Celebrating 10 Years of Blogging with a Gift for YOU

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Ten years ago tomorrow, on January 7, 2007, I wrote these words on a brand-new blog:

But missing the mark – now this was a concept I could get my head around. Forgiving, roomy. With implications of more chances. You know, nobody’s perfect. Better yet, imperfection is where all the juice is. We do our best, we practice, we try stuff, we throw spaghetti at the wall and we skin knees and we get hurt and we learn in ways that are sometimes grueling and other times graceful – about relationships, about love, about work, about pretty much everything. In all that trying, in the practice, comes the learning and the growing that we’re here to do. And in the process, maybe the bullseye itself isn’t “getting” the thing we’ve been aiming at but rather hitting on some increased ability to be patient and kind to ourselves. (Read more

Ten years!!

To celebrate a decade of writing online and all of the real-life friendships and connections it has led to and continues to foster, I’m offering you a spot in Imperfect Offerings, my next two-week writing group (January 9-20), for whatever amount you can and want to pay.

This offer is good through Sunday night, January 8 (which also happens to be David Bowie’s birthday — may he rest in peace and rise like Lazarus — and I know this because a) we are both Capricorns and b) I loved him so much when I was young that I cried on his birthday when we couldn’t be together).

I’ll be welcoming you into our secret Facebook space on Sunday. When you get to PayPal, choose the “Send Money” option and simply put in the amount you’d like to pay and my email address: jenarschwartz (at) gmail (dot) com.


Read on for more about the blogaversary, “just” writing, and other musings.

* * * * *

In the beginning, this blog was called Bullseye, Baby! and it was, indeed, my “place to practice.” That was the actual tagline. I had resolved to write without fussing over (i.e. editing to death) my posts, to show up and see what happened and to share. Mind you, I was essentially sharing with my sister, who for the first 11 months or so was my only reader.

But I missed writing and I missed myself and damnit, I was determined. It wasn’t about having an audience or even good writing; it was about writing… anything. I had two kids four and under at the time, and very few people in my life even knew I wrote at all.

I signed up that winter for a 15-week writing class called Women Writing for (a) Change, led by wonderful teacher in Vermont, Sarah Bartlett. It was the combination of giving myself the gift of these various support structures — the social and “real” support of the class, and the virtual support of the blog — that jump-started what has grown, over the course of the last decade (in fits and starts and with so many then-unimaginable back roads and detours), into my life and my livelihood.

I believe that that beginning set my whole life-as-I-know-it-today into motion. It’s kind of mind-blowing, to be honest.

* * * * *

The image above is from one of my favorite children’s books, called Before You Were Born by Howard Schwartz (no relation) and illustrated by Kristina Swarner. It shows an angel reading from the Book of Secrets — and will be among the 10 all-new prompts in my next two-week online writing group, Imperfect Offerings.

The name of this first group of 2017 is in homage to Leonard Cohen, whose “forget your perfect offering” describes so well what we do in these groups — we forget to worry about being perfect, or even good. We dip into the books of secrets, each prompt something like a portal to things inside of us maybe we forgot were there.

This practice is so freeing, and we do it together in a space where nobody gets to be wrong, and everyone is encouraged to show up and “just” write.That little word, though, “just,” implies that this is no big deal. And it’s a kind of riddle, isn’t it?

On the one hand, that’s exactly the point — it is no big deal! What you write in these groups ultimately does not matter! The point is to sit your ass down for ten minutes at a pop and “just” write, to weaken your inner critic and shore up your ability to keep your hand moving. On the other hand, it totally matters. It matters because it’s the foundation for so much else.

I was chatting the other night with a single mama who is currently holding down three jobs. THREE JOBS. Can she write for 10 minutes a day? Yes. Will she? Only if she commits to it. Is it worth it? Well, that’s subjective. But from where I sit, 10 minutes is more than not 10 minutes. In fact, a few paragraphs a day over time adds up to many pages, pages that would not exist but for the act of “just” writing.

For the most part, my freewrites — which I do right alongside you in the group — don’t usually interconnect; they are one-offs, unrelated to any big goal or longer work. Maybe you’ve read this quote from Louis L’Amour before, but it bears sharing again: “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”

* * * * *

Why bother with prompts and a group, when you could sit down and write morning pages or in your journal?

Here’s what my friend Katrina Kenison said after she participated in one of my two-week groups:

“Never have I felt so befriended: by the page, by a group of fellow writers, by a teacher and coach. Jena provides a lovely mixture of inspiration, invitation, and validation. And then she throws in something else, something wonderful and ineffable which I can only describe as magic. For how else could a bunch of strangers become so intimate so quickly? Within this sacred circle, we came to trust not only one another, but also our own voices, our process, and most of all, the value of sharing our stories.”  

* * * * *

If you keep meaning to make time to write (but don’t), write but feel uninspired or lonely, or have been thinking about trying out a writing group but feel shy, please join me for these two weeks of practice. The pay-what-you-can offer will go to the first 10 people who sign up. I hope one of them is you!

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back– Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” — Goethe

Walking on Water and Writing as Dowsing

Photo: Sarah Benoit Weir

Photo: Sarah Benoit Weir

When I was a kid, my friend C. from Buffalo moved to a small Boston suburb right around the time my family moved to Western Massachusetts. Like any moment of profound change, my memories from that first year are densely concentrated, like a nebula; I go to touch one and my hand moves right through its gases and vapors. But sometimes, a word will become available, something more solid to grab hold of.

“Aqueduct” is one of those words, from 1983 or ’84. C. lived on a pretty, quiet street with her mom and older brother. Her mom and my mom were pregnant with us at the same time, and there is a famous-in-our-family photo of me and C., age three or so, looking miniature in a giant armchair, each of us holding a book and looking seriously at the camera.

Our move to Massachusetts meant a somewhat rural existence overtook an urban one. It was disorienting to say the least, and I felt lonely in my new fifth grade class. On a visit to see C. and her family in the eastern part of the state, I remember just two things: Her brother had painted the walls of his room black, and I learned a new word.

Down the street from their house — I think it was a dead-end — was an aqueduct. I’d never heard of an aqueduct and had no idea what it meant. C. explained to me that there was water under the ground. You’d think that at age nine or ten, I would have known this already, and maybe I did. But there was something about naming it, and her description — vague and mysterious — that lit my imagination.

I tried to picture it, this water. Was it flowing, river-like? Was it a lake, so many feet under? We were actually *walking* on water, I thought to myself, as we crossed the field.

Deep underground places where water flows freely. No wonder the notion appealed to me; even then I was looking to tap something inside of myself. My dowsing rods were my voice and my pen: I literally sang and wrote, sometimes bringing myself to tears whose source I couldn’t name but that I knew had to do with God and my deepest self — perhaps one and the same.

– – – – –

This morning, I looked up the definition of “aqueduct,” and saw that for more than thirty years, I’ve been misunderstanding this word. From Websters:

“a conduit or artificial channel for conducting water from a distance, usually by means of gravity”

or

“a bridgelike structure that carries a water conduit or canal across a valley or over a river.”

It turns out that all those years ago, C. and I were not walking on water after all, at least not in the way I’d so vividly imagined it. Yes, there was water beneath us, but the aqueduct itself was created not by nature or mystery but by a human feat of engineering. The aqueduct was not below ground, but above it! And just like that, “aqueduct” loses some of its former cachet.

What this newly clarified definition doesn’t change though, is the quest. The way writing remains a form of listening for something inaudible; just as you’d hold a divining rod in your hands to find untapped wellsprings, a pen moving silently over paper is feeling its way to some source, something that makes it vibrate with truth. You know when you’ve touched it, for something in you has found sustenance.

And in this way, maybe the writing is in fact an aqueduct — a container, a bridge to channel and cross that which flows beneath the surface, unseen and unguided.

When we write, we find a way to guide the invisible upward, where we can drink from it and bathe in it. Your words, your memories, your underground springs — these are precious resources. May they be of use, to you and to the world.

The Better to Write With You, My Dear

nepoThe day began with a package on the side porch from Amazon. I carried it upstairs and called to Mani to ask her if she’d ordered something for me — we have both had Hanukkah gifts for each other and the kids trickling in, so opening packages without asking is a no-no. She didn’t think so, so I went for it, slicing a knife through the tape and ripping open the cardboard.

Inside, I found two hardcovers, both by Mark Nepo. One of them, The Way Under the Way, contains three books of poems. The second is called The One Life We’re Given: Finding the Wisdom That Waits in Your Heart. A gift slip sat atop them, from a beloved writer, client, and friend on the west coast, thanking me “for everything.” What she doesn’t  know — or maybe she does — is that it is she who has given me everything, from livelihood to the gift of watching another person come into greater gentleness with herself and confidence with her voice, in writing and in the world.

I’m surprising Mani with a few nights away–the first, second, and third nights of Hanukkah, to be exact. The kids will be with their dad and his family in Vermont for Christmas after a big family dinner tomorrow night, and I’ve been imagining for months now taking this last week of December “off.” Not having paid vacation is one of the things that can easily cancel out the much-heralded and truly fabulous flexibility of self-employment; it’s easy to *never* take time off, since no work means no money.

I’m at a place with all of it — life, work, money, love — where to live in fear or scarcity would be like spitting in the face of all that is holy and good in this world. And since how we do one thing is how we do everything, I’m deliberately choosing to take some rest — the better to write with you, my dear, in the coming new year. 

I’ll be bringing these new books, along with the memoir I started a month ago and have been “reading” at a painstakingly slow pace. I’ll be packing a journal, and making time to find out what my heart knows. And of course, we’ll be packing the air purifier, pots and pans, coffee and French press, and all of the other home accouterments we’re accustomed to bringing with us when we hit the road these days — not yet to where we can travel all-the-way freely (i.e. eating out, etc), but so grateful that we can get out of dodge at all.

January will bring the 10th anniversary of this blog, the new book, my birthday, a brand-new Dive Into Poetry, and who knows what other surprises. As I said to Mani last night — I need more sleeves, for all the things I keep up them.

Who knows? Maybe next week will even bring some new writing. I’m not making any plans beyond having no plans. And I’m trusting that not only is some down time good for me, but that what’s good for me is good, ultimately, for business.

In the meantime, in lieu of sending every single one of you a holiday card, I’m wishing you moments of presence and beauty in these coming winter days, no matter your tradition. I refuse to succumb to despair for this world, though there’s plenty of reason for it, and will keep doing everything I can to keep it real, connect deeply, and encourage you to use your words in 2017.

Now Would Be a Good Time to Forget Your Perfect Offering

0q33pyk-axi-tina-rataj-berardFast and furious freewrite about worry. Here goes.

What worries me is worrying itself, and how it is a closed loop, a vicious cycle, a mindfuck and a body destroyer. The topics that typically worry me most are so familiar, so ubiquitous. They remind me of the dust beneath our bed. Just there. But if we would only move the entire frame away, sweeping and mopping would be a snap. Worrying about being able to focus and connect and keep writing and doing my work in this world.

I worry that all the noise will make it impossible to hear my own heart. I worry that I feel alienated by conversations people are having — people I once related to or felt connected to.

And so there is this sense of shifting: Who are my people?

And then remembering that the place where worry goes away for me is when I don’t worry about who my people are. If you read these words and they spark some sense of yes for you, if we care about each other, if we are both worried about Russia and Canadian geese dying in toxic lakes and the school-to-prison pipeline and corruption beyond imagination and how we never learned the native maps, how there was barely even a mention in school of life on this land before the British came and sought “freedom” on faulty ideals that excluded the very people who named the rivers, before random borders were established, when women’s voices were in the margins of the writing pads, kitchen subversives and secret abolitionists, if you are worried that we are in a state so severe that worrying will get us nowhere, if you know that we are already nowhere and thus, more here than ever, in a post-worrying world where speed leads to implosion, then you are my people.

If you feel alienated by the mainstream and question whether “mainstream” is even a thing and who gets to decide these things and no, I won’t share yet another Trump video, like the one where he’s saying “Man of the Year” has a much better ring to it than “Person of the Year” (don’t you think? YEAH roars his reality-show crowd, his minions) because sharing this shit changes nothing. But then I can’t resist because I’m so worked up, so I share. And then I delete. Repeat.

Getting worked up changes nothing and yet if you aren’t worked up, if you aren’t worrying, what are you doing? Who are you being?

There is no right or wrong way to be. And yet I write this, and even as the words come, there is a hollow ring to them. I can’t bear platitudes. I can’t bear language so inclusive that it could be misconstrued as apology for ignorance, inaction, or anything that enables this moment to go unchallenged. I worry about questions around judgment, factions, language police (on all sides), and so much noise, oh just so much noise.

Am I adding to the noise? Oh, but I must.

Now would be a good time to forget your perfect offering. Right, Mr. Cohen (may you rest in peace)?

Forget your perfect offering. Don’t let this rancid moment in history curl your heart into acrid dissolution. Tell me what you worry about. Tell me what your Sunday will bring. Tell me one beautiful thing about your life. Tell me which windows let in the most light. Tell me where you are on the map of the world. Tell me that this is not “spiritual bypassing” but real, real life, real connection, in this moment — and that that still counts. Tell me it still fucking counts.

And I will keep telling you, too: Everything counts. Your life, your words, your ways. Forget your perfect offering and keep being here with me.

Join me for my next two-week writing group: Imperfect Offerings, January 9-20, 2017. Come let the words out without having to get it right or prove a thing. This is a place for practice, not perfection. Register here

“How Can I Help You” and Other Three-Dimensional Questions

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If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
— Lilla Watson

My first year at Barnard, I was part of a tutoring program where we went into public schools each week. It was called Students Helping Students. I loved doing it and can still picture sitting on the floor in a hallway, quietly cheering as a kindergartener made his way through “Are You My Mother?”

I also see now that it was White Students Feeling Good About Themselves by Helping Kids of Color in Underfunded Schools. Both of these are true, because truth is never one-dimensional. And I am still unlearning aspects of my amazing education, and educating myself about how not to be just another nice white lady.

But I have always remembered the name. And for as much as I’ve changed and hold myself to waking up, some things really are threads. The seeds of being of use, of using my skills to connect with other people — those are still here, in the form of women helping women and writers helping writes and humans being good to each other.

Questions of what I want feel short-sighted, and as always, I need to find that place where “what I want” intersects with “what do you — what does the world — need?” It’s a strange interplay, because needs are often most powerfully met by making an offering of some kind, the truest one you have, rather than taking a poll first and then scrambling to see what you can give. In other words, there has to be a balance, a meeting place, between self and world. Service and need. You and me. I and thou — minus the holier-than-thou crap.

This week, I finally dove into working on a manuscript of poems. It will be my third collection, and I’ve felt it swirling around for months now, a wispy suggestion to start that I couldn’t quite grasp. I don’t know what clicked — maybe it was writing a poem a day for a month. Or the urgency to connect, and this being one of my ways.

It’s too easy to write in generalizations. To write about bodies, to write about color, to write about religion. To use words like “justice” and “equality” and “safety” that must withstand so much battering. I fail when I attempt to write about these words. But I can assemble a book of poems. I can say, come in, sit down, and write what’s true for you. I can and will continue to ask what makes you happy, what brings you joy, what frightens you most. Where is your conviction?

I’m sitting here at my kitchen table, as I so often am when I come here to write. I’m sitting here being white. I’m sitting here being Jewish and gay and female and short and big and small at the same damn time. On my run this morning, I thought about all the times in my life I’ve had to remember how to dream, because dreaming got drowned out by the competition and walked not through but right into the doorway.

I do this, you know that by now, right? I sit down and start typing (actually, I sat down and started this hours ago), and just connect the dots and usually have no idea where I’m going. This is no different. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know where our country is going, though all I have to do is be awake to see that this is not a difficult one to guess. It’s going exactly like this.

It’s more polarized than ever, and all the movies about good and evil, about light and dark, have come true. Life imitates art and art imitates life until there is not point in distinguishing the two. Reality TV is politics and politics is the usual and not becoming jaded requires fierce strength, which we might enjoy momentarily but no one can sustain for long alone.

Which is why we need each other. Today, a coaching call. I heard: “Stuck, frustrated, embarrassed, want to help, white, privileged.” These were words that came up again and again. And we talked about how to be present and keep moving forward, rather than spiraling into stagnation, which is about as self-focused as it gets. We talked about showing up, as a learner, as an observer, and what it means to know you get to trust yourself.

“How can I help you?” takes on a whole new dimension of importance, and the answers are not always clear, nor is that always the best question. So be patient — and remember that this fight, like truth, like life, is three-dimensional. It’s happening in real time, and it’s not about feeling good or meeting our own needs, but about our liberation being bound up in each other.

Courage and heart and risking sounding like we don’t know what we’re doing, because sometimes we don’t, and the only way to start getting clear and making any kind of impact is to stumble through. Not one of us is some kind of savior, but uprisings happen when enough individuals refuse to play by the rules, especially when the rules are a sick and twisted distortion of reality, revisionism, and willful ignorance.

As a writer right now, it’s easy to feel pretty deflated. But to give up my voice that easily would be a betrayal to everything I care about. It may or may not matter, but I will keep offering my words. I will keep being as kind a human as I can, and as awake a white person as I can (though I will not use the word “woke,” as it does not feel like mine to use).

And I will assemble this next collection of poems, as an offering from my heart to yours, because it’s one of the only things I know how to do for sure.