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.”

Happy Half-Birthday to Me (and a Gift for You)

Lily
I could click “share” on Facebook all day long, and feel less and less connected.

Instead, I took my bike out of the garage and rode to town. I got a taco and a $2 lottery ticket. Then I rode home. Anger, envy, sadness, missing, confusion, and love — all perched on my handlebars like a motley crew of dark companions, offset by the chirping of birds and pretty houses and flowers growing around picket fences. It wasn’t until I got to my own old yellow house that I stopped and put down the kickstand. Put down my guard and my armor and opened my eyes again. These lilies, towering amidst weeds, growing by the curb in a kind of accidental garden.

Continue reading today’s newsletter, which includes other musings as well as a special gift for you: 14% off everything on the menu until midnight July 14 (my half-birthday!).

If you don’t already receive Fierce Encouragement for Writing + Lifesubscribe here and the next one will appear in your inbox.

Thank you for showing up, in all the ways.

Hey, Wanna?

Do you go through periodic fits of unsubscribing from a zillion emails you don’t even remember signing up or simply no longer find inspiring? ME TOO.

If hearing from me from time to time — about upcoming writing groups, new offerings (I’ve got a few in the works!), and occasional discounts, giveaways, and other fun — is something you value, please take a moment to subscribe.

If you receive any kind of error, it means you’re already subscribed. This is not only a gesture of mutual trust and reciprocal respect; it’s also an ethical and legal matter.

Blech, that word. “List.” I know. It makes a lot of people get cringe-y about the marketing side of things. To me, though, this doesn’t feel like marketing. It is a genuine HELLO. It’s my hand reaching across miles and time zones and virtual nothingness to touch yours. It’s a “Hey, wanna?”

Every single time you reach back, every time you read or share a blog post, leave a comment, or say yes to spending time together sharing your writing practice, I pinch myself. Just ask my wife, Mani. (As for saying yes — check out this recent blog post, The Art of Trusting Yourself.)

July begins one week from today (?!), and with it the next round of Dive Into Poetry (not just for “poets”) and a two-week group called Blossom (not just for “writers” — are you sensing a trend?!).

I’m writing in fits and spurts these days as my own way of showing up and navigating life, and am so so thankful for the hot summer sun and Mani’s return to health and the season of swimming at Puffer’s Pond and a break from school buses and making lunches.

I’m also doing more and more one-on-one work, with folks who want witness and support for writing + life. And I’m slowly making my way through a memoir about surfing (which in part inspired this short post: The Art of Writing the Waves.)

THANK YOU for taking the time to read this post and to subscribe to my newsletter, if you choose to respond with a YES.

I’m crazy grateful for this growing community, more than you know. If you’ve already subscribed to Fierce Encouragement (for Writing + Life), yay and thank you and you are all set! If you haven’t and would like to hear from me in addition to reading here, please take a quick second to subscribe.

I’ll sign off with Shabbat Shalom, big love, and a song that did my soul some good this past week.

p.s. I had so much fun recently making an actual menu. No matter where you are on your writing + life journey, there’s a seat for you at this table.

**

Some recent reflections from writers: 

“Jena brings together like-minded people, inspires them, and lifts them to do good work, perhaps their best
– Tricia McCallum

“Anything Jena creates (program, course, retreat, poem, blog post, essay, BOOK) is going to touch me (and teach me) in ways I might not even imagine, and, she does, indeed, attract (and inspire) the most amazing writers on the planet. No, really. YOU!”
– Sue Ann Gleason

“For a woman who has never felt like she belonged anywhere, this space has been a gift.”
– Khadijah

“I’ve no words that can convey the depth of my gratitude. This class has restored my confidence in my ability to communicate on paper.”
– Kadena Tate-Simon

“A writing haven.”
– Amanda Shoemaker

“Jena Schwartz is so…it’s hard to put into words. Smart? Yes. Deep? Yes. Funny? Yes. REAL? Yes, very real… And she is such a damn good writer. I am grateful for and to her.”
– Meghan Leahy

“You got right to the issue in my writing and my life.”
– Laura Scappaticci

**

Dancing Boys + Red Poppies :: June 12, 2016 :: Pulse :: Pride :: Power

The Art of Being a Real Runner (and Writer)

Real Runners

A Real Runner

I was running this morning. I was about 25 minutes in and just a few from stopping when I saw another woman running. She nodded as she passed, according to some kind of universal, unspoken runners’ etiquette. I nodded back. And here is the thought that flashed through my mind, as quick as my breath: “She is a real runner.”

I had the thought that she was a real runner WHILE I WAS RUNNING.

The comparison was so instantaneous as to be unconscious, until that moment when a thought bubbled up and surprised me. My next thought was even less eloquent: WTF, Jena? 

Was it because she was running faster? Wearing more official-looking running clothes? In that split second, I totally dissed myself based on assumptions and judgments — the former about her and the latter of myself. Hell, for all I know, she thought the same thing about me! See how silly it all gets?

I didn’t think much more of it until just now, when it suddenly occurred to me that this is exactly what many people do with regards to writing (and no doubt a lot of other things). Oh, SHE is a “real writer.” You know, the one with the published pieces, or the book, the prizes, the room of her own, the agent — whatever. Really the reason is not the point. The point is that this kind of crazy shit is what keeps us from having to deal with our own capacity to create. Comparing, in a sense, is lazy.

Lace up sneakers and step outside your door and run to the corner. Do it again tomorrow. Maybe even the next day. Take a day off, or three. Try a different route. Hit a trail. Meet a friend. Get new sneakers. What you’re wearing doesn’t matter. Unless you’re in it to win it — and lord knows I’m certainly not — your time doesn’t matter. Look at you go. You rock.

You are a runner. A real runner.

Pick up a pen, write a word, then another. Repeat often. Use a timer or set a minimum word count if that helps. Start small — 10 minutes. 300 words. Yay, you. Where you write doesn’t matter. What you write doesn’t even matter — the stories are within you, whether based on memory, imagination, or some ineffable blend of the two. And even if you secretly hope to win a Pulitzer, whether anyone thinks your writing is any good doesn’t matter.

You are a writer. A real writer.

“Writers write.” – Billy Crystal (as Larry Donner), Throw Momma from the Train (1987)

So, what does matter?

What matters is that you show up and pound the pavement and pound the keyboard. What matters is YOUR sweat. Your tears, because sometimes there will be tears. What matters is what you tell yourself. And most of all, what you actually DO.

 Redo: She was a real runner. I was also a real runner.

This is where it gets really fun: We both get to be real, and we both get to be runners.

Same goes for writing. Sure, there are a million ways to barricade ourselves inside false beliefs about what is and isn’t possible and what counts as “real.” Sometimes, limitations are real and not imagined; not everything can be overcome. You might not be able to run, you may have no desire to run, and you may even hate running.

And what of writing? If you want to write, there are probably not many actual things standing in your way.

No wonder the writers I most respect and admire all say one common thing: You must write everyday, or at least most of them.

If you only write sporadically, there is a strong possibility you will never feel like a “real writer.” But if you believe your life isn’t interesting enough, think again. If you believe no one will ever take you seriously as a writer, start with taking yourself seriously. Then find one person, just a single person in your actual life, with whom to share your words.

Running buddies, writing buddies. It really works, to be accountable and cheered on, no matter how slow you go, no matter how messy you look, no matter whether you walk the whole way home. What better way, in the end, could there be to get there?

Whether it’s running, writing, or with something else, where do you discount yourself and what’s one step you could take to change that? I’d love to hear from you if you’re so inclined to leave a comment! Just one request: Keep it real. 

We Encourage You to Submit Your Ego Again

submit“Though we’re passing on this one, we really appreciate your trusting us with your work.”

I know it shouldn’t get to me, but it does. I know it doesn’t matter, but tonight it does. I know getting work published is insanely subjective and stupidly competitive — and that I’m being irrationally ridiculous to feel so pissed and discouraged. I know that getting published does not make life magically different or better.

I know you win some, you lose some. I know all the famous writers who plastered their walls with letters from “appreciative” editors and indifferent editors and slush-pile unpaid intern editors.

Come to think of it, I was an unpaid intern once, at a literary journal in Union Square called Parnassus. I wonder if I was given the power to reject anyone. I know walking to town with my kid on a sunny Friday afternoon brings me joy. I know reading poem after poem by people who are writing their hearts out feels as trippy and wondrous and privileged as I imagine moonwalking would–buoyant, ethereal, and solid in our landing.

I know we’re all putting on our oxygen masks every day. We’re breathing molecules from other hemispheres on this itty-bitty planet. I know I’m eating Annie’s mac & cheese with a can of tuna mixed in for dinner, and that I get to go put clean sheets on my bed after this and remember childbirth yes, like it was yesterday, and that there is so much new grey in my hair, especially around my temples, and some days it’s all I can do not to smoke ’em if you got ’em but I don’t got ’em because it’s rather nice, this breathing situation without tanks or masks or other such appendages. I know this will blow over, over and out, mark my words and Roger that, it doesn’t matter.

It does not matter.

But just for a minute it did, it does, and I need to allow myself this moment. This anger.

The thing is, I’ve never fit with the establishment — whatever that may mean. I got an MFA but then became a Hillel director, then a life coach and a career counselor. I got married and had babies and wondered for years: Am I still a writer if I’m not actually writing? I knew the answer was yes; it felt similar to a non-practicing Jew still being Jewish. But that “yes” didn’t stop me from wondering and wanting so much to not only know I was a writer, but to interface with the world as a writer. To reach people with my words. To connect deeply through my writing. This was my dream, and it still is.

I remember when Aviva was a baby and I’d go out alone, just to be with myself. I always brought a journal, and I’d sit by the lake or in a coffeeshop and write. I wrote fundraising appeal letters and bylaws and student group descriptions and eventually brochure and website copy for my fledgling business. But I still wasn’t a writer who was writing; I was writer who was trying to make a living doing other things that used other skills, and writing was a skill but in that context, not a soul.

Blogging started to change all of that, and a couple of times lately in conversations with people in my writing groups, the topic of practice has come up. Practice not only in the sense of writing practice, but the parallel practice of “putting it out there.” Of not knowing whether or where or with whom or how your words will land. Of learning not to look at, or at least not get snagged by, “seen by” stats or likes or comments as a measure of your writing’s value. Or your own value. Of knowing that silence does not equal judgment. Silence could equal busy people caught up in their own lives and stories and minds and responsibilities; silence could equal awe; silence could equal nobody saw. Silence does not matter. Silence is a gift. It gives us back ourselves.

When faced with rejection, with silence, I get to sit here with myself. At the kitchen table where I so often ramble and write. At the juncture between an inhale and an exhale, that plateau where I can choose to hold my breath in and in and in — now it becomes a game, like when we were kids — until I can’t hold it any longer and I allow the release through my nostrils. It’s then that some tears come, as if on cue.

There is room for you, the breath seems to be saying to the tears. There is room for rejection. There is room for anger. There is room for appreciation. There is room for resilience and rage and connection and moonwalking and silence. There is room for change. The only thing there isn’t room for at the inn is shame. We’ve had enough of that, haven’t we?

“We encourage you to submit your work again.”

I think I may, I think I might, I think I might not, I think for tonight it really doesn’t matter. I think I am lucky to be alive, full belly and rip-roaring heart and green speckled eyes and a wife who loves me and gorgeous growing-up kids and people who trust me with their stories.

There’s a reason I’m not in the business of evaluating people’s words. We are surrounded by evaluative measures and systems; those are not hard to come by. What’s hard to come by is genuine, unconditional, non-competitive encouragement. So that’s what I do now, not only for myself but as a job. A job I made up out of the blue! Can you believe that is even possible? I give other people the very thing I want to receive. I teach what I have to learn, even though I really don’t think of what I do as teaching. This was my dream, and it still is. And it’s changing and evolving and unfolding. It’s scary and it’s beautiful and it’s unpredictable and, as my accountant reminded me, being self-employed can make us become quite religious.

Anyway. For tonight, I am not encouraged, but I will keep submitting — if not my poems, then my ego.

I submit and surrender to life as I know it, with all the trust in the world that saving one life is like saving the whole world, and not knowing — never knowing — where or whether or with whom these words will land.

If you’ve read this, thank you. For hanging in there with me and my ups and downs and rants and raves. It’s good for me to let this shit out. And it’s also good to hit “publish” and unplug for 24 hours, which is what I’m about to do.

Besides, Madonna once said, “Rejection is the greatest aphrodisiac.” I’m not taking her word for it though; better go find out for myself.

Shabbat Shalom, my friends.