Building Community, Asking for Help, and Not Burning Out

Asking for help is hard. And that’s what I’m coming here to do. I’m coming to ask for your help so that I can keep building community — without burning out.

This week, I created a Patreon account. I’ve been looking at this membership platform for a while now, as a way of leveling out my monthly income and taking a baby step away from Facebook in terms of where I share my day-to-day writing. As of this moment, I have 11 patrons.

In case you’re unfamiliar — you become a “patron” by choosing a monthly tier, and each tier comes with certain benefits. These include a PDF of 18 essays, weekly prompts, access to new poems before I share elsewhere, a weekly “ask me anything” option, discounts on my writing groups, coaching sessions ranging from 30 minutes to four hours/month, and even just-for-you writers’ care packages! Needless to say, I’m super excited about it and hope you will be, too.

I have it set up right now that my first goals there are financial — and they will allow me to offer scholarships to my groups. This is a core value of mine — making my work accessible to people regardless of how much money they have.

I grew up with things like summer camps and lessons and trips. Many kids grow up not knowing if they will have three meals that day. And while my groups are not for children, they are for adult humans whose early experiences in life shaped a good deal of what we believe we can have, what is for us.

I’ve carried a belief, that because I “chose” to be self-employed, I should suck it up that I don’t have paid time off. I’m certainly not complaining.

And, the real life version is, of course, more complicated than that, more multifaceted and layered. That’s the thing about real life — it always is. It’s also what makes for a) the best stories and b) true connection, where we’re not masking what’s true or molding ourselves to what we think others want to see, hear, and believe.

Mani’s illness thrust me into this work. It was one of those crazy moments where the scariest, hardest stuff was intextricable from the most creative and courageous. I started leading online groups and retreats while working at a full-time job, then after about nine months of that, including 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave three summers ago, it became clear that going back to the office was not an option. She needed me home full-time.

Now, she’s sitting here in the living room working away on her own stuff as I work on mine, with the puppy snoring between us. Her healing journey is hers to share, so I will not write to that here.

What I can tell you is this: I love my work, and all of you, deeply. Sitting here in my living room last night with four women, each of whom wrote and shared, I felt tears in my eyes. Creating these spaces for words, stories, poetry, connection, community, courage, realness — this is why I’m here.

And, I don’t always know how to see what I need in the midst of the work, not to mention being a mom with kids at pivotal moments in their own growing.

What became very clear to me recently was that I need a little break. My vision has been to be able to step away from Facebook in August, for most if not all of the month. To continue my in-person groups and coaching, to anticipate a fall full of online groups and new ideas, but to be able to take some time away, too, from social media.

I see Patreon as a way both of creating a sustainable Community Writers’ Fund, and also as an eventual way to open up more possibility for me to focus on my own writing. I do not have a room of my own; I literally write anywhere and everywhere, throughout the day — the kitchen, the living room, the car. I have dreams of working on new books. I hear the voices in my head that say: Well, that’s nice, you privileged white lady. How about dreams of fair immigration practices? How about dreams of restorative justice for communities of color?

And I know — these are not mutually exclusive. To care deeply about justice doesn’t mean denying my own creativity and humanity. My deepest hope is that the two are connected, all the way at the roots. Also, I know an inner critic when I hear one.

I share all of us with so much gratitude. It is because of you that this work has become a thing. It is because of you I’ve kept going and not, in my frequent moments of fear and doubt, thrown in the towel and dusted off my resume. It is because of your encouragement that I feel safe to share all of this with you.

Asking for help is hard.

I learned that when Mani was sick.

It’s also one of the realest things there is.

So, I’m asking.

Will you help me take a break this August?

My intention is to come back strong in September, to start again, and most important, to keep going. With all of it. Because that’s what we do. We keep starting, again and again, we keep going. And we also acknowledge that we are not machines, but humans.

Join me on Patreon, at whatever monthly tier feels good to you: www.patreon.com/jenaschwartz.

And/or: Send a one-time donation, simply because you appreciate what I share here and this is a tangible way to help one self-employed mama not burn out: www.paypal.me/jenaschwartz.

For reading this far, for being on the other side of the words, for making it safe to be this honest and vulnerable, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Why We Love Our Pets

Chalupa has nothing to hide. When she is happy to see you, she leaps and bunny hops across the room.

When she’s tired, she tries and tries to hold up her head — she has FOMO — but eventually her eyes droop and she circles around into a comfortable sleeping position in her bed.

When she is mad and worried because there is no second breakfast (or second lunch or second dinner), she’ll scowl and look at you from across the room as if to say:

What kind of service is this?

When she is excited, she gets the zoomies and takes one toy after another from her basket into her crate, until there is a whole pile of toys in there.

When she snores, she snores. When she farts, she farts. When she kisses, she kisses. When she bites, oh does she bite. (NO BITING!)

I, on the other hand, messy human that I am, must consider how to navigate certain situations with care. I cannot say whatever is in my head or write certain things without considering the consequences. I must draw upon my resources — both inner and outer — not out of fear but because other people are involved. I want to preserve my integrity, deal respectfully with others, and also not cower from potential conflict. Especially that last part.

Revealing my own truths — and I mean only to myself — can leave me worked up and thus, vulnerable. Today I’m sitting with that, recognizing the impulse to flail, or lash out, or lots of other things and instead being still and kind to myself in the stillness.

Chalupa, though? Time to eat, time to pee, time to play, time to poo, time to bathe, time to nap, time to go on a car ride, time to go in her crate. I imagine this is why we love our pets so; they live with such utter transparency.

The Privileges and Perils of Snowdays

Pearl wanted to spend the snow day playing over at his dad’s community, and since it was early in the storm, I agreed to bring him over there this morning (knowing that he may end up staying the night). We drove through campus at about 10 miles per hour — counting cars along the way (fewer than a dozen over three miles).

We talked about who gets the day off and who doesn’t, what work places are closed and which aren’t, whether businesses and companies necessarily put their employees’ safety first, and the fact that for people who are paid by the hour — as opposed to receiving a salary — a day like this can mean simply no money coming in.

The weather itself takes me back to my early childhood in Buffalo, New York; this is how I remember winter: swirling, grey, gusty, white, deep, powder, trudge, snowpants, sledding, fun. And I’m happy for all the happy kiddos who get to enjoy that today.

I’m also aware that for many folks, with or without children, extreme weather can be hugely stressful and sometimes dangerous.

I just read a Facebook status that someone’s husband had no choice but to drive to work — from a rural area, no less — lest he lose his temp job.

Another local friend shared a photo in which he seemed to be wearing every item of clothing he owned, as his building was without heat.

Frozen pipes, power outages, elderly folks who live alone, homeless shelters at capacity… I sit here in my apartment watching the chaotic conditions outside the windows, at once thankful for warmth, physical safety, and sustenance and also acutely aware that the growing intensity of storms in every season means loss, instability, and dangerous conditions locally and globally alike.

Sometimes I do wonder what the point is of reflecting on this stuff if I’m not actively offering solutions. It’s one reason I’ve stopped sharing as many news stories; you all know where and how to find them, and my clicking “share” willy-nilly isn’t going to change a thing when it comes to the latest tweet or injustice.

But who am I if I don’t reflect, if I don’t try to make sure my own kids are aware of the greater impact and implications of something as seemingly simple and even fun as a snow day?

And so it comes down to what I perceive as a moral responsibility for anyone living in relative comfort, with the privilege of employment that can withstand the weather and a warm place in which to ride out the storm: To stay awake to the inequities among us, to stay compassionate towards those more vulnerable to the elements, and to identify even small measures we can and must take to support and see each other through.

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.”

A Thread So Strong

thread

Ever feel so cranky you want to get as far away from yourself as possible? Ever look at the headlines and burst into tears?

Thinking of people I’ve come to adore and care deeply about, from Queensland to Kuala Lumpur to Canada, from Tokyo to Amsterdam to the Galilee, from Zululand to Tanzania to London, from Sea to Shining Sea. When I woke up from an afternoon nap today and saw the news about a suicide attack in the Istanbul airport, this was my first thought. I looked up at Mani, who was reading next to me, and told her how my heart is filled with people all over the world. Good people.

Really, really good people.

Which begs the question: Who are these other people, the ones I clearly don’t know — or at least don’t know I know? Those who intend to do harm. Those who hate. Those who intend to kill. Whether they are operating alone or as part of unimaginably organized forces, how can I keep from writing words like “other people” and “they” when I have no faces, no names, no understanding of what this is? It is that foreign to me.

Tears sprang up. My cycle is coming close, I reminded myself. Always a crash, however short-lived, before I bleed. And the weekend, the gorgeous weekend with seven women spanning three generations writing and sharing and being vulnerable, being gloriously, wonderfully human — showing up, armor melting, snot-and-tears crying of what one writer called “healing tears,” and so much laughter, so much kindness — this weekend of unfurling was like heart tenderizer, leaving me that much softer and more available to my own aches and unresolved questions.

For the past two days, I’ve been hibernating a bit: A uniform of yoga pants and one of my favorite UmberDove t-shirts (which I splashed bleach on yesterday during a kitchen cleaning fit but refuse to throw away because I love it too much), coffee and chocolate after a few weeks off sugar, and barely leaving the house except for a short evening stroll into the softest summer air and a quick drive to the corner store for a gallon of whole milk when we ran out tonight.

Hibernating for a few days in late June seems like just the thing — especially tonight, when suddenly the world became too much and I couldn’t quite feel my place in the family of things, as Mary Oliver writes in “Wild Geese.”

My place must be this simple. Yours, too. Here we are, wherever here is. Wherever “is” is and wherever “are” is. Here we are, no matter what atrocities occurred today. So many really, really good people are being at this very moment. And I’m beyond being concerned with whether that sounds Pollyanna-ish because it’s so phenomenally true and it’s me at my most naked. It’s the water I will swim in all summer, it’s the leaves I’ll crunch and kick and rake and jump in in the fall, it’s what will keep me warm when winter comes, and it’s the miracle of next year’s blossoms borne from this year’s compost.

“I’m a connection junkie.” This is what one of the retreat participants shared during our introductions Friday night. And I knew exactly what she meant.

For years and years, for all those years I knew what it felt like on the inside of me but struggled to translate and find its external application in the world, there was one clear knowing that never wavered: I wanted to connect with people, lots of people, people all over the world, with my writing.

And in the coming true of this, I find my place. I have my little snit and cry and I shake off my shit mood in a hot shower. I strip down to seen here in words, then in real life as I climb into bed with a wife who’s as invested in me shining brightly as I am in her radiance. Thankfully, she also thinks my crankiness is adorable. I mean, how fucking lucky is that?

The mood will pass, this much I know. But the connections we have — the really, really good people all over the world who are kind, who are just living life, not a one of us having things “more figured out” than another, coming together to connect, to open up, to write and practice and show up and not have to be good enough because we were born good enough — it’s this that saves me from the worst of myself, time and again. And while the connections themselves may also be impermanent, there is a thread so strong I swear you can probably see it from space that binds us to each other.

If you’re ever shaky, reach for it and give it a tug. I’ll do everything I can to tug back. Each word, each of your voices and faces and names — a touchstone, smooth or faceted, opaque or transparent — is precious to me.