Bittersweet


Three years ago, I started a membership group called Get Your Muse On. At its peak, it had about 40 members who actively shared weekly intentions, freewrites, and other creative shenanigans. Friendships blossomed, confidence deepened, and many a birthday limerick has been shared.

After a few different incarnatons, I made a decision this week to officially retire this group. I closed its doors to new members quite a while back, and those who remain are close-knit and committed to staying connected. But the participation and engagement aren’t what they were and rather than trying to return to something that had its day, letting it simply be what it is — a sweet gathering place for friends who love writing — seemed like the next right step.

But letting go and allowing change to happen is not easy for me. I suspect this is true for many of us. It’s bittersweet, maybe a little scary even, to acknowledge that a thing has run its course.

As we move towards the solstice and new year, I’m feeling this energy so intensely. I’ve heard from more than one person in the past few days that they are feeling exhausted, moody, tapped out. The holiday season can drain our wallets and our spirits, as much as it’s supposed to fill our hearts with joy and sugarplums.

I was chatting with a teacher of Pearl’s last night about her holiday plans. She said her grown kids have very different food preferences, so she didn’t yet know what kind of meal she might prepare on Christmas day with them. I said something about images of families sitting down to eat, everyone at a table — how images like that can be so… she finished my sentence for me: Oppressive.

Yes. Images like that invariably make us feel like we’re failing at something, when in fact we are actually living real lives, where not everyone wants to or can eat the same things, where not everyone wants to or can be at the table, where not everything is happy and bright.

Groups like the Muses are havens from these expectations. As I write this, I realize that this is true of all of my work — the writing groups, the coaching, even working with folks on books. Having room to show up as we are, to write without worrying about being good, to say what’s really going on in our lives and hearts, to name what really happened in the past, all of this is how we get free to take up more space in the world and ultimately share more of ourselves.

More of ourselves, please. The world tells us a lot of things. The world tells us a lot of things about what being a writer is supposed to look like.

I got a(nother) rejection yesterday. It’s an essay I wrote a year ago and originally submitted to the New York Times Modern Love column with a wish and a prayer and not-so-secret high hopes that this would be the One.

Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. It was one of many. After the NYT rejected it, I kept sending it out. So far, not even a nibble. There’s a high probability I will choose to post it here and on my blog. That’s my way. That’s what I mean when I say “keep going.”

The end goal is not a perfect meal, a Rockwell painting, a slam dunk, a bullseye, or bragging rights. The end goal is to be here, to live fully, to take risks, to show up, to listen hard, to love well.

Last night, Pearl was awake with a tummy bug (he’s currently finally sleeping on the couch next to me). At one point, hoping he’d be able to rest, I told him to try counting his breaths, from one to ten. “If you lose count, go back to one,” I said.

I’m always going back to one. I had a zen teacher at one point who wrote about this, and it’s true. We’re always trying to get somewhere else.

So I’m letting the Muses group go as an “official” group. I’m making room, without having to rush in to fill it. I’m honoring the relationships I’ve come to cherish and know will endure, without clinging to the past.

Change happens. Stomach bugs happen. Rejection happens. Real life happens. And the writing? It happens, too, in the context of all of this. The minute we stop trying to get it right, the minute we start believing who and where we are is good enough, so much opens up. Room to breathe opens up. Trust might even make a guest appearance.

Back to one. Everybody now. And as for the Muses? You know who you are, and I love you all 4-ev-uh.

Accidents Happen, Learning Happens

Photo: Isaiah Rustad

We got rear-ended yesterday. Nobody was hurt. Mani’s car has some significant damage, the repair of which will be covered by the other driver’s insurance. We’re both a little rattled, though. And of course, there’s the hassle of dealing with appraisers, repairs, and all that jazz.

After we’d both pulled over and gotten out of our cars, I asked the woman what happened. She said she didn’t know why I had stopped.

Um.

I stopped because there was a yield sign, and there was oncoming traffic where we were about to merge.

If the car in front of you isn’t moving, don’t keep driving.

She was clearly frazzled, as I would’ve been in her shoes. I HAVE been in her shoes. Accidents happen.

She thought her car wasn’t registered (and thus, not currently insured), which meant it would have to be towed. After I had already placed a call to the Amherst Police, the woman pleaded with me to take care of things privately. Later, she again asked, in the presence of the officer, why we had to go through insurance. It was at that point that she said we’d gone to high school (roughly 30 years ago).

We *knew* each other, after all. I told her oh, yeah. I thought you looked a little familiar. But honestly, I’m not sure if I remember her or not. This made me feel somehow deficient, as if I was shitty person for not running over to give her a hug.

The officer said, “Because not going through insurance never works out.” Then the woman asked the police officer if she could get a ride back to work. When the officer said no, she asked ME for a ride.

I told her I needed to think about it. The office asked her to go wait in her vehicle while she wrote up a report. And the woman walked over to my car, knocked on the window, and asked me again for a ride.

“Jena. JENA. Have a heart,” she said, looking me directly in the eye. When I told her I wasn’t comfortable doing that (not to mention the fact that I was cramming about 40 things into a two-hour window), she said, “Why? WHY?”

She didn’t have her cell phone, so she borrowed mine to call her husband, then her father, then her workplace.

She went back to her car and the officer came back to ours a few minutes later. Apparently, this was not her first encounter with the other driver. “Oh, I’ve dealt with her before. She’s always like that,” she said.

The experience pushed all my of boundaries buttons. It was as if she knew it would be hard for me to say “no” to her pleas for a lift. And it wasn’t until later that I was even able to articulate why I felt so uncomfortable and pushed. We were also in the middle of *our* day.

She was acting like a victim, even though she had just hit us. Yet I immediately questioned whether I was being cold or lacking compassion.

Having boundaries does not mean you are cold and heartless.

Yes, I am learning.

The House with the Painted-Shut Windows

Photo: Tiago Rodrigues

A few months ago, my wife and I spotted a house we found for sale on Zillow. We ran some numbers and we went to see it and we loved it in person, too. We did a walk through and then drove around the area for an hour, talking. This was right after Rosh Hashanah. The air was still warm, summery even, and the apple orchards near the house were abundant with fruit. It was easy to feel like the whole thing was just meant to be. We made an offer the next morning and it was accepted by noon.

A week later, we returned for the inspection. We began with benign stuff: A missing gutter, the faucets in one of the bathrooms reversed, and other signs of work done too quickly. At first blush, the bathrooms and kitchen looked like they’d been transplanted from the nearest IKEA showroom. A closer look revealed a lack of permitting and corners cut. We’d be buying a house priced as a four-bedroom that was legally zoned as a two-bedroom.

The off-gassing from the materials used to install the lower-level flooring — it was a raised ranch with a finished basement that we planned to use as a bedroom and home office — was so strong that my sister, who’d come to help suss out the place, had to go upstairs after a few minutes. My wife started having breathing trouble. I stood there thinking: No.

The corner downstairs “bedroom” had a single bed in the corner with some butterfly decals on the walls. This room had no windows, though it looked like a child slept there.

Before I go on, let me back up a few days and hope this next part doesn’t make me sound stalkerish. Really, I’m not. I’m a curious person, and a writer, and someone who assembles stories in my head. I Googled the address to see if I could learn anything about its history and its current owners.

It belonged to a couple. Presumably, based on the child’s room and the bundle of balloons in the corner of the kitchen that said, “It’s a boy!” they had a daughter and were expecting. The man had a prior court appearance for domestic assault, from a few years ago. None of my business, I know. But if I told you it didn’t color my perception of the house, I’d be lying.

The morning of the inspection, we saw the woman leaving the house with her little girl, clearly trying to get out of there given that four strangers were now milling around her driveway. As she leaned down to help her daughter into the carseat, I tried to catch her eye to smile. She quickly looked away. Had I not read what I’d read, I would’ve thought she was having a rushed and stressful morning trying to get to daycare and then work on time. Lord knows, I’ve had thousands of those myself.

Instead, I saw a woman who looked like she was doing her best to be as small and invisible as possible.

But this wasn’t the worst part. The worst part came about 25 minutes later. We started with the visual exterior — roof, gutters (or lack thereof), deck, foundation, trees. Then moved inside — kitchen, bathroom, living room, dining room. This didn’t take long, and no alarm bells went off. So far, so good. I wandered into one of the two upstairs bedrooms, the rooms that would belong to my own kids were we to proceed with the purchase.

That’s when I went to open a window. Huh. Strange. It wouldn’t budge. A further moment of investigation, and a quick survey of the other upstairs windows, then later downstairs, exposed something we found odd at best and chilling at worst. They were painted shut. All of them. I touched the paint. It was a recent job, and my wife and I exchanged a sinking look. It appeared that he had literally painted her in.

Of course, we cannot verify this. We are not investigators. We know nothing of these people’s lives, nor was it any of our business. But we knew in that moment — even aside from the lack of permits, the shoddy work, the chemical hazard of off-gassing that, unbelievably, is still not considered a “health and safety” issue in the inspection report — that we could not live in this house.

I wished I could slip a note to her somehow, with the number of Safe Passage, a local shelter for those fleeing domestic violence. But I knew I could not nothing but hope she would have the courage and means to get out.

Maybe she thinks she deserves it. After all, dinner was cold the other night. She’d forgotten to take out the recycling. She spent too much on groceries. Or he’d just had a shit day and that was her fault, too. Or maybe she was just too terrified. She was pregnant. They had a little girl. Keeping them safe — she had to. He loved them. He said so. He was sorry. He said so. Besides, who would believe her, anyway? He made good money. They had a nice life. She was lucky he took care of them. She was making it up. She was making him look bad. She was crazy. She was exaggerating. She was selfish.

We drove away, $700 lighter, knowing we would pull our offer. Knowing this house was a bullet dodged. And knowing that there was nothing we could do with this knowledge that a battered woman and her abuser might live there.

But those painted-shut windows have haunted me. Knowing a little girl slept in a room with no windows in a basement stifled by chemicals has haunted me. The statistics haunt me.

None of my business?

Maybe that woman I saw in the driveway’s personal life is none of my business. But it is my business that in the last 20 years, 17,700,000 women have been rape victims. It’s my business that 99% of sexual violence perpetrators face no lasting criminal charges. It’s my business that we live in a culture where a history of sexual violence does not keep men from attaining positions of power, prestige, and wealth — and that these, in turn, protect them.

It’s my business that many women, especially children and young women, don’t report their abusers, attackers, or rapists, for fear of retribution and their safety, as well as the common fact that they will very likely be questioned if not blamed.

It’s my business. Because I am a woman. Because I am a parent. Because I am a human.

And it’s your business, too. It has to be. And if it’s not, I wonder why. Are you frightened? In denial? What are you protecting?

Not one of us hasn’t been touched by sexual violence, knowingly or unknowingly. It is so widespread that you might not even be aware of how, or you might know exactly how and have spent many years honing your coping skills and compartmentalizing the truths your body and psyche carry.

When I was in high school — think late 80s — I went to a presentation about violence against women and the advertising industry. The images of women dehumanized, made into body parts, made into objects, seared into me. For women of color and trans women, and especially for trans women of color, the representations and realities were — and are — even more degrading.

I have had my share of near misses, but I have not been a victim myself of rape. I am not here to tell anyone else’s story, except to say that my life is filled with friends, family members, and writers who can’t say the same. Women for whom sexual assault and violence is woven into their cells.

I believe them. It’s my business to believe them. It’s my business to believe you. It’s my business to write what I can and then to stop writing and to listen, to make room for your story, if and when you feel ready to write it.

It’s my business to never shut up. To smile only when I feel like smiling. To keep doing my own work of healing a nervous system that cranks up in a millisecond if I feel scolded or scared.

And so I’m here. To tell the story of the painted-shut windows. To bear witness where I can and to refuse anything less than our full humanity, our full safety, and a reckoning the likes of which this country still hasn’t seen.

It’s time to get out our chisels and hammers, to break the seals, to break the windows if we have to. They cannot paint us in, ridicule, or scare or into silence.

Boundaries, Conflict, Forgiveness — Oh My!

Photo: Oscar Keys

When you ask a question and the answer is no, that means the conversation is over.

“No” is not an invitation to push back, argue, convince, emote, cajole, or complain your way to a different outcome.

The time you spend fussing about doing a thing is often how long it would’ve taken to get said thing done.

You can accept not getting your way without a meltdown.

“No” does not mean, “I don’t love you.”

“No” does not mean, “You are unlovable.”

“No” does not mean, “I’m angry at you.”

“I’m angry at you” does not mean, “I don’t love you.”

“I’m angry at you” does not mean, “You are unlovable.”

* * *

Interpersonal conflict is part of life. It is absolutely unavoidable. It is something many of us are terrified of, unskilled at, and reactive to.

Making mistakes is also an absolutely unavoidable part of life. No matter how conscientious, thoughtful, mindful, caring, and considerate you are, you will have blindspots. You will misjudge. You will say a thing or ask a question or make a request and later think, what was I thinking?

That is the moment when learning begins.

That is the moment when a voice in your head is very likely to start up, likely with something harsh and berating, such as, “You idiot!”

That is the moment when your heart may start racing, when your bowels will loosen, when your hands will get sweaty. Fight, flight, freeze, fawn — one or more of these will appear in a nanosecond and your body will go into a system of red alert.

* * *

I recently made a mistake. In the moment, it didn’t seem like a big deal, though I could feel an undercurrent of pressure and rushing that should’ve been signals if I’d been paying closer attention.

Person A wanted to join Persons B and C for an outing. (My role: Intermediary between these parties.) Persons B and C had preexisting plans, that weren’t 100% ideal for Person A. Person A pushed on me to ask Persons B and C if they could change their plan to accommodate this.

Had I been more in tune with my values at this moment — such as respect, connection, trust, and honesty — I would have told Person A, either you can change YOUR plans in order to join Persons B and C, or you can let it go.

Instead, I caved and asked Persons B and C if they could change THEIR plans.

Why did I make this decision? Because this is real life: Messy, stumbling, incurably imperfect. If only we could see the whole picture in each and every moment.

Then came later. Because of going to an event 45 minutes later than planned, all the involved persons missed the highlights of the event, which Person C in particular had been looking forward to for months, perhaps even longer. Person C was hysterically sad. (It may be noted that Person C is a very young person, whose sadness was not unreasonable.)

And so it was that Friday night, I received a text from Person D, telling me how hurt she was by my asking Persons B and C to change their plans to accommodate Person A.

In a word, it sucked.

In another word: I made a mistake.

And there was no way to undo that, no way to go back and change it, no way to fix it. All I could do was take responsibility, notice what I wished I had done and said instead, and apologize six ways to Sunday for my poor judgment call.

Would the relationships all be ok?

Of course, that was the fear.

In a word: Loss.

Person A wrote a card with a very sweet drawing and put it in Persons B, C, and D’s mailbox.

I invited Person D to go for a run the next day. We met up in the driveway and gave each other a hug. We talked about how much we mean to each other. We talked about our families of origin and how we learned (or didn’t learn) to meet conflict, anger, and hurt feelings.

Persons B, C, and D forgave Person A and me. We all learned some things.

* * *

“No” means no.

“Yes, this is how that will work for us” is not an invitation to negotiating alternatives.

Boundaries are healthy.

Relationships worth keeping can withstand some conflict.

You cannot control another person’s reaction. We all bring whole lives to our responses to things, and there is almost guaranteed to be other stuff going on that may not be visible to the naked eye.

You are allowed to be angry.

You are allowed to feel hurt.

You are allowed to be scared.

You are allowed to make mistakes.

You are allowed to apologize. But it is not up to you whether or how your apology will be received. Not every song has a nice major chord of resolution at the end.

* * *

You are not required to learn form these experiences, but your world will be richer and your relationships stronger if you do. And there is no avoiding them, lest we live in a fragile, entitled state of needing everything to go our way.

Friends can become family. Family is not a guarantee of closeness.

Anger and hurt are inevitable and normal parts of being a human.

Forgiveness is a choice, not a duty.

Communication takes effort.

It’s worth it.

* * * 

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“They Are Not That Smart”

The other day, Pearl seemed proud and a bit surprised after he said, “There is no try, Mama…” and I completed the sentence, “…there is only do.” Yes, even moms know about Yoda.

The sun is shining and even though it’s quite cold, the cold isn’t bothering me today. In fact, I just pulled up all of our bedroom shades, something I used to always do first thing in the morning but now we rarely do in our room, since we don’t really spend any time in there during the day, plus there is not a lot of privacy with the shades open from neighbors on both sides of the house. But I love the light and I love that sound of the shade springing up.

On any given day and at any given hour in our household, a load of laundry is going. Today, it’s the dog’s beds and our sheets are up next. I’m excited to make the bed later with clean sheets and blankets. This is one of my very favorite things in life, one of the small things that makes all the difference. Earlier, I swept the kitchen and while the house is far from spotless, that felt good, too. I have plenty of work to do but sometimes a little bit of housework is a good way in, a good way to get the energy moving.

There are just two weeks of this fall’s Jewels on the Path session, which began 14 weeks ago in September. The weeks and months fly by, cliche as it may seem. Life is not infinite. I had one of those moments, call it morbid, in the car earlier. I had just dropped Aviva off at school, and I put on “La Vie Boheme” from the “Rent” soundtrack. What a great fucking song that is. The whole soundtrack is brilliant, actually. (If you don’t know “Musical Apology,” go listen. It will make you laugh.)

Driving on 91 south back towards Amherst from Greenfield, I thought, what if I got into a grizzly accident right now? Would they be able to see what the last song I’d been listening to was?

Why do we have thoughts like this? I think it’s natural to imagine one’s own death. And I wonder if the more interesting question is: Can one imagine one’s own life, while living it? Isn’t that what we are here for? To not only imagine ourselves into being, but to be? How many days, weeks, months, years, and entire lives pass without imagination, without really being here? What does that even mean?

We make the mistake of aligning this — living with imagination — with money. If you have money, in our culture, we are taught that anything is possible. And yet we hear about the poverty of the spirit constantly, how eroded our values are, how damaged our collective sense of connection and compassion, how hollow the communal psyche.

It’s important not to romanticize actual poverty here — money, a degree of economic stability, does make possible at least some opportunity to consider meaning. If we are not sure where our children’s next meal is coming from, or our own, if we are so bone tired from working low-wage jobs with no guarantee that they will still be there if we have to call in sick, if our home has some kind of infestation but the landlord will not take care of it — there are a million scenarios that make things like “imagining our lives” laughable.

But on the other hand, staying connected to one’s own inherent dignity and worth is critical to meeting a world that may tell you you’re dispensable, disposable, unimportant. We equate wealth with importance, education with intelligence, social standing with true contribution. Who gets overlooked? Who remains invisible?

I have a friend who has been in several of my writing groups. Even though we both grew up here, that’s actually how we met, though the Dive Into Poetry groups. She is a wonderful poet, as well as a single mom. Her kids are the same age as my kids. She has her own business cleaning houses. The other day, we went for a walk. She told me she’d recently raised her rate by $15, and one of her long-time clients read her the riot act. I was so glad when my friend told me she stood up to this this entitled woman, but I also felt disgusted by the woman’s need to make sure my friend “knew her place.”

You might not even realize you’re treating someone differently based on your perception of their station in life, but we all do it.

One thing Michelle Obama said in her recent interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie really struck me:

I have been at probably every powerful table that you can think of, I have worked at nonprofits, I have been at foundations, I have worked in corporations, served on corporate boards, I have been at G-summits, I have sat in at the U.N.: They are not that smart.

We do so much othering of ourselves, and often we end up with short end of some imaginary stick. This is not imaginative; this is internalized oppression. Let’s invest more time, money, energy, and risk in stepping forward and claiming ourselves to be smart enough, worthy, and deserving. Having class privilege is not a pass to feel superior to those who are struggling economically; it’s a responsibility that means you can afford to rock the boat without the stakes being as high.

We need to keep stepping up, challenging systems, and speaking as individuals to other individuals about justice and equity and human value.

And with that, I’ll wrap this up and go put those sheets in the washing machine.

* * * 

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