I’d Rather Be Real Than Popular

Photo: Jonatán Becerra

Do you ever feel like you should only share your writing when it’s happy, or when you’ve pored over it a thousand times? Do you ever only sit down to write when your sad? How do different moods affect your writing?

Tonight, I am just super down.

I know this is way amplified by PMS, and yes, I tend to come to this space every few months it seems around this time of the month. Is that wallowing? Whatever. Here I am. I ate half a pint of ice cream and it was so good. I read several articles about Trayvon Martin, who should have turned 23 a few weeks ago but didn’t because he was killed by a man who lives a free life today.

I have plenty of irrational fears. My fears have nothing to do with going out at night and wearing a hoodie, and this is important to note.

My fears are that if I have moods, if I’m not shiny and inspirational all of the time, people will not want to be around me. And if people don’t want to be around me, nobody will want to join my writing groups or work with me and I will stop making a living and we will be in deep doo-doo.

Really, my mind goes there in 2.2 seconds.

I told a very close friend over coffee last Friday morning about this, this persistent fear. I mean, it’s not a bad thing to be mindful of sustaining one’s income and providing for one’s family — ok, my income, my family — but that is a very different thing from fear.

This friend, I should mention, is a Buddhist. The real deal. And you know what she said? That it’s my resistance to the fear that is problematic, not the fear itself. So she suggested not resisting it.

I’m taking this to heart. And tonight, I’m doing the same with my heavy mood.

Honestly, if your mood was never heavy these days, I’d question what kind of person you are. On the other hand, too much empathy can be paralyzing. I think the thing might be to do what my friend advised, and not resist any of it. Hello, sadness. Hello, irritation. Hello, fear. Hello, hello. Come in. You can’t sleep in my bed with me and no way do you get to share my ice cream, but come and we can sit together for just a little while.

What do you have to tell me? I’m listening.

Oh, I see. It starts with that deep breath. And just feeling feelings. Feeling the weight of the body here on the couch. Closing my eyes for a moment.

The moment I feel the feelings, this thing happens: I remember that while there is so much that needs my attention, there is, in this moment, no action to take. The urgency to fix things can get in the way of remembering who I am. Same goes for doing, doing, doing. Doing that is sourced in lack or fear is like pouring water into a ditch; the soil just soaks it up until there’s nothing but a muddy mess.

But doing that is intentional — that’s more like pouring water into a potted plant, thoughtfully, lovingly, and paying attention to the moment when it begins to drain from the bottom. The plant does not need an endless amount of water all at once. it needs just the right amount, every few days or so. Love doesn’t mean constant, hyper-focused attention. That sounds smothering.

No, love means saying come in. You don’t get to have so much power here, so instead of yelling at me from the driveway and tossing rocks at my window, I am calling you up, pouring you a cup of tea, and giving you a bit of my undivided attention.

So what are you scared of, love? What are you sad about? Why the tears springing up? Tell me everything. Or just sip your tea. We don’t even have to talk.

If you only write when you’re happy and shiny, I’m not sure I’ll trust you. Write whenever you feel like writing. Don’t worry about who’s reading. Don’t worry about how it sounds or whether it’s any good.

Remember who you are. A person who writes to connect with yourself. A person who writes to make sense of emotions and moods and experiences and highs and lows. A person who would rather be real than popular.

And Jena? Remember what this space is for: Showing up. Practicing. And beginning again and again and again.

The Darker the Night… Reflections on 2017


The past few days found me in a funk. Nothing major, but sometimes that makes moods even harder to bear; you feel like you should at least have a reason for being irritable or sad. But this was free-floating, hormonal, and seasonal, with nothing to do but try my hardest to just stay with myself, not be a jerk to my wife and kids, and self-manage as gently as possible until it passed. (Would it pass? This is always the question. And the answer is always the same.)

Emily Dickinson must’ve experienced many a similar mood. After all, she’s the one who wrote:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

This morning, the sun is shining on the newly fallen snow. It is falling in shimmery drifts from the pine boughs just outside my bedroom windows, and the southeastern light looks like something pure and hopeful. I may not be super psyched to dig out my car later, but there’s no denying the particular beauty this season offers in moments like these.

Perspective is one of the first casualties – temporarily, thank god, of the kind of mood that hangs out dangerously close to the border crossing into depression. It’s more like a white-out; driving snow, limited visibility. I’m relieved and grateful as I sit down to write this morning that the sky seems to have cleared and I can see a bit more clearly again. A tiny sparrow dive-bombing a snow drift 100 times its size; a hawk overhead, sun illuminating its underside; and room to breathe.

Yesterday, room to breathe felt more difficult to come by, even though nothing externally was really all that different than this. That’s the thing with aliveness. We must learn how to sit with ten thousand states of being, some ecstatic and others downright sucky. Squirmy, uncomfortable, climb-out-of-your-skin, and ever so easy to want to draw your bow and aim the sharpest arrow for the person closest to you.

If you have a spouse or partner or kids, yikes. You may become convinced it’s their fault, in ways that may not make an iota of rational sense. Or you might start pummeling yourself with darts, instead, losing sight of your amazingness, convinced you’ve fucked it all up, failed at everything you’ve ever tried, and are, in three succinct little words, a lost cause.

Ouch.

It can really, really hurt, this place of scary driving conditions. Probably best not to go out. Maybe a good a time to clean the bathroom, sweep the kitchen, plow through stacks of papers where even the stink bugs found safe harbor when the cold weather came.

Meditation may tell us to sit with these difficult emotions, and the cushion is definitely one good place to practice surviving them and observing the shitstorm passing through your mind and body like a short-circuiting machine. I also believe there are many ways to meditate, and sometimes being in motion and touching the real, tangible things in my immediate sphere is incredibly grounding and can help me come back to a more forgiving heart.

This morning, I woke remembering a film reel of disturbing dreams. Mani brought coffee. I plugged in the twinkle lights. And as I began to wake up and feel my way into a new day, I realized something: I felt better. I noticed on Instagram that several friends had created “best nine” photo montages from 2017, so I decided that might be a fun exercise. As I scrolled my camera roll through hundreds of images, something beautiful occurred: I began remembering and letting myself really appreciate the fullness of the year that’s coming to its end. The sense of not-enough-ness that plagued me the past few days dissolved in the face of so much evidence to the contrary.

Concerts with Mani – Laura Marling, numerous kirtans, Ben Sollee, Iron & Wine, and Regina Spektor. An overnight to NYC with Aviva. Swimming at Puffer’s Pond with Pearl. Two writing retreats, one in Amherst and one in Wisconsin, and a summer writing group down at the Nacul Center, back when it was still light out as we wrapped up at 8:00pm, and more than a dozen online writing groups. Visits with friends, tears, outrage, words, typewriters in town, and all the ups and downs that make a life a life. Seasons changing, bodies changing, relationships changing, kids changing. Mani weaning off of hard-core pain meds, devoting every ounce of her being to recovering her health. Kind neighbors. Steep learning curves. White privilege and misogyny and heteronormative lies falling like flies. Trees and trees and trees and trees. Shabbat, week after week. COFFEE.

I’m reminded of the song from Rent: 525,600 minutes… How do you measure, measure a year?

Those lyricists nailed it.

This post goes out to all of you. You who offer me so much kindness and encouragement to keep going. You who choose to write with me. You who make me laugh. You who challenge me to shed harmful beliefs and ways of being. You who inspire me with your own perseverance and courage, though it may not feel like courage to you. You who teach me how to have and hold boundaries. You whose everyday existence testifies to the fact that the world holds so much fierce truth and beauty.

With a special dedication to Emily Dickinson, Susa Talan, and Tia Finn — who all share a birthday today, and who teach me how to pay attention and stay true. I love you. 

A Little of Everything (When Everything Is Everything)

Photo: Elijah Hiett

Sunday consisted of a little of everything. Dreams as vivid as films, forgotten in a blink but returning in flashes throughout the day. Coffee. A run alongside Pearl on her bike up to my parents’ house, where I dropped her off to work for a couple of hours. My mom got her shining silver, sweeping the porch, and weeding the garden. I ran home, aware of some tension I couldn’t place but that hung on most of the day.

Later in the afternoon, it morphed into irritation, then fear, then I put my face up close to Mani’s and asked her to remind me to come in off the ledge. “Yeah, no ledges,” she said.

No ledges. How often do you find yourself there — on that imaginary edge of the world where with a single misstep, you might fall all the way off? It’s silly, maybe, but can seem oh so real. It amazes me how convincing certain states of being are, especially what I deem the “hard” ones. But then I think of this line from the novel I just started (Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi):

The need to call this thing ‘good’ and this thing ‘bad,’ this thing ‘white’ and this thing ‘black,’ was an impulse that Effia did not understand. In her village, everything was everything. Everything bore the weight of everything else.

I see the impulse to label everything. The “bad” states of being — anxiety, fear, anger, agitation, irritability, tension, stress — are all interrelated, like the reunion of the side of the family you do your best to avoid but comes over unannounced no matter. Then there are the “good” states of being — joy, ease, flow, gratitude, curiosity, connection. In their absence, I can worry (will they ever come home?). And when I’m experiencing these, aaaaaah, my ability to trust life expands exponentially.

But what if everything is everything? How does it shift my perception, if everything bears the weight of everything else? Well, for one thing, I can see a bit more clearly, the ephemeral nature of ALL of the above. It becomes easier to step away from the ledge, because I know the ledge is imaginary, no more real than tomorrow. When everything bears the weight of everything, everything is somehow more bearable.

Sometimes, a superstition haunts me a little bit. It goes a little something like this: I will somehow, unknowingly and inadvertently, cause the well to dry up.The well of blessings. Even reading these words makes me shrug my shoulders; obviously I don’t have that kind of power, nor are there some distant Gods watching my every move who will show their pleasure or displeasure with me on a whim. We are beings with free will; bad things happen to the best of people and the most evil of humans get away with atrocities every day. From this standpoint, it’s easy to get kind of hopeless and nihilistic about it.

But to me, it’s actually a positive thing that we are more than just chess pieces in some cosmic game. Why? Because it means that while we may have little control about what life brings to us, we get to choose how to meet life. Today, I felt tense. I swept the kitchen floor. I tried to take a nap but got interrupted five times in 45 minutes, got up feeling groggy and cranky, and then said yes when my sister invited us over for a bite to eat. Later, we got ice cream and saw some roosters. Now, day is done. Kids are clean. Mani’s eating. I’m typing in the quiet kitchen. Night has fallen. The crickets offer up the  tiniest of bells.

The fear that everything will crumble, the missing in advance, the love that sometimes gets eclipsed by moods and minor annoyances, the smile that quickly turns to a squall — all of the daily dynamics that happen not only within each of us but as part of any family unit — none of it stays. None of it.

What stays is this, the coming back. The sitting down. the writing as a way of returning to everything that is everything, where I don’t have to be so quick to say good, bad, hard, easy, black, white. I can just be here, feeling the full weight of this body, and letting the thoughts dissipate, as transient and insubstantial as the day itself.

It Was Only a Matter of Time

It was only a matter of time. Twenty-eight days, to be more specific. Only a matter of 28 days before I’d stand up against the wall I’ve come to know so well. This wall is pock-marked, like skin that healed unevenly after years of acne. Or scarred, with years of stories painted in layers across its surface, chipping here, thicker there. It’s a wall that can support the entire weight of me, weight that feels like it will fall from between my legs like an unnamed planet, leaving a trail of blood across the sky of my white thighs. This is the rhythm of the body.

It was only a matter of time before I began to question everything again. My purpose. My karma. The kind of thing I talk out loud to myself about as I trudge up the hill carrying a bag of groceries, shifting the weight from one hand to the other as the straps cut lines across my palms. Questions like these have no answers; they are circular in nature and always close in on themselves, like moons. I put away the organic cream, the unscented dish soap, the bags of rice. I fold the bag and toss it to the closet floor. This is the rhythm of the lunar month.

It was only a matter of time before the noise of the world started sounding like wind on the other side of old windows, not rattling so much as whooshing, soothing as an ultrasound seeking a heartbeat. I curl into the womb of her arms and count my breaths, blankets pulled up close under my chin. I see why home can be called a crib; I am a tiny unborn body floating in darkness. If it weren’t for the sky I can hear outside, I would tell you this bed was made of ocean. This is the rhythm of knowing when to pull up the shades and when to leave them down.

It was only a matter of time before something in me snapped awake again and I cried out to some presence that may or may not exist. Show me the way! Knowing, always, that there’s more than meets the eye, more than the mind can conjure and that the body, this belly, this blood is a barometer of time and what it’s time for. I still don’t know, but as sure as I want to close my ears and eyes I will listen on the inside for the sound of that knowing. This is the dark rhythm of something like faith, though language feels thin today, and worn.

It was only a matter of time before I remembered the starlings in the plaza at dusk and how happy they made me feel. How much I belonged there in a country where my body had no explanation but youth and skin. I listened then, as the sky changed to indigo, and I could not tell where the percussion of leaves changed to the rioting of so many birds. That was long before babies grew inside of me, long before my name changed and changed again full circle like the belly and the moon, long before the longing that would lead me here. This is the rhythm of deliverance.

It was only a matter of time before I rebelled against wanting what I didn’t have and was never meant to be mine. Why am I here? To open again and again. To empty again and again. To realign the walls I stand against with new fabrics, dried blood-red stone walls that fortify the insides of me you’ll never see. This is my own wind howling in the deserted spaces. My own song of hollow canyons filled with air you can’t hold in your hands. My voice that came screaming out after the panic in the silent movie of a recent dream. This is the rhythm of the eyelids, the hidden places.

I come here tonight to honor this cycle rather than resisting and fighting it. To breathe sound into rage that has no source and sadness that has no outlet. Let it not pool but rush and gush forth unobstructed, like words when you open the valve and so many centuries come competing for airtime. Let them all speak at once. Let them take turns. Let a thousand languages overwhelm your senses until you rock yourself to sleep and dream of hands holding the fullness of you until you’re ready, again, to carry your own.

The Art of Taking Rest

Photo: Ismael Nieto

Photo: Ismael Nieto

1. Shabbat (It Can Wait)

It starts Friday. By about 3:00pm, I feel it coming. The kids have headed to their dad’s. The internet grows relatively quiet. Writing in my groups slows down as people wrap up the work week. I come into the bedroom and tell Mani I’m debating between a nap and errands. She takes one look at me and tells me the answer without saying a word.

Two hours later, I get up and post on Facebook:

Unless it’s burning or bleeding, it can wait. It can wait a minute. An hour. A full 24 hours. The work will be better for having rested, the connections deeper, the mind sharper, the ideas brighter, and the heart clearer.

It sounds nice. But this does not come easily to me, this letting things wait. There’s some fear underlying it, a shadow side to my intention. As a provider for my family, I could easily work seven days a week, taking breaks of course, but really, sitting down at my computer first thing in the morning and working until late each night is not uncommon ’round these parts.

Thus: Shabbat. A day of rest. Truly a whole day. Not just a 20-minute run or afternoon nap with my love. Not just squeezing in a swim or watching Kids Cupcake Wars at bedtime, but taking an entire night and day off from being actively engaged with the world beyond the walls of my home and whatever outside I might choose to step into.

Truth is, this happens maybe once, twice a month. And it doesn’t happen to me. I have to make it a priority like my house was on fire and rest is the only thing that will put out the flames and salvage the treasures inside.

If I inherited my father’s love of language, I also have a maternal gene for movement. My mother is the hummingbird: Quick, light, always in motion. It’s funny; as I write I’m thinking how much more I identify with a sloth than a fast-moving little bird! But that very sluggishness is the counterpart to my capacity to fit a lot in to the waking hours — sometimes too much.

Returning, again and again, to balance — this is my practice. And without going “dark,” sometimes I fear my light will go out for good.

Balancing out the fear is faith, which includes letting go of ego. Ego says: It is all up to you! Faith reminds me: Not only won’t things fall apart without my constant presence, but really, the world depends much, much less on me than I sometimes fall for believing. If my work were so fragile that it depended on me being swiftly responsive to every single ping and poke and tag and comment and inquiry, we’d be in big trouble.

And so. I step back. Shabbat Shalom. 

2. From Sundown to Sundown (A Whole Lot of Nothing)

Saturday morning, the sun still rises. Hallelujah.

We spend the day hanging out together doing a whole lot of nothing. Wake up around 10:00am. Drink coffee in bed. Read some New York Times articles out loud to Mani. Resist the urge to share several things on Facebook.

At some point after lunch, we get our sexy on, then nap without my setting an alarm as I do during the work week.

After I get up, it’s time for a late-afternoon swim at Puffer’s, gliding through the spring-fed water, feeling strong and grateful. Then I eat a burrito in town before coming home to make dinner for Mani. (We still don’t eat together, due to her mast cell disease, though we are determined that this will change.)

The beauty of a day of real rest is that you don’t necessarily remember how you spent it. You just remember that it was… wait for it… restful.

Such a relief. Such a necessity. Such a reset. “I’m going to have to write about this,” I tell Mani. She laughs. “I knew you were going to say that.” It’s nice to be known.

3. Havdalah (A Sweet Week)

For those of you who aren’t Jewish, or who (like I was for the first half of my life, Jewish without knowing anything about Judaism), at the end of Shabbat there is a beautiful ceremony called havdalah, which means “separation.”

Separation is a big thing for Jews. It’s how we know what’s what. What’s holy and what’s mundane; what’s darkness and what’s light; what’s right and what’s unjust. Shabbat, the day of rest, sits apart from the other six days. The busy ones. The ones that blur by, with everyday demands, schedules, things to make and do.

Shabbat is when we sit back and see and feel and, in the language of yoga and savasana, “receive the benefits of our practice.” I’ve never heard a rabbi compare Shabbat to savasana, actually, but it’s often what comes to mind for me as an obvious parallel. We practice, stretch, sweat it out (literally or figuratively), show up, struggle, learn, listen, work, respond, and take care of all the kinds of business, all week long.

In the documentary we watched Friday night, I Am Not Your Guru, Tony Robbins talks about how many people think of life as happening TO us and not FOR us. That shift is a game-changer, and no matter your station or situation in life, I believe we all have the ability and right to make that decision.

But without some rest, without time to integrate so much activity and reaction and keeping up, I’m a goner. I forget what it’s even like to FEEL. I lose touch with priorities; all of life, work, and love become one flat landscape with no distinguishing features.

Last night — as the last of the yellow, post-thunderstorm light faded, I sang to Mani. “A good week, a week of peace. May gladness reign, and joy increase. A good week, a week of peace. May gladness reign, and joy increase.” Then I wished her shavua tov, a sweet week, as is customary.

4. Sunday (I Am the Storm)

Sunday afternoon. I’ve spent the day so far writing, reading, interacting online, and doing our August budget. And that’s when it starts. I see the storm rolling in — and the storm is me.

Now, wait just a minute now; wasn’t that day of rest supposed to keep this kind of thing from happening? Uhhhh, let me think. Nope. As it turns out, resting does not make you superhuman. Moods still happen. This falls–as Mani reminds me–under the heading of “being human.”

It’s not easy to keep loving myself when I am the storm. I like myself a lot more when I’m the rest — double entendre intended.

I see it coming — the storm that is me. The storm that is a mood, nothing more, nothing less, and yet so easy to mistake as a failure, obliterating all the “good” stuff and making me a fraud for sharing beautiful moments on social media.

It comes on with a wispy but noticeable gust; I’m frustrated that the GPS on my phone took me on a wild-goose chase to meet up with my niece and sister for a nice dip at the little town beach they like.

I see it coming and cannot not stop it, just the way dark clouds roll in late in these hot summer afternoons, suddenly it’s dark at 5:00pm in July and the thunder rumbles in warning and then boom! Here comes the deluge.

It’s all-encompassing. I find myself hating the people in front of me in line at the grocery store, and the guy in the big truck who guns his engines. I imagine getting into a shouting match with him about politics. I hate myself a little for being hateful.

I make a point of thanking my angels the whole time I’m walk up to our second-floor apartment with the bags of groceries. It takes two trips, though I leave the 24-pack of water bottles in the backseat. I put everything away. I go pee in Aviva’s bathroom, so as not to wake Mani from a nap, only to see that her shampoo, which was upside down, has leaked all over the edges of the tub.

Part of me wants to call her at her dad’s and holler: YOU HAVE TO BE MORE CAREFUL. Thunder and lightning by now, rain lashing the windows of my mind, wind howling. I scrub and wipe and rinse. Next, I move to the dishes that I ignored all day in the kitchen sink. I’m noticing anger rising at a friend I’m feeling blown off by. I’m recognizing the drama of this even as I feel helpless to stop it. I’m breathing. I’m washing dishes. I’m breathing.

I burst into the bedroom and rant to Mani about the friend. Suddenly, I wonder if I have any friends who are feeling hurt by me. Shit. It feels good, though, to just say words out loud. To just say it, without actually blowing up a friendship I care about.

I make some food for Mani. Then I realize I ought to eat, too. I get out the smoked turkey, Monterey Jack, and lettuce, smear some mayo on a flour tortilla, and call it dinner. I realize the storm has let up a bit. But something in me knows that if I am going to write about taking rest, I have to write about this, too. About losing my shit and being ok. About how yucky and awful it feels to be inside that kind of storm — to be the storm itself.

I take a look around myself. My love for my people has not been annihilated. My beating heart is still intact, no worse for the wear. I haven’t done anything irreversible or harmful to others.

And the words I shared earlier in the day are not fraudulent. They are, like everything we share on social media, a glimpse. A moment. Nothing any of us shares is ever everything, but that doesn’t make any of it less genuine.

This is the summer of ripe avocados and blue corn tortilla chips.
Of coaching and talking about writing and life, seeing your faces and hearing your voices in Japan, England, Australia, Canada, Germany, Holland, and all around the U.S.
Of not waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Of exhaling and believing the next breath will come, until it doesn’t, and no point worrying about that.
Of summer bodies, swimming to the dam, and walking around the house topless when the kids aren’t home.
Of an all-the-way open heart that’s learning how to have a swinging gate.
Of welcome, come in. Of closed for a nap, be back in an hour.

Of not knowing what’s next. Of knowing that we never know what’s next.
Of not letting that stop us from making all kinds of fabulous plans. Because if we don’t know, why not go big?
Of saying I’m here and then letting go. Of not pushing.
Of listening to the nervous system. Of rewiring old patterns of fight, of flight, of saying goodbye to the old, familiar you’re-in-trouble-shouldnta-said-written-shared-that voice.
Of loving the shit out of my wife. Of flowers I don’t pick and engines I don’t start and games I don’t play. Of wild blackberries.
This is the summer of entering year two — year two of not smoking, year two of self-employment.
Of standing on some kind of imaginary plateau and what a view and now what, but first a snack.
Of strong thighs and soft belly and loving the way my 40s are reshaping not only my body but my relationship to its sexy curves and grown-up realness.
Of trust. Has it ever not been the summer of trust? Nevermind, don’t answer that.
Of banging up against perfectionism and seeing it for what it is. Flimsy. Fake.
This is the summer of seeing what happens, when I remember it’s just practice.

5. After the Storm (Resilience)

Is it obvious, what I’m going to say now? Taking rest is a practice. Like any practice — from teeth-brushing to meditation to writing — this is not a one-time thing.

If you believe in God, this is the part where you sing God’s praises and say, Damn, that was smart, the whole Shabbat thing. It’s like God not only saw the writing on the wall — oh, these beautiful humans are going to be a mess sometimes — but like God, too, needed time to integrate all of that making and doing, all of that responding and surveying and deciding what to create next.

Shabbat doesn’t save me from moods, but it gives me a little more resilience when they come. Being good to myself — spending time just being — this is what reinforces the inner architecture that can withstand the gale force winds of emotions, passing moods, hormones, and other potentially damaging forces.

I write about practice. My work, be it prompting people in their writing or their lives (or both, as if often the case), is completely oriented around practice. And like all practitioners — of anything, really — I’m no exception. When I don’t take rest, my resilience goes out the window. It becomes a victim of the storm. And since the storm is me, I literally become my own victim. That’s really not how I want this to go.

And so I take rest. I hold on to the rafters when I have to. And I watch when the skies clear. I lean over and kiss my wife on the cheek. It’s dark, time for bed almost. And I’m ready, for a brand new week.