Accidents Happen, Learning Happens

Photo: Isaiah Rustad

We got rear-ended yesterday. Nobody was hurt. Mani’s car has some significant damage, the repair of which will be covered by the other driver’s insurance. We’re both a little rattled, though. And of course, there’s the hassle of dealing with appraisers, repairs, and all that jazz.

After we’d both pulled over and gotten out of our cars, I asked the woman what happened. She said she didn’t know why I had stopped.

Um.

I stopped because there was a yield sign, and there was oncoming traffic where we were about to merge.

If the car in front of you isn’t moving, don’t keep driving.

She was clearly frazzled, as I would’ve been in her shoes. I HAVE been in her shoes. Accidents happen.

She thought her car wasn’t registered (and thus, not currently insured), which meant it would have to be towed. After I had already placed a call to the Amherst Police, the woman pleaded with me to take care of things privately. Later, she again asked, in the presence of the officer, why we had to go through insurance. It was at that point that she said we’d gone to high school (roughly 30 years ago).

We *knew* each other, after all. I told her oh, yeah. I thought you looked a little familiar. But honestly, I’m not sure if I remember her or not. This made me feel somehow deficient, as if I was shitty person for not running over to give her a hug.

The officer said, “Because not going through insurance never works out.” Then the woman asked the police officer if she could get a ride back to work. When the officer said no, she asked ME for a ride.

I told her I needed to think about it. The office asked her to go wait in her vehicle while she wrote up a report. And the woman walked over to my car, knocked on the window, and asked me again for a ride.

“Jena. JENA. Have a heart,” she said, looking me directly in the eye. When I told her I wasn’t comfortable doing that (not to mention the fact that I was cramming about 40 things into a two-hour window), she said, “Why? WHY?”

She didn’t have her cell phone, so she borrowed mine to call her husband, then her father, then her workplace.

She went back to her car and the officer came back to ours a few minutes later. Apparently, this was not her first encounter with the other driver. “Oh, I’ve dealt with her before. She’s always like that,” she said.

The experience pushed all my of boundaries buttons. It was as if she knew it would be hard for me to say “no” to her pleas for a lift. And it wasn’t until later that I was even able to articulate why I felt so uncomfortable and pushed. We were also in the middle of *our* day.

She was acting like a victim, even though she had just hit us. Yet I immediately questioned whether I was being cold or lacking compassion.

Having boundaries does not mean you are cold and heartless.

Yes, I am learning.

The Blessing of a Bruised Right Buttock

My whole body is a bit tweaked from the fall I took two nights ago. The rather magnificent bruise on my right buttock (which turned into quite a fun #rightbuttock joke on Facebook) has deepened into a shocking and marvelous set of purples, and I thought that was that.

But yesterday, my neck started feeling achy and I was nauseous, to boot, enough so that I rescheduled an afternoon client so that I could take an Epsom salt bath and a rest rather than pushing through and pretending to be present. There are few worse and more disrespectful things than pretending to be anything, especially present. I was fine the day after the fall; amazing how these things can both take time to become apparent and creep up on you.

Earlier in the day, I’d listened as a different beloved client 3,000 miles away told me about a moment of sitting in her own tangled places — emotional, personal, professional. The entire call, I’d been watching a huge sheet of ice and snow melt in slow, steady drips just outside the south-facing kitchen windows. I told her about it, as it seemed symbolically fitting somehow, then sent her a photo after our call.

This morning, she reciprocated with a texted picture of a Buddha outside in the rain, pointing out that the face was half wet and half dry. It reminded me of the both/and of things; how we can be ok, be calm, be, period, even when we are exposed to the elements.

Sometimes I feel like I’m just recycling the same thoughts and ideas over and over again. I commit to things and then find myself unprepared, literally scrawling noted on the back on an envelope minutes before it’s my turn to speak. I judge myself harshly for being out of my league, but not unkindly for showing up in the first place. Ego is apparent here in many ways: Ego says, you suck. Ego says, you’re amazing. I’m wary of both messages.

My bruised right buttock slowed me down this weekend. After a shower, coffee, and breakfast, Mani went to work on a puzzle in the front hallway. I was debating between reading a book and taking a nap when I heard a crash.

I ran to the other end of our apartment to see if she was ok; she was fine, but her puzzle table had gone down the front steps (what’s up with us and the stairs in our place this week?!), and pieces had gone flying everywhere.

It was while picking them up that I came across  a folder filled with short bits of writing, report cards, awards, and recommendations ranging from 1982 to 1991. I didn’t realize it was in that wooden peach crate with all the photos we’ve been meaning to hang in the front hallway for the last two and half years.

Once she got back to her puzzle, I sat down in the bathroom doorway and started reading through the contents of the folder.

“The most intellectual member of her class,” wrote my guidance counselor in 1990. “Jena is a warm, empathetic, articulate, and spirited individual with a twinkle of humor in her eyes. She is a good listener, and her peers actively seek and value her opinions. Jena is comfortable with herself, and she has a gift for making others feel relaxed whenever they are around her. It is difficult to describe Jena in a few words as there is much depth to this strong-willed, generous and engaging young woman.”

Now, it’s evening. I sit here with that folder at my side, the folder with newspaper clippings announcing national prizes I won for poems and essays about the Holocaust, short stories I started and never finished, a drawing from fifth grade of African-American anti-slavery activist and poet Charlotte Forten Grimké, and the one that really cracked me up, from a P.E. teacher who said I had “weak abdominals” (some things really never change).

There’s an uncomfortable sensation but I can’t fully put my finger on it. And then it hits me: I am wondering if I have lived up to this girl’s promise. And then something even bigger hits me: She wondered the same thing.

Suddenly, here we are, the two of us, my 43-year-old self and my 10- and 15- and 17- year-old selves. And I want to sit and look her in the eyes. I want to say: Hey you, in there. You don’t have to be amazing, you know.

As I sit here, another wave of thought comes rushing up to me. It goes something like this:

See? This is why it’s best to close the doors and leave them closed. What purpose is there in revisiting this old stuff? You can either use it as evidence of how totally YOU you were back then, or of how totally NOT you you were then. You can make it a badge or a weapon. You can spin any story you want, and they will all be true and none of them will be true. 

I find a collection of ten poems I put together in 1998, after my first year of grad school. One is called “After an Absence,” by Linda Pastan. It begins:

After an absence that was no one’s fault
we are shy with each other,
and our words seem younger than we are,
as if we must return to the time we met
and work ourselves back to the present,
the way you never read a story
from the place you stopped
but always start each book all over again.

Sometimes life is like this. We start the same book all over again. And again, and again. We forget who we were, carrying only memory ghost imprints of our younger selves. The once who were bursting with ideas. “Enthusiasm and delight” is how my Amherst College professor described my relationship to the Spanish language; I was 15, a junior in high school.

And then there is “Kannon” by Sam Hamill. How bizarre; he doesn’t know me from Eve but we are Facebook friends now 20 years later, and I watch from afar as his health dwindles. As a woman in my early 20s, his poetry spoke to some deeply human and impossible part of me.

I adore you. I love you
completely. Nothing to ask in return.

Each act of affection a lesson:
I fail, but with each failure, learn.

Like studying
under Te-shan:

thirty blows if I can’t answer,
thirty blows if I can.

And William Stafford’s “Awareness,” yet another hint of what I knew I didn’t yet know. Here are the final two stanzas:

Of hiding important things because
they don’t belong in the world.

Of now. Of maybe. Of something
different being true.

And Mary Oliver’s “March,” which ends:

“Something touched me, lightly, like a knife blade. Somewhere I felt I was bleeding, though just a little, a hint. Inside, I flared hot, then cold. I thought of you. Whom I love, madly.”

The girl I was, the teenager, the young woman, the young wife, the new mother — all of these matryoshka dolls stacked one inside another. I sit here this evening as the light fades. Much of the snow on our neighbor’s roof has melted from the storm a few days ago, and soon soon soon, spring will come for real. I feel like a grown up, even though I question what that actually means.

Oh, life. You have such a way about you.

I think it has to do with a bruised buttock — a fleshy one, too, not like the underweight ass of my youth. It has to do with mad love and evenings in, with poems as portents, with potential unfolding and dying in every single moment, rather than as something to bottle up and stash for emergencies. It has to do with being the mama now, who is strong enough to sit still, to say, “you are safe.” To mother and live in such a way that my kids can find their way to being truly themselves. And it definitely has to do with what happens when I stop trying to be good enough and instead, just love the person I’ve always been.

I look out the window at the dark, then turn to myself and say:

Keep reading for hints and watching for clues. Keep scribbling notes and paying attention to which poems grab you by the heart. Keep sharing delight and enthusiasm — for language, for learning, for stories and poems. Keep showing up, whether you feel prepared or not. Keep diving in where things are tangled and keep coming up for air where the sun shines and melts away what seems impossible and permanent. Let the seasons change. Listen to the body. It knows how to heal. Healing is possible. 

Writing at the Intersections

Blogging — really, writing in any form — is a strange enterprise, in that it’s so intimate and so impersonal at the same time. Hearing from readers always feels like finding out I won the lottery. Every single time. This morning, I received a long note from the mother of a woman I was friends with in junior high. Among other things, she wrote,

“I though you might be amazed that a 70 year old mother of a childhood friend who is not a writer (but an avid reader and a seeker) is drawn to and deeply touched by your posts.”

I slept crazy late and am sitting on my couch with a tissue literally stuffed into my nostrils (real life, yo). I am such a baby when it comes to being sick; just ask Mani and she’ll corroborate (and I will say this — she is so so good to me when I’m sick, super patient and indulgent). It’s easy to fall off the edge of the planet, as if it were flat indeed (alternative earth shape?) and everything — all the words, all the meaning, all the work, all the connections — could just go *poof* the way my writing groups do when they’re over, in an ongoing cycle of impermanence that asks me, time and again, to let go, let go, let go, and not lose a thing.

That’s what Diane’s note this morning reminded me of. We write, or create, or even just share a snippet from our day or bump into a friend at the grocery store, and it’s in the witnessing and connection that our humanity is affirmed and restored. It’s important to me to keep doing this, even (especially) when I’m feeling doubtful, when my faith is frayed and I’m literally sick and tired. This state of vulnerability connects me to every other vulnerable human — reminding me that we ALL deserve wellbeing and witness, and the “ALL” part of this equation was not written into our country’s founding documents nor integrated over time in the ways so many have fought and continue fighting for.

How did I get from a lovely note about my writing to the fundamental flaw of American ideals in a few sniffling paragraphs? How can I not is the more accurate question. Because to have a voice is to bear some responsibility for others, and as long as there is “other” we are not all free. My own intersections of privilege and “otherness” are many — the “chutes and ladders” analogy in the piece I posted yesterday (How to survive in intersectional feminist spaces 101) explains this in plain and brilliantly accessible terms:

“Oh man. Ok. Sensitive topic time. CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE. I know. It’s a scary aggressive commanding statement. But it doesn’t have to be. See, all these intersections are like a big game of chutes and ladders. Our privileges are ladders that move us toward the top of the heap, our marginalizations are chutes that slide us down.”

I am a cisgendered, white, and educated. I am also a gay, Jewish woman, dependent on the ACA for affordable health insurance, which has been literally life-saving for Mani over the past 18 months or so. My household covers several letters in the LGBTQ soup and if Trump and his cronies had their way, my beautiful marriage would legally be null and void.

I have a cold. Boo-to-the-hoo. I write and wonder why I write. And then I read that a painter friend — the one I bumped into at the grocery store last week — is questioning why bother painting right now, when, in her words, “it’s 1984.” I get it. I really do. And yet, instinct kicks in and I respond to her, “Because it’s 1984. The question contains the answer.” And then I read these words, posted by Dana Schwartz, from Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark:

“Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. When you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.”

And then I read a post from a beautiful and fierce community leader in Vermont, a woman of color who is tired and whose continuous efforts to address oppression — as the road to “unity” — are being met with accusations that she’s being “divisive.”

We have got to stop this shit and listen to each other. Our words matter. Our silences matter. I am trying mightily to address my own places of white fragility and fear (thoughts like “am I being ________enough?” that essentially betray internalized racism to begin with) so that I can root them out. It’s not a good feeling, but guess what? It’s not about feeling good, and if there’s one common thread in this learning, it’s this: It’s not personal.

So full circle back to the writing. It’s both searingly personal and flung wide-open to the world. How can both be true? I don’t really know, except that most true things are not one-dimensional but rather multifaceted, challenging, and resistant to platitudes, quick fixes, or easy answers. This is why it’s work, and this is why I’ve noticed the times when I want to write something pithy like, “We’re just getting warmed up” but them wham! Check my privilege, indeed. There are a lotta lotta women and some very good men, too, who are not just getting warmed up. Who are tired. Who have been marching this march and fighting this fight for years, decades. I’m standing on their shoulders.

My deepest desires remain like steady flickers deep in the belly: To listen. To learn. To grow. To be honest. To cultivate joy and to nurture courage — but not in pretty, feel-good, superficial ways. No, in ways that are demanding here, delicious there, and everything in between. That, to me, is real life. That is really living. Getting really down in it together, not afraid of dialogue but saying, yes, please, talk to me. Tell me what it’s like for you. Ask me about my life. Let’s not tell stories about each other but rather hear and read and really take in each other’s lived experiences.

All of this is a way of saying hello, and thank you — for showing up. For wherever you are in your own honest process of learning, resisting, fighting, questioning, and becoming more and more HERE. Life is so many things, and I am wishing you pockets of ease and sweetness today in the midst of whatever bumps or barriers you might encounter.

Art by Jen Lemen :: thewayofdevotion.org/downloads

“Download this DIY printable zine–double-sided on a piece of 11×17 paper that you can fold into a little book to share with a friend, pass out at a march, save in your bag or wheat paste wherever your heart desires. Created by self-taught artist Jen Lemen, this gentle call to action, invites you to decolonize your mind, relinquish your silence for the good of all. 

This art is FREE, so distribute freely. May we all learn how to deeply resist any powers that be that would make us less whole, less brave, less devoted to one another. May we embrace resistance and love as our path forward, now & always.”