Stay Close, Stay Close (This Is How I Come Home)

Photo: Brina Blum

Sitting down to write while the household sleeps, the household in this moment being Mani, my wife of nearly four years, and Chalupa, our English bulldog puppy. Mani got up with her today at 5:00am, and is napping in the bedroom. Chalupa crashed after lunch and is snoring loudly on the living room floor. I’m on the couch listening to Joni Mitchell, wondering how it’s almost 3:00pm already. Then again, I only got up five hours ago.

My son is with his dad this week — they went up to visit family in Vermont. He’s mostly sticking close to home this summer, doing “friends” camps. He is also doing weekly Hebrew lessons, as a step towards more intensive bar mitzvah preparation next year. Middle school begins in the fall, which is seventh grade here.

My daughter is currently in Georgia at a state park, as part of a three-week road trip through the south, learning about organic farming. I’ll get to visit her a week from today, and then she’ll spend three more weeks in the Hudson River Valley. Camp is her happy place — her neshama, or soul, comes to life there. And I already know she’ll come home in August changed. She starts community college in September — the alternative we reached to high school, which was not a good fit for her.

The heat wave from a few weeks ago is already the stuff of memory, and I feel slightly jarred by time right now. The tiny prayer flags hanging in front of the south-facing window across the room flutter in the comfortable breeze, and I feel wistful. You know that full feeling, the one that’s hard to put your finger on? It’s a combination of gratitude, grief, and such a big love of life, mixed with something like lack of control. Knowing anything can happen and anything does. Knowing so much sadness and injustice exists, and the incongruity of this as juxtaposed with snoring puppies and peaceful moments.

The world has never been noisier. Finding pockets of quiet is imperative — and the question lives in me of what the difference is between centering and checking out. I’m always conscious of these dichotomies, the spaces between things, the liminal, the things we name as opposites or as mutually exclusive. What lives there? It’s the basis for a new group I’m leading this fall, Between Opposite Shores.

And I feel so acutely today the knowledge that nothing is guaranteed us. Not tomorrow, not years together, not watching our kids grow, not our next meal. No matter how solid things may seem. I suppose the flip side is also true, then: When life feels most fragile, we can find an inner pillar to hold us upright. It makes me want to witness and hold all of the stories — the ones that get swallowed by darkness, the ones that get forgotten by the lightning-fast news cycles.

Now Valerie June comes on the playlist with her Workin’ Woman Blues. I close my eyes for a minute. A parade of images crosses my mind, of the way history lives inside of our bodies and the way grandmothers hold babies close and the way stories can injure or heal, which is to say, all of us can cause harm or repair harm. Which is up to us, but it’s not easy. It takes years and years and years of life unfolding, of learning how to listen closely to your own soul, of seeing the ways you’ve been misled or mistaken.

I worry I’ve been a shitty friend to a friend of mine. Or friends of mine. I hold myself to a standard of perfection that cannot be upheld or achieved. A tightness forms in my throat as I write these words. Because I want to be good, and for people to know how deeply I love. But I won’t always get it right.

Yesterday, I made a peach tart kind of thing. It was going to be a pie, but I didn’t have the right-shaped pan so I had to improvise. The crust is thick and buttery and dense, the filling peachy and sweet. I ate it for breakfast and I suspect I might also eat it for dinner, because it’s summer and I no longer fear calories the way I used to. I have a body, with fat and cellulite and pounds I do not measure or wish away. This body bleeds and scars and its toes wiggle and oh how it loves to kiss and swim and shower and stretch.

Writing is like the cornstarch — it helps hold together the filling. That may be the worst metaphor ever written, but hey. Whatever.

I watched a video earlier about Claire Wineland, who is 21 and has lived her whole life with cystic fibrosis. She is beautiful — self-possessed, disarmingly funny and real. Listening to her talk about how proud she is of her life touched something in me, something deep and old. As a girl, I used to imagine my life was a movie. In some ways, I wonder now if this was a way of disassociating. On the other hand, it made me feel ultra-present and in some way, important. This — this life — somehow it had to matter.

Letting go of “trying to figure out how” has been useful. Those words send me straight into my head, where solutions disappear the ways stars do when you look directly at them. Trusting life continues to be my biggest practice. And it is enough. My scariest moments are the ones when I can’t see: Can’t see where I am, where I’m heading. And the only way I know back from these ledges is to look around. Literally look around the room — bookshelf, chair, mug, dog, notebook, wife. Stay close, stay close.

Stay close to your right now. Stay close to your heart. Stay close to not needing to know what comes next or how to be better. Stay close to this life, the one you’re in. Let the throat open and the tears flow. Don’t think first. What do you feel? What do you know to be true in this moment?

This is how I come home.

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Come home to a beautiful, growing community of people who care deeply about writing + real life. Join me on Patreon.

Building Community, Asking for Help, and Not Burning Out

Asking for help is hard. And that’s what I’m coming here to do. I’m coming to ask for your help so that I can keep building community — without burning out.

This week, I created a Patreon account. I’ve been looking at this membership platform for a while now, as a way of leveling out my monthly income and taking a baby step away from Facebook in terms of where I share my day-to-day writing. As of this moment, I have 11 patrons.

In case you’re unfamiliar — you become a “patron” by choosing a monthly tier, and each tier comes with certain benefits. These include a PDF of 18 essays, weekly prompts, access to new poems before I share elsewhere, a weekly “ask me anything” option, discounts on my writing groups, coaching sessions ranging from 30 minutes to four hours/month, and even just-for-you writers’ care packages! Needless to say, I’m super excited about it and hope you will be, too.

I have it set up right now that my first goals there are financial — and they will allow me to offer scholarships to my groups. This is a core value of mine — making my work accessible to people regardless of how much money they have.

I grew up with things like summer camps and lessons and trips. Many kids grow up not knowing if they will have three meals that day. And while my groups are not for children, they are for adult humans whose early experiences in life shaped a good deal of what we believe we can have, what is for us.

I’ve carried a belief, that because I “chose” to be self-employed, I should suck it up that I don’t have paid time off. I’m certainly not complaining.

And, the real life version is, of course, more complicated than that, more multifaceted and layered. That’s the thing about real life — it always is. It’s also what makes for a) the best stories and b) true connection, where we’re not masking what’s true or molding ourselves to what we think others want to see, hear, and believe.

Mani’s illness thrust me into this work. It was one of those crazy moments where the scariest, hardest stuff was intextricable from the most creative and courageous. I started leading online groups and retreats while working at a full-time job, then after about nine months of that, including 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave three summers ago, it became clear that going back to the office was not an option. She needed me home full-time.

Now, she’s sitting here in the living room working away on her own stuff as I work on mine, with the puppy snoring between us. Her healing journey is hers to share, so I will not write to that here.

What I can tell you is this: I love my work, and all of you, deeply. Sitting here in my living room last night with four women, each of whom wrote and shared, I felt tears in my eyes. Creating these spaces for words, stories, poetry, connection, community, courage, realness — this is why I’m here.

And, I don’t always know how to see what I need in the midst of the work, not to mention being a mom with kids at pivotal moments in their own growing.

What became very clear to me recently was that I need a little break. My vision has been to be able to step away from Facebook in August, for most if not all of the month. To continue my in-person groups and coaching, to anticipate a fall full of online groups and new ideas, but to be able to take some time away, too, from social media.

I see Patreon as a way both of creating a sustainable Community Writers’ Fund, and also as an eventual way to open up more possibility for me to focus on my own writing. I do not have a room of my own; I literally write anywhere and everywhere, throughout the day — the kitchen, the living room, the car. I have dreams of working on new books. I hear the voices in my head that say: Well, that’s nice, you privileged white lady. How about dreams of fair immigration practices? How about dreams of restorative justice for communities of color?

And I know — these are not mutually exclusive. To care deeply about justice doesn’t mean denying my own creativity and humanity. My deepest hope is that the two are connected, all the way at the roots. Also, I know an inner critic when I hear one.

I share all of us with so much gratitude. It is because of you that this work has become a thing. It is because of you I’ve kept going and not, in my frequent moments of fear and doubt, thrown in the towel and dusted off my resume. It is because of your encouragement that I feel safe to share all of this with you.

Asking for help is hard.

I learned that when Mani was sick.

It’s also one of the realest things there is.

So, I’m asking.

Will you help me take a break this August?

My intention is to come back strong in September, to start again, and most important, to keep going. With all of it. Because that’s what we do. We keep starting, again and again, we keep going. And we also acknowledge that we are not machines, but humans.

Join me on Patreon, at whatever monthly tier feels good to you: www.patreon.com/jenaschwartz.

And/or: Send a one-time donation, simply because you appreciate what I share here and this is a tangible way to help one self-employed mama not burn out: www.paypal.me/jenaschwartz.

For reading this far, for being on the other side of the words, for making it safe to be this honest and vulnerable, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.