This month I rediscovered a bit of myself. A shape I thought I’d lost with the years. With diapers and broken bones, with late-night squabbles and hot flashes.

It seemed that with the realization — not an intellectual knowledge, but a bodily understanding that this life — my life — is finite, I began living too widely.

Trying to fit it all in. And too much of it in a two-dimensional form: via screens.

Maybe it’s the forced flatness of pandemic life that has brought all this to the forefront of my mind. Too much of a thing that had been looking good.

Lately when I find myself wanting to respond angrily to a social media posting of some sort — usually by a stranger, a contact of 2nd degree who pops up because I know someone who knows someone who wants to blow off steam, make a clever cut. I block them without fanfare.

(Well, often I still type out the response, delete it and then block — but I am getting better. I’m finding that typing out the response actually heightens my emotions rather than diffuses them.)

Twitter can be like forcing my way through a carnival crowd if I let it be.

A carnival — every day.

Sometimes I think about the party lines that were around in the 70s and 80s. Did anyone really enjoy those`?

I would block Oscar Wilde’s tweets if he were tweeting today (which we all know he would). I’d still love his poetry. I’d still read his books. Dorothy Parker is only fun when she’s a historical figure, and the people you care about are out of her reach.

I’ve un-followed a lot of connections on Facebook to avoid “hanging out” with people in places I would choose not to go to if I’d been invited to physically attend a gathering. I can love my friend, but choose not to tag along to their AA meeting with them. Or their political rally. Or their bedroom.

I still love them.

It’s not a matter of creating a political bubble. I’ve often blocked people whose politics I agree with. Still follow people whose politics I dislike or don’t even know. So if I’m creating an echo chamber of sorts, at least the echos are pleasant, not hateful. Civil.

Respect should be a word for how we behave in the world, not a word to describe what people owe us, or something that we need to earn. It should be the default.

I’m not shutting out ideas, opposing points of view — I’m shutting out the noise and the drums and the elbow jabs and snickers that tighten the bonds of a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” kind of relationship that lasts until the subject changes and there is a new outrage — a new Venn diagram of opinions.

I don’t believe humans are capable of having thousands of social contacts a day. Imagine if every word came with a touch. How bruised we’d be. How raw.

How raw I feel.

And I miss the freedom that being different people with different people gives us. All the facets of a personality having a place to be. We aren’t authentically any single brand. I don’t want to put energy into marketing myself as a person-of-significance. It’s exhausting. And something I thought I was (mostly) done with at 20.

For many reasons, I’ve never been someone with clearly defined boundaries. And social media has been something of a nightmare for me.

I began this diary entry by saying that I thought these frustrations had to do with aging. But I am more convinced that it has to do with my not maturing. Being dragged back into questions that I’d once resolved — resolved sometimes by comfortably resting in a kind of negative capability.

It’s been almost two decades since George W. Bush said, “You’re either with us or with the terrorists”. A moment in history that could have come and gone in the experience of heightened emotion. But it seems that there’s been no letting-down. Just a constant change of targets.

I’ve not been able to watch A Clockwork Orange all the way through, much less read past the first few pages. But I remember a scene where Alex is strapped into a chair watching image after image after image of horrors.

I don’t think the world has ever been less messy than it is now. That the struggles and cruelties and hates haven’t always been there… somewhere. But there’s also been space for refuge. Not ignorance, but rest.

A little space for all of the tiny creatures that make us who we are to thrive again. And rise again. In a world that’s not a matrix, not a thought experiment.

What I yearn for now may well be something we yearn for more as we age, but it is oddly familiar to what we were given naturally — what we allowed ourselves — when we were very young.

cut roses drying
in the vase — fragments of dead
leaves turn to powder
wedging themselves in the grain
of this old oak writing desk

I’m still searching for a comfortable way to be in the world. I’m still struggling with wanting to be seen, while wanting the freedom to keep growing in ways that being seen prevents.

Lately for no particular reason I can discover, I get flashbacks of events of my life – arriving from another perspective. It’s uncomfortable. It requires an active application of self-compassion to get through the moment. And sometimes through the day.

I also find myself rebelling against social currents now in a way I don’t think I ever have before. When I was younger, my rebellion was personal. Within the reach of my body. I was in a hurry to get past it all.

Past it, I don’t want to learn the language of the public stockade that is social media. I don’t want to memorize the list of new cultural crimes where the more subtle the context, the more hamfisted the punishment.

I thought I understood what “the personal is political” meant. Now I feel that the political is – has always been immediate. Awkward perspectives: a meritocracy of hurt.

Nothing is ever
and for-ever is enough
for every-a thing is
the passing storm and the breeze
already and never been

Slipping out of the room where the grown-ups are fighting. Someone always gets hurt. Someone always feels shame. And there’s always too much to go around just once.

I need a shower and a good cry.

Then a run along the lake.

Yesterday after work I took a long bath without my mobile phone. Without earbuds. No podcast, no music, no news.

I can’t remember the last time I did that.

I had a rush of ideas. Most of them related to work, but that was fine really. Creativity feels good regardless of the arena. I got out of the tub, dried off, and worked at the computer until bedtime. I have a separate chrome browser for school-related bookmarks. At eight o’clock I closed it for the next 12 days.

Today though, I’m thinking about work again. About how I teach first-year drama students to be conscious of personal props, the items that become the habitual gestures and defining physical characteristics of their role’s personality. Glasses, scrunchies, cowboy boots, soda bottles, toothpicks. By the third year we are talking about Richard Schechner and our social behaviors related to personal props that prompted him to insist for a time that his Performance Group play in the nude.

For years now I’ve used my keys as an example of a personal prop. I have work keys. I don’t have a car, so I don’t have a car key. We have a code on our front door, so I don’t have a house key either. When I pull my work keys out of my backpack, I take on a role: teacher. My work keys are incredibly symbolic. Students will ask me to unlock the costume storage room, or a rehearsal room. Or by the third year, they may ask to borrow my keys so they can do it themselves.

At some point years ago, I became hyper-aware of my work keys. How I would actually cling tightly to them when I felt a class of 30 restless students taking control of a situation that should have been under my control. Weirdly, my noticing this – stepping back and taking on the role of the director in relationship with my “character” – I was able to access when control was necessary and when it wasn’t. I could make more conscious choices about my “role” as an instructor. These days, half the time I have no idea where my keys are – which I’m certain is not something my boss wants to know.

Yesterday finding myself in the bathtub without my mobile phone, I had the same kind of epiphany. We read and talk a lot about social media and how we can passively allow it to define us. But the phone itself – the device – has come to partially define me. My mindless connection to this object, and its ability to connect me to a world of ideas to occupy my thoughts every moment, is shaping my behavior. It is determining how I move in the world. Literally: in the bath, one elbow propped on the edge of the tub to hold the phone dry. My shoulder twisted slightly. My neck under stress.

I’ve believed for a long time that we are nothing more than what we do: what we think and how we interact with the world. And that thinking and interacting with the world are interconnected in such a way that one defines the other – reinforcing or challenging who are “are” at any moment. I believe this is how we can change. How we do change.

I’m going to stop grasping at my mobile phone. Stop clinging to my sense of self: the productivity shoulds and ought-tos.

I’m going to dare to be truly naked in the bathtub.

Maybe dare to drop my character more often, wherever I am.

Empathy is not agreement. It’s about understanding.

Nashater Deu Soheim

The doctor confirmed what I suspected: tendinitis in both shoulders. Then he proceeded to explain what a tendon was, and how the shoulder joint was different from the wrist – as though I’d never heard the basics of anatomy, much less work as a movement instructor for a living.

I told him about the stress I’ve been under, about the daily Ashtanga and diagnosed shoulder impingement. He responded by reminding me of how old I am.

Now I’m trying to put my ego in check: it really is kind of him to take the time to explain to his patients how their bodies work. To remind them aging means to suck it up when it sucks.

I think it’s difficult not to err on one side or the other: to take in the forest as a whole or to see only each tree.

So why did I overreact? Why was I offended? What was it I wanted from him?

It certainly wasn’t a rudimentary anatomy lesson and an explanation for how to google for shoulder exercises for old people.


There’s an eye exercise where you focus on a glass pane, then focus on what is behind it alternately. It’s difficult. It makes my eyes ache afterward.

I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of days now, actually. As a metaphor – how it relates to social media, and social bubbles. How it relates to families and congregations and high school cliques, and trying to loosen the bonds without aiming to break them.

How it relates to all social relationships, really. These knotty, woven messes of damage and repair.

The U.S. election results surprised me and I found myself reading a wider range of news sites for a couple of weeks. I found myself reading my Facebook feed from a slightly different perspective.

And I deactivated my account.

Since then I’ve noticed some strange habits that I was completely unaware of – like an urge to share an article before I’ve read it to the end. Like failing to take the time to take a step back from the moment I recognize a shared belief in order to question the validity of that belief – which is something I’ve always thought reading helped me do.

But I see that my social media habit has become an activity where I sort people and products and cement my feelings of belonging: my identity. Not only have I abandoned contemplation for “interaction”, I’ve moved away from a practice of empathy by narrowing my field of vision as to make it virtually unnecessary.

Pun intended.

I began asking myself if I were reading (read: skimming) articles to pass them along as a performative act, rather than out of genuine intellectual curiosity. It’s an uncomfortable question to sit with.


Last week one of my students asked if we could continue the “debate” we’d been having the week before. I was taken aback. I thought we’d been having a discussion. In my mind, if not per definition, people win or lose debates. People listen with the goal of finding points of attack, to counter and dominate.

This lead me to try to initiate a discussion about critical thinking, which is at the heart of our national curriculum. I told them about a recent podcast I heard where researchers talk about how people who learned critical thinking skills almost always applied them first as weapons, rather than applying them to personal reflection. I pointed out that is not what we want to teach.

Then I remembered a book I bought at a conference over a decade ago: Peace Journalism. Now sold out and out of print. The gist of the book was to encourage journalists not to use war terminology and violent language in their headlines: “Obama attacks […]”, “Obama takes jab at […]”. These were headlines from this week. A google search (replace Obama with another name) will help you sort a publisher’s political leanings quickly.

I’ve been asking myself how I frame my thoughts. Which metaphors I’m using. Which expletives. Funny how the one we often use when we are angriest with another person, is a word that epitomizes intimacy.


They say we teach what we need most to learn ourselves, and sometimes I feel sorry for my students. I can’t be sure if I am seeing reflections of myself in their words, or whether I’m projecting my more unhelpful habits onto them. It’s probably a little of both, because that is what it is to be human, isn’t it?

The Buddhist teacher I read and listen to talks often about the need for spiritual seekers to be silent – to retreat from the world to focus on their spiritual growth. And this still makes no sense to me. Not within the context of my understanding of the world, of death, and of impermanence.

I believe empathy exists not as an idea, but as a practice. And every practice is in the moment, and within the context of only that moment.

I believe that it would be possible to gain an understanding – empathy – for the beetles and the shrubs of the earth, all by myself on a mountain top. And maybe that practice would lead to my being able to have an understanding of other people when I returned. But I think my ego – my mind -would do better to be surrounded by differing minds, differing opinions, differing moralities. And not silent, with a certainty of someone else’s meaning, but questioning. To discuss, not debate.

But what is the goal of understanding? Isn’t the point to embrace – to hold with care – each individual tree, and the entire forest?

As hard as that is. As painful.


Pain-killers. That’s what I wanted from the doctor.
And that’s what I didn’t get.

Damn. (Yeah, no. That’s not nice, or solution-oriented.)

Wine.

I have an ambivalent relationship to aphorisms. Whether a quote is merely a platitude, or a significant expression of a deeply contemplated experience, all depends on the reader and their current frame of mind.

I have noticed that when I’m scrolling through Instagram or Facebook, and register “platitude after platitude” it’s time for me to take a break from everything electronic – and breathe.

Of course there are plenty of people out there posting motivational quotes because they have something to sell, but it is too easy to dismiss the quotes that are being shared by individuals with nothing to sell, but who have been touched and want to share the thought. The problem is – without the context of that person’s experience, it’s easy for me to skim the surface: “platitude”. In my hurry, I’m inconsiderate, and refuse every earnest attempt at connection. And worse is that I find myself judging those people as shallow.

One part of my daily morning meditation involves water: calming the waves until the surface is reflective… and having the courage to recognize that what I see is a reflection of myself –

here in the shallows.

Slap a famous writer’s name on the end of a quote and you have a context. But often that sense of belonging “in the club” is the only context: I recognize my education. Ego. Smugness. After all, who has time to consider all the potentially earnest missives send via a quote?

I am guessing now that this is where discernment comes in. Another part of my morning meditation. Maybe there is a point in making my world smaller so that there is more time for consideration.

Every fragment of the universe – when contemplated – is a koan.

I think I knew that still at five. Before I thought I had to appear to know everything.
(And too often it is possible to fake it until you believe it yourself.)

Maybe there is a point in returning to daily journaling, and giving up the need to be anything but earnest – to be five again in that regard.

I’d quite like that.

We have a responsibility to hold to the power of love that we know to be true,
and to not allow the world around us to deaden that in ourselves.
LUCAS JOHNSON

“I want to be such a conversation”… is what Neil Reid said about what can become of us when we witness someone else’s examination of the world (which includes one’s self), and then take those questions into our own examination of our own world.

And if one takes note of that process – could there be a richer conversation? And isn’t this really the definition of poetry?

I haven’t been making space for good conversations, and I miss them.

There are a lot of reasons I was lonely as a child. All of them were paths to books, and thus to “conversations” with people too far away to touch. Often too dead to be moved.

Though never too dead as to be fixed in regard to their significance.

If I have any faith in any thing, it is that our lives can be meaningful – and only in ways that we cannot control – and only in the sense that others will create meaning for the random juxtaposition of their lives with ours.

What is history but a series of perspectives, created by the juxtaposition of our worldviews with those of the dead? For good and for bad: heroes become villains, villains heroes.

Heroines become.

Reading someone’s journal – someone’s story – is like meeting them in a secret forest where anything wild might breathe in your ear, might open your veins, leaving you weaker – but wiser.

“I knew that was true.” But didn’t want to face it.

Witnessing someone else’s nature is witnessing our own. It can be frightening. But it can also be reassuring in the way that the idea of life-after-death can be reassuring. Whether that is a heaven from which we look down, or atoms that create new constellations of life. Things continue without us: most likely because they were never dependent upon us in the first place.

I find that thought freeing.

I have been reading too little poetry lately. Allowing too little poetry into my life, too much social media – where conversations are almost non-existent. I have been thinking about the word social and why nothing is called “conversational media”.

Social is a descriptor for “society”, and a society is an “aggregate of individuals”. Aggregates form a consensus. And isn’t that how social media functions for the most part: not sharing, but shaming, posing, labeling, sorting, “canceling”. It is the hard work of keeping people “in line.”

I failed Social Skills 101. And to be honest, I am okay with that now. I’m okay with having been something of an urban nomad, half-hermit – an emigrant/immigrant. I am content being someone who misses the social cues that weren’t illustrated by the likes of Judy Bloom, PG Wodehouse, Anais Nin, and Stephen King. (Imagine them coming to a consensus). With good conversation, loneliness can soften into solitude. And that kind of solitude can be freeing in that one can fearlessly look outside one’s self.

I suppose one could charge a kind of narcissism in the reader who takes on the “both” roles in a conversation found in the written word. But maybe they (we) are just playing the long game: those readers having become writers who are hoping the conversation continues once they have left the world.

There is a difference between believing you have something to give the world, and believing you have something to contribute to it.

It’s worth entering a conversation on the subject.

Be humble for you are made of Earth. Be noble for you are made of stars.
SERBIAN PROVERB

Dear R.

I’ve been doing fine with these physically-distanced months. In part because I’ve been ridiculously busy and focused on everyone else’s needs. That’s good for me: focusing on everyone else’s needs.  Now the year is winding down. I have less to do, and to notice the pile of books on my desk that I meant to read, the list of letters I meant to write – that play still unfinished.

I scroll through the apps on my phone, and take in all the anger and the fear there.

Then I worry about everyone else again with a new kind of suspicion – I worry about what they think of me, or want from me in a way that is not good for me. I want to fix things that are not mine to fix. And then feel ashamed for having the arrogance to think I could, or should. When I scroll through social media I feel helplessly disconnected: Socially distanced.

I’m not missing being in the office, but I am missing seeing my friends face to face – more than I usually miss them. You are all so far away. And some of you (not naming names) are fully engaged in very real political battles on your home turf.

I have to remind myself I’ve never really lived in a world where I can call up someone on the weekend, settle into a deep, leather chair with a glass of wine, and have a good laugh. Do those little pockets exist for more than a moment or two, every few years? Where the company of friends really makes you forget the world’s bickering and reaffirms what you thought about people being clever/kind and genuinely wanting one another to thrive?

I watch too much television. Have picked up and moved on too often. Or maybe I’m too stiff from scarring. We all are.  No: some of us are. Some of us need a patient easing into social interaction. A deep, leather chair. Wine.

I should buy a deep, leather chair.

It is starting to dawn on me that I cannot travel this year. It wasn’t even a year ago I visited B. in Colorado. It seems like so many years ago. I was planning on to see you and M. this summer when I headed to London to be with the kid for a while. It makes me sad to think about it.

This summer we’ll go hiking. Not terribly far, but with a sincere intention of fremmedgjøring – out of the range of mobile phone coverage.

I have a strange desire to lug something heavy on my back so that I can put it down at the end of the day. I want to see something besides the yard and the same 4 kilometre stretch of trail along the lake.

Until then – until the grades have been logged and the students sent off –  I’m starting a garden. When I say “I”, I mean E. is sawing down the overgrown thuja to make room for the tiny greenhouses.  I’ll try to grow chilies and tomatoes.

Basil, mint, parsley, cilantro.

There is a space he is clearing along the southern side of the house where I’m going to plant raspberry bushes and apple trees.

It upsets me a little to consider that the trees might not take root.

I have a desire to do something that matters. Like growing things. I have a fear that even on this tiny scale, I won’t be able to do it right.

So I am procrastinating and blaming the weather. I’m blaming the weather for the melancholy, too.

For some reason I keep thinking about the Italians – months ago now – who spontaneously sang together from their balconies. Not for each other, but with each other.

Is there a really good word for this feeling it brings up in me? I know other people felt it. Because they tried so hard to repeat it.

This is a kind of grasping, isn’t it?

You know, way back in 2001 people were celebrating Earth Day. Everyone in the world was supposed to turn off the electricity and light a candle. A few days later someone got the idea that we all had to do it again so we could take a picture from space. I remember this because I wrote about it in a poem about 9/11. The aspect of the (meta-) performativity of our “Humanity”.

I’m not alone in struggling to just let it be. And let it come.

img_20200526_182658_7655223821023366188865.jpgDo you know what I mean when I say now that I think of Groucho Marx quote about not wanting to be part of any club that would have me?

These days I’m struggling to be human. I would much rather be Leonard Edgar. He doesn’t care what anyone expects of him.

He doesn’t have a facebook account.

I’ve been missing you. Hoping you are ready for a good summer. Wondering how you are really…

-ren