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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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Ten Minutes Instead of Three Hours

The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls. ~ Pablo Picasso

5:26pm

Pearl at the pool

Do I wait to have a three-hour chunk of time to write? No, I do not. I sit my ass down right here in the middle of it all and begin. The washer and dryer are both spinning — I’m halfway through six loads of laundry. Aviva and her friend are watching The Office in the living room, having just returned from town where they got fries. She’s at that age, where you go to town with friends and you get fries, with your own money, in an actual restaurant. I hope she left a good tip. Pearl’s at a friend’s house; I dropped them both off after a post-camp swim at the town pool. I’ve been alternately working and doing life things all days long — the kind of stuff that’s easy to put off day after day until days have turned into months and the oil change is 1,000 miles past due.

5:28pm

Something is wonky about my body today. It feels kind of like I’ve had 15 cups of coffee. I took an Excedrin Migraine this morning for the first time, and I’m pretty sure that’s the culprit. It’s not a good sensation and I want it to be over. I know it will pass, so I’m just kind of hanging out, noticing that vaguely weak, shaky, jello-y feeling. The heat and humidity index may not be helping matters.

5:30pm

I had that itch earlier to write. For hours and hours. To figure out where I’ve been and pull all the different colored ribbons together in a big bright bow. Alas. That is not this. This is more like lurching towards the writing, like driving a stick-shift when you’ve only ever driven an automatic. I insist that when the time comes — and it’s coming fast — I want my kids to learn how to drive a stick. Learning how to smooth the lurching, how you are closer to the whole experience, a bit more coordination and body awareness is required… God, I sound like a stick-shift snob, don’t I?

5:32pm

Showering in the summer feels extra good. Something about washing off the sweat and and how my skin is browner than I should let it get but oh, I love it, and the way the droplets of water cling just a little to whatever sunscreen residue clings after soap, pulling on a tank-top and skirt made of India cotton, something I would’ve worn in, say, 1987. I love all of it. I love slipping on sandals and walking outside without a thought as to coats or sweaters.

5:34pm

So many doctor appointments this week. An orthodontist here, a physical there, a bout of poison ivy, a specialist, teeth cleanings. I think I had a dream the other night that our insurance had changed and the cost had skyrocketed. It was truly frightening. Like many — most? — families, we have things that would be prohibitively, astronomically expensive without the coverage we currently have and can afford. It makes me crazy to contemplate.

5:36pm

Ten minutes have passed. There’s an odd, off-kilter feeling in my mouth and jaw. I am going to keep tabs on it while ignoring it at the same time. Is that possible? So much death lately, so much loss. My heart aches. I love being alive. Writing — even for just 10 minutes — is one of the ways I stop and take it all in. All the daily life that can seem like so much dust settling on our souls. Writing is my quest to invite my soul to surface, like a mother whale. Have a look around, I tell her. And she does.

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Underwear, Avocado, and Being Loved Inside the Hunger and the Mess


The year I was 43,  maybe even this year, I swear I stained half our wardrobe. You could blame the fact that I still cooked most of Mani’s meals at that time, and most of Mani’s meals at that time were cooked in copious amounts of butter or ghee. You could, but the truth was that I bought an adorable apron with gnomes on it for the express purpose of saving our clothes from ruin, and for all the stained tank-tops and t-shirts we’d had to toss in the trash, I had only myself to blame.

Today I read a response by Rebecca Solnit to someone who’d left a comment, referring to climate change, that read: “We have only ourselves to blame.” She wrote, “Who is we, and what good is blame?”

So, it didn’t matter whose fault it was that I kept splattering and wasting our wardrobe with grease (though clearly it was mine). What mattered was that she didn’t get angry and I didn’t grow fearful of her becoming angry, and this, in a nutshell, characterized our entire relationship.

One day, maybe even today, on our way home from her having a procedure at Cooley Dickinson, the hospital in nearby Northampton, we stopped for me to zip into Whole Foods to pick up a few things. I was shaky with hunger; in feeding Mani and my kids and due to stubborn, old habits, I wasn’t always so on top of feeding myself.

I took a hand basket and ventured into the produce section, selecting one ripe heirloom tomato, a bunch of fragrant, fresh basil, and a perfectly ripe avocado for myself, three bunches of organic broccoli, a bag each of local yellow squash and zucchini, and a bag of organic gold potatoes for her. As I walked past the antipasto bar, I spontaneously decided to fill a small plastic container with fresh mozzarella to eat with the tomato and basil rather than spending more money on a pre-made sandwich.

As I lifted the small circles of cheese onto a serving spoon, olive oil flew onto my dress in a vertical line, from the midpoint to the hem. I immediately heard a pang of self-criticism in my head. Damn! Really, Jena?

After we got home, I stripped off the dress and doused the splotches with detergent, hoping I’d caught it in time. I threw on a t-shirt, forgetting to remove my sandals. then put away the  groceries and proceeded to assemble my sandwich: Whole wheat pita, sliced mozzarella, thick slices of heirloom tomato, half of the avocado, salt, pepper, a drizzle of olive oil, and a heap of fresh basil. I clapped it all together and sat down on a green kitchen chair to eat.

Mani had just finished a bowl of Rice Chex and was talking to me cheerfully about something I forget now. I was ravenous and mostly focused on my food and how quickly I could consume it before a 4;00pm coaching call. And that’s when it happened.

It’s in the little things we see love in its purest form.

“You have avocado on your cheek,” Mani pointed out, raising her hand to her own face to mirror mine. Her eyes filled with a look I can only describe as adoring. There I was, devouring a falling-apart sandwich in a hurry in my underwear, the stained dress in a delicate cycle in the adjacent pantry, and my wife was suddenly overcome with love for me. We laughed about it, recognizing both the ridiculousness and preciousness of the moment, so exquisitely ordinary and belonging to us alone.

Later, after I’d finished eating, I got on the phone. “I’m in my car eating a pop tart and drinking coffee,” said my wonderful client. “I’m in my house in my underwear and a t-shirt and I just wiped avocado off my face,” I replied. We laughed and went on to talk for an hour about writing and real life, measuring up and what bullshit it is, what courage feels like, and the oppressiveness of trying to keep up with the idea of what you think your life (or writing, for that matter) “should” look like.

This is the life I want, where we can splatter butter, ruin outfits, drive each other to the hospital, laugh, and listen. I want the life where I tell you I’m sitting here in my underwear waiting to see if the stains come out, and where you tell me you’re eating a pop tart and your heart is broken or healing.

Give me this life where I don’t cringe at the sight of my own flesh or wish I were someone else, and where I am not only tolerated but loved most of all, most adored, in my hunger, in my mess, in my half-naked sandal-wearing ruined beauty.

If you get lost in a fog of fantasy or sucked into fear that your ordinary life isn’t interesting enough, send me a picture, send me a message, send me a sign — and I will return yours with one of mine. We can remind each other to laugh.

There is no one to blame for how lovable you are, except whatever name you give to the mystery that gave you to this human form, gave you a body to feed and clothe, and gave you this love, where you learned to truly forgive yourself for being all-the-way human.

* After the first line of Anne’s Sextons’s poem, Courage: “It is in the small things we see it”

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Permission to Suck

Ranunculus in the rain

PART ONE

I went to Vermont for 24 hours (well, 27 to be exact, door to door) to get Aviva. She was wrapping up two weeks there as a camp counselor. I squeezed in a run by the lake, saw one old dear friend who put us up for the night, whose house feels like home, and wished I had time to see so many others. Burlington is beautiful and my body knows it intimately, as it was my home from ages 26 to 38. My babies were born there. Jobs and businesses came and went. I started writing again. The writing eventually led me home — which meant leaving .

And sometimes, it also feels a little like the scene of a crime — generally, not something one returns to lightly. So the reality is that my trips there since we moved nearly five years ago have been sparse and brief, and as a result, I haven’t stayed in close touch with many people whom I still hold dear. I have let go and learned that for me, looking back equates to living like Lot’s Wife and crumbling. Instead, I’ve chosen to be here and build something solid and real. This is a hard-won blessing.

PART TWO

I did not work for this whole time. We enjoyed a rainy morning at Burlington’s amazing Farmer’s Market, went out to breakfast, and then V played her ukelele and sang in the car before we turned to the “Dear Evan Hanson” soundtrack. I dropped her off at her dad’s house, came home and unpacked, then crashed for a bit. I woke up starving and ate some food, then sat down to catch up on emails and messages and new writing in my groups. And I felt overwhelmed. My mind jumped to negatives and extremes — thoughts like, “I will never be able to take a whole weekend off.” I made dinner for Mani and then sat down at my computer to start.

And after not so long, I had finished reading lots of new poems in the Dive Into Poetry group, and I noticed that I felt lighter and even energized by the writing, by the reading, and by the participation. The comments and camaraderie buoyed me and reminded me that I love what I do. And also that the world doesn’t stop spinning or anything remotely like that when I’m offline. It’s all there, waiting for me, and once I’m in the DOING, I am simply here.

PART THREE (THIS IS WHERE YOU COME IN)

Thinking about doing something is so much harder than actually doing it.

Do you think about writing? Do you have the urge to write but get stopped in your tracks, by fear, by voices telling you that you’re a bad writer, or not a writer at all?

If you do write, do you find yourself sometimes at a loss for a subject, a way in?

I so get this. The blank screen, the blinking cursor… meh. What’s in the fridge?

The idea with my prompts + groups is to write for 10 minutes every day, with a timer. Not to spend all day mulling it over. Not to delete and edit and tinker and perfect as you go, driving yourself batshit crazy. Just to start and keep going and have total, unabashed permission to suck.

Then we share!

Does that make you want to throw up? Yes? Then you are *definitely* ready!

JOIN ME JULY 10-21

There are a few spots left in the “Unspeakables” 2-week group that opens tomorrow and begins Monday. Feel the fear — and do it anyway. You won’t die from it, I promise.

Hell, you might even have a blast and connect with some fabulous folks who don’t think you suck!

Sign up here

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Same Sun, Same Moon

I’m in bed. It’s only 8:13pm but after a full day, it felt good to slip out of my clothes and under the clean sheets. In a little bit, I’ll turn off the computer and we will read a chapter from our current book before watching a show. Then Mani will put on a short meditation from the Daily Calm app (we call it the Daily Clam, after that one time I misread it), and with any luck, we’ll both get a decent night’s sleep.

This is more or less how it goes every night. When the kids are here, I read to Pearl and say goodnight to V before locking up. I try to motivate to wash the evening dishes, since it’s so nice to wake up to an empty sink in the morning when I go to make the coffee. Some nights, I get sucked into working late or just fucking around online.

Yesterday at the end of my run, I saw the fox again, the one who makes the occasional appearance in our driveway. He crossed the street and trotted down towards the woods near Sunset Farm. My mind wandered to tattoo daydreams.

Then I was home and the sweat was pouring and I was proud of myself for moving my body. I took a cold shower and shaved my legs and drank cold water and forgot what day it was.

Self-employment is a lot of things. One of them is flexible. Other than calls with coaching clients and my upcoming Monday night in-person group (which isn’t on my website, by the way, so if you’re local and you want to write with a small group of women for six weeks in Amherst, let me know), I rarely have to be in a particular place at a specific time. There is a definite rhythm to my days and weeks, but it’s one of my own making and shaping.

Sometimes I forget this and I revert to treating my life, not to mention my writing, like something to squeeze in around the edges. I’ll find myself bringing the same tension to getting to the kitchen table to greet a writing group in the morning that I used to feel driving to work — hurried, tense, late. Then I remember that no one in said group is checking their watch. I don’t clock in or out. There’s no payday or benefits office. I am all the things. This is both amazing and challenging. I wouldn’t trade it.

Today, I watched a video by a writer I admire. She’s very funny, irreverent, and ballsy. The video had nearly 35,000 views. I do not know how that happens. I do not know if that even matters.

Just now, I looked up from the screen and there was the waxing moon on the other side of our bedroom skylight, bright in the still-blue July sky as if to say: No, it doesn’t matter how many views you get. Thanks, Moon. The moon always has the best timing.

Today, I ran again. Just me and my tiny iPod shuffle and the midday sun. I ran north to UMass and around the little pond in the middle of campus. There was a group of young adults milling around with matching blue backpacks. Many of the women wore colorful headscarves and I imagined that they were a visiting group of students here for some summer program. I thought about the Travel Ban and wondered what country they were from.

Arcade Fire’s album “The Suburbs” has been my running soundtrack lately, along with some old-school Madonna and a smattering of other indie-pop songs that keep me moving. I didn’t run all winter, and then all of a sudden a few weeks ago, I started again. Just like that.

Summer and I are old friends. We share stories that don’t need to be revisited. We both enjoy fresh-water swimming and napping in hammocks and ice cream for dinner. Everything seems a little more do-able. My daughter is quick to correct me if I say there are more hours in the day, but she knows what I mean. I am a goner for heat and light.

On my bedside table, so many books. Half-read books, unread books. Paperbacks, hardcovers. On my head, more grey hairs every day. I pluck them, not in battle but more like a new hobby. My skin is changing. My life is changing.

Our lives are always changing. If we pay attention, we might even notice. But so much of the change happens while we’re so in the days, the news, the fury, the mundane, the passion, the questions, the sweat and tears of it all, that we don’t know until later. And then later is the new now and here we are: Kids older, bodies older, love a few layers deeper, understanding wider, with just as many places to be lost and found as ever.

I find myself running again. I find myself pounding the pavement, creating the rhythm of my own days in this life, loving my people, and not worrying about the numbers. I look up to find that the moon has already moved slightly further west as it starts out its nightly journey across the small slice of sky we can see. I marvel, like a child, that it’s the same sky, the same sun, the same moon, for you.