We Need to Take Care of Our Endings

1. A middle-aged woman sitting at a kitchen table.

She has given up on wiping the sweat from her face — above her lip, round her nose. Her armpits stink. She is embracing the heat.

She has just watched a long film with her teenage daughter, “Call Me By Your Name.” It is the kind of film that evokes nostalgia, longing, the slow languid tension of sensuality and sexuality emerging.

As she watched, the woman remembered her own most potent moments of awakening. She was 18. Then she was 36. Never before had she realized these numbers, the ages, both representative in Jewish numerology — gematria, a mystical system she has always wanted to study — of life. Chai.

Naturally, he mind jumps ahead. What’s next? Fifty-four. That is a decade from now. Where will she be sitting in ten years? Will her wife be in the next room? Her daughter will be 25 then, having surely experienced her own moments of falling, coming into herself, loss, and hopefully good love.

She is wistful. Old enough to know that nostalgia is not a place to live, nor is regret. Young enough to imagine a future. Her daughter wanders into the room looking bothered by the heat and ridiculously cute in a bandanna and short, cut-off shirt with a black and white checkered design that reminds the woman of a flag at a race-car track.

“Slow down!” She wants to say to her, but she knows better. The girl, barely a girl yet still a girl, will grow at her own pace. She looks ready for the world — sitting on the floor against the fridge. The woman sees herself and not herself. They are not the same, and yet they have an understanding. Maybe someday, they will tell each other all of the stories.

2. For now, they will remain mother and daughter.

Sometimes friends, yes, but the woman believes the girl needs a mother, too. A guide, a mountain. A mountain guide.

The next night, they go for a ride just before sunset to get ice cream — mother and stepmom, daughter, and puppy. Instead of just the drive-through as they’d planned, they wind up going to the farm, where the ice cream is made on site, with milk from the cows the puppy is scared of.

It quietly thrills the woman to have this kind of together time, where all three of them are oohing and aahing over the light, pulling over to take pictures of old milk trucks and barns in the setting light. The heat has broken just enough tonight that they can ride with the windows down, enjoying a bit of a breeze.

She notices something: How often she longs for the very thing she has. As they drive home, continuing to marvel at the cloud formations and reflection of the last of the sunset against the hundreds of windows of the tall university library building, she experiences one of those moments when she can see it for what it is: Freedom. A blessing.

Why freedom? Because to have access to a vehicle and gasoline to power that vehicle, a set of keys all her own, is freedom. To have a woman whose ring she wears on her left hand — freedom. To be raising a daughter to follow and trust her own path — freedom.

Perhaps the longing is, then, the anticipation of loss. Loss due to the inevitable, which is that everything changes. And loss threatened by more violent forces — a government who would strike her family unit down, deny her children rights, take away health insurance subsidized by the state.

She knows others have been living this far longer than she has. And she’s determined not to mix up outrage with the primal drive to protect her own privileges. Her freedom to drive on this night with her wife and daughter is inextricable from everyone’s freedom. She feels messy in this. And there is also a clarity to it.

3. There often is — a clarity inside of a mess.

In fact, as soon as the woman saw these, she really SAW it. A mess is a swirl of confusion, perhaps, too many pieces, or a cloud. She pictures the Peanuts character — what was his name again? Pigpen? Something like that. The one with the cloud of dust always around his head. He is a mess. But he’s in there.

She realizes that perhaps the only thing of value she can pass along to her daughter is this: Sitting still, with a hand over your heart, is sometimes the most powerful action there is. It’s not passivity, no. Quite the opposite, as it requires presence and intention. Nonaction is sometimes the only way to let the dust settle, literally, so as to be able to see the clarity of what it’s occluding.

She scoffs for a moment at her own vocabulary. Who uses words like “occluding,” anyway? She resists the urge to look it up, to learn its roots. It seems like one of those words that would surely have an interesting etymology.

But she doesn’t. Looking up the roots of words, while entertaining, is sometimes a form of avoidance. Back to the cloud of confusion, she wants to tell her daughter something: When you don’t know what to do, wait and do nothing. Or, when you don’t know what to do, follow Anne Sexton’s lead and put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard. Or, when you don’t know what to do, trust yourself. Sit. Be still. Let the dust settle, no matter how urgent things feel. (Unless they are urgent, she wants to add, in the immediate sense, i.e. you are in imminent danger — in that case, do whatever you need to do to get safe.)

She pauses to take a deep breath. Is this too much, she wonders, or not enough? A quiver of panic shoots through her — she knows there is only so much time and soon her daughter will be all the way grown.

4. She sits in the cold of the air-conditioned living room.

She’s considering the moment earlier in the day, when she asked her daughter if she’d make the calls they’d agreed about. Calls to colleges the woman would never be able to afford, but on which her daughter had set her sights nonetheless. Calls to ask how the admissions people would view an applicant who had essentially skipped high school and gone on to get an Associate’s degree from a community college instead.

She got her haircut that day, for the first time in years. Not short, just a trim to clean up the neglected ends. How often is it that ends are neglected, she wondered, as she sat in the faux leather swivel chair, enjoying the time to be cared for by another woman, the owner of the salon, a woman named Frankie.

If you neglect the ends, you don’t get a complete story. Her mind goes back to the hour-long show, Nanette, by an Australian comic named Hannah Gadsby. She’d been hearing about it from others nonstop and finally convinced her wife to watch it together.

She — Hannah — talks about endings. About how comedy is all about creating tension and then relieving tension. All about the beginning and the middle of a story. Being so good at her job for so long, as a comedienne, had essentially trapped her in the most traumatic middle of her own story, without an opportunity to have an ending, to tell the whole thing, to let herself grow and heal.

We need to take care of our endings. What did this have to do with parenting in this moment? She pondered for a moment, looking up at the room as if an answer might materialize out of thin air.

She needed to let her children have their own stories.

5. Would you believe the heat wave had broken?

Now she sat in the kitchen, the same green chair where she’d begun this story days before. She could hear the puppy snoring under the coffee table in the next room, where her wife was reading.

Two days earlier, she’d spent the day with her own mother and her daughter — three generations. It had been her mother’s idea, the “spa day” that turned out to be a couples massage for the 44-year old and the teen, followed by a delightful discovery of the best falafel this side of Israel and some thrift store and window shopping. They didn’t buy anything, though the grandmother oohed and aaahed her way through a store packed to the gills with buttons and fabrics.

Outside the store, the woman chuckled to her daughter: “Seeing your Baba ooh and aah over buttons isn’t something you’ll soon forget.”

She felt herself relax over the course of their hours, moving away from tricky topics like gender pronouns and easing into the kind of wandering in a small town that can lower a person’s blood pressure if they let it.

She let her mom do the 45-minute drive home and closed her eyes in the passenger seat, while the teen listened to music on headphones in the back.

“Reminds me of the old days, when we used to vacation together,” said the grandmother. The woman nodded, pushing the lever that leaned the leather seat further back. She remembered. She remembered being a child on those vacations, and she remembered her own child being young on still later ones.

They’d likely not vacation together again, for more reasons than the woman would get into now. Needless to say, a day was just right. They stopped for ice cream before returning home, letting the summer day run long. She remembered how she used to have such a hard time saying goodbye, letting go. She still did.

But it would get easier. She would let her daughter, and her son for that matter, have their own stories. She would let them grow up. And she would always be there, when they needed her. This much she knew.

* * *

I wrote “Picture This” as part of the July Pop-Up Microstory group. Watch for the next one in the fall!

Here’s the microstory I wrote in May:

https://www.jenaschwartz.com/denial-not-an-option/

“Supposed to” Is the Death Knell of Creative Ease


Friends, it is 12:45pm on Monday. I feel like I haven’t done a thing.

That’s not true, of course. Let’s review.

I got up out of bed. I put on jeans and a sweatshirt and peed and brushed my teeth and had coffee. I prepared French toast for Pearl with a birthday candle in each piece — much easier to blow out than 12 + 1 for good luck! I navigated some choppy mothering waters and even got us safely to shore (aka school) through some mild rapids.

I made my daughter a cup of coffee and talked about saving and budgeting. I greeted the members of four writing groups, some with prompts and some with an invitation to set intentions for a brand new week of writing and life. I emailed my ex-husband to work out some upcoming schedule changes. I washed some dishes and ate breakfast. I responded to some emails and messages with current and potential coaching clients.

Without sharing details, let’s say the aforementioned choppy waters had to do with expectations. How is the day supposed to go? How am I supposed to feel? How should it look (this life, this work, this age, this thing I’m writing, this special day)?

“Supposed to” and “should” are the death knells of creative ease.

We get into trouble when we load a thing up with expectations. Too many preconceived notions quickly become impossibly weighty, and some degree of struggling or suffering seems inevitable with that kind of pressure.

I was on the phone with a client late last week. I looked out the window at the steadily falling snow, not missing the metaphor. When I expect April to be sunshine and daffodils, I’m going to be disappointed and maybe even pissed off when it’s in the low 30s — and snowing. (It’s not supposed to snow in April, I hear myself whining.) But if I expect April to be whatever April’s going to be, then my chances of blowing a gasket when it snows go significantly down.

Setting clear expectations for ourselves can be super useful. It’s all well and good to be ambitious, to have big dreams and visions. It’s also a good idea to baby-step it by naming some tangible, attainable outcomes you hope to reach.

For example, if I say, I want to write something amazing this week, fuhgeddaboutit. I will spend a bunch of time feeling pressured, overthinking, and procrastinating. Not only will this interfere with me writing anything in the first place, it will most likely hamper my ability to actually start and keep going when I do finally sit my ass down in a chair.

However, things open up quite a bit if I say: By the end of the day (or week), I would like to have written. Period. Full stop.  Or, I would like to have spent one hour writing. Or, I would like to have written a shitty first draft. Any of these give me something to aim for without setting me up for sure failure based on a bar either too high or too amorphous.

A free-floating expectation is impossible to catch.

Like dandelion fluff (after the April snow, that is), it flutters away the moment you try to palm it. Likewise, expectations that are too rigid in their specificity can also be burdensome. Playing with some middle ground — being clear about intentions while leaving room for things not to go quite as planned — is a way to stay grounded and set yourself up for a sense of accomplishment.

As a mama, as a writer, as an entrepreneur, expectations can either be my BFF or my nemesis. I’m doing what I can over here to work towards the former relationship.

With that in mind, let me start over.

Friends, it is 1:10pm on Monday. I’ve been engaged in matters both domestic, personal, and professional since getting up this morning.

The sun is shining and it’s my son’s 12th birthday. In one hour, I’ll pick him up early from school and, if he wants, we’ll go get that free cupcake at Barnes & Noble. I feel blessed to be connected to hundreds of people who write throughout the country and world, a few dozen of whom will check in today as we begin a new week in various online groups. What a miracle, really. My wife is working on her puzzle and listening to a podcast in the other room, and the houseplants are drinking in the light through the south-facing windows.

Is all of that good enough? It really is, if I let it be.

Holiness Is in How We Teach Our Children

Photo: Josh Appel, Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, Oświęcim, Poland. “This is Siggy Weiser. He is a Holocaust survivor. 75 years later he is in looking as Jewish kids praying at the death camp Auschwitz, Mr. Wesier’s previous living area where he was threatened with death daily.”

My daughter’s shaving her head.

Well, actually, her cousin’s friend is doing the honors, in a college dorm room.

My daughter told me she has written something about the why of this. She forgot to send it to me, but says she will tomorrow.

I am looking forward to reading it.

My daughter is 15 going on a shaved head.

It’s just hair. This is what I tell myself. This is where I land. I listen to her voice, her dreams and ideas and fears and hardest places. I look at her eyes. Not her hair.

She studied the Holocaust last fall with her grandfather, my dad.

She has seen the shaved heads.

I have a tattoo. Two tattoos, actually. I might get more.

When Jews, Catholics, the Roma, gay and communist and disabled humans, reached Auschwitz, they were divided into two groups: Those who went straight to the gas chambers, and those who were stripped, shaved, tattooed, and sent to the barracks to work. Really, to die, just more slowly.

Some survived. They swore, never again. They whispered it. Secrets burned on skin, never to be talked about. Never a shaved head. Never a tattoo. The unspeakable.

What is it to take things things back, to reclaim, to honor the dead, to choose life, to take back ownership of the body?

What is it to express the spirit on skin?

How is our hair a symbol of autonomy and agency and choice — just as what we wear, how we speak, and how we love are all ways of declaring existence, selfhood, peoplehood, sovereignty, and worth?

My daughter is shaving off all of her hair.

Not because she is sick.

Not because she is unstable.

Not because she is rebellious.

Not because she is dishonoring memory.

I do not know her reasons yet, but I believe her when she tells me she has her reasons.

And what will I say, when I see her?

I will say: You are beautiful.

I will say: I love you.

I will say: Your being is a song to those who died.

I will say: Your songs soothe the ones who survived.

I will say: I can see your soul, your neshama, even more brightly.

I will say: This world needs you in it.

These are harrowing times for growing up. I call on my ancestors to light the way, to remind me that hair is just hair and that hair, too, can be holy.

That holiness is in how we teach our children and how we learn from our children.

That this dance across time is how we keep being here, despite the odds.

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 Perfect American Family”

Watching American Ninja Warrior this morning, one of the contestants gave the glowy little story about his family and how he came to be on the show.

“We were the perfect American family…” he began. A photo flashed across the screen of himself, his wife, a boy and a girl. White, blonde, middle class, smiling.

Hold up a second.

I pointed out to Pearl what I’d just seen and heard. This is the stuff we’re bombarded with in every medium countless times a day, often without even pausing to register the message, the myth, and most importantly — the harm they cause and the system of white supremacy they uphold.

The man continued to narrate his road to the show. He and his wife adopted a third child from an African nation. This boy “completed” their family. So now we are also expected to applaud them for this noble move and get teary at how sweet it is that they don’t see race.

A few minutes later, Pearl asked a question. (I hadn’t realized he was thinking about it — a good reminder that our kids are paying much more attention than we may think.)

“Would it have been better if he’d said they were the ‘stereotypical’ American family?”

I responded that I thought this would be at least a step in the right direction.

Who defines “perfect” or “typical” or “average”? Narratives come in many forms — written, spoken, visual. The dominant ones — on TV, in textbooks, on magazine covers, in the news — perpetuate a story about America that normalizes and celebrates whiteness as the default setting (not to mention heterosexual, Christian, cisgender, etc.).

If you haven’t already, think about the impact of the pairing of that contestant’s photo with his “perfect American family” comment for a non-white kid, or a kid with a single mom or a kid with same-sex parents for that matter. That adopted child is not going to have the same experience and ease in the world as his white siblings. I hope to God his parents know this.

White parents: Please.

Look hard at yourself. At the ways you want to bubble wrap your littles and protect them from the harshness of the world.

Think about the fact that parents of color have to talk with their children about not getting KILLED. To consider how they talk, what they wear, where they walk or drive, who they’re with — all while navigating a culture that centers whiteness and all while white people and culture are saying: You’re overreacting. You’re being too sensitive. You’re imagining things. You’re being negative.

Do not “protect” your kids from the realities of racism and the ways white dominance seeps into every aspect of our daily lives. No matter their age, they are old enough.

Catch these moments. Say something. Ask questions. Talk about it. Everything counts.

If we want things to change, we cannot raise fragile kids. This is not about being a good white person or getting pats on the back. This is about bringing up a generation who sees through the bullshit and won’t stand for it.