POP-UP MICROSTORY GROUP: June 4-8

The first pop-up group was so much fun, we’re doing it again!

POP-UP MICROSTORY WRITING GROUP

HOW WILL IT WORK?

By keeping it super simple. Permission granted to join with zero idea what you will write. To be literal or fantastical. To see here the pen takes you when the inner critics loosen their grip.

– Monday: We will begin with a simple phrase: “I finally knew.” Everyone will write for 10 minutes whenever it’s convenient, and share in a secret group.

– Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday: A new 10-minute freewrite, starting with the last sentence of the previous day’s writing.

– Friday: A closing freewrite beginning with the words: “Long story short.”

WHO SHOULD JOIN?

Anyone who wants to play with words and be part of a lively, supportive, safe atmosphere of writing without making a huge time commitment.

DATES:

June 4-8, 2018

COST:

Pay what you can. You heard me right. As a friend recently said to me about his own sliding scale policy, $10 is not too little, and $1,000 is not too much.

SIGN UP:

Sign up by sending whatever amount you choose via www.paypal.me/jenaschwartz

I’ll Bring the Pencils

I am the youngest of three sisters.

There is still a joke between us, about how I would knock on the door of one of their bedrooms when their friends were over. Let’s say I was 11 and they were 15 and 17, give or take a year. They’d be in there, hanging out, listening to music, and just generally being older than me and cooler than me no matter what they were actually doing.

I’d want desperately to be in the room with them, not taking up any room but just breathing the same (probably smoky) air. But I knew this wasn’t going to happen, so instead I’d stand there at the threshold of that untouchable teenage space. And I’d make up some reason for having knocked. The excuse I made I remember most clearly for my embarrassing longing was: Can I borrow a pencil?

That girl still lives inside of me, the one who is shy around the older girls, the real grown ones with boobs and boyfriends and cigarettes and jokes I don’t get. That girl still lives inside me, who doesn’t belong, who isn’t invited, who goes back to her own room feeling a little bit mad and a little bit sad and a lot lonely. She puts on one of her dozen David Bowie albums and flops across the mattress on the floor, wondering when she will be cool.

it’s no wonder a big part of my work in this world is to say: Come on in. Have a seat. Let’s hang out together. Let’s write and draw and listen to music and laugh and tell stories.

I’ll bring the pencils.

The Intersection of Jewishness + Whiteness


The discussion of the intersection of Jewishness and whiteness is one I’ve been having for decades in many different contexts, and I imagine it will continue to occupy my mind and heart for the rest of my life.

One thing that has never wavered is the acknowledgement and full recognition and naming of the fact that as a Jew, I can choose whether to conceal or reveal my Jewish identity, just as I can with my sexual orientation. I can gauge a situation, setting, vibe, etc. and determine how safe I feel. People of color of no such option. There is nothing to debate here.

So there is zero question, for me, about white privilege and that being first and foremost the fundamental issue our country is seeing the inevitable outcome of today — the fact that our (and I say OUR, as Americans) collective identity is rooted in genocide, slavery, and white supremacy in ways that continue to go unacknowledged and unchecked, with unquestionably devastating impact on people of color. Antisemitism is also alive and well and that, too, is woven into our country’s history.

Antisemitism is important to raise as a point of awareness and attention if you look at the language and beliefs of white supremacists and the history of a people that has endured and survived thousands of years of expulsions and genocides. As a people, these live not only in memory and history but in the lifetime of our grandparents, genocide at the hands of those whose vile beliefs have been kept alive and revived by the people we’re now seeing empowered to come out of hiding by the current political climate and “leaders.”

I cannot see and hear men — and women, mind you — with burning torches chanting “Jews will not replace us” without feeling alarmed and chilled.

Also imperative to note: NOT ALL JEWS ARE WHITE.

As a white, Jewish woman, do I benefit from the systems of oppression? Yes. Do I feel the need to protect myself as a Jew, as well? Yes. Do I feel the need to use the privilege I have as a white person to further the work of anti-racism? Also, yes — and not only as an individual need or choice but as an obligation and embodiment of living Jewish values. So many things are true at the same time, and personally, my Jewishness serves to strengthen my commitment to racial justice, not in any way diminish, dilute, or whitewash it.

My Jewish identity is inseparable for me from my voice as a writer, an activist, a mother, and an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement. This probably goes without saying, but feels important to articulate tonight.

As Rabbi Hillel said in the 1st century: “”If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”


One thing that keeps going through my head is that we have no leader. No single person to whom we can turn for reassurance or guidance or instructions or context. There’s no sitting around the radio, listening with heads bowed. No single steady voice. (Maybe this has never been the way and is simply a warped form of false nostalgia? Or actual nostalgia for #44.)

What we do have may be what we’ve always had: Communities large and small around the country, organizing. The voices of those who’ve been talking, writing, studying, facilitating, and educating about racism for decades, standing on the shoulders of the ones before them.

And there is us. Us includes you. We all have to step into leadership here, in whatever ways we can. What this looks in our real lives is something those of us who have any semblance of privilege need to be addressing. Don’t think big. Think concrete. Think today. Think one thing at a time.

I know many of you have been doing this your whole lives. Many of you have devoted your careers to this work and risked your livelihoods, relationships, and bodies every singe day by speaking out. For many Americans, every single day is an act of resistance, just leaving the house. Thank you. I see you and my respect runs deep.

I’m addressing those of us who have looked to someone else to do it. Now would be a good time to be that someone else — yourself.

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

No Mud, No Lotus

Our conversations start out at the counter, where we order drinks. Something inevitably comes out that lends itself to a language lesson… this time, it was “lemonade.” Luping is determined to order something different each week, and she decided to try one of the fancy-schmancy Starbucks iced teas.

Peach or mango? White or black or green? And last but not least, what is lemonade? I asked her if she knew what a lemon was, making a sour face. Yes, she nodded enthusiastically. Add water and sugar — a lot of sugar, the cashier added — and you get lemonade. Ah! Understood. Mango black tea lemonade ordered.

Our conversations zig-zag all over the place. I don’t know who delights more in it, and perhaps part of the pleasure of this weekly hour is that the enjoyment is so mutual. At one point — and honestly, I’d have to take notes to remember how things like this come up — I was trying to describe cilantro to her, without cheating and looking up the Chinese character on Google. A college student who was sitting one table over and getting up to gather her things chimed in.

“Hey! I think I know that! I have had exactly this same conversation!”

“About how to say ‘cilantro’ in Chinese?” I asked, a little incredulously.

“Yeah, I tutor grad students at UMass and one of them is from China. We were just talking about cilantro the other day.” What were the odds? I told her that’s what we were doing. She asked if it was through UMass and I said no, through the Jones Library Volunteer Program. She was friendly and just on this side of pushy.

“You should look into getting a tutor through UMass,” she said to Luping. “Depending on your TOEFL scores, it’s free.”

Luping looked slightly unclear and I repeated what the student had told her. Then she gestured in my direction and said, “But I like her!” At that, all three of us laughed and the young woman left. Luping and I continued our conversation, meandering this and that way. We wound up talking about her village in China, which she told me has been ranked the second prettiest town in the entire country. It is surrounded by small rivers and every single family has a field for growing vegetables.

In the mornings, people boat over to their field to pick vegetables for that day. “Your green peppers,” she told me, “they are very big. But they have no flavor.”

Her parents both work in the hospital and don’t have time to go to the field each morning, so when she lived at home, she would wake up in the morning and find a basket filled with vegetables by the door, not knowing which relative or neighbor had picked extra and left it for her family.

Nearby, there is another town known for its wildflowers and stands of bamboo. We talk about bamboo, and how it is a symbol of integrity and uprightness. To be compared to bamboo is to possess desirable character traits. She says many lotus flowers also grow in the rivers near the fields around her town, which look like tiny islands from above. I ask her if the lotus has much symbolism in China, as it does here in the States. I try to think of the famous Confucius saying about the lotus growing in the mud.

“Oh, yes!” she exclaims. I get out my phone. According to one source, Confucius wrote: “I have a love for the Lotus, while growing in mud it still remains unstained.”

No mud, no lotus. Best. Metaphor. Ever.

But rivers filled with lotus blossoms and summer days that begin by boating to one’s field to pick fresh vegetables? At this point, I am downright romanticizing Luping’s hometown. I’m picturing the aisles of the grocery store — even the ones featuring expensive, brightly colored, organic produce — and lamenting how automated and distant from the land my life is. Sure, I live in a valley surrounded by farms, but my daily existence doesn’t involve paddling a boat or hands in the dirt.

Meanwhile, Luping tells me about the edible lotus seeds and I suggest that she come over to our place someday for tea. “It’s close by?” She asks. I nod and pull the little notebook she keeps out between us for notes to my side of the table so that I can draw a little map.

From Starbucks, one block south, a few blocks west… then I draw her a little diagram of our apartment: Kitchen, living room, three bedrooms, bathroom. “Your house. It’s so big!” I think about the other houses on our street — the old Victorians that dwarf our old yellow farmhouse, which has been divided into two apartments. I wonder how big her house is and make a mental note to ask about this next week.

As our hour comes to a close — I glance at my phone and see that we’ve actually gone over, she looks at me with a more serious expression. “When I am talking with you,” she says, searching for the words, “when I talk with you, I don’t just learn English. I learn about living. You have so much freedom here.”

“What kind of freedom?” I ask.

“Freedom to live the way you want. You can walk to the town from your house and make your work the way you like it.” She knows I am self-employed, and I am always trying to stress that in America, there are so, so many ways of life, and some, if not much, of how one lives life is based on class, education, and other factors. I try to talk about privilege, and find that as a concept, it doesn’t translate easily.

“In China,” she continues, “we go to the university, then we must get a job to support our family and our parents some day when they are old. If you are woman, you will have to go live with your child when they have their own children.”

She sounds wistful. She plans to go back to China next spring. I’ve seen photos of her brand new baby niece, whose precious beauty nearly knocked me off my chair. Her mother will soon go live with her brother — not temporarily, but full-time, forever. She will leave her job as a nurse at the hospital and live a few hours away even from her husband, Luping’s father. Luping basically knows what her future holds. Do I?

So there we were, after another hour of cross-cultural conversation, admiring and perhaps idealizing each other’s cultures. Facebook and Google are both illegal in China. Most Americans don’t know where their tasteless green peppers grew.

I would like to travel to Luping’s village someday, to see the wildflowers and the lotus blossoms and the boats and the bamboo, which is cool to walk amidst on hot summer days. I would like to get up before sunrise to row out to the fields. I would like to see the world and I’d like to share these experiences with my children, too.

I can’t say with any certainty whether these things will ever happen. But for now, I am grateful to have a window into someone else’s world, while offering a glimpse, through language and friendship, into mine. Like two cardinals flashing red on different branches of the same tree, we sit and chirp away. What is mud, what is lotus blossom? Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to see which is which.