Monkeys, Squirrels, Artists, and Shiny Things

SquirrelDo you misplace your keys, lose track of time and show up late for appointments, or only remember to pay your bills once the disconnect notice arrives? What about projects and deadlines? Do you start everything you do with a bang, only to fizzle out before you finish? Or maybe you just have trouble sticking to a routine that keeps your life running smoothly. In any case, I feel you.

I’ve been there. Until a few years ago, my life was a hot mess of distraction. It’s a trait that seems to go hand in hand with creative brilliance, and since so many of my clients and readers fall into the brilliant artist or entrepreneur category, organization and project planning is a frequent focus of my work. I’ve been outlining my systems during one-on-one consults for months, and I’ve seen them work for all sorts of people.

The benefit to focusing on this type of work via private consultations is that we can ask each other questions, dialogue, and then use the shared information to  customize a plan that works for your unique situation. The drawback, of course, is that not everyone has the money to pay for one-on-one creativity consultations to help them organize their lives and creative endeavors. I’ve compiled and condensed the basics into an ebook, “Monkeys, Squirrels, Artists, and Shiny Things,” so you can access the information anytime you want. You can buy it here for just $5.99. If you don’t have a Kindle, or you’d be just as happy with a simple PDF, click here to buy it for $3.99. Just send me a note with your payment, and I’ll email you the file.

If you’re looking for a miracle fix, this isn’t it. But if you’re looking for a simple strategy to get yourself organized that doesn’t require anything fancy or expensive, give it a shot. I did the legwork of several years of trial and error (lots and lots of error) to figure out how to simplify in a way that isn’t complicated. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never found that approach to work for more than a few days. All you’ll need to get started is a notebook with three sections, a pen, and the commitment to try something new.

The Art of the Pause

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Inertia. Paralysis. Stagnancy. We all get stuck sometimes. In fact, if you’ve read this blog for very long, or any other blog that focuses on creativity, entrepreneurship, self-help, motivation, inspiration, or habit formation, you’ve read plenty about getting moving. Which isn’t to say that I won’t write about it again in the future. I will. It’s a good topic.

Forward motion is important, and there are countless reasons we can find ourselves in need of a nudge in order to get moving. Not only have I written thousands of words on the subject, I frequently read what other experts have to say on the subject. Sometimes you want a swift kick in the ass that comes from someone other than yourself. Have you ever kicked yourself in the ass? It can be done, but it’s not easy or terribly effective. If you haven’t tried to kick your own ass, you should. You should also make a video of the attempt and send it to me!

But what about the other part of the productivity equation? If you’re in perpetual motion, eventually you’re going to be exhausted and burned out. When you’re constantly busy, not only does your body get tired, your mind does, too.  Our brains are not designed to work overtime without downtime.

If you’re an artist or entrepreneur, refusing to take breaks can lead to all kinds of unwanted outcomes. This isn’t just my opinion. It’s neuroscience. All healthy bodies operate in cycles, and for the purpose of making the most of your time and energy, you need to familiarize yourself with the ultradian rhythm. The ultradian rhythm is the natural series of energetic peaks and valleys your brain experiences throughout the day.

You may or may not be familiar with the term, but you’ve no doubt felt the effects of this rhythm on an ongoing basis, particularly if you’re not inclined to take regular breaks.

Your brain is only meant to sustain full engagement for approximately ninety minutes at a time.

At the beginning of this ninety-minute cycle, your brain starts gearing up. It is excited and ready to go. As you immerse yourself in your work, particularly if you’re working on a project you enjoy, it gains momentum. This is part of what allows you to slip into the flow state.

But as you reach the end of those ninety minutes, your body and mind will start throwing up signals that it’s time for a break. Your concentration won’t be as steady. You might slip into multi-tasking. You might begin to feel fidgety, like you need to get up and move around. Or you might crave a nap.

If you’re not particularly interested in what you’re doing and don’t have a boss breathing down your neck, you’ll probably heed these signals. You might take a walk or call a friend. Maybe you’ll just use the bathroom and grab a snack. It doesn’t really matter what you do, the point is that you’ll switch gears for a little bit. Ideally, it is best to spend about twenty minutes doing something else before refocusing your attention on your work project.

On the other hand, if you love what you’re doing, you’ll probably ignore the cues you’re receiving. You may not even notice them at all. Your brain is being rewarded by the pleasurable activity, so your body asking it to get up and walk away is a little bit like trying to convince a sleepy three-year-old that it’s time to leave the park.

Sometimes we ignore the signs that it’s time to take a break for other reasons, too. There are reasons we don’t take breaks when we need them that are less pleasant than being immersed in a state of flow.

You might ignore your ultradian rhythm out of societal conditioning. You’ve been trained to believe that being dedicated means working straight through whatever you’re doing until it’s done. Maybe you even feel guilty or ashamed. Have you ever (either in your head or when talking about yourself to someone else) called yourself names like lazy, slacker, or fuck-off when you take breaks? If so, it’s time to forgive yourself for being a human, not a robot.

Or maybe it’s more concrete than that. You’re broke. You need money, and you won’t get paid until you’ve seen this project through to completion. Taking breaks means a lag between now and paying your electric bill or feeding your kids. Taking a break does not feel like a responsible option.

The only problem is this: Your body’s ultradian rhythm will only put up with being ignored for so long before it will fuck your world up in order to get your attention.

Somewhere between the beginning of your dip in energy after ninety minutes of concentrated work and the two hour mark, the intensity of the signalling is going to increase. I’m not saying you can’t push through and work more than two hours without taking a break. Of course you can. We do it all the time. Most of us do it every day, multiple times a day.

What I am saying is that it is counterproductive. During this period, your efficiency begins to wane. You might be working just as hard, but you probably aren’t working as fast. You’re also more inclined to make (and miss) little mistakes like typos, so the quality of your work decreases a little bit, too.

And of course, the real trouble begins when neglecting your brain’s needs becomes habitual. If you are regularly working for several hours at a time without taking breaks, eventually it is going to catch up to you. And when it does, it is going to bite you in the ass. Hard. You’ll have teeth marks for weeks.

Unfortunately, our culture rewards this kind of masochism. That doesn’t mean you have to participate in the insanity. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Do you really want bragging rights for being chronically exhausted, in a constant bad mood, endangering your health, and neglecting everything in your life except work?

I love to work. Seriously. A lot of it is like a form of play to me (everything except the parts that aren’t). I’m also not opposed to working long hours. Putting in more than forty hours a week does not depress me in the least. There’s nothing wrong with loving your job and devoting significant amounts of time to it.

There is everything wrong with working yourself senseless without taking time for other things. Not only is it hard on your body and mind, it’s hard on your relationships, and pretty much every other aspect of your life. Plus, after awhile, your work suffers, too.

Your creativity wanes. Your productivity decreases. Your efficiency is meh…

And guess what? Someone else is working fewer hours than you, taking more breaks, and getting more done. And it’s higher quality work, too. And then they get to go enjoy the rest of their life.

If you’ve been confusing being busy with being productive and efficient, watch Tony Schwartz: The Myths of the Overworked Creative. If you’re ready to start thinking about shifting away from the former and into the latter, it will be a half hour well spent.

Every creative needs to master the art of the pause.

Give yourself permission to stare into space. Or read a book for sheer entertainment value., not to improve yourself or learn a new skill. Take a walk. Get a latte. Have sex. Clean your kitchen. Call a friend. Take a nap. Play with your kids. Get outside. Write if you’re a painter. Paint if you’re a writer. Take up a new hobby. Take up an old hobby. Do something you’re terrible at, yet find absolutely, delightfully fun, just for the hell of it. Whatever. Just. Stop. Working. Do anything else. Or do nothing else. Really. (Note: I cannot dance well, sing well, or play pool well, but I never let this stop me.)

Do absolutely nothing for twenty minutes several times a day. The world won’t stop. 

You’re already an artist. You’re a creator by nature. You don’t have to worry that your creativity or momentum will vanish if you give yourself time and space to pause in the middle of your projects. In fact, they will expand exponentially within the newly discovered territory of unstructured time.

Stop Picking Your Nose, or, Reclaiming Your Creativity in Stages

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on the living room floor

When’s the last time you came home tired?

Not the kind of tired you feel after you assemble a piece of heavy furniture, or weed the garden, or kayak all day, but the kind that has you bee-lining for Advil and Netflix?

Also: When’s the last time you used a glue stick? And scissors and a ruler, construction paper and sharpies? When’s the last time you got down on the floor in the living room or the bedroom or made a mess of the kitchen table, the music turned up loud enough for the neighbors to hear?

When’s the last time you dusted off the books of poetry you used to read daily, or the sketch book you bought with equal doses of nostalgia and resolve to start drawing again?

The answers matter. And they don’t.

What really matters is now. In fact, now may be the only thing we really write about here. Annie Dillard said it best: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Yes, you could’ve been a _____________. You should’ve studied _____________. And maybe you would’ve even tried _____________.

If this. But that.

It’s a sinkhole, to be sure. If that’s where you hang out on a daily, or even weekly basis, I’m not sure whether to say read on or stop reading here.

That’s up to you, of course. You have the choice to ditch this post. You also have the choice to ditch that way of thinking about your creativity and dreams–things you lost along the way, or deferred or dabbled in but never believed could really amount to anything.

What do you lose track of time doing?

Call if Flow, call it the Zone, call it Passion. What it is doesn’t matter so much as remembering that it’s at your fingertips and you are the only one who can do or not do it.

OK, let me back up a little.

When I was a teenager, I made little books of poems.

These days, I work, spend a lot of time with my girls during the half-the-week and every-other-weekend they are with us, take out the recycling on Tuesday nights, and do my damndest to get cash into the appropriate envelopes on the first of the month.

But at sixteen, I spent hours and hours printing poems in my father’s study, figuring out pagination (probably the most mathematical thing I did in all of high school), cutting and pasting and assembling words onto pages, choosing cover art from whatever magazines were in the house, and walking to the copy shop in town to use the coin-operated machines. I wrote little blurbs About the Author on the back, and inscribed every xeroxed copy of each book to someone–a family member, a boyfriend.

I used to be. A bookmaker. An artist.

And then. Life happened.

Do you hear this a lot, life happened? I do. I hear it sometimes out of my own mouth.

What does this mean about us, and about Life? This  reminds me of these line from Emily Dickinson’s poem #640, which I have loved for years:

And Life is over there – 
Behind the Shelf

The Sexton keeps the Key to –

Life happened over there while we were living it, busy, forgetting that the choice to spend time doing what we love most never abandoned us, but we it.

If life is over there, where are we? It can get depressing, this trajectory.

But there is good news, too.

Yesterday, I came home from work craving fresh air and sunlight and movement and something that didn’t involve any kind of screen. So I changed into shorts and a t-shirt and asked Mani if she’d take a walk with me. She said yes. As we walked, and she told me all about the paragraph she’d written of the novel she’s working on, and how she used the remainder of the hour she’d allotted herself for fiction-writing doing research, which led to a long story about something I knew little about.

When we came back home a little stinky from sweat, I took the two Advil and declared that I would spend  at least thirty minutes being a bookmaker. Not a sixteen-year-old one, either. A forty-year-old bookmaker, on the living room floor with a glue stick and scraps of paper from the bin at the art store and the White Keys blasting on the Apple TV.

By the time I came to a logical stopping point on the creative project I’m working on, I noticed that my headache was gone. I felt ready to eat some leftovers, and to write. I had done two things, two things I lose track of time doing–walking, and a glorified version of arts-and-crafts destined to be a gift to someone I love dearly.

How we spend our days.

If you aren’t in love with how you spend your days, you may or may not be able to change that all at once. But one thing is for sure–you will not change it at all, ever, if you don’t start choosing to spend time, just little bits even, doing things that recharge you, remind you not just of you were when, but of who you are now.

I cannot reveal the source of the following conversation, but I share it here due to its relevance to our topic:

Real-Life Dialogue:
Anonymous Person: I’ve been working on not eating my boogers.
Me: Yeah?
AP: Yeah. And and now I’m working on not picking my nose at all.
Me: Oh!
AP: It’s easier, when you go in stages like that.

From the mouths of babes, the saying goes. And ain’t that the truth. It’s easier when you go in stages. Don’t have time to exercise? I do squats in the elevator at work, for the time between the third and first floors. I don’t know, but it couldn’t have been more than 40 seconds. (p.s. Don’t worry–only when I have the elevator to myself.)

I don’t know anyone who has ever received a hefty–or any–advance for their first novel. No, she writes a paragraph a day, between the paying clients and changing the laundry. The time she carves out to write that paragraph, though, is a choice–and a sacred one at that, meaning it cannot be put off until tomorrow when she has more time. Because she will never have more time.

We will never have more time another day. Life will not magically slow down after the next board meeting or deadline–unless you claim it. Thirty minutes, fifteen. One, even.

It’s easier, when you go in stages.

Stop eating your boogers before you worry about not picking your nose. One thing follows another, and before you know it, you’ll have broken an unwanted habit or rekindled a dormant passion, or banged out three chapters of your novel, or made homemade ice-cream, or taken a walk, or started a writing group, or sketched during breakfast.

Just start.

If you’re thinking of how it won’t really amount to anything, you might be right. But what if you’re wrong? Don’t you want to find out?

On Missed Opportunities, Anaphylaxis, and Waking Up Alive

Ambulance

On June 12th, 2014 I woke up alive. Not just breathing. Alive. 

This is significant because on the morning of June 11th, I missed an opportunity. That lost opportunity felt like a punch in the gut. It knocked the wind out of me. In fact, I was temporarily consumed with my feelings about it. But not for long. A couple of hours later, I almost died. And that’s when everything changed forever.

The morning started like most weekday mornings start in my house. My partner brought me coffee in bed. Then we moved to the deck and enjoyed each other’s silent company, the early morning quiet interrupted only by chirping birds, rustling leaves, and the occasional sounds of a car in the distance.

And then it was time for her to shower, so I flopped down on the bed and started my work day. Several minutes later, I stopped working to admire her while she got dressed, and she teased me, pretending to be surprised, because this is the morning routine. Too soon, she was dressed for work and ready to walk out the door, and she kissed me goodbye. I didn’t want her to go. I pulled her back for a second kiss. She went into the kitchen to grab her lunch, then came back into the bedroom to kiss me goodbye again. We laughed about the silliness of missing each other when she’s just going to an office less than fifteen minutes away and we know we’ll see each other again at the end of the day.

After she left, I goofed around with the kids for an hour, then shooed them out the door to school, with the little one popping her head back in to tell me “just one more thing,” at least three times.

And then, on this very typical morning, one that was until this point nearly identical to dozens of others I’ve had over the last nine months, I found out about the missed opportunity. It was something I had really wanted to do, an opportunity that felt significant and worthwhile. The worst part was that the only person I could be pissed off at was myself. Shortly after I had been asked to do this thing, some extremely urgent family matters had arisen, and my obligations as a mother totally eclipsed everything else. I hadn’t blown it off. I had good reason for not following through. But I was still mad at myself. Certainly, if nothing else, I could have found the five minutes to tell the other person involved what was going on and why I had disappeared, but I didn’t. I just disappeared.

And now I was wallowing. I decided to let myself wallow for fifteen minutes before forcing myself to get back to work. I went to the kitchen to pour myself a refill of coffee.  I noticed a small square of baklava on the table. We had ordered takeout from our favorite restaurant the night before, and they had tossed a few free pieces into the bag. I had been too full to eat mine.

I picked it up, and without giving it a second thought, popped it in my mouth. I chewed slowly, savoring the impossibly thin, flaky layers of pastry drenched in honey, layered with pistachios, crushed almost into a paste. It was delicious.

And within a few minutes, I knew that something wasn’t quite right. There was a horrible aftertaste lingering in my mouth. It tasted similar to a melted aspirin, and no amount of coffee or water would get rid of it. Soon after, my tongue and gums started to itch and burn. My lips felt like they were on fire.

At this point, I knew that I was having an allergic reaction. I recalled that several years ago I had an allergic reaction to pistachios, but I had eaten small amounts on several occassions since then with no consequence.

I wasn’t scared. I just thought it was a minor annoyance. A small blip on the radar of my day that would be remedied with Benadryl. I checked the medicine cabinet and realized we didn’t have any, so I decided to walk to the corner store a couple of blocks away to buy some. I sent Jena a text that said, “Ugh! I can never eat pistachios again. Not even a little!”

I made it to the end of our cul de sac. After walking just a few yards, my heart was beating like I had been running for miles. Adrenaline was coursing through my body. I had a vague recollection of reading something once about exercise speeding up or exacerbating allergic reactions… or something like that. Walking anywhere seemed like a terrible idea. So I headed back to the house and called Jena.

I told her that I might be overreacting, but I needed her to come home from work. I needed to be seen by a doctor. I must have apologized for inconveniencing her at least three or four times. She heard something in my voice that I was not yet aware of, the way it was getting higher, shrill and raspy at the same time. She said she was on her way and asked if she should call 911. I said no. Just get home.

I called her back less than two minutes later and asked how close she was. Apparently, I was no longer capable of rational thought, or I would have called 911 myself at this point. But I didn’t. I called her and she told me she was calling 911.

I sat on the porch, peeling off my jacket because I was hot and flushed, yet shivering almost convulsively from adrenaline and fear. My heart was slamming against my chest so hard and fast that it hurt. And now my breathing wasn’t just fast, I was having to think about it.

There were sirens drawing closer, and I felt a mix of relief and embarrassment as the ambulance pulled up in front of the house. I was relieved because I knew deep down that I was in real trouble. Embarrassed, because some small, irrational part of my brain was still certain that they were going to give me Benadryl and tell me I could have just waited to go to the ER on my own.

That isn’t what happened. Instead, they asked me a few questions and got me on a stretcher. They rolled me into the back of the ambulance while I wheezed something about my partner being on her way home, how she should be here any minute.  He reassured me that we would probably still be at the house when she arrived, that they were going to start an IV with Benadryl before we rolled out.

I was relieved when I saw her car pull up behind the ambulance. She climbed into the back and squeezed my hand and tried to ask a few questions, which I’m not sure I ever answered.  She asked if she should ride in the ambulance or follow in her car. The paramedics told her to follow in her car, so that she’d be able to drive home later.

I didn’t want her to follow in her car. I didn’t want her to leave my side. I know her well enough to know that had I said so, she would have refused to budge. But I didn’t say so, because all of my effort was going into breathing.

I felt a pang of despair as she climbed out of the ambulance and they shut the door behind her. I watched her get into her car. And then we pulled out onto the road, and I lost sight of her.

While we were rolling down the road, I glanced at the monitor displaying my vitals. My heart rate was astronomical and climbing. The paramedic sounded sharp when he told me not to look at it. When I couldn’t keep my glance from returning to the screen, he flipped it around so I couldn’t see it.

Time lost all meaning. Had I told her I loved her? I couldn’t remember. I hoped that I had said the words out loud, not just thought them. I wanted to call my kids to tell them I loved them. I glanced down and saw my cell phone, still lying on my belly where the paramedic had placed it when he put me on the stretcher. I wanted to tell them I loved them, but I didn’t want them to hear me like I was. And anyway, I couldn’t bend my fingers, let alone pick up my phone to make a call. I prayed.

And the man apologizing as he pulled down my pants and jabbed an EpiPen into my thigh was telling the driver to call the hospital. He was calling out my name and date of birth and the situation. His face was calm, but his hand was shaking.

And then he pressed his hands down over mine and told me to relax them, to breathe with him, and I did. And it felt like it took a very long time, but eventually my throat loosened, the air passed through with less struggle on each breath, and we pulled into the bay at the emergency room.

Several hours later, I returned home with EpiPens, steroids, my life, and a major paradigm shift. The Meaning of Life, revealed.

And what is the Meaning of Life?

Speaking only for myself, the meaning of life is that we GET to do this.

Life is not something that is happening to us, which we are forced to endure. It isn’t a slog or a burden, and even when it feels like it is, it is still an extraordinary privilege.

We get to be here. We get to live these days. This life. Not some life that has already happened to us and ended five years ago. Certainly not the imaginary ones we conjure up in our heads and call The Future. This life. Here. Now.

And when it’s all on the line, you’re not going to give a second thought to stressful deadlines, or the housework. You’re not going to feel sorry for yourself that your bank account isn’t as large as you had hoped it would be by this point in your life. You won’t be worrying that anyone will see your stretch marks or that hair on your chin that you forgot to tweeze.

The Meaning of Life is, “Did I remember to tell her I love her?”

There are a million opportunities to love. And for every opportunity, there are a million ways to blow it, too.

Honestly, my business didn’t cross my mind while I was in the back of that ambulance. The missed opportunity that has felt like such a big deal earlier that day left my mind entirely. But when the threat of imminent death had passed, I thought about it a lot. Over the past month, I have assessed and reassessed every aspect of my life, and what I realized is that I don’t want to miss anything that matters.

We can’t have it all, true. But we can have everything that matters. Life is fleeting. I don’t want to waste a single minute on things that don’t matter. I don’t want to strive for some ridiculous, fictitious work/life balance.

Your life is not a series of compartmentalized boxes. Your work is your life, and more importantly, your life is your work.

If you spend the vast majority of your hours doing something you hate, you are not loving the vast majority of your life. If the vast majority of your hours are not spent doing something you really, truly believe in, why are you doing it?

I am lucky that the vast majority of my work time is spent doing things I love and believe are valuable to other people. On occasion, I take side work that I feel are neither, because I value taking care of my family’s needs more than I value ’round the clock emotional fulfillment from my work. It’s a choice, and it is one that I don’t regret and I refuse to complain about.

We love to tell ourselves that we have no choice, but that is false, and it is self-victimization. Make no mistake, there is almost always a choice. Nearly every moment of every day of our lives is comprised of a series of choices.

Yes, there are things we can’t foresee. Yes, there are emergencies and tragedies that leave us with no choices, other than how we respond to them. That happens.

But these are exceptions to the rule. Most of our days are not comprised of series of tragedies and emergencies in which we are helpless to change our circumstances. And thank God for that.

The thing is, we rarely have any forewarning about when they’re coming. and in what form. If we did, I wouldn’t have eaten the baklava.

I won’t give you a long list of all the things I think you should or shouldn’t do, based on my experience. Most of it wouldn’t be relevant, because we aren’t the same person. We might have different value and hopes and dreams. As we should. That’s what makes this big crazy world so beautiful.

There’s only one thing that I learned from nearly dying that I know with complete certainty will apply to you.

This is your life. Your one and only life. This day is happening. Choose carefully.

The Past as Prison: Burn It, Bury It, Leave It Behind

d9690d573ad77fbea7340de43607eb58Whether you’re into the woo-woo of the supermoon or not, it’s hard to deny the allure and power of a moon as big and bright as the one we saw last Saturday. One line from the various interpretations we read that night stood out at me: Whatever your prison, you’re preparing for a daring jailbreak.

It got us talking, and asking each other this question:

What parts of yourself or your life do you perceive as prisons?

  • A feeling of powerlessness to change conditions you perceive as less-than-ideal?
  • Getting mad instead of feeling the vulnerability of hurt?
  • Spending energy talking yourself out of your feelings rather than feeling them?
  • Working to change your perspective on circumstances you don’t like–rather than just not liking them?
  • Wanting to control things that are simply beyond your control?
  • Not having enough (time, money, patience, talent, luck, discipline…)
  • Fear that you aren’t a “real” ___________, and one of these days everyone will find out?

One place I imprison myself is the past. For me, it can be a black hole for creativity, a total 180º to the glory light of a full moon.

While going over and over the past can take many forms–regret, guilt, nostalgia, and revision–it can also serve as a powerful reminder and affirmation of how you got here. It can fuel your creativity and renew your faith that everything happens right on time and for a reason. Or it can hold you back in ways both apparent and subconscious, from taking risks, from taking action in the directions your heart longs for.

Living in the past can keep you from really living.

As a child and teenager, then well into my 20s and 30s, I collected mementos and tchotchkes and notebooks and journals; it was as if I needed to surround myself with evidence of who I was and what I was. Even now, after many periods of purging–out with the old, in with the new–I still revisit how things happened, wondering or worrying about other people’s feelings long after the fact, or reliving moments of intensity and change.

Ruminating on the past is a kind of addiction. And it is a shield, against fear–fear of what will happen if you truly leave it behind.

External, material representations of the past can be imprisoning; if your home is a Living History Museum, how will the future to find you?

There is no room at the inn for change, for discovery, for creating, when your primary relationships are with younger versions of yourself or previous chapters of your life. It’s funny, some people read and re-read their favorite books, whereas when I read and love a book, I devour it in a day, bask in the glow for another, and then promptly forget everything I just read, remembering enough only to say, “I loved that book.” If I don’t love a book, I can’t for the life of me finish it. And other than poetry, I rarely re-read anything.

So, the night of the supermoon, after some internal mulling, I shared something Big and Scary with my beloved. I told her that the ketubah (Jewish marriage document) from my first marriage was rolled up in our bedroom closet. It wasn’t that I had concealed this from her so much as I had stashed and ignored it. Now that she and I are preparing the text for our own ketubah, knowing it was there, that some part of me had been holding onto it, felt extremely significant. I teared up as I spoke to her about it.

The glass that encased that paper was smashed four years ago, a stand-out among many painful moments. My divorce was finalized nearly two years ago. And Monday marked the two-and-a-half year anniversary of a one-night stand that turned into a life commitment to the woman I will marry in just over two months.

Holding onto that relic of the past, crammed between bins filled with other relics of the past, no longer made any sense. It felt like being a voluntary hostage to vestiges of guilt or betrayal or loss, an inadvertent withholding of the heart that beats in my chest and in her hands. So while I may already have done the work of “letting go,” clearly there was still something that needed to be done.

I burned it. In the front yard, under the midnight full moon.

Watching the paper crinkle inward and up, smoke pouring through the center of the scroll, all I could think was, “Thank you, thank you.”

Gratitude to what that paper once meant to me, and how the years it hung in bedrooms long gone witnessed so much growing and becoming. And gratitude, too, for the readiness to stop grieving ghosts and turn fully towards life as it is.

Walking away from a self-perpetuated prison where I hoard objects and memories opened something in me. Something honest and vulnerable and strong and empowered. After we went inside, she asked if it was hard. I felt quiet. No, I said. Not hard, but beautiful in a way that didn’t call for elaboration.

To break from the past is to be free. A thousand poets and survivors have said it better–that the only prisons are the ones we create, the ones we chain ourselves inside of, lamenting or angry or bitter or sad.

Sometimes you have to visit in order to sift through what you left behind. And there also comes a day when you can stop visiting, when the past can rest and the present can breathe. 

A daring jailbreak sounded good to me on Saturday night, to light a match and walk away after the ash smoldered and the flame went out.

To claim freedom is not to disown but to honor how you got here, and to create space for what wants to come into being.

What prisons are you ready to break out of? What symbols of the past could you burn or bury? What are you holding on to that you could put down, making your hands available for whatever creative work is calling you?

What is Broken is What God Blesses

Jimmy Santiago Baca1952
   The lover’s footprint in the sand
   the ten-year-old kid’s bare feet
in the mud picking chili for rich growers,
not those seeking cultural or ethnic roots,
but those whose roots
have been exposed, hacked, dug up and burned
		       and in those roots
                           do animals burrow for warmth;
what is broken is blessed,
       	not the knowledge and empty-shelled wisdom
       	paraphrased from textbooks,
           		not the mimicking nor plaques of distinction
		           nor the ribbons and medals
but after the privileged carriage has passed
	       the breeze blows traces of wheel ruts away
	       and on the dust will again be the people’s broken
                            footprints.
What is broken God blesses,
       	not the perfectly brick-on-brick prison
	       but the shattered wall
	       that announces freedom to the world,
proclaims the irascible spirit of the human
rebelling against lies, against betrayal,
against taking what is not deserved;
	       the human complaint is what God blesses,
	       our impoverished dirt roads filled with cripples,
what is broken is baptized,
       	the irreverent disbeliever,
	       the addict’s arm seamed with needle marks
                   is a thread line of a blanket
       	frayed and bare from keeping the man warm.
We are all broken ornaments,
              	   glinting in our worn-out work gloves,
		        foreclosed homes, ruined marriages,
from which shimmer our lives in their deepest truths,
blood from the wound,
                              broken ornaments—
when we lost our perfection and honored our imperfect sentiments, we were
blessed.
Broken are the ghettos, barrios, trailer parks where gangs duel to death,
yet through the wretchedness a woman of sixty comes riding her rusty bicycle,
		       we embrace
		       we bury in our hearts,
broken ornaments, accused, hunted, finding solace and refuge
		       we work, we worry, we love
          	       but always with compassion
		       reflecting our blessings—
			    in our brokenness
			    thrives life, thrives light, thrives
				 the essence of our strength,
				 each of us a warm fragment,
				 broken off from the greater
				 ornament of the unseen,
				 then rejoined as dust,
				 to all this is.