Building Community, Asking for Help, and Not Burning Out

Asking for help is hard. And that’s what I’m coming here to do. I’m coming to ask for your help so that I can keep building community — without burning out.

This week, I created a Patreon account. I’ve been looking at this membership platform for a while now, as a way of leveling out my monthly income and taking a baby step away from Facebook in terms of where I share my day-to-day writing. As of this moment, I have 11 patrons.

In case you’re unfamiliar — you become a “patron” by choosing a monthly tier, and each tier comes with certain benefits. These include a PDF of 18 essays, weekly prompts, access to new poems before I share elsewhere, a weekly “ask me anything” option, discounts on my writing groups, coaching sessions ranging from 30 minutes to four hours/month, and even just-for-you writers’ care packages! Needless to say, I’m super excited about it and hope you will be, too.

I have it set up right now that my first goals there are financial — and they will allow me to offer scholarships to my groups. This is a core value of mine — making my work accessible to people regardless of how much money they have.

I grew up with things like summer camps and lessons and trips. Many kids grow up not knowing if they will have three meals that day. And while my groups are not for children, they are for adult humans whose early experiences in life shaped a good deal of what we believe we can have, what is for us.

I’ve carried a belief, that because I “chose” to be self-employed, I should suck it up that I don’t have paid time off. I’m certainly not complaining.

And, the real life version is, of course, more complicated than that, more multifaceted and layered. That’s the thing about real life — it always is. It’s also what makes for a) the best stories and b) true connection, where we’re not masking what’s true or molding ourselves to what we think others want to see, hear, and believe.

Mani’s illness thrust me into this work. It was one of those crazy moments where the scariest, hardest stuff was intextricable from the most creative and courageous. I started leading online groups and retreats while working at a full-time job, then after about nine months of that, including 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave three summers ago, it became clear that going back to the office was not an option. She needed me home full-time.

Now, she’s sitting here in the living room working away on her own stuff as I work on mine, with the puppy snoring between us. Her healing journey is hers to share, so I will not write to that here.

What I can tell you is this: I love my work, and all of you, deeply. Sitting here in my living room last night with four women, each of whom wrote and shared, I felt tears in my eyes. Creating these spaces for words, stories, poetry, connection, community, courage, realness — this is why I’m here.

And, I don’t always know how to see what I need in the midst of the work, not to mention being a mom with kids at pivotal moments in their own growing.

What became very clear to me recently was that I need a little break. My vision has been to be able to step away from Facebook in August, for most if not all of the month. To continue my in-person groups and coaching, to anticipate a fall full of online groups and new ideas, but to be able to take some time away, too, from social media.

I see Patreon as a way both of creating a sustainable Community Writers’ Fund, and also as an eventual way to open up more possibility for me to focus on my own writing. I do not have a room of my own; I literally write anywhere and everywhere, throughout the day — the kitchen, the living room, the car. I have dreams of working on new books. I hear the voices in my head that say: Well, that’s nice, you privileged white lady. How about dreams of fair immigration practices? How about dreams of restorative justice for communities of color?

And I know — these are not mutually exclusive. To care deeply about justice doesn’t mean denying my own creativity and humanity. My deepest hope is that the two are connected, all the way at the roots. Also, I know an inner critic when I hear one.

I share all of us with so much gratitude. It is because of you that this work has become a thing. It is because of you I’ve kept going and not, in my frequent moments of fear and doubt, thrown in the towel and dusted off my resume. It is because of your encouragement that I feel safe to share all of this with you.

Asking for help is hard.

I learned that when Mani was sick.

It’s also one of the realest things there is.

So, I’m asking.

Will you help me take a break this August?

My intention is to come back strong in September, to start again, and most important, to keep going. With all of it. Because that’s what we do. We keep starting, again and again, we keep going. And we also acknowledge that we are not machines, but humans.

Join me on Patreon, at whatever monthly tier feels good to you: www.patreon.com/jenaschwartz.

And/or: Send a one-time donation, simply because you appreciate what I share here and this is a tangible way to help one self-employed mama not burn out: www.paypal.me/jenaschwartz.

For reading this far, for being on the other side of the words, for making it safe to be this honest and vulnerable, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

The Often Overlooked Heart


I’ve been sitting here most of the morning. Sweat pouring out of my every pore. I am putting an a/c unit in my living room this afternoon, with the help of a local carpenter. She should be arriving shortly. I have misgivings about adding to the energy use that only jacks up the temperatures further, and I also have to be able to work. Mani’s mast cells are kicked up in this heat, and Chalupa is doing her best to stay comfortable with the tiny cooling area of her bulldog head. The heat is intense, all-consuming. It’s a shock to walk into an air-conditioned room or building, to remember that there are spaces we can go.

Not everyone can get to those cool spaces. I worry about those who are homeless, elderly, or cannot afford air-conditioners.

I tidied up a bit this  morning. Refilled the bird-feeders, emptied the big bag of dog food into the container in the pantry. Swept up bits of garlic peel from the kitchen floor. I only want to eat peaches and cucumbers and drink iced coffee. I promised Aviva we could go to a body of water this afternoon. I feel slow, sweaty, uninspired.

Every time I see a photo from someone on vacation, I have a pang of envy. It’s not pretty to write this. I resist the urge to delete, curate, self-censor.

I’ve written about envy before, and how it is a form of self-abandonment. And even just writing that sentence reminds me that rather than hanging out there, what I really need and want is to ask my heart what it needs and wants. Envy is a kind of compass, after all.

* * *

I had a powerful experience last Sunday morning.

A writing coaching client who has also become a friend — I’ll call her S. — offered me some time on the phone. It wasn’t a formal call of any sort, though it did become an unexpected two hours of being gently held and deeply heard. I spent much of our time sitting on the root of the red maple tree in our little front yard. Noticing the subtlety everywhere, of life, of light, of shadow. A bird — though I’m not sure what kind — sang joyfully and loudly from one of the nearby tall pines.

It was when I admitted that I felt uncomfortable accepting this gift of time, meaning without offering payment, that the tears first came. I realize how it is still hard for me to truly receive. To truly let down and spend time with my heart. Once those first tears came, it was as if the gates had been unlocked. I didn’t sob, but I did cry on and off for the rest of our time together, along with moments of laughter, insight, and silence.

For most of my life, I’ve had episodes of the kind of crying that has felt unbearable. This felt less storm-like and more cleansing, like the tears were gently washing over the grime of my often-overlooked heart, making it known to me again.

What I saw? Red, pulsing, tender muscle mass. It was visceral and vivid, not the figurative heart but the real deal, fist-size, pumping away.

I also saw something I can best describe as straps pressing into this heart of mine. The kind of straps that a big heavy box might have wrapped around it, designed to protect it from opening when it’s not supposed to. I saw these straps pulled too tightly, leaving deep cuts against the fragile tissue. With each deep breath inward and the on-and-off gentle bouts of release, I felt the straps loosen.

One thing was clear to me: The heart cannot heal when we never loosen those straps, those ties, the protective measures that keep us bound. And yet, it is not always simple. I feel like I’m someone who is fairly connected to my heart. There are so many layers, and this innermost space goes largely covered much of the time when I am busy doing life.

* * *

I’ve been aware for a while now that I need some kind of break, but it has remained undefined. But oh, wow. The noise around this in my head is so loud. At one point, I told S. the word “failure” popped into my head. Failure!

Also: The need to justify needing a break. Also: Fear. So much fear arising at the prospect of taking a break. Money is the presenting thing — and a very real thing to address since I’m my family’s sole provider — but beneath that, deeper fears that all source back to questions of being, doing, and remaining enough.

The world of online writing groups is so saturated, and I do not thrive when I’m worrying about keeping up or standing out. In fact, you could just shorten that sentence to: I don’t thrive when I’m worrying. Period. I most certainly am not of service to my community when I’m tired or tapped out — and there’s such a deep fear in sharing that, saying it, as if it is a kind of confession.

Really, the only confession here will not come as news to you: I am human!

I never expect anyone in my groups to be anything other than human. In fact, I’ve built this work of fierce encouragement for writing and life around just this: Recognizing the stories and voices that berate us, tell us we’re not enough, and insist that whatever we are doing, writing, or creating needs to be bigger, better, or different.

Culturally, these messages are ruthless and unyielding. Internally, no matter their original sources, they take on a life of their own, ever pulling the straps tighter around the heart. Strangling the heart. The often-overlooked heart that is the holder of the wisdom we need and the stories that are ours alone to live, much less write.

To get quiet enough to listen, to really spend time with this tender, innermost heart, feels scary. It’s not a thing we can measure. There’s no product at the end. You can’t charge money for it.

And at the same time, as I write these sentences and tune into my own knowing, something else arises: Gratitude. I feel grateful that the heart is immeasurable and unquantifiable. It is untouchable by commerce and capitalism and the tyranny of proving our worth.

I hear the voice so quick to jump in: But you have to pay your rent. You have to work. You have to make a living. You have to, you have to, you have to. 

Whose voice this is doesn’t matter. What matters is that I hear it and redirect my attention to the soft, fleshy insides of myself. The longing that I know belongs to my soul.

* * *

My soul has always wanted my attention. And truth be told, it has never led me astray. Trusting that call is always scary, though, because it means moving away from auto-pilot, hushing prescriptive or punishing voices, and trusting deeply. In the more distant past, I would have said trusting the Universe. Now, I am not shy to say trusting God. And trusting myself.

I hear another voice now, my Grammy’s. God is love, she would say in a sing-song voice. God is love.

To trust God is to trust myself is to trust love.

* * *

I have not yet determined what form this “break” will take. My dream is to go offline for most if not all of August. To remember who I am and how my heart feels, away from the demands of work and social media. To really soak in the fullness of these past three years — which is how long it has been since I left my full-time job in order to care for Mani through her illness and recovery.

Questions arise once again. Will what I’ve built here withstand my absence for a month? Will everyone who participates in my groups and works with me privately still be there when I return, or does the world move so fast that we forget each other that quickly and move on? I do not want to live my life and do my work by clinging out of fear, but by letting go, again and again, of the trapeze bars, knowing that I always land, even if I don’t land where I expected. How will we pay the bills if I take some off beyond just a day or two?

I don’t have answers today, and for today, I am not going to try to figure anything out. It feels good, just to come here. To write what’s really on and in my heart in the moment, to make that tender place a little bit known to you, and to name the trust I need to lean into now. To feel it as solid and real as the true root beneath my body, holding me up.

I will admit that I have a fantasy of being supported in this time.

While it’s easy to scoff at or right off, it occurs to me that there is no harm in allowing that, too, to be named and known. It’s not up to me to know what forms that support might take. But in the spirit of learning how to ask for and receive, in the spirit of truth-telling and transparency and real life, I’m going to leave it here.

* * *

It’s funny — that impulse to thank you for reading is there, as if perhaps I owe you something for the time you’ve taken to be on the other side of these words. And so it seems fitting to close with these words from Hiro Boga:

You don’t owe anyone anything. Whatever you give to anyone, whatever you do for them, you do out of love and generosity, not because you’re obliged to. Manipulation through invalidation and guilt is an old, old game. You don’t have to play. You can simply acknowledge the energy for what it is, and refuse the Trojan horse gifts of blame and shame so they remain with the giver.

You have both the right and the responsibility for your own life, for the fulfillment of your own soul’s purposes, which are always about experiencing and expressing qualities of soul. The more clearly you choose your true desires — which are the voice of your soul — and act to fulfill them, the more your life will be filled with joy, peace, creativity, power, abundance and delight, among so many other soul qualities.

By refusing to surrender your own well-being to the demands of others, you give them the gift of clear boundaries and a powerfully sovereign self. Our kids learn how to be themselves by the example we set for them. By being yourself, choosing yourself, choosing your sovereignty, you shine a light that illuminates your path and theirs. You give them incomparable gifts — the freedom to be themselves, to choose their own joy, to learn from their explorations and to grow in creative sovereignty.

The Little Things, Like Offerings


MailChimp sends me a report from my list activity for the week.

2 subscribed. 0 unsubscribed.

These are big numbers in my world.

I just spent an hour FINALLY tackling the unwieldy pile of receipts that’s been accumulating for months.

I just wrote a sentence with not one, but two words with i before e except after c. I actually misspelled unwieldy the first time, and again just now, and had to go back to fix it.

These are the little things.

The single person or two who decide to sign up for my newsletter.

The receipts that represent manuscripts printed on recycled paper up the street at Collective Copies, stamps and books mailed, coffee dates with writers, ink and paper and notebooks and all of the completely unglamorous stuff that goes into my everyday work, the work that is, here in my kitchen, as much a part of life as boiling water for tea, helping my kids navigate big decisions, and watching TV in bed at night with my beautiful wife.

The little things. The piles that pile up. The stuff we avoid and move around the house, from one room to another until the evening comes when we sort and record and file and purge. The notes from folks who say how are you doing what you’re doing and instead of writing back, I say when can we talk. And we talk and she says I think you are awesome and I say, wait, I think *you* are awesome, and we agree that the irony is complete because each of us thinks the other is rocking their business.

The little things. The way I always come back to this, it seems. This being the real, the tangible, the mess, the clean-up. All the times I feel like oh shit, what if this isn’t working. And then I think, wait, that’s just part of it. Everything keeps changing, and this is not an emergency. I tell my nervous system it’s safe, we’re ok. We can rest. We can adjust. We can even take our time.

The little things that are big things.

Like how the sanctuary volunteering isn’t ultimately about security but about human presence. And how I am walking through my days freely without an ankle bracelet that the government is tracking.

The little things like taking a moment to breathe and appreciate what is ending — a month-long poetry group that knocked my socks off — before catapulting into the next thing. Trust, trust, trust.

She asked if I have a strategy.

I laughed.

Not really, I said. I try to come back to ease. I try to recognize the expectations I’ve cast off like someone else’s idea of who I would or should be. I try to check in with what freedom feels like, and joy. To remember that there are so, so many of us. And when two people say yes, I’d like your words in my inbox, when one person says, yes, I’d like to trust you to read my unedited words, I am floored. Every time.

We live in a competitive world. Women are taught to look at each other uneasily. The “how does she do it” trope is so so tired and worn. None of us does it all. Not a single one. None of us is a fucking Marvel comics character.

All of us have such full, full lives. Lives filled with little things and big things and medium-sized things. Lives that are mired in grief or soaring on reclamation or plodding along somewhere in the muck or going by so fast we don’t even remember the last time we really, really stopped.

This is often what I crave the most, the stopping. In the past, I imagined it as a kind of all-or nothing. Surely stopping meant going away, checking out of the demands and responsibilities and having a room with a view, preferably of some mountains and oceans and palm trees and white against blue. We are sold this, too. Town & Country magazine’s top 10 places to restore your soul.

But no. Stopping is a little-big thing. A way of coming clean. A way of being real.

It’s this.

It’s sitting down after recording the i-before-e-except-after-c receipts and then stuffing them in an envelope in case you ever God Forbid get audited. It’s going to bed early tonight. It’s a hug in the middle of the kitchen and it’s the lingering.

Is it amazing? It is, sometimes.

Is it exhausting. It is, sometimes.

Is it too much? It is, sometimes.

Is it sustainable? That question always stops me in my tracks. I don’t know the answer. I notice how this makes me uneasy, the not knowing. And I decide that I can let it in, the question. I can say hello, question. Have a seat. I’m making tea. You might have to stick around a while, giving me time get to know you better and you to get to know me better and we’ll see what this thing is between us.

The little things, like Bukowski’s shoelace, can be the death of us, that which makes us snap.

Or the little things, like offerings — like nickels and twine and stones and twigs — can bring us back, back to right here, back to right now, back to what’s solid and known and seeable and do-able, trusting that the rest will come or go or some combination of coming and going, and we don’t have to know, what happens next.