M: A Love Letter

This is a love letter to life. A declaration of wonder and gratitude. I find myself these days in a pristine time, wherein really nothing is wrong. Fine, the usual stresses, enough to exercise capacity and to keep vigilant in the lifelong quest to become a better and stronger human being. But let it be said aloud that life right now is objectively wonderful. It is not one of those times when I am being challenged to show what my bone marrow is made of. I’ve had those times. No doubt will again. Such times drive deep reflection. So should this time, when the sun is shimmering over the water’s surface of my days, when life has me curled in her lap and is lazily tracing her fingers through my fur. When contentment arises from deep within, in a kind of sigh-release of joy, with a visceral, universal sound. Mmmmmm…. Not just humans, other creatures make this sound. It must be a kind of primordial seed-sound of pleasure in the moment, when all is just right. Indeed, as I reflect on the beauty and richness of today, I see it in letters M.

Manhattan and M·A·C

First because this is the lion’s share of my time. My weekdays, my waking hours, mostly here. This is the M of my skin, the world I live in.

Manhattan is where I was born, and where I return, time and time again, like a homing pigeon. My comparison set for every other place I go. I grew up in Florida, but when my Mom took me to Manhattan for my 10th birthday, I was instantly in love. This, was a real place. This, was my place. It made me feel free, and alive. It made me feel like myself. My first year in college, I came almost every weekend. In my early 20s, living here, I walked every neighborhood and loved them all. It would take me 100 blogs to recount all the things I love about this living city, its people, its noise, its intimacies, its idiosyncrasies, its beauty, its grime, its ways, its history, its energy. The glories of unfettered self-expression. The large African American man in the crowded crosswalk in a pink ballerina tutu, no one looking twice, everyone with somewhere to go. The secret joys, like whizzing in a late-late-night cab through empty blocks of green lights. The only-here stories every New Yorker collects like badges and shares like kisses and expletives, all mixed together, so lovely, so perfectly New York. The only other city, for me, that ever equaled it was Moscow, my other M-love, where I spent my mid-20s, and thus finished forming my brain, as a girl known as Yeva. Another 100 blogs.

Manhattan is a place for exploration and self-exploration, as I was by far not the first to discover. But it was my turn, wandering its streets. Manhattan became almost a double for myself. Whoever you are, or might wonder if you are, in Manhattan you can find your kind. Or be alone, anonymous, beautifully ignored. It’s the perfect city in that way. Perhaps above all what is essential and magnificent about Manhattan is that it belongs to anyone who wants it. The earth is full of places that won’t let you in, that ask for your ancestry, your schooling, your language. To be a New Yorker, all you have to do is show up. “I <3 New York”, and you’re in. Even if sometimes you hate it, but you still can’t imagine living anywhere else. Welcome, brother.

Dear farm fans, does it seem odd to you that I spend my weekday life as a cosmetics industry executive, fully coiffed and made up, in stilettos and head-to-toe black? It feels absolutely congruent to me. I love the extremes, the most urban of cities and the most rural of paradises. (The in-between suburbs hold no magic.) I’ll grant you – it is a little amusing that I work for a makeup company. As a kid, I was a tomboy. I often say I was a little boy who shocked herself by growing up to be a woman. That’s not quite right; I was proud to be a girl (especially when people said I shouldn’t be). But I was in no way girlie. I climbed trees, played war and tackle ball games, won races and arm wrestles, collected snails and lizards. Most of my colleagues today were digging into their mothers’ makeup as kids. Not me. My poor Mom, with her handmade mother-daughter dresses and favorite dollies from her own childhood. She’d carefully brush my hair and pin it up in barrettes before school. As soon as I stepped out of the car, I’d pull out the barrettes and tousle my hair. I wore dresses only under great duress. So, getting into my teens and twenties, as I started to play with makeup and hair, and definitely now, it always feels like drag. “Wow – I really look like a girl! It’s uncanny!” I’m really good at it, too. Full femme. You could never tell.

I’m grateful for my job. I love to work, generally. (When we were kids, my Dad would put a list of chores to be done for money on a chalkboard – but limit me to half of them, so my sister had a chance to earn some money too. I’d wait, and wait, and wait – and finally, I’d often get to do at least some of hers as well.) This is a great job. My colleagues are brilliant, accomplished, creative, super interesting, and genuinely nice. The company treats me well, I’ve traveled to many amazing places (conference in Bali, anyone?), and after a career mostly working in rather serious industries (tech, healthcare, investment banking), it often feels like being on the set for a movie called, “Yes, Working at M·A·C is Really Like This”. Yes, there are closets full of product, and people come by and test stuff out on you. Yes, you might find yourself face-to-bosom with the 3x-life-size cutout image of our latest celebrity collaborator, propped up in the hallway. Yes, we have extremely serious conversations about pigment payoff, and glitter, and J-Lo leg glow, and the “hangover look” currently trending in Asia, and yes, I know a man whose actual job includes running the Mascara Library. (Say it. Mascara. Library. I never thought those two words made one thing before. Also say, “Lip Battleground.”) Yes, my first Friday at the brand was spent at a drag performance to mark the reopening of our Times Square flagship store. Yes, big meetings have soundtracks and my boss dances on the stage in impossible high heels and part of the agenda is to try out the new eyeliner. (Picture an entire hotel ballroom of men and women with hand mirrors applying makeup on themselves and each other.) Yes, my two dogs get to come to work with me, and yes everyone is as gorgeous and fashionable as they are smart, and yes on the side they all paint and sculpt and produce film festivals and are generally fabulous. It is always challenging, sometimes dejecting, frequently maddening, and yes, of course, we all work really hard. (You don’t get to be a multi-billion dollar kickass brand any other way.) But most of us need to work for a living somehow. And yes, it’s really a lot of fun.

It also feels really good to work for a brand with a deep charitable heart, rooted in uncompromising support of individual freedom and self-expression. M·A·C has funded the fight against AIDS and has supported the LGBTQ community, women and girls, and vulnerable societal groups since way before that was cool. They’re like freedom fighters, with fabulous makeup. They’re my peeps.

My Man and My Menagerie

Moving in, a layer deeper. The M of my heart. These are the spirits I share my life with, who maybe came into this world to share life with me. Who I play with. Who I hold, who hold me.

My man, my Brian, is a beautiful being. I wear an engagement ring of yellow sapphire, and I say that if sunshine crystallized into stone, it is this ring; if it crystallized into a man, it is Brian. It’s not that he has the sun-shiniest disposition: he doesn’t, he gets moody. But the heart of this man is so full of light, and his mind so charged with inspiration, he radiates. A friend of mine sees people as colors, which he finds reflect their characters. He told me once that the best, purest color, which he almost never sees in anyone, is a near-white sunshine yellow. He told me this, because when he met Brian, that was his color. (For the record, I’m a darker yellow. Working on it.)

In my teens, I had a favorite poem by Amy Lowell:

When you came, you were like red wine and honey,
And the taste of you burnt my mouth with its sweetness.
Now you are like morning bread,
Smooth and pleasant,
I hardly taste you at all for I know your savour,
But I am completely nourished.

The thing with Brian is, he’s red wine and honey over and over again. He continuously reinvents himself – and in each new interest or endeavor, he goes in deep. Which is perfect for me, because for me to be completely nourished, I need someone who can meet me along my own vast spectrum, all my contrasting identities and relentless exploration of self and world. I’m used to having friends who match pieces of me. Brian is the first and only person I’ve met who has a spectrum as broad as mine. Even better, it’s not a perfect overlap. So we keep each other guessing, and growing. In one man, I have a husband, a lover, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, and a best friend. He’s the son my parents never had. He founded a series of technology companies, traveling 2 million air miles and raising millions of dollars. He has a Master’s Degree in Divinity. He has an incredible eye for fashion and style (way better than mine); he can tell me which heel looks best with which hemline; he created a retail concept for high-end men’s accessories. He can rebuild a car engine, wire a dimmer switch or a home network, shear a sheep, fell a tree, build a beehive, play a guitar, and quote Thoreau, Emerson, and Epictetus. He was a snowmobile guide. His ideal free afternoon at times has been spent revisiting his favorite galleries at the Metropolitan Museum, rowing his Adirondack guide boat in the Hudson (tracking tides and currents on an app), or working in the orchard at our farm (anything involving the John Deere or the chainsaw). I call him “off the grid and in the cloud”, because he wants to hand-grind his coffee, make cider on a manual Amish press, and heat our Pennsylvania house on wood he chopped and stacked himself – but monitor the property, and control the temperatures, wirelessly from our apartment in New York.   He is passionate about empowering women entrepreneurs in the developing world, especially Africa, and more than once has found himself the only man in the room at women’s conferences (and I’ve been to a few where they thought he was there with me, only to learn I was there with him). He has great manners. He takes a genuine interest in others, and he gets highly offended by people who don’t. His standards for thoughtfulness are high, even unreasonable. Sometimes, when he’s on me about whether or not we’re ‘making progress’ in our relationship, or having ‘quality communication’, I feel like such a guy. When he responds as he does to what I’m wearing (or not wearing), I feel like quite a girl. Sometimes, when I marvel at him, and us, he laughs and says, “Normal, healthy relationship.” I say, “It might be normal, and it might be healthy, but it’s not common.” I know how lucky I am. He has been a miracle in my life.

This post is about gratitude for joy, not pain. And yet. Brian and I in the beginning would joke that it was great that we met after life had already kicked the shit out of both of us, so we really knew a good thing when we found it. I’m grateful to pain for that. There was a time in my life that was so dark, I remember calmly sitting with this pure knowledge: “I am not someone who kills herself. But if I were, now is the time.” What happened to me was that I went deep in a dark well, under seemingly endless layers of heavy, blinding blackness. Literal weight. Literal dark. But beneath it, stunningly, was joy. I saw, I felt, I experienced a ball of light. And knew: “I. Can Not. Be. Extinguished.” I could not ever really be afraid after that. Could not ever lose faith. I house that gift in my heart like a jeweled sword in a shrine. A sword because that knowing – that there is, and will always be, another turn in the cycle – has a knife-blade sharpness. It pierces a point of light and oxygen through what would otherwise obliterate me. And it sharpens the joy, too, so it doesn’t pass through me, unfelt.

I was married to someone else before. When he got his diagnosis, we weren’t married yet. We sat in the grass in Forest Park waiting for the neurologist to ultimately pick the worst of the scary diseases, and trying to talk about insurance and living wills and things. That’s how we got engaged. I cut his food at our wedding reception, pretending it was romantic so people wouldn’t notice he couldn’t do it. We were young and had never been defeated. We thought we were prepared. We weren’t. We didn’t know that along with his body he would lose parts of his mind. I didn’t know that he would come to hate me for surviving what would kill him. That he would never forgive me for being the one who would live.

Something specific happened. Something with a different letter entirely: Oh. The seed-sound of change, of something that hadn’t been before. The realization, this is no longer my life. The thing happened, and my parents came and protected me, and I left. I was free, but damaged. I’m told I woke screaming every night for over a year. It took a few more years for the panic attacks to stop. I hadn’t realized I was fragile. My Dad said, “I never knew how strong you were, that this was in your character.” Who knew, and who wanted to know? But, gratitude for that too, that today my strength isn’t from ignorance that I could break. It’s from the way I’m sewn together over and between the parts that shattered, and the joy in running my thumbs over the threads of the weave, remembering and recognizing their sources. The warp is where I see my own bootstraps, pulled up. The weft bears the unmistakable embroidery of those who loved me, and pulled me through.

Somewhere during that time, in deep despair, I sat and wrote a few pages in my journal: if, someday, this is over, and if I ever have a partner in my life again, what would that person be like? I put it away. Years later, now happily with Brian, I got a funny feeling one day. I went and dug out the old journal, found that entry, and read it again for the first time since writing it. It was as though I’d conjured him. When that terrible time was over, I wasn’t looking for a relationship, actually. I just was grateful to have survived, and to be free. But I looked up, and there was Brian, already in my life. He had witnessed the last few years of what had happened, and not ever having to explain or revisit that time was one of the greatest gifts I received. If you tell someone you divorced a dying man, it’s only natural for them to wonder if perhaps there is something really wrong with you. So do you dredge up all the demons, explain, prove your case over and over again? That’s horrible. It’s no way to heal, certainly. And the other person, in the end, was essentially tortured to death by a disease I always say you wouldn’t wish on your worst ex-husband. So. Finding myself on the other side, not only OK, not only free and on my own, but embraced back into life again by a person whom it seemed my very own soul had custom-created especially for me, was…. Beyond words. When I think I’m perfectly fine and happy, Brian touches me, and I realize all that I thought was good was only the beginning.

Today, a huge part of what makes my joy and gratitude swell up into this long love letter, truly the heart of it, is Brian, and the life we have created together. About two years ago, we bought Dyberry Creek Farm, an 1850s farm on 61 acres in Pennsylvania, and have set about living a magical existence here. I’m here mostly on weekends, Brian a bit more. It’s here that the phrase “my man and my menagerie” came to be. We have two dogs (Bhairo and Guinness, both Entlebucher Sennenhunds, a type of Swiss Mountain Dog), one cat (Rahu, who was living here already; he came with the barn), and at current count 86 chickens. Also a few thousand bees. And a whole living landscape of fruit trees and flowering plants, ancient Norway Spruce, hemlocks, and two giant Silver Maples that might literally be some of the oldest of their kind in the country. I have always loved animals and nature, and I am so, so, so happy here. It in no way diminishes my love of Manhattan, but is surpassingly wonderful in combination. Who gets to do all of this, at once? I do. Lucky girl.

One more word in this section on heart: Ike. That name is like a prayer to me. That he was in the form of a dog was just circumstantial. Ike was the love of my life, my favorite creature. (“Am I a creature?” Brian would ask. “Yes,” I’d say. “But he’s your favorite creature?” “Yes. But you’re my favorite human.”) If a part of me knew enough to conjure Brian, something much higher than my own mind manifested Ike. He came into my life just as I embarked on the dark times, stayed with me throughout, and in his final week walked for the last time on the lawn of our farm, and around the first floor. (I said to the realtor, “I’m sorry, this may be odd, but I know I could never live in this home if Ike had never set a paw in it.” Thank god he was a dog person.) It’s possible I might not be alive today if Ike had not accompanied me for those 15 years. Definitely I would have missed some of the deepest teachings. And I would not be part dog, the part (the best part) that carries lightness and play at all times in its heart, a heart always available in its full capacity, not a filament separating its willingness to love from its ability to be present to whatever the moment brings.

Meditation and Mantra

The M of soul. I have always been, as my friend and yoga teacher Rod Stryker called me one time, devout. I’ve prayed every day since I’ve had a mind. As far back into childhood as my memory goes, there has never been a day without prayer. Growing up, I loved church. We went every Sunday, my sister and I to Sunday School for an hour, then together with my parents for another 90 minute church service. (Lutherans love a good, long service, my Mom and Dad observed. Not like the Catholics, in and out in 45 minutes.) I was transported by the prayers and the hymns. I felt clean and light. I adored the rituals of honor and worship. I loved to recite the creeds. I memorized not only the words but the meaning of every phrase, and played that in my head as the language rolled through my mouth.

I remember how disturbed I was the day in Sunday School when the teacher told us to bring a friend to church, because if any of our friends didn’t accept Jesus as their savior, they would go to hell. That seemed so wrong to me. I thought about all my Jewish friends (I did grow up in South Florida, after all): their parents were Jewish, so of course they were Jewish too. How would they not be Jewish in a Jewish family? It seemed unfair. I was so upset, I asked my Dad about it after church. He was still for a while. Then he said, “If you were God, would you be merciful enough to save them?” The shock was like an explosion in my brain. To be asked, as a child, to imagine I was God, to put my mind in the mind of God! And I knew, instantaneously, the answer. “Yes,” I said, “I would save them!” Then Dad said quietly, “Don’t you think God is more merciful than you can even imagine?” I can still viscerally feel the revelation of that moment. I knew this was the truth. I could feel it confirmed in that place inside me where prayer came from. I never worried about it again. I didn’t know why teachers or pastors or other people would sometimes say things that conflicted with this truth, but I didn’t worry about that anymore, either. I understood that my relationship with God was mine alone, guided from within, by something that knew what was what.

This direct experience of connection is what I’ve come to call meditation. I am deeply grateful for the practices, techniques, and teachings that help me condition myself to make this connection more easily and more often. To be able to go for guidance and clarity in moments of small stresses as well as major life crises and events feels both like the most basic condition for survival and like the sublime whole of it all. Over a lifetime of practice, whatever I’ve called it and whatever form it has taken, I feel there’s at least a trickle of this connection available to my senses all the time. That, too, takes a lot of pressure off. I used to think I would get to my real practice after I finished something else, or once I was ready to renounce the world and go sit in a cave somewhere. There were a few times when I actually geared up my circumstances so I could withdraw, and was just on the verge of inaugurating my hermit lifestyle…and each time, best I can say it, life basically laughed at me and threw me back in the fray again. It’s clear to me now that (at least until further notice) my life is my practice. Manhattan, the corporate job, married life, friends, family, all of it. When I went on pilgrimage to India for the first time, I experienced moments of exceptional stillness and connection in the noisiest and most chaotic of places. When I came home, I realized Manhattan, with its sirens and jammed subways, was the perfect place to meditate. So is the farm, which is noisy too (different noises), and busy-busy-busy with critters and breezes and changing light. All this bustle – it’s life itself, and life is sacred. I actually feel incredibly lucky because a challenging job in an intense city is a spectacular place to put spiritual philosophy into practice. My spiritual learning curve is immense and relentless, thanks to my corporate path. I’m not the first one to discover this either, and yet somehow, it feels profound. There still are those who keep asking me when I’m going to quit my job or turn my attention away from the high-pressure world, and…I’m not. I’m already where I need to be. My life, just as it is, is my shrine. As a little child, I had a recurring image of myself, sitting alone and still. The image would come, and with it the sentences in my mind: “I will not sit on the sidelines. I am here to be soiled by life.” Soil (ask any gardener) isn’t dirty; it’s rich. So I’m here, planted right where I need to be, and it’s perfect, it’s divine, and it’s absolutely beautiful.

Then there is mantra. Which at some fundamental level is also the experience of connection, and is the connection, and is the thing itself, to which I am (trying to) connect. I say words my brain doesn’t understand, and I feel parts of my soul light up. It recognizes them, in some way I can’t describe except to say those words again. I say them because they bring joy, and that seems like the right reason to do something. I don’t worry that I don’t quite understand this either. As my teacher Panditji once said of God, “What does it matter that you don’t know her name? She knows yours.”

My favorite poem by Rumi starts with a man calling out joyfully to Allah over and over, until a cynic criticizes and confuses him. In a dream Khidr, the guide of souls, explains to him:

This longing
you express is the return message….
Listen to the moan of a dog for its
That whining is the connection.
There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.
Give your life
to be one of them.

At the skin level, there is a sense of “what I like” and “how I want to live” that drives my actions. With the heart, there is an emergent desire, which if only it can be seen and expressed, can manifest. With the soul, there is just a trust, a willingness to go where the practice leads, a belief in its inherent goodness and wisdom, and the most piquant gratitude that I am, at least, open to listen. That despite my limitations, there is enough light coming through that I notice it and stumble towards it. And that it loves me so much that it doesn’t mind how I bumble along, but delights in me, walking clumsily like its favorite toddler, as it calls me, over and over, into its arms.

There is one long set of mantras I’ve been practicing for 10+ years which began as a collection of impossible, unfamiliar sounds in a language I don’t speak. Years of just learning to pronounce the sounds, playing the recordings repeatedly while reading along. Years of starting and stopping and starting again, around whatever was going on in my life. Years of memorizing, line by line, each mantra. (In my bedroom, on the living room floor with my dog, lying in the sun on my parents’ dock in Wisconsin, in the car with Brian, on the subway to and from work – feeling like maybe there was some community service in the energy of this mantra broadcasting through me, messily even, in all these places.) I have a good memory. I’ve always enjoyed memorizing things, favorite poems for example. (In college, when I was studying Russian, a huge percentage of our final grade was based on how we performed on an oral exam. They gave you 10 questions to prepare, and on the day of the exam you’d walk in and pick a slip of paper revealing your question, then speak for 3 minutes. My command of grammar wasn’t good enough to get through that spontaneously, so I’d write out a perfectly-crafted speech for each question, memorize them all, and then practice them over and over until I could make it look like I was speaking extemporaneously. My teachers were always a bit puzzled why my spoken Russian was so much better on test days.) But this mantra is more than a memorization exercise. I could not force it into my brain, or force it to stay there. It came as it wished. Whole passages that for months I’d been doing effortlessly from memory would at times completely vanish, then suddenly reappear. Passages would play in my mind as I slept. It has been much more a process of my asking, again and again, if it would please reside with me. And trying to be a worthy vessel to contain it. It certainly doesn’t belong to me, and yet. “Scriptures are for those who read them; practices are for those who practice them,” Panditji says. It occurs to me many times that mantra is the reason I have a mouth, mantra is the reason I have a brain, mantra is the reason I have a heart. I’m on a need-to-know basis with the divine. Until further notice, I just keep going. “Everything you need is here,” it said to me once, in meditation. OK, then.

It matters to me to have the words playing through my mind and heart, making new grooves where none were before, patching wiring that is faulty, opening new spaces and filling them with light. I asked my daily practice once, what will happen if I don’t practice? It said, “You will be plagued with anxiety.” Right – I don’t want that…. Now, I’m grateful to be getting to know this mantra, day by day. I can feel how it is healing me. I am expanded and strengthened. There are things I didn’t know were broken, things I’ll never know or give a name to, that are remade, whole. One remarkable thing I’ve noticed is a feeling in my brain akin to how my body feels after mastering a new form of intense exercise. It’s a new level of fitness, a new kind of capacity. I can actually feel a physical presence of something stronger and more powerful in my mind, when I’m thinking through a challenge at work, for example. The real estate in my brain has shifted. My memory is better. My discernment is stronger. I’m calmer. I wake many mornings with a surge of joy and the spontaneous prayer, “Thank you for this life.”

Thank you for this life. Dear life, I hope you have enjoyed my love letter. Thank you for the skin, the heart, and the soul. Thank you for my own personal constellation of my beloved parents, Brian, and the menagerie, for my teacher, my friends and family (by blood and otherwise), the beautiful Earth, nature and asphalt, the sky, and all that shines and shimmers, and growls and thunders, and rains, and lightens again. How blessed I am to have my part to play here. How grateful I am to be learning my part as I go.

Mmmmmm, life.

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