Thoughts on Advice and Friendship

All I saw was, “Hi, Jena” in my private messages. Two innocuous words of greeting from a kind person, and yet already I felt my nervous system gearing up. Clearly I still have have some stickiness around this topic. Because I knew what was coming: The A-word.

Advice! But not just any advice.

Unsolicited advice!

So, you decide you’re going to do something new. Maybe you’re considering a move. Or having a baby or getting a dog. You share on social media because it’s exciting and you’re someone who likes thinking out loud. But nowhere in your sharing do you ask for input.

Or perhaps you’re struggling and could use some moral and emotional support. You write that it’s a hard night, or your grief got tripped open all over again. Maybe your kiddo is hurting and it hurts to see them hurt.

We are quick to rush in. If things are hard, we want to fix it, share what worked for us, and make suggestions for what to do and how to be. If it’s something fun and exciting, we are eager to make sure they’ve considered their options and are aware of the potential pitfalls, downsides, and other disasters that could ensue.

I imagine it’s a safe bet to say most of us have been on both sides of this equation.

Fear, a need to take people down a notch, a know-it-all attitude, or simply the discomfort of witnessing and being with without necessarily have a say in someone’s choices and decisions — surely all of these play a part in this dynamic.

The mighty pause.

If you have a piece of advice burning a hole in your heart, consider asking before you share it. For example, the aforementioned message went on to say, “May I give you a bit of unasked for advice on selecting a dog breed for your household?”

That would have been a good place to pause and await my answer. (In this case, the person did not pause. She asked and then answered the question herself by proceeding with said advice.)

I am totally guilty of this, for the record. Just a week ago, I took Aviva out to dinner to celebrate the release of her first EP. We shared a nice meal and then walked over to Herrell’s for ice cream and hot fudge. At one point, she was animatedly telling me about her thinking for the next 2-4 years. And I did that thing. I jumped in and told her why she might want to consider x instead of y. Because my daughter is a badass, she called me on it. “Oh, snap,” I said. Busted. But damn if it isn’t a practice to just listen.

During a coaching call last week, I was taking notes when I saw something.

Being witness and being with-ness. Just one letter different. And essentially synonymous. To be with you is to be your witness. To be with me is to bear witness. Whether I’m excitedly talking about what kind of dog we might get or agonizing about whether to quit my job, unless I’m asking you for your advice, I’m not asking you for advice. I’m inviting you to be with me. To be with me in by witnessing and empathizing — whether in excitement or difficulty.

A weapon or a gift.

The summer I came out was the single most confusing, chaotic, charged period of my life. I sought out advice, but also knew ultimately I had to find a way to listen to and trust myself. That wasn’t an easy balance to strike and lord knows I probably made a mess of it. My mind goes back to a few conversations that proffered guidance rather than advice.

One was: “Every decision has gains and losses.”

The second was more of an inquiry: “Do you want to have a near-life experience?”

And the third made an observation, when I was hyper-focused on the other people involved: “What about you in all this?”

These moments became anchors for me during an unmoored moment. What none of them did was tell me I should be careful or cautious. They didn’t warn me or say I was making a huge mistake. They didn’t use words like “implore” or even “encourage.” Encouragement with an agenda is like support with conditions, and it doesn’t feel like love, it feels like pressure.

What makes these conversations stand out nearly eight years later is that they taught me something about presence, about friendship, about being wit(h)ness. They showed me that I was a grown-up woman, capable of trusting myself and making decisions rooted in integrity. They showed me who in my life was able to hold space for me without projecting their own fears or desires.

They pointed me, too, to the kind of friend, coach, parent, and partner I want to be.

Next time a friend shares hard news — maybe they’re going through a nasty divorce, or grieving a loss all over again — or something momentous — they’re expecting, adjusting to an empty nest, or writing a book — notice your first impulse. Is it to jump to your own experience of that thing and tell them what worked and didn’t work well for you? Maybe it’s to say, “I’m so sorry,” or “That sounds big.” Take a moment to notice the difference. Are you in your own head or being witness and being with them, over there, right where they are?

Ask first.

I never knew how powerful it was to simply ask questions: Would you like my advice? What would feel like love/support/presence to you in this moment? 

In December, I participated in a wonderful group with Amy Walsh called The Art of Showing Up. One thing I loved and that really made an impression on me was this: In addition to offering fantastically creative assignments, she asked participants to include a “commenting policy” with every single post. It put the responsibility on the person sharing, to state clearly her needs. This in turn gave the other people in the group some instructions. We would know if someone didn’t want any comments like, “You’re so beautiful.” Maybe they were looking for a particular kind of feedback. If the person posting wanted to hear about other people’s experiences, she could ask for this. If she only wanted feel-good love-me-up-and-down kinds of comments, she could ask for this.

I do this in the Jewels on the Path group, if not using quite the same language. When members share new writing on Wednesdays, I remind them to articulate what kind of response they want. Sometimes, we simply need people to be witness and be with us. Other times, we truly want to know whether a piece of writing “works” for the reader. Where are the holes? Did the ending feel rushed? What did you want more of? Where did you get confused or lost?

Learning how to sit with someone (or someone’s words) without rushing to advice is one side of the equation. Practicing being clear on what it is we want and need is the other.

Not an either/or.

My most enduring friendships have this in common: Presence. Not fixing, not judging, not drama. They show me what it is to be with, to witness, to love, to celebrate, to mourn — and to respect that every single one of us is here having our own experience. I’m so thankful we can learn with and from each other, and also have room to find our own way through this life. How could it be otherwise, really? At the end of the day, no one else lives in your body, your house, your family, your past, your knowing.

At the same time, having people who know and love us and will tell us when we’re in a blind spot or ask us if we’d like to hear their guidance — what would we do without that? Like so many things, it’s not an either/or, but a dance. Websters’ defines advice as “guidance or recommendations concerning prudent future action, typically given by someone regarded as knowledgeable or authoritative.” It’s imperative to recognize that we cannot ultimately be an authority about anyone else’s life. Ever.

Practice: “No Advice, Please.”

Mani and I are in the early stages of exploring getting a dog. Our landlord has said yes. Yay! We are obsessed with French and English bulldogs. We’re also looking at rescue pups at local shelters. We’re doing our research and having lots of conversations.

I am a sharer. I am an open book in many ways. In work, writing, and life, I tend to be all about process, since the vast majority of, well, everything, happens there, in the exploring, in the becoming, in the lived experience, in the days and nights unfolding and revealing and concealing and becoming. What often isn’t immediately apparent in all of this is an answer or an outcome. We LOVE answers and outcomes. The yes or no. The big announcement. The prize. The birth. The publication date. The decision, finally signed, sealed, and delivered.

In the absence of these, I’m continuously stepping into this funny, simple place called here in a time without a past or future called now. I don’t mean to be snarky or esoteric; this really is my practice — arriving over and over into this moment, while always holding an awareness of context. I love being here with you.

Everything unfolds. (Also: Dogs.)

What does that have to do with dogs?

Well, I could wait until we have a new doggie and then share pictures and names and YAY!

But I am not doing that. I’m not waiting to share till I know what’s happening. I’m sharing as we go, because this is life right now. Life right now is: We’re hoping to get a dog, and I don’t know yet what kind of dog or when, and I know many of you love dogs and who wants to be part of the process of seeing how this goes? Not: Do you think getting a dog right now is a good idea for us? Not: What kind of dog do you think we should get? Not: Do you have concerns about certain breeds?

But it’s as much on me as it is on you, to be clear. I can practice saying: No advice, please. That part’s my job. It’s a two-way street, this communication thing, this relationship thing, this being with each other and this being witness to each other thing. It’s a thing I love and cherish and honor. And it’s a thing I’m always learning more about.

p.s. Stay tuned for more doggie news!


“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.


Grande Lattes, Treason, and the Universal Sign for Empathy

Photo: Anete Lusina

Two sparrows pecked away at a chunk of discarded donut in the snow outside the door to Starbucks as Luping and I dove into conversation today. The moment I walked in, she asked if I was feeling better (I had cancelled last week’s session due to being sick). I told her yes, but that I still wasn’t 100%.

The very moment those words came out of my mouth, I asked if she brought her notebook. She had. I wrote it down and explained this expression — how it means I’m feeling better but not all the way better. She nodded in understanding and told me coffee today would be her treat.

We walked over the register to order. I asked for a grande latte with one Splenda (I’ve cut it out completely at home, but still get one in my latte, go figure). She said she’d have the same, then she told me that she wants to try a different drink each week.

“You’re branching out!” I said, then immediately added that it’s like expanding, trying new things. “Oh, yes!” she said, as my little interpretive dance and definition clicked in her brain. She paid for our drinks, the cashier said something about how it’s cool to “get out of your comfort zone” and that we were “all set,” and we carried them back over to our little two-person table by the window.

“Do you know what ‘all set’ means?” I asked her. “What about ‘comfort zone’?” She didn’t know either of these. It occurred to me that in our first five minutes together, roughly half of the words spoken had been idioms she probably hadn’t learned in English textbooks or classroom lessons, nor in the lab where she is doing graduate research at UMass. So she got out her notebook and we continued the “lesson” that had begun the moment we said hello to each other.

I suggested we write down each of these expressions, as a way of “keeping track” of what she’s learning. Turns out “keeping track” is yet another one. I gave some examples. “I can’t keep track of my keys; I’m always losing them.” “I can’t keep track of my kids; I never know where they are.” (That made her laugh.) “I can’t keep track of my books; they’re all over the house.”

From there, we both saw how closely related “branching out” is to “comfort zone.” The more I described the former, the more I naturally found myself talking about the latter. I wound up drawing a little pot (labeled “pot”) with several branches growing out of it. Actually, I should say “drawing,” since drawing itself is out of my comfort zone and a good example of me branching out.

We talked about how people often prefer to stay inside their comfort zones, and how it can be scary to branch out. And how personal this is, too. For me, chatting with the barista is not a stretch. It doesn’t require any real “branching.” But for someone else, chatting with the barista, or any stranger for that matter, might be WAY out of their comfort zone.

Now I’m thinking of another one, for next week: “cookie cutter approach.” I wonder if they even have cookie cutters in China.

After this, I got a lesson from her in Chinese poetry from the Han dynasty. I learned that many Chinese parents choose baby names from these ancient stories, not unlike how in the West many people are named after characters in the Bible. Luping told me the story of Qu Yuan, which is recalled each year during the Dragon Boat Festival.

As I listened, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Qu Yuan’s “treason” against the Emperor (as she put it, he was honest and shared his disagreement openly), subsequent exile, and ultimate suicide with what we are facing right now under Trump, who is acting more like an emperor than a president of a democratic nation. I couldn’t help but think of the bravery of so many people, both throughout history and just in the past few days, who have spoken truth to power — even at the expense of their personal or professional security and safety.

Somehow this led to the word “tragedy” (as opposed to “comedy”). Luping mentioned the Titanic as an example, then told me that she prefers tragedies to stories with happy endings. They stay with her more, she said. I told her I knew just what she meant. I put my hand on my heart and suggested that it was because of the empathy we may experience with the characters in a tragic story. She looked up “empathy” in Chinese, then put her hand on her heart, too. (Universal sign for empathy, I think.)

And then I taught her one last word of the day: “Tearjerker.”

Luping may not have realized just how riveted I was by her Qu Yuan story, nor how relevant I found it to what we’re currently facing. As we were saying goodbye, I did mention politics. She put her hand on my arm. She could lose her visa. Our leaders are throwing nuclear threats at each other. And here we were, two women drinking grande lattes with one Splenda each, each of us branching out, learning, connecting.

I felt energized and uplifted and grateful, and also sad that more people don’t have — or don’t seek out — the opportunity to connect with someone from another culture, or even just a different background than your own. Xenophobia withers under these conditions. For many people, this means leaving comfort zones in the dust.

“It seems a bit unfair,” I said, as I buttoned my coat. She looked puzzled. I continued, “I think I’m learning more than you are!”

She said she is surely the luckier one. We left it that we could both be lucky, and agreed on our meeting for next week. As we walked out together, I saw that the sparrows had polished off that donut. I hadn’t noticed them fighting over the crumbs, flying away.


We Will Protest by Living

The Witches’ Brooms, by Enzie Shahmiri

We’re going to a laughter thing this weekend. Mani and a friend heard about it and thought it sounded fun, and I agreed. I imagine we will either love it or laugh at it or maybe both, but either way it should make for a good story.

Last week, a few days before my birthday, I dreamed I looked in the mirror. For a moment — perhaps it was three or four seconds, the kind of seconds that feel long — I saw my mother’s face returning my gaze. I shook my head and blinked my eyes, disbelieving, and then it was me again on the other side of the glass.

The night before that, I dreamed I was driving and an ambulance was speeding towards me, in the same lane. I swerved just in time to avoid a head-on collision.

Today the sun came out for long enough that I couldn’t ignore its call. I laced up my sneakers and went for a thirty-minute walk. I thought about the books that have been written about boredom — I heard a story on the radio this morning about this, so it was fresh on my mind. How we’ve “lost our ability to be contemplative.” I think about the number of tabs open on my desktop, the number of apps on my phone, and wonder if this is true of me.

Have I lost my ability to contemplate? Sometimes I feel like all I do is contemplate. There must be some relationship between contemplation and action. As with most things, there’s no right answer. I get home with sweat trickling down my back under my sweatshirt and hop on a coaching call with a writer who excitedly reports many discoveries from the past week. She speaks of shame and how it distorts, and later tells a story that exemplifies clear seeing and the compassion that comes with it.

Later, a shower. “I feel like I’m behind,” I call to Mani in the bedroom, then remember that I’m not behind, I’m in the shower. I turn the valve clockwise and feel the water get hotter.

Aviva is cleaning her room. She comes into the kitchen to get a garbage bag and more Oreos. I am trying to work. The kitchen is my office, and I’m used to interruptions. So many interruptions. This morning in the car when we were talking about our Dream House, I used the word “tolerating.” As in, I am tolerating my work space situation. Would it be nice to have a room of my own? Yes. Would I love for Mani to have a yoga room? Yes. Am I unhappy? Truth be told, no. I’m not. I am weary of coveting what I don’t have; I’ve been to that rodeo and it wasn’t so fun. It sucked, in fact, like the speaker in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29:

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;

I swept the kitchen floor today. Later, I spotted a man with a toddler out for an afternoon walk, stopping to watch two dogs play in a yard. I love the feel of a little hand in mine.

Many friends are going to marches on Saturday, in D.C. and Oakland, in Boston and Northampton, in Philadelphia, in Tulsa, , in Raleigh and Portland and Chicago. All over the country, women I call my sisters will be marching. I will be here, with my wife. We’ll meet a new friend and see what it’s like to laugh in a room full of strangers. We will have no idea what to expect. We, too, will leave our house, step out into the day, and protest in our own way: By living.

January is so many shades of grey, and Trump’s inauguration (gag) is one of those events that is decidedly not grey. There is no nuance, no subtlety, no argument for the possibility of good in this abomination of democracy, dignity, and humanity. None. I will not waver on this. And while yes, I understand that this is our reality, that we must work with “what is,” I will still insist after tomorrow that no, he is not my president.

An old friend messaged me today. She said she’d been thinking of me and missed our coffee dates. I wrote her back: I miss you, too. We made a phone date for Sunday. This is what we must do — what we’ve always done: Tell each hello. Show up and say, when can we talk? I want to hear your voice. I want to see your face. Thank you for reaching out.

Share this post with a friend you miss seeing. Make a date to talk, to drink coffee, to give each other a hug. You’re not behind, you’re right here. And I’m right here with you. We’re in this together, and if nothing else, that will keep being true.