Thoughts on Advice and Friendship

All I saw was, “Hi, Jena” in my private messages. Two innocuous words of greeting from a kind person, and yet already I felt my nervous system gearing up. Clearly I still have have some stickiness around this topic. Because I knew what was coming: The A-word.

Advice! But not just any advice.

Unsolicited advice!

So, you decide you’re going to do something new. Maybe you’re considering a move. Or having a baby or getting a dog. You share on social media because it’s exciting and you’re someone who likes thinking out loud. But nowhere in your sharing do you ask for input.

Or perhaps you’re struggling and could use some moral and emotional support. You write that it’s a hard night, or your grief got tripped open all over again. Maybe your kiddo is hurting and it hurts to see them hurt.

We are quick to rush in. If things are hard, we want to fix it, share what worked for us, and make suggestions for what to do and how to be. If it’s something fun and exciting, we are eager to make sure they’ve considered their options and are aware of the potential pitfalls, downsides, and other disasters that could ensue.

I imagine it’s a safe bet to say most of us have been on both sides of this equation.

Fear, a need to take people down a notch, a know-it-all attitude, or simply the discomfort of witnessing and being with without necessarily have a say in someone’s choices and decisions — surely all of these play a part in this dynamic.

The mighty pause.

If you have a piece of advice burning a hole in your heart, consider asking before you share it. For example, the aforementioned message went on to say, “May I give you a bit of unasked for advice on selecting a dog breed for your household?”

That would have been a good place to pause and await my answer. (In this case, the person did not pause. She asked and then answered the question herself by proceeding with said advice.)

I am totally guilty of this, for the record. Just a week ago, I took Aviva out to dinner to celebrate the release of her first EP. We shared a nice meal and then walked over to Herrell’s for ice cream and hot fudge. At one point, she was animatedly telling me about her thinking for the next 2-4 years. And I did that thing. I jumped in and told her why she might want to consider x instead of y. Because my daughter is a badass, she called me on it. “Oh, snap,” I said. Busted. But damn if it isn’t a practice to just listen.

During a coaching call last week, I was taking notes when I saw something.

Being witness and being with-ness. Just one letter different. And essentially synonymous. To be with you is to be your witness. To be with me is to bear witness. Whether I’m excitedly talking about what kind of dog we might get or agonizing about whether to quit my job, unless I’m asking you for your advice, I’m not asking you for advice. I’m inviting you to be with me. To be with me in by witnessing and empathizing — whether in excitement or difficulty.

A weapon or a gift.

The summer I came out was the single most confusing, chaotic, charged period of my life. I sought out advice, but also knew ultimately I had to find a way to listen to and trust myself. That wasn’t an easy balance to strike and lord knows I probably made a mess of it. My mind goes back to a few conversations that proffered guidance rather than advice.

One was: “Every decision has gains and losses.”

The second was more of an inquiry: “Do you want to have a near-life experience?”

And the third made an observation, when I was hyper-focused on the other people involved: “What about you in all this?”

These moments became anchors for me during an unmoored moment. What none of them did was tell me I should be careful or cautious. They didn’t warn me or say I was making a huge mistake. They didn’t use words like “implore” or even “encourage.” Encouragement with an agenda is like support with conditions, and it doesn’t feel like love, it feels like pressure.

What makes these conversations stand out nearly eight years later is that they taught me something about presence, about friendship, about being wit(h)ness. They showed me that I was a grown-up woman, capable of trusting myself and making decisions rooted in integrity. They showed me who in my life was able to hold space for me without projecting their own fears or desires.

They pointed me, too, to the kind of friend, coach, parent, and partner I want to be.

Next time a friend shares hard news — maybe they’re going through a nasty divorce, or grieving a loss all over again — or something momentous — they’re expecting, adjusting to an empty nest, or writing a book — notice your first impulse. Is it to jump to your own experience of that thing and tell them what worked and didn’t work well for you? Maybe it’s to say, “I’m so sorry,” or “That sounds big.” Take a moment to notice the difference. Are you in your own head or being witness and being with them, over there, right where they are?

Ask first.

I never knew how powerful it was to simply ask questions: Would you like my advice? What would feel like love/support/presence to you in this moment? 

In December, I participated in a wonderful group with Amy Walsh called The Art of Showing Up. One thing I loved and that really made an impression on me was this: In addition to offering fantastically creative assignments, she asked participants to include a “commenting policy” with every single post. It put the responsibility on the person sharing, to state clearly her needs. This in turn gave the other people in the group some instructions. We would know if someone didn’t want any comments like, “You’re so beautiful.” Maybe they were looking for a particular kind of feedback. If the person posting wanted to hear about other people’s experiences, she could ask for this. If she only wanted feel-good love-me-up-and-down kinds of comments, she could ask for this.

I do this in the Jewels on the Path group, if not using quite the same language. When members share new writing on Wednesdays, I remind them to articulate what kind of response they want. Sometimes, we simply need people to be witness and be with us. Other times, we truly want to know whether a piece of writing “works” for the reader. Where are the holes? Did the ending feel rushed? What did you want more of? Where did you get confused or lost?

Learning how to sit with someone (or someone’s words) without rushing to advice is one side of the equation. Practicing being clear on what it is we want and need is the other.

Not an either/or.

My most enduring friendships have this in common: Presence. Not fixing, not judging, not drama. They show me what it is to be with, to witness, to love, to celebrate, to mourn — and to respect that every single one of us is here having our own experience. I’m so thankful we can learn with and from each other, and also have room to find our own way through this life. How could it be otherwise, really? At the end of the day, no one else lives in your body, your house, your family, your past, your knowing.

At the same time, having people who know and love us and will tell us when we’re in a blind spot or ask us if we’d like to hear their guidance — what would we do without that? Like so many things, it’s not an either/or, but a dance. Websters’ defines advice as “guidance or recommendations concerning prudent future action, typically given by someone regarded as knowledgeable or authoritative.” It’s imperative to recognize that we cannot ultimately be an authority about anyone else’s life. Ever.

Practice: “No Advice, Please.”

Mani and I are in the early stages of exploring getting a dog. Our landlord has said yes. Yay! We are obsessed with French and English bulldogs. We’re also looking at rescue pups at local shelters. We’re doing our research and having lots of conversations.

I am a sharer. I am an open book in many ways. In work, writing, and life, I tend to be all about process, since the vast majority of, well, everything, happens there, in the exploring, in the becoming, in the lived experience, in the days and nights unfolding and revealing and concealing and becoming. What often isn’t immediately apparent in all of this is an answer or an outcome. We LOVE answers and outcomes. The yes or no. The big announcement. The prize. The birth. The publication date. The decision, finally signed, sealed, and delivered.

In the absence of these, I’m continuously stepping into this funny, simple place called here in a time without a past or future called now. I don’t mean to be snarky or esoteric; this really is my practice — arriving over and over into this moment, while always holding an awareness of context. I love being here with you.

Everything unfolds. (Also: Dogs.)

What does that have to do with dogs?

Well, I could wait until we have a new doggie and then share pictures and names and YAY!

But I am not doing that. I’m not waiting to share till I know what’s happening. I’m sharing as we go, because this is life right now. Life right now is: We’re hoping to get a dog, and I don’t know yet what kind of dog or when, and I know many of you love dogs and who wants to be part of the process of seeing how this goes? Not: Do you think getting a dog right now is a good idea for us? Not: What kind of dog do you think we should get? Not: Do you have concerns about certain breeds?

But it’s as much on me as it is on you, to be clear. I can practice saying: No advice, please. That part’s my job. It’s a two-way street, this communication thing, this relationship thing, this being with each other and this being witness to each other thing. It’s a thing I love and cherish and honor. And it’s a thing I’m always learning more about.

p.s. Stay tuned for more doggie news!

Forgive Yourself for Each Time

Photo: Zoltan Tasi

For each time the words flew out of your mouth and you wished you could unsay them.

For each time you remained silent, only to wonder why you swallowed knives.

For each time you searched for but couldn’t find the perfect thing to say, and so you just sat with her, put your hand over his, kept company that which could not be consoled.

For each time your kids proved wiser than you (“she will see it as support later”).

For each time you hung up the phone and immediately wanted to call back to say, “I love you.”

For each time you were sure you’d fucked things up for good. For each time you learned to forgive yourself. For each time you spoke your heart with no way of knowing how it would be received — if at all. For each time you felt the ache of the world in your sinus cavity, your chest cavity, your belly — all of the hollow places where the body fills with breath, with longing.

Last night, you dreamed of a kitchen in a small apartment. It was elevated, modest in size, painted all white, and brightened by sunlight. A bank of windows overlooked sparkling blue, blue water in the distance. It was such a peaceful space, and you’d lived there once though you couldn’t remember when.

Standing there overcome by longing, you didn’t know if you could stand the leaving again. But you had to and you did, waking to a new day and a world of bright beauty and impossible pain, determined not to worry about getting it right but instead to be present. To love without interfering, to support without the pretense of saving, and to know that you aren’t here to be a saint but a person.

Today, you notice what quickens your pulse. What makes your stomach drop. What gives you a glimmer of hope and what seemed to urgent yesterday that you can simply set aside. You let the bread rise under its damp covering and the child grow towards her own sources of light. You learn, just a little bit, to let things be, thus becoming more available to what actually needs tending.

In the words of Ernest Hemingway, “Go all the way with it. Do not back off. For once, go all the goddamn way with what matters.”

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.

The Birds of Fear


~ the sky today ~

Sitting across the room from my love, both of us working. Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” comes on, and we keep catching each other’s eye. Then “Time After Time” — and the lyrics melt on my tongue like salted caramel, impossible to keep and best to consume.

I’m eating quiche hot of out the oven with my hands, a load of laundry spinning behind me in the pantry. The green kitchen chair where I’m sitting faces a wall, but beyond the wall is the west. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference between having dreams that reflect reality and dreams that are not so vaguely prophetic. The sink’s full of dishes. In a while, I will wash them. Then I’ll peel and fry potatoes for Mani.

My days are all pretty similar in most ways. I wonder whose days aren’t. (ER docs? Midwives?) Then I worry for a second — is this a failure of the imagination on my part? Shouldn’t every day be new and contain wonder and discovery? That’s a lot of pressure. Sheesh. I tell myself not to overthink it. “Self, don’t overthink it.”

Yesterday, I got a massage. It was like a revelation (I have a body!). Annie and I talked for some parts of it and she worked on me in silence during other stretches. At one point, she offered this beautiful visual:

The birds of fear may fly overhead, but you don’t have to let them build a nest in your hair.

If you’d seen my hair at the end of those 90 minutes, you might have laughed, as my hair was legitimately nest-worthy! But also, I love the image of those birds. Given how often birds get my attention, usually with curiosity and fondness and even great affection and (to my kids’ dismay) giddiness on my part, to imagine my fears as birds changes something fundamental about how I relate to fear.

Stopped at a red light, I look out the window. The rain has stopped, and I estimate at least two dozen sparrows hopping and pecking around an October-colored bush. Little birds. Little fears. Busy, industrious, filling themselves up in preparation for the cold months coming.

The cold months are coming. I know this because of empirical evidence. Because of 43 winters. Because of the way red, orange, and yellow overtake green in a final gasp before falling, returning to earth.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes:

“A mystic is anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradictions and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity.”

Why does God hide the unity? Aren’t we all mystics? Can you read those words and pause and really take them all the way in? Consume and digest them, like lyrics, like caramel? They defy the intellect and, some would say, require tremendous faith.

I don’t know if I have tremendous faith; what comes to me is more of a sensation that I am faith. It’s not something I really know how to do, but when I don’t try, there’s a permeability, something like a still point that lies inside of this very moment and outside the rings of rational thought.

Now that I write that, I realize how much it resembles breath. I recall a commentary I read in the machzor, or prayer book, on Rosh Hashanah, and find myself wishing I had a copy here in front of me. It had to do with breath.

Ever-enthralled by Hebrew etymology, I turn to Wikipedia:

“…the word Nishmat (the combining form of Nishmah נִשְׁמָה breath) … is related to the word neshama (נְשָׁמָה soul), suggesting that the soul is part of the breath of all life.”

The breath, the soul. This is the place — if it’s a place at all — that sustains me when all I see is brokenness and discord. If there is no hidden unity, no inherent wholeness, then what is our purpose here? Would we just throw up our hands or throw in the towel, walk away from suffering, and say it’s someone else’s to deal with?

Because we are all suffering, every single one of us. Of course there are degrees; I cannot compare a melancholy mood or what’s weighing on my heart to a baby buried in the rubble from another bombing. On the other hand, touching my own suffering gently and attentively opens to compassion.

Suffering, then, must go hand in hand with compassion, and compassion must be the source of action — action that affects change and hopefully healing. I’ll quote Rabbi Kushner again: “Hold up your hands before your eyes. You are looking at the hands of God.” Hand in hand. Mine in yours. God’s in mine.

On the kitchen table, a yellow bowl with two mangoes. A card for an acquaintance whose son died last week. Two submissions to The Roar Sessions, printed out and waiting for my eyes. I realize the washer cycle has ended and hear the s’s of Mani’s British crime show coming in from the bedroom. Quiche crumbs.

One window is open; the cold days are not all the way here yet. It’s dark. The fridge hums. The world pulses with irreconcilable beauty alongside more devastation that my heart can take.

And so I watch the birds of fear flutter up against the backdrop of a sky as pure and blue as today’s. I listen for the breath and hold my own hand up in front of my face, remembering: No two days are the same. No two moments are the same. No two lives are the same.

And I come home, just as the train whistles a mile or so away, to knowing that we’re here to love each other and do our part to heal what’s broken.

The Art of Stopping Time

cccpIt went by so fast. I thought it would feel like forever. I thought it would be awkward. But it wasn’t at all. It was the most natural thing in the world, to meet myself there for a whole minute. To look into my own eyes in the way I would a child, or someone I love so very much. The relief of it. The tenderness of it. The way when I played with the deep furrow lines between my brows, my expression changed. From loving and kind to amused to angry to simply relaxed. I watched my pupils grow large in the dim living room. I saw the ways in which my face hasn’t changed at all since childhood, and I saw the depth in my eyes of being.

I looked into my eyes and thought about how thought had nothing to do with it. Just to be. Just to be here, with myself. That is why when the one-minute timer went off, I was startled. That was a whole minute?

As I write this, Mani has a hypnosis on – a man with the most wonderful Scottish brogue. He is talking about procrastination. He is talking about stopping time, and how long one second feels when time is stopped. He is talking about suffering, and how one minute is 60 times longer than one second, and an hour 60 times longer than one minute, and so on, and really, how long do you want to prolong your suffering?

Looking in the mirror for one minute was a bit like stopping time for me, which may explain why the timer came as a surprise. I realized just how rare it is that I stop and just see. Take one full minute to see. To just see myself or whomever it is in front of me. We avoid eye contact, at least prolonged eye contact. Culturally, it’s considered rude or even aggressive. Yet to meet someone’s eyes, especially your own, is such a gift. To stop and really just see. Not listen. Not take turns even. Just see equally – I am here, you are there, here we are.

Can you imagine if in a presidential debate, the opponents had to sit and just look at each other’s eyes for even a minute? No words, no rebuttals, no interruptions, no arguments, no evidence, no attacks, no defense. Just looking. Seeing. Two humans sitting together.

To look at myself in the mirror without words is to see my humanness. I am flawed, which is to say human. I am worn, which is to say human. I am creased and marked by time, because time does not stand still. And yet the illusion of it – that time is a thing I am bound by – that also melts away.

I don’t know what else to write. The hypnosis is ending with the words, “Wide, wide awake.” Maybe that’s it. Maybe taking a full minute to look in the mirror is a worthwhile daily practice. A way of saying, I am here. I am here and I am wide, wide awake. My eyes are deep with love and pain and care and little brown specks in the green and black pupils wide wide and awake in the dim room.

My face is my daughter’s face – this morning in the car, she said how every time an adult meets her for the first time, someone who already knows me, they exclaim how much she looks like her mother. “Sorry,” I say, faux-apologetically. But I can tell we are both ok with it.

I have this face that is timeless and not timeless. I resist the urge to look at the timer. I hear the clock on my dresser ticking. One second after another.


This was an unedited ten-minute freewrite in one of my current writing groups. If you’re looking to jumpstart or deepen your writing practice, join me for “What If You Knew?” (October 10-21), my next two-week group. Limited to 12 participants. More details and registration here.