Necessity Is the Mother of Invention

“When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back.”~ Paulo Coelho

I’ve noticed something. The more time I spend online, the less I remember what it fully feels like to be me. And when I do have a spell of time away from the computer and less plugged into the apps on my phone, something shifts internally. It’s a shift you can’t really put into words, kind of the way someone could explain swimming to you but until that moment where it’s your body moving through water, it will only be a concept, divorced from experience.

I’ve noticed something else. I have created a monumental story in my head about the time I spend online. The biggest, most dire of the plot lines is this: If I spend less time online, I won’t earn a living.

Let me explain.

I led my first online writing group in December, 2014. Not three months after marrying my beautiful wife, her health had begun to unravel, slowly and mysteriously at first, and then rapidly and at such a precipitous pitch that it felt like we were sliding right out of our lives, the lives we had really just begun together. Nothing was what we’d expected. I had a full-time job at a local college, but with Mani’s ability to work quickly eroding, my income became barely sufficient to carry the four of us. Winter solstice was approaching; it was dark when I left for work in the morning and dark when I got home. I was lonely and scared. She was playing private investigator to her own deterioration, eventually self-diagnosing (accurately).

It was in this context that I wrote my very first 10 prompts and opened the doors to a secret Facebook group for 12 people. Some I knew already, others had found me through mutual friends or old-fashioned serendipity. What happened during those two weeks I could never had predicted. We wrote like crazy. For 10 minutes a day, we put pens to paper or let fingers fly over keys. It was terrifying and exhilarating and liberating to just write after a long dry spell without words, without expectation, without judgment (from others, at least). In the safety of this container, stories poured out.

The resulting writing was funny, heartbreaking, surprising, wise, ridiculous, wry, and real. The writing was not a means to an end. It was simply itself. Nobody had to perform or compare or compete for airtime or worry about who was better (though oh, how we do).

It was, in a word, magic.

So I did it again. Another 10 prompts, another two weeks, another 12 folks — many returning, many new. And again. And again! It was thrilling. I had no idea what I was “doing.” All I knew was that I loved it, it came naturally to me, it felt effortless and like the thing that threaded together the strands I’d been trying to combine for decades: Writing, connecting, coaching, creating, and community building.

By May, I was leading two groups at a time. By May, I was squirreling away money in a PayPal account. By May, I was planning my first in-person retreat for June.

And by May, we were reaching a crisis point.

She was living on water and white rice. She could no longer tolerate any other foods. And she had developed neuropathy in her feet and lower legs so severe that she barely slept, cried in pain at a feather touch, and listened to Jon Kabat-Zinn meditations on chronic pain literally on loop. We had been to a dozen specialists, and not even her immunologist who was familiar with her rare disease — Mast Cell Activation Disorder — knew what was happening. We wound up at the ER several times, but she didn’t go on pain medication since we didn’t know if she’d react to it.

I went on unpaid medical leave from my job as it became clear that I needed to be home full-time. Mani could barely stand to walk to the bathroom, much less cook or drive or do anything for herself.

By the time I led my first Unfurl retreat, the people in my writing groups had become not only a creative community but a support network that seemed to appear as if on some kind of crazy cosmic schedule. We fell into each other in the best sense, spending a weekend freewriting and sharing, alternating between cathartic laughter and cathartic tears, and consuming copious amounts of chocolate. Within days after that, Mani and I were checking into the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. I extended my medical leave from six to 12 weeks. Friends — many of whom I’d only met in the previous months through my writing groups — donated money and meals alike. The generosity was breathtaking.

This was never about building a business for me. This was about survival. This was about need. This was about love and devotion and fear and not knowing what to do but doing it anyway because what is the alternative? This was not about “being brave” or “taking a leap of faith” or 10 steps to following your dreams or how to quit your day job in six months flat. This was about learning to ask for help and just taking the fucking donuts.

It was all and none of those things. It was real life unfolding in ways that threw both of us into roles we never imagined and frankly, didn’t favor. Contrary to what many might assume, being nurturing — as opposed to being nurtured — triggered all kinds of stuff for me that I had no choice but to confront. And for her, being so dependent was about as identity-stripping as things could get. We were both in limbo, holding on to each other for dear life and determined to get through.

My leave from work came to a close and I gave my official notice. Going back was not an option; Mani was taking heavy-duty pain medication and her climb back to health would be steady, but long and slow and steep.

Two years later, here we are. The wheelchair she needed at one point to even leave the house for a short trip to Target sits getting dusty in the garage. She is up to nearly 30 foods and beverages and adding more every week. We just got back from a long weekend, where I co-taught a writing + art workshop Saturday morning. We go to Kirtan on Tuesday nights and read books together and say “I love you.” A lot.

My writing groups continue to fill up and have evolved into a variety of offerings, from quarterly intensives to poetry workshops. I have coaching clients again for the first time since I closed the doors on that work seven years ago, and I love my clients so much I can’t stand it. I pinch myself every day. I keep experimenting and growing. Some things fly and others flop.

And. I worry.

Maybe this just comes with the territory. In many ways, we take ourselves with us (as Kabat-Zinn writes, “Wherever you go, there you are”). I worried about money when I had a full-time job with a predictable monthly paycheck. Now I worry other things:

What if this is the month when everything just… ends? What if this is the month when everything just… ends? (This one is on repeat.)
Then we will figure it out, Mani reminds me.

What if people decide they are bored with me?
This is not about me entertaining people or being liked, I remind myself.

This is about genuine connection, safe space, and room to enter or re-enter writing practice and a creative process — something I know many of us don’t make time for. Or if we do, it’s under such relentless and vicious attack by self-criticism and perfectionism that we’re lucky to write three sentences before we erase or edit the life out of the rest.

In other words, it’s out of my hands.

Facebook can be such a mindfuck, like a hall of mirrors that meets a high-school reunion. It can also be a miracle. I love it. And I feel beholden to it. I’m trying to find my way with this and for the first time — maybe this is a gesture of trust — I am writing about it. After all, writing is how I find my way. It always has been and now is no different.

There is a proliferation of writing groups out there. I cannot and will not get sucked under a dark current of competition. I don’t want to and it feels awful and I’d sooner throw in the towel altogether. But that doesn’t mean I’m not susceptible to it, especially on days of self-doubt.

At the end of my groups, after a few days to collect our words, the space goes *poof*. I’ve done it this way from the very beginning. It was an intuitive decision that has continued to feel right; the energy of the words and connections like soap from inside a bubble, like sand from a mandala, go out into the world, though their forms will never again be the same. Impermanence is not an accident; it is a fundamental component of practice.

Impermanence is all we have for sure. In this work, in this life, in our writing, in our relationships, in our health, in our friendships, in our communities. That doesn’t mean there aren’t real, lasting things. In fact, I think it’s the opposite: Impermanence deepens my awareness and appreciation of just how precious these are. It has also helped me through some of the hardest and darkest times in my life.

I love what I do for work. I love that I have learned that I am capable of so much more than I ever imagined. And every time I can catch myself in the worry, I take a breath, acknowledge it, and say a thousand thank yous. In this moment, we are ok. In this moment, my wife is next to me adding more books to her library holds. In this moment, the right people will find me and choose to write and practice with me. In this moment, I get to be here. If we could get through the past few years intact, we can get through anything.

I want my work to continue to grow in ways I can’t necessarily yet envision fully. All I know for sure is that I want to keep connecting with people in ways that are real and deep, in ways that heal and don’t harm, in ways that foster community rather than divisiveness.

As I come to a slowing-down point for an outpouring of words I didn’t see coming this evening, I realize that this isn’t really about how much time I spend online. It’s about integrity and authenticity and continuing to live and work in ways that feel deeply real and genuine.  These happen both online and off; it’s the intention that matters.

Lately one of the things that is calling my soul is the desire for more unplugged, unstructured time. That’s why my next group is not a writing group per se, but a group where each day for two weeks, we’ll practice different ways of not doing. We start a week from today.

If spending a minimum of 15 minutes a day doing things like sitting on a bench, lying on the floor, listening to music, and eating mindfully make something in your soul stir a little, please join me. Our secret group will be a place to share our discoveries, experiences, surprises, and struggles.

Feast On Your Life
June 5-16 :: Register Now

We are all in this alone, but I am so, so thankful that we also get to be in it together.

* * * * *

Other Upcoming Groups

Dive Into Poetry
July 1-30 :: Register

Jewels on the Crown (Summer Session)
July 3-September 22 :: Register

The Unspeakables
July 10-21 :: Register

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.

To the Lighthouse

lighthouse
It started with Airbnb. We looked in Maine, in New Hampshire, in Massachusetts, and in Rhode Island. We looked in Brooklyn and Manhattan and Boston. We ooohed and aaahed over gorgeous whole houses we can’t afford, and read for fine print about pets and shared spaces. Finally, we found the one: A simple little house near a cove, in a fishing village known for its art and quarries and creativity and kindness and lighthouses. Three nights away, next week, just me and my love.

Big deal, you say? Why yes, it is a big deal. Six months ago, our Valentine’s Day getaway to The Porches Inn in Williamstown, MA left us positively giddy. We had such a wonderful time at Mass MoCA the next day, and felt like a million dollars having gotten out of dodge for the first time in almost 18 months, not counting hospital visits like this one. At the time, Mani was able to bring Ensure with us, so we didn’t have to worry about what she would eat.

You know how some foods, or even songs or shows or books, will forever remind you of being sick? Whether you had a flu or a serious or chronic illness, you might never want to see another bowl of red jello or rice cereal again. Well, that’s how Ensure is for Mani, I think; it saved her life and we are forever grateful for its calories and nourishment. But a few months ago, she started reacting to it, and now it’s off the table.

As we’re able to start getting out more, little by little — the kind of little by little that in a moment will become all of a sudden, a pattern so many things in life follow — the food thing is a bit tricky right now. But is that going to stop us? Give me a hell, no. We just can’t do hotels for the time being, or day trips. What we can do is rent a place with a kitchen, bring our pots and pans and coffeemaker and air purifier, find a grocery store when we get there, and set up shop. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do next Monday night until Thursday.

We looked at the calendar a few days ago and realized that next week is the ONLY week in the coming months when I will not have multiple writing groups going on. So many exciting things are coming up — both my own groups, two of which begin in August and a third in September (One Story: Ten FacetsWorrier to Warrior, and On the Corner: Writing at the Intersections), and the fantastic two-week writing groups I’ll be co-creating and co-facilitating each month this fall with my wonderful partner over at The Inky Path.

So I had a come-to-Jesus moment (are Jews allowed to have those?) when I realized that if I’m going to keep loving this work, and I really, really want to keep loving it — I need a break. Not a 24-hour break like Shabbat, but something away from home, with just myself and my wife and maybe a book or three. I almost never unplug, and my nervous system is feeling the effects of this. The whole “Physician, heal thyself” adage is so, so true; if I don’t cherish, protect, and nurture my own creativity, how on earth can I support others on their writing journeys?

I’ve been a bit jumpy lately, enough so that I’ve actually started writing about it in my head. Flashes of moments when I was nervous or anxious or scared from many different ages and stages of life, illuminated as if by heat lightning in a summer storm and just as quickly dark again. It’s as if my body is remembering something, or perhaps sending me a message: It doesn’t have to be this way. You are safe. Everything really is ok and will continue to be ok. You swam through scary moments and made it across. There’s enough money to pay the bills, so much love I have a surplus, and I can run and sing and swim and make love and form complete sentences and eat stale cheerios as a late-night snack and life is good. It is.

And.

There is more: I am risking burnout.

There’s a bit of pride swallowing in sharing this, but that’s exactly why I am writing it here (this I realize literally as I type the words). Or if not pride, fear perhaps — if I am not superwoman, will people still want to be in my writing groups? If I am not the energizer bunny, will people still want me to be their coach?

Oh, Jena. Really?

I know the answer, I do. But it’s still vulnerable, as if I’m “admitting” something by saying I am depleted at all. It’s like I’m afraid people — you — will somehow take it personally. Again, though, I write the words down and they stare back at me with a different message, and suddenly something like a cackle kicks up. It starts low then becomes howling laughter: You think it will matter if you disappear from Facebook and the internets for a few days? HAHAHAHAHAHA.

OK, OK. I get it. I get it! It’s completely ridiculous. Nobody thinks I’m superwoman! I’m the only one carrying that shit around, and newsflash: it’s bunk.

Tomorrow, four women will show up in Amherst to Unfurl for the weekend. Pearl went around with me doing some last-minute errands. A mason jar with newly sharpened colored pencils sits on the windowsill; a giant bag of M&Ms and a stack of inspiring writing books wait by the door. I will show up tomorrow as my whole self, my real self, my honest self. Not with a fake smile, not with a false front, and not with a sugarcoated story. I will write alongside the others as the timer counts down, about what we want, about trust and deep inner wisdom. I will eat heartily and laugh and oh! I just remembered I forgot to buy tissues. Note to self: Buy tissues.

And then on Monday, Mani and I will pack our bags and drive east to the ocean, to fill our noses with salt air. I’ve forgotten a bit what it’s like, to just be me — without kids, without interacting, without engaging with the world through screens big and small.

Nothing will fall apart if I do this; in fact, things may come together in beautiful, unanticipated ways. So I am going to go away with my love, to take pictures of lighthouses — and to remember that my own light will be brighter for the “going dark.”

What I Mean When I Say “Big Love”

9-fried-potatoesI was frying potatoes.
Contemplating the meaning of life.
For real, I am not making this up.
Feeling small. Ponderous.
What is my message?
What is my purpose?

And then I stirred the potatoes.
They were dinner for my wife
who can eat 14 things now,
including water and salt
and sugar and coffee,
rice and chicken
and oats and organic Gala apples
and blueberries, boiled,
and whole milk and best of all
butter. Also seltzer and Pom juice,
her new elixir of choice.

And I remember when it was only rice
and Coke
and she was losing weight and scaring
us both and everyone else
and someone asked if she was dying
and I went crazy in my head
at the question, which I knew was
not unreasonable given her rapid
precipitous decline but still could not
hear, could not accept, could not bear
when everything in me was existing
to keep her here and help her live.

So frying potatoes, you see,
really did have me contemplating
the meaning of life, and the meaning
of survival, the meaning of joy,
the meaning of thriving, the meaning
of healing, the meaning of marriage,
the purpose of loving, the message
of resilience, of learning how to give
and of learning how to receive,
of being forced so far out
of our comfortable roles
that we both had to grow
into bigger, more complete humans.

And in the growing, so much became
available — poems and dreams
and going all the way into the dark
that we wouldn’t let claim us
and seeing each other
there, eyes lit by eyes
and hearts by hearts
and knowing
that to be given another chance
is nothing to sneeze at or spit at,
nothing to miss even a minute of
to self-pity or regret or doubt
or envy. We get to be here.

That’s it. That’s my purpose.
That’s my message.
We get to be here.
And if it’s not working for you,
change something.
Because you can.
Always.

Already Rocking This (ART)

ART
I get annoyed at the pressure to produce. At the emphasis on being good. It’s no coincidence I’ve built my livelihood around this interest on process and practice.

As a kid, I thought being really interested in something — not to mention being good at it — meant eventually getting a Ph.D. I don’t think I knew then what a Ph.D. actually was, what it entailed, what it meant at all really. I just knew it’s what my dad had. And he was really smart. And I was really smart. So a Ph.D. seemed like a given.

Later, things got confusing. There were other degrees to consider. Who knows what they even were or might have been. International Relations? Rabbinical School? Fellowships? What’s a fellowship? I remember asking the dean who suggested I apply for one, or three. (I didn’t.)

To be passionate about something meant school. Meant degrees, letters after one’s name, and surely many years of study. It took me so very long to see, that to be a devotee of practice is something, too. Something that counts.

This morning, I went for a 20-minute run with my friend, Susa Talan. Susa and I have known each other for 30 years. She is an artist as I am a writer; that is, we are each dedicated to showing up in our own ways. The world screams: Make money! Be the best! Oh my god, “be the best” makes me want to scream.

“It’s not a competition, it’s a doorway.” ― Mary Oliver

As we stood at the end of the driveway after our run, Susa told me about a rat study about addiction. A lone rat in a cage with two dispensers, one filled with water and the other with liquid heroin. Sad little guy drained the heroin dispenser — all the way until he died.

A second cage, filled with rats. Something akin to rattopia, replete with rat toys, rat fun, and rat games. A real, bona fide rat community. And also, the same two dispensers — one with water, one with heroin.

The rats drank the water and had a blast.

In my old job, on my lunch hour, I would leave the office and traipse across the soccer field to the trails that snaked through the woods. I’d walk a while, breathing in the earth smell and looking at the trees, bare in winter or full leafy green in summer or somewhere between, dying or being born.

More than once, I’d experience the sensation of being an animal who’d gone into the woods to die alone. I’d sit down on a log or against a tree trunk, smoke a couple of cloves, one after another, and maybe edit pictures on my phone or just play Candy Crush. Sometimes I’d write. I even wrote some pretty good poems, out there in the woods where I died day after day, alone. A rat with her heroin, sort of.

The truth is, connection and community keep us – keep me — alive. My wife’s here next to me, at my side, with an illness that has impacted almost all of the old ways of being social and in the world; we cannot go play pool or catch a movie or walk to town on a warm evening or have a meal with friends.

So what do we do now, now that we’ve chosen not to kill ourselves completely? Now that we’re nearing nine months since either of us lit up? Now that we’re here, in the middle of the middle of the middle? We could rage against the conditions. We could isolate. I could go all woe-is-me and wah-wah-wah; some days I do. That’s cool — to a degree.

And, there’s an “and.”

We write. We draw. We snuggle and savor. We watch Downton Abbey. We spend money on beautiful things that bring us joy. We laugh about stupid shit and we watch bulldog videos on Instagram. We just got a new book to read together. We talk to our kids. We watch for hawks. She is taking an online drawing class, though I swear she was born knowing how. I hold space for others to show up, where we can meet and practice without having to have any particular background or degrees.

In short, we feel our way, reminding each other — and slowly, slowly, also coming to believe it ourselves, from the inside out — that we’re already more than enough.  As are you.

Maybe the only letters we need after our names are A.R.T. They could stand for Already Rocking This.

Shabbat Shalom.