Writing Saves Lives

Photo: Joey Yu

Writing saves lives.

Alone time saves lives.

Connecting saves lives.

Community saves lives.

Permission to be a mess saves lives.

Space to be really honest saves lives.

Not calling the police when people are minding their own business saves lives.

Doing your own inner work saves lives.

Saying “I love you” saves lives.

Saying “I’m sorry” saves lives.

Moral courage saves lives.

Righteous action saves lives.

Art saves lives.

I believe we’re always saving each other, often without knowing it.

As it’s written in the Talmud: “Whoever saves one life, it is as if they have saved the whole world.”

Has someone saved your life lately? Write them a note. Say thank you. Tell them the story. Pay it forward.

Hawking, Einstein, “It” and Us

Photo: Greg Rakozy

This morning, we looked at posts about Stephen Hawking on Instagram — photos, quotes. Though I will likely never grasp his teachings from a scientific standpoint, I will take to heart his teaching that this is it: We have no time to waste, and really no excuse for not trying.

My father, who was born just one year after Hawking, gave me “A Brief History of Time” when I was in high school. A couple of years ago when Aviva was maybe 13, she and I watched “The Theory of Everything” together. Given that none of us are scientists, you would think Hawking would be of less interest in a family of writers and musicians. But no, he captured her imagination just as he captured mine. And I know why: He modeled the impossible. He proved that our minds are capable of unfathomable intelligence, and that we could use this intelligence to further our understanding of existence, time, and space. He showed us that curiosity and perseverance could transccend physical limitations.

As a teenager, I had a big poster of Einstein on my bedrom wall. His white hair all akimbo in every which direction, his gaze would follow me around the room along with the words that imprinted themselves on my young brain:

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”

Today, Stephen Hawking died. And it’s Einstein’s birthday. I’m picturing them eating cake together, hoping we can collectively get our shit together down here.

Today, I will go to an elementary school for a walk-out to commemmorate the lives of children lost to gun violence in school shootings and protest gun violence.. Today, I will meet with Luping and speak English and look at photos of her one-year-old niece back in China. Today, I will help my son complete a first draft of an essay about gemilut hasadim — acts of loving kindness.

And I will wonder if it’s enough.

What more can I be doing? I will want to reach more people. I will want to make a bigger difference in this world strangled by greed and hatred. Yesterday. we went to see A Wrinkle in Time {spoiler alert}, and there is an image of the darkness literally wrapping around the earth. It will stop at nothing, and once it enters people, it becomes nearly impossible to root out. While I realize this is fiction, wow did it ever speak to me. I wanted to stand up in the theater to proclaim, “I’m here to fight the It!”

Alas, the “It” is not something out there in Hawking’s universe. The “It” is here. It’s here when our national priorities are so distorted and hijacked by narrow-minded thinking and a disdain for intelligent thought; it’s here in white supremacist narratives that encourage the dehumanization of people of color, immigrants, and non-heterosexual, non-cisgender, non-Christian people; it’s here in the lies we are literally sold on fake silver platters; it’s here in politicians who would sooner sell their souls that be accountable; it’s here in sex-trafficking of women and children, in the ripping apart of families through deportation and mass incarceration; it’s here in the opioid epidemic and big pharma; it’s here in white nationalism, front porch bombs, acquitted murderers on police forces, and blaming mental illness for shootings without putting more resources towards treating those with mental illness. This paragraph could go on for eons, bringing the space-time continuum to its knees in despair.

This is where we come in. It has to be.

So yes, lately, I find myself wondering if I’m doing enough. I survey my days: Writing groups, coaching, retreats, parenting, marriage, puppy preparation, Freedom School, what’s for dinner, another snowday, water the plants, blog posts, waiting for spring. It’s a lot, yes. And — I don’t want to be merely busy. I want it to matter.

The thing I have come to really see and accept — but need to touch every now and then to remind myself — is that nothing will ever be enough, and yes, it’s enough. Right?

The paradox is where we live, work, love, write, wrestle, learn, heal, and change.

The pain is too big, the needs too immense, to look at all at once. Like the sun, it could be blinding. But there are workarounds. Look to one side or the other, your gaze trained on one point. Every action, every word, every choice we make about how we spend our time here on this little planet matters. It has to.

When I need a good talking to, I often do it in the second person. It’s a way of tapping into my own knowing and communicating with my questioning self. And so comes this reminder:

Your voice. Not someone else’s. Not someone more qualified. Not someone with more experience. Not someone more articulate. Not someone more well-known. Not someone with a bigger platform or audience. Not someone smarter or more educated. Not someone who knows what they’re doing. Not someone with a prettier website or blog. Not someone who can say it better. Not someone else. Yours. You. Today is a good day to start, and an even better day to keep going.

If you’d like, you can also imagine that I’m talking to you. Because I am. You and I? We are the not the same, but we are also very much the same. And it’s to this paradox that I’ll dedicate this brand new day of writing and life, with a prayer that it can be enough.

Yes, there is violent opposition. Yes, there is darkness, so much darkness. Yes, there is fear and despair and urgency. Yes, it is tempting to shrink away, to give up, to succumb to hopelessness. But then I think of Stephen Hawking and I think of Albert Einstein, I think of Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time, I think of women like Tanzie Youngblood, a retired teacher and first-time black female candidate running for Congress — who is being thrown under the bus by fellow Democrats, I think of the everyday revolutions in classrooms and places of worships and shelters and in public parks and the steps of Capitol Hill and in living rooms all over the country that we don’t read or hear about, I think of dissidents and labor camps and genocide and how many Americans live in abject poverty while we you can buy your way into positions of so-called leadership — I could go on and on.

I think of all of this. My head explodes, a hot star. I glance at the time and see that I need to go shower before walking up to my son’s school. I will not go gently. I will not give up.

Keeping My Foot on the Gas

Saturday morning, before the kids and I left for an overnight trip to visit family on Long Island, I drove over to Trader Joe’s to go for a short run and pick up a few groceries. When I pulled into the parking lot around 7:45am, there was not a single other car there. I wondered where the employees park. I kept my jacket on — it was in the mid 30s — zipped my keys and phone into a side pocket and jogged over to the bike path. The air felt good in my lungs as I steadied my breath during those first five or so minutes of running.

On one side of the bike path, the sun rising over the small hills surrounding this valley. On the other side, the mall. Crows, sparrows, cardinals, and starlings all waking up; squirrels and chipmunks scurrying amidst the still-bare bushes; the branches of trees reminding me of bedhead.

At one point, I heard an almost preternatural sound. As I ran, I trained my left ear on this sound, even as I wasn’t sure what it was. Then it got closer and louder and I paused, only to see what must have been not dozens but hundreds of starlings up in the trees above some frozen wetland. The noise was otherworldly. I couldn’t come up with a way to describe it and considered recording it for a minute on Instagram stories, but decided to keep running. Perhaps I’d do this on the return trip.

All of five minutes later, after I had turned around — silence. Where did they all go? A murder of crows convened in the high branches near the barren cornfields to the south, unfazed by my presence below. But the starlings? Gone.

I thought of impermanence and how much I love the mornings, especially this time of year when life feels like it’s waking back up. I thought about how much I like having my feet on the ground.

Back at Trader Joe’s, I counted 30 cars in the lot. With an endorphin high and a canvas bag, I walked through the store, humming along with “Come on Eileen” on the speakers. The day seemed possible. I sipped a tiny sample size of coffee with milk and paid for my groceries, then headed home to shower and get ready for our road trip.

* * *

The drive to Port Washington took nearly five hours instead of the three it would have been without construction on the Hutch. Pearl and I did some Mad Libs, then he took a rest while Aviva and I sang along with a shuffle from Hamilton, In the Heights, Dear Evan Hanson, Chicago, and Rent. We stopped once to pee, and arrived at my cousin’s house around 4:00pm, surprising my cousin’s youngest, who had his 7th birthday last week. We had a sweet visit with them, went out to breakfast yesterday morning with my uncle, who is 80 and as lovely as ever, and then put V on the Long Island Railroad to meet up with a camp friend in the city.

I grabbed an iced latte for the road and Pearl got out his little binder of travel activities (he’d printed out several “I, Spy” types of games from Pinterest). It was another clear and sunny morning. I started the GPS on my phone, and we were off.

As we approached the Throg’s Neck Bridge, I noticed the obvious: Water. On either side of the bridge.

Duh, right?

* * *

“Isn’t it pretty?” I chirped. The East River glimmered below us in the midday light as we headed towards the Bronx. The ramp onto the bridge and 295 East curved to the right, and suddenly what had looked pretty from a slight distance was towering over us. The bridge stands 142′ high (compared to the Golden Gate at 220′). It is less than a mile long. I had driven over it not 24 hours earlier without incident.  In fact, I didn’t even recall crossing it!

Now, though. Whoa. No, thanks. I’m good.

It started in my chest with a burst of heat. The sensation reminded me of an algae bloom in the water, its reach spreading slowly but surely into my limbs and extremities. Before I knew it, my legs felt like they’d been replaced with sandbags and my breathing tightened. I saw what was happening and glanced over at Pearl. We were listening to a This American Life podcast about language, and through the car speakers I heard kids in a Barcelona classroom learning Catalan.

The suspension towers loomed over us while the bridge seemed to stretch out forever. It dawned on me that I had no choice but to keep driving. I had a child in the passenger seat! And even if I’d been alone, there was no alternative but to cross the damn bridge.

“OK, Jena. You have to do this,” I said to myself in my head. Keep breathing, keep breathing. You cannot freeze up or panic, because you have to drive this car over this bridge. I started humming quietly to myself as a way of maintaining the flow of in breath and out breath, amazed at the severity of my response and its sudden onset, to boot.

* * *

When I was 17, I was in a pretty serious car accident in Southern California. I wrote about it a few years ago. It took quite a long time after that to release my fear of driving on the freeway, merging with high-speed traffic, and making sure I knew exactly where I was going. But at this point, I am a pretty calm and confident driver, so this wave of panic really surprised me.

All I can tell you is that it was not fun. Not fun at all.

I made it across, obviously. My whole body tense, willing myself to breathe steadily, not too deeply and not shallowly either. You can do this, you can do this. The tune to a Jewish song I love — The Whole World Is a Very Narrow Bridge — a song that has inspired other writing for me in the past, not to mention carried me through many a narrow passage — spontaneously entered my mind.

Later, back home safe and sound and on solid ground, I mentioned this episode on Facebook. The comments astounded me. We are never the only ones, though we are the only ones ultimately who can carry ourselves through difficult passages. We learn tools and tricks, or just lie down in the backseat and sometimes let someone else do the driving, as one friend mentioned. We can either go through life suffering and not letting anyone know about it, or we can choose to share the scary parts and learn that many, many others have crossed that bridge themselves. In this case, literally.

My friend Tia wrote, “Wondering what emotional bridge might be causing the fear.”

I pondered this, appreciating her tender inquiry.

Pearl’s piano teacher said this had happened to her, and just as suddenly, the fear had passed.

Others chimed in that their son-brother-father-grandmother had feared crossing bridges. Someone posted a photo of an alarming-looking vertical bridge in Japan, the sight of which made me shudder.

* * *

It’s interesting; I am realizing I’ve been writing a lot about fear lately. I think it may be in part because I do not want to feel it. I don’t want to live in fear of the world, of life, of other people, of our government, of change, of my kids’ many transitions as they grow up, of providing for my family, of shootings, of climate change, of antisemitism, of homophobia and transphobia, of being. I do not want to feel it, but feel it I must, lest it creep in while I’m sleeping, slowly overtaking my waking hours, bridge or no bridge.

There is something here for me to learn. Because that song is so very true: The whole world is a very narrow bridge. Having this experience yesterday really gave me more empathy for the courage it takes to go out into the world, to travel, be it near or far, to go to new places, to put oneself in new situations.

Was it brave of me to drive across that bridge? No. I was already on it when the feeling overcame me, and I had to keep driving. I was not in any actual danger, though panicking would surely have created some.

How often is life like this? We have to keep going. We have to get a grip, quite literally, on the steering wheel, keep our eyes on the road ahead, and breathe. We have to stay aware of the traffic on either side of us. Just writing this, I can feel my throat constricting a little.

If I were driving right now — I picture the bridge stretching out before me — I would have to push myself a little to keep my foot on the gas.

Which I do. Because I must.

Revealing the Magnificent Mural

In the shower this morning, I was noticing how the “shoulds” have a way of creeping and covering up my sense of clarity and purpose, like overgrown ivy on a beautiful mural.

Closely related to this is a habit of questioning myself, what I’m doing with my life, and whether I’m “on the right track.” This thinking is binary and constricting — right/wrong, clear/confused, all/nothing. It doesn’t leave much if any room for being, for process, and for just letting life and work unfold. For trusting myself.

Just when I think I’ve outgrown it, it comes tickling at my toes and threatening to climb up my bare legs. In an effort to cut it back before it can do this, I’m coming here to write. I’m interested in how things open up when we bring some breath and curiosity to what gets in our way.

How can some experimenting enable us to get clearer on our priorities, so that we spend less time pleasing others or repeating Sisyphean tasks and more time feeling purposeful and fulfilled by our actions?

Do questions like these occur to you too, while bathing or driving or writing or just going through your day? In the spirit of teaching what I have to learn, here’s an exercise for us to try.

You’ll need some paper and either markers or colored pencils. Two different color pens will do.

Make a fast and furious list of all the shoulds you’re carrying around, consciously or subconsciously. Don’t stop to evaluate, assess, analyze, or vote on any of them — just list.

What do you see?

Now, using a different color, circle the items on your list that are actually time-sensitive in some way or otherwise urgent. Pay attention to how you define “urgent.” (You might to read Seth Godin’s the why of urgent vs. important.)

Notice the different categories showing up in your list. For example, you might see things that relate to your physical health, others that have to do with relationships, and some that are vague and free-floating, with no real action attached.

On a different piece of paper, make three columns: At the top of one, write “need to.” The second is “want to.” Lastly, include a “not mine” category. This last one is where you can move all of the shoulds that don’t belong to you, i.e. the ones you’ve internalized that are in fact coming from outside sources.

When you’ve completed this step, how many items remain in the “need to” column? Are you seeing evidence of anything you WANT to do? How much of your life is shaped by other people’s expectations, how much by practical need, and how much by habitual striving and drivenness?

This can be a one-time thing or you could let it be a slower, longer-term exploration. Take your time playing with it. If you’re feeling pulled to take it in a different direction, by all means, do so. The intention here is to bring into focus what you can put down, as opposed to what you must and/or choose to carry.

Unlearning empty striving and returning to the power of who you already are isn’t a one-shot deal. Sometimes I forget this and think, wait, aren’t I supposed to be done with this already?

Then I remember, it’s like trimming back the ivy. You don’t just do it once. You come back, again and again, to revealing the magnificent mural of your life.

The Awesomeness of Being Wrong

Story: “I suck at following instructions.”


It may not sound like much. But when the new kitchen island arrived on the side porch and Aviva and I attempted to lug it inside, that was my first thought. I slit the box open and carried the pieces upstairs, two or three at a time. I recycled and/or discarded the cardboard, styrofoam, and plastic. I winced at the packaging and got dizzy from the off-gassing. (As an aside, did you know that off-gassing emits as many as 99 known toxins into the air for up to 10 years? We are seriously reconsidering purchasing anything again that uses formaldehyde).

By the time I plunked the bag of hardware on the kitchen table and surveyed the dozens of pieces of pressed wood, I thought: Welp, my work here is done. Time to wait for Mani to come put this baby together.

After all, I suck at this kind of thing. That is the story I’ve told my whole life. Yes, I did manage to assemble a cute night table from Ikea a few years back (one of the drawers wobbles, but still…). And wait, I put together those two yellow desks in our room… No, no, I think. Those don’t really count. They were relatively straightforward jobs, nothing so big and complicated as this thing.

When we got a new bookshelf and TV stand for the living room, we even called friends over to help. Granted, it was as much an excuse to see them and hang out as a bona fide need for help. But still, the reassurance of other eyes and hands has historically brought no small comfort.

I used to be someone who waited for a man to put together the furniture. Then lo and behold, I married a woman who happens to be really good at this (she once spent hours and hours putting together a loft bed — with a slide — in Pearl’s room). I still didn’t have to look at my own learned helplessness.

* * *

Story: “I am someone who likes being taken care of.”

WRONG. Well, sort of wrong. 

At the same time, I remained ignorant of my own capacity and ability and power by wanting other people to take care of me. “Other people” most often implied people of the male persuasion. Fathers, husbands, guy friends — who can come put this damn thing together?

Now, I still like being taken care of. But being taken care of while knowing I am fully able to take care of myself is a whole different ballgame. Since my first marriage ended and I came out of the closet, so much about who I thought I was and the stories I told about myself have undergone seismic shifts — including this one.

I’ve been the breadwinner for the past three years, bringing in more income on my own than I did previously in my full-time job. I work a lot. I also get to be home when Pearl gets off the school bus, and go for spontaneous coffee dates with my teenage daughter who’s not in traditional school this year. Mani and I are both home all day, a reality that began as necessity when she was sick and became a choice when I became self-employed.

I was so scared to leave my job. SO scared.  That was 2015. Now I still have bouts of insecurity, both they don’t come quite as often or last as long. The fear no longer feels like terror or panic, more like an annoyance, a stinkbug that got in the house from under the garage door. I open a window and flick it back outside.

It feels good to let this story fall away. The one where I need someone else, probably a man, to make the money and to put together the furniture purchased with said money.

It also feels good  to redefine “being taken care of.”

* * *

I AM taken care of. I have a wife whose unconditional belief in me, patience, and presence is beyond anything I’ve ever known. She doesn’t coddle my rehabbing addiction to praise, and this in turn makes her support that much more reliable because I know it’s not contingent on her expectations of me. It just IS.

I can’t say what got into me last week, but I tackled those instructions like a boss. Once I started, I didn’t want to stop. One step at a time — ABC, 123, bird by bird — I put that baby together. I could hardly believe it myself — I was doing it! I’m someone who can read and follow assembly instructions, who knew?!

The best part, in addition to some mad satisfaction at my newfound badassery, was how WRONG I had been about myself. Wrong, wrong, wrong! All those Instagram posts saying how the mere sight of the instruction booklet stressed me out? Completely, fabulously, gloriously, magnificently WRONG.

Now we have a little more cabinet and counter space in our kitchen, and I have added a bit more evidence for myself of a new, true story. One where I’m capable, grown-up, and able to earn money, care for my family, put furniture together, stay when things get really, really hard, and forgive myself when I fuck up. Thankfully, finding out who I really am is an ongoing thing. I wonder what else I’m wrong about, and can’t wait to find out.

* * *

Story: I’m so much more than the stories I tell myself about myself.