Dinner for One


Pearl went out with his dad and Aviva didn’t feel like joining me. So here I am, just me and my laptop and a not-too-strong Cosmopolitan at my side. I am such a lightweight when it comes to alcohol, that it’s likely I won’t even finish the one drink — and having a cocktail midweek is virtually unheard of for me these or any days. Tonight, though, it just felt like a good call. I entertained getting a local beet salad, then realized who was I kidding and ordered a burger and fries.

Dinner for one. It’s been a while.

Taking myself out this evening is a gift to myself. It’s me saying: Hi, self. You’re working hard. You’re showing up. You’re loving your wife and your kiddos and your clients and your groups. You’re a little cooked tonight; don’t forget to love yourself, too. It’s not that I don’t most of the time, but it certainly can get lost in the shuffle. The days have been full, the world a heartache and also a place of beauty and connection, so many things always true at once. Isn’t this what I have always come back to, especially when I sit down to write?

The moments that move me to tears though they may not seem like anything major: Mani talking excitedly about the dog crate and other puppy supplies she ordered today, a writer choosing a date for her new blog to live, my daughter’s new song.

Last night, while V was singing, I finally cried. I cried for the kids. I cried for the kids in Parkland. I cried for kids who are navigating adolescence in a world where mass shootings are commonplace.  Her lyrics, her heart — sitting on the edge of her bed and listening to her undid me. I just let the tears fall as she sang what could be an anthem for her generation. I just read the back of the bartender’s t-shirt: 9 out of 10 kids prefer crayons to guns.

My food just arrived and now my hands are sticky with ketchup.

When I told Mani earlier I was thinking of going out to get a bite to eat, she said: “I think you should. I  think you should do whatever the hell you want.” “Really?” I asked. (This is a typical exchange between us.)

She went on to say yes. I’m paraphrasing, but she essentially said: Yes because you love hard and you work hard. Yes because you don’t need a reason or an excuse or a justification. I told her I was feeling a little unsure about work. Not what I’m doing, but whether I’m doing it “right.” She blinked at me and reminded me that stats for new businesses at the three-year mark. Oh, right, I remembered. It’s working. Just keep going. My business may not be brand new, but it’s probably a toddler in terms of business development.

There’s time for things to unfold. 

Then I recalled the three client conversations I had today, all with women at various stages of writing. The common thread? Letting things unfold. We go in all gangbusters to write a book, to build a business, what have you, and then this thing happens called Process. Nothing goes the way we thought it would. Maybe it goes even better. Maybe just different. The straight line, like that popular cartoon, is a tangled squiggly mess of a thing. It looks… real.

And what do I tell said writers? Trust the process, the unfolding. The shape of things will emerge. Keep writing, keep going, keep building. Read a lot of books. Talk to people. Get really quiet. Sit with the hard parts. Trust, trust, trust.

It’s all I’ve ever really written about, come to think of it. I bet at least half of the blog posts I’ve written over the past 11 years have boiled down to that one word — and that’s not just the Cosmo talking (though I have surprised myself and nearly polished off my drink).

“You have created a beautiful, successful business,” my wife calls to me as I put on my boots.

“Really?” I ask. (See? Typical.)

“Really.”

I take this in and reflect on the wonderful conversations with these clients today, ones where it was so easy for me to see them where they are and believe in where they’re headed. I had one last question for her before heading out to eat.

“Why is it so much easier for us to see each other’s wholeness than our own? Why is it that we have such wisdom for other people, yet struggle to apply it to our own writing and life and work?”

“It’s a distance thing,” she said. And of course she was right. Other people see what we do well, see our gifts and strengths and best qualities, in ways that we often don’t.  It can be one of the most beautiful aspects of being in right relationship — to ourselves, our creativity, our work, our families, our colleagues, our comrades. Ideally, we help build each other up — not in falsehoods or ego strokes, but in true and genuine seeing, encouragement, and presence.

And with that, I just took the last swig of my drink. The burger is gone and the fries a close second. I’ll leave a big tip and head home soon to watch Jeopardy! with my son, to say goodnight three times to my daughter, and to end another day of life with my love. Tomorrow, God willing, I’ll wake up and get to do it all over again.

The Reunion


Late this afternoon, I stopped by The Arbors, an assisted living facility here in town. Pearl’s piano teacher was sitting shiva for her mom, who passed away. Today would have been her 93rd birthday.

Walking into that building for the first time in nearly 15 years brought back a kind of visceral memory: The heavy scent of air freshener; the living room with the leftover holiday decorations; the long corridor lined with numbered apartments. My Grammy, Celia — my mom’s mom, and my Grandpa Max — my dad’s father, both lived out their final years there.

Sitting in the bright, nicely furnished apartment for half hour or so was poignant; Pearl’s teacher’s friends came in one or two at a time, with food and flowers. We looked at some photos and heard a story or two recounting her mom’s exuberant spirit — stories I’ve already passed along to Mani, stories that will now live with me even though I never met the woman.

**

After I said my goodbyes, I made my way back to the lobby. But the piano in the sitting room was whispering to me, so I asked the woman at the reception desk if it would be ok for me to sit and play a song or two. “I don’t see why not,” she replied.

I didn’t even take off my coat before pulling out the bench, lifting the lid, and exposing the 88 keys I’d known my whole life. It felt like a reunion. It was a reunion.

I stuttered through George Winston’s “Thanksgiving,” a piece I learned by ear in high school and used to play with great feeling. The piano was woefully out of tune, but this did not stop me.

Next came the angst-ridden crush song I wrote for Jamie Ferguson when I was 16 (hint: “I just can’t tell if you notice me”). And then I stopped trying to remember anything by heart and did what I used to do for hours on end: I improvised. And found myself in tears.

**

When I looked up, a woman with keys around her neck was standing at the end of the baby grand. “That was beautiful,” she said. Tears were spilling down my cheeks and I could hardly catch my breath.

“This is — this was — my piano,” I managed to tell her. We introduced ourselves; her name was Tiffany.

I played this piano from the time I began begging to take lessons like my big sisters. I played Suzuki and Bartok and later Bach and Beethoven on this piano. I practiced this piano every day from age five until I quit taking lessons, sometime in high school. I was stubborn when it came to working on the hard parts. But I never stopped playing.

This piano was where I went for comfort, for solace, for expression, for fun, for a good cry.

Then I moved out and moved on.

**

Eventually, I got a piano of my own, an upright my then-husband surprised me with for our third anniversary, not a week before Aviva was born. This was the piano both of my kids learned to play on. And though my technical abilities faded with time, my love of improvising never left me.

By 2003, both of my remaining grandparents had passed away. And my parents decided to donate the baby grand to The Arbors, where it would bring joy to many elderly residents for years to come — right up until this day.

One house and three apartments later, the sad day came when the movers broke the news: They couldn’t get the piano around the turn at the top of the stairs. I cried. We moved it to my parents’ living room,  to the same nook where the baby grand used to live. Now, we have an electric keyboard the kids play; I’ve tried to sit there, but it’s just not the same.

**

It’s like that, isn’t it? The locks to memory ride with us like quiet passengers, until something turns and clicks and suddenly we are awash in emotion we didn’t see behind the door we’d forgotten was there.

I have to admit, for a hot minute part of me — something childlike and irrational — wanted to say, “I want it back! It’s mine!”

Instead, I walked away, and asked Tiffany if I might come again to play some more. “I live right up the street,” I told her.

“Anytime,” she said with a kind smile. “Anytime at all.”

Fifteen Minutes

8:33pm
I just read a book to Pearl — an old favorite we hadn’t read in ages called “Mrs. Katz and Tush,” by Patricia Polacco. Just when I think Pearl — who turned 11 in April — is done with me in all of the appropriate, growing-up ways, she surprises me and asks if we can read a picture book. Sure, I said, and that is the one I chose from the shelf. As I reached for it, a smattering of dust floated from the neglected shelf. When the book was over, I turned out her light and kiss hered cheek. “Love you,” she said quietly, as I left the room. “Can you come check on me in 10 minutes and whisper, Pearl!“? I told her I would, then came to the kitchen, got a bowl of ice cream, and sat down to write.

8:38pm
This kind of thing used to be a cornerstone of my writing time. I’d get through another day of life and work and kids, then go to my blog to sort it all out (or not, as the case often was). To sift through the pieces and see what could be named. I wrote to find out where I was. A lot of the time, it even worked.

8:40pm
Over the years, this practice has shape-shifted more times that I can count. Facebook has taken over my blog to some degree since it’s entirely possible I have more “readers” there than I do here at this point. But I didn’t start writing for any readers at all. Not a single one. I started — and kept going — because the writing itself, the very act of sitting down to say hello to myself, to find out where I’d been all day, sustained me. It was like an old friend I’d reconnected with after so many years — you know the one? The one you think about every day but for some reason never pick up the phone to call, secretly hoping you reconnect before one of you dies, then wondering it that’s a weird and morbid thought that maybe you shouldn’t say out loud.

8:42pm
One paragraph every two minutes. Already I am remembering something, a language I learned but stopped using on a regular basis. Was I really fluent once? I find it hard to believe. I sit down here, in the space between saying goodnight to Pearl and going back in to her dark room to whisper, “Pearl!” just as she asked me. There’s a bowl of nectarines on the table and a cool breeze after the heavy rain we waited for all day.

8:44pm
Aviva just graduated from 8th grade. When I started blogging, she was four. In September, she starts high school at the same school I graduated from 26 years ago. I can’t even tell you what she’s like because she’s so… herself. This morning in the car, we were talking about her resemblance to me. I told her all those years of sun and smoking didn’t do me any favors in terms of my skin and aging, but didn’t suggest I’d have changed a thing, either. How could I?

8:46pm
I don’t believe in looking back and thinking about changing things. I don’t ask myself questions like, if you could say anything to your younger self, what would it be? She had to experience all of it — moments of utter rightness, when laundry was hanging on a line in the backyard and the light was just so, and moments of wretched loneliness and pain, when every choice seemed impossible. What could I possibly tell her, when she ended up here, when we ended up as one?

8:48pm
This blog has always been a space of a single word: Hineni. I am here.

I see now that it still is.

Pecking Away

4emljshk4kk-noah-rosenfieldAnd then you remember the lesson you learned — was it one year ago, or two now — the years a blur of high points and low points.

I’m picturing a bench, sun, late June 2105, my wife in the hospital and me, sitting there at intervals throughout the day and night, smoking cloves, writing on my phone, wondering what will happen next and how we will go on.

Today, she told me about a friend whose girlfriend left him because he was very sick.

I told her — she was cooking chicken and rice and I was about to run to town to eat a falafel then pick up wrapping paper and toilet paper and prescriptions at CVS — that I could see how that happens. I didn’t know if I had it in me, to stay with life that was so other than I’d expected.

But I knew if the tables were turned — if I’d been sick and she well — the thought of leaving would not even have crossed her mind. I knew this.

I felt sad for that time and the fact that it crossed mine, though relieved that we can talk about it now and grateful I was able to let the sun shine on my face on a bench by the hospital, that she let me take care of her when she needed it and that I learned how to do the thing that didn’t come easily to me.

I remember a woman at a writing group I led during that time saying, honestly Jena, I don’t know if I could do what you’re doing. But I knew I was not a hero. Just a decent human and a good wife, which is the only kind she deserved then just as she deserves now.

And then there was the time I wrote my way into her shoes and finally understood.

It’s funny — this was not the lesson I had in mind at the beginning here, not at all. I was going to write about how I’ve grown more comfortable with the fact that there are many billions of us here, and trusting that there’s enough birdseed to go around.

I was going to write about the quiet meeting place between who I want to be and who I am, and that scarcity leads to ugliness.

The writing does this, doesn’t it? Leads us down some winding trail into territory we didn’t pack properly for, then spits us out by some clearing but not the one we followed the red dots painted on trees towards.

If we’re lucky, there’s a bench for sitting and taking in the sky for a while. A bag of crumbs for the birds. A decision you don’t regret making.