Bigger, Better, Different

bigger-better-differentNine years ago, I wrote these words:

This is why a regular writing practice matters. So much gets lost without one. So many moments, funny or evocative or upsetting or insightful, occur every single day. (Each day is a life.) When I don’t write them down, they join that grey matter of daily life; they become like dreams vaguely remembered but essentially gone, fragments down the river. That might be just as well for the most part, but I know that some jewels go by, too, that would be better caught in a sieve of words.

At Noyes Camp, where my sisters and I grew up dancing in the summers, there was a wide gravel path where we would search for garnets. We would walk slowly, straining to distinguish the gems from the pebbles, but the effort repaid us when we brushed off rocks to glean that slight ruddy gleaming. Same with daily moments. Lots of pebbles, gravel, rocks, dirt and debris – and some jewels, some gems that require a little work on our part. For me, writing is the act of slowly walking the path, walking the daily path of paying attention. Or maybe living is that act, and writing is what happens after I pick up the garnet, slip it in my pocket to bring home, then later, when I’m finally alone, take it out to examine it, to polish it, to rub it between my fingers like a talisman.

Nine years ago, I didn’t know where to start. I wanted to write, and was bursting with ideas and images and feelings. But they overwhelmed me. I felt like I had to figure out how to make sure ALL of them, every last one, got top billing. I hit “publish” over and over, as a way of forcing myself to write and share and live with the discomfort of now knowing it any of it was any good. This was before Facebook, for me anyway, and a new blog post literally went out into the ether. I knew my sister read my blog, and my mom, probably (she’d call if I said I was having a hard time). Beyond that, though, for the first 11 months, I think I got one comment. Maybe two. It was squirmy. But it was also saving me.

I called that original blog Bullseye, Baby! The tagline was, “A place to practice.” And by practice, I didn’t only mean practice writing. I meant practice as in writing and sharing — without allowing myself to succumb to the self-doubt and perfectionism that plagued me. I meant practice as in write and share and then sit on my hands, resisting the urge to read back over my words and fix them up, just a little bit. I meant write and share and sit on my hands and move on with my day because life was happening and by then, I knew this much: I didn’t want to miss it.

The Bullseye part? You can read that very first post, where I wrote about the significance, for me, of missing the mark and getting another chance. Hint: It’s a Jewish thing. And a Buddhist thing. And a me thing. And a life thing. As for the baby part of the name, it was literally in the middle of the night while I was nursing Pearl (who was nine months old) when I decided to start a blog. This blog.

I’ve thought about the fact that this January — the 7th, to be exact — will mark ten years of writing here. And true to life, I could never have connected the dots forward or known just what those seeds I was planting then would grow to become. I was a mama then as I am now, with kids ages 4 and 9 months. I was a week shy of 33. I was working part-time as a career counselor at the University of Vermont, rediscovering my work as a life coach, and missing writing. Desperately missing the writing. But also not sure where and how it fit into my life or my life fit into it. Like so many other things that whispered to me around the margins of my life, I was determined to listen hard.

And I did. I listened by showing up and writing. A lot. And posting, a lot. And not knowing — a lot of now knowing — whether any of it mattered. Every now and then, I’d bump into someone in town or at Aviva’s preschool, and they’d say they liked my blog. I found this shocking. Encouraging, but shocking.

At first, I read every new blog post to my then-husband. I did this so eagerly, with the earnestness of a novice (a quality I hope never to outgrow). He’d listen and tell me nice things. At some point, as I began writing more and more, I think I stopped doing this; I remember once him joking that he didn’t need to read it; he was living it. I don’t remember if I laughed at the joke.

It’s true, that what I wrote about was simply real life. People would ask, what’s your blog about? And I’d be like a deer in the headlights. Um, practice, I’d say. It was never a “parenting” blog, though I did write about my kids and how being present with them was its own practice. I returned to the mindfulness practices that had first drawn me in during college. I sat with so many questions.

Am I a real writer? How do I write a book? What would my book be about? Who am I in the world? How do I align what it feels like to be myself with the work I’m doing? How do I reach a lot of people with my writing? How do I support and empower women to be brave and to take up room in their lives? 

Just like when I took cello lessons in high school and wanted to play Vivaldi right away (I quit after less than a year, out of frustration and impatience), I jumped ahead — way ahead — to the idea of writing a book. My life felt like a puzzle I couldn’t for the life of me quite put together. I wanted so badly to be able to see the whole of it, and I couldn’t. I could only see what was in front of me — dinner, dishes, work, walks, neighbors, Netflix, yoga, a run, closet smoking, Shabbat candles, an insistent need to be alone, a loving marriage, friends… and something that was missing.

I was missing. I was, in some way beyond my own peripheral vision, the missing piece. The hub on the wheel. The heartbeat of my own life was somewhere else, and I was longing to be able to hear it.

So I wrote and kept writing. I worked and loved and read books to myself and read books to my kids. I wrote about them, I wrote about showing up. I wrote about depression and the layers and the falling apart.

Eventually, I wrote my way right into my life. Which also meant right out of my life. It was nothing I expected and everything I’d asked for. It was open heart surgery without anesthesia. It was grief and rage and elation and disbelief. It was sex and lies and that gmail account I hadn’t told him about. I became someone I didn’t recognize, and yet for the first time, I saw my own reflection and thought: There you are.

There was a long stretch — two or three years maybe — when I thought my blog would become a book. I printed out hundreds of posts. I categorized them and labeled them. I used different color pens and sticky notes and hijacked an entire wall of our then-house. I was on a first-name basis with the guy at the UPS store on South Winooski, where I went to print draft after draft. But that was all before. Before my life showed me what only life can: The story I was so diligently trying to write was way, WAY bigger than a bunch of blog posts. It was me. It was a life.

There are a million other “parts” I could include here, but instead, I’m asking myself: Why am I sharing all of this tonight?

It has to do with the jewels, the ones I shared with you earlier, from one of those early posts. I wrote that in the summer of 2007. Pearl was two. Aviva was racing towards five. I was trying, trying so hard to “find myself.” And writing — showing up here — was one of the ways I knew how to do that.

We can’t always see what’s working, just as we can’t always see what’s not working. We can only keep showing up and paying attention. Around the same time that I started blogging, a wonderful supervisor, Ada, gently pointed out to me that I seemed always to be needing something to be bigger, better, or different. “Bigger, better, different” became a kind of shorthand for me — part hunting trap and part lighthouse, first stopping me in my tracks, then pointing me back to safe harbor.

The thing is, Ada (thanks, Ada!) was right. That restlessness had become so synonymous with my being that it has taken a long time to get to know it well enough to not be its prey. Writing didn’t change that. Coming out didn’t change that. Getting divorced didn’t change it, changing jobs and states and homes didn’t change it, and getting remarried didn’t change it. And it wouldn’t be true to say I don’t still get that urge — in the same way I still get the urge to smoke. The difference is that I don’t act on it, at least not consciously. And when I see that I’m slipping down that slope, I can usually grab onto reality at least a bit more quickly than before.

All of this is to say: When I write things here about practice, about showing up, and about “keep going,” this is where I’m coming from. Years and years (and years) of “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Epic meltdowns (and I don’t mean the kids’, though there have certainly been those, too). A stunningly beautiful love story that started with falling in love with myself — just as Mani predicted, quite some time before she and I had any inkling we’d wind up sharing the rest of our lives.

You don’t have to know. Just keep listening. And if writing’s your way of picking up the jewels, please keep writing. It doesn’t have to good, you don’t have to write a book, and you don’t need  zillion readers. Just one or two who really, really fucking care will do.

12 thoughts on “Bigger, Better, Different

  1. terrinorthwind says:

    “I became someone I didn’t recognize, and yet for the first time, I saw my own reflection and thought: There you are.” Oh how this resonates in my heart and soul. I will keep writing. Thank you for this Jena.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jena Schwartz says:

      Kim — I am, too (fascinated, that is, by the journeys we take). Kindred spirits are my middle name — it’s a comfort, isn’t it? Especially when it can feel like you’re the only one in the world asking these questions.

      Liked by 1 person

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