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.

Boundaries, Conflict, Forgiveness — Oh My!

Photo: Oscar Keys

When you ask a question and the answer is no, that means the conversation is over.

“No” is not an invitation to push back, argue, convince, emote, cajole, or complain your way to a different outcome.

The time you spend fussing about doing a thing is often how long it would’ve taken to get said thing done.

You can accept not getting your way without a meltdown.

“No” does not mean, “I don’t love you.”

“No” does not mean, “You are unlovable.”

“No” does not mean, “I’m angry at you.”

“I’m angry at you” does not mean, “I don’t love you.”

“I’m angry at you” does not mean, “You are unlovable.”

* * *

Interpersonal conflict is part of life. It is absolutely unavoidable. It is something many of us are terrified of, unskilled at, and reactive to.

Making mistakes is also an absolutely unavoidable part of life. No matter how conscientious, thoughtful, mindful, caring, and considerate you are, you will have blindspots. You will misjudge. You will say a thing or ask a question or make a request and later think, what was I thinking?

That is the moment when learning begins.

That is the moment when a voice in your head is very likely to start up, likely with something harsh and berating, such as, “You idiot!”

That is the moment when your heart may start racing, when your bowels will loosen, when your hands will get sweaty. Fight, flight, freeze, fawn — one or more of these will appear in a nanosecond and your body will go into a system of red alert.

* * *

I recently made a mistake. In the moment, it didn’t seem like a big deal, though I could feel an undercurrent of pressure and rushing that should’ve been signals if I’d been paying closer attention.

Person A wanted to join Persons B and C for an outing. (My role: Intermediary between these parties.) Persons B and C had preexisting plans, that weren’t 100% ideal for Person A. Person A pushed on me to ask Persons B and C if they could change their plan to accommodate this.

Had I been more in tune with my values at this moment — such as respect, connection, trust, and honesty — I would have told Person A, either you can change YOUR plans in order to join Persons B and C, or you can let it go.

Instead, I caved and asked Persons B and C if they could change THEIR plans.

Why did I make this decision? Because this is real life: Messy, stumbling, incurably imperfect. If only we could see the whole picture in each and every moment.

Then came later. Because of going to an event 45 minutes later than planned, all the involved persons missed the highlights of the event, which Person C in particular had been looking forward to for months, perhaps even longer. Person C was hysterically sad. (It may be noted that Person C is a very young person, whose sadness was not unreasonable.)

And so it was that Friday night, I received a text from Person D, telling me how hurt she was by my asking Persons B and C to change their plans to accommodate Person A.

In a word, it sucked.

In another word: I made a mistake.

And there was no way to undo that, no way to go back and change it, no way to fix it. All I could do was take responsibility, notice what I wished I had done and said instead, and apologize six ways to Sunday for my poor judgment call.

Would the relationships all be ok?

Of course, that was the fear.

In a word: Loss.

Person A wrote a card with a very sweet drawing and put it in Persons B, C, and D’s mailbox.

I invited Person D to go for a run the next day. We met up in the driveway and gave each other a hug. We talked about how much we mean to each other. We talked about our families of origin and how we learned (or didn’t learn) to meet conflict, anger, and hurt feelings.

Persons B, C, and D forgave Person A and me. We all learned some things.

* * *

“No” means no.

“Yes, this is how that will work for us” is not an invitation to negotiating alternatives.

Boundaries are healthy.

Relationships worth keeping can withstand some conflict.

You cannot control another person’s reaction. We all bring whole lives to our responses to things, and there is almost guaranteed to be other stuff going on that may not be visible to the naked eye.

You are allowed to be angry.

You are allowed to feel hurt.

You are allowed to be scared.

You are allowed to make mistakes.

You are allowed to apologize. But it is not up to you whether or how your apology will be received. Not every song has a nice major chord of resolution at the end.

* * *

You are not required to learn form these experiences, but your world will be richer and your relationships stronger if you do. And there is no avoiding them, lest we live in a fragile, entitled state of needing everything to go our way.

Friends can become family. Family is not a guarantee of closeness.

Anger and hurt are inevitable and normal parts of being a human.

Forgiveness is a choice, not a duty.

Communication takes effort.

It’s worth it.

* * * 

Want to spend 2019 exploring how small but mighty words (like “honesty” and “courage”) show up in your everyday life?

Join me for Truth: A Year-Long Exploration of Personal Values.

Arbitrary Conventions, Untwisting the Overalls, and Learning to Say No

This morning, after drinking coffee and greeting writing groups online, I walked over to the bookshelf in my living room. I closed my eyes and scanned the spines with my right hand, then landed on one and slipped it out from the shelf. When I opened my eyes, I saw that I had selected a beautiful volume of Thich Nhat Hanh’s journals from 1962 to 1966, called Fragrant Palm Leaves. The copyright of my edition is from 1998. Like many of the books that have survived move after move, this one has stayed with me for two decades now.

I opened to page 89.

“Youth is a time for seeking truth. Years ago I wrote in my journal that even if it destroys you, you must hold to the truth. I knew early on that finding truth is not same as finding happiness. You aspire to see the truth, but once you have seen it, you cannot avoid suffering. Otherwise, you’ve seen nothing at all. You are still hostage to arbitrary conventions set up by others. People judge themselves and each other based on standards that are not their own. In fact, such standards are mere wishful thinking, borrowed from public opinion and common viewpoints. One thing is judged as good and another as bad, one thing virtuous and another evil, one thing true and another false. But when the criteria used to arrive at such judgments are not your own, they are not your truth. Truth cannot be borrowed. It can only be experienced directly. The fruit of exploration, suffering, and the direct encounter between one’s own spirit and reality — the reality of the present moment and the reality of ten thousand lifetimes. For each person, it is different. And it is different today than it was yesterday.” 

Take your time reading that paragraph. Go back and reread it if you’d like. I’ll wait.

Now take a deep breath and just take a moment to notice where your thoughts went.

Mine went all over the place — back to youth, when I first read this book, to this morning, when I practiced setting boundaries, something that is difficult for me probably because I have acted for so much of life according to outside criteria for what’s good and virtuous, and to the reality of this present moment, with the early April light melting the snow that stuck this morning.

Seeing what’s true means seeing suffering. There is no unseeing it. But there is being conscious of how we see and how we respond. There is the truth that truth is different for each person, and anytime I assume what’s true for another human without asking, I am asleep at the wheel.

Falling asleep at the wheel is, in a word, dangerous. Have you ever done it? Literally nodded off while driving? Or felt your eyes heavy just in time to pull over safely? That is some terrifying shit.

* * *

“Truth cannot be borrowed. It can only be experienced directly.”

I keep returning to that sentence. The magnitude of it, the simplicity of it, even as direct experience is often anything but simple. What it isn’t is borrowed, manufactured, imagined, or intellectualized. Either a thing is happening or a thing isn’t happening.

How we meet experience, and process it in our minds and bodies afterwards, how we digest and metabolize experience, how we release the waste and keep the nutrients — these are complex functions. They require time and care, patience and compassion.

These days are bringing many opportunities to look at arbitrary conventions I’ve taken on and taken in as truths.

For example: A good mom is always available to and for her kids.

For example: Being self-employed means I should drop everything when someone needs me (since technically, I can).

* * *

This morning, after reading page 89 in the randomly selected and timely book, I wrote a poem:

The pit of the belly
of the beast
of the people pleaser.
The pool of fear
that seethes
in the chest
in the interstitial places
between ribs
of the little child
whose parents are
fighting
down the hall
their s’s curving
down the narrow
tunnel between
rooms
careening into
catastrophe
in a young girl’s
mind.
Go further
and she has
rainbow wallpaper
small tufted clouds
she writes notes
slips papers
beneath doors
apologizing
though she has done
nothing
wrong.
Years later
a woman sits
in her own living
room and says
a simple “no”
to a simple question.
First a man asks
then a girl
and both times
the woman
says no, not today.
No, I am not able.
No, that won’t work
for me.
Her belly
clenches
and chest tightens,
mind revs up
like a motor
that will burn itself
out in a stench
if she’s not careful.
Just say no.
Just say it.
Practice, she tells herself.
What is the worst
thing
that will happen?
She will peel back
the layers
to see the tender
fragile skin
where this began.
And maybe
it will even
heal.

Recognizing that I can rewrite the story and change the narrative — based on direct experience, based on exploration, based on trusting the messages my own body sends me — feels big. It is a way of saying to myself and life: Let’s try something different today, shall we? It’s choosing an unknown instead of the familiar pattern.

Interrupting patterns and creating new ones is the work of a lifetime. I want to do these things with great care, but without walking on eggshells. I want to trust myself to communicate in ways that are loving, honest, direct, and clear. If I’m not sure how to respond to someone, I want to say, “I’m not sure how to respond to this right now. Let me sit with it and get back to you by [enter specified time frame here].”

Without the slowing down piece of this equation, you know what happens? Something seemingly small can overtake my entire day. I can spend hours going over what I wrote or said, questioning myself, thinking through alternate scenarios, and addressing a thousand thoughts about why maybe I could have or should have acted or responded differently.

THAT, my friends, is madness. And life is too short and relationships are too important to settle for madness. I’m a much bigger fan of sanity, clarity, and ease.

* * *

What we think is reality can get so twisted.

It’s like when you do laundry and there’s a pair of overalls in the machine along with shirts and pants, and when you go take the load out to put it in the dryer, the straps from the overalls are wrapped around and around and around the other clothes. A big tangled mess.

Why not just wash the overalls separately next time, right?

Now I’m not even sure quite what it is I’m writing about. Something about truth. Something about rewriting old stories that are more rooted in arbitrary convention than in lived experience. Something about boundaries and learning how to say no and knowing that it won’t ruin a thing, and if it did, that might be an indication that said thing was a bit too fragile in the first place.

Strong, healthy, mature relationships can not only withstand boundaries; they can grow stronger as a result. This goes for my marriage and my parenting, as well as for my work. But man, getting there, living this, is a real work in progress.

* * *

I’m learning how to just say “no.” It makes the times I can and choose to say “yes” so much more authentic. Arbitrary conventions I’ve swallowed and internalized insist I’m being stubborn, selfish, and inflexible. They say I’m not playing nice. I’m noticing how strong those are, and replacing them with a message to myself that in fact, I’m being clear, kind, and real.

If someone I love has a true emergency, you better believe I’ll drop everything. But the frequency with which I drop everything — whether it’s to get a kid a glass of water or give someone a ride or respond to a message that can really wait a few hours — is a signal. It’s time to heed it. It’s time to pull over to the side of the road, splash some cold water on my face, and not cause harm by functioning in ways that are more habitual than fully awake.

I’m going to practice washing things with high tangle potential by themselves, hang them to dry, and do what I can to minimize creating a frustrating mess. The more real, honest, and courageous I am in terms of boundaries, the more truly available I can be for the people and things that are deeply precious to me.

When I look at it that way, it’s not a hard choice to make.

The Awesomeness of Being Wrong


Story: “I suck at following instructions.”

WRONG. 

It may not sound like much. But when the new kitchen island arrived on the side porch and Aviva and I attempted to lug it inside, that was my first thought. I slit the box open and carried the pieces upstairs, two or three at a time. I recycled and/or discarded the cardboard, styrofoam, and plastic. I winced at the packaging and got dizzy from the off-gassing. (As an aside, did you know that off-gassing emits as many as 99 known toxins into the air for up to 10 years? We are seriously reconsidering purchasing anything again that uses formaldehyde).

By the time I plunked the bag of hardware on the kitchen table and surveyed the dozens of pieces of pressed wood, I thought: Welp, my work here is done. Time to wait for Mani to come put this baby together.

After all, I suck at this kind of thing. That is the story I’ve told my whole life. Yes, I did manage to assemble a cute night table from Ikea a few years back (one of the drawers wobbles, but still…). And wait, I put together those two yellow desks in our room… No, no, I think. Those don’t really count. They were relatively straightforward jobs, nothing so big and complicated as this thing.

When we got a new bookshelf and TV stand for the living room, we even called friends over to help. Granted, it was as much an excuse to see them and hang out as a bona fide need for help. But still, the reassurance of other eyes and hands has historically brought no small comfort.

I used to be someone who waited for a man to put together the furniture. Then lo and behold, I married a woman who happens to be really good at this (she once spent hours and hours putting together a loft bed — with a slide — in Pearl’s room). I still didn’t have to look at my own learned helplessness.

* * *

Story: “I am someone who likes being taken care of.”

WRONG. Well, sort of wrong. 

At the same time, I remained ignorant of my own capacity and ability and power by wanting other people to take care of me. “Other people” most often implied people of the male persuasion. Fathers, husbands, guy friends — who can come put this damn thing together?

Now, I still like being taken care of. But being taken care of while knowing I am fully able to take care of myself is a whole different ballgame. Since my first marriage ended and I came out of the closet, so much about who I thought I was and the stories I told about myself have undergone seismic shifts — including this one.

I’ve been the breadwinner for the past three years, bringing in more income on my own than I did previously in my full-time job. I work a lot. I also get to be home when Pearl gets off the school bus, and go for spontaneous coffee dates with my teenage daughter who’s not in traditional school this year. Mani and I are both home all day, a reality that began as necessity when she was sick and became a choice when I became self-employed.

I was so scared to leave my job. SO scared.  That was 2015. Now I still have bouts of insecurity, both they don’t come quite as often or last as long. The fear no longer feels like terror or panic, more like an annoyance, a stinkbug that got in the house from under the garage door. I open a window and flick it back outside.

It feels good to let this story fall away. The one where I need someone else, probably a man, to make the money and to put together the furniture purchased with said money.

It also feels good  to redefine “being taken care of.”

* * *

I AM taken care of. I have a wife whose unconditional belief in me, patience, and presence is beyond anything I’ve ever known. She doesn’t coddle my rehabbing addiction to praise, and this in turn makes her support that much more reliable because I know it’s not contingent on her expectations of me. It just IS.

I can’t say what got into me last week, but I tackled those instructions like a boss. Once I started, I didn’t want to stop. One step at a time — ABC, 123, bird by bird — I put that baby together. I could hardly believe it myself — I was doing it! I’m someone who can read and follow assembly instructions, who knew?!

The best part, in addition to some mad satisfaction at my newfound badassery, was how WRONG I had been about myself. Wrong, wrong, wrong! All those Instagram posts saying how the mere sight of the instruction booklet stressed me out? Completely, fabulously, gloriously, magnificently WRONG.

Now we have a little more cabinet and counter space in our kitchen, and I have added a bit more evidence for myself of a new, true story. One where I’m capable, grown-up, and able to earn money, care for my family, put furniture together, stay when things get really, really hard, and forgive myself when I fuck up. Thankfully, finding out who I really am is an ongoing thing. I wonder what else I’m wrong about, and can’t wait to find out.

* * *

Story: I’m so much more than the stories I tell myself about myself.

RIGHT.

The Work Is More Important

Photo: Alexis Fauvet

I was walking to town earlier and talking to my angel posse, the sky a brilliant deep blue above, my gait swift, the cold air refreshing after a morning indoors.

I was thinking about my website and how from time to time, I get carried away by thinking it should be better, bigger, or different — and how this habitual thinking is familiar and comfortable, like the coat I love but sadly, have outgrown. It’s snug around the middle though I’m loathe to admit it, and it doesn’t really give me room to move freely and stay warm at the same time.

Well, that thinking — the “not enough” stuff with its claws tearing open healed over places — doesn’t fit anymore, but damn if I don’t still squeeze myself into it on occasion.

What came to me was this: “The work is more important than the website.”

The work is more important than the website. Oh, right!

What actually goes on — in groups and one-on-one — this is the work. The creative process, the writing, the sharing without apology, this is the work. And it is such real stuff.

Websites are nice. They can be supremely useful and aesthetically gorgeous and wonderfully functional. But they are not the work itself, at least not in my case. Remembering this today felt so good, like coming home.

And then I was on North Pleasant Street — no longer talking to myself (I try to save that for less public spaces, lol). I spotted the guy with the clipboard up ahead and did a quick mental dance about whether I would stop or not. I decided to let him give his spiel, which was about Doctors Without Borders. I agreed to a one-time donation, and as I stood there filling out my information in his iPad, we got to chatting. I asked if he was a student, and then he asked what I do.

“I work with writers,” I told him. Before I could say another word he lit up. “You mean, like, with writing books?!” I laughed. “Yes, among other things. Why, are you writing a book?”

Not one, but seven, he told me, but he feels stuck because he doesn’t have people to share his writing with, doesn’t know about self-publishing, and wishes he had some community he could trust and learn from and with.

He asked if I have a writing group.

As a matter of fact…

I need to order new business cards, so I told him my website, showing him the home page and how he can contact me. The very website I had earlier today been focused on improving, until I returned to the essential fact that I am already doing the work! And the work’s more important than the website.

He said he’d have a look and get in touch.

Before we parted ways, he asked my name, extending his hand.

“Jena,” I told him, “with one n. What’s yours?”

“Yeshaq, with a q.”

Nice to meet you, Yeshaq.