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“Why Am I Here?”

When Anne Sexton wrote,
“Everyone in me is a bird
I am beating all my wings”
She was writing for you.

When Nelson Mandela wrote,
“Do not judge me by my successes,
judge me by how many times I fell down
and got back up again”
He was writing for you.

When Amelia Earhart flew
across the Atlantic Ocean
alone, she was charting your course.

When Lucille Clifton celebrated
herself with these words:
“these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.”
She was celebrating you.

When David Whyte called despair
“a necessary and seasonal state of repair,
a temporary healing absence,”
he had you in mind.

I spoke with these poets,
these pioneers, these people of doubt
and faith, or darkness and light,
those who did not shy away
from the heart of the world
but flung themselves into what Pico Iyer
calls “the wonderful abyss.”
They called me in at 4:00am,
just in time for your question
from the other side of the world:
“Why am I here?”

To burn off anything extra,
becoming so fully human that every
feeling is welcome in your guest house.
To take down and build up.
To grieve and to sing.
To feel, and feel, and feel,
until all of the layers have been loved.

Stanley Kunitz and Rumi
joined us, and soon the room
was so full of friends and poets,
dancers and makers of things,
and those who crave a moment,
just one single moment, of pure
connection, someone to look at their eyes
with true love. Your voice rises,
still it rises — Maya Angelou, too —
and says, “I see you. I am here to see.”

Seeing can be painful work.
And miraculous, too.
You are the one who lets go.
And you are the holder, too,
infinitely and forever held
by the arms of the world.

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Necessity Is the Mother of Invention

“When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back.”~ Paulo Coelho

I’ve noticed something. The more time I spend online, the less I remember what it fully feels like to be me. And when I do have a spell of time away from the computer and less plugged into the apps on my phone, something shifts internally. It’s a shift you can’t really put into words, kind of the way someone could explain swimming to you but until that moment where it’s your body moving through water, it will only be a concept, divorced from experience.

I’ve noticed something else. I have created a monumental story in my head about the time I spend online. The biggest, most dire of the plot lines is this: If I spend less time online, I won’t earn a living.

Let me explain.

I led my first online writing group in December, 2014. Not three months after marrying my beautiful wife, her health had begun to unravel, slowly and mysteriously at first, and then rapidly and at such a precipitous pitch that it felt like we were sliding right out of our lives, the lives we had really just begun together. Nothing was what we’d expected. I had a full-time job at a local college, but with Mani’s ability to work quickly eroding, my income became barely sufficient to carry the four of us. Winter solstice was approaching; it was dark when I left for work in the morning and dark when I got home. I was lonely and scared. She was playing private investigator to her own deterioration, eventually self-diagnosing (accurately).

It was in this context that I wrote my very first 10 prompts and opened the doors to a secret Facebook group for 12 people. Some I knew already, others had found me through mutual friends or old-fashioned serendipity. What happened during those two weeks I could never had predicted. We wrote like crazy. For 10 minutes a day, we put pens to paper or let fingers fly over keys. It was terrifying and exhilarating and liberating to just write after a long dry spell without words, without expectation, without judgment (from others, at least). In the safety of this container, stories poured out.

The resulting writing was funny, heartbreaking, surprising, wise, ridiculous, wry, and real. The writing was not a means to an end. It was simply itself. Nobody had to perform or compare or compete for airtime or worry about who was better (though oh, how we do).

It was, in a word, magic.

So I did it again. Another 10 prompts, another two weeks, another 12 folks — many returning, many new. And again. And again! It was thrilling. I had no idea what I was “doing.” All I knew was that I loved it, it came naturally to me, it felt effortless and like the thing that threaded together the strands I’d been trying to combine for decades: Writing, connecting, coaching, creating, and community building.

By May, I was leading two groups at a time. By May, I was squirreling away money in a PayPal account. By May, I was planning my first in-person retreat for June.

And by May, we were reaching a crisis point.

She was living on water and white rice. She could no longer tolerate any other foods. And she had developed neuropathy in her feet and lower legs so severe that she barely slept, cried in pain at a feather touch, and listened to Jon Kabat-Zinn meditations on chronic pain literally on loop. We had been to a dozen specialists, and not even her immunologist who was familiar with her rare disease — Mast Cell Activation Disorder — knew what was happening. We wound up at the ER several times, but she didn’t go on pain medication since we didn’t know if she’d react to it.

I went on unpaid medical leave from my job as it became clear that I needed to be home full-time. Mani could barely stand to walk to the bathroom, much less cook or drive or do anything for herself.

By the time I led my first Unfurl retreat, the people in my writing groups had become not only a creative community but a support network that seemed to appear as if on some kind of crazy cosmic schedule. We fell into each other in the best sense, spending a weekend freewriting and sharing, alternating between cathartic laughter and cathartic tears, and consuming copious amounts of chocolate. Within days after that, Mani and I were checking into the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. I extended my medical leave from six to 12 weeks. Friends — many of whom I’d only met in the previous months through my writing groups — donated money and meals alike. The generosity was breathtaking.

This was never about building a business for me. This was about survival. This was about need. This was about love and devotion and fear and not knowing what to do but doing it anyway because what is the alternative? This was not about “being brave” or “taking a leap of faith” or 10 steps to following your dreams or how to quit your day job in six months flat. This was about learning to ask for help and just taking the fucking donuts.

It was all and none of those things. It was real life unfolding in ways that threw both of us into roles we never imagined and frankly, didn’t favor. Contrary to what many might assume, being nurturing — as opposed to being nurtured — triggered all kinds of stuff for me that I had no choice but to confront. And for her, being so dependent was about as identity-stripping as things could get. We were both in limbo, holding on to each other for dear life and determined to get through.

My leave from work came to a close and I gave my official notice. Going back was not an option; Mani was taking heavy-duty pain medication and her climb back to health would be steady, but long and slow and steep.

Two years later, here we are. The wheelchair she needed at one point to even leave the house for a short trip to Target sits getting dusty in the garage. She is up to nearly 30 foods and beverages and adding more every week. We just got back from a long weekend, where I co-taught a writing + art workshop Saturday morning. We go to Kirtan on Tuesday nights and read books together and say “I love you.” A lot.

My writing groups continue to fill up and have evolved into a variety of offerings, from quarterly intensives to poetry workshops. I have coaching clients again for the first time since I closed the doors on that work seven years ago, and I love my clients so much I can’t stand it. I pinch myself every day. I keep experimenting and growing. Some things fly and others flop.

And. I worry.

Maybe this just comes with the territory. In many ways, we take ourselves with us (as Kabat-Zinn writes, “Wherever you go, there you are”). I worried about money when I had a full-time job with a predictable monthly paycheck. Now I worry other things:

What if this is the month when everything just… ends? What if this is the month when everything just… ends? (This one is on repeat.)
Then we will figure it out, Mani reminds me.

What if people decide they are bored with me?
This is not about me entertaining people or being liked, I remind myself.

This is about genuine connection, safe space, and room to enter or re-enter writing practice and a creative process — something I know many of us don’t make time for. Or if we do, it’s under such relentless and vicious attack by self-criticism and perfectionism that we’re lucky to write three sentences before we erase or edit the life out of the rest.

In other words, it’s out of my hands.

Facebook can be such a mindfuck, like a hall of mirrors that meets a high-school reunion. It can also be a miracle. I love it. And I feel beholden to it. I’m trying to find my way with this and for the first time — maybe this is a gesture of trust — I am writing about it. After all, writing is how I find my way. It always has been and now is no different.

There is a proliferation of writing groups out there. I cannot and will not get sucked under a dark current of competition. I don’t want to and it feels awful and I’d sooner throw in the towel altogether. But that doesn’t mean I’m not susceptible to it, especially on days of self-doubt.

At the end of my groups, after a few days to collect our words, the space goes *poof*. I’ve done it this way from the very beginning. It was an intuitive decision that has continued to feel right; the energy of the words and connections like soap from inside a bubble, like sand from a mandala, go out into the world, though their forms will never again be the same. Impermanence is not an accident; it is a fundamental component of practice.

Impermanence is all we have for sure. In this work, in this life, in our writing, in our relationships, in our health, in our friendships, in our communities. That doesn’t mean there aren’t real, lasting things. In fact, I think it’s the opposite: Impermanence deepens my awareness and appreciation of just how precious these are. It has also helped me through some of the hardest and darkest times in my life.

I love what I do for work. I love that I have learned that I am capable of so much more than I ever imagined. And every time I can catch myself in the worry, I take a breath, acknowledge it, and say a thousand thank yous. In this moment, we are ok. In this moment, my wife is next to me adding more books to her library holds. In this moment, the right people will find me and choose to write and practice with me. In this moment, I get to be here. If we could get through the past few years intact, we can get through anything.

I want my work to continue to grow in ways I can’t necessarily yet envision fully. All I know for sure is that I want to keep connecting with people in ways that are real and deep, in ways that heal and don’t harm, in ways that foster community rather than divisiveness.

As I come to a slowing-down point for an outpouring of words I didn’t see coming this evening, I realize that this isn’t really about how much time I spend online. It’s about integrity and authenticity and continuing to live and work in ways that feel deeply real and genuine.  These happen both online and off; it’s the intention that matters.

Lately one of the things that is calling my soul is the desire for more unplugged, unstructured time. That’s why my next group is not a writing group per se, but a group where each day for two weeks, we’ll practice different ways of not doing. We start a week from today.

If spending a minimum of 15 minutes a day doing things like sitting on a bench, lying on the floor, listening to music, and eating mindfully make something in your soul stir a little, please join me. Our secret group will be a place to share our discoveries, experiences, surprises, and struggles.

Feast On Your Life
June 5-16 :: Register Now

We are all in this alone, but I am so, so thankful that we also get to be in it together.

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Other Upcoming Groups

Dive Into Poetry
July 1-30 :: Register

Jewels on the Crown (Summer Session)
July 3-September 22 :: Register

The Unspeakables
July 10-21 :: Register

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Loving the Ebb

Sometimes I feel dry on the inside. I am not talking about vaginal dryness (though that is the first thing “dry on the inside” made me think of!). More like a brain dryness. A creative desert. For years, I’ve gotten a particular kind of headache I always find difficult to describe. The image that accompanies it is that of a ship run aground.

Do you know the book Amos and Boris by William Steig? It’s one of my favorite children’s books. At one point (spoiler alert), Boris, the whale, gets washed onto shore during a terrible storm. He is gasping and won’t live outside of the ocean for long. (Amos organizes some elephants to roll him back into the sea, so all is well for the friends at the end.) That’s how this dryness feels. Like I’m gasping and there is no water to swim in. Stuck. Dried up.

What does this have to do with anything?

I’m thinking about the question of inspiration. What is its source?

When inspiration is present, it’s like I’m a whale in the water: Powerful, mighty, swimming along in my element. When it’s not, I’m just an oversized body in the sand, waiting to die.

I know this sounds dramatic, but seriously it feels dramatic when the ideas are no where to be found. There is a kind of panic that threatens to set in. I have no energy. I’m lethargic. I’m all weight and no movement.

I can think and think and no amount of thinking will induce inspiration. Instead, I must change course. This means surrendering to what’s happening rather than trying to force it. And so my job becomes the surrendering itself, and below the surface of that, to trust that this too shall pass. Ideas will resurface, inspiration will return, a tiny mouse will alert the elephants who will roll me back into the ocean of creativity and energy.

This is all tied in with the ebb and flow of writing and of life for me — something I fight against and am slowly, over time, beginning to make friends with. An unlikely friendship, not unlike the one between a whale and a mouse in open waters.

The truth is, I favor the flow the way a mother is barred from favoring one child over another; she must — I must — find things to love about the ebb. And so I spend some time, as I lie there on the sandy beach waiting for help to arrive, looking at her more closely. She is quieter than flow, and moves more slowly. Imperceptibly, even. She’s not flashy and if anything, is easy to overlook.

But in my stillness, something happens. She starts to stir. I notice the intricate patterns of her being, ones I’d never seen before as I tango’d through the waters. She is beautiful in her subtlety. And suddenly, I am so thankful to be here, washed up on the beach. I know flow will return; she always comes running back, excited to show me what she has found in her explorations away from me.

This time, though, I’m going to keep ebb close.

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Thoughts on Conformity & Cherry-Picking

“I attribute much of [my] self-discovery and resultant empowerment to Jena. To the space she has always offered me and so many of us. A space inspired but not overly scripted, a space accepting and not conforming.”

Emily Nichols Grossi wrote these words late last week, in a beautiful statement about returning to the Get Your Muse On group.

For a long time, I thought I was cheating by not bringing more scriptedness and convention to my work as a coach and a group leader. It felt easy, and therefore surely I was getting away with something, right? (Like the board chair who once told me, when I was a 20-something executive director of a nonprofit with a newborn trying to find my way, that I was “cherry-picking.” Ouch.) Starting to trust that this was actually a legitimate and sincere approach to connecting with and supporting people’s growth continues to be profoundly freeing.

Yes, some folks bring all kinds of forms and evaluative exercises to the table. I am just not one of them. For me, showing up as myself, being real, and trusting my intuition — these are my power tools. I used to be afraid of using them, as if they might cause harm to myself or others. But what I’ve found is that the more harmful thing is to deny what I’m good at. When I do, I make it about ME instead of about YOU. Ironically, this is where my ego gets all in a twist. When I’m just here doing my thing, that’s when I can get out of the way and just appreciate the gift of calling this my work in the world.

So here is what I want to say to you:

Trust the parts that come easily to you and question the ones that are always a struggle. It doesn’t have to be hard to “count.” Fuck conforming. Come be you and write from that place. The world needs your voice now more than ever. Go ahead, pick all the cherries.

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Do you love writing but long for a place to practice and play with other fabulous and non-conforming humans? Come get your muse on. Madhuri Pavamani, author of the paranormal romance trilogy “The Sanctum” (St. Martin’s Press) calls the Muses “the best place on the internet.” Join us today.

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A Side of Breakthroughs with Extra Ketchup

I’ve been staring at a blank screen on and off for well over an hour. I tell people, just start, and keep going. But fuck me, it’s hard. I could start and delete and start and delete — this is where the “keep going” part comes in. But keeping going is not easy when nothing is flowing and you are doubting that you have anything worthwhile to say at all. Couldn’t the world use more silence? How is it contributing to write this kind of unedited dreck? I just listened to Julie Daley on Facebook Live talking about the status quo and about creativity and how creativity is so much more than what we relegate to what we call “The Arts” but really life itself. Life force.

And, there is also this balance — one I’m so aware of — between listening and speaking. Reading and writing. Taking in and adding to. I share my practice in part because it’s the behind-the-scenes stuff we too rarely get to see, of how creativity actually happens. It happens in fits and starts. Sometimes it’s insufferably stuck-feeling and you need to step away and get into some other state, some beta state let’s say, like walking or showering or reading, where your creative brain can catch a breath instead of you breathing down its back, demanding output. It doesn’t work like that. We are not machines. Creativity-on-demand doesn’t exist. Can you imagine, if we could just put in our order:

Hello, yes, I’d like three chapters of my novel today, two epiphanies, and a side of breakthroughs with extra ketchup?

I came down with a cold today, a bad one. It came on like bam, out of the blue. I worked and napped — a fairly usual Monday. And then I stared and started and deleted and thought, this whole start and keep going thing may be bunk. It doesn’t work. It’s awful and stupid and I hate it. Ever thrown a tantrum and realized it had nothing to do with anything and maybe was a sign to wave a white flag of surrender to effort and try again tomorrow?

It is ok to try again tomorrow. It is ok not to be creative all the time. It is ok to read, to listen, to absorb, to ring it all out in a hot bath or a cold sweat, and to notice the ways in which sitting still is squirmy. Where creativity is in its dormancy, where beauty is the growing mountain of Kleenex telling you to get in bed, sister, and get some sleep. We have miles and miles to go, and so much to learn. If we worry so much about saying it right or waiting until it’s perfectly crafted, we might never step foot outside our comfort zones again — which is exactly where the world needs us.

Can both be true? I think of the old “two Jews, three opinions” axiom and chuckle. Yes. Both can be true. Be gentle with your creativity, your spirit, your words — but ask a lot of them, just as you might with your own children. Love means holding each other to the highest expectations, while forgiving each other’s constant and inevitable failings. And I’m here writing, not deleting, because I love you and this life and this work and this world. And because the world needs your patience and your urgency. Your imperfect offerings. Your best effort and your unwavering commitment to growing things that feed others — literally and creatively.

Now let’s order another basket of fries. I’m buying.