The Gift of the Burden, and Laying It Down


Photo credit: Dorothea Lange

Oh, I want to write something here. All week long, I write for ten minutes at a time. My life as a writer right now consists almost exclusively of short bursts of freewriting. It is just not time right now, to be working on something longer, more sustained.

I read beautifully crafted essays sometimes with longing; wonder what would emerge if I had, or made, the time to work on a piece in that way. I have more book ideas than I can keep track of.

And then there is this space, where I come sometimes more and lately less frequently, always unpremeditated–no prompt, often not even an idea or topic or reason, except that I miss the writing I do here, the free associating of it and the way it has been a landing place for me for so many years now.

It’s a loyal emptiness that seems happy to see me when I show up and forgiving when I don’t, like a friend who doesn’t hold a grudge when weeks and months and sometimes years go by without being in touch. The connection is there.

But just in the way I have pangs of how I’ve not spoken with some close friends for too long, lately what is becoming clear is that I need to make time for saying hello to myself. For not forgetting that caring for others cannot come at the expense of self-care–something that doesn’t seem to really become clear to me until the ignored whispers and neglected needs come roaring out, and something small and in other times inconsequential, like realizing the chicken breast isn’t skinless and so will require another trip to the grocery, puts me over the edge, and I’m crying in the kitchen because my blood sugar has tanked and I’ve had way too much caffeine and not enough quiet.

Writing here quiets me. And being able to apologize to myself, accept my own apology, and then do something differently–this is a practice not unlike moving my cell phone to the opposite side of the bedroom, turning out the light, and willing myself to get a good night’s sleep. To get up and make myself eat breakfast before work, rather than waiting until I’m shaky with hunger because I put other things first and felt too busy to make food. To bring my kids to an evening work event rather than feeling like I’m missing the time with them after they’ve been with their dad for five days. To accept that I cannot take away my wife’s debilitating pain right now, and that I can care for her and love her without leaving myself. To lead writing groups and witness others’ stories and share my own comments and responses thoughtfully, without hurry–which might mean waiting, not responding in the moment.

Not everything has to happen right this minute. And at a time in my life when I find myself working more than I’ve ever worked in my life–some by choice, some by necessity–a breadwinner by circumstance and ability and privilege and luck and innovation and employment and creativity; at a time when it is on me to take care of household chores and meals and kid schedules and not wanting to disappear from any of it, not wanting to forget or lose the joy in all of it (ok, maybe not all of it) — in this time, after this very long sentence that I have not and perhaps will not reread before posting, I remember that writing here brings me not to my knees in overwhelm but back to my feet, where I am capable and also not as essential as my ego or inner critic would have me believe. (They are in cahoots, those two. I’m sure of this. I just gave them $20 and told them to go get a slice of pizza.)

So I am here, writing. And Mani is here, near me. And Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s question is here, that came with her poem last night, the one that was so timely and reminded me that God is here, too: “Can you think of a time when you took on, or wanted, to take on a loved one’s burden? What gifts did you find in that act?”

I didn’t think about this question today, not consciously. But as I come here, as I come here for a sliver of time but without a timer to say hello to myself and see what she has to say back, I realize that that is the question I’m living right now, and that I’m answering it, letting answers come, not by pushing or vanishing or flipping my shit, but by loving and letting myself be loved back, even when it’s hard, even when I’m tired, even when it feels like there isn’t time.

There is always time to be loved. And tonight, there is even time to write it down. To lay it down. To wrap my arms around my own chest before reaching for hers and rubbing her back in hopes that the pain will subside enough to sleep a while.

Day 38 of the Omer: Burden
a psalm of comfort

by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (a.k.a. the Velveteen Rabbi) 

Set down your pack.
Wrap your arms around your chest.
Let your shoulderblades unfurl like wings.

Let me rub the knots from your palms,
smooth the shadows from under your eyes.
Lean back: my hands are here.

Your fragile glass heart is safe.
The light which shines through you —
I don’t want you to hide it away.

The stones you’re lugging, both whole
and broken: they’re mine too.
You’re mine too. Let me carry you.

16 thoughts on “The Gift of the Burden, and Laying It Down

  1. Pamela says:

    Oh I needed this. Right smack in the middle of an overseas move, feeling like I am carrying everyone and the dog on my shoulders. Thank you for reminding me to apologize to myself and accept my own apology and then do something differently. Thank you Jena.


  2. Katalina4 says:

    Even your longest and un-re-read sentences have a captivating gorgeous rhythm to them that is irresistible…
    A number of times you have said here and there: too much, too much. That self-care is so necessary, the food before you shake, etc – the oxygen mask has to go on…
    xxxxx Kath


  3. SGoldfarb says:

    I love when you sneak into my heart while I have my morning coffee. Sending love and encouragement to keep making time for you…and sending ego and I.C. out for pizza while you do. ;)


  4. Miv London says:

    The landing place, the loyal emptiness that forgives you and is happy to see you, saying hello to yourself. There is always time to be loved. Your compassionate self-reflection is soothing balm to my anxious soul. Thank you, dear friend. Much much love to your beautiful self and to Mani and your girls.


  5. Jeanne Argoff says:

    Thanks so much for this, Jena. I’ve felt a vacuum since our writer’s group ended last week. It’s good to hear from you!


  6. em-i-lis says:

    jena, I’ve been meaning to comment on this for days. This beautiful ode on writing in a space that brings you to your feet rather than your knees, who greets you like an old, secure friend rather than one with a grudge is just perfect. My blog brings me much the same. The spaces, what we can and do put into them, it’s another form of nourishment. Thank you for describing it so beautifully (as usual). Emily



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