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.

Dinner for One


Pearl went out with his dad and Aviva didn’t feel like joining me. So here I am, just me and my laptop and a not-too-strong Cosmopolitan at my side. I am such a lightweight when it comes to alcohol, that it’s likely I won’t even finish the one drink — and having a cocktail midweek is virtually unheard of for me these or any days. Tonight, though, it just felt like a good call. I entertained getting a local beet salad, then realized who was I kidding and ordered a burger and fries.

Dinner for one. It’s been a while.

Taking myself out this evening is a gift to myself. It’s me saying: Hi, self. You’re working hard. You’re showing up. You’re loving your wife and your kiddos and your clients and your groups. You’re a little cooked tonight; don’t forget to love yourself, too. It’s not that I don’t most of the time, but it certainly can get lost in the shuffle. The days have been full, the world a heartache and also a place of beauty and connection, so many things always true at once. Isn’t this what I have always come back to, especially when I sit down to write?

The moments that move me to tears though they may not seem like anything major: Mani talking excitedly about the dog crate and other puppy supplies she ordered today, a writer choosing a date for her new blog to live, my daughter’s new song.

Last night, while V was singing, I finally cried. I cried for the kids. I cried for the kids in Parkland. I cried for kids who are navigating adolescence in a world where mass shootings are commonplace.  Her lyrics, her heart — sitting on the edge of her bed and listening to her undid me. I just let the tears fall as she sang what could be an anthem for her generation. I just read the back of the bartender’s t-shirt: 9 out of 10 kids prefer crayons to guns.

My food just arrived and now my hands are sticky with ketchup.

When I told Mani earlier I was thinking of going out to get a bite to eat, she said: “I think you should. I  think you should do whatever the hell you want.” “Really?” I asked. (This is a typical exchange between us.)

She went on to say yes. I’m paraphrasing, but she essentially said: Yes because you love hard and you work hard. Yes because you don’t need a reason or an excuse or a justification. I told her I was feeling a little unsure about work. Not what I’m doing, but whether I’m doing it “right.” She blinked at me and reminded me that stats for new businesses at the three-year mark. Oh, right, I remembered. It’s working. Just keep going. My business may not be brand new, but it’s probably a toddler in terms of business development.

There’s time for things to unfold. 

Then I recalled the three client conversations I had today, all with women at various stages of writing. The common thread? Letting things unfold. We go in all gangbusters to write a book, to build a business, what have you, and then this thing happens called Process. Nothing goes the way we thought it would. Maybe it goes even better. Maybe just different. The straight line, like that popular cartoon, is a tangled squiggly mess of a thing. It looks… real.

And what do I tell said writers? Trust the process, the unfolding. The shape of things will emerge. Keep writing, keep going, keep building. Read a lot of books. Talk to people. Get really quiet. Sit with the hard parts. Trust, trust, trust.

It’s all I’ve ever really written about, come to think of it. I bet at least half of the blog posts I’ve written over the past 11 years have boiled down to that one word — and that’s not just the Cosmo talking (though I have surprised myself and nearly polished off my drink).

“You have created a beautiful, successful business,” my wife calls to me as I put on my boots.

“Really?” I ask. (See? Typical.)

“Really.”

I take this in and reflect on the wonderful conversations with these clients today, ones where it was so easy for me to see them where they are and believe in where they’re headed. I had one last question for her before heading out to eat.

“Why is it so much easier for us to see each other’s wholeness than our own? Why is it that we have such wisdom for other people, yet struggle to apply it to our own writing and life and work?”

“It’s a distance thing,” she said. And of course she was right. Other people see what we do well, see our gifts and strengths and best qualities, in ways that we often don’t.  It can be one of the most beautiful aspects of being in right relationship — to ourselves, our creativity, our work, our families, our colleagues, our comrades. Ideally, we help build each other up — not in falsehoods or ego strokes, but in true and genuine seeing, encouragement, and presence.

And with that, I just took the last swig of my drink. The burger is gone and the fries a close second. I’ll leave a big tip and head home soon to watch Jeopardy! with my son, to say goodnight three times to my daughter, and to end another day of life with my love. Tomorrow, God willing, I’ll wake up and get to do it all over again.

Tell Me About Moving On

Photo: Tj Holowaychuk

Regret is like striking a large bell in an empty field and then running through the empty grass trying to gather the sound of the strike back into the bell. It’s impossible. ~ Mark Nepo

Moving on. From the squabble. The sugar crash. The bad mood. The old moon. The first marriage. The mortgage. The last zip code. The eggshells. The old guard. The tension you carried in your esophagus. The pushing. The holding. The silence. The wishing. The wanting. The better life you never got to by trying to get to a better life. The binge. The bender. The way you berated yourself. The inhale. The exhale. The need to “go out.” The constant escaping, as if your self might be waiting for you on the outcropping of rocks at Oakledge Park or in the alley between buildings or on those three back steps behind the old white barn with the gnarly apple tree in the yard. From the hovering over kids and harboring resentment over money. The face tired from smiling. Doing the right thing. Keeping the peace. Making everyone happy like it was your Job. Keeping your guard up. Keeping your weight down. Keeping your anger down. Keeping your life together.

Moving on made room for you to learn new things.

Like how to relax. How to stop putting so much pressure on yourself to get it right. How to recognize the way perfectionism and comparison are no better than the mean girls your own daughter confronted in fourth grade (and fifth, and sixth). How the voice in your own head wasn’t a reliable narrator, and you could start to tune out much of the noise you used to take so seriously. How to be silly and lack all accountability and still be loved. How to stop jumping through hoops. How to have fun. How to wear tight jeans and shake some booty. How to get out of your own way and just try stuff. Take risks, fail, disappoint, and not die as a result.

Learning these things, you find yourself here, full of ravioli, about to have a conversation about everyday magic with a kindred spirit, knowing it’s neither luck nor blessing that landed you here, but something more akin to love and truth.

Writing in Groups: Frequently Asked Questions


Over the course of leading many flavors of writing groups, certain questions tend to come up from participants. Here are a handful of those.

How do I comment on people’s writing?

From the gut. From the heart. The same way you write. Maybe there was a passage or an image that startled you or shot tears to your eyes, made you laugh or gasp or brought your hand to your mouth (or forehead!). Maybe you found yourself at a loss for words but deeply moved. Maybe the writing evoked a memory or elicited a question for you. Inner critics *love* messing with us when it comes to commenting on other people’s writing. You have to be clever, they tell us. And smart and insightful and most of all, helpful. And so instead of sharing what we fear might be too simple, we shut down and say nothing. Don’t let your inner critic drive the bus. Comment intuitively and trust your responses.

What if I offend someone?

A closed writing group is a place to practice being bold and surviving the discomfort of sharing something that takes you to more honest places in your writing. Running the risk of offending someone is often a corollary to writing without self-censor (or self-censure). While posting hateful content of any kind is unacceptable, if you’re writing your own truths and someone is offended, that’s on them to sit with and, if they choose, name. But if we only share what we hope will make readers feel good, we run an even greater risk of letting fear win (not to mention the likelihood of lackluster writing).

I’m all over the place. How will I know what to write?

One of the wonderful things about freewriting is that we can start anywhere. One of the best places I’ve found to start is right here. Literally right here and now. Over the years, I would not be surprised if 50% of everything I’ve ever written begins with the words, “I am sitting…” Locating ourselves in space and time gives us a point of entry, and from there — if we keep the pen moving — we will meander and discover what else awaits us. Knowing is not a prerequisite for writing practice; it’s one of its most powerful byproducts. Be willing not to know and your trust of the process — and yourself — will naturally deepen.

I’m afraid I won’t commit.

As soon as we change the rigid rules about what “counts,” the question of commitment can start to shift. These rules tend to be excuses, and excuses are usually fears in disguise. Take a look at the fears underlying your resistance to writing (I won’t stick with it, my writing will suck, I’m not a real writer because… I always/I never…, I’m way out of my league, what if _____, my family would shit a brick if…). Then spend some time considering some alternative perspectives. What if “committing” to a writing practice meant showing up for even “just” five or ten minutes. What if you gave yourself permission to suck? What if you could write without apology or explanation? What if you knew you could choose how and whether to share your words beyond the safety of a small, supportive group? What if you took a gentle risk and didn’t have to have the next steps all figured in advance?

Bottom line (for today!)

Writing is an intensely personal endeavor and an intimate process. Learning the contours of our own creativity means feeling around in the dark.

One of the beautiful things about writing in a group is that we get to practice doing that together. We do this by starting, by which I mean showing up, stepping in, and seeing what happens. Writing in community — be it in-person, online, or a combination of both — can mean the difference between sticking with it and getting stuck, not only because we are more likely to hold ourselves accountable when other folks are involved, but also become we encourage each other along the way. Others see things in our writing — and in us — that we are too close to to notice. We experience firsthand that we are not as alone — or as wacky — as we think.

Margaret Mead’s words come to mind: “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everybody else.”

Have questions about writing that I don’t address here? Leave a comment or give me a holler.