Three years ago, I started a membership group called Get Your Muse On. At its peak, it had about 40 members who actively shared weekly intentions, freewrites, and other creative shenanigans. Friendships blossomed, confidence deepened, and many a birthday limerick has been shared.

After a few different incarnatons, I made a decision this week to officially retire this group. I closed its doors to new members quite a while back, and those who remain are close-knit and committed to staying connected. But the participation and engagement aren’t what they were and rather than trying to return to something that had its day, letting it simply be what it is — a sweet gathering place for friends who love writing — seemed like the next right step.

But letting go and allowing change to happen is not easy for me. I suspect this is true for many of us. It’s bittersweet, maybe a little scary even, to acknowledge that a thing has run its course.

As we move towards the solstice and new year, I’m feeling this energy so intensely. I’ve heard from more than one person in the past few days that they are feeling exhausted, moody, tapped out. The holiday season can drain our wallets and our spirits, as much as it’s supposed to fill our hearts with joy and sugarplums.

I was chatting with a teacher of Pearl’s last night about her holiday plans. She said her grown kids have very different food preferences, so she didn’t yet know what kind of meal she might prepare on Christmas day with them. I said something about images of families sitting down to eat, everyone at a table — how images like that can be so… she finished my sentence for me: Oppressive.

Yes. Images like that invariably make us feel like we’re failing at something, when in fact we are actually living real lives, where not everyone wants to or can eat the same things, where not everyone wants to or can be at the table, where not everything is happy and bright.

Groups like the Muses are havens from these expectations. As I write this, I realize that this is true of all of my work — the writing groups, the coaching, even working with folks on books. Having room to show up as we are, to write without worrying about being good, to say what’s really going on in our lives and hearts, to name what really happened in the past, all of this is how we get free to take up more space in the world and ultimately share more of ourselves.

More of ourselves, please. The world tells us a lot of things. The world tells us a lot of things about what being a writer is supposed to look like.

I got a(nother) rejection yesterday. It’s an essay I wrote a year ago and originally submitted to the New York Times Modern Love column with a wish and a prayer and not-so-secret high hopes that this would be the One.

Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. It was one of many. After the NYT rejected it, I kept sending it out. So far, not even a nibble. There’s a high probability I will choose to post it here and on my blog. That’s my way. That’s what I mean when I say “keep going.”

The end goal is not a perfect meal, a Rockwell painting, a slam dunk, a bullseye, or bragging rights. The end goal is to be here, to live fully, to take risks, to show up, to listen hard, to love well.

Last night, Pearl was awake with a tummy bug (he’s currently finally sleeping on the couch next to me). At one point, hoping he’d be able to rest, I told him to try counting his breaths, from one to ten. “If you lose count, go back to one,” I said.

I’m always going back to one. I had a zen teacher at one point who wrote about this, and it’s true. We’re always trying to get somewhere else.

So I’m letting the Muses group go as an “official” group. I’m making room, without having to rush in to fill it. I’m honoring the relationships I’ve come to cherish and know will endure, without clinging to the past.

Change happens. Stomach bugs happen. Rejection happens. Real life happens. And the writing? It happens, too, in the context of all of this. The minute we stop trying to get it right, the minute we start believing who and where we are is good enough, so much opens up. Room to breathe opens up. Trust might even make a guest appearance.

Back to one. Everybody now. And as for the Muses? You know who you are, and I love you all 4-ev-uh.

Boundaries, Conflict, Forgiveness — Oh My!

Photo: Oscar Keys

When you ask a question and the answer is no, that means the conversation is over.

“No” is not an invitation to push back, argue, convince, emote, cajole, or complain your way to a different outcome.

The time you spend fussing about doing a thing is often how long it would’ve taken to get said thing done.

You can accept not getting your way without a meltdown.

“No” does not mean, “I don’t love you.”

“No” does not mean, “You are unlovable.”

“No” does not mean, “I’m angry at you.”

“I’m angry at you” does not mean, “I don’t love you.”

“I’m angry at you” does not mean, “You are unlovable.”

* * *

Interpersonal conflict is part of life. It is absolutely unavoidable. It is something many of us are terrified of, unskilled at, and reactive to.

Making mistakes is also an absolutely unavoidable part of life. No matter how conscientious, thoughtful, mindful, caring, and considerate you are, you will have blindspots. You will misjudge. You will say a thing or ask a question or make a request and later think, what was I thinking?

That is the moment when learning begins.

That is the moment when a voice in your head is very likely to start up, likely with something harsh and berating, such as, “You idiot!”

That is the moment when your heart may start racing, when your bowels will loosen, when your hands will get sweaty. Fight, flight, freeze, fawn — one or more of these will appear in a nanosecond and your body will go into a system of red alert.

* * *

I recently made a mistake. In the moment, it didn’t seem like a big deal, though I could feel an undercurrent of pressure and rushing that should’ve been signals if I’d been paying closer attention.

Person A wanted to join Persons B and C for an outing. (My role: Intermediary between these parties.) Persons B and C had preexisting plans, that weren’t 100% ideal for Person A. Person A pushed on me to ask Persons B and C if they could change their plan to accommodate this.

Had I been more in tune with my values at this moment — such as respect, connection, trust, and honesty — I would have told Person A, either you can change YOUR plans in order to join Persons B and C, or you can let it go.

Instead, I caved and asked Persons B and C if they could change THEIR plans.

Why did I make this decision? Because this is real life: Messy, stumbling, incurably imperfect. If only we could see the whole picture in each and every moment.

Then came later. Because of going to an event 45 minutes later than planned, all the involved persons missed the highlights of the event, which Person C in particular had been looking forward to for months, perhaps even longer. Person C was hysterically sad. (It may be noted that Person C is a very young person, whose sadness was not unreasonable.)

And so it was that Friday night, I received a text from Person D, telling me how hurt she was by my asking Persons B and C to change their plans to accommodate Person A.

In a word, it sucked.

In another word: I made a mistake.

And there was no way to undo that, no way to go back and change it, no way to fix it. All I could do was take responsibility, notice what I wished I had done and said instead, and apologize six ways to Sunday for my poor judgment call.

Would the relationships all be ok?

Of course, that was the fear.

In a word: Loss.

Person A wrote a card with a very sweet drawing and put it in Persons B, C, and D’s mailbox.

I invited Person D to go for a run the next day. We met up in the driveway and gave each other a hug. We talked about how much we mean to each other. We talked about our families of origin and how we learned (or didn’t learn) to meet conflict, anger, and hurt feelings.

Persons B, C, and D forgave Person A and me. We all learned some things.

* * *

“No” means no.

“Yes, this is how that will work for us” is not an invitation to negotiating alternatives.

Boundaries are healthy.

Relationships worth keeping can withstand some conflict.

You cannot control another person’s reaction. We all bring whole lives to our responses to things, and there is almost guaranteed to be other stuff going on that may not be visible to the naked eye.

You are allowed to be angry.

You are allowed to feel hurt.

You are allowed to be scared.

You are allowed to make mistakes.

You are allowed to apologize. But it is not up to you whether or how your apology will be received. Not every song has a nice major chord of resolution at the end.

* * *

You are not required to learn form these experiences, but your world will be richer and your relationships stronger if you do. And there is no avoiding them, lest we live in a fragile, entitled state of needing everything to go our way.

Friends can become family. Family is not a guarantee of closeness.

Anger and hurt are inevitable and normal parts of being a human.

Forgiveness is a choice, not a duty.

Communication takes effort.

It’s worth it.

* * * 

Want to spend 2019 exploring how small but mighty words (like “honesty” and “courage”) show up in your everyday life?

Join me for Truth: A Year-Long Exploration of Personal Values.

Thoughts on Advice and Friendship

All I saw was, “Hi, Jena” in my private messages. Two innocuous words of greeting from a kind person, and yet already I felt my nervous system gearing up. Clearly I still have have some stickiness around this topic. Because I knew what was coming: The A-word.

Advice! But not just any advice.

Unsolicited advice!

So, you decide you’re going to do something new. Maybe you’re considering a move. Or having a baby or getting a dog. You share on social media because it’s exciting and you’re someone who likes thinking out loud. But nowhere in your sharing do you ask for input.

Or perhaps you’re struggling and could use some moral and emotional support. You write that it’s a hard night, or your grief got tripped open all over again. Maybe your kiddo is hurting and it hurts to see them hurt.

We are quick to rush in. If things are hard, we want to fix it, share what worked for us, and make suggestions for what to do and how to be. If it’s something fun and exciting, we are eager to make sure they’ve considered their options and are aware of the potential pitfalls, downsides, and other disasters that could ensue.

I imagine it’s a safe bet to say most of us have been on both sides of this equation.

Fear, a need to take people down a notch, a know-it-all attitude, or simply the discomfort of witnessing and being with without necessarily have a say in someone’s choices and decisions — surely all of these play a part in this dynamic.

The mighty pause.

If you have a piece of advice burning a hole in your heart, consider asking before you share it. For example, the aforementioned message went on to say, “May I give you a bit of unasked for advice on selecting a dog breed for your household?”

That would have been a good place to pause and await my answer. (In this case, the person did not pause. She asked and then answered the question herself by proceeding with said advice.)

I am totally guilty of this, for the record. Just a week ago, I took Aviva out to dinner to celebrate the release of her first EP. We shared a nice meal and then walked over to Herrell’s for ice cream and hot fudge. At one point, she was animatedly telling me about her thinking for the next 2-4 years. And I did that thing. I jumped in and told her why she might want to consider x instead of y. Because my daughter is a badass, she called me on it. “Oh, snap,” I said. Busted. But damn if it isn’t a practice to just listen.

During a coaching call last week, I was taking notes when I saw something.

Being witness and being with-ness. Just one letter different. And essentially synonymous. To be with you is to be your witness. To be with me is to bear witness. Whether I’m excitedly talking about what kind of dog we might get or agonizing about whether to quit my job, unless I’m asking you for your advice, I’m not asking you for advice. I’m inviting you to be with me. To be with me in by witnessing and empathizing — whether in excitement or difficulty.

A weapon or a gift.

The summer I came out was the single most confusing, chaotic, charged period of my life. I sought out advice, but also knew ultimately I had to find a way to listen to and trust myself. That wasn’t an easy balance to strike and lord knows I probably made a mess of it. My mind goes back to a few conversations that proffered guidance rather than advice.

One was: “Every decision has gains and losses.”

The second was more of an inquiry: “Do you want to have a near-life experience?”

And the third made an observation, when I was hyper-focused on the other people involved: “What about you in all this?”

These moments became anchors for me during an unmoored moment. What none of them did was tell me I should be careful or cautious. They didn’t warn me or say I was making a huge mistake. They didn’t use words like “implore” or even “encourage.” Encouragement with an agenda is like support with conditions, and it doesn’t feel like love, it feels like pressure.

What makes these conversations stand out nearly eight years later is that they taught me something about presence, about friendship, about being wit(h)ness. They showed me that I was a grown-up woman, capable of trusting myself and making decisions rooted in integrity. They showed me who in my life was able to hold space for me without projecting their own fears or desires.

They pointed me, too, to the kind of friend, coach, parent, and partner I want to be.

Next time a friend shares hard news — maybe they’re going through a nasty divorce, or grieving a loss all over again — or something momentous — they’re expecting, adjusting to an empty nest, or writing a book — notice your first impulse. Is it to jump to your own experience of that thing and tell them what worked and didn’t work well for you? Maybe it’s to say, “I’m so sorry,” or “That sounds big.” Take a moment to notice the difference. Are you in your own head or being witness and being with them, over there, right where they are?

Ask first.

I never knew how powerful it was to simply ask questions: Would you like my advice? What would feel like love/support/presence to you in this moment? 

In December, I participated in a wonderful group with Amy Walsh called The Art of Showing Up. One thing I loved and that really made an impression on me was this: In addition to offering fantastically creative assignments, she asked participants to include a “commenting policy” with every single post. It put the responsibility on the person sharing, to state clearly her needs. This in turn gave the other people in the group some instructions. We would know if someone didn’t want any comments like, “You’re so beautiful.” Maybe they were looking for a particular kind of feedback. If the person posting wanted to hear about other people’s experiences, she could ask for this. If she only wanted feel-good love-me-up-and-down kinds of comments, she could ask for this.

I do this in the Jewels on the Path group, if not using quite the same language. When members share new writing on Wednesdays, I remind them to articulate what kind of response they want. Sometimes, we simply need people to be witness and be with us. Other times, we truly want to know whether a piece of writing “works” for the reader. Where are the holes? Did the ending feel rushed? What did you want more of? Where did you get confused or lost?

Learning how to sit with someone (or someone’s words) without rushing to advice is one side of the equation. Practicing being clear on what it is we want and need is the other.

Not an either/or.

My most enduring friendships have this in common: Presence. Not fixing, not judging, not drama. They show me what it is to be with, to witness, to love, to celebrate, to mourn — and to respect that every single one of us is here having our own experience. I’m so thankful we can learn with and from each other, and also have room to find our own way through this life. How could it be otherwise, really? At the end of the day, no one else lives in your body, your house, your family, your past, your knowing.

At the same time, having people who know and love us and will tell us when we’re in a blind spot or ask us if we’d like to hear their guidance — what would we do without that? Like so many things, it’s not an either/or, but a dance. Websters’ defines advice as “guidance or recommendations concerning prudent future action, typically given by someone regarded as knowledgeable or authoritative.” It’s imperative to recognize that we cannot ultimately be an authority about anyone else’s life. Ever.

Practice: “No Advice, Please.”

Mani and I are in the early stages of exploring getting a dog. Our landlord has said yes. Yay! We are obsessed with French and English bulldogs. We’re also looking at rescue pups at local shelters. We’re doing our research and having lots of conversations.

I am a sharer. I am an open book in many ways. In work, writing, and life, I tend to be all about process, since the vast majority of, well, everything, happens there, in the exploring, in the becoming, in the lived experience, in the days and nights unfolding and revealing and concealing and becoming. What often isn’t immediately apparent in all of this is an answer or an outcome. We LOVE answers and outcomes. The yes or no. The big announcement. The prize. The birth. The publication date. The decision, finally signed, sealed, and delivered.

In the absence of these, I’m continuously stepping into this funny, simple place called here in a time without a past or future called now. I don’t mean to be snarky or esoteric; this really is my practice — arriving over and over into this moment, while always holding an awareness of context. I love being here with you.

Everything unfolds. (Also: Dogs.)

What does that have to do with dogs?

Well, I could wait until we have a new doggie and then share pictures and names and YAY!

But I am not doing that. I’m not waiting to share till I know what’s happening. I’m sharing as we go, because this is life right now. Life right now is: We’re hoping to get a dog, and I don’t know yet what kind of dog or when, and I know many of you love dogs and who wants to be part of the process of seeing how this goes? Not: Do you think getting a dog right now is a good idea for us? Not: What kind of dog do you think we should get? Not: Do you have concerns about certain breeds?

But it’s as much on me as it is on you, to be clear. I can practice saying: No advice, please. That part’s my job. It’s a two-way street, this communication thing, this relationship thing, this being with each other and this being witness to each other thing. It’s a thing I love and cherish and honor. And it’s a thing I’m always learning more about.

p.s. Stay tuned for more doggie news!

“Why Am I Here?”

When Anne Sexton wrote,
“Everyone in me is a bird
I am beating all my wings”
She was writing for you.

When Nelson Mandela wrote,
“Do not judge me by my successes,
judge me by how many times I fell down
and got back up again”
He was writing for you.

When Amelia Earhart flew
across the Atlantic Ocean
alone, she was charting your course.

When Lucille Clifton celebrated
herself with these words:
“these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.”
She was celebrating you.

When David Whyte called despair
“a necessary and seasonal state of repair,
a temporary healing absence,”
he had you in mind.

I spoke with these poets,
these pioneers, these people of doubt
and faith, or darkness and light,
those who did not shy away
from the heart of the world
but flung themselves into what Pico Iyer
calls “the wonderful abyss.”
They called me in at 4:00am,
just in time for your question
from the other side of the world:
“Why am I here?”

To burn off anything extra,
becoming so fully human that every
feeling is welcome in your guest house.
To take down and build up.
To grieve and to sing.
To feel, and feel, and feel,
until all of the layers have been loved.

Stanley Kunitz and Rumi
joined us, and soon the room
was so full of friends and poets,
dancers and makers of things,
and those who crave a moment,
just one single moment, of pure
connection, someone to look at their eyes
with true love. Your voice rises,
still it rises — Maya Angelou, too —
and says, “I see you. I am here to see.”

Seeing can be painful work.
And miraculous, too.
You are the one who lets go.
And you are the holder, too,
infinitely and forever held
by the arms of the world.

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.