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.

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)

The Art of Becoming a Boring Writer (and Embracing It)

No, thanks. I'm good.

No, thanks. I’m good.

There was a time when I feared that without drama, I might become a boring writer.

I’ve since concluded that this is a risk I’m more than willing to take. Everyday life offers me endless material, with so much less angst and ache. In fact, we make a pretty good team. In fact, when I’m no longer oriented towards the next shoe dropping or the next big drama, writing requires a new kind of courage and creativity.

It’s the creativity to recognize that everyday life is teeming with writing-worthy moments. And it’s the courage to show up not only when everything’s chaotic, not only when I’m in a place of unrest or searching or heightened emotion or shifting ground, but from inside of everyday life, against a backdrop and in the context of extraordinary conditions. Because for better or for worse, the world is not short on extraordinary conditions.

Everyday life is, of course, all we ever get. It’s where we all live.

It’s where the trash can and the kitchen sink both and the laundry basket fill up, no matter how many times you empty them. It’s where you get things stuck between your teeth, break your phone screen, and change the cat litter. Everyday life is where you oversleep, see a cardinal in the bare tree outside your kitchen window, and forget to change the calendar on the first of the month.

Isn’t it amazing to stop and realize we all live in the same place, in this way?

As I’m writing this, it’s occurring to me that everyday life and drama may be inseparable, in that being human is pretty damn dramatic, no matter how you slice it. The whole having-a-body thing, being-in-relationship thing, and making-a-difference thing? Dude.

When I look at it this way, that is plenty o’ drama for me. Throw in politics that make your head spin, cost of living, and ever-changing dynamics with self, partner, kids, family members, friends, and colleagues, and let’s just say we’ve all got our hands full.

Maybe this is where the idea of “creating” drama comes in. There’s the complexity of everyday life, already plenty to contend with, and then there are the everyday choices we each make about where to place our attention, our energy, and our time. This is where we — ahem, I — can get derailed. But knowing this, and practicing an alternate way of responding to things as they come up, I see more and more that “drama” is often unnecessary and avoidable.

How do I tell the difference between everyday life and “unnecessary drama”?

The body, baby.

Everyday life involved a mish-mash of ease and stress, routines and detours, plans and surprises. Navigating these when I’m not creating “extra” drama generally means I can maintain some composure, think clearly, make decisions with some degree of confidence, speak up for myself, experience compassion, identify sources of frustration or anger, and ask for help without shame. Mind you, it’s a rare day that all of this happens without a hitch. Come to think of it, I may yet to have experienced a 24-hour period where all of this went down without a snafu or three. But hey man, ideals are useful and give us something to practice and a place to return to when we get lost in patterns that no longer serve.

Patterns that no longer serve live in the body, and that’s where drama originates, too. My body isn’t trying to create drama; it’s just reacting in the way I’ve trained it to.  I’m betting that you have at least one person in your life whose presence has historically caused your blood pressure to go up — and not in a good way. Let’s say this person’s name popping up — in a text or message — is enough to make your heart race (and not in a good way). This is drama — but it’s not your “fault.” It’s a learned response, one your body came up with to protect you.

The only drama now is in how to choose to respond. Maybe responding at all is not in your best interest, or choosing as neutral and direct a route as possible is how you can keep your presence of mind and heart intact, rather than letting outside forces drive you into a dust storm of blinding emotional proportions.

Sound vague? That’s because drama, for all of its love of every last detail — often is, at its core, just that. Vague in the sense that if you stopped me in the middle of a class-act rant and asked me what this was really about, I might not be able to give you a specific answer. I am too busy handing over to someone who doesn’t deserve it a big platter of my power.

When there was a lot of drama in my life — in the throes of coming out, ending a decade-long marriage, navigating a new love long-distance, losing one job and finding another, moving, and moving through a scary period related to my wife’s health — there was no shortage of writing material. In fact, coming out alone could have been swan song.

But.

I do not live in these places, nor do I want to be defined by them.

I do not want to recycle my stories or fear that without extreme, usually difficult, conditions, my writing will suffer. This way of relating to drama is not all that different from any other form of addiction and the stories we tell about ourselves.

Try it out for yourself. Has this ever been true for you? “I can’t write without ___________.” Fill in the blank: Smoking on my back porch. A glass of whiskey with a single ice-cube. A broken heart. A betrayal. A burning question you will never, ever find the answer to.

Leaving drama-laden life behind and opting to become a boring writer doesn’t make you a boring person. If you are returning to more dramatic periods of your life, you’ll be able to see and write about them with a different kind of clarity from a distance. And if you’re looking for new subjects and stories and open to what’s really happening, within and all around you — you will never, ever have a shortage of material.

“How Can I Help You” and Other Three-Dimensional Questions

i-in3cvejg-evan-dennis-2

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
— Lilla Watson

My first year at Barnard, I was part of a tutoring program where we went into public schools each week. It was called Students Helping Students. I loved doing it and can still picture sitting on the floor in a hallway, quietly cheering as a kindergartener made his way through “Are You My Mother?”

I also see now that it was White Students Feeling Good About Themselves by Helping Kids of Color in Underfunded Schools. Both of these are true, because truth is never one-dimensional. And I am still unlearning aspects of my amazing education, and educating myself about how not to be just another nice white lady.

But I have always remembered the name. And for as much as I’ve changed and hold myself to waking up, some things really are threads. The seeds of being of use, of using my skills to connect with other people — those are still here, in the form of women helping women and writers helping writes and humans being good to each other.

Questions of what I want feel short-sighted, and as always, I need to find that place where “what I want” intersects with “what do you — what does the world — need?” It’s a strange interplay, because needs are often most powerfully met by making an offering of some kind, the truest one you have, rather than taking a poll first and then scrambling to see what you can give. In other words, there has to be a balance, a meeting place, between self and world. Service and need. You and me. I and thou — minus the holier-than-thou crap.

This week, I finally dove into working on a manuscript of poems. It will be my third collection, and I’ve felt it swirling around for months now, a wispy suggestion to start that I couldn’t quite grasp. I don’t know what clicked — maybe it was writing a poem a day for a month. Or the urgency to connect, and this being one of my ways.

It’s too easy to write in generalizations. To write about bodies, to write about color, to write about religion. To use words like “justice” and “equality” and “safety” that must withstand so much battering. I fail when I attempt to write about these words. But I can assemble a book of poems. I can say, come in, sit down, and write what’s true for you. I can and will continue to ask what makes you happy, what brings you joy, what frightens you most. Where is your conviction?

I’m sitting here at my kitchen table, as I so often am when I come here to write. I’m sitting here being white. I’m sitting here being Jewish and gay and female and short and big and small at the same damn time. On my run this morning, I thought about all the times in my life I’ve had to remember how to dream, because dreaming got drowned out by the competition and walked not through but right into the doorway.

I do this, you know that by now, right? I sit down and start typing (actually, I sat down and started this hours ago), and just connect the dots and usually have no idea where I’m going. This is no different. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know where our country is going, though all I have to do is be awake to see that this is not a difficult one to guess. It’s going exactly like this.

It’s more polarized than ever, and all the movies about good and evil, about light and dark, have come true. Life imitates art and art imitates life until there is not point in distinguishing the two. Reality TV is politics and politics is the usual and not becoming jaded requires fierce strength, which we might enjoy momentarily but no one can sustain for long alone.

Which is why we need each other. Today, a coaching call. I heard: “Stuck, frustrated, embarrassed, want to help, white, privileged.” These were words that came up again and again. And we talked about how to be present and keep moving forward, rather than spiraling into stagnation, which is about as self-focused as it gets. We talked about showing up, as a learner, as an observer, and what it means to know you get to trust yourself.

“How can I help you?” takes on a whole new dimension of importance, and the answers are not always clear, nor is that always the best question. So be patient — and remember that this fight, like truth, like life, is three-dimensional. It’s happening in real time, and it’s not about feeling good or meeting our own needs, but about our liberation being bound up in each other.

Courage and heart and risking sounding like we don’t know what we’re doing, because sometimes we don’t, and the only way to start getting clear and making any kind of impact is to stumble through. Not one of us is some kind of savior, but uprisings happen when enough individuals refuse to play by the rules, especially when the rules are a sick and twisted distortion of reality, revisionism, and willful ignorance.

As a writer right now, it’s easy to feel pretty deflated. But to give up my voice that easily would be a betrayal to everything I care about. It may or may not matter, but I will keep offering my words. I will keep being as kind a human as I can, and as awake a white person as I can (though I will not use the word “woke,” as it does not feel like mine to use).

And I will assemble this next collection of poems, as an offering from my heart to yours, because it’s one of the only things I know how to do for sure.

27/30 Poems in November: Truth

day-6Kitchen-table revelation
we can change our minds
we can change our thoughts
we can get up
and turn down the heat
when the room gets too hot.
Truth is kitchen-sink
everything but that.
Truth is mad smacking
can’t change the world
just like that
one little voice
in the clanking universe.
Truth is forehead-smacking
honest inquiry
arm’s length and speak
your mind girl.
Truth is big love
and the empty sink
means nobody is eating.
Truth is kitchen table
strewn with papers
not one of them
life changing.
Truth is smack-dab
in the middle of chanting
some one-syllable name
for God you were gob-smacked
by your own foolish heart
and saw that it was time
to stop blaming yourself
for everything
that didn’t go as planned.
Truth is
you didn’t think
ahead
for once were in the moment
and in the moment
you knew what you wanted
needed and you asked
and received
and how we live
with the consequences
of cowardice and courage
may weigh the same
on the kitchen scale
and the karmic scale
and the scale that weighs
hearts and bones
and doesn’t judge.
Truth is kitchen trash
can overflowing
so cinch up the bag
and take it to the bins
in the garage,
take it to the landfill
take it to the streets
take it to heart
when you made up
your story
and declared it to be
true.

27/30

**

Q: What is #30poemsinnovember?

A: A literary fundraiser for Center for New Americans in Northampton, MA.

The Center for New Americans welcomes and serves immigrants in Western Massachusetts with free English classes and a range of support services. Participating poets aim to raise $30,000 over the course of the month.

Writers do their part by writing one poem each day in November. Friends and family do their part by donating to support this effort. Powerful new poems and financial contributions translate to community support for immigrants.

I’m just $140 away from $500. Help me reach my goal.