliver asked if he could have the rest of my melting ice cream come and I gave it to him. “I lived in DC for fourteen years,” the man said, “I was the kicker for the Redskins. It’s a great city.”
“The Washington Redskins?” I asked, as if there were any other kind. I am not a football fan, but my father and brother are and I grew up around detailed conversations about Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson, Refrigerator Perry and Mean Joe Green. When I think of those long ago Saturday mornings, I can still hear the tinny theme song of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” I can hear Jim McKay’s voice as he announces … the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
I looked up at the sign in front of me: NFL MVP. “So that’s you?” I asked pointing to it. “You’re Mark Moseley?”
The man took a sip of his coffee and nodded. “And that’s a Super Bowl ring,” I said, looking at the thick gold band on his right hand and stating the obvious.
“Mmmhmm,” he said, holding it up. Someone came over then and Mr. Moseley regally rose from his chair and said, “I hope y’all come back and see us again.” And then to the man who joined him, he said, “She just moved from DC. She knows Charlie.” The boys held up their sticky fingers for me and I got up for some napkins and felt something else rise inside me. Maybe it was relief or maybe it was happiness and maybe it was the fact that I had felt seen by this man with the beautiful boots. Moving always has a way of making me feel invisible, as if by changing locations, I have erased some essential part of myself, some piece that the man with the Super Bowl ring just handed back to me.
I’m not who you think I am! I had wanted to scream at that receptionist, just as I had wanted to ask the NFL MVP, Who do you think you are? How little we think we are allowed. How much we think we need.
It was late in the afternoon so the boys and I left Sweet and headed back to our Hilton Home2 to find that once again, housekeeping hadn’t shown up. I set Oliver up with his first-grade workbook and gave Gus some crayons and construction paper. I unrolled my yoga mat in the space between the two beds. I knew I probably only had a few minutes, but I could do some sun salutations in that time. I could give myself back to myself.
Without my friends and the lush Virginia woods, without the comfort of the worn oak floors of my Virginia kitchen, without the hot Georgetown yoga studio, without the refrigerator full of kale and overflowing book shelves and a city to hate, who was I? I looked around the room at the things I had deemed essential: crayons, books, and Legos, a rice cooker and too many shoes, an expensive jar of red onion jam and a long flat sticky mat. How little I think I am allowed. How much I think I need to make up for this.
The discomfort of this discovery is fragile and sharp and I carry it the way you would a piece of broken glass or an armful of thorny roses, a burning match or a dying starfish, objects shaped like heartbreak, whose beauty and wreckage are inextricable. This move to Jacksonville has been a crucible I have stepped into, the heat and shimmer of concrete and sand a mirror to what lies inside of me: the elusive shadows of beauty and bright piles of wreckage.
I do a few sun salutations and then I walk over to Oliver. I put my hand on Gus’ neck and feel the lump there, the beautifully benign node. I remember the way my own heart beat a year ago when I took Gus to the pediatric cardiologist to check out his heart murmur. I remember the way I exhaled when the doctor told me that Gus had an innocent murmur, that I had nothing to worry about.
How lucky I am, I think, as I look around our tiny hotel room, how narrowly I have edged through those clear panes of disaster. I think of my penchant for drama and realize suddenly that moving is neither a disaster nor the end of the world. Disasters are the only disasters. The end of the world is the only end of the world. I stand still for a moment and listen to the boys tell me about their artwork. Gus’ healthy neck is bent over his paper and I see how little I need. I feel stuffed full of all all I have been allowed to have.