on “groping for meaning” with natalie goldberg during a global pandemic

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“The Cat” arrived from Oklahoma in March when my oldest son’s college classes moved online and the two of them flew back to New York to shelter-in-place here at home. We’re going on five months now, and The Cat has mostly learned to use the scratching post instead of the armchair to get out his terrible kitty cat stress. However, he yowls into the ether day and night, bites at my bare legs in the exasperating fashion of Groundhog Day and wakes me up each morning with demands for affection. I comply as passively as possible.

Our time together is winding down. They’re flying back in a couple weeks to start the semester, and my son thinks I’m going to miss The Cat.

Next month my middle son is also headed off — to Southern California for his freshman year of college. What should be a normal, predictable season on our calendar (“back to school”) is surreal: COVID in Oklahoma is far worse now than it was when campus shut down in March, and California has so far been failing to control the spread. I’m grateful that both universities have in place protections similar to what we have here in New York, but it’s terrifying just the same. And incredibly bizarre.

I am torn and fearful. But also resigned. If we didn’t know before, we know now: capitalism is driving the bus, and higher education is a powerful economy. With all that being true, it remains a path to so many of our kids’ dreams. I support their desire to go. This pandemic is as much theirs to navigate as it is mine, and the amount of time it’s occupied thus far takes up more space in their two decades than in my nearly five. It’s also disrupted much more for them.

We’ve been through many stages of coronavirus grief already with surely more to come, and while it’s a collective experience on a global scale, it’s also extremely private and individual.

As two of my three sons are leaving home in the midst of the pandemic, I seem to have reached a kind of nesting level in my own response. From what I saw on social media, many people did this instinctively in the beginning. They cleaned house. They tackled projects. They dug into hobbies. They learned new skills. I did not. I got set up to work (and workout) from home and hunkered down with Clorox wipes and groceries for what I believed would be 4-6 weeks.

When it lasted longer than that, I checked out. I turned to autopilot. However, my stamina for putting my head down and slogging through isn’t what it used to be. Call it maturity. Call it heightened awareness. Call it an evolving sense of self.

But it’s none of those positive things.

It’s utter chaos.

Let’s call it by its actual name, perimenopause, an unrelenting force that seems to enjoy dangling me from the stray, wiry white hairs spiraling their way out of my head. For me, perimenopause is hastening the swing of the pendulum between caring too much and giving zero fucks (to borrow from the parlance of our times). It’s robbing me of my sleep or knocking me out for 10 hours a night. It’s making me so anxious 24/7 that I want to crawl out of my skin, which I both still despise and am beginning to love, sometimes in the same exact moment. It’s making me either reeeeeeally difficult to get along with or super magnanimous, and there’s no way to predict who’s going to show up to that party. It swings hard. There’s no denying it and no time to get out of its way.

So I find myself yanked out of the detachment that had been insulating me during the pandemic. I’ve been plunked down in what I can only describe as a state of nesting, though it’s definitely not literal. I am doing some decluttering, but I’m not rearranging furniture or prettying anything up. Instead, the nest I seem to be fluffing out is emotional. This nest is groundwork for those things I want more of in my life — and for removing those that I’ll (kindly?) show to the door.

A recent getaway opened up space to imagine doing this work, and as a poet, of course, writing is a main component. Often when I’m getting back to it after some time away, I grab Natalie Goldberg off the shelf. I write here about attending a retreat with her in Charleston, SC, several years ago. That long weekend was magical in many ways, including being my first introduction to creating space for my writing life.

So this week, in my effort to reclaim that space (again), I dove into my periodic refresher about the wisdom of free writing and the tricks of monkey mind. I let myself be reminded about being kind to myself in the process and allowing myself the freedom to follow the words (vs. trying to direct them toward a product, project or any other preconceived end).

The Goldberg text I chose this time was The True Secret of Writing, and in it, she describes why people attend her retreats:

“People come because they want to write, but over the years I’ve realized that it’s not just writing they want. They want connection; a spiritual longing drives them, a groping for meaning.”

Natalie Goldberg in The True Secret of Writing

If ever there were a phrase that describes my approach to writing poetry it’s “groping for meaning.” Even though I’ve realized recently that I’m being called to something else (essay? fiction?), I will always be a poet and will never give it up entirely. Part of why I’ve been stuck, however, isn’t just a lack of time and energy but also a stubbornness: I keep attempting to fit new impulses into a familiar, comfortable place. I’ve been forcing it. When it doesn’t work — or when it gets scary — I bail… instead of staying curious about what’s there.

Right now, I’m intent on following the threads wherever they go, even if it’s a bland journal entry. Even if it’s a topic I didn’t set out to write about, like coronavirus, which barged into this blog post early on, uninvited. I am intent on following even if it’s an exploration that pains me.

“Everything is rising up to meet us. Don’t turn your back. Be here, even when it aches. Acknowledge what has been given.”

Natalie Goldberg in The True Secret of Writing

So far, I have written 5 of 7 days, including getting up early on 4 of those days to make it happen. The entries in my notebook feel useless at this point. They’re about nothing in particular. They deploy no metaphor. They float at the surface. They’re mundane, and by that I mean both connotations: dull and ordinary. In other words, they have no “value” in the way I typically judge my effort and my writing.

But I’m giving it a go. (Again.)

I’ve even been inspired to meditate a couple of times and cut out some materials for collage.

And so I feel awake to my mind, to the words on the page and to the world, the latter of which is both good and bad. Don’t turn your back, she says. Even when it aches, she says, and I’m trying.

This week has been an absolute mess, including a couple really miserable work days and one morning in which I had to Google “what to do if you get wasp and hornet spray in your eye.”

The week has also contained its share of pure magic, like the doe and twin fawns I watch from my porch. Like the gladiolis (nearly 4 feet tall!) near my walkway. Like the sky that’s ours to see whenever we want to look up. This was my view on Tuesday of the near-full moon at sunset.

Everything is rising up to meet us. Or, perhaps, I am rising up to meet everything.

Morning, after all, has been pawing at me these last few months. Pay attention to me, it’s cried. (Meowwwww.) Its persistence has not been a metaphor: it has the claws to back it up.

Just as autopilot didn’t last, this wide awake nesting mode can’t either. It’s not only that perimenopause is calling a bunch of the shots. My normal rhythm — though not as rapid fire as the hormone-influenced one — is to race and rest, race and rest. Race, race, race.



I’m trying to go slowly this time. I am trying to set no expectations about “results.” I’m trying to change where I place “value,” In doing so, I hope to be able to sustain it a while.

I told my therapist earlier this week all the things that I was sick of, including striving, which led us to talk about how to recognize what does work. “When it feels good,” she said, “pay attention. What are the ingredients?”

It’s easy to say what to leave out of the recipe: long hours at work, hornet spray in your eye, wild hormones, cat scratches on your calf and a fucking global pandemic, for starters. A simple invitation to name what it is about the fawns the moves you? Much more challenging. But also: it’s exactly what writers do. We grope for meaning. At least it’s what we do when we show up, when we accept that other invitation: Be here.

That is what we must practice.


  1. You’re not the only one to write a long Blog about finding time to write — how long did it take to write the Blog? What else could you (if you wanted to) write in that time? Writing a Blog is writing.

    1. Nope, you missed it. This is a long post about writing. LAST week’s post was a long post about not writing. And yes, blog posts are definitely writing, no question about that. But the posts are about making my way to another *kind* of writing. I like doing both & don’t consider these time wasted or misspent in any way. They’re part of my path/process.

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