Being the Tree, Surviving the Winter

I want to say something about this tree, and since I’m not sure where to start, I’m just going to start.

First of all, a couple of weeks ago, I was losing faith in this tree. After a relatively cold April, the other trees in the neighborhood were starting to bud. But the only sign of life for this tree was the moss growing on its trunk and branches. I took a look at it from my daughter’s bedroom in the front of our second-floor apartment, feeling concerned.

The front yard of our house is small, hardly a yard at all. But this tree is its defining feature, providing a swath of shade all summer and a gorgeous, brief show each fall.

A few mornings later, the neighbor and I were chatting, admiring the quince bush blossoming between our driveways. I gestured towards the tree, expessing my worry, but it was more small talk than anything else. In my head, I wondered: Was it ok? Was it dead? Would it thrive once again? Is this how it’s supposed to look in the early spring? How long do we give it? Oy.

This morning, a perfect 66 degrees, not a hint of humidity in the air and not a cloud in the sky, I took our new pup outside to pee. These frequent potty trips tend to turn into mini adventures as she explores her new environs. Today, we met a dog walker and a friendly golden retriever, with whom Chalupa was eager to play.

The light filtered through the red leaves and suddenly it dawned on me that somewhere along the way, sometime during all the times I came and went and passed the tree, drove, walked, and ran in and out of the driveway, focused on the coming and the going, the errands, the running, the lessons, the meetings, the tree did something. It had come back to life.

* * *

When I was a teenager, my parents once gave me a book called The Tree That Survived the Winter, written by Mary Fahy and illlustrated by Emil Antonucci. The book was published in 1989, so I was probably 15 or 16. Resilience was not a word we used back then, at least not one I remember hearing. I wonder if they looked at me and saw the tree as I saw our tree, i.e. with worry. Would I be ok? Would I thrive? Would I get through a difficult time? When would I blossom?

Blossoming was something I was actively not doing at that time in my life; if anything, I had arrested myself into a semi-permanent state of non-pubescence, by losing weight and entering into amenorrhea, despite the fact that I’d started menstruating and had had a regular cycle since I was 11. I staved off womanhood and swallowed my own voice, the way a snake eats a small animal while it’s still alive. In 1993, the year The Piano came out, I wept, so strongly did I identify with Holly Hunter’s character who had chosen to be mute as a form of protest, though she poured all of that emotion into the keys.

I did survive that winter, and blossoming came in fits and starts for the next 20 or so year. I blossomed, quite literally, during both of my pregnancies. I loved the fullness of feeling the life grow inside of me. I loved nursing and napping and discovering the world through their eyes. And I struggled, too, with depression, during and after both pregnancies.

I agonized over whether to go back on anti-depressants when I was in my first trimester with Pearl, and finally deciding that my falling apart would ultimately be more harmful to the baby than the smallest possible dose of Zoloft. I wondered what was wrong with me when, three-weeks postpartum with my first child, my then mother-in-law commented that I sure was taking a long time to get back on my feet. I saw women jogging with their newborns in strollers and couldn’t figure out how they did it.

My winters came intermittently, but they always came. And each time, I would feel convinced that this was my default state, and that the blooming was a fluke. The fear that I wouldn’t bloom again scared me, and the fear didn’t help matters. Writing became one of my sources of staying anchored inside of myself and my life, rather than drifting off. Everyday life, too, with its rhythms and routines, grounded me. But I would still sometimes think, in order to really bloom, something big must change. I should be different. I should be better, bigger, different, other than this.

The therapist who witnessed me through my second pregnancy and the transition to having two kiddos introduced me to Tara Brach and the notion of radical acceptance. After more than a decade of reading Thich Nhat Hanh and other Buddhist teachers, this opened a new door for me of practice, one that led me more deeply into mindfulness and meditation practices. I continued writing, too, as well as running, connecting with friends, and making time as best I could with a young family to listen to my own small voice.

* * *

When I first came out, I experience a profound, life-changing understanding of myself and my life up until that point. From body dysmorphia to depression, I was now able to see for the first time the toll it had taken to contain myself in this careful way for so long. It was messy. And I was also convinced, briefly, that that was the end of the line. I’d figured out why it had been so hard for so long, and now, smooth sailing ahead!

Well, yes and also not so much. Periods of intense discovery and growth can be disorienting and thrilling and confusing and blinding in their own ways. So, when I realized I had in fact taken myself with myself into this brave new world, there was something of a letdown. What do you mean I still all this other work to do?!

That “other work” over what is now nearly eight years continues to teach me. Radical acceptance and staying present remain cornerstones of my spiritual practices, as does writing. Learning how to weather occasional emotional storms without getting swept out to sea is a lifelong process of self-love, trust, and patience.

Seeing the ways I expect too much too fast — just as I did with the tree not long ago — is a place of ongoing awareness and subtle shifts, as is the temptation to compare myself to how others are growing. Noticing when I go into fear mode is always an internal signal that it’s time to regroup and return to what is — and allowing what is to be enough.

The tree is in its full spring glory now. Sure enough, its revival happened without external help, because it’s programmed to move through these cycles of death and rebirth. Perhaps we, too, carry these deep instructions, each of us carrying our own unique code of becoming.

To grow more at ease with the process — that seems to be my work in this lifetime. Thankfully, I have some beautiful teachers, one of them right in my very own front yard. The tree survived just fine. Just look at her.

Thoughts on Writing and Fragility


All day, I’ve been pondering this: Becoming a stronger writer implicitly means becoming a less fragile person.

This notion has everything to do with my own journey, in that I’ve begun to see a correlation between writing and a more rooted sense of self, centeredness, and confidence that’s not contingent on outside approval or praise.

Now, to be clear: Developing some muscle, so as to be able to meet the world, needn’t come at the expense of being sensitive or tuned-in. If anything, I think they complement each other. But fragility — that to me has to be with being easily shattered, be it by feedback or negativity.

Practice is practice. The more I write, the more I write. And the more I risk sharing, the more I’m able to see that I am in fact risking very little. We’re conditioned with a lot of fear — what people will think of us, how we sound or look, whether we’re good enough or ready to share our writing. And the fear, in most cases, is unfounded in reality. If there is truly something at stake, it’s failure — and that can of worms is fodder for a whole different conversation.

My pondering here also has to do with social justice and the intersections of creativity with activism — the more you write and share and engage, the more you can become a participant in an urgent, ongoing conversation, as opposed to tip-toeing around and/or having an inflated sense of importance — neither of which is productive.

In my work, I want folks to get to practice writing, writing, writing — learning that they won’t die if the writing sucks, learning that inner critics are liars, and learning that ego has a lot to do with what keeps us small, stuck, and silent. Fragility dies on the vine, slowly but surely, when something deeper and more true begins to thrive.

The more you practice writing, the more confident you become in your own voice and the less defensive and threatened you need to be when confronting others’ perspectives and experiences.

The more you explore your own story, its shape, its contradictions, its nuance, its beauty, and its pain — the greater your capacity to recognize fear and limited thinking and the clearer your courage in speaking out.

The more you show up, risking being seen and heard, however imperfectly, the more you learn how to sidestep ego and the desire to look good or be right, in the name of something greater: Truth and beauty, connection and community, justice and equality.

None of this happens overnight, nor is it a process that’s ever finished. Poems, essays, books may be written. But the learning, the practice — it’s there that we return, over and over, to begin again, to go deeper, to strip the layers we hide behind that we didn’t even realize were still masking and muzzling us.

It’s work, and it’s play. It’s where work and play meet. It’s intentional and intuitive. There’s no prescription and there’s no magic eight-ball. There’s just one requirement: You have to show up. Roll up your sleeves and get out your pen. The world needs your strength.

And one more thing about strength: Like courage, it may not feel strong or brave at all. It probably feels questionable at best and stupid at worst. It’s likely to be vulnerable and sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes thrilling.

Yet you, on an ordinary day, telling the truth about your life and being willing to get more and more honest and real? That is strong, my friends. And it’s just the beginning.

Let fragility be nothing more than the shell that breaks open, revealing the pearl. And no matter what — keep writing.

Severing

axSevering. Cutting the cord. Boundaries. Mother’s milk. Hand on my back. Opening my mouth. Cord snaking out, sticky and thick and unending, an infinite belly coil I keep pulling on, years and years and a recurring dream of not being able to cut it — the more I try, the more it becomes something like glue, impossible and uncooperative, stretching from and gumming up the sharp blade. I am trying too hard, I am waking up sweating and tired of being sorry, I am scrambling on eroding ground, watching it crumble. And then, later, walking — I am walking down and then up a hill, feet on earth, voice out loud, begin here, and here, and this is enough for today I tell myself, until later, so much later in the car the throat constricts and chest crushes and suddenly I’m sobbing and remembering this dream after so long a reprieve, and it smells like the teen spirit I swallowed and spit out, it sounds like all the horses running towards me at once, it feels like crowded, hands in front of me, palms facing out in a gesture of give me space, please I need space. And I am aware in this moment of the impulse to rush through the feelings, the way sometimes you want to rush to climax and the rushing runs interference with the desired outcome which is to say what it is about, when really this experience, these feelings in the body are not about — they are not linear or narrative or logical or cognitive, no, they are storms, they are electricity and power surges and powerlessness and where where is the ground, where is the voice, what do I want, who am I, where was I, what am I afraid of losing, what was lost already so many times over and can’t be retrieved? There will be no words until I can give this its full expression, give over to it, give into the walls closing in knowing that when they fall I will be standing here solid under sky without explanation or proof of purchase. All of this is to say the severing dream came back to me, floated into my mind casually, like, no big deal, just coming to say hello, it’s been so long how are you? Why are you here, I asked, and the dream — though I was awake now, and driving — said, to tell you what I was about all those years. And now I am a baby and the cord is cut and I am on my own but held and loved and now I am an adult and I am on my own holding my own and loved in new ways, chosen ways, ways that remind me to be a big girl now, a grown woman, strong enough to know that I don’t have to put myself through the same thing over and over that is so long ago now done and gone.

Use your voice, love your way, and don’t be afraid, love. Don’t be afraid.

The Art of Staying Positive

Tiny Light Catchers

Tiny light catchers

Friday. A few weeks in to our new week-on, week-off co-parenting schedule. Aviva is at overnight camp, so it was just Pearl here with us for the past week. I juggled and balanced coaching clients, reading and reflecting on my writing group participants’ work, creating prompts for several upcoming groups, hanging with Pearl, keeping us all fed, and the usual household responsibilities, of course — a daily series of dishes and laundry that I sometimes enjoy and other times feel never ending.

The other day, I told Mani about the never ending part, and then quickly followed it up with the obvious — it ends when we can no longer do it, or when we’re dead. Kind of blunt, right? But essentially true.

Moments of absolute delight, loving my work, loving my kid, loving my wife, loving our neighborhood, loving my people, loving summer. Moments of absolute exhaustion, emergency naps, wonky blood sugar, not eating well enough, not exercising enough, and the slippery slope of these to all-around not-enoughness.

Moments of despair and outrage. The little boy in that Aleppo ambulance. Insane white privilege. Louisiana flooding. The man in my own town who, after 12 years in the States, was just deported back to El Salvador because of a 2012 DUI. He was a chef at a popular Amherst restaurant and has four kids in the public schools here, ages 5-15, and a wife. And now he is not here with them, and this just made me so sad and angry.

Moments of floating, quite literally, in the pond.

This afternoon, we crashed pretty hard. Mani has been unusually tired this week, a mystery of her Mast Cell Disease — some weeks she has more energy than others. I see it all as part of a long-term healing process, and she is doing so well; not a day goes by that we’re both not incredibly grateful for the trajectory. So after bringing Pearl over to a friend’s house and some of my time-specific work things today, I crawled into bed with her and slept for a little over two hours. When I got up, I whispered to her that I was going for a swim, then kissed her goodbye and slipped out.

The swim was delicious, the pond not as crowded both due to less scorching weather and the dinner hour — by this time it was around 6:00pm. I alternated breast and back strokes with periods of simply floating, listening to the undefinable sounds beneath the water and my own breathing. I appreciated my own strength and ability to swim and the solitude of sky above. And then at the dam, I rested a bit, noticing the light on my wet hands on rock.

After towel drying off and doing some seriously stealth moves to get dressed, I drove into town and decided to get a couple of tacos and a soda for my own dinner. I knew when I got home, Mani would most likely be awake and hungry, but also was guessing she was still asleep since she didn’t respond to a text I sent. It felt good to lengthen out time, not to rush.

And that’s really when I noticed it. I was bluesy. I had walked right into that Friday-night, wish-my-baby-and-I-could-go-out-on-a-date, coming-down-from-a busy-week funk, and it felt like an old friend, this loneliness. We don’t see each other nearly as often as we have in periods past, but from time to time she makes an appearance.

We don’t spend much time focusing on the “can’t” of Mani’s illness. We are so intent on genuinely living, on health, on togetherness, creativity, presence, joyful plans, and gratitude, that it seems like almost blasphemous to wallow. From time to time, a little wave will come, though, when one of us is just fucking sick of it and would do anything to be able to go get margaritas, chips and guacamole at some nice outdoor patio.

Needless to say, I came home with my tacos and my minor blues and ate and read the newspaper. I thought about people asking me, “How do you stay so positive?” And it’s a funny question, in a way. Kind of like people calling you brave, when really you’re just figuring out your life. But there is some truth to it, too. Let me be clear — I’m not talking about copping a positive attitude being something you can just choose when you’re suffering from depression and shit’s just really hard. This is not about simplifying things that are indeed complicated.

But sometimes, things aren’t actually that complicated. This got me to thinking — is there an art to staying positive, one that feels real and not superficial?

Here’s what I came up with:

1. Keep It Real

Has anyone ever told you to “snap out of it” when you were down? Sometimes, the worst thing to hear when you’re lonely, sad, overwhelmed, angry, or frustrated — all passing states but very much real ones at the time — is a solution or suggestion, or worse, an override of your experience. Give yourself a chance to just say it sucks. Set a timer if that helps (I learned this from Mani), and have an all-out tantrum. Scream underwater if you have to, or in the shower. Confide in a trusted confidante. Have a big, snotty cry, the kind where you are in awe that yes, you are STILL LOVED afterwards.

Denial is a breeding ground for negativity. Keeping it real is a true of act of kindness towards yourself.

2. Move Your Body

As much as sometimes I hate to admit it, this one is tried and true. It is very, very difficult to stay stuck in a shitty head space when you’re moving. Whether you run, walk, swim, dance, take a class, hit the gym, or just lie down on the floor and feel the full weight of your body against that solid ground, finding a way into the body gives us access to ourselves and can do a lot of the heavy-lifting for us emotionally. Give it 15 minutes and see how you feel after that. For me, the swim was what gave me access to the feelings themselves, which had otherwise been looming but not landing.

3. Perspective, Yo

Getting some perspective doesn’t mean feeling guilty. It just means keeping things in perspective. That is all. When I’m bummed that my wife has this stupid-ass disease and wish we could just go out on a date and have an awesome meal somewhere, the minute I put myself in her shoes, my experience shifts. Self-pity gives way to empathy. After all, I just got to swim and eat tacos, while she is still limited to 14 foods, including water, and every outing is a notable occasion for celebration.

I quickly remember the insufferable “grass-is-greener” syndrome, one I’ve had many, many times in my life, and boom — I know that if it wasn’t this, it’d be something else. Never being satisfied might make for some amazing “Hamilton” songs, but oh my God, it’s not a very happy or fulfilling way to live. Getting perspective is not about denial (see #1), but it is about realizing that you, like the Jewish teaching about two slips of paper, the world was created for you alone AND you are but ashes and dust. Plenty of people wish they had something you have, you wish you had something they have, and meanwhile, everyone misses what’s right there in front of them.

4. “Fake It till You Become It”

A few days ago, we watched a TED talk by a social psychologist named Amy Cuddy about body language. As the youtube trailer states:

“Body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see ourselves. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy shows how “power posing” — standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident — can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain, and might even have an impact on our chances for success.”

She talks about how smiling actually signals the brain to be happy. I thought of this earlier, while I was walking back to my car, alone, with my tacos in a brown paper bag. I tried smiling and it felt forced and fake. Then I sang a little song quietly. Here’s how it went:

I wanna go on a date with my baby
to get a big ice-cream cone
Instead I got these tacos
And I’m just going home…

I got the blues, baby, I got the blues
I got the Friday night blues…

And sure enough, you know what? I chuckled? I cracked myself up a little, because it was so goofy. And you know what else? It helped.

I came home then, and said hello to Mani and devoured my dinner. Then I sat down to write. Which brings me to my final suggestion for staying positive. Ready for it?

5. Write It Down

You knew this was coming, right?

For me, empirical evidence is more important than studies and data. In other words, I can just ask myself: Do I feel better after I write? The answer is almost always yes. I say “almost,” because there are times when the only thing that helps is time. And sleep. Sometimes the thing you don’t even know you need comes in some completely unexpected form, one you never could have planned on or conjured. But left to my own devices, does writing help me feel “positive,” if by positive I mean more centered, more peaceful, and more present? Yes.

That said, if you’re the kind of person who prefers science, just read something like this study, “Writing about emotions may ease stress and trauma” from the Harvard Medical School, which likens expressive writing to taking a brisk walk.

Writing it down — whatever “it” may be — is another way of externalizing whatever you’re feeling. As with #1, a timer can help create a kind of container for this. Start with five or ten minutes of fast and furious writing. If you need a “hook,” try starting with super simple and neutral. “Right this minute…” or “the thing is…” can be anchors for writing in this way, phrases to which you can keep returning if you get stuck.

6. See What Happens

Sometimes life does feel black and white. Sometimes you have to crouch down and look closely for the light catchers. Sometimes things just suck and all you want to do is eat your first-ever chili dog with your wife, but you can’t because she happens to have a rare disease that makes eating such a thing potentially dangerous — at least for now.

Everything changes.
Everything changes.
Everything changes.

The light changes. Conditions change. Moods change. Relationships change. Jobs change. The number of dishes in the sink changes. Finding things that are steady for you in your life can make all the difference, when it comes to climbing out of negativity.

7. Trust Your Own Experience

There’s one more thing I feel I must say, before I wrap this up: I usually hate posts like this. Posts that have these pithy, simplistic-sounding ways for life to be better, happier, easier. Posts that I can easily turn into weapons against myself (which is exactly why I tend not to read this kind of thing!).

These suggestions for “staying positive” are essentially my “notes to self,” reminders for me to reach for when I’m slipping into the kind of negativity that eats its own tail for breakfast. They aren’t a one-size-fits-all or an abacadabra. Life is a lot of things, usually at the same time.

Be so loving with your whole, beautiful self. Feel the feelings. Try some things. Find what works for you. Most of all, trust your own experience — you are ultimately your best cheerleader, advocate, and witness. And please, if you’re so inclined, share in the comments what helps you stay positive when the light starts to flicker.

To the Lighthouse

lighthouse
It started with Airbnb. We looked in Maine, in New Hampshire, in Massachusetts, and in Rhode Island. We looked in Brooklyn and Manhattan and Boston. We ooohed and aaahed over gorgeous whole houses we can’t afford, and read for fine print about pets and shared spaces. Finally, we found the one: A simple little house near a cove, in a fishing village known for its art and quarries and creativity and kindness and lighthouses. Three nights away, next week, just me and my love.

Big deal, you say? Why yes, it is a big deal. Six months ago, our Valentine’s Day getaway to The Porches Inn in Williamstown, MA left us positively giddy. We had such a wonderful time at Mass MoCA the next day, and felt like a million dollars having gotten out of dodge for the first time in almost 18 months, not counting hospital visits like this one. At the time, Mani was able to bring Ensure with us, so we didn’t have to worry about what she would eat.

You know how some foods, or even songs or shows or books, will forever remind you of being sick? Whether you had a flu or a serious or chronic illness, you might never want to see another bowl of red jello or rice cereal again. Well, that’s how Ensure is for Mani, I think; it saved her life and we are forever grateful for its calories and nourishment. But a few months ago, she started reacting to it, and now it’s off the table.

As we’re able to start getting out more, little by little — the kind of little by little that in a moment will become all of a sudden, a pattern so many things in life follow — the food thing is a bit tricky right now. But is that going to stop us? Give me a hell, no. We just can’t do hotels for the time being, or day trips. What we can do is rent a place with a kitchen, bring our pots and pans and coffeemaker and air purifier, find a grocery store when we get there, and set up shop. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do next Monday night until Thursday.

We looked at the calendar a few days ago and realized that next week is the ONLY week in the coming months when I will not have multiple writing groups going on. So many exciting things are coming up — both my own groups, two of which begin in August and a third in September (One Story: Ten FacetsWorrier to Warrior, and On the Corner: Writing at the Intersections), and the fantastic two-week writing groups I’ll be co-creating and co-facilitating each month this fall with my wonderful partner over at The Inky Path.

So I had a come-to-Jesus moment (are Jews allowed to have those?) when I realized that if I’m going to keep loving this work, and I really, really want to keep loving it — I need a break. Not a 24-hour break like Shabbat, but something away from home, with just myself and my wife and maybe a book or three. I almost never unplug, and my nervous system is feeling the effects of this. The whole “Physician, heal thyself” adage is so, so true; if I don’t cherish, protect, and nurture my own creativity, how on earth can I support others on their writing journeys?

I’ve been a bit jumpy lately, enough so that I’ve actually started writing about it in my head. Flashes of moments when I was nervous or anxious or scared from many different ages and stages of life, illuminated as if by heat lightning in a summer storm and just as quickly dark again. It’s as if my body is remembering something, or perhaps sending me a message: It doesn’t have to be this way. You are safe. Everything really is ok and will continue to be ok. You swam through scary moments and made it across. There’s enough money to pay the bills, so much love I have a surplus, and I can run and sing and swim and make love and form complete sentences and eat stale cheerios as a late-night snack and life is good. It is.

And.

There is more: I am risking burnout.

There’s a bit of pride swallowing in sharing this, but that’s exactly why I am writing it here (this I realize literally as I type the words). Or if not pride, fear perhaps — if I am not superwoman, will people still want to be in my writing groups? If I am not the energizer bunny, will people still want me to be their coach?

Oh, Jena. Really?

I know the answer, I do. But it’s still vulnerable, as if I’m “admitting” something by saying I am depleted at all. It’s like I’m afraid people — you — will somehow take it personally. Again, though, I write the words down and they stare back at me with a different message, and suddenly something like a cackle kicks up. It starts low then becomes howling laughter: You think it will matter if you disappear from Facebook and the internets for a few days? HAHAHAHAHAHA.

OK, OK. I get it. I get it! It’s completely ridiculous. Nobody thinks I’m superwoman! I’m the only one carrying that shit around, and newsflash: it’s bunk.

Tomorrow, four women will show up in Amherst to Unfurl for the weekend. Pearl went around with me doing some last-minute errands. A mason jar with newly sharpened colored pencils sits on the windowsill; a giant bag of M&Ms and a stack of inspiring writing books wait by the door. I will show up tomorrow as my whole self, my real self, my honest self. Not with a fake smile, not with a false front, and not with a sugarcoated story. I will write alongside the others as the timer counts down, about what we want, about trust and deep inner wisdom. I will eat heartily and laugh and oh! I just remembered I forgot to buy tissues. Note to self: Buy tissues.

And then on Monday, Mani and I will pack our bags and drive east to the ocean, to fill our noses with salt air. I’ve forgotten a bit what it’s like, to just be me — without kids, without interacting, without engaging with the world through screens big and small.

Nothing will fall apart if I do this; in fact, things may come together in beautiful, unanticipated ways. So I am going to go away with my love, to take pictures of lighthouses — and to remember that my own light will be brighter for the “going dark.”