Diego-Catto-B+W

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”

Diego-Catto-B+W

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.”