Layla-Saad

Thoughts on Writing and Fragility


All day, I’ve been pondering this: Becoming a stronger writer implicitly means becoming a less fragile person.

This notion has everything to do with my own journey, in that I’ve begun to see a correlation between writing and a more rooted sense of self, centeredness, and confidence that’s not contingent on outside approval or praise.

Now, to be clear: Developing some muscle, so as to be able to meet the world, needn’t come at the expense of being sensitive or tuned-in. If anything, I think they complement each other. But fragility — that to me has to be with being easily shattered, be it by feedback or negativity.

Practice is practice. The more I write, the more I write. And the more I risk sharing, the more I’m able to see that I am in fact risking very little. We’re conditioned with a lot of fear — what people will think of us, how we sound or look, whether we’re good enough or ready to share our writing. And the fear, in most cases, is unfounded in reality. If there is truly something at stake, it’s failure — and that can of worms is fodder for a whole different conversation.

My pondering here also has to do with social justice and the intersections of creativity with activism — the more you write and share and engage, the more you can become a participant in an urgent, ongoing conversation, as opposed to tip-toeing around and/or having an inflated sense of importance — neither of which is productive.

In my work, I want folks to get to practice writing, writing, writing — learning that they won’t die if the writing sucks, learning that inner critics are liars, and learning that ego has a lot to do with what keeps us small, stuck, and silent. Fragility dies on the vine, slowly but surely, when something deeper and more true begins to thrive.

The more you practice writing, the more confident you become in your own voice and the less defensive and threatened you need to be when confronting others’ perspectives and experiences.

The more you explore your own story, its shape, its contradictions, its nuance, its beauty, and its pain — the greater your capacity to recognize fear and limited thinking and the clearer your courage in speaking out.

The more you show up, risking being seen and heard, however imperfectly, the more you learn how to sidestep ego and the desire to look good or be right, in the name of something greater: Truth and beauty, connection and community, justice and equality.

None of this happens overnight, nor is it a process that’s ever finished. Poems, essays, books may be written. But the learning, the practice — it’s there that we return, over and over, to begin again, to go deeper, to strip the layers we hide behind that we didn’t even realize were still masking and muzzling us.

It’s work, and it’s play. It’s where work and play meet. It’s intentional and intuitive. There’s no prescription and there’s no magic eight-ball. There’s just one requirement: You have to show up. Roll up your sleeves and get out your pen. The world needs your strength.

And one more thing about strength: Like courage, it may not feel strong or brave at all. It probably feels questionable at best and stupid at worst. It’s likely to be vulnerable and sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes thrilling.

Yet you, on an ordinary day, telling the truth about your life and being willing to get more and more honest and real? That is strong, my friends. And it’s just the beginning.

Let fragility be nothing more than the shell that breaks open, revealing the pearl. And no matter what — keep writing.

Layla-Saad

Blogaversary Giveaway!

Photo | Alex Blăjan

It’s my 11th blogaversary! Naturally, I’m celebrating with a GIVEAWAY. The winner will receive a free 30-minute coaching session to be used anytime between now and the end of January. To play, just leave a comment on my very first blog post (below). I’ll choose one name at random tomorrow, Monday, at 5:00pm EST.

A teeny-tiny bit of backstory: On January 7, 2007, I started a blog named Bullseye, Baby! (Yes, the exclamation point was part of the name.) I didn’t really know what a blog was, only that I needed a place to practice — so that was the blog’s little tagline.

There were a few times when I hit pause, thought I was done, or changed the platform and name (anyone remember More Joy, Less Oy?). For six months or so in 2010, I went dark completely. The space itself had many makeovers over the years, changing right alongside me. But it always remained my place to practice showing up.

So, here’s the first blog post I ever wrote. (You can see that I haven’t changed all that much.) Whether you’ve been there since day one or are new to my words, thank you. It’s the connection, the space between us, that energizes my writing more than anything else. I’m so grateful for the continuous unfolding.

PRACTICE WHAT?

Hitting the bullseye, baby.

It was a few months back, 2:30am, nursing my second child in the glider in her room. I was thinking about images for my new Strong Coaching business card. And I was thinking about something I read once that made quite an impression on me – that in Judaism, the word chet, usually translated as “sin,” actually means something closer to “missing the mark.” I learned this in the context of Yom Kippur, when the word “sin” comes up an awful lot in the prayerbook’s English translations. Sin – such an offputting word. So final. So full of judgment.

But missing the mark – now this was a concept I could get my head around. Forgiving, roomy. With implications of more chances. You know, nobody’s perfect. Better yet, imperfection is where all the juice is. We do our best, we practice, we try stuff, we throw spaghetti at the wall and we skin knees and we get hurt and we learn in ways that are sometimes grueling and other times graceful – about relationships, about love, about work, about pretty much everything. In all that trying, in the practice, comes the learning and the growing that we’re here to do. And in the process, maybe the bullseye itself isn’t “getting” the thing we’ve been aiming at but rather hitting on some increased ability to be patient and kind to ourselves.

I put the baby back in her crib and grabbed my journal to sketch a bullseye, knowing the image would be lost on me if I left it till morning. What is coaching, after all, but a chance to try stuff and muck around and develop greater self-knowledge and forgiveness and to make core discoveries about what it is that makes us feel most ourselves. When I feel most myself, there’s more bounce in my step, freedom in my laughter, flexibility in my actions and love in my heart. More moments of compassion and spontaneity and synchronicity, more interest in strangers, more tolerance. There are no right answers. And God is not my judge but a partner in crime who thinks I am a pretty cool chick. What is coaching but the chance to take come chances, throw some darts, and hang out knowing that you’re better off practicing than letting inertia get the better of you.

Bullseye, baby. Two babies, actually. Not a day goes by that I don’t look at them in wonder. The first blew my world open in ways that demanded spiritual integration of a whole new order. The second carries a lucidity that has placed me in the company of a whole posse of angels. Together, these blue-eyed Jewish beauties nudge me towards myself. We stand in the company of so many women, sisters, daughters, mothers. And there’s nothing quite like motherhood when it comes to practice, patience, forgiveness, flexibility, creativity…

So here is my invitation: Pick a bullseye for yourself. Sure, it might be a moving target. But you know what’s been waiting, or calling for your attention. And then make some changes. Take some action. Take a chance. Call it practice.

Layla-Saad

I’ll Bring the Pencils

I am the youngest of three sisters.

There is still a joke between us, about how I would knock on the door of one of their bedrooms when their friends were over. Let’s say I was 11 and they were 15 and 17, give or take a year. They’d be in there, hanging out, listening to music, and just generally being older than me and cooler than me no matter what they were actually doing.

I’d want desperately to be in the room with them, not taking up any room but just breathing the same (probably smoky) air. But I knew this wasn’t going to happen, so instead I’d stand there at the threshold of that untouchable teenage space. And I’d make up some reason for having knocked. The excuse I made I remember most clearly for my embarrassing longing was: Can I borrow a pencil?

That girl still lives inside of me, the one who is shy around the older girls, the real grown ones with boobs and boyfriends and cigarettes and jokes I don’t get. That girl still lives inside me, who doesn’t belong, who isn’t invited, who goes back to her own room feeling a little bit mad and a little bit sad and a lot lonely. She puts on one of her dozen David Bowie albums and flops across the mattress on the floor, wondering when she will be cool.

it’s no wonder a big part of my work in this world is to say: Come on in. Have a seat. Let’s hang out together. Let’s write and draw and listen to music and laugh and tell stories.

I’ll bring the pencils.

Layla-Saad

Spitting Out the Patriarchy

It’s hard to sit down without knowing what I’m going to write. Hard, only because there is an expectation here, an unspoken one I carry around with me all the time. Ready for it?

It has to be good. 

I don’t think of what I do as teaching, but I’m also beginning to see the cracks in this dismissal of myself. And one of the things I teach, if I am to not only state but take pride in the fact that I do, in fact, teach something, is this: You don’t have to be good. Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” has become an anthem of sorts, and my commitment to encouraging you to do that, too, in your own ways, as you can and choose to, is the unpinning of everything I bring to the world.

That doesn’t mean I’m good at it. Ironically or not, it’s the thing I struggle most with, this not being good business. I think there may be a hint in the word “business” here, since the last thing I want is to be a cog in the billion-dollar self-help industry, that preys on women believing we can be better, even if “better” means “you don’t have to be good.” It’s not a sales pitch.

It’s the real life stuff of days when the sun is shining but you feel off, unable to pin down why. It’s a racing mind at 4:00am. It’s a vague feeling of not being all the present, but also knowing there’s nowhere you could possibly be but right here, and the rest is a rabbit hole of overthinking.

After last weekend’s Unfurl retreat in Wisconsin, one of the participants who’d rented a car gave me a ride back to the Minneapolis airport. We stopped in Maiden Rock, one of the wonderfully quirky, artsy towns along the Great River Road, picked up a couple of still-warm, buttery scones from a small, crowded bakery, and quickly did some shopping for our peeps back home in a store bursting with Mexican and Peruvian art.

In the car, driving along the Mississippi and ooh-ing and aah-ing at the brilliant foliage on both sides, we had a chance to reflect on many aspects of the weekend. At one point, I pointed out that I wasn’t sure I’d “done” all that much. She lovingly and powerfully pointed out that this was the patriarchy talking, and I was startled by but appreciative of her keen ear.

Why patriarchy? Because we’re conditioned not to take too much credit, not to draw attention to ourselves, and by all means not to take up too much room.

“So tell me what you’re proud of,” she said, an invitation that at once made me feel shy and seen (oh, how these so often go together).

And I did. I told her I was proud that the nine women who’d spent three days on a hilltop farm together, writing and connecting, all seemed genuinely glad to have come. I told her I was proud of myself for letting my other work wait, trusting that all would be well and bringing my wholehearted attention to every individual in the room. I was proud, I realized, that I’d set aside my own judgment and expectation, truly opening to the experience and allowing it to unfold.

This was a lot to be proud of. And none of it diminished my gratitude for the woman who hosted us, without whom there wouldn’t have been a midwest Unfurl retreat in the first place. It didn’t overshadow my awe at the fact every single woman there co-created the experience by showing up and stepping into the unknown, not letting fear drive the bus. Why on earth would I have hesitated to feel proud of myself?

Self-doubt is a learned behavior, one that’s reinforced by cultural norms and capitalism. We grow up steeped in comparing ourselves to others, expecting more and more and more, always trying to get somewhere else, somewhere bigger and better. This seeps into our souls. It corrodes our inherent creativity and dampens our spirits; it keeps us silent and second-guessing rather than shining, taking risks, and growing more confident. It teaches us to be careful lest we slip and offend someone, to hold back lest we overstep, and to curl inward upon ourselves rather than unfurling outward into a messy and broken world that needs us. The world needs us.

Listening deeply — when it’s derived from a place of presence — is not the same as swallowing your voice. And being proud, when it’s borne of the recognition that we get to be proud of our work, our bodies, our choices, our families, our rough drafts and our imperfection, is not arrogant. It’s self-worth. It’s love.

I teach. I do. I am proud of my work. There is still some discomfort here — a not-so-small voice in my head saying: Fine, but why do you need to make an announcement about it?

That voice is why. Because this, too, is my practice. The practice not only of writing but of acknowledging the places that I’d sooner not mention. Every time I delete my own words, every time I wrestle with a single sentence trying to perfect it rather than just writing some damn thing and moving right along, every time I belittle the impact of my work, I am modeling shame. And that, my friends, is the opposite of what I’m here for.

I’m here to celebrate myself exactly where I am today, which is recalibrating and reflective (not to mention unshowered), keenly aware of how it feels to hold so much, and also knowing that we are designed to do one thing at a time. I’m here to remind myself — and maybe you reading — that what I’m doing here counts. It will change and grow and deepen and evolve, yes, but it is also, already, real. The tyranny of always getting somewhere else? It’s a racket.

Let’s opt out by encouraging each other to recognize where we’ve internalized so many lies, so much damage to the psyche, and death by a thousand cuts of our innate gifts. I want nothing more than this realness, this place to practice., this permission to be proud of myself.

This is how we spit out the patriarchy. This is how we become truly free. Now tell me: What are you proud of?

* * *

Let’s practice together! The next 2-week online group, Over Our Heads, is now open for registration.

Layla-Saad

Forgive Yourself for Each Time

Photo: Zoltan Tasi

For each time the words flew out of your mouth and you wished you could unsay them.

For each time you remained silent, only to wonder why you swallowed knives.

For each time you searched for but couldn’t find the perfect thing to say, and so you just sat with her, put your hand over his, kept company that which could not be consoled.

For each time your kids proved wiser than you (“she will see it as support later”).

For each time you hung up the phone and immediately wanted to call back to say, “I love you.”

For each time you were sure you’d fucked things up for good. For each time you learned to forgive yourself. For each time you spoke your heart with no way of knowing how it would be received — if at all. For each time you felt the ache of the world in your sinus cavity, your chest cavity, your belly — all of the hollow places where the body fills with breath, with longing.

Last night, you dreamed of a kitchen in a small apartment. It was elevated, modest in size, painted all white, and brightened by sunlight. A bank of windows overlooked sparkling blue, blue water in the distance. It was such a peaceful space, and you’d lived there once though you couldn’t remember when.

Standing there overcome by longing, you didn’t know if you could stand the leaving again. But you had to and you did, waking to a new day and a world of bright beauty and impossible pain, determined not to worry about getting it right but instead to be present. To love without interfering, to support without the pretense of saving, and to know that you aren’t here to be a saint but a person.

Today, you notice what quickens your pulse. What makes your stomach drop. What gives you a glimmer of hope and what seemed to urgent yesterday that you can simply set aside. You let the bread rise under its damp covering and the child grow towards her own sources of light. You learn, just a little bit, to let things be, thus becoming more available to what actually needs tending.

In the words of Ernest Hemingway, “Go all the way with it. Do not back off. For once, go all the goddamn way with what matters.”