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.

We Have to Learn the Whole Script, Not Just Our Own Lines

Photo: Allef Vinicius

Saturday, 4:30pm

The indoor soccer stadium is teeming with movement and noise. Boys’ and girls’ teams of various ages on multiple fields — from fifth grade on up through high school. On my right, two girls climb on the underside of the stands, their dreads flying beneath them as they dangle from the crooked slats. My youngest, Pearl, has a game at 5:00. It’s the first time I’ve ever brought my computer here to write while her team — the Amherst Hurricanes — practices.

Today, she yielded to my suggestion of wearing long underwear beneath her soccer shorts; after all, the wind chill is well below zero. But the moment we got here, she bee-lined to go change. Since Pearl presents as male and prefers to use the men’s bathroom, I stood sentry near the door, far enough away not to crowd her but close enough to sate my inner mama bear.

I love watching these kids play; they’ve got the teamwork thing down — their pats on the back and fist bumps after near misses, successful blocks, and, of course, goals all make me melt a little.

She’d probably die that I wrote that, and full disclosure, hormones make me even mushier than usual, which is already on the high side. But I really am a sucker for the friendship thing.

This weekend, Aviva took the train with her cousin — they are three months apart and we’ve called them the Bobsy Twins for the entirety of their 14+ years on the planet together — to NYC to visit a posse of summer camp friends. They planned meticulously; in addition to saving money for the trip, part of the “yes” on behalf of all of the parental units was that they take charge of the logistics (rules for unaccompanied minors and a detailed plan for the weekend itself, from phone numbers to sleeping arrangements).

Needless to say, I got a little teary at the photo of them standing on the Amtrak platform, on their way not only to the City but clearly to the Rest of Their Lives, too.

Pearl and I attempted to brave the cold this morning with a new frisbee, but the wind forced us to toss it back and forth under some bleachers at the Amherst College lacrosse fields — not ideal. We threw in the towel after 10 minutes or so, opting instead of hot chocolate at home. The fact that she wants to spend time with me feels like this thing that could go *poof* at any minute. And since there’s no way for me to know when that will be, I’m inclined to say sure, let’s play frisbee even though it’s colder than a witch’s tit out there (OMG don’t you love that expression?).

I did glance ever so briefly at Facebook this morning. I saw headlines and stories that made my blood run cold: A rally in Maricopa County — Phoenix — where pro-Trump folks called for “liberal genocide” and the deportation of Jews. A move that can only be called a purge of the Justice Department. An interview with Nigerian feminist author and activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in which she states that experiences of trans women shouldn’t be conflated with those of [cis] “women.”

Then I closed the computer and said to Mani, “Who do we think is going to save us from this?”

This is why I take one day a week “off” — mostly, somewhat — from interacting online. This is why we do Shabbat.

Shabbat saves me.

Sunday, 7:30am

The birdsong conceals these temperatures; you’d think it was a balmy 60-degree morning by their exuberant greetings. Daylight Savings Time means moving slowly this morning. With Aviva still in New York and Pearl having had a sleepover, the house is otherwise quiet.

This weekend was Purim. It falls among the nine-word Jewish holidays and festivals: They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat.

In this case, it was Haman, leader of Persia, who plotted to destroy the Jewish People. The hero in this story is in fact a heroine, Esther. And interestingly, Purim takes place during the month of Adar, a fortuitous month when joy is said to increase, ushering in a season of miracles that culminate with Passover, the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.

One Purim tradition is to dress up and wear masks, making all kinds of loud boo-ing noises every time Haman’s name is mentioned in the story (we read Esther’s scroll, aka “the whole megillah”). One thing I love about Hebrew is that words all have roots that reveal more layers of meaning: in this case, Adar has its origins in Adir, suggesting strength and power.

Just take a quick minute to let that sink in: Joy has its roots in strength and power.

OK. So we wear masks on Purim, and recall the story of this greedy king, Ahashverosh, who has one primary policy: Himself (read more). I tend to agree with this interpretation by Jay Michaelson, presciently written a year ago, before nominee Trump was so-called elected to be President Trump. Bannon is the real Haman here.

Will the women save us? Will we throw off our masks or don them in mockery of demagoguery and evil?

There is, of course, more to the story. But in the night, it was the masks I kept returning to the tradition of dressing up on Purim, trying on different aspects of ourselves even as we condemn evil and celebrate victory.

“It is our practice to cross-dress on Purim – find the other in yourself. Dress up and try on Esther’s role, be Haman the villain, the king and the assassin. The Scroll of Esther invites you onto the stage of history. For what cause would you risk giving up your privilege, position, and lifestyle? For what would you risk your life? For what principles or causes ought a person to risk life? Is the King of unawareness and apathy, Ahashverosh there inside too? Better to discover these qualities in play than to act them out and destroy what it means to be a Jew.” ~ Rabbi Goldie Milgram :: read more

I think often of blind spots: What don’t I know I don’t know? How do I remember what I’ve forgotten and further pull back the opaque curtains of my own ignorance? How do I save my people and where am I unknowingly contributing to my cousins’ peril?

We have to put ourselves in the shoes of all the players. We have to learn the whole script — not just our own lines — in order to fully grok the show. And a show it is — a comic-tragedy of epic, real-life proportions.

Against this backdrop, right on this stage, my kids are coming of age. They are learning how to play fair in a landscape that’s anything but. They come with many advantages — not the least of which are fair skin and good looks. This alone is so many kinds of wrong my head wants to explode, but rather than wringing my hands, I must keep helping them see what everyday experiences they undertake that would not be imaginable for an undocumented kid, for example.

Also in Jewish tradition, I seek out more questions rather than claiming to have answers:

What does my white privilege have to do with agreeing to allow my teenager to travel unaccompanied by train? What does class privilege have to do with allowing my biologically female child to use the men’s room in a public arena? What does being Jewish have to do with our role in this unraveling world, where in our tradition, we are commanded to ditch all of the commandments if it means saving one life — Jewish or not?

Time for another splash of coffee. Time to kiss my wife good morning (again). Time to shower, get dressed, and look in the mirror, directly into my own eyes, to make sure I’m all the way here. No masks. No deceit. May I move into the day awake. No one is coming to save us.

“That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary — [and now] go study.” ~ Rabbi Hillel :: read more 

Grande Lattes, Treason, and the Universal Sign for Empathy

Photo: Anete Lusina

Two sparrows pecked away at a chunk of discarded donut in the snow outside the door to Starbucks as Luping and I dove into conversation today. The moment I walked in, she asked if I was feeling better (I had cancelled last week’s session due to being sick). I told her yes, but that I still wasn’t 100%.

The very moment those words came out of my mouth, I asked if she brought her notebook. She had. I wrote it down and explained this expression — how it means I’m feeling better but not all the way better. She nodded in understanding and told me coffee today would be her treat.

We walked over the register to order. I asked for a grande latte with one Splenda (I’ve cut it out completely at home, but still get one in my latte, go figure). She said she’d have the same, then she told me that she wants to try a different drink each week.

“You’re branching out!” I said, then immediately added that it’s like expanding, trying new things. “Oh, yes!” she said, as my little interpretive dance and definition clicked in her brain. She paid for our drinks, the cashier said something about how it’s cool to “get out of your comfort zone” and that we were “all set,” and we carried them back over to our little two-person table by the window.

“Do you know what ‘all set’ means?” I asked her. “What about ‘comfort zone’?” She didn’t know either of these. It occurred to me that in our first five minutes together, roughly half of the words spoken had been idioms she probably hadn’t learned in English textbooks or classroom lessons, nor in the lab where she is doing graduate research at UMass. So she got out her notebook and we continued the “lesson” that had begun the moment we said hello to each other.

I suggested we write down each of these expressions, as a way of “keeping track” of what she’s learning. Turns out “keeping track” is yet another one. I gave some examples. “I can’t keep track of my keys; I’m always losing them.” “I can’t keep track of my kids; I never know where they are.” (That made her laugh.) “I can’t keep track of my books; they’re all over the house.”

From there, we both saw how closely related “branching out” is to “comfort zone.” The more I described the former, the more I naturally found myself talking about the latter. I wound up drawing a little pot (labeled “pot”) with several branches growing out of it. Actually, I should say “drawing,” since drawing itself is out of my comfort zone and a good example of me branching out.

We talked about how people often prefer to stay inside their comfort zones, and how it can be scary to branch out. And how personal this is, too. For me, chatting with the barista is not a stretch. It doesn’t require any real “branching.” But for someone else, chatting with the barista, or any stranger for that matter, might be WAY out of their comfort zone.

Now I’m thinking of another one, for next week: “cookie cutter approach.” I wonder if they even have cookie cutters in China.

After this, I got a lesson from her in Chinese poetry from the Han dynasty. I learned that many Chinese parents choose baby names from these ancient stories, not unlike how in the West many people are named after characters in the Bible. Luping told me the story of Qu Yuan, which is recalled each year during the Dragon Boat Festival.

As I listened, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Qu Yuan’s “treason” against the Emperor (as she put it, he was honest and shared his disagreement openly), subsequent exile, and ultimate suicide with what we are facing right now under Trump, who is acting more like an emperor than a president of a democratic nation. I couldn’t help but think of the bravery of so many people, both throughout history and just in the past few days, who have spoken truth to power — even at the expense of their personal or professional security and safety.

Somehow this led to the word “tragedy” (as opposed to “comedy”). Luping mentioned the Titanic as an example, then told me that she prefers tragedies to stories with happy endings. They stay with her more, she said. I told her I knew just what she meant. I put my hand on my heart and suggested that it was because of the empathy we may experience with the characters in a tragic story. She looked up “empathy” in Chinese, then put her hand on her heart, too. (Universal sign for empathy, I think.)

And then I taught her one last word of the day: “Tearjerker.”

Luping may not have realized just how riveted I was by her Qu Yuan story, nor how relevant I found it to what we’re currently facing. As we were saying goodbye, I did mention politics. She put her hand on my arm. She could lose her visa. Our leaders are throwing nuclear threats at each other. And here we were, two women drinking grande lattes with one Splenda each, each of us branching out, learning, connecting.

I felt energized and uplifted and grateful, and also sad that more people don’t have — or don’t seek out — the opportunity to connect with someone from another culture, or even just a different background than your own. Xenophobia withers under these conditions. For many people, this means leaving comfort zones in the dust.

“It seems a bit unfair,” I said, as I buttoned my coat. She looked puzzled. I continued, “I think I’m learning more than you are!”

She said she is surely the luckier one. We left it that we could both be lucky, and agreed on our meeting for next week. As we walked out together, I saw that the sparrows had polished off that donut. I hadn’t noticed them fighting over the crumbs, flying away.

Goodnight, Protestors

Feeling like this? The SAFE Project is a place where you can share daily acts of kindness and empathy — in your pajamas. Details below.

“I want us to organize, to tell the personal stories that create empathy, which is the most revolutionary emotion.” – Gloria Steinem

This “goodnight” poem may well be one of the most shared things I’ve ever posted on Facebook, so I wanted to share it here, too. Feel free to add a comment below with anyone I may have left out, and click on “See more” to read the whole thing on my Facebook wall.
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There are so many of us contributing in our own ways to this fight, and as I wrote here yesterday, we need all the voices now.

To that end, join me starting tomorrow for the Show and Fuel Empathy (SAFE) Project, a closed group for folks who care about community, humanity, and justice to share small but tangible acts of kindness as a form of protest.

Come be seen, heard, and supported and keep your sanity intact all at the same time.

Sign up here by paying whatever you can and want to.