Well, that was fun to make!
"No woman’s anger is an island." ~ Leslie Jamison :: read more
I’m thinking about anger, and how I used to be so afraid of it.
Wednesday morning, sitting in the small waiting area while my wife gets her first mammogram. She turned 40 a few months ago. At 44, I am overdue and know I should schedule mine soon, too. I get out my phone and scroll through Facebook for a few minutes. I play with selfie filters on Instagram and post a picture of myself; my head appears to be above a blurry water line.
I think about how often women default to descriptors like “overwhelmed,” “so busy,” “crazy busy,” and “frazzled.” I notice my own desire to distance myself from these, to claim something more grounded and peaceful.
* * *
The red line, 1999. I’m standing on the platform waiting for the T from the Boston Common to Porter Square. From there, I’ll walk a mile to the tiny one-bedroom Somerville apartment I share with my husband. We are newly married. I’m 25 to his 33. It’s 9:15pm; I’m coming from a three-hour graduate poetry workshop. I glance up and down the platform, which is all but empty on a Thursday night. A thought arises, seemingly out of thin air: “I’m not an angry person.”
I get home and tell him about my revelation. I feel triumphant, as if I’ve beat something, as if I’ve narrowly escaped some kind of alternate fate — the fate of anger. I do not mention the closet smoking. Or the years I was bulimic, aware that something big in me needed to be contained, choked back, and purged. I wanted the world, but also to disappear. I wanted to be invisible, anonymous — a living Emily Dickinson poem:
"I’m Nobody! Who are you? Are you – Nobody – too? Then there’s a pair of us! Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!"
But angry? No.
* * *
Quick flashes: My father’s voice on rare occasions, rising in pitch. Or the smothered “s” sounds coming from behind closed doors down the upstairs hallway. Older sisters. Fights over haircuts, clothes, boys, school, drugs. A fist through a wall. Something to avoid, something to smooth over, something to make sure didn’t happen to me. Anger was my nemesis.
I granted myself permission to brood, to subvert, to sneak, to hide, to flirt, to skirt the rules, to slide under the radar, to play along, to look the part, to not fit in. But anger was one thing I did not allow. If I did, who knew what would happen? It was too risky. Anger might lead to rupture, and my young self found that to be a terrifying prospect.
The flashing thought confirming my “not angry” status is a victory of sorts, not one I sought out but that seemed to find me, confirming what the world saw: Sweet, polite, strong but not threatening. A nice person. A pretty person. Not an angry woman.
Anger was something to get a hold of. Anger was something that meant you were out of control.
Anger wasn’t warranted. What did I have to be angry about, anyway?
Life is going according to plan: Graduate school, marriage, buying a sweet duplex in Burlington, Vermont with help from parents for a down payment. Privilege, privilege — white, heterosexual, educated, employed, able-bodied, married. I want babies and community and meaning. I am hungry: For connection, deep conversations with colleagues about race and religion (I was a Hillel director, with an office in the Center for Cultural Pluralism), happiness. I go running down by Lake Champlain. I write in my journal. Poems live in the margins.
* * *
Back in the waiting room, I find myself wondering why I’ve historically been so frightened of anger. I take out my phone and make a list.
Fear of anger = fear of self.
Fear of anger = fear of shaking up or shattering the status quo.
Fear of anger = fear of loss (of privilege, power, identity, control, connection, perceived safety).
Fear of anger = fear of truth.
Fear of anger = fear of emotional or physical violence (your own or someone else’s).
Fear of anger = fear of confrontation.
Fear of anger = fear of uprising.
Fear of anger = fear of unknown.
Looking over these suppositions, I find myself feeling curious about the interchangeability of many of the words here. Some say all fear is at its essence fear of loss. And that anger is always a secondary emotion, masking sadness or grief or trauma.
Do I believe this? Do you? Does anger always need to be justified? Managed?
* * *
A friend has written about going to a “rage room.” It’s a venue designed for safely lashing out. Imagine society if everyone had access to a space like this, where anger was not only permitted, but essential. Where rather than swallowing it or causing irrevocable damage, we could turn rage outward until we were spent and ready to return to a world that is by all counts maddening with its messaging of what we are supposed to be and do?
We are supposed to be patient, compassionate, understanding, empathetic, open-minded, responsive, available, kind, and nice. We are supposed to be responsible, steady, grateful, and quiet. We are supposed to say please and thank you. We are supposed to take what we can get. We are supposed to go along to get along. We are supposed to channel our anger in productive ways.
* * *
I am 36. I receive a massage from a woman named Noni. My supervisor at work recommended her. “She’s amazing,” she assured me.
I arrive at Noni’s suburban condo. She comes to the door. We chat in her kitchen for a few minutes and I tell her I don’t have a particular need or complaint; I am here for general stress relief. I have a full-time job at the university, my children are seven and three, and my husband is self-employed. I am trying to write a book. I am trying to learn how to take care of myself along with everyone else.
The massage table is upstairs in a large room with curtained windows. She works on me for three hours. Three hours!
I leave feeling heightened, charged. I go sit at the counter in the window of a favorite café, writing in my journal. I write and write and write. The writing pours out of me as water over a weakened dam. Something has unlocked itself; I feel it surging. Suddenly, the amount of space I take up inside of myself has shifted, expanded. I feel powerful. And I feel… anger.
I go home and tell my husband about the massage, the writing. “I think I am angry,” I tell him. “Punch me,” he says, egging me on by poking at his chest. “Go ahead. Do it.”
I do it. I hit his chest. It feels strange, exhilarating, and terrifying. I don’t know how I will get to the bottom of this. How far does it go? How big is it? What will happen, if I follow the deluge?
* * *
A few months later, I come out of the closet. Everything shatters. My body refuses him. Refuses to play along, refuses to be good or nice or right. Refuses the role of wife. Refuses to “make it work.” I try, but there’s no going back. After a few months of hellish wrestling with the truth, we call it. Our marriage is over. We tell the kids. He glares at me.
There was a reason, it turns out, to fear my anger: My anger was myself.
And myself wasn’t compatible with the life I’d built, the one that followed the rules, met the expectations, looked and felt good but was always missing something, an essential component: Me. All of me.
* * *
One day not long ago, my fifteen-year old came home in a fit. She stormed up the stairs to our second-floor apartment, into the kitchen and through the living room to her bedroom. I could feel the anger wafting off her, like fog from a body of water. She paced circles around her room, still wearing her boots.
I knocked on the door to ask what was wrong. Had something happened or triggered her? “No,” she had said. “I’m just so fucking angry. At everything.”
And why shouldn’t she be? She’s living in a country where physical and sexual violence against women and trans people – especially those of color – are so normalized, perpetrators are able not only to run for public office but to attain the highest levels of power. Her generation has mothers who are tired and resentful, having grown up with the message that we could “have it all” and “do it all” and “be it all.”
I want her to get to be angry – especially if it means not settling, trusting her own body, using her voice, and listening hard to women from different backgrounds – especially those from oppressed groups – when they share their lived experience.
* * *
I’m no longer the woman in her 20s on the train platform, disavowing her anger. I’m also no longer the woman in her 30s, discovering and claiming her sexuality and agency. I’m a women in my mid-40s, divorced and remarried, self-employed, 10 pounds heavier, and more content and at peace with myself than I’ve ever been in the past.
My wife emerges from the mammogram. It was faster than I expected. I put on my hat and gloves and we head out to the snowy parking lot, talking about what it was like. And as I start the car, I realize something: I may be angry now, but I’m not angry at my life. This feels like a new revelation, one I never could’ve had 20 years ago.
The ability to be more discerning in my anger, to use it to fuel my writing, to raise my kids, to teach them to be awake to their privileges and also advocate for their own needs, to hold space where women can show up and tell the truth – breaking the world wide open, to paraphrase Muriel Rukeyser – these feel like discerning uses of my midlife anger.
* * *
A Writing Prompt
Leslie Jamison writes: “In what I had always understood as self-awareness — I don’t get angry. I get sad — I came to see my own complicity in the same logic that has trained women to bury their anger or perform its absence.”
Take some time soon to write about anger. Set a timer for 10 minutes and make a fast and furious list (see what I did there?) of associations you have with anger. You could simply start with “anger = …” and go from there, returning to this equation if you get stuck.
If you’re on a roll, ditch the timer. Don’t stop to edit yourself, worry about how it sounds, or where it’s going. Are you afraid of anger? If so, are you afraid of your own anger, someone else’s anger, or both? When have you “performed” the absence of anger? At what cost?
Back in the garden:
Three stone slabs,
trees bending in close
but not too close.
A bird on a step,
a small creek below.
And beyond that,
an open green space
where my child
I was so happy here,
finally home, my own
place, my own garden.
I called the child
to come, let’s follow
It led to a street
we drove down,
of failed suburbs
at a concrete wall.
Both of my kids
and I agreed
not to go
that way again,
then turned back
to the garden.
All day, I sat
in one place,
lost in fatigued
buying and selling
and how lovely
it was to return
to where even
the fruit was free
for the taking.
I wonder now
if this garden
lives within me
or if someday
I will know it
when I see it,
exclaim out loud,
there it is
and make an offer
on the spot
where I was
given my name:
National Poetry Month is right around the corner. Refuel your spirit after a long winter with Dive Into Poetry, a month-long celebration of poetry, April 1-30. Tiered pricing and all welcome!
Ten years ago tomorrow, on January 7, 2007, I wrote these words on a brand-new blog:
But missing the mark – now this was a concept I could get my head around. Forgiving, roomy. With implications of more chances. You know, nobody’s perfect. Better yet, imperfection is where all the juice is. We do our best, we practice, we try stuff, we throw spaghetti at the wall and we skin knees and we get hurt and we learn in ways that are sometimes grueling and other times graceful – about relationships, about love, about work, about pretty much everything. In all that trying, in the practice, comes the learning and the growing that we’re here to do. And in the process, maybe the bullseye itself isn’t “getting” the thing we’ve been aiming at but rather hitting on some increased ability to be patient and kind to ourselves. (Read more)
To celebrate a decade of writing online and all of the real-life friendships and connections it has led to and continues to foster, I’m offering you a spot in Imperfect Offerings, my next two-week writing group (January 9-20), for whatever amount you can and want to pay.
This offer is good through Sunday night, January 8 (which also happens to be David Bowie’s birthday — may he rest in peace and rise like Lazarus — and I know this because a) we are both Capricorns and b) I loved him so much when I was young that I cried on his birthday when we couldn’t be together).
I’ll be welcoming you into our secret Facebook space on Sunday. When you get to PayPal, choose the “Send Money” option and simply put in the amount you’d like to pay and my email address: jenarschwartz (at) gmail (dot) com.
Read on for more about the blogaversary, “just” writing, and other musings.
* * * * *
In the beginning, this blog was called Bullseye, Baby! and it was, indeed, my “place to practice.” That was the actual tagline. I had resolved to write without fussing over (i.e. editing to death) my posts, to show up and see what happened and to share. Mind you, I was essentially sharing with my sister, who for the first 11 months or so was my only reader.
But I missed writing and I missed myself and damnit, I was determined. It wasn’t about having an audience or even good writing; it was about writing… anything. I had two kids four and under at the time, and very few people in my life even knew I wrote at all.
I signed up that winter for a 15-week writing class called Women Writing for (a) Change, led by wonderful teacher in Vermont, Sarah Bartlett. It was the combination of giving myself the gift of these various support structures — the social and “real” support of the class, and the virtual support of the blog — that jump-started what has grown, over the course of the last decade (in fits and starts and with so many then-unimaginable back roads and detours), into my life and my livelihood.
I believe that that beginning set my whole life-as-I-know-it-today into motion. It’s kind of mind-blowing, to be honest.
* * * * *
The image above is from one of my favorite children’s books, called Before You Were Born by Howard Schwartz (no relation) and illustrated by Kristina Swarner. It shows an angel reading from the Book of Secrets — and will be among the 10 all-new prompts in my next two-week online writing group, Imperfect Offerings.
The name of this first group of 2017 is in homage to Leonard Cohen, whose “forget your perfect offering” describes so well what we do in these groups — we forget to worry about being perfect, or even good. We dip into the books of secrets, each prompt something like a portal to things inside of us maybe we forgot were there.
This practice is so freeing, and we do it together in a space where nobody gets to be wrong, and everyone is encouraged to show up and “just” write.That little word, though, “just,” implies that this is no big deal. And it’s a kind of riddle, isn’t it?
On the one hand, that’s exactly the point — it is no big deal! What you write in these groups ultimately does not matter! The point is to sit your ass down for ten minutes at a pop and “just” write, to weaken your inner critic and shore up your ability to keep your hand moving. On the other hand, it totally matters. It matters because it’s the foundation for so much else.
I was chatting the other night with a single mama who is currently holding down three jobs. THREE JOBS. Can she write for 10 minutes a day? Yes. Will she? Only if she commits to it. Is it worth it? Well, that’s subjective. But from where I sit, 10 minutes is more than not 10 minutes. In fact, a few paragraphs a day over time adds up to many pages, pages that would not exist but for the act of “just” writing.
For the most part, my freewrites — which I do right alongside you in the group — don’t usually interconnect; they are one-offs, unrelated to any big goal or longer work. Maybe you’ve read this quote from Louis L’Amour before, but it bears sharing again: “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
* * * * *
Why bother with prompts and a group, when you could sit down and write morning pages or in your journal?
Here’s what my friend Katrina Kenison said after she participated in one of my two-week groups:
“Never have I felt so befriended: by the page, by a group of fellow writers, by a teacher and coach. Jena provides a lovely mixture of inspiration, invitation, and validation. And then she throws in something else, something wonderful and ineffable which I can only describe as magic. For how else could a bunch of strangers become so intimate so quickly? Within this sacred circle, we came to trust not only one another, but also our own voices, our process, and most of all, the value of sharing our stories.”
* * * * *
If you keep meaning to make time to write (but don’t), write but feel uninspired or lonely, or have been thinking about trying out a writing group but feel shy, please join me for these two weeks of practice. The pay-what-you-can offer will go to the first 10 people who sign up. I hope one of them is you!
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back– Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” — Goethe
If you’re anything like some people I know and love, you’ve left some of your holiday shopping for the last minute — or (gasp) neglected to get something special for your own beautiful self!
I’ve assembled this quick and dirty list of writing-related gifts for you and/or the writer(s) you love, in case you’re looking for something but didn’t quite know what it was until you did.
Please note: If you are purchasing any of the items below as gifts, be sure to contact me with the recipient’s information. From my home to yours: Happy Merry.
30-minute coaching session $50
Wrestling with a piece of writing? Having trouble getting out of your head? So beaten up by the state of the world that you just can’t even? Time to get back in the ring, my friend. A 30-minute call completely devoted to your creative juices. Purchase + contact me to schedule.
Dive Into Poetry + Jena’s new book, “Why I Was Late for Our Meeting” $49
Have your cake and eat it, too! Spend a month *playing* with poetry AND pre-order a personally inscribed and signed copy of Jena’s newest collection of poems to read at your leisure. Purchase.
10 Self-Paced Writing Prompts $36
Every day for 10 days — on the start date and time of day of your choosing — receive a beautiful and original prompt in your inbox. Set a timer for 10 minutes, and start writing. That’s all there is to igniting or deepening your practice — at your own pace. Purchase.
Dive Into Poetry – January 2017 $31
A month-long online poetry party, for the people, by the people, and of the people. (Hint: You are the people!) No experience or prerequisites — this group is low stakes, super supportive, and loads of fun. Register.
“Don’t Miss This” and “The Inside of Out” $19.90 each
Jena’s first book, “Don’t Miss This,” traces a fierce 15-year journey through marriage, motherhood, and coming out — when she risked everything she knew in order to claim what she had denied for so long: herself. Purchase.
Blending poetry and prose, the personal and political, and the ordinary with a 30,000-foot view, “The Inside of Out” is an intimate look at what happens over the course of a year, after life falls apart and reconfigures again. A beautiful gift for anyone who has ever wished love could be easy. Purchase.
“Why I Was Late for Our Meeting” $18
Jena’s new collection of 50 poems caps off a year of darkness with these words: “The sun’s up there somewhere.” This book is equal parts invitation, prayer, protest, and love song to the pain and beauty of humanity and everyday life. Inscribed and signed for you or the beloved recipient of your choice. Purchase.