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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.

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Already Whole: Day Three

In today’s edition of Real Life, we present the sink full of dishes & the laundry that needs to be separated into 4 piles. Not shown: Trash & recycling, unmade bed, desk in disarray. This is my kitchen. It’s also my office.

This morning on a short run, I reminded myself: You are out for a short run at 10:00am on a Thursday, clearing your head between waking, a couple hours of work & a call with a writing coaching client. It’s easy to forget that this was what I once longed for. I would sit in my office on campus, looking out the giant window at the summer day, watching the clock, wondering how I would survive indoors till 4:30.

I didn’t quit my job as much as life pushed me out of the nest. My wife was in very serious condition health-wise, with a steep, narrow, lonely & painful climb ahead. My being home was imperative for practical reasons. I didn’t follow my bliss as much as I pried fear’s fingers away & chose to believe we’d be ok.

It’s not always easy or pretty. I don’t work in a Pinterest-like space or have someone come clean my house. We rent our apartment & pay more than I once spent each month on a mortgage. But it’s our home and I say thank you every single time I leave the grocery store with a cartful of food, every time we go to the doctor and pay the co-pay.

The ACA made it possible for me to leave my full-time job two years ago. Health insurance was vital, as was my being home. If it hadn’t been for the connector care plan we’ve been enrolled in since, I honestly don’t know what we would have done. Like millions of Americans, we would have figured it out–or not.

Running a household and a business, being there not only for but with my wife and kids, and taking care of myself– it’s a lot. We *all* have a lot. If I’ve learned anything from leading writing groups, it’s that.

You know what? Our real lives are treasure troves of amazing stories. Shitty, hard ones. Gorgeous, glorious ones. And 10,000 in-betweens, where life unfolds & surprises us, plunges us down & lifts us up again.

Every day brings new dishes & laundry: Evidence that we’re alive. Yay. And sometimes a drag, too. I’m all about the space where both get to be true.

What stories are you ready to shed or share?

Written as a member of the support team for Already Whole, a 3-day storytelling campaign created and hosted by Andréa Ranae Johnson and Cameron Airen to launch Whole Self Liberation

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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.

* * * * *

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