The Squatter

There’s a squatter living in my head and she doesn’t pay rent.

She picks at everything I write and says: “You’re not a real writer. You write blog posts and Facebook snippets and ten-minute freewrites and none of it amounts to anything.”

She hisses: “Your books aren’t real books.” (No matter that three very real books are on the shelf.) She growls and taunts: “You need to go underground and do nothing but write for a year, get off of social media, and come talk to me when you have a manuscript.”

My wife observes that this doesn’t sound like me — and she’s right. It’s not my voice. It’s the squatter’s.

Call her my inner critic. I’m pretty sure she has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as she will stop at nothing to cut me down, keep me off-balance, and make sure I don’t get too big for my britches.

* * *

Wednesday afternoon. We — my wife and I — go for a short walk by the river. “I feel like I’m this close” — holding my thumb and forefinger about an inch apart — “to having a panic attack.” I take a deep breath and she squeezes my hand. I feel a surge of shame. “I should know better,” I think to myself.

I describe to Mani how scared I feel.

“Is it fear — or anxiety?” she asks, ever so gently. We start talking about the difference.

Fear = clear and present danger. Someone has broken into your house. Your kid was supposed to call an hour and a half ago and won’t answer her cell phone. A bear is running in your direction. You are choking. Your are a person of color and a cop has been trailing you for the last two miles. You’re being followed.

Lives are at stake. Maybe even yours.

But in this moment, there is nothing to fear. It’s the last day of February and we’re walking along a stretch of the Connecticut River in Hadley, Massachusetts. I’m taking a break in my work day to go with her to our local butcher.

* * *

Earlier in the day, I paid our March rent and gave thanks. Then I looked at our PayPal balance, and my mind — or rather, that squatter — started up with me.

“This might be the month when everything stops,” the squatter had said. “And you’re getting a puppy?! What are you going to do if you don’t make enough money?”

Really, lady? Do you never take a day off?

Then I remembered: She takes plenty of days off. Then she comes around, usually for just two or three days a month, and does everything in her power to freak me out completely. She convinces me that we are going to be destitute within weeks, that I missed some kind of magical window, and that my self-employment success has been a fluke for the past three years. My number’s up.

Oh, and by the way: Me even writing the word “success” is basically professional suicide, because I’m not supposed to be proud of my work or claim that it’s going well. (Maybe she’s a Jewish squatter and this is her superstitious edge coming through?)

* * *

“No,” I tell Mani as we walk. This isn’t fear that has me in its grips. This is good old-fashioned anxiety.

How can we be sure?

It’s entirely about the future and the past. None of the things coursing through my mind are grounded in real time. I’m jumping ahead and creating all kinds of dire scenarios, inventing stories, and going back over the places where I’d surely made fatal mistakes as a new business owner — ones that everyone can surely see but me. It’s only a matter of time until the whole thing comes crashing down.

I feel some relief, having told Mani what’s on my mind and weighing on my heart. So grateful for her presence and gentle reality checking.

You know what she tells me?

“You have a 100% success rate at surviving every single time you’ve ever felt anxious.”

She is right. One-hundred percent. I think back over so many of the most perilous passages of my life and can’t deny it: None of them have killed me.

* * *

It takes courage, so much courage, to keep going when there are no guarantees of anything.

The minute I return to the truth — that there is a guarantee of death — I come back to the solid ground of right now. The panic subsides, the tides go out and the full moon rises.

That night I have a dream where God tells me I’m working hard enough, doing enough, helping enough people. God tells me it’s ok to relax.

I wake up in the morning and decide to give the squatter a blanket and some lunch money. After all, she’s frightened. I’m the only home she’s got — and she keeps moving me closer towards the truth.

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.

For My Wife Who Keeps it Simple

Sky
Sometimes you want to read just the right poem for the end of the week but you look and look and none of the poems are that poem so you realize you have to go and write your own end-of-week poem.

When I am cranky and hormonal
your vacation photos make me jealous
and then I feel like a shmuck
because I’m sitting here
in my comfortable home
while the washer and dryer spin.

When I am fried and spent
your politics make me spout off
reminding me of people I don’t like
being around who never stop talking
and make you wonder when on earth
the evening will be late enough
to make a graceful exit home.

When I am dripping wet with pond water
and the sun hasn’t yet gone down
but the day is still sticky
with the unconsummated threat of rain
and I see you on the beach
I focus on my blue towel
and rub the sand from between my toes
so as not to have to say hello.

When I admit things that make me human
that seem ugly and even despicable
and then I finally have that cry
the quaking one I waited all week for
she still loves me and I am amazed.

“Thank you for carrying me,”
she says, and I look at her
all of my disbelief melting
into the relief of the reception
so clear between us,
like a radio station
with DJs whose voices
make me want to turn it up
and drive all night,
one hand on the wheel
and the other on her thigh
till we get to some all-night dive and in this part
of the fantasy that has taken over the poem
she can order anything she wants
from that giant trifold menu.

We get margaritas and cheese fries
then lie on the warm hood of the car,
fingers interlocked and stars falling
over our heads like the rain we needed
that never came
and I forget why I was such a martyr
and I forget why I ever felt like crying
and we turn our heads
knowing it’s a movie moment
crack a smile
lips touching
and decide to stay like this — wait for it —
forever.