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.

5 Gifts Under $50 (for You & the Writers You Love)

blessingIf you’re anything like some people I know and love, you’ve left some of your holiday shopping for the last minute — or (gasp) neglected to get something special for your own beautiful self!

I’ve assembled this quick and dirty list of writing-related gifts for you and/or the writer(s) you love, in case you’re looking for something but didn’t quite know what it was until you did.

Please note: If you are purchasing any of the items below as gifts, be sure to contact me with the recipient’s information. From my home to yours: Happy Merry. 

30-minute coaching session $50

13558921_10209162731121933_2635687224181490059_oWrestling with a piece of writing? Having trouble getting out of your head? So beaten up by the state of the world that you just can’t even? Time to get back in the ring, my friend. A 30-minute call completely devoted to your creative juices. Purchase + contact me to schedule.  

Dive Into Poetry + Jena’s new book, “Why I Was Late for Our Meeting” $49

Roar-Sessions-First-BirthdayHave your cake and eat it, too! Spend a month *playing* with poetry AND pre-order a personally inscribed and signed copy of Jena’s newest collection of poems to read at your leisure. Purchase.

10 Self-Paced Writing Prompts $36

10-daysEvery day for 10 days — on the start date and time of day of your choosing — receive a beautiful and original prompt in your inbox. Set a timer for 10 minutes, and start writing. That’s all there is to igniting or deepening your practice — at your own pace. Purchase.

Dive Into Poetry – January 2017 $31

diveA month-long online poetry party, for the people, by the people, and of the people. (Hint: You are the people!) No experience or prerequisites — this group is low stakes, super supportive, and loads of fun. Register.

“Don’t Miss This” and “The Inside of Out” $19.90 each

dont-miss-thisJena’s first book, “Don’t Miss This,” traces a fierce 15-year journey through marriage, motherhood, and coming out — when she risked everything she knew in order to claim what she had denied for so long: herself. Purchase.

inside-of-outBlending poetry and prose, the personal and political, and the ordinary with a 30,000-foot view, “The Inside of Out” is an intimate look at what happens over the course of a year, after life falls apart and reconfigures again. A beautiful gift for anyone who has ever wished love could be easy. Purchase.

“Why I Was Late for Our Meeting” $18

coverJena’s new collection of 50 poems caps off a year of darkness with these words: “The sun’s up there somewhere.” This book is equal parts invitation, prayer, protest, and love song to the pain and beauty of humanity and everyday life. Inscribed and signed for you or the beloved recipient of your choice. Purchase.

Pecking Away

4emljshk4kk-noah-rosenfieldAnd then you remember the lesson you learned — was it one year ago, or two now — the years a blur of high points and low points.

I’m picturing a bench, sun, late June 2105, my wife in the hospital and me, sitting there at intervals throughout the day and night, smoking cloves, writing on my phone, wondering what will happen next and how we will go on.

Today, she told me about a friend whose girlfriend left him because he was very sick.

I told her — she was cooking chicken and rice and I was about to run to town to eat a falafel then pick up wrapping paper and toilet paper and prescriptions at CVS — that I could see how that happens. I didn’t know if I had it in me, to stay with life that was so other than I’d expected.

But I knew if the tables were turned — if I’d been sick and she well — the thought of leaving would not even have crossed her mind. I knew this.

I felt sad for that time and the fact that it crossed mine, though relieved that we can talk about it now and grateful I was able to let the sun shine on my face on a bench by the hospital, that she let me take care of her when she needed it and that I learned how to do the thing that didn’t come easily to me.

I remember a woman at a writing group I led during that time saying, honestly Jena, I don’t know if I could do what you’re doing. But I knew I was not a hero. Just a decent human and a good wife, which is the only kind she deserved then just as she deserves now.

And then there was the time I wrote my way into her shoes and finally understood.

It’s funny — this was not the lesson I had in mind at the beginning here, not at all. I was going to write about how I’ve grown more comfortable with the fact that there are many billions of us here, and trusting that there’s enough birdseed to go around.

I was going to write about the quiet meeting place between who I want to be and who I am, and that scarcity leads to ugliness.

The writing does this, doesn’t it? Leads us down some winding trail into territory we didn’t pack properly for, then spits us out by some clearing but not the one we followed the red dots painted on trees towards.

If we’re lucky, there’s a bench for sitting and taking in the sky for a while. A bag of crumbs for the birds. A decision you don’t regret making.

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

Not for the Faint of Heart

exlq3elikm8-annie-sprattDo you ever use the expression “not for the faint of heart”?

Love’s not for the faint of heart. Writing’s not for the faint of heart. Politics aren’t for the faint of heart. Self-employment? Definitely not for the faint of heart. Raising kids? You guessed it. Marriage isn’t for the faint of heart. Revolution is most certainly not for the faint of heart. Anything requiring discipline, from training for a marathon to working on a manuscript? Not for the faint of heart. Working more than one job? You’re getting the idea.

In other words, Reality is not for the faint of heart. Life is not for the faint of heart.

To leave it at that, though, strikes me as woefully insufficient.

What the hell is for the faint of heart, then? Anything and everything? That doesn’t ring true, either. Too simplistic, too broad of a stroke.

“Not for the faint of heart” carries a vague implication that whatever the thing is, it’s a choice. Something you might want to think twice or five times about before getting yourself in too deep, or into at all.

This is premised on a degree of privilege that is simply not shared by all people. Living paycheck to paycheck is not for the faint of heart, nor do I know many people who “choose” this, as if it’s a lifestyle. Poverty is not for the faint of heart, but it’s also not exactly something anyone signs up for.

Being transgender is not for the faint of heart. Same could be said of being a person of color. These are not choices a person makes, though they may in fact determine a great deal about how an individual is perceived, judged, and treated.

Do circumstances, character, or a combination thereof determine whether a person is “faint of heart”? And what is its opposite? “Courageous” of heart?

Consider this: The notion of “courage” means very different things to different people.

If you are perceived as “marginal” when seen through the lenses of dominant cultural norms (read: white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, middle class), being “courageous” might look like doing your day — going to work, sending your kids to school on the bus, picking up some groceries, walking the dog in the park.

These everyday and seemingly mundane and “safe” activities become something that is — wait for it — not for the faint of heart. Getting up in the morning, putting on a brave face for small people or a poker face for a harsh world — every single day is a series of moments that are implicitly not for the faint of heart.

Acknowledging this places things like the choice to be self-employed, or the inevitable ups and downs of intimacy in a culturally sanctioned relationship, for example, in a different light. It’s not that the challenges of these aren’t valid. It’s just that I’m becoming more aware of how language reflects privilege or lack thereof — be it based on race, sexual orientation, gender expression, class, ability, or one of the countless ways in which these intersect and to a large degree determine how the world sees and treats us.

It’s true for me, that not having a steady paycheck is not for the faint of heart. It requires tremendous reserves (which sometimes I have to dig deep to tap) of trust. But I also live with an incredibly privileged assumption, which is that I *could* start looking for and applying for jobs. There’s no guarantee whatsoever I’d land a good one that could support my family, but I have the education, resume, and references that no matter how you cut it reflect a great deal of privilege.

Putting myself out there — on a blog, on Facebook, as a writer, as a coach, as a group leader — these are not for the faint of heart. I regularly find myself “outside of my comfort zone,” and at this point it’s a combination of choice and necessity that I keep on.

The stakes are plenty high on the one hand (groceries, yo). On the other hand, we are not digging for pennies in between couch cushions (though Mani has lived this), nor are we one month away from eviction if things get slow; we’d have two at least, and the truth is I have good credit and that’s also a privilege.

More things that aren’t for the faint of heart: Honesty about privilege. Writing what’s real instead of worrying about what’s “trending” (ugh) is not for the faint of heart. Asking for help, receiving, paying attention to what you truly want and need. In pointing out these areas of privilege, my intention is not to shame (myself or others) but to NAME things that are true.

I was born into an upwardly mobile, white, Jewish, artistic, academic family. That was not a choice. But what I DO with this privilege, how it shapes my actions and values, work, parenting, and writing — this is a choice. We do not need more white guilt or fragility or hand-wringing, but responsibility. And guess what? (I bet you guessed it already.) Taking responsibility is NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART.

By writing and sharing the way I do, I am putting my heart in your hands. Not literally, of course, but that is how it feels some days, to show up and figure out how to convey in language these things that I think about. My hope is that this is not so much naval-gazing but something of use, something that might get you seeing your own places of not being faint of heart, in new ways.

Last night, lying in bed watching “Luke Cage,” I mentioned to Mani that this idea of “not for the faint of heart” was on my mind. “Isn’t everyone ‘not faint of heart’?” I asked her, thinking of the quote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” She responded without a blink: “I think plenty of people are faint of heart.”

What immediately came to mind were images of everyday German citizens who became an army of people “just following orders.” To me, that is the full expression of being faint of heart: Being unwilling or afraid to speak up in the face of injustice, ineptitude, and horrifying denigration of human rights.

In riffing on President-Elect Trump’s choices so far for his highest-ranking cabinet members, Trevor Noah on The Daily Show said: “It’s almost like before Trump hires anyone, he googles ‘opposite of’ and then just gets that person,” Noah suggested. This kind of “comedy” is not for the faint of heart.

My respect for anyone and everyone who continues to speak up, fight, write, joke, petition, organize, create, and teach in ways that refuse to be silenced by the incoming administration grows by the minute. Today, tomorrow, next week — again, Noah said it best: ““What makes it worse than a roller coaster is that this ride is going to be four years long. And the scariest thing is, we’re still just waiting in the line. The ride hasn’t even started yet!”

Truth.

This is not the time to be faint of heart. Get strong, people. In whatever ways you can. If you, like me, come from a place of relative privilege, this is going to mean being uncomfortable, doing it anyway, and remembering that it’s not about you. It’s about doing the right thing, and the next right thing, and when you’re not sure what that is, not being faint of heart but instead asking people who do know. It’s about taking rest, yes, when you need to, but also recognizing that there’s a difference between self-care and self-check-out.

These times, this world, oh. It really isn’t for the faint of heart. I want with everything I am to believe that we’re in it together — and also see all the ways in which this is so clearly not true and never has been. The least we, I, can do, is to stand on the right side of history as it continues to unfold, so that one day, God willing, when my kids’ kids ask me what I did to stop this inexorable tide towards world destruction, I will be able to say I tried.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)