Free Associating and the Analyst’s Couch

Photo: Jimmy Bay

I’ve been clicking away from this screen on and off for a while now, maybe half-hour or so. I’m reminding myself of a moth — the way it will flutter and bang up against the same light over and over again. What is it trying to do or get, anyway? And why is “The Moth” storytelling show called “The Moth”? This, my friends, is what we call free associating.

I had a great therapist back in Burlington. Well, I had a few great therapists back in Burlington, but the one I am thinking of now was actually an analyst, with a couch for lying on facing away from her and everything. After my initial self-consciousness faded, I loved it. I loved her disembodied voice behind me, and how I could lie down there and just start sobbing, or be quiet for a long time. I loved how we unraveled some things that have remained deeply instructive to me, some fundamental ways of relating to myself and life that I came to see, during that year or so, I no longer needed.

Free associating has its benefits.

Friends with benefits, for example, is the next thought I have. The woman I launched into relationship with when I first came out — we tried that for a while, as a way of tempering the fact that being in a capital-R Relationship kept not working, but on the other hand we couldn’t seem to stay away from each other, either. But it was too murky for me, that territory. Turns out I didn’t much want to have sex with my friends — and that she and I weren’t really friends at all.

Stretched out on Jeanne P.’s couch is where I began to understand that I was deeply conditioned to look inward. All my life, I’d had the sensation that my internal landscape was something of a kaleidoscope; you could look and look and look and get lost in there, always more hidden, more to seek, and an inherent sense of something being missing. In a way, this was my safest place. I could maintain a focus on relationships with other people, but at the end of the day, I was alone with myself. Life with someone else, truly being seen and met and known, felt wistfully impossible.

It’s no coincidence that one of the poems I related most to was Emily Dickinson’s #640, which begins:

I cannot live with You –
It would be Life –
And Life is over there –
Behind the Shelf

The Sexton keeps the Key to –

I wanted more than anything to be alone, or so I thought.

I still love being alone. As I write this, my wife is sitting across the room. Her back is to me; she’s at her computer, too. We are in the same room, breathing the same air. The kids are at my sister’s house with their dad, celebrating the Jewish new year with a potluck feast. I got sick this week and had to forego services and gatherings.

Our third anniversary is in six days, though we’ve been an item for closer to six years. In those six years, I have learned how to maintain my relationship with myself AND to wholly give myself to another. To get to have room for my needs, my experience, my desire, and my emotions AND be present for hers. That these aren’t mutually exclusive was a learning curve for me.

Bottom line: We all have real lives. There is no greener grass. And for the first time perhaps ever, I am not locked up inside of myself but rather right here. I’m free associating and giving myself permission — to to write, to free associate, to ramble, to see what happens when I explore the connections between things without an agenda. Permission is cool that way, isn’t it? And even cooler is that we get to give it to ourselves. Thanks, self!

Much of my writing about my kids these days happens behind closed doors, i.e. in secret spaces where I can write freely about my experiences as a parent without risking my kids’ trust or betraying their privacy. It’s such a huge part of life, and yet not one I write terribly much about publicly at this point. I know this is true for many women who started out blogging years ago when our little ones were, in fact, little. Now, they are not little. They are big. They are 11 and nearly 15, and there is plenty I know I don’t know about their complex inner lives and their day-to-day experiences. I try to be present to and available for them without hovering or smothering, though the latter can be a challenge for this Jewish mama who favors hugs and sharing.

See? That was a complete non sequitur. The inevitable has happened: I don’t know what I’m writing about. Kind of like towards the end of the therapy session when you can’t quite track how you got here, what you came in thinking about. I stand up and pop my sternum — it’s sore from so much sneezing and coughing over the past couple of days, but I’m on the mend.

I’m getting hungry. I glance at the clock. There is no billable hour here, no astronomical fee, and no analyst sitting behind me taking notes, nodding, occasionally making an observation or asking an insightful question. There is just me and the sound of the keys and the quiet in the room and the acceptance that this is it. This is not only what I said I wanted — it’s actually what I want.

Survival and Sunlight

“Life seeks fulfillment as plants seek sunlight.” ~ B. K. S. Iyengar 

{a 10-minute freewrite from today’s prompt in The Republic of the Body group}

My first wrinkle. Literally, the very first one that appeared. Mexico, the winter of 1997. My skin had turned a copper color and I walked everyday up and down those hills. I read Frida Kahlo’s autobiography and dreamed in Spanish and wrote poems about midwives and dogs howling and the moon.

Winters in northern Vermont. Short days. Brilliant blue sky How the sun was a gift then, a welcome visitor from far, far away. Don’t go, I’d cry, don’t leave me here alone. I don’t know what I would do without you.

The jade in my kitchen. It began as a small cutting from a thirty-year-old plant from my mother’s house. It is outgrowing the black porcelain pot where it sits in a kitchen window, south-facing, growing like crazy, always reaching for the light.

Cowering. Imploding. Moods. Black holes. Yoga mat. Hamstrings. Strap. Block. Pulling myself up and out of the vacuum that threatens to hold me hostage. Twelve minutes. It actually helps.

We are hardwired for survival, but just about everything else about our brains is a result of training and can change. My wife tells me we are a different person every single second, we are changing constantly. We think, “This. This is who l am.” We hold ourselves hostage to what we think we want and who we think we are and what believe to be true.

Lay it all out there. Not out there for the world necessarily but out there for yourself. One thing at a time. Question all of it. Is this mine? Do I still have a use for it? Did I inherit this and does that obligate me to keep it and cart it around with me to the end of my days, however long that may be?

Tension in my throat and upper chest. I feel the tightness. It is signaling me: “Hey, you. Yeah, you. Make some room for me today.” I make some room. Just a little, just enough. An opening where I can crawl out and have a look around the rest of the body, the wider landscape of whatever is happening within and without. Be the observer, I tell myself.

Constantly seeking safety and shelter will lead to atrophy. Of the spirit, of the mind. I do not want to shrink with time into a scared, small version of myself.

Space is internal; this much I know. I move towards it the way the jade traces the sun from east to west, the way a young woman once walked so close to the sun, the way a young mother once walked her babies bundled in snowsuits, the way a seeker craves silence and a song seeks its singer.

On the Corner: Writing at the Intersection(s) (NEW GROUP!)

I live on the corner of
gay pride and white privilege
Shabbat Shalom and Hear Me Roar
cheerleader and saboteur
working mama, entrepreneur

I live on the corner of
prolific and bone dry
passionate and tongue-tied
of please and no, thank you
of bite and I’ll spank you…

I live on the corner of
pogrom and protest
straight As, nuclear families
of divorced and remarried
polite and contrary

I live on the corner of
tightly wound and free spirit
of fear and Just Do It
petite and dysmorphic
Soul Sister, Third Daughter

I live on the corner of
so many streets
traffic’s nonstop but nobody beeps
there’s no one to tell me to stop or to go
and that’s why I write, ’cause how else will I know?

On the Corner: Writing at the Intersection(s)


Photo: Molly Porter

We all stand at the corner of so many identities. “Parts” of ourselves — some embraced and some off-limits, some seen and some invisible, some conditioned and some chosen.

Join me this fall for a brand new four-week writing group.

Who we feel ourselves to be, how the world see us, and ultimately what we choose to bring (and have no choice about bringing) with us into our daily lives — these have a huge impact not only on our own experience of segmentation and/or wholeness, but on those around us, be they family, coworkers, community members, or the world at large.

In a cultural and political climate that has us contend daily with questions of authenticity, bias and prejudice — our own and others’ — and how to cultivate kindness and acceptance while acknowledging and respecting our wildly different selves, I believe that writing has the power to help us get to know ourselves, and thus each other, better.

What Will We Write About? 

Through a combination of guided freewriting and other creative exercises on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, we’ll explore our many identities in a safe, secret space where nobody gets to be wrong.

Week One

On the Corner :: Naming all the cross-streets
* We’ve Lost Touch :: Reconnecting with what was never lost
Forbidden Fruit :: Getting cozy with what you cast out

Week Two

* The Surface of Things :: How the world sees you
In the Mirror :: How you see yourself
I Am From :: Naming and claiming your sources

Week Three

* True or False :: Early messages you believed or doubted
* Shake It Up :: Exploring the change you want to see
* Be the Change :: Moving towards action and embodiment

Week Four

* Completion and Staying Connected


Monday, September 19 — Friday, October 14


With the intention of this group being widely inclusive, I’m offering three different (confidential) payment tiers, based completely on the honor system. Please choose according to an honest self-assessment:

  • Tier 1: Folks who have to scrimp, squirrel, and save to participate in this kind of group.
  • Tier 2: Anyone who’s moderately comfortable and has some disposable income.
  • Tier 3: Those of you who have the ability and desire to pay it forward.

:: $63 ::

:: $126 ::

:: $189 ::

Boobs or Butts: The Art of Becoming Booti-ful

Photo: V. Potemkin

Photo: V. Potemkin

“Mama, boobs or butts?”

“What?” I ask, unsure of how to appropriately interpret the question — and appropriately hesitant to share my sexual proclivities with my 13-year-old daughter and two of her friends, who are coming to our house after school for a night of pizza, the town fair, makeovers, and movies.

“Boobs or butts. Just like, in general. Which are you?”

“Which am I, as in, which do I like better or have more of?” I ask, laughing now.

“Just answer!!!” They are all shrieking. I think seventh-graders spent a lot of their time together shrieking.

“Boobs!” I blurt out. There! I’ve said it.


I’m lying in bed, my mind drifting later that night. Suddenly, I have a vivid recollection of my paternal grandfather. Grandpa Max used to send cards for our birthdays; even into his 80s, he remembered. I picture the plastic crate in the attic, the one with whatever letters I kept — not many — when I finally dumped most of the journals, letters, and other debris from lives past, in the midst of moving across state lines four years ago. I close my eyes and can see his neat, slanted handwriting.

Max Schwartz was born and raised on the Lower East Side. He worked at a steam press in Brooklyn and married Lena Baruch, aka Grandma Lee or Nona. My dad, Murray, and his identical twin, Al, were born in 1942, while their dad was in the South Pacific, a pharmacist mate on a navy ship. Later, Grandpa will recall those navy days fondly. I can picture his tattoo — a faded band around one of his wrists. In my imagination, it connects him to a band of brothers. Then he returned home, had a third son, and supported his family into an upwardly mobile move to the neighborhood of Laurelton, Queens.

Nona was all bosom, cigarettes, and yaprakis; Sephardic cooking was her love language, and my memories of visiting their house as a child consist mainly of sitting at her kitchen table — we children eating while she chain-smoked and offered us seconds and thirds. I remember being totally intrigued to learn from my father that his parents spoke Turkish and Ladino at home; these were the languages of “we don’t want the kids to know what we’re talking about” — which also means they weren’t passed down all that much. A shame, in my book, though also likely part of what propelled me to begin learning Spanish from my dad, as much as he knew, at our own kitchen table beginning around age eight.


With Nona, 1974

Nona’s boobs must have been the kind of boobs that were more like one than two; boobs that fed three babies, two of them simultaneously. Boobs that, in my memory, hung to her belly. Boobs that surely weren’t called such. She was a seer, too. A psychic and a seamstress whose own mother — I learn this from my mother, her daughter-in-law — was a bona fide, old-country healer. Nona died of pancreatic cancer when I was 10 1/2. Before my dad even spoke, I knew; he had picked me up early from day camp on that hot August day, and instead of getting out of the car at the bottom of the steep gravel driveway on Harkness Road, he just sat there.

“Jenn, I have something to tell you.” (I was Jenn then, for a time).

I waited, but knew. Hers was the first death close to me, not counting a beloved cat or two. I didn’t know what to say. “When?” I asked. That seemed like a mature question. I had seen her once when she was very sick. She was in their house, a downstairs room with metal TV trays tinted gold. Maybe it was a guest room; maybe she was resting, convalescing, dying, on a pull-out couch bed. Her skin, the whites of her eyes, were yellowed. I was not frightened but sad, and — at least in memory — silent in the face of sickness.


“You are booti-ful.”

These three words, every year within days of January 14. Grandpa Max never forgot my birthday, long before birthday alarm email services, long before Facebook reminders, long before email or Facebook were even concepts we would have been able to grasp.

Now, I’m sure Max knew the actual spelling of the word “beautiful.” He certainly wasn’t referring to “booty” in the “boobs or butts” sense of the word! I’ve come to think of his spelling choice as a chosen way to convey his affection for us, his grandchildren. There was a gentle side of him, one I associate to this day with my father, his first son by a matter of minutes.


Booty full. Full booty.

Not skinny white girl booty. Not the no-booty of living on caffeine and nicotine, of lowfat food “products” that make a killing on the slow killing of fullness, of embodiedness, of ease with cellulite and heft and weight and taking up room. These things on the killing floor of American industries, and how America has spread eating disorders like a plague the world round.

Booty full. Full booty.

The kind of booty that other cultures — abroad and right here at home — find womanly, sexy, healthy. More to love, mama.

Booty full. Full booty. Booty than means belly that means fleshy that means maybe even soft, jiggly, round.


When I first came out of the closet, the shock of it catapulted me into the kind of rapid weight loss that had some people quietly wondering if I was terribly sick. I was thinner than I’d been since graduating high school.

At 17, I was deep in a cycle of daytime caloric restriction and nighttime bingeing and purging. I’d stopped menstruating my senior year of high school and wouldn’t start again until I was 22.

I shut down my womanhood. I shut down my sexuality. I poured myself in the life of the mind, dated here and there but was either bored by men or enticed by the thrill of being wanted but ultimately unavailable to take anything beyond a few weeks of flirting and messing around. I graduated from Barnard Summa Cum Laude, having spent my senior year immersed in the world of Soviet Jewish immigrants. Advisors suggested I pursue this or that fellowship. “What’s a fellowship?” I remember asking. I wanted to go to Israel, to become a rabbi.

I thought if I felt passionate about something, that meant I had to go “all the way” with it. So far, I had gone all the way with my studies. Now I had a beautiful degree. Still no booty. I was no longer bulimic, but had maintained a very controlled relationship to food and my weight still hovered around 100 pounds. If you’d told me I still had an eating disorder or even body dysmorphia, I would have disagreed. I probably would have even felt defensive. I would have secretly known you were right.


Present day. It has been almost 11 months since I smoked my last clove. Flavored cigarettes, or kreteks, are deceptive. They smell so good and they sound more “natural” than the tobacco-only variety. In fact, they are just as addictive and many, many times more harmful. After closet smoking on and off throughout my 20s and the early years of my first marriage, I gave up smoking for good (I thought) shortly before conceiving my second child.

But amidst the chaos and Pandora’s box of that first year after my inner genie burst out of its slender bottle, I turned back to my old “friend.” That’s what happens when you start smoking at a very young age; your neural pathways grow right up around it, and each time I started again over the years, quitting became more difficult. I’d sworn back in 2006 that I would never start again, but that one evening, sitting on the back steps of the house I rented for six months while my then-husband and I sorted through the rubble, I had a “fuck it” moment and lit back up.

Four and a half years later, life had in many ways returned to some semblance of “normal,” though my relationship to normal would never be the same, in all kinds of vast and intimate and unexpected and beautiful and difficult and real ways. I’d fallen in love with and married a woman who rocked my world (and still does!). A woman who appreciates my beauty in all of its forms, even the “parts” of myself I still struggle to embrace.

And this includes booty. My wife likes my booty. There, I said it. In the almost year since we both stopped smoking — a feat that feels nothing short of miraculous and was thrust on us by her facing a health crisis that jarred us to the core and demanded nothing less than everything — my slender, narrow, even a bit androgynous figure has shape-shifted into something slightly less buff, softer, and curvier.

We’re talking the difference of 5-10 pounds, depending on the day or time of the month. But at 5’1″, with a small frame and a disordered history I’ve worked hard to neither feel ashamed nor proud but simply accepting of, I notice every pound. I don’t like admitting this. But it’s also part of the slow and welcome process of growing up, something I seem to keep doing. Which is good news, given the alternative.


Before Mani and I had actually met in person, we were readers of each other’s words. She followed my coming-out journey — what I shared publicly of it, that is — and intuited from more than 2,000 miles away much of what I was experiencing. There was one day in the spring of 2011, not long after I’d started smoking again, in fact, when I sent an email to her and a small number of women around the country with whom I’d grown close through our blogs. I was struggling with a relationship and seeking the witness and guidance of women who would get it.

Mani replied.

“You will fall in love. You will fall in love with yourself,” she wrote. She wrote that it would be many things — hot, gentle, spacious, safe. Neither of us had the first inkling that we would, in fact, fall in love with each other. Already were, even. Because life is bigger than us in that and all ways, and I’d signed up for the whole enchilada.

Except for one thing: I would still have hesitated to eat the whole enchilada. Well, maybe depending on what else I’d eaten that day. Or whether I had gone for a run or not. Or I would’ve suggested we split the enchilada with a salad — and the sour cream on the side.

Mani, on the other hand, was having none of it. We met about nine months after that particular email exchange (the first had occurred in 2009, more than a year before I knew anything about anything). I’ve written plenty about the amazing weekend in January 2012 when we met and spent our first night together. How “the rest is history” and history is indeed a living thing, is happening right here under the roof we now share so gratefully.

She was a total foodie. She loved to eat. She was a mother to three daughters and had experienced significant weight fluctuations in both directions via pregnancy, depression, and fitness. She had no issues around food except that she relished it. And she relished me. And I started relishing the whole of this — her, myself, bodies, boobs and butts, girls, don’t make me choose.


Boobs or butts?

Yes. Both, I say.

I’m sitting here in spandex running clothes at my kitchen table. I started writing a couple of hours ago, thinking I’d just jot down some notes before heading outside to move my body. Instead, the stories came pouring out. Grandpa Max and being booti-ful. Grandma Lee – Nona – and the smoking that took her life just 20 years older than I am now. Teenage girls who are all about the booty and going braless like the neo-feminists they declare themselves to be, making me squeal (to myself, mind you) with pride and optimism for humankind. A wife who tells me every single day how beautiful and sexy I am, and even pointed out this morning that every time I am critical of my own belly folds, in a way I’m sending her a message that she’s not beautiful, since she, too, no longer has the body of a skinny, stressed-out smoker. (Thank god, I must add.)

I am insanely attracted to my wife.

Do the math, Jena.

This means embracing my own booty. Hook, line, and sinker — I am woman and all that jazz! And while it’s not in a million years what he meant with his sweet misspelling, thanks to a first-generation Jewish immigrant named Max Schwartz, embracing my booty means believing in my beauty.

You are booti-ful. Don’t forget it.


Enjoy this post? Read The Art of IntuitionThe Art of Detachment, and Already Rocking This (ART). And don’t forget to subscribe to Fierce Encouragement (for Writing + Life), an occasional newsletter. 

The Art of Detachment

This morning, my old friend and I went for our weekly run. We were both tired, but she came over anyway, and I rallied and laced up my sneakers, and out we went for our just-shy-of-25-minute jaunt north to UMass and then up through town, back to my driveway, where we stretched and kept talking for a while longer, then up to my kitchen, where I poured us both some water and we talked yet some more.

Our weekly run reminds me of when, years ago in Burlington, my friend Nan and I used to meet Friday mornings at my house, ostensibly for sitting practice. We did sit, mind you — usually for 10 or 15, sometimes as long as 20 minutes. And then we picked a card from the Carolyn Myss archetypes deck and talked. And talked and talked and talked. I’d joke that our sitting practice was really just cover for getting together, and it was.

When my life imploded, it was Nan I called, and the friendship that grew up inside of all that sitting and talking was a kind of bedrock. The same is true these days with Susa. The running is our presenting reason for a regular visit, and these visits are the stuff that makes a friendship become bedrock, even one that goes back 30+ years.
We were talking about how you really never know what’s going on in someone else’s world, not unless he or she tells you.

What if we moved through life seeing each other this way? She told me about a video that always makes her partner, a dharma teacher, well up with tears. In it, some guy is having One of Those Days. The kind where everything is hard, the world seems to be against him, conspiring to perpetuate his suffering. He gets cut off in traffic, someone at the coffee shop is rude to him — we’ve all been this person.

Then there’s the second version, with little bubbles above the other people’s heads. The driver of the car that cut off our disgruntled protagonist? Recently lost his wife to cancer. The jerk in the coffee shop ? Going through a brutal divorce.

You’ve probably seen this quote, even likelier in some pretty meme on Pinterest: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” There’s debate about its origin, which attests if anything to its universality and truth.

Where things can sticky, for me, is when I forget this. Because then it becomes easy for my own ego to take center stage (isn’t that where ego loves to hang out?). Historically, it has been really hard for me to have someone be unhappy. As a kid, I hated it when my mom was upset, even if I hadn’t been the one to upset her. Because life is kind in this way, I’ve had lots of practice with this trigger.

To this day, I still have to work on walking away when Aviva is upset or angry, be it with me or for any other reason. I’m not proud of this, but it’s true. “I’m getting better,” I want to say, and even there, I hear the plea, the not-so-subtle wish for approval: Look, world, I’m working on it! Look, Ma, no hands!

The good girl in me — I don’t trust her much anymore. She sees through distorted lenses. She might have 99 people who respect her, appreciate her, and enjoy her gifts and foibles alike. But guess what? It’s that 1% that catches her, hooks her, sinks her. Left to her own voices and devices, she’d be a cloying partner, a needy friend, and a helicopter mom. Oy.

The art of detachment. Other people’s opinions of me are none of my business. Complete sentences, like “No.” And, “I don’t want to.” And, “This doesn’t feel good to me.” And, “Best wishes.

Sometimes not everything goes your way, or mine. Maybe even a lot of time. Where did we — where did I — get this idea, that it should?

I think about raising resilient, well-prepared-for-real-life kids, and realize the best and perhaps only way I can do this is to live a real life. Hang the rejection letter on the fridge. Tell them I had an unhappy customer and didn’t understand why and couldn’t fix it because it wasn’t mine to fix. Keep doing my work with as much joy, integrity, and heart as I can. Focus on the 99% not as sugar-coating but because it feels good and fuels me.

I’m not polished. I’m not perfect. I’m not for everyone. You’re not for everyone. Some days are rough, but the truth is, as many beautiful moments happen as sucky ones. It’s just that the latter can eclipse everything if I let them.

What if we all saw those little bubbles over each other’s heads? What if we have one person, just one, who meets us exactly where we are, week after week after week, to sit, to run, or even just to drink coffee and laugh or cry or talk about all the broken and beautiful things until a day comes when oh, do we ever need that friend and there she is, waiting for you with a latte and a hug? What if we wished each other well and walked away when it didn’t feel good, and it was nobody’s fault? What if we were kinder to each other and ourselves, and didn’t take everything so personally?

I’m practicing the art of detachment. And something interesting is happening. It is getting easier to arrive at this freedom: I am here, you are there. This is mine, that is yours. My shadow is a dance partner who’s always pushing me to learn new steps.

It’s almost like she believes in me.