www.jenaschwartz.com (3)

Being a Grownup

giving to all her questions just one answer: 
In you, who were a child once–in you.

~ Maria Rainer Rilke, from “The Grownup”

Being a grownup means not doing it just because everyone else is doing it. It means recognizing that in truth we have little idea what anyone else is really doing or how they’re doing it. It means understanding that we all have so many selves, so many layers, so much that goes unknown and unseen.

Being a grownup means taking the pressure off.

Picture an open wound — blood that won’t stop. Yes, absolutely, applying steady pressure can be a necessary and even lifesaving measure until the paramedics arrive to take over.

But when you’re still applying all that pressure years later, long after the wound has closed and the ridgeline of scar has become simply part of the landscape of your body, of your days, that is when you can step away. Slowly left your hands and see the miracle of what has repaired itself over time. To be a grownup is to remove your hands. Don’t hide the scar; it is the topography of your soul now, mountainous here and cavernous there, with long stretches of nothing but sand, water, and sky.

Grow up and see that all along, you contained answers only you could discover and decipher.

They lived in you like so much starlight that had to travel for many years to reach your heart, your consciousness. Grow up, and learn delicate art of listening for these answers that appear when you least expect them, that don’t discriminate between cityscapes and lush forest and mountain stream, splendor and squalor.

The answers within you can slip out anywhere. Be aware.

Beware those who insist that for a sum, they’ll lead you somewhere you’ll never find on your own. No one else has the map of you. Run to those whose clues make you light up in recognition, cry with relief, or feel you’ve found your place on this earth.

Find the silences where you can hear your own voice echoing off the rocks. Whatever your element, spend as much time as you can there. And when you find yourself in exile — which you will, when you’re a grownup — trust that your longing will lead you home.

Have faith that you will get to return to the place where all of the answers greet you, like the beloveds you lost along the way. Grow up and see for yourself: You belong.

www.jenaschwartz.com (3)

Poetry, Politics, and Privilege

I feel unequipped to write about politics.

But yesterday, I posted the following on Facebook:

Do you ever have to suppress the urge to ask someone if they voted for Trump? But a) it’s impolite and b) it’s none of my business and c) I don’t really want to know. Oy.

A thread of comments followed. Some were thoughtful and others flippant, but I appreciated the conversation, however dispiriting is may have been. At one point, I mused:

The more comments I read, the more I think, why bother knowing. I think the folks I wonder about most likely DID vote for him. And the fact is, I have not had a single productive conversation with a Trump voter since the election. I truly wonder if it’s possible.

In the midst of that online conversation, one Facebook friend messaged me that she’d lost a life-long friend because of their political differences. Another sent me a photo of the stop sign at the end of her street, with a swastika spray painted on it. She had just called the sheriff’s office. “I don’t trust any of them,” she wrote.

Today, I received another private message, from someone I don’t know well. This person, who has never commented on my writing before, wrote:

i’m a little surprised at your comments in the post that you made on trump at midnight last night. I’m a libertarian but I really try to understand both sides. Both sides have valid concerns. I’m surprised as a poet and writer that you wouldn’t dig a little deeper and try to understand what a huge chunk of this country is feeling right now. I don’t mean the fringe that both parties have at their edges. I mean what is underneath the support. There is both fear and idealism underneath both parties platforms. For you to give up kind of shocked me. Clearly your newsfeed reaches only those with a homogeneous view.

I was triggered by this, but also know enough about social media to recognize that it could very well have been written in good faith. It can be so hard to read tone, especially when you’ve had no other contact with someone. After several hours of consideration, I responded:

Your note gave me a lot to consider, and in fact, I am writing a blog post now exploring this further — so thank you. Nowhere did I say I was giving up, nor do I see it as my responsibility to welcome everyone’s view on my personal FB page.  

Sure enough, he responded that he meant no harm.

Today, I was in the dentist’s office.

I was making the kids’ six-month cleaning appointments. And the four women working at the reception desk behind the sliding glass windows were all lovely and kind and helpful. One of them, followed by two others, complimented my dress — the dress both kids poo-poohed earlier in the parking lot. We laughed about that. We wished each other a good weekend.

 Did they vote for Trump? They might have voted for Trump. If they did, are they pleased with how things are going? If they regret it now, what does that mean? Now what? Are they speaking out, talking to their friends and family?
 
I wanted to ask them. I don’t know what would happen if I did. If they said yes, would the be less lovely, kind, and helpful? What would change in that moment? Would I start ranting in the waiting room? Doubtful.
 
I suppose I would ask why. I want to believe this is possible, this seeing each other. This listening. But — and there is the “but.”
 
What about the xenophobic, misogynistic, embarrassing, homophobic, racist, tweeting, dangerous, isolationist, sociopathic, narcissistic, manipulative, unrelenting greed and ignorant dismantling of democratic ideals?
 
How does one reconcile overlooking or approving these? I don’t know if I can, friends. I just don’t know.
 
But I didn’t ask. It’s not done, right? And this is how we go through the days.
 
Who are we?
 

Here’s what I mean by unequipped.

Writing about this feels nearly impossible. But that is a cop-out. We can’t leave this kind of wrestling to the pundits and the experts. We all have bodies. We all need air and water and food that’s not poisoned and health insurance and safety and education and legal protection. And by all, I do mean ALL. 

This is where I have such a difficult time staying open, since a vote for Trump essentially said, no, not all. Just some of us.
 
I am neither a journalist nor a spokesperson for anything. I am a mother and a poet. I am Jewish and queer. I am white and was born to parents with higher degrees and the means to provide me and my sisters with private education.
 
Truth be told, I generally interact with very few people whose political and moral beliefs vary dramatically from my own. When a woman in one of my writing groups shared that she had voted for Trump — the week of the election — I tried to create space for her writing, only to be personally attacked. In a word: It sucked. 
 

Is it my job as a poet not to have strong opinions?

Is it my job as a woman to be a nice hostess and make sure everyone is comfortable? Not everyone is going to be comfortable. God knows I’m not comfortable speaking up in this way when in fact I shy away from confrontation, suck at debate, and generally love it when everyone’s getting along. This is not my forte, people. 

And yet here I am, writing. I am writing because this is such sticky and difficult terrain, and we are all walking on the same ground — which is crazy, given how little ground we seem to share within these borders. I am writing, because I fear for my children’s future, and for the children who are learning from their teachers, parents, siblings, peers, and role models in office that bullying and hatred are American values. I am writing, because climate change is accelerating and we’re the frogs in the pot and our president just nominated a climate change skeptic to USDA’s top science post.

I am writing because I care so fucking much.

I have no answers.

I am a bundle of fear and rage and love and confusion. I went for a run this morning, and I looked at each person’s face I passed by. A delivery guy. An older gentleman walking his dog. A woman with a briefcase waiting for the light. A man smoking a cigarette on a bench. A child watching in awe as the firetruck backed out of the station, holding his grandfather’s hand. I ached.

What do we do with the ache, with the love, with the rage, with the fear?

How do we listen?

www.jenaschwartz.com (3)

Writing at the Intersections

Blogging — really, writing in any form — is a strange enterprise, in that it’s so intimate and so impersonal at the same time. Hearing from readers always feels like finding out I won the lottery. Every single time. This morning, I received a long note from the mother of a woman I was friends with in junior high. Among other things, she wrote,

“I though you might be amazed that a 70 year old mother of a childhood friend who is not a writer (but an avid reader and a seeker) is drawn to and deeply touched by your posts.”

I slept crazy late and am sitting on my couch with a tissue literally stuffed into my nostrils (real life, yo). I am such a baby when it comes to being sick; just ask Mani and she’ll corroborate (and I will say this — she is so so good to me when I’m sick, super patient and indulgent). It’s easy to fall off the edge of the planet, as if it were flat indeed (alternative earth shape?) and everything — all the words, all the meaning, all the work, all the connections — could just go *poof* the way my writing groups do when they’re over, in an ongoing cycle of impermanence that asks me, time and again, to let go, let go, let go, and not lose a thing.

That’s what Diane’s note this morning reminded me of. We write, or create, or even just share a snippet from our day or bump into a friend at the grocery store, and it’s in the witnessing and connection that our humanity is affirmed and restored. It’s important to me to keep doing this, even (especially) when I’m feeling doubtful, when my faith is frayed and I’m literally sick and tired. This state of vulnerability connects me to every other vulnerable human — reminding me that we ALL deserve wellbeing and witness, and the “ALL” part of this equation was not written into our country’s founding documents nor integrated over time in the ways so many have fought and continue fighting for.

How did I get from a lovely note about my writing to the fundamental flaw of American ideals in a few sniffling paragraphs? How can I not is the more accurate question. Because to have a voice is to bear some responsibility for others, and as long as there is “other” we are not all free. My own intersections of privilege and “otherness” are many — the “chutes and ladders” analogy in the piece I posted yesterday (How to survive in intersectional feminist spaces 101) explains this in plain and brilliantly accessible terms:

“Oh man. Ok. Sensitive topic time. CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE. I know. It’s a scary aggressive commanding statement. But it doesn’t have to be. See, all these intersections are like a big game of chutes and ladders. Our privileges are ladders that move us toward the top of the heap, our marginalizations are chutes that slide us down.”

I am a cisgendered, white, and educated. I am also a gay, Jewish woman, dependent on the ACA for affordable health insurance, which has been literally life-saving for Mani over the past 18 months or so. My household covers several letters in the LGBTQ soup and if Trump and his cronies had their way, my beautiful marriage would legally be null and void.

I have a cold. Boo-to-the-hoo. I write and wonder why I write. And then I read that a painter friend — the one I bumped into at the grocery store last week — is questioning why bother painting right now, when, in her words, “it’s 1984.” I get it. I really do. And yet, instinct kicks in and I respond to her, “Because it’s 1984. The question contains the answer.” And then I read these words, posted by Dana Schwartz, from Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark:

“Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. When you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.”

And then I read a post from a beautiful and fierce community leader in Vermont, a woman of color who is tired and whose continuous efforts to address oppression — as the road to “unity” — are being met with accusations that she’s being “divisive.”

We have got to stop this shit and listen to each other. Our words matter. Our silences matter. I am trying mightily to address my own places of white fragility and fear (thoughts like “am I being ________enough?” that essentially betray internalized racism to begin with) so that I can root them out. It’s not a good feeling, but guess what? It’s not about feeling good, and if there’s one common thread in this learning, it’s this: It’s not personal.

So full circle back to the writing. It’s both searingly personal and flung wide-open to the world. How can both be true? I don’t really know, except that most true things are not one-dimensional but rather multifaceted, challenging, and resistant to platitudes, quick fixes, or easy answers. This is why it’s work, and this is why I’ve noticed the times when I want to write something pithy like, “We’re just getting warmed up” but them wham! Check my privilege, indeed. There are a lotta lotta women and some very good men, too, who are not just getting warmed up. Who are tired. Who have been marching this march and fighting this fight for years, decades. I’m standing on their shoulders.

My deepest desires remain like steady flickers deep in the belly: To listen. To learn. To grow. To be honest. To cultivate joy and to nurture courage — but not in pretty, feel-good, superficial ways. No, in ways that are demanding here, delicious there, and everything in between. That, to me, is real life. That is really living. Getting really down in it together, not afraid of dialogue but saying, yes, please, talk to me. Tell me what it’s like for you. Ask me about my life. Let’s not tell stories about each other but rather hear and read and really take in each other’s lived experiences.

All of this is a way of saying hello, and thank you — for showing up. For wherever you are in your own honest process of learning, resisting, fighting, questioning, and becoming more and more HERE. Life is so many things, and I am wishing you pockets of ease and sweetness today in the midst of whatever bumps or barriers you might encounter.

Art by Jen Lemen :: thewayofdevotion.org/downloads

“Download this DIY printable zine–double-sided on a piece of 11×17 paper that you can fold into a little book to share with a friend, pass out at a march, save in your bag or wheat paste wherever your heart desires. Created by self-taught artist Jen Lemen, this gentle call to action, invites you to decolonize your mind, relinquish your silence for the good of all. 

This art is FREE, so distribute freely. May we all learn how to deeply resist any powers that be that would make us less whole, less brave, less devoted to one another. May we embrace resistance and love as our path forward, now & always.”

www.jenaschwartz.com (3)

I Want to Hear What You Have to Say

What-you-have-to-say
I want to hear what you have to say, and sometimes I am not a great listener. I jump in, jump the gun, with opinions and judgments, thin-skinned covers for fears I cling to and do a terrible job of hiding, beliefs I swallowed without study, things I call “norms” and things I call “best,” all evidence of ignorance, places of discomfort demanding my attention.

From screentime to white supremacy, I am swimming in a sea of plastic bags, choking turtles, washed-up whales and broken bodies; from parenting to profiting, I can close my eyes or open them, close my gates or open them, close my heart and mind or open them. That is all. What follows is a direct result of that simple choice, a daily one, one that itself is borne of privilege.

Yesterday, my wife rattled off five ways women “still” don’t live as equals in our country to an inquisitive ten-year old. We may not wave a freak flag high, nor can I stand and chat without wanting to ask, what are you afraid of? What comforts are you needing to protect by keeping your eyes closed? And also, yes, me too. And also, I refuse. And aren’t we complicated creatures, some say God’s children, one and all, others not so much.

I want to hear what you have to say and sometimes I am not a great listener. Sometimes I interrupt, sometimes I think I suck, sometimes I take a breath and your voice rises and falls and calls me out and fills the room with truth and I want to say thank you. Let me help. Let me have the courage to unlearn so many judgments and whose best practices are those, anyway?

Sometimes I say, when I’m alone in my car, engine off keys dangling from ignition in the safety of my driveway, “let me be a vessel,” and sometimes I have to breathe into that and go beyond the limitations of language into a space beyond censor, beyond selfhood, beyond sky and back again to this moment, rain on dashboard, the blackberries that were so ripe last week now withered, a squirrel got into the compost again and I have to use the bathroom and are we really “all in this together” or is that a convenient way of saying I accept the status quo?

Let us go then, you and I, to the places courage carries us to look each other in the eye. I have no answers. Only this silence where the words pour in from some invisible valve and light competes with brutality and I finally speak out loud just this: “God, are you here?”