A Drive, a Dog, and a Question

Maybe I’m avoiding politics, or maybe it’s the restlessness that sometimes accompanies my cycle, even as it grows shorter and less reliable. Maybe it’s the fall air, warm for September yet still hinting at change. Maybe it’s being home with a puppy and Mani not feeling well, that sudden need to get out of the house.

I piled her into the backseat, on top of the seat cover we got so as not to destroy the car with fur. Pulled up a podcast I’ve been wanting to listen to, hit play, and started driving. As soon as we got on the highway, I felt like I’d made a mistake. Somehow, Chalupa had gotten herself underneath the seat cover, so now it was above her. Like a toddler in a fort, she panted and paced, and I regretted not harnessing her. I regretting getting in the car at all.

A wave of anxiety came over me.

With the dog panting, her head between the two front seats, eyes on the road — no joke — I kept my hands on the wheel. The internet cut out, and with it, the podcast, so it was just me, dog, traffic, and the question of why I had thought this would be a good idea. She was shedding all over the seats of Mani’s car. I imagined telling Mani about the whole outing when we got home. How it had seemed like a good idea at the time.

You may be wondering: What is she even talking about? Why is this a big deal? And rationally speaking, it wasn’t. An impulsive outing to a town 30 minutes north of here with my puppy in the backseat — maybe not the most relaxing choice, but certainly nothing to beat myself up about. And yet, that’s exactly what I found myself doing as I drove, trying to soothe her, vividly reliving the days of having a baby and needing to do anything but stay home and driving, but instead of falling asleep, the baby just cries and your stress levels go up instead of down.

I pulled over at a Dunkin’ Donuts and walked around the side, then the back. Chalupa peed. She sniffed an abandoned stroller and I wondered what had happened there. Then Chalupa pooped and sniffed some more, before we walked back around to the front of the store. I opened the entrance door wide enough to ask the woman at the counter if we could have a cup of water, and she kindly brought one outside. Chalupa lapped it up, leaving a small puddle by her front paws, and I heaved her back into the backseat (she’s not quite tall enough to leap up herself).

It was not a relaxing outing.

I didn’t listen to the podcast. I didn’t even listen to music. Driving with doggles did not make Kavanaugh go away, nor the cold that has hit my family, one of us at a time over the past week. It didn’t alleviate my unfounded anxiety or give me any great ideas. I was just glad to get home. Apparently, Chalupa was, too; she is crashed out under the kitchen table now.

Some days, I feel this tug I can’t name. It’s part sad, part dull, part blank, part tired. It’s the parts of me I think of as less appealing. I am quiet, introverted. I don’t have much to say. I don’t have sparkles or glitter or pizzazz. I am just here. I am breathing. I am alive. It is a day.

When my kids were little, there were days when their dad would get home and I would be so done. Crazed to “get out” for a while. I would go bring my notebook to the lake, but didn’t always have much to write. I think it was more of an accompaniment, a gesture to myself, as if to say: I am still a writer, even though I have nothing to say.

Having nothing to say is scary for a writer.

And sometimes, it’s true. The words don’t form. The thoughts don’t click. The impetus misses its cue and leaves you alone on stage with no lines. The audience, though? There is no audience. Just a floor. a raised curtain, and row after row of red velvet seating.

In moments like these, the temptation is to make something of it. Like Daniel, Fudge’s little friend in the Judy Blume series, who always puts up his fists: “Wanna make something of it?”Always ready for battle, for struggle, for meaning, for implications — none of them good. But maybe that is one of the things I’ve learned in the intervening years since my babies were babies: There is no need to create a big story around a low-energy day, or a bout of restlessness, or a spike of anxiety. The world gives us plenty reason for all of these.

Still, I want to know why.

Why do I feel sad? Why do I feel blue? Why do I get myself into circumstances that exacerbate rather than alleviate stress?

It’s quiet now. Quiet outside — just Chalupa’s little breathing noises — and quiet inside. Thoughts of not being enough flit through my head, and I try to observe them the way you can at Magic Wings, the place on Route 5 where you can sit on a bench amidst hundreds of fluttering butterflies. They land, they alight. They hover, they lift. They feed, they rest.

The state of our country is weighing on me heavily today, like watching a train wreck in slow motion, car after car after car. Grief wells up in me, and I want to dive inward to find its source even as I know its source may be older and deeper than memory. Moments from my own childhood bubble up — moments when one of my parents was fearful or angry, moments when I froze or retreated. Consciousness feels like a strong current some days, and I worry about getting swept down the river.

On the way back this afternoon from the drive I might as well not have taken, I crossed the blue bridge over the Connecticut River. The water looked impenetrable from above, and I found myself imagining swimming across from one shore to the other. Would the water be warm or cold? Would there be a current? Would I make it?

Will we make it?

This is the question I’m carrying. At the beginning of the day when all is once again new, in the middle when hunger soars or energy dips, at the end when it is time to surrender all that remains undone, I wonder if we will make it. As a country. As a species. As humans with such deep capacity to love and also such terrifying ability to destroy.

I take refuge under a prayer shawl, in a pew, in a people. I seek shelter in ancient prayers and everyday tasks that give life meaning. And I hope it is enough. Yom Kippur is coming, and the stakes feel higher than ever.

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.

The Squatter

There’s a squatter living in my head and she doesn’t pay rent.

She picks at everything I write and says: “You’re not a real writer. You write blog posts and Facebook snippets and ten-minute freewrites and none of it amounts to anything.”

She hisses: “Your books aren’t real books.” (No matter that three very real books are on the shelf.) She growls and taunts: “You need to go underground and do nothing but write for a year, get off of social media, and come talk to me when you have a manuscript.”

My wife observes that this doesn’t sound like me — and she’s right. It’s not my voice. It’s the squatter’s.

Call her my inner critic. I’m pretty sure she has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as she will stop at nothing to cut me down, keep me off-balance, and make sure I don’t get too big for my britches.

* * *

Wednesday afternoon. We — my wife and I — go for a short walk by the river. “I feel like I’m this close” — holding my thumb and forefinger about an inch apart — “to having a panic attack.” I take a deep breath and she squeezes my hand. I feel a surge of shame. “I should know better,” I think to myself.

I describe to Mani how scared I feel.

“Is it fear — or anxiety?” she asks, ever so gently. We start talking about the difference.

Fear = clear and present danger. Someone has broken into your house. Your kid was supposed to call an hour and a half ago and won’t answer her cell phone. A bear is running in your direction. You are choking. Your are a person of color and a cop has been trailing you for the last two miles. You’re being followed.

Lives are at stake. Maybe even yours.

But in this moment, there is nothing to fear. It’s the last day of February and we’re walking along a stretch of the Connecticut River in Hadley, Massachusetts. I’m taking a break in my work day to go with her to our local butcher.

* * *

Earlier in the day, I paid our March rent and gave thanks. Then I looked at our PayPal balance, and my mind — or rather, that squatter — started up with me.

“This might be the month when everything stops,” the squatter had said. “And you’re getting a puppy?! What are you going to do if you don’t make enough money?”

Really, lady? Do you never take a day off?

Then I remembered: She takes plenty of days off. Then she comes around, usually for just two or three days a month, and does everything in her power to freak me out completely. She convinces me that we are going to be destitute within weeks, that I missed some kind of magical window, and that my self-employment success has been a fluke for the past three years. My number’s up.

Oh, and by the way: Me even writing the word “success” is basically professional suicide, because I’m not supposed to be proud of my work or claim that it’s going well. (Maybe she’s a Jewish squatter and this is her superstitious edge coming through?)

* * *

“No,” I tell Mani as we walk. This isn’t fear that has me in its grips. This is good old-fashioned anxiety.

How can we be sure?

It’s entirely about the future and the past. None of the things coursing through my mind are grounded in real time. I’m jumping ahead and creating all kinds of dire scenarios, inventing stories, and going back over the places where I’d surely made fatal mistakes as a new business owner — ones that everyone can surely see but me. It’s only a matter of time until the whole thing comes crashing down.

I feel some relief, having told Mani what’s on my mind and weighing on my heart. So grateful for her presence and gentle reality checking.

You know what she tells me?

“You have a 100% success rate at surviving every single time you’ve ever felt anxious.”

She is right. One-hundred percent. I think back over so many of the most perilous passages of my life and can’t deny it: None of them have killed me.

* * *

It takes courage, so much courage, to keep going when there are no guarantees of anything.

The minute I return to the truth — that there is a guarantee of death — I come back to the solid ground of right now. The panic subsides, the tides go out and the full moon rises.

That night I have a dream where God tells me I’m working hard enough, doing enough, helping enough people. God tells me it’s ok to relax.

I wake up in the morning and decide to give the squatter a blanket and some lunch money. After all, she’s frightened. I’m the only home she’s got — and she keeps moving me closer towards the truth.

A Little of Everything (When Everything Is Everything)

Photo: Elijah Hiett

Sunday consisted of a little of everything. Dreams as vivid as films, forgotten in a blink but returning in flashes throughout the day. Coffee. A run alongside Pearl on her bike up to my parents’ house, where I dropped her off to work for a couple of hours. My mom got her shining silver, sweeping the porch, and weeding the garden. I ran home, aware of some tension I couldn’t place but that hung on most of the day.

Later in the afternoon, it morphed into irritation, then fear, then I put my face up close to Mani’s and asked her to remind me to come in off the ledge. “Yeah, no ledges,” she said.

No ledges. How often do you find yourself there — on that imaginary edge of the world where with a single misstep, you might fall all the way off? It’s silly, maybe, but can seem oh so real. It amazes me how convincing certain states of being are, especially what I deem the “hard” ones. But then I think of this line from the novel I just started (Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi):

The need to call this thing ‘good’ and this thing ‘bad,’ this thing ‘white’ and this thing ‘black,’ was an impulse that Effia did not understand. In her village, everything was everything. Everything bore the weight of everything else.

I see the impulse to label everything. The “bad” states of being — anxiety, fear, anger, agitation, irritability, tension, stress — are all interrelated, like the reunion of the side of the family you do your best to avoid but comes over unannounced no matter. Then there are the “good” states of being — joy, ease, flow, gratitude, curiosity, connection. In their absence, I can worry (will they ever come home?). And when I’m experiencing these, aaaaaah, my ability to trust life expands exponentially.

But what if everything is everything? How does it shift my perception, if everything bears the weight of everything else? Well, for one thing, I can see a bit more clearly, the ephemeral nature of ALL of the above. It becomes easier to step away from the ledge, because I know the ledge is imaginary, no more real than tomorrow. When everything bears the weight of everything, everything is somehow more bearable.

Sometimes, a superstition haunts me a little bit. It goes a little something like this: I will somehow, unknowingly and inadvertently, cause the well to dry up.The well of blessings. Even reading these words makes me shrug my shoulders; obviously I don’t have that kind of power, nor are there some distant Gods watching my every move who will show their pleasure or displeasure with me on a whim. We are beings with free will; bad things happen to the best of people and the most evil of humans get away with atrocities every day. From this standpoint, it’s easy to get kind of hopeless and nihilistic about it.

But to me, it’s actually a positive thing that we are more than just chess pieces in some cosmic game. Why? Because it means that while we may have little control about what life brings to us, we get to choose how to meet life. Today, I felt tense. I swept the kitchen floor. I tried to take a nap but got interrupted five times in 45 minutes, got up feeling groggy and cranky, and then said yes when my sister invited us over for a bite to eat. Later, we got ice cream and saw some roosters. Now, day is done. Kids are clean. Mani’s eating. I’m typing in the quiet kitchen. Night has fallen. The crickets offer up the  tiniest of bells.

The fear that everything will crumble, the missing in advance, the love that sometimes gets eclipsed by moods and minor annoyances, the smile that quickly turns to a squall — all of the daily dynamics that happen not only within each of us but as part of any family unit — none of it stays. None of it.

What stays is this, the coming back. The sitting down. the writing as a way of returning to everything that is everything, where I don’t have to be so quick to say good, bad, hard, easy, black, white. I can just be here, feeling the full weight of this body, and letting the thoughts dissipate, as transient and insubstantial as the day itself.

The Perils of Nowherelandia

Geetanjal Khanna

I dreamed about a misused apostrophe.

It occurs to me that this is my subconscious way of finding things within my control, when the fact is that most things are not. I can control what I put in my body. I can control what and I how communicate. I can control what thoughts to focus on and which to filter out (easier said than done, but still). I can control getting up out of my green kitchen chair and out into the day.

I can have the illusion of controlling my schedule, kids’ appointments, and future plans. Take that, Oxford comma! I sneaked three things into one neat and tidy sentence there. Illusion, indeed.

I can control whether I am paying attention to the thing I’m doing, whether that is commenting on someone’s writing, listening to my wife when she is talking to me, washing the dishes, taking a walk, reading an article — you name it.

Truth is, much of the time, my attention is spliced and split and splattered. It’s like I’m playing mental Twister much of the time, rather than standing where I am.

The perils of nowherelandia.

On Sunday afternoon, Mani and I went out to get some groceries, but we made a little date of it. Sometimes it’s just nice to get out of the house together, no matter what the reason, and after the recent cold snap, we haven’t been outside as often. On our way to the Starbucks drive-through, she put on the newest music from her iPod — a song by Laura Marling.

We listened quietly for a few minutes, and then I asked her, “Do you think I’m a gentle person?”

I can’t say exactly where this question arose from. But that’s the nature of driving and listening to music — it can induce the kind of beta state where the soul has a chance to come out of one’s mouth in the form of words and questions.

This opened to a deep conversation as we wandered the aisles of Famous Footwear, Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and Whole Foods. A conversation about what makes each of us feel nurtured by the other, and how feeling loved and feeling nurtured are not always identical.

I think people who know me through my writing groups and social media presence feel that I am a deeply nurturing person. And one thing this outing with Mani got me reflecting on is that our interactions with others — be they in person or virtual — are only as genuine as the way we meet and care for those closest to us.

If I am gentler or more generous with people I’ve never even met in real life than the ones under my own roof, who am I?

It is admittedly cringe-inducing for me to honestly acknowledge just how often I don’t put my phone down or lower my laptop screen when my wife or kids are talking to me, or when I’m talking on the phone. Or how often my body is doing one thing but my mind is a million miles away in nowherelandia. I’m increasingly convinced that whatever anxiety or depression I experience has its roots in this place that is no place at all.

Operators are standing by.

Instead or cringing and being hard on myself, I’m trying something different. I’m calling my very own personal AAA 800-number: Kavanah, a Hebrew word meaning “intention” or “sincere feeling, direction of the heart.” It has everything to do with devotion and what gets our full attention.

Benefits of kavanah include acceptance, awareness, and action.  In fact, we all have instant access to this wonderful service: All you have to do is dial in and (your inner) operators are standing by. You were born with a lifetime membership guarantee, and best of all? It’s free (and no, you don’t have to be Jewish to call.)

Acceptance of myself as human. As flawed. As so very susceptible to distraction in its many guises. Acceptance of the inevitability of losing my way. Acceptance that I will stray off the path, stumble in the dark, and let some people down. Acceptance that I have blind spots, and by their very nature, I don’t know what these are.

Awareness of how it makes me and others feel when I’m not fully present. Awareness that my most sacred priorities and deepest values are only as good as my actions. Awareness is like the moment when you see the blind spot, stripping it of its power. The flood of visual or emotional information that may come with this moment can be temporarily overwhelming. Awareness that the overwhelm is temporary.

Action based on these discoveries. Action as a kind of return to self and other. Action is “put your money where your mouth is” and “actions speak louder than words.” Action is making my love a cup of tea, without her asking. It’s following through on the thing I said was so important. It’s listening, all the way. It’s one tab at a time. It’s one dish at a time. It’s one word at a time. It’s awake and evident.

Consider these words from the 12th century Spanish rabbi and philosopher, Maimonides. See what happens when you replace the word “prayer” with awareness, acceptance, and/or action.

“Prayer without kavanah is no prayer at all. He who has prayed without kavanah ought to pray once more. He whose thoughts are wandering or occupied with other things need not pray until he has recovered his mental composure.”

These three As coexist. They tumble through the space-time continuum that is individual consciousness. Sometimes one gets eclipsed by the rush of the day or lost, like a missing sock. But as I sit here writing this morning, what strikes me as miraculous is that we can always come back. Like the writing itself, each of these is a practice and requires commitment and repetition.

Practice, not perfection.

Acceptance is a practice. Awareness is a practice. Action is a practice. (I suppose it would follow that prayer is practice, too, if you like.)

This is the part where perfection tries to hijack the whole damn post. Here it is:

I’m so far from perfect. My life is far from perfect. I have no idea what “perfect” means. The mourning dove on the branch outside my kitchen window is perfect. This moment, for all I know, is perfect. I’m tempted to delete this whole paragraph, since I’m not sure how the stranglehold of perfection factors into this particular conversation. But for the sake of seeing what happens, I’m going to leave it here.

OK, here it is: Perfection ties right back in with that part about cringing. If I get stuck in shame — in other words, fuck, I suck for looking at my phone while Mani is talking to me or while one of my kids is asking me a question — then I’m really not even close to the AAAs. Hanging out in a place of guilt and shame is just another way of being self-absorbed and missing in action. This notion of getting it right as a fixed target has got to die.

It doesn’t feel good to live on autopilot. At some point, life throws cold water in your face and says: WHERE ARE YOU? WAKE UP!

I think it’s possible to experience this reawakening ten thousand times a day. For me, a key question is whether I can bring some gentleness to it. Going through the motions leaves me feeling like a shell of a person, with that vaguely empty feeling in bed at night: Where was I all day? Who was I all day?

Come Back.

As surely as the light of day comes with morning, we all have the face we put on for the world. More than anything, I want to be genuine. The thought of having a “persona” makes me want to go live in a cave. Being honest with myself — without the cringing — is the doorway I must come back to throughout the day.

I can’t control where things go, but I can be intentional about the direction my heart is facing and the orientation of my mind. That’s the bottom line. Come back, come back, come back. Be all the way here, wherever “here” happens to be at any given moment.

Accepting the complexity of this being alive thing, awareness that there are few things I control but taking responsibility for the ones I can, and acting accordingly — this is my kavanah.

What’s yours?