Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid and Other Notes to Self


I am not flashy. I have no fancy packaging or branding. And you know what dawned on me this afternoon? I have been going about my business (of building a business) largely in blissful ignorance as to “what else is out there” in terms of writing groups and other comparable offerings.

Of course, I’m aware of some of the many wonderful opportunities to write and learn and practice. I love encountering these and feeling like I’m in such amazing company.

What I didn’t realize before this afternoon is that I have a general philosophy about this. But it seems that I do, and it is this: Be inspired or walk the other way.

Notes to self (and you, if you can relate):

  • Don’t drink the kool-aid!
  • Comparison is a rabbit hole that leads to envy, insecurity, and self-pity. NOT GOOD!

One nasty gulp of this near-fatal cocktail, and boom — I’m reeling drunk on imaginary stories about other people’s lives, what they’re really thinking, who has it better or easier, etc. And there is simply no good way to wrap up this dismal paragraph, because the list, of course, could go on and on.

And on.

The thing is, I’ve reached the 72-hour mark of a headache that, at its peaks, has been in migraine territory. It started Sunday, reaching a crescendo that evening with nausea and tears, and has hung on stubbornly though two night and now a third day. I’m hopeful by tomorrow it will have made itself scarce and I can continue with my regularly scheduled programming, which involves — rides on, even — not being flat and foggy of brain.

Last night, I tried to write here, and after several incoherent paragraphs, scrapped the effort and sidled up in bed next to Mani to watch Downton Abbey, a show I resisted for a long time (sure it would be stuffy and dull), only to fall for hook, line, and sinker. The costumes alone are enough to keep me watching.

On Saturday, we looked at art. And it was like coming home, to enter into those gallery spaces together after being largely homebound, as a couple, for well over a year now. We began in the gift shop, ooohing and aaahing over books, bags, jewelry, and even socks (Mani bought a pair that say “I got this,” so fitting — haha — seeing as wearing socks is part of her physical therapy as she slowly recovers from debilitating neuropathy in her feet).

Our one-night getaway at The Porches Inn in North Adams, right across the street from the museum itself, could not have been more welcome and wonderful; we are already scheming to save up enough for another jaunt to the Berkshires. And I can’t wait to go back with the kids, too. In short, I am hungry for life — a good sign, by all counts.

Notes to self (and you, if you can relate):

  • When you’re feeling physically vulnerable, everything else feels vulnerable.
  • This is a good time to practice not catastrophizing.
  • Listen to your wife (or husband, or BFF, or sister, or therapist) when they tell you that even if you really were down for the count for a few days, nothing is going to come to a screeching halt before crumbling before your eyes, like a cartoon character’s demise.

Self-employment (oh, and life) takes huge stores of faith. It’s good to remember that I’m in it for the slow burn on the slow path, not the one-trick pony or the flash in the pan, not a firework or the zero-to-sixty, not a brilliant storm that puts on a good show before clearing skies and returning to normal.

Notes to self (and you, if you can relate):

  • This is the new normal.
  • There is no normal.
  • What’s normal keeps changing, ain’t that the truth.
  • Ground down, sister.

What I know is that the chair beneath my ass, the keys beneath my flying fingers, my wife’s soft, soft hands, my kid’s voice on the other end of the line — these are solid and real. So is the food in the fridge and the hot water that pours from the shower head, over my physical, naked body. Amen.

Yesterday morning, I wrote on Facebook: I couldn’t sleep and was writing in my head. Sometimes I wonder if most of my poems and blog posts don’t amount to basically this.(Variations: I was falling asleep; I was waking up; I was napping; I was having a dream within a dream.)

I wrote this on Facebook because the words I wanted to write here had gone the way of dreams — and I was disappointed. And a little worried. Each day, I’ve come back to try again, competing with the headache that has kept on keeping on.

So what to do? I napped. I snuggled. I worked on other things. I showed up for the writers in my groups and wrote right alongside these women whose words and stories bring music and poetry and heartbreak and joy to my door, each entry a gift to unwrap slowly and savor.

I marveled at the shared insecurities voiced by so many people I write with and encounter through this work, the nearly universal doubts about what counts as “real” writing, what’s good enough. I found myself feeling ponderous, and stood before our new bookshelves, in silent conversation with so many titles that have traveled with me, loyal companions all.

I got the web page ready for this summer’s Unfurl retreats — two sets of dates for doing this very thing in person: Getting together, but not to compare, not to measure up, not to get ahead, and not to prove a thing. I’m not interested in any of that. I’ve spent my whole life so far wanting to blast open the whole charade of some people being better or cooler than others. It’s all kind of trickery and fuckery and no, I’m not sorry. I don’t buy it.

Maybe if I were flashier, I could find a way to make a lot more money. Maybe.

Notes to self (and you, if you can relate):

  • If making money alone were the goal, most beautiful things — art, photography, music, memoir, poetry — would never be born.
  • Imagine having a baby driven mostly by the goal that the baby would grow up, become rich, and take care of you.
  • It’s preposterous! Poor baby.

I won’t do that to my babies. Not the actual growing-up ones, nor the ones that are my writing groups, the coaching work I’m doing more and more of again, the words themselves that bless me when they come.

On the other hand — and I’m Jewish so there are at least three of those — I like making money and taking good care of my family, and there is no shame there, only deep pride, gratitude, commitment, and love.

Violet Crawley, a fabulous curmudgeon also known as the Dowager Countess of Grantham, said it well: “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s an atmosphere.”

Notes to self (and you, if you can relate):

    • Atmospheric changes are unavoidable. But creating an atmosphere where there needn’t be one at all — that is just silly and a waste of time and your God-given gifts.
    • Take a bath instead and watch Netflix until you feel better.
    • A headache will not bring anything to a halt.
    • Not every blog post has to knock it out of the park and not every day in the life of your business (writing, parenting, job, marriage) will feel winning.

Just don’t be a slave to the illusion of flashy, perfect, or easy.

It’s never the whole story — and rarely the most interesting one, at that.

13 thoughts on “Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid and Other Notes to Self

  1. Kristi Campbell says:

    Had to chuckle at the whole having a baby thing to make money – great analogy. Also? forget the flash. What makes your writing groups incredible and inspiring and what Makes Them Work is your ability to hold our words gently while making us feel stronger for sharing them. That’s big huge. xo


    • Jena Schwartz says:

      Kristi, your comment made me smile. Which I hear is great for headaches. Also, I seem to recall you posted an article today about women having babies later in life living longer… hopefully this goes for metaphorical babies, too! xo


  2. Diane says:

    violet crawley is annoyinly-sp? wise, i’m trying not to drink the kool aid, you are also wise, to me. and welcome to the berkshires! xo


  3. daniel says:

    “What I know is that the chair beneath my ass, the keys beneath my flying fingers, my wife’s soft, soft hands, my kid’s voice on the other end of the line — these are solid and real. So is the food in the fridge and the hot water that pours from the shower head, over my physical, naked body. Amen.”………
    always so good to know and stick with what is real. This is actual reality.
    Also shared insecurities are a way to really help others, be compassionate, continue to work on your insecurities—-I do that and hope I can stay insecure and shaky to the point I can be clear enough to help all I can…………….
    I, too, believe you do have a philosophy, but, maybe like me, you are so intuitive that it stays intuitive until you make a big effort to make it a “thinking thing”.
    Great notes to self.
    My mother told me my father, who died early in my life, always said: “comparisons are odious”……
    Thanks for sharing all this. You are a beacon to me (and so many others).


  4. Christine Organ says:

    Such truth. I love this part: “the illusion of flashy, perfect, or easy.” Oh, how often I fall prey to this illusion. But as you say, it’s not the whole story and even if it were, it’s just not that interesting. And I’ll take interesting any day. Thank you for this.



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