Call and Response: Dana Gioia’s Poem, “The Letter”

Call: The Letter
by Dana Gioia

And in the end, all that is really left
Is a feeling—strong and unavoidable—
That somehow we deserved something better.
That somewhere along the line things
Got fouled up. And that letter from whoever’s
In charge, which certainly would have set
Everything straight between us and the world,
Never reached us. Got lost somewhere.
Possibly mislaid in some provincial station.
Or sent by mistake to an old address
Whose new tenant put it on her dresser
With the curlers and the hairspray forgetting
To give it to the landlord to forward.
And we still wait like children who have sent
Two weeks’ allowance far away
To answer an enticing advertisement
From a crumbling, yellow magazine,
Watching through years as long as a childhood summer,
Checking the postbox with impatient faith
Even on days when mail is never brought.


Response: The Letter
by Jena Strong

No, Dana. In the end,
we will have received
every letter, opened some
neatly, along the crease
of the envelope, using
the letter opener we found
that time at the five and dime
when we were little kids
with coins in our lint-lined
pockets, that somehow
we kept through all the loves
and all the moves,
all the well days
and all the hand-wringing
goodbye moments,
tucked away and taken out
to open letters announcing:
I love you, you are loved.

Others, we will have been
not so careful with,
tearing them open
with overeager hands
or our front teeth
like rabid animals,
hungry not for news
but for something to chew on
and digest, to fuel us through
one hard winter after another.

Yes, we sent messages out
to the world, in bottles,
in songs, in pleas
and prayers, in exultation
and in desperation, asking
for so much and stopping
one day and then another,
no longer wondering
if we deserved answers,
deserved return receipt,
deserved reciprocity.

We deserved it,
deserved it all in the end,
got what our starving
hearts feared wouldn’t come.
We arrived, at the end, here,
to this place
where open and honest learned
to lie together, lion and lamb,
storm and stasis,
breath and gifts from an abyss
of longing unwrapped,
a party in our mouths
of words and of kisses
and of running
to the mailbox after work
to lift the lid
from the tin mailbox–
It came! It came! Mama!

All things in good time
and all good things in time
after so long waiting, Dana.
This, I believe. This, I refuse
to give up for another minute,
not wasting a single morsel
of the mail, the inbox–
the sender and the receiver,
the writer and the reader
are one, and the same.

Forty and There is No Other Little Corner of the World


Living means relating inside and out. To seek for “your [own] centre” is a bit like aiming for self-preservation through freezing. To be alive and awake is to allow your centre to be shifted and stretched again and again. – Seikan Čech

Last night, we took a walk through the Smith campus in the dark, after getting a bite to eat in Northampton.

I pulled Mani close and kissed her. Twenty years ago, I was a Barnard student, and never once did I kiss a woman. Instead, I sat at the kitchen table and asked my mother how she’d feel if one of her daughters was gay. Hypothetically, of course. Maybe I’m making up for lost time–and marveling, too, at how there really is no other, or better, way for everything to happen than the way it happens.

It’s convenient being 40. I can now say things like, “I spent my 20s and 30s…”

I spent two decades–longer–searching.

Searching for a business partner, someone I could join forces and collaborate with. So many coffee dates and near misses. Searching for livelihood that would be both lucrative and fulfilling. Searching for ways in and searching for ways out. Man, there was a lot of searching. So many questions. Slowly, then all at once, seeing what was right in front of me. Hearing the word “surrender” for the first time and only years later experiencing its true meaning, which left me keening with grief and rising up with a fierce will to walk the rubble and rebuild. Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude. Struggle, struggle, struggle. Practice, practice, practice. Lots–as my father once observed–of “heavy sighing.”

And then, these words from Emily Dickinson, at my front door, fire in the belly, the top of my head coming off like a lid under pressure:

The Heart wants what it wants – or else it does not care.

The woman who feared being “just a catalyst” asked me, “What do you want?” A friend who knew how to cut to the truth asked me, “Do you want her?” Another friend said, “Forget him. Forget her. What about you?” And another: “You’ll know when you know.”

I spent two decades–longer–seeking out teachers.

Approval and validation from others. And having babies! Working and wanting and stifling. Great joy in the building of a community. And. So. Much. Angst. Angst, angst, angst! Always thinking there was some other life I was moving towards–the one that was “over there, behind the shelf the sexton keeps the key to,” another line from Emily Dickinson, one that both defined and guided me throughout my early adulthood. Jumping around from thing to thing, idea to idea, job to job, a dog going in mad circles trying to get comfortable.

Heaving sighing, indeed.

And now, the first spring in the first year of a brand new decade in my little corner of the world. I will surely look back on this and smile at myself, thinking how young forty really is.

Discontent still rushes in by default. Restlessness so habitual I have to throw cold water on my face, stand up and stretch and shapeshift back again to the center that I spent so long guessing at, intuiting, missing, overlooking. Sometimes, I forget I’m here, really here.

אין עוד. Ein od. There is no other. No other self. No other god. No other life. No other path than the one below and before me. No other center. No missing pieces or secret hinges. No other place to be, no other past than the one that was, and no other future than the next breath and the next.

We underestimate ourselves so egregiously. Disregard our many skills, the wisdom we’ve accumulated through sheer experience, all the decisions we’ve made and hard calls and sudden moves and baby steps. Trips to visit new nieces and dying loved ones. Hot springs and hospitals and hotels and moving trucks and lay-offs and vows made and broken, laughing fits and crying jags and conversations that changed us or converted our pain into power and movement as we walked, on bike paths and city streets and through the woods and up mountains and around neighborhoods at night, peering into other people’s kitchen windows before returning home. There is no other, no other home than here.

Do you forget sometimes, too? Get all heady and sigh heavily and draw a blank about how far you’ve come, or live in a state of constant nagging that you still have so far to go?

Where is it we think we’re going?

On my bedroom wall, there is a Nikki McClure print I bought for myself a couple of years ago. A woman diving, hands in anjali mudra, into the water. Return, it says. Return to the pulse of your life. Return to the sounds in the room and the birds in the yard and the day that has just begun. Confusion is a dubious safety net; look closely and you’ll see it’s tattered and full of holes. Put it out with the trash. There is no other little corner of the world I’d rather be, no other route I should have taken to get here. When I have waves of feeling diminished by the ordinary rhythms of these days, I step back and see: My god! So many gifts received and given freely, daily.

Return. Return to your corner of the world. To the center you can stop seeking because it’s never left you. To the magnificence of your being and the magic of your aliveness. It doesn’t have to be bigger, better, or different. All the years of whispering to my girls at bedtime, “You are just right,” come home to roost. Ein od. There is no other. There is no other me. There is no other you. And to that, let us say, Amen.

Places to Wake Up

10152019_10203008569791746_2412226512187545378_nI start the day facing East
and the trees–
this wasn’t always true.
Other days–your city stoop,
watching the sun come up
over the tops of buildings
of downtown Phoenix,
or crouching on the beach
before the longest horizon,
groaning in an overheated
rented room on West 78th Street
where daylight didn’t bother
with the air shaft but rose
over a river I couldn’t see.
Then there was the garden
in San Miguel de Allende
with its bougainvillea
and packs of dogs
howling at daybreak,
the rain that pounded against
my door like a waking dream,
the railroad bed by the lake
in Burlington where I’d run
away so early in the mornings,
alternate parking days in Somerville
and first light at Porter Square,
riding the train, watching the sculls
glide so swiftly down the Charles
on my way to workshops
with some attempts at poems
and the sun glinting like a hint
of some other future,
and of course the years
of jog strollers and front packs
and singsong soothing
go to sleep baby walks
as the world woke all around,
the hiss of the radiator
in my parents’ kitchen
where I rattled off dreams,
my mother in her robe drinking tea,
my father in his robe reading
The Sunday Times, ranting,
the wedding pages and luxury houses
I’d circle in red, long before
I’d learned of recycling or reality.
Mornings and I go way back
through the world and time,
and yes, there are so many
places to wake up and begin.
Today, it’s me and the trees again,
sheets clammy from changing
bodies and broken sleep,
and–my favorite–these birds
that sing, without need
to remember any spring
before, happy maybe, just to build
new nests with useful debris
and baby mouths to feed,
so hungry we all must be
for the possibilities
a new morning brings.

Recant the Can’ts and Run Into the Light

1970520_10202953069524274_450351429_nHow many can’ts do you live with, day in and day out? Are they there when you wake up? Do they join you for your first cup of coffee or tea? Do they intrude on you throughout the day, squash your momentum, then climb into your bed at night, tossing and turning and hogging the blankets?

Can’t is a voracious black hole.

Find time
Figure out
Sit still
Get started
Get a break
Get over
Keep up
Keep going
Make up
Break up

Are you still there?

Oh, good. I was a little worried, that that list of flying verb debris might have made you want to jump off a cliff. Hide under a rock. Sleep. Worst of all, doubt the merit and power of your hard work and good intentions.

Or, maybe it galvanized you. This is what happened to me. Just this morning.

The Stop Doing List

Last night, Mani and I were looking at Danielle Laporte’s Celebration of the Stop Doing List. To create your own list, she suggests asking three questions:

  1. Are you deeply passionate about it?
  2. Do you feel you’re ‘made to do’ it?
  3. Can you make a living at it?

It’s amazing what happens when you plant a seed before bedtime. I fell asleep contemplating these questions and what things need to go on my Stop Doing List.

And when I woke up today and it was April, a whole new month, I knew that the number one thing I need to stop doing is saying I can’t.

I ran for 28 minutes while Pandora fed me a steady stream of good songs by singer-songwriters who clearly kicked some serious can’ts to the curb–Ani DiFranco and Tracy Chapman, Melissa Ferrick, The Indigo Girls.

I hauled ass up a hill through the UMass campus. And I ran right into the light of a brand new day.

I ran into the light.

Unlike the insatiable but ultimately lazy darkness, the light requires more. It demands an honest inventory of all the ways you spend time that you’re not actually passionate about and that certainly don’t make you a penny. All the thoughts you tolerate on repeat, like a song skipping endlessly.

Pick up the needle.

No, not that kind of needle! The one that’s stuck on the same spot of the record, turning turning turning skipping for so long you’ve tuned it out. Background noise. A nuisance. Such a constant you barely even register it anymore.

This should drive you crazy in the best way. Pick up the needle! As Kant (not to be confused with can’t) wrote:

To be is to do.

How can you fully experience the amazingness of your being if you are not doing new things, blasting open the cemented places in your heart and mind, and deposing once and for all the tyranny of the can’ts?

So which is it?

Stop doing or do?

Don’t be confused. The two make a handsome pair.

In order to do what you want, what you can, what you love, what you’ve been waiting for, avoiding, putting off, or circling around like a dog trying to find the absolute perfect spot to settle in, there are things you must stop doing.

Today, I woke up and I saw the can’ts for what they are: Bloodsucking leeches draining me of my life force. I am not exaggerating, not one bit. And I felt that rush of energy that comes with the truth. That comes with remembering I am capable, which is the nemesis of can’t. That comes with running into the light.

Why not today?

What better day could there be for movement and keeping the faith and saying no to negativity and narrow places? What better day than today to recant the can’ts and run into the light?

Libera tu mente de los no puedo. Free your mind from the I can’ts.

Now go and get it.

And be sure to tell me how it goes.

Three Things: Short, Goofy, and Vulnerable*

photo (2).JPG1. Wearing Converse. More specifically (I had to consult the beautiful woman sitting next to me in the coffeeshop to get this detail right, shoe novice that I am–good thing she’s my fiancée): Low-top Chucks. I got them today on a very sweet, spontaneous shopping trip to the thrift store and  TJ Maxx with Mani and my mom. They’re blue, with white soles. They offer absolutely no extra height to my five-foot-half-inch frame whatsoever. And I feel short. I feel short because I am short, and often when I’m actually out and about, I wear boots that lend me a couple of inches, nothing extreme, but still something to bring me closer to eye level with much of the world. Want to see a picture of them?

photo(284)The short part isn’t how I’ve changed. I’ve always been short. Small, petite, etc.  Like, small as in I forget I’m small altogether until I go clothes shopping and the numbers of the sizes don’t match my self-image, my sense of bigness. This has been true pretty much forever. What’s different is settling in with it, happily. Wearing my Chucks and having to gaze up a little at Mani, not diminished but actually emboldened by being more fully present in my god-given package.

2. Acting ridiculous. Sometimes. This morning, I took Aviva’s brush to my head–something I rarely do and even more rarely do publicly. Then I stepped into the bedroom with a twinkle in my eye. “Like my new look?” I asked. Family lore has it I was a funny kid, the kind of funny I now see Pearlie is, how her laugh can set us all to laughing. I’ve also been serious. Am serious. Life is very serious business, right? It’s a real part of me, and there are ways in which I value and love this about myself. IMG_4180

Unforrowing my permanently creased brow more often, in exchange for the delights of silly and goofy and being able to laugh at myself, these feel like offering a gift to myself and maybe even to others. To make someone smile, sometimes at my own ego-busting expense–what could be better, really? See Exhibit A to your right.

3. Inviting vulnerability. Novelist Leslie Jamison writes, “Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us — a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain — it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves.” Being empathetic to and inviting vulnerability from others–these come naturally to me. But loving myself when I don’t feel strong or happy has been a steeper climb, and sharing these moments with others, even or especially the people closest to me, even more so.

photo(286)Why? In a word: Fear. Fear that my sadness and struggle are not as attractive and beautiful as my small, cute self or my funny self or my on-fire creative self or my optimistic and positive self. It’s not always easy, but I am changing, growing into someone who trusts that I can be vulnerable and still lovable, that these are in fact mutually inclusive, the former a sometimes painful but always worthwhile gateway to greater intimacy and aliveness.

And it’s a choice: To pay attention to the reflex to shut down. To extend a hand in the dark–Hi, I’m hurting–and clasp the one that meets mine, not despite my vulnerability, but because of it.

*Play along with Isabel Abbott’s “three things” project at Lists and Letters.

Soul: White Hot Dominatrix

6211027552_cf53ca7af8_bPrison in my throat. Heat and ache. Mouth open. Silent scream, tears instead. Sit facing the wall, not wiping my face but feeling the prickle, the itch, the urge to escape.

Demanding and rough, a blinding dominatrix who has her white hot way with me, a fierce whisper saying: This, this body belongs to me. Give me the soles of your feet and the expanse of your ribcage, give me your fingertips crackling, sparks flying, stopping for nothing.

Soul moves swiftly upward, claiming the crown. She is fire, blaze, smashing self-destruction and roughhousing skin border crossings on her way to creation.

She bangs on the door and breaks the locks, lets herself in by coming out through my mouth with an exhale that fills all the cramped rooms I’ve confined her to, her ancient exile a pile of rubbish to sweep to the pit.

She burns down the old houses of the hidden truths my grandmothers knew, the ones embedded in my cells since birth, the ones I’ve carried long enough.

Soul is like this: She translates no into yes, scatters the ashes of second-guesses, guides me through gardens that will grow wild in the broken places, the empty stations, neglected corners and deserted graces, the toppled stones of self-abandon.

Without a word she names my body her home: All the times I severed the rope between us once again forgiven, she softens and settles to the dark pelvic floor, the fields of muscle and bone where we finally rest, united. Breathing as one.

Image by Swiss photographer René Groebli

Inhaling the Song and Exhaling the Prayer

1932435_10202857038883568_1921674410_nI start the day here, browsing, reading. Poems about Persephone, about chains of women and photographs of girls on the beach. There are so many poets, words and lines, images I prop up against like pillows, pillars.

It is Tuesday in the bedroom that faces East, letting in morning sunlight, casting shadows of lamps and shelves on the yellow door. I am allotted one day off during the college’s spring break, and I sit in bed with my coffee, tucked up under a fleece blanket next to my chosen one, who is working. I am obsessed with the songbirds.

The house is quiet but for the moon-faced clock ticking steadily and the sounds of nearby traffic on Chestnut Street. I am reading Mark Doty, his memoir of becoming, Firebird:

“Soul way down in there, little winged me, little shoot, like when you cut open an onion and there’s that new green hidden in the center, wanting to shout its way out, but be careful: lose your body and the soul jumps out, like the little man my grandfather told me jumps out of the log in the fire when you hear that pop–that sound means he’s broken free of the wood that held him.”

And I am reading poems, too. Poems by women I’ve never heard of before and poems by women I know across time and space. It’s cold outside, still so cold. I’m wearing a knitted hat from a consignment shop, and the pajama bottoms my sister gave me. I cross and uncross my ankles, reading Emily Dickinson – 

I’ve got an arrow here
Loving the hand that sent it
I the dart revere

– and Annie Finch, who lives in Maine and whose bird name is new to me, her Changing Woman:

If we change as she is changing,
if she changes as we change

(If she changes, I am changing)

Who is changing, as I bend
down to what the sky has sent us?

(Is she changing, or the same?)

Am I changing? I’ve got an arrow here, and once again am listening for something I cannot hear without silence. On my little desk, the Pothos seems to be looking out the window, Moroccan oil cardamom-scented in a blue bottle, and holy water from Lourdes telling stories of healing, of pilgrimage.

Cherry-red frames on the wall containing moments, gorgeous pregnant mama and black-and-white desert love. Little winged me, little shoot, she who shot out of me and grew and grew, whose pajama bottoms get mixed up with mine now and whose voice wants the whole world as a stage for her becoming.

I write knowing only that I always wanted to be a weaver, warp and weft, deftly nestling disparate moments into something that would drape like heavy comfort over your tightly knit shoulders, forever bending down, looking over, peering into nothing to glimpse something unseen, stillness a sunbeam, a package at the door, a fury of songbirds and bulbs bulging beneath the thaw.

If I know one thing, it must be this. This silence and synthesis, of not having to go anywhere or be anything. There are losses and there are gains, she told me whose name I’ve lost, as I agonized over false choices before circling back to center. She is changing, she is the same.

Released for a day from the draining routine and relaxing my grip on what’s already here, I strain to hear the instructions that always send me back to my seat. Inhaling the song, and exhaling the prayer:

You can’t catch a cardinal,
that cocky flash of red,
or the pair of Chickadees,
cacophonous overhead.
You can’t make the trilling
sound of one without a name,
but you can sit and listen
and say thank you all the same.

On Being a Force of Nature

2b1922424987c5002c17296a22b71afbI first spoke to Julie Daley and learned about her new course, Becoming a Force of Nature, back in September. A mutual Facebook friend made the introduction, suggesting that Julie might want to interview me for her course. I said yes, because I say yes to these things when they come. I also had no real idea what this would mean, and still don’t–only that she recorded our conversation last night, about creativity and our deepest nature and my story of becoming, and will share this with the participants in her course–people in twenty different countries, people who, like me, maybe like you, want to “be who we are and bring that wholly into the world.”

I was nervous about the call and kept returning to those three words: Force of Nature. I’ve been called a few things over the years, and this is one of them. (Firecracker, Walking Exclamation Point, and Jewish Leprechaun are some others that have stayed with me.)

And I kept wondering, what is that? Aren’t we all forces of nature? I noticed the impulse, habitual really, to back away from it, as if somehow the ordinaryness of my life excluded something so audacious sounding. Six months after we talked for the first time, Julie and I found a time for the interview, and we both had to laugh last night when we started out with some technical difficulties on Skype. But we were clearly meant to talk, and at least for me, it was worth the wait.

About an hour earlier, sitting at the kitchen table with Mani and wolfing down pizza before our call, I was thinking out loud about the “force of nature” question. And Mani said something so insightful. She pointed out that a huge crashing wave needs the whole ocean, a tornado  touches down over a wide open prairie. Forces of nature need huge spaces in order to occur. Why not own it? she asked me.,

When I think of my life and surroundings as small and enclosed, my own inner sense of potential–for destruction, I suppose, but equally to create, to take up room without apology in the world–I need to return to this sense of expansiveness both within and around me. Naming the impulse to sequester creativity to the margins of “real life,” something I have to run away from everything in order to access, helped me prepare for talking with Julie.

When we finally began, Julie asked if I had any questions before she hit “record.” I told her my only questions were about what questions was going to ask me. “I guess we’ll just wing it,” I told her. Trusting that I’d have something to say meant trusting my own experience, which was pretty much the topic of our interview.

I spent many years battening down the hatches against my own force of nature. It was too-big feeling, too scary, and I knew without knowing–this could be a good definition of intuition–that once unleashed, I’d have to face the consequences. Something that gestates and builds for that long gains a lot of power. I believe it’s true, that we ignore or deny rules our lives–and I was afraid. I was afraid of what would happen if I fully shared who really was in there. If I came out into the big not-knowing of really knowing.

When I told the truth about my life, just as Muriel Rukeyser wrote in her poem, Kathe Kollwitz, the world did split open. And with it, I opened, spilled out completely, revealing prairies and ocean of the wide open spaces I needed in order to find my way to settled. I find myself in these stanzas, from the same poem:

Woman as gates, saying:
“The process is after all like music,
like the development of a piece of music.
The fugues come back and again and again
A theme may seem to have been put aside,
but it keeps returning–
the same things modulated,
somewhat changed in form.
Usually richer.
And it is very good that this is so.”

A woman pouring her opposites.
“After all there are happy things in life too.
Why do you show only the dark side?”
“I could not answer this. But I know–
in the beginning my impulse to know
the working life
had little to do with
pity of sympathy.
I simply felt
that the life of the workers was beautiful.”

She said, “I am groping in the dark.”

She said, “When the door opens, of sensuality,
then you will understand it too. The struggle begins.
Never again to be free of it,
often you will it to be your enemy.
you will almost suffocate,
such joy it brings.”

A fugue, pouring out opposites, groping in the dark, sensuality and struggle, suffocation and joy–all of these are the bone and marrow of being a force of nature. Until you show your dark side, the light too will be confined. Life is ordinary, yes. And this is your field, your grounds for expansion. It is not a rarity but a birthright. And to inhabit that kind of space means to inhabit your life and listen to yourself truthfully, to treat those who love and care for you with the respect they deserve, which is to say honesty. Without that, the lie will eat you alive, and you will move through the days a pretender, an actor, a shell containing so much truth.

Fear is a stealth murderess. She will talk you out of what you know to be true, offer up a thousand reasons why it’s crazy talk, why you should give it up, move on, keep it to yourself, don’t rock the boat, protect his or her heart, wrap yourself up in work and groceries and the good you have and really, you should be grateful for your life and stop wanting more.

There is something to this, for sure–be grateful. Stop wanting more if wanting more plummets you down a rabbit hole of lack or self-condemnation. But if can feel that force of nature stirring, gathering strength, moving within you like a tempest in a teacup, a bird of prey in a prison cell, for the love of life itself, feel it.

I think the fear is that if we feel something, we will have to take action. We will have to do something. And eventually, this may be true. But if you create space just for the feeling, open a valve to the knowing, the world splitting open may not be the end of the world. It might be the beginning you long for, the end of longing. The fugue of repetition and recognition and changing form and discovering form, form that fits your sense of self, matches the inside with the outside, and allows you to offer your gifts to the world.

We all play small, run from the storms. Avoid them and they will come anyway. But practice–whether this means sitting still or running hard or cleaning your room or sitting down to have the conversation you’re terrified to initiate–and you may find that the splitting open allows you to pour yourself into your life, share yourself more fully with the people who deserve to know you. This has everything to do with integrity, with reparation, with deep self-acceptance, and with faith.

It’s simple, if not easy. Go easy. Take your time. See what happens. And listen: you’ll know when you know, and if that knowing emerges from a place of truth, life will meet you there and carry you through the days that follow. May the force be with you. May you be the force.

Image by Jessica Neuwerth