Jena Schwartz: The Space Between Lives

I’m thrilled and honored to have a new essay published in this wonderful magazine!

Sliver of Stone Magazine

“Wisdom is the ability to distinguish between things; to make sense out of confusion.”


I met my wife in the space between lives. Both of our marriages to men had ended. In the name of sovereignty, we’d also severed the transitional relationships with other women that had respectively followed classic trajectories from headlong to toxic. In fact, we’d supported each other in making healthy and self-respecting decisions via a secret online group, where for months we’d shared words and photos from the front lines of our hearts and daily lives, along with a dozen or so other women from around the country. What we didn’t know is that we’d wind up together.

We met in the space between, with no suspicion that our meeting was in fact a kind of reaching for the other side of a chasm. On the one side was a heterosexual marriage going into its eleventh…

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Falling Barometer

Tonight is salted caramel gelato and thunderstorm warnings, stories about childhood bedrooms and our parents’ eyes and the way the light can change on a dime, obscuring what was just moments ago illuminated.

Wondering if the rain will come and knowing that either it will or it won’t and how much of our lives do we spend wondering about things that either will or won’t happen?

Tonight is a freezer door with an array of photos and magnets and cards, from “Yay! Gay!” to “May there always be an angel at your side” and “Dissent is Patriotic.”

Where is your dissent, you wonder. Either it will be there or it won’t be there, though unlike the approaching storm it may be more difficult to track.

What will your dissent look like on the radar? Flashes of postcard writing? Reading brilliant writing by people like Rebecca Solnit and Dan Rather and nodding your head, wringing your hands? Where are the front lines when we are at war with ourselves?

The birds are singing more loudly now, surely picking up on the falling barometer. Tonight is premature darkness and owl feathers and the rumble of near misses and the way memory moves through the trees, expectant, waiting for something to crack open.

Freedom Comes with Responsibility

Image from the Google homepage, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Freedom comes with responsibility.
Is this not what we teach our kids?
A kid fussing about washing dishes.
A mom tells her that a different mom
would shut that fussing down
and hand over a mop to do the floors next.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
Roll call.
Raise you hand and be counted.
Does every voice matter? Yes.
And you know when this really starts
to become apparent?
When we stop using ours.
When we resign ourselves to powerlessness.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
Not threats or secrecy.
Not preaching to the choir
or sneaking out out the side door
of integrity when you don’t know
the next right thing.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
Check yourself.
Hiding behind white or straight or cis is privilege.
It it a cowardly and self-serving
perpetuation of oppression.
But what about when safety comes into play —
is safety a privilege, too?

Freedom comes with responsibility.
I will not sit idly by.
My health insurance is not more important than your health insurance.
My kids’ education is not more important than your kids’ education.
My safety is not more important than your safety.
My spirit is not more sacred than your spirit.
My being is not more important than your being.
As long as “my” comes before “yours”
I will be tethered to distortions of freedom
by a rope that doubles as a noose.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
Find your fight.
Comfort in community is not the same as comfort in complacency.
Pick one thing if you have to and be a beacon.
If your own light has been so dulled
that your sight is compromised, spend time each day
with the soft cloth of clear seeing. Take care of your own eyes.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
Not for the faint of heart.
Take time today and every day to honor those who gave their lives for this,
for this freedom to speak, to resist, to insist, to denounce, to stand up, to be seen.
Think about the thousands, millions who died, whose names are gone,
whose faces have been passed down through generations,
who had no choice in the arrival,
who did not come to this land by choice,
who did not come to this land for opportunity,
for did not come to this land as equals or heirs.
Think of those who were displaced and dismantled
whose land was stolen and bloodied and renamed.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
My life is bound up with your life.
My heart is bound up with your heart.
My “my” is tethered to your “yours.”
I am my brother’s keeper and I am my sister’s safe haven.
You are your father’s son and your mother’s daughter.
Overthrow legacies of complicity and shine a light on injustice.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
For this is love.
This is our mighty task.
And we are living inside of history as it unfolds around us,
not as puppets or actors but as humans infused with more ability than we can ever know.
Do what it takes today and all the days to tap it.
To speak from that stream and to drink from that well
and to hold out your cupped hands
that another might splash cold water on her face.

We’ve got to keep waking each other up.
Freedom comes with responsibility.

THIS WEBSITE HAS MOVED

After exactly 10 years of blogging in this space (feel free to hang out in the archives), I’ve moved the whole operation to a new online home!

You’ll find tons of info about writing groups, coaching, and other fierce encouragement for your writing + life here: www.jenaschwartz.com.

Come on over and take a quick second to subscribe/follow me there. I love connecting with you and would hate to lose touch!

Surfing Ocean and Sky: Mary Oliver and Synchronicity

And here we are, gliding along the last days of the year. Taking (time) off is all the lovelier for its strangeness.

And here we are, gliding along the last days of the year. Taking (time) off is all the lovelier for its strangeness.

The first dream happened in the afternoon. It was Friday, December 23. As we do most days, Mani and I took a nap after lunch. But before I tell you this dream, I need to tell you about part of a conversation I had that morning, with a long-standing writing coaching client who has also become a friend and beloved human.

We wrap up our hour-long call, then linger as we often do. We talk a bit about what kind of support she needs for her writing as we begin 2017, and I mention some of the things that are on my mind around my own life and work.

At one point, she says, “If I may…”

To which I respond, “Please do….”

And so she tells me that in the year we’ve been talking every single week by phone, she in her home office and me in my kitchen or living room “office,” she has somehow never before noticed the framed photograph that now catches her eye. It is a picture of the sky. Big, expansive, vast, wide-open sky.

I take a breath and tell her how perfect it feels, like a reading I didn’t even ask for. I joke that I should be the one paying her, rather than the other way around.

And then she says something so beautiful.

You are the sky. And you are the ocean, too. We need you.

I sit with this for a moment, tears in my eyes. I feel the impulse to deflect it, to say something funny or self-deprecating. But I don’t. I take it in. And then I thank her and say, “I need you, too.”

**

A few hours later, Mani and I crash hard. I intend to rest for maybe 45 minutes or so, but when the timer goes off on my phone (the alarm doesn’t work, so I’m always doing the math and setting a timer), I swiftly swipe it off without resetting it. It’s in this next interval of sleep that I really go under.

I find myself in a dream where I am body surfing the most glorious waves — they are huge, powerful, and generous without being scary or threatening, and I am moving at the speed of ocean. Then I am soaring, too, over sand — it lifts me like air and I feel like I’m flying, unbridled, one with sky, salt, sea, and land. Not a single object or obstruction stands in my way. At one point, a guy on a bike approaches behind me, and I just let him pass.

(Later, there is some confusion — it seems this incredible experience has deposited me in the student center at Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley and I have to figure out how to get back to Amherst.)

But that part of the dream — I want to call it a passage — was extraordinary in its embodiment of movement and being.

I wake up and realize what has happened, what I’ve experienced.

I was the sky. I was the ocean, too.

**

The next day, Saturday the 24th, we pack up for a mini vacation I’ve surprised Mani with for the first few nights of Hanukkah, to an Airbnb in Cambridge. We get there in time to pick up some groceries just before everything closes for Christmas. The place we’ve chosen is perfect — small but clean and cozy, smack in between Fresh Pond and Harvard Square.

I have to sit on my hands not to reach out to everyone I know in the Boston area, knowing that this time is ours alone and trusting that 2017 will bring opportunities to connect with friends, perhaps offer readings from my new book, and lead workshops. Ideas percolate and I let them, without racing to write anything down.

I share a picture on Facebook of the most fabulous display of Christmas lights, with these words, alluding to yesterday’s dream:

lightsI’m sitting in our Airbnb (not the house in the photo!) eating chipotle chicken mac & cheese from a Whole Foods take-out carton, on a quiet street in a neighborhood filled with lights. We had a festive family dinner last night, and now my kiddos are with their dad and his family up in Vermont. I took a nap this afternoon and had an extraordinary dream–so vivid–in which I was body surfing ocean, sand, and sky. I may have to write about it.

But for the next few days, the plan is to read, rest, and just be. The darker the night, the brighter and more beautiful and essential these over-the-top lights seem to me. I’m so grateful for this community of friends and writers–you know who you are, but I hope you also know that you anchor me and bring so much meaning, purpose, connection, and joy into my life.

**

The next morning, I make us coffee and sit down to start reading “Upstream” by Mary Oliver, a gift from my parents. I reach page 23, an essay called “Of Power and Time,” a timeless piece of writing that I will return to again and again for the rest of my days. I underline at least 50% of it as I read, beginning with the opening lines of the second paragraph:

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in.

She writes of the ways in which not only the world interrupts us, but how we interrupt ourselves, something she calls “a darker and more curious matter.”

I take a picture of these lines and text it to my writing friend, who gets it right away and responds in kind:

Jena – THE SKY!!!

I haven’t yet told her about the sky-ocean-sand surfing dream. My sense of contentment is sudden and complete. In this moment, I have everything I need.

contentment

Later in the same essay, I nearly burst out crying and laughing at the same time. I have just put the final touches on my third, self-published collection of poems. After some deliberation, a title poem rose to the surface and gave the book its name: Why I Was Late for Our Meeting. I wrote this particular poem last summer. The meeting I was late for? A coaching call with my sky-writing friend.

Page 30:

If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.

I am momentarily dismayed not to have read these words in time to include them as an epigraph to the new poems. And then quickly, this is replaced by an immeasurable sense of joy and synchronicity. Because really — how marvelous is this, to be dipping into the same reservoir of knowing, as a poet I so deeply respect and admire. I tell Mani I must find a way to give her a copy of the book!

**

That first night in Cambridge, I dream a statement. It goes something like this:

To ask questions and not assume — this feels like love.

I wake remembering it — almost. The wording is off a bit, but the meaning is clear. I don’t know how the speaker was in the dream, though those of a Jungian persuasion would argue that it’s a moot point; the whole dream is the dreamer.

I pour a second cup of coffee and return to the window seat to keep reading. I reach the essay called “Sister Turtle” and read, on page 57, this line:

To enjoy, to question–never to assume, or trample.

Oliver is writing about “the responsibility to live thoughtfully and intelligently.” I shudder slightly, as if I’ve been caressed by the softest touch. Once again, I know I am right where I need to be. Later, in “Some Thoughts on Whitman,” she shares the first lines of his glorious “Song of Myself,” a poem I first read in its entirety nearly 20 years ago, when I entered an MFA program and lived not two miles from where we’re staying.

I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Whitman’s poetry is incantatory — a word my grad school advisor assigned to my work, much to my delight — and intent, as Mary Oliver notes, on “[forcing] open the soul.” She goes on:

He was after a joyfulness, a belief in existence in which man’s inner light is neither rare nor elite, but godly and common, and acknowledged. For that it was necessary to be rooted, again, in the world.

**

I mark this passage and write “lineage,” underlined twice in the margin. I am of and from this belief; it drives my writing and my work. To be flung wide open, unguarded and real. To keep turning over the stones and jewels, never knowing where some shard of light may be revealed, even when the task seems redundant and questionable. To crouch by the edges of my everyday life, as Mary Oliver does near her beloved Blackwater Pond, “utterly quiet and half-hidden.” To coax soul from its perch and into my open palm. To insist on light — mine and yours, common, acknowledged, and essential.

fresh-pond-1

There is a rumor of total welcome among the frosts of the winter morning. – Mary Oliver

The second morning of our getaway, I go for a run around Fresh Pond. I pay for it later; my lower back is not happy with me. But it’s worth it at the time. Kids on scooters riding ahead of the grown-ups, lots of people with their dogs, and pairs of friends or couples all circumambulate the pond in holiday-week leisure. I am glad to be alone but among them.

**

The third morning, I don’t run, but instead venture a few blocks up the street to a bakery that caught my eye. I bring my journal and sit writing, people watching, and caffeinating while Mani sleeps in a little.

I notice my slight anxiety about taking time “off” from working, and watch as my handwritten words unfurl across the creamy, blank pages:

Trusting people to wait for me. Trusting that the world won’t abandon me if I rest… Keep your hand moving, mama, and see what it is really like to be all the way here, deeply and without reservation. That is the practice. That is the work.

**

Speaking of trust, we decide to splurge and stay one additional night.

Now it is the evening of Tuesday, December 27. We’ve brought with us two canvas bags filled with magazines to cut up. At home, Mani does this somewhat regularly, but it has been ages since I did anything visual, and I’m out of practice. This is humbling and a good reminder of where many people are when they first approach my writing groups. Just start, I tell myself. And keep going, I add.

The first little while is awkward. I cut out words and a few pictures, not sure where it’s going or whether it will amount to anything I like. I glance over at Mani and she seems so relaxed, then remind myself to just stay in it without worrying about the outcome. After all, how can I hashtag things like “creative process” if I myself am unwilling to try new things?

After two hours, I am surprised and pleased and not a little bit amazed. I’ve created something!

collage

Come at evening or at morning. Come when expected or without warning. A thousand welcomes you’ll find here before you. And the oftener you come, the more we’ll adore you.

**

Dreams and images, words on pages written out of order, found right on time, speaking to each other across time zones and zip codes, climates and landscapes, decades of life, centuries, too. All of this happens as if in simulcast, where the linearity of time is illusory and really, we’re all here dipping our spoons into the same pot, sipping and slurping and stirring.

Since Sunday, I’ve read two books — the other was “The Light of the World” by Elizabeth Alexander — and indeed rested my body and mind so as to make room to listen to my soul. This has everything to do, for me, with my service to you, to the world. They are inseparable, neither endeavor complete without the other.

This balance is my lifelong… I almost wrote struggle. But no, that was before. Now, it feels like a gift, one I get to keep opening and giving away and receiving again, never the same twice, yet somehow also unchanging.

**

We’re back home now. The snow is really coming down, as predicted. Mani is doing a meditation beside me before we head over to Northampton, where she has her private yoga session and I will sit in a coffee shop, working on prompts for my next two-week writing group.

What will the new year bring?

Rest and work. Giving and receiving. Love and loss. Practice and outcome. Synchronicity and destiny. Not knowing and knowing. Ebbing and flowing. Ocean and sky, sky and ocean.

One unthinkable without the other.