On death, on life, and on listening to our bodies on the eve of my almost-birthday.

I want to write about how I feel the tug of the other side, about how an awareness of not being, at least not in this form, sometimes makes my heart skip a beat. I wouldn’t call it fear, exactly, though maybe it’s fear’s distant cousin, or a half-brother. It’s a bit heartbreaky, the tug, and it reminds me of everything I love about being human, being in a body: “You mean I won’t get to feel the goosebumps of a kiss anymore?” it says, and, “you mean I won’t be able to feel the ocean’s tug in my chest anymore?” …

Anymore.

I flirted with death when I was young and very sad. But it was not my time and, really, I did not want to die. I just didn’t know how to live and I didn’t understand that it is only life that can teach you how… Funny that. But death knew better, and he just would not have me then. He handed me right back.

Life is a kind, if exigent, teacher. And maybe death is her biggest, grandest lesson of all… After all, we don’t know what comes after. Not really, not for all the guessing in the world. Sure, we can make claims and say we know. But can we really? And ironically, the louder I hear someone claim certainty, the less I believe them, even while I understand the wanting of certainty.

Sometimes there’s a sense of urgency to the tug, a touch of despair about not having done what needs doing, said what needs saying, given what only I could give… Not that I am special, but more that there will never be another constellation of thoughts and cells like this… (Doesn’t everyone have a something so theirs, something the opportunity for which will be gone once they’re gone?)

“Why this talk of death,” you ask, “why now?”

Oh, I don’t know, really. I have a birthday coming up this week, maybe it’s that. I am aware of no longer being young, even though I’m not yet old. I’m in the middle here, somewhere, yet feeling the pull of the later acts like I didn’t in my 20′s or 30′s… Really, I have no idea where I am on my lifeline —for all I know it could all end tomorrow— but I do know that death comes to mind every time I see or hear something beautiful. Like Leonard Cohen’s new album, “Old Ideas,” which sounds to me like the best stuff of the hymns I grew up on —harmony, melody, and soothing repetition— minus pulpit, pews and sermonizing.

Something wakes me in the middle of the night. I want you to listen, it says. I turn over, pretending I didn’t hear. I have better things to do, I think, like sleep, for one.

It, on the other hand, does not have better things to do! I want you to listen, it says again. I turn on my iPhone and do my restless checking thing. It doesn’t help.

I lie in the dark doing my best. I realize that it would have spoken to me during daylight hours, if it knew I’d listen, but the world is louder then and it’s harder to make out the sounds of silence. Plus, in spite of having no TV, in spite of watching no news (except fake comedy news that tells me all I need to know and makes me laugh) my days are too full of busy, of argument, of retorts, rebuttals, information and distraction. There is so much trying to talk people into or out of… everywhere I turn. So much advice-giving, so much advocacy for the devil… far too much advocacy for the devil. So much bullshit.

Shhhhh, it says, shhhhh… It’s a calming shhhh, not a shooshing shhhh.

I sigh.

I lie in the stillness that is Somerville, Massachusetts at 4 in the morning, grateful for my flannel sheets. It shows me how most minds —including, of course, mine— are made up and that minds that are made up can’t listen. It’s just not possible. It shows me how mostly we assume we know, and from that loud place we give advice and blah blah opinions. And that when we think we know, we notice so little, stuck as we are in broken-record ways of seeing and interpreting things.

It has me there. It knows that I love noticing things, that I get off on spying on the ordinary magic that is always everywhere.

I say, but what about my spinning? I can’t listen because there’s too much spinning and I don’t know how not to spin. By spinning I mean my endless distract-y, avoid-y habits, and anxious thoughts.

Ah my love, it says, spinning is just your way of trying to be someone else, someplace else, someway other.

Nuh-uh, I say, spinning is my way of getting some relief.

Ah, it says, how’s it working for you?

I sigh, tired. I was arguing again.

Shhhh, it says. It is the voice of kindness —there, there— and it knows I’m doing my best. I see how tired you are. I see how much you want to listen. I see you visiting The Pause every morning, and most nights before bed.

I say nothing. I feel the tugging on my chest again. My throat feels thick. I want to cry because I see and feel everything it is showing me, and I see how all of it —ALL!— is just all of us doing our best with what we know, with what we have, with where we are. And it all kind of breaks my heart.

Sometimes I look at people on the bus and imagine their thoughts. If all of our thoughts were one day to scroll across a billboard in the sky, we’d each panic thinking they were ours, our own, being made public… So similar, all of us. Solomon was right: nothing new under the sun. And yet:

Doesn’t every last one of us have our own particular taste and smell? Our particular and delightful turn of phrase? Aren’t we all so same, so different, so both?

All of that and more keeps tugging at me.

I turn toward it and whisper, not yet, please, not yet. I am speaking not so much about myself but about people I don’t want taken away. Leonard Cohen, for one. I have cried many a premature tear for the day he is no longer here.

(What can I say, I can be maudlin, OK? One day he was trending on twitter and my heart made what I thought was a full stop, but turned out to just be an end-of-paragraph return. He’d ‘only’ won a big prize, after all. Thank goodness and yay! But, oh my. The heart-stoppage.)

Maurice Sendak, for another. Mary Oliver, for sure. People, all of them, who don’t argue. People who say it like it is, no matter what anyone else says. People who show us their wrinkles, their hearts, their beautiful minds, without photoshop. Such courageous people, they. These are the people I gather round me when I am lonesome as hell for someone to listen in the middle of the night.

I touch people. Every day, I touch people and every day their bodies teach me to listen. I hear the beauty, the fragility, the finitude of life in our bodies. It moves me every time. I touch our scars. I touch the ways our way of holding our pain, our joy, our laughter, our sorrow has become particularized in our bodies. I touch where that pattern lives in someone’s shoulder. I touch pains in the neck and pains in the ass. I touch the knot that holds all the whys of how you can’t sleep at night. I touch what your body started flinching about so long ago. I touch what you say without a second thought and I touch what you don’t ever say but wish with all your heart you could. I listen with my hands.

Bodies don’t bullshit. They know they will end. They have no time to waste.

The other day a client who’s been coming to me every week for about a month told me that he’s been doing the stretches I showed him and that his shoulder and low back had been feeling much better. I nodded, I listened. But, he went on, there were still pains and aches that hadn’t gone away… I said yes. He asked why and what could he or I do about it… Good and obvious question, no?

I took a moment and then I told him that some things in the body aren’t about the bad mattress, or the wrong pillow, or the crappy desk chair. I told him that some aches in the shoulder couldn’t be stretched away even if we stretched our pecs in a door frame for hours… I don’t always go here with my clients, but I could tell he was with me, so I went on:

Our bodies have a way of expressing for us things that otherwise don’t get voice, things that have no other way of coming out.

Things?

Yes, things like how we were actually upset about that thing so and so said, even though we smiled and told ourselves it didn’t matter… Maybe our body is expressing that thing we want in our heart of hearts to do, or say, but tell ourselves we shouldn’t. Maybe our body is expressing the despair we don’t want to feel over ever righting that big regret… Maybe it’s about the way we swallow our words, our feelings, for fear of what people will think. Or maybe it’s about how we always joke and become witty when in our heart of hearts we know it makes for a wall between us and the world, the very same world we want to put our arms around… Maybe.

He got it, I could tell, and then he asked, in his slow and sweetly broken English, but couldn’t my body find nicer way of telling me those things?

I laughed. We both did. It was a knowing and rueful laugh.

Sometimes I want to stand in the middle of the road and let every single last piece of bullshit clothing fall away. To say: “This. Is Who. I am.” I want you to see. I don’t want to hide. And yet, I do. Not as much as in my 20′s when I flirted with death, but still.

It’s 4 in the morning. The world is quiet. And finally I am listening enough to hear. What’s been tugging wants a pen. I get up and find it one. My hand begins to move as if taking dictation. Something wants saying, something wants hearing. Hello, I’m listening.

Thank you, I hear it say, thank you.

It’s almost 6 now. Maybe I will sleep a bit more for having listened, and for having said things wanting saying… Nothing special kinds of things, as you can see, except that I wasn’t saying them and they were breaking my heart just a bit.

My neighbor’s kettle will soon whistle and she will soon clatter the pan that she makes her breakfast in. When I hear her, if I hear her around this time in the morning, it gives me odd comfort. I know a bit about her and hold it in a sweet place in my heart. If something happened to her, I’d care, and, for sure I’d miss the sound of her kettle when I wake early.

After all, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” Mary Oliver said that bit of loveliness in her poem, The Summer Day. Sometimes I carry her words with me like a marble in my mouth.

Take that, If Only! (Or, practicing to sing back up for Leonard Cohen)

You know those dreams you’d do if only? If only you had a good voice… if only you didn’t freeze up… if only you didn’t blush… if only you had the technology… if only you knew the technology… if only you knew people…

And then one day you’re on German Guy’s porch reading “Stranger Music, Selected Poems and Songs by Leonard Cohen.” Leonard Cohen, your hero, your inspiration, your number one crush (when it’s not Clint Eastwood. Or Pablo Neruda. Or Billy Collins. Or or…). Leonard Cohen, whom you secretly fantasize singing back up for.

Then German Guy comes out and finds you singing and just like that he says, let’s record it.

And so you do.

Here you go, my friend. Sisters of Mercy. Take 1. As is. Because if I mess with it I’ll spend my whole Sunday on technology and it’ll never get done. Or be good enough for If Only. And if I think about it for 2 more seconds I’ll chicken out.

Press here to listen.

A tight box + big energy + curiosity + Leonard Cohen = change

Change. It happens. It’s the way of things, of life.

Inside me something’s been pent up for something like forever. Tied up. Stifled. It’s some kind of energy.

Isn’t energy a property of matter related to its ability to perform work? You know, work. As in motion, movement. (I had no idea I had this physics stuff left in me. But don’t get your hopes up. Or, don’t get worried, whichever the case may be. That’s it for physics. Promise.)

Lately some kind of herculean pushing is going on inside me. As if something’s gotten way too small for the space it’s in and now it’s pushing to get the hell out. Sometimes its energy is desperately intense, like it’s buried alive, trying to claw or hoof its way out. Even when more subdued it feels like something growing that has run out of space: there is no way it can keep growing, or even stay alive, where it is, how it is.

IT wants expression. I don’t know exactly what IT is, but its medium is written. And I do have some hints about IT.

This whole buried alive feeling is getting reeeeeally uncomfortable. It’s amping up majorly. We’re at a Spinal Tap 11. Or “a todo full,” as we said growing up in Chile.

I’m curious about the box. The coffin. The majorly confining thing that feels like it’s killing me alive.

Thing 1 about that.

Something is afraid. It is trying to protect me. It has to do with wanting a guarantee of success. Or, better said: It wants to know I won’t fall flat on my face, because from its point of view? That would suck.

Suck how, I wonder—

Um, duh! Major shame. Crimson cheeks. Hide in closet kind of shame.

From its point of view it’d actually be better to stay stuck and stifled in the box than out and free and in danger of falling flat on my face in shame.

Thing 2: “What will they think” and “it’s too much”

These thoughts invariably come nipping at the heels of the push to express in a big way.

Ironically, all the hints I get about the IT point to ITs having to do with taking the shame out of being human. Hmmm! Curiouser and curiouser.

The IT wanting to be written has to do with saying things without pretense. Without prettying them up. Without uglying them up. Saying things as they are.

But in order to say things as they are or in whatever way they ask to be said, I have to get out of their way. The agenda of having me look good doesn’t fit. The hidden motives of teaching anyone anything, making a point, or having a cause don’t fit.

IT may very well allude to or come right out and talk about things people often feel they should hide. (And it’s so not about airing dirty laundry. No). But again: Hello, Shame!

It sure does seem that much (all?) of the reeeeeally hard and stuck stuff of our world—hate, war, prejudice, murder, lies and everything that separates rather than connecting us—touches on shame in some way.

Who would we be without our shame?

I know many people who would say that shame is what keeps us in line. Case in point: Watch the news. Notice the language used in relation to the “bad guys”. Or, adults saying to children: Shame on you!

But really: How IS that working for us? I’m beginning to suspect that line of thought. It seems much more true that shame keeps us hiding and small and, ironically, doing the things that make us feel ashamed.

In all this pondering I have noticed something odd: The people I find most beautiful, endearing, attractive, crush-worthy… and the stories that most speak to me, are not Pollyanna-ish Hallmark-y tales with pretty Hollywood endings. At all.

Rather, they share a quality of almost heart-breaking honesty and openness, usually or often about the very things that would shame me. They are at once incredibly vulnerable and incredibly strong. These people look life in the eye, no matter what looks back. They are as resilient as they are fragile. Their skin is as leathery tough and wrinkly as it is tender and soft. Their transparency is breathtaking. And they don’t care what others think of them. Or if they do, they don’t let that stop them. They go ahead anyway.

Which brings me to: Leonard Cohen. Whom I saw. Performing. On Saturday night. In person, people, in person!

And, um, Leonard Cohen? In case you’ve not been near planet Heidi for the past several years? Newsflash! I am in love with him. In love. Unapologetically and irrevocably: in love.

(Blushing-aside: In fact, halfway through the concert, pro’bly during Chelsea Hotel or Suzanne, I turned to my dear friend who was visiting and had gotten us the tickets, and told him that if there were, you know, any chance of, um, you know, with Leonard Cohen, that, well, um, we’d have to find him—my friend, that is—my camping mattress and sleeping bag so he could sleep on my living room floor for the night. Or something. He laughed and said, of course. Yah. Now that’s a friend!)

So where was I? Oh yes. About my love—

Leonard Cohen, exquisite lover of word and world, is my hero. Such accessible poetry. None of this intellectually aloof blah blah. He is clever, but never in an I-need-to-impress-you way.

But most of all I love him for not hiding his humanity from me, from you. He is imperfect and heart-breakingly honest about his foibles and mistakes. Which makes him all the more beautiful. He teaches me to embrace wherever I am at.

And he shows me how to age with the utmost of grace. Talk about vintage wine. Oh my. The man is 75 and he’d skip onto and off the stage. He was sporting his fedora, of course. His backup musicians were all stellar in their own right and when their moment came, Leonard Cohen was the embodiment of generosity: he’d take off his hat and listen, rapt, sometimes getting on one knee right alongside them. The man can listen.

The entire concert felt like some kind of a passionate, mysterious, sensual, divine yet oh-so-human prayer.

Thank goodness my days praying to inaccessible perfect gods are over. Give me human. Give me heart. Give my honest. Give me life, any day.

I’m left to ponder this: What if I cared what people think AND went ahead and expressed IT anyway? What if?!

“But what about that shame?” something asks.

“Awww, Sweetheart,” I say to it, “it’s OK. Here, give me your hand. There’s enough room on this human bus for every part of us. Stay with me as long as you need but how ‘bout you and me get the hell out of this tight box and start writing? What do you say?”


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