Author: Jena Schwartz

Poet, Promptress, and Coach providing fierce encouragement for writing + life and gentle creative guidance for writers all over the world.

Warning: Do Not Read This Post If You’d Rather Stay Stressed and Overwhelmed

note valuesLast night, I sat down for five minutes. I paused.

My 12-year-old daughter wasn’t feeling well; she’d had a headache at school and came home funky. I had been at work all day, gone grocery shopping after, came home and put away the groceries, made tacos, played Mankala with my third-grader and read to her in bed, then sang to her while she fell asleep. In other words, it was a pretty normal evening. By 9:00pm, I was ready to collapse myself, but my headachey daughter wanted me to sit with her. I did, for a few minutes, stroking her hair. Then I said, I’ll come back in a little while.

And I took two pillows from my bed, asked my partner if she wanted to sit for five minutes, set the timer on my phone, and settled in facing the wall.

And then it came… the contrast, and the corresponding relief. Of doing nothing. Of not responding to anything, not even my girl when she came padding into my bedroom. The amazing thing was she didn’t say a word. She saw that I was sitting there and just seemed to understand, that I was not avoiding her or putting off her needs. I was simply tending to my own, for five minutes that felt both like a blink and an hour. An oasis, even if it was filled with thoughts from the day and thoughts of what else still needed doing. I knew she needed my attention, and I also knew she could wait. I knew there were still more dishes to wash and a load of laundry to put in the dryer, and that those too could wait.

The same moment could be applied at work. Say you have back-to-back meetings, an overflowing inbox. You’ve barely stopped to pee, much less take a lunch break to get some fresh air or take a short walk. Maybe you’re trying to figure out how to move some big project forward, or you have to prepare an agenda for a meeting with your boss. Let’s say you supervise other people, and two of them called in sick today and payroll is due, you have to get to the bank before 5:00pm, and the dentist’s office just called with a reminder about your cleaning this afternoon. Maybe you and your significant other have been meaning to go for a fall hike all fall, and you are wistfully aware that the trees are almost bare of leaves and there is a frost warning for tonight.

This is the part where you might feel like you can’t possibly pause. There is too much to do. Maybe this is the part where you feel irritable. Or overwhelmed. Or just tired.

Our days are often like this, in some iteration or another, a fugue of incessant sixteenth notes without variation, fast fast fast and full full full and go go go. And this is when things are going along fairly “normally,” meaning there is no emergency, no crisis. No frozen pipes or dreaded pink slip or last-minute snafu, no injured child or chronic illness or bad news on the other end of the line.

If you have ever practiced yoga, you know that savanasana, or corpse pose, is how every practice concludes–whether it was a gentle 15 minutes or a vigorous 90. The language of yoga is that of “integrating the benefits of our practice,” the intention being that without taking the time to just be, to pause, to rest, we cannot fully come to feel the effects of all the doing.

If life feels like something you have to hold onto like a handbasket on its way straight to hell, or a roller-coaster ride that makes your stomach lurch, or simply a treadmill stuck on an 8-minute-mile when you’d rather be strolling, pausing like this can be painful. Because rather than feeling the benefits of all of the doing, you might feel the negative impact of it. You might realize, by taking five minutes to just sit there, that not pausing is actually a form of procrastination. Not taking rest when to do so is an option (and there are few professions where it isn’t) is a way of avoiding your life, even as you might think your life is the reason you can’t, or don’t, pause.

Our culture–whether you’re a manager, a business owner, a parent, an artist, none or or all of the above–feeds this reliance on busy and its corresponding glorification of stress. It’s a badge we wear, a purple heart of martyrdom.

If more people said, Actually, that can wait five minutes, if we could differentiate between fires to put out and true emergencies, if we inserted rest symbols into the endless stream of notes that is the music of our days, we might just start making different choices about how we live and work. We might get brave and admit to someone that we don’t in fact enjoy this sense of chaos and the anxiety it provokes, that causes all kinds of problems–in our relationships, our health, our ability to keep up.

We might just stop keeping up.

And that may be scary, especially if our sense of security and even self-worth rests on this premise that we must go a million miles an hour from the moment we wake till we collapse into bed.

But it doesn’t have to be scary.

Like all fears, as soon as you turn the light on, the big monster shadows shrink to harmlessness. If you find that you are putting a lot of things off–whether it’s returning that package with the too-small shoes or meeting the deadline that looms closer each day–consider that pausing is actually an antidote to procrastination. It may be just the thing you need to move forward.

Stop, for a moment, for one full breath, for five minutes, and respond to nothing. I am willing to bet nothing will fall apart. In fact, this small act may be the glue that holds all the pieces together.

Stop Picking Your Nose, or, Reclaiming Your Creativity in Stages

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on the living room floor

When’s the last time you came home tired?

Not the kind of tired you feel after you assemble a piece of heavy furniture, or weed the garden, or kayak all day, but the kind that has you bee-lining for Advil and Netflix?

Also: When’s the last time you used a glue stick? And scissors and a ruler, construction paper and sharpies? When’s the last time you got down on the floor in the living room or the bedroom or made a mess of the kitchen table, the music turned up loud enough for the neighbors to hear?

When’s the last time you dusted off the books of poetry you used to read daily, or the sketch book you bought with equal doses of nostalgia and resolve to start drawing again?

The answers matter. And they don’t.

What really matters is now. In fact, now may be the only thing we really write about here. Annie Dillard said it best: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Yes, you could’ve been a _____________. You should’ve studied _____________. And maybe you would’ve even tried _____________.

If this. But that.

It’s a sinkhole, to be sure. If that’s where you hang out on a daily, or even weekly basis, I’m not sure whether to say read on or stop reading here.

That’s up to you, of course. You have the choice to ditch this post. You also have the choice to ditch that way of thinking about your creativity and dreams–things you lost along the way, or deferred or dabbled in but never believed could really amount to anything.

What do you lose track of time doing?

Call if Flow, call it the Zone, call it Passion. What it is doesn’t matter so much as remembering that it’s at your fingertips and you are the only one who can do or not do it.

OK, let me back up a little.

When I was a teenager, I made little books of poems.

These days, I work, spend a lot of time with my girls during the half-the-week and every-other-weekend they are with us, take out the recycling on Tuesday nights, and do my damndest to get cash into the appropriate envelopes on the first of the month.

But at sixteen, I spent hours and hours printing poems in my father’s study, figuring out pagination (probably the most mathematical thing I did in all of high school), cutting and pasting and assembling words onto pages, choosing cover art from whatever magazines were in the house, and walking to the copy shop in town to use the coin-operated machines. I wrote little blurbs About the Author on the back, and inscribed every xeroxed copy of each book to someone–a family member, a boyfriend.

I used to be. A bookmaker. An artist.

And then. Life happened.

Do you hear this a lot, life happened? I do. I hear it sometimes out of my own mouth.

What does this mean about us, and about Life? This  reminds me of these line from Emily Dickinson’s poem #640, which I have loved for years:

And Life is over there – 
Behind the Shelf

The Sexton keeps the Key to –

Life happened over there while we were living it, busy, forgetting that the choice to spend time doing what we love most never abandoned us, but we it.

If life is over there, where are we? It can get depressing, this trajectory.

But there is good news, too.

Yesterday, I came home from work craving fresh air and sunlight and movement and something that didn’t involve any kind of screen. So I changed into shorts and a t-shirt and asked Mani if she’d take a walk with me. She said yes. As we walked, and she told me all about the paragraph she’d written of the novel she’s working on, and how she used the remainder of the hour she’d allotted herself for fiction-writing doing research, which led to a long story about something I knew little about.

When we came back home a little stinky from sweat, I took the two Advil and declared that I would spend  at least thirty minutes being a bookmaker. Not a sixteen-year-old one, either. A forty-year-old bookmaker, on the living room floor with a glue stick and scraps of paper from the bin at the art store and the White Keys blasting on the Apple TV.

By the time I came to a logical stopping point on the creative project I’m working on, I noticed that my headache was gone. I felt ready to eat some leftovers, and to write. I had done two things, two things I lose track of time doing–walking, and a glorified version of arts-and-crafts destined to be a gift to someone I love dearly.

How we spend our days.

If you aren’t in love with how you spend your days, you may or may not be able to change that all at once. But one thing is for sure–you will not change it at all, ever, if you don’t start choosing to spend time, just little bits even, doing things that recharge you, remind you not just of you were when, but of who you are now.

I cannot reveal the source of the following conversation, but I share it here due to its relevance to our topic:

Real-Life Dialogue:
Anonymous Person: I’ve been working on not eating my boogers.
Me: Yeah?
AP: Yeah. And and now I’m working on not picking my nose at all.
Me: Oh!
AP: It’s easier, when you go in stages like that.

From the mouths of babes, the saying goes. And ain’t that the truth. It’s easier when you go in stages. Don’t have time to exercise? I do squats in the elevator at work, for the time between the third and first floors. I don’t know, but it couldn’t have been more than 40 seconds. (p.s. Don’t worry–only when I have the elevator to myself.)

I don’t know anyone who has ever received a hefty–or any–advance for their first novel. No, she writes a paragraph a day, between the paying clients and changing the laundry. The time she carves out to write that paragraph, though, is a choice–and a sacred one at that, meaning it cannot be put off until tomorrow when she has more time. Because she will never have more time.

We will never have more time another day. Life will not magically slow down after the next board meeting or deadline–unless you claim it. Thirty minutes, fifteen. One, even.

It’s easier, when you go in stages.

Stop eating your boogers before you worry about not picking your nose. One thing follows another, and before you know it, you’ll have broken an unwanted habit or rekindled a dormant passion, or banged out three chapters of your novel, or made homemade ice-cream, or taken a walk, or started a writing group, or sketched during breakfast.

Just start.

If you’re thinking of how it won’t really amount to anything, you might be right. But what if you’re wrong? Don’t you want to find out?

The Past as Prison: Burn It, Bury It, Leave It Behind

d9690d573ad77fbea7340de43607eb58Whether you’re into the woo-woo of the supermoon or not, it’s hard to deny the allure and power of a moon as big and bright as the one we saw last Saturday. One line from the various interpretations we read that night stood out at me: Whatever your prison, you’re preparing for a daring jailbreak.

It got us talking, and asking each other this question:

What parts of yourself or your life do you perceive as prisons?

  • A feeling of powerlessness to change conditions you perceive as less-than-ideal?
  • Getting mad instead of feeling the vulnerability of hurt?
  • Spending energy talking yourself out of your feelings rather than feeling them?
  • Working to change your perspective on circumstances you don’t like–rather than just not liking them?
  • Wanting to control things that are simply beyond your control?
  • Not having enough (time, money, patience, talent, luck, discipline…)
  • Fear that you aren’t a “real” ___________, and one of these days everyone will find out?

One place I imprison myself is the past. For me, it can be a black hole for creativity, a total 180º to the glory light of a full moon.

While going over and over the past can take many forms–regret, guilt, nostalgia, and revision–it can also serve as a powerful reminder and affirmation of how you got here. It can fuel your creativity and renew your faith that everything happens right on time and for a reason. Or it can hold you back in ways both apparent and subconscious, from taking risks, from taking action in the directions your heart longs for.

Living in the past can keep you from really living.

As a child and teenager, then well into my 20s and 30s, I collected mementos and tchotchkes and notebooks and journals; it was as if I needed to surround myself with evidence of who I was and what I was. Even now, after many periods of purging–out with the old, in with the new–I still revisit how things happened, wondering or worrying about other people’s feelings long after the fact, or reliving moments of intensity and change.

Ruminating on the past is a kind of addiction. And it is a shield, against fear–fear of what will happen if you truly leave it behind.

External, material representations of the past can be imprisoning; if your home is a Living History Museum, how will the future to find you?

There is no room at the inn for change, for discovery, for creating, when your primary relationships are with younger versions of yourself or previous chapters of your life. It’s funny, some people read and re-read their favorite books, whereas when I read and love a book, I devour it in a day, bask in the glow for another, and then promptly forget everything I just read, remembering enough only to say, “I loved that book.” If I don’t love a book, I can’t for the life of me finish it. And other than poetry, I rarely re-read anything.

So, the night of the supermoon, after some internal mulling, I shared something Big and Scary with my beloved. I told her that the ketubah (Jewish marriage document) from my first marriage was rolled up in our bedroom closet. It wasn’t that I had concealed this from her so much as I had stashed and ignored it. Now that she and I are preparing the text for our own ketubah, knowing it was there, that some part of me had been holding onto it, felt extremely significant. I teared up as I spoke to her about it.

The glass that encased that paper was smashed four years ago, a stand-out among many painful moments. My divorce was finalized nearly two years ago. And Monday marked the two-and-a-half year anniversary of a one-night stand that turned into a life commitment to the woman I will marry in just over two months.

Holding onto that relic of the past, crammed between bins filled with other relics of the past, no longer made any sense. It felt like being a voluntary hostage to vestiges of guilt or betrayal or loss, an inadvertent withholding of the heart that beats in my chest and in her hands. So while I may already have done the work of “letting go,” clearly there was still something that needed to be done.

I burned it. In the front yard, under the midnight full moon.

Watching the paper crinkle inward and up, smoke pouring through the center of the scroll, all I could think was, “Thank you, thank you.”

Gratitude to what that paper once meant to me, and how the years it hung in bedrooms long gone witnessed so much growing and becoming. And gratitude, too, for the readiness to stop grieving ghosts and turn fully towards life as it is.

Walking away from a self-perpetuated prison where I hoard objects and memories opened something in me. Something honest and vulnerable and strong and empowered. After we went inside, she asked if it was hard. I felt quiet. No, I said. Not hard, but beautiful in a way that didn’t call for elaboration.

To break from the past is to be free. A thousand poets and survivors have said it better–that the only prisons are the ones we create, the ones we chain ourselves inside of, lamenting or angry or bitter or sad.

Sometimes you have to visit in order to sift through what you left behind. And there also comes a day when you can stop visiting, when the past can rest and the present can breathe. 

A daring jailbreak sounded good to me on Saturday night, to light a match and walk away after the ash smoldered and the flame went out.

To claim freedom is not to disown but to honor how you got here, and to create space for what wants to come into being.

What prisons are you ready to break out of? What symbols of the past could you burn or bury? What are you holding on to that you could put down, making your hands available for whatever creative work is calling you?

What is Broken is What God Blesses

Jimmy Santiago Baca1952
   The lover’s footprint in the sand
   the ten-year-old kid’s bare feet
in the mud picking chili for rich growers,
not those seeking cultural or ethnic roots,
but those whose roots
have been exposed, hacked, dug up and burned
		       and in those roots
                           do animals burrow for warmth;
what is broken is blessed,
       	not the knowledge and empty-shelled wisdom
       	paraphrased from textbooks,
           		not the mimicking nor plaques of distinction
		           nor the ribbons and medals
but after the privileged carriage has passed
	       the breeze blows traces of wheel ruts away
	       and on the dust will again be the people’s broken
                            footprints.
What is broken God blesses,
       	not the perfectly brick-on-brick prison
	       but the shattered wall
	       that announces freedom to the world,
proclaims the irascible spirit of the human
rebelling against lies, against betrayal,
against taking what is not deserved;
	       the human complaint is what God blesses,
	       our impoverished dirt roads filled with cripples,
what is broken is baptized,
       	the irreverent disbeliever,
	       the addict’s arm seamed with needle marks
                   is a thread line of a blanket
       	frayed and bare from keeping the man warm.
We are all broken ornaments,
              	   glinting in our worn-out work gloves,
		        foreclosed homes, ruined marriages,
from which shimmer our lives in their deepest truths,
blood from the wound,
                              broken ornaments—
when we lost our perfection and honored our imperfect sentiments, we were
blessed.
Broken are the ghettos, barrios, trailer parks where gangs duel to death,
yet through the wretchedness a woman of sixty comes riding her rusty bicycle,
		       we embrace
		       we bury in our hearts,
broken ornaments, accused, hunted, finding solace and refuge
		       we work, we worry, we love
          	       but always with compassion
		       reflecting our blessings—
			    in our brokenness
			    thrives life, thrives light, thrives
				 the essence of our strength,
				 each of us a warm fragment,
				 broken off from the greater
				 ornament of the unseen,
				 then rejoined as dust,
				 to all this is.