A 35 week experiment in getting (and staying) un-stuck.

Week 15: A word for this

Unexpected Plan B

The two photos in this post are by Anjali Pinto, whose photographs are stunning and words are generous. If you’re on Instagram you should follow her at @anjalipinto. If you’re not, check out her site and do a deep dive.

Around this time last year, someone shared this blog post with me. It’s by a midwife named Jana Studelska who has coopted a German word, zwischen, which means “between,” for the final days of pregnancy. She calls this period “a distinct biologic and psychological event, essential to the birth of a mother.”

The post is kind of a lot. But I appreciate her naming the season, or micro-season, and advocating for a “working understanding of the vulnerability and openness a woman experiences at this time.”

She writes (emphasis mine):

We need time and space to prepare for that journey. And somewhere, deep inside us, at a primal level, our cells and hormones and mind and soul know this, and begin the work with or without our awareness.

I call out Zwischen in prenatals as a way of offering comfort and, also, as a way of offering protection. I see how simple it is to exploit and abuse this time. A scheduled induction is seductive, promising a sense of control. Fearful and confused family can trigger a crisis of confidence. We are not a culture that waits for anything, nor are we believers in normal birth; waiting for a baby can feel like insanity. Giving this a name points her toward listening and developing her own intuition. That, in turn, is a powerful training ground for motherhood.

I was remembering this piece earlier tonight because I started thinking about another period of time for which we don’t have a name in English: the first half of December.

Social pressure, some of it self-imposed, is part of it: we have to see those friends, and I can’t drop the ball on that other event, because if we don’t catch up with everyone and everything now then before we know it it’ll be January, and then there are work obligations and Chicago snowpocalypses and we might as well give up until June. And at work, for me, all the Decembers I remember were filled with pressure from above (to cram in meetings, deadlines, and year-end forced fun) and within (so I could unplug as much as possible, or at least not be That Person Sending You Emails, at the end of the month).

What’s the word for all that?

Because whatever it is, there is some of that frenzied, it’ll-never-all-get-done feeling for me this year. But this year is also very different. I have a 10 month old. She vomited colorfully tonight as I was writing this, so I’m now typing on my phone while she sleeps on me. Maybe another week I’ll have distance from this experience to be able to unpack how my own “Zwischen” did or did not prepare me for this episode; for now, she’s just forcing me to cancel some plans.

And I don’t have a full-time job, but I do have childcare. (Go ahead and hate me. I spent a good stretch of the fall hating myself.)

Also, Thanksgiving weekend involved a hospital and was a different sort of family cocoon than I’m accustomed to. Emerging from that, I blinked for a second against the light of my regular routine, but adapted fast and with gratitude and purpose, aware that we’ll turn around and do that time-suspension family-cocoon thing again in less than a month.

For those reasons and more, I have been moving and grooving and not overthinking (or over-feeling the news headlines) as painfully. Instead of meditating so much on the cognitive dissonance and dis/orientation of this year, instead of constantly thinking “stop feeling so guilty-shamey! You’re going to look back from your deathbed at this as the happiest time of your life!,” I’m trying to cross things off the list and be really present.

  • I opened the business accounts I’d been needing to open, and I did it at a credit union instead of a big bank.

  • I worked with two friends on a huge podcasting fellowship application. In just eight days we decided to go for it, brainstormed a concept, wrote a ton, turned my dining room table into a blanket fort/recording studio, and shipped out a lengthy application with a budget and a two minute audio teaser.

  • I haven’t yet made the website I promised myself I’d make before the end of the year, but I did start a gig as a Community Manager at an awesome coworking space today in exchange for full member benefits.

Turns out that when you stop hating and doubting yourself and just do your thing, suddenly you…

have a baby vomit on you and finish your email from your phone in the dark.

The few links I managed to save before finishing this on my phone

————

Thanks for reading! This is email #15 of 35, and it’s a miracle it got out. Wash your hands and stay healthy, everyone.

Week 14: Trust the process

And keep showing up

Photo note: The first two images in this week’s post are from my friend Lisa J’s Instagram feed. Some of her images are soothing mugs of tea for your eyeballs; others are tiny, strong shots of visual espresso. You should follow her.

This week. I don’t know. You know?

I want to say something about the idea of sanctuary — about the tear gas in sanctuary-seekers’ faces, in babies’ faces, at the border; about the explosion that just caused my cousin’s family to lose all of their possessions — but I’m at a loss.

What I do know is that several weeks ago a lovely reader told me she would welcome an installment in which I described my process for putting these emails together. I’ve been keeping that idea in my back pocket ever since for a week just like this one, hoping it isn’t too navel-gazey, and am cashing it in tonight. But first:

Just here for some links?

  • Ladies who launch: My high school friend and her sister just launched Sari Society and they’re selling some truly beautiful designs. And a powerhouse team of women at NPR just gifted us all the 2018 Book Concierge.

  • This interview is fun. I learned things!

  • Comfort in, dump out. How not to say the wrong thing when someone you love is going through something hard. It’s totally possible I’ve linked to this useful evergreen content in this newsletter before.

  • Are you at a crossroads? I like Tara Mohr’s point that:

    There are more than two roads. The true definition of a “crossroads” is that place where two roads meet. But I don’t think that’s such a helpful image, because it reinforces the narrative that we are being forced to make a binary choice between roads that someone else has designed and paved. That is never the truth in life...If you right now brainstorm five more paths than you’ve thought of before, what shows up?

    I want to be able to think this abundantly and expansively and creatively about the here, now, and future but I feel pretty depleted tonight. I do know that lately, doula/midwife/birth photographer would make my list. What comes to mind for you when you let yourself daydream? I’d love to hear.

Now, for those who find this sort of thing interesting…

How I write this thing

Even though I promised myself it wouldn’t be this way, I do almost all of the writing on Wednesday night right before I publish. In order to not melt down with writer’s block each week, I keep two sandbox-type spaces: a note on my phone where I dump links, phrases, or ideas throughout the week, and then a Word doc on my desktop for planning, free writes, and “compost” I’ve cut from previous drafts.

By Sunday or Monday, I’ve usually started opening the phone note more often and a couple of links might be obvious contenders for inclusion. On a really good week I’ll set aside time on Tuesday to open up the Word doc. On a great week, I do this at Loba.

I might start writing something new, but more often I scan old chunks of drafts. Recent half-drafted examples include:

  • My answers to these five questions

  • The self-conscious play-by-play of an encounter with a well-meaning former colleague who is asking me for free labor (status: the trip to DC last week gave me the perfect excuse to ghost his most recent email, which I feel gross about, but honestly it feels like too much work to diplomatically break down for him that he should just Google the answer to his own question, which I could have done in the time it took to write this bullet point)

  • Some things about perfectionism that I learned from SURJ and from Zumba

(Sometimes when I start really working and flowing, those seeds whisper that they need to grow in soil other than the newsletter, in another direction. In that case, especially if I have time and caffeine, I might open up another doc somewhere and work on it. For example, I started a passionate essay response to an awful Dear Abby column, then realized maybe that energy would be better channeled into an op-ed to one of the papers where her column runs. Now I have the beginnings of an op-ed saved on my laptop, the beginnings of a newsletter installment saved in my newsletter drafts, and some thoughts in Word that just feel too personal for either space. Plus, the person who alerted me to the column in the first place wrote his own incredible response, and I stalled a bit after that.)

MOST weeks, though, are like this one. On Tuesday I think: I should really get started. On Wednesday morning I think: I really have to get started. On Wednesday evening I feel dread and emptiness and think: Well, it was a good run. This is the week I’m going to have to phone it in.

We do dinner, bath time, and finally I settle onto the couch to pound something out. My husband heads to bed, a long day of teaching ahead of him. The baby monitor is my soundtrack. I write furiously, go browse photos or gifs when I start to stall, and hope the baby doesn’t cry, but am also grateful when she does. Feeding her forces me to get off the couch and stretch, and in the dark of her room I might look back at the note on my phone. If I’m really lucky, that’s when I have a eureka moment about how best to wrap up. Back on the couch, I am usually desperate for sleep; I send myself a test email, make edits through half-closed eyes, and let go.

Why, though?

I’ve always liked time-bound creative projects. Project 365 back in Flickr’s heyday. A collection of 28 interviews before my 29th birthday, all focused on the idea of Saturn’s return. The Artist’s Way, which I dutifully morning-paged my way through while pregnant last fall.

But all of those were pre-baby. So on April 3 of this year, when I decided on a whim to copy cool-kid Prerna and start #The100DayProject on Instagram that night, I really wasn’t sure I would follow through. My parental leave was about to end. Committing to anything besides “feed baby” and “drag myself to work” and “try to be a good domestic employer” felt very ambitious.

But it turned out that being accountable to a daily post that I could craft entirely on my phone — including during late night cluster feedings near the bassinet, or between those feedings, sitting on the bathroom floor in the dark — was doable when I didn’t overthink it. And I made my account private sometime around the baby’s birth, so I was mostly posting among real-world friends. Sometimes I just shared one photo I’d taken myself; other times it was a slideshow of things I’d found online that day that I thought were powerful or that complemented one another well.

One sunny summer day when the #MeToo headlines and hits just kept coming, and the cognitive dissonance was extreme at work, I put this picture in a slideshow with the poem below:

I still love that combo.

After posting to Instagram for 100 days, I took at least two solid weeks off the platform entirely. It felt really good. But after a while I found myself wishing for another project, so I began this one on my 35th birthday - with little more forethought than the last.

Same/different

I’m writing this late at night — to late at night to overthink the formatting, to make sure the images all align with the text perfectly. I can’t do this on the bathroom floor in the dark. I can’t do it with a baby eating on me. I have to prioritize it when I could be prioritizing time with my spouse or freelance projects or anything else.

I stockpile sparks of ideas in a similar way to #The100DaysProject, but with a weekly posting rhythm (and a goal to use some of these posts as writing samples), I have much more time to doubt and dampen them. If I want to pull disparate pieces together, I have a different vertical format to contend with. I have to think about whether the items I want to include will flow together from top to bottom as you read through it, or whether I care, and I have to think about what the consequences will be when I publish things that are more robust and personal. I wish I had it in me more often to do that.

Do you see why I love you for reading?

See you next week.

Reminder: If you’re reading this, it’s either because you subscribed yourself or someone forwarded it to you (in which case you can subscribe at julia.substack.com). There will be 35 emails total; this is email #14.

Week 13: Filling

Not stuffing.

My #1 tip for Thanksgiving

If you are able, take a walk. Take it earlier than you think you need it.

Earlier this year my mom recommended I download the Insight Timer app and sent me a couple of guided meditations that she had found helpful. One of them begins with a voice saying “Notice whether you can make yourself five to ten percent more comfortable.”

I think of this sometimes when I get in bed at night, tense with anticipation that the baby is going to wake up hungry as I finally succumb to sleep.

I thought of this as I looked at my grandmother on her hospital bed earlier this week. She looked at least 90% uncomfortable. I stroked her hand.

I noticed in the Washington Post book review the other day (because I read actual paper newspapers when I come home to Maryland) something about a novel whose protagonist concludes: Home is where it hurts.

Yesterday I did a lot of driving. First to the hospital on the third route the GPS had dictated in as many days. I made my way down Route 50 behind a big orange Bolt Bus arriving from New York — “my twenties!” I thought with nostalgia, as the result of my decidedly mid-thirties pregnancy babbled charmingly in the backseat — and then over on Bladensburg Road past the distilleries and freshly painted sub shop signs and other new-to-me signs of gentrification. We made our way to Constitution Avenue and drove past Senate office buildings and I thought how delighted my grandma had been earlier in the week when I showed her Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Congress Camp Instagram story. “She is just amazing!” Grandma said to my dad and me, forgetting briefly about the tubes and X-rays.

We drove past the Capitol itself. “When Rosa Parks died,” I told the baby, who had begun to grumble, “I stood in line here. A very long line that wound all the way down this green. And when President Obama took his oath of office for the first time, I stood outside not too far from here. Those were the two times my body has probably been the coldest it’s ever been in my whole life.”

We made our way past the history museums (whose history, we ask, as we contemplate Thanksgiving and #Thankstaking) and she began to fuss harder. I focused on the beautiful November light, and I tried singing Move and Groove and parroting the noises she made and reciting her favorite books from memory, and soon we turned on 23rd and I began to look for parking.

After our visit I buckled her in again and we drove back to my parents’ house to pack (me) and nap (her). Then I repeated the carseat-loading process, putting toys within arms’ reach knowing she’d throw them all, Velcro-ing her little fleece booties on over her socks knowing she’d pull both off and gnaw on her toes before we made it to the airport to pick up her papa. We spent almost two hours driving those 13 miles. I recited all of the books again. She was crying hard by the end. Having forgotten to refill my water bottle, I had inhaled the small handful of grapes I’d intended to give him as welcome snack.

Finally, finally, we were just 20 minutes away from our final destination of his parents’ house Silver Spring, and he was staving off squalls by slowly offering her tiny pieces of broccoli and blueberries I’d packed in tiny Tupperware, when I told him: “I realize this is not ideal but I have to stop and find a bathroom. I’ll be quick.”

I kid you not, if I hadn’t seen this cheesy illustration the day before and thought about how I like this “fill your cup” metaphor much better than the “put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others” one, I’m not sure I would have listened to my body and pulled over at that Starbucks. But I did it. And the whole night was better as a result.

And so was today’s drive (solo this time! to see my grandma who is out of the hospital!), which involved two whole water bottles just for me, zero children’s book recitations, and a bathroom break at that exact same Starbucks.

‘Tis the Season for Grieving, writes Heidi Maria Lopez, one of the strongest community organizers I know:

To me this time of year is marked by very crucial holy-days. Days where each day the darkness increases until the winter solstice when that begins to turn around. Don’t let these systems fool you into thinking that we must generate “lightness” to get by.

If you’re on the road this week, here’s hoping you breathe deep and keep your water bottles (and tanks) filled. If you’re grieving, double ditto.

Here’s to getting at least five or ten percent more comfortable before you fill others’ cups.

Empty cup drawing via @SubwayTherapy on Instagram. All other images this week are my own photos from Thanksgivings 2007 and 2009 at my grandparents’ old house.

Reminder: If you’re reading this, it’s either because you subscribed yourself or someone forwarded it to you (in which case you can subscribe at julia.substack.com). There will be 35 emails total; this is email #13.

Week 12: Three to follow

Yearbook superlatives for three masters of the craft

There’s some other important stuff occupying my head and heart this week, so I’m popping in to recommend a few other newsletters you might enjoy.

  • Sharpest Knife in the Drawer: Stacy-Marie Ishmael, The Main Event: This brilliant thinker recently made a switch from a smaller newsletter platform to Substack, so you can opt into shorter free emails or you can just trust me when I say that she is truly amazing and support her work by getting a paid subscription for more content. I first became a fan when she appeared several times on Another Round (exhibit A, exhibit B) to talk about workplace dynamics and careers, gender and race, and lots more. I’ve also linked to her tweets here before.

  • Most Meditative: Hannah Hessel Ratner, Words from Hanvnah - Once upon a time I was an intern at Theater J in Washington, DC. Hannah Hessel was the incredibly cool, savvy member of the tiny staff who I would have lost touch with if it weren’t for social media. She is a dramaturg who created this totally intriguing-sounding production that’s currently onstage in Washington, DC. If you’re there, you should get tickets. And wherever you are, if you appreciate musings on theater-making, parenting, the creative process, time management, Millennial Jewish perspectives, good books, and more, you should subscribe to her newsletter.

  • Queen of Consistency: Ann Friedman, The Ann Friedman Weekly - I imagine many of you already subscribe to this one or are familiar with Ann Friedman because she co-hosts the podcast Call Your Girlfriend with Aminatou Sow. (They’re writing a book, a “memoir-manifesto” about friendship, together next.) It’s hard to explain how influential this media-maker’s trajectory has been on my own, partly because my career looks almost nothing like hers. But I’ve followed her professional steps and strategies and collaborations with loyalty, fascination, and appreciation. She sends her newsletter out every Friday and I proceed to crash my browser by opening almost all of the links she crams in.

I wish I had more of my own words for you tonight. I hope you go drink theirs in. I always do. See you next Wednesday.

Reminder: If you’re reading this, it’s either because you subscribed yourself or someone forwarded it to you (in which case you can subscribe at julia.substack.com). There will be 35 emails total; this is email #12.

Week 11: Turn toward, not away

Salt, Samin, Stacey

Grooving

So are we all using SFAH (as in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat) as a verb now? As in, I’m having exactly the day I needed to have after that election: I exercised, I’ve only read a few breathless hot takes, I felt feelings but haven’t collapsed in a puddle of tears, and at lunchtime I SFAH’d a veggie and egg fried rice? It felt good to be recipe-less and intuitive. We had a big container of leftover plain white rice from a Thai food order and I also had a little cooked quinoa to use up, which adds textural interest sort of like sesame seeds if you squint, and makes the dish much more filling. I sauteed onion, garlic, ginger and a little salt and pepper first in some olive oil, relying vaguely on my memory of this Smitten Kitchen recipe, and then intuited and tasted my way to a final product that was if not restaurant-worthy, then at least Trader Joe’s freezer bag-worthy.

Samin Nosrat Smile GIF by NETFLIX

Stir fry isn’t out of the ordinary for me, but asking “what would Samin do?” felt nice and new. I slid in chopped carrots and celery, some peas, and the one sad scallion in the fridge drawer, plus some sesame oil (MORE FAT!), the grains, some soy sauce (MORE SALT!), a little gochujang and rice wine, and at some point I threw in some of those coconut flakes, not the shredded kind but the chips that look like wider, curved shavings. I cooked that all in a wide skillet and then made space for two eggs and scrambled them up and shoved it all around. I ate with a lot of satisfaction and imagined a drone camera high above me capturing high-def, sweeping b-roll footage, not the shores of Japan or the olive oil groves of Italy, but the cloudy gray damp of Lakeview, most of our trees now bare.

Images from Daily Overview’s Instagram

Moving

My friend Prerna and I have been comparing notes on our respective Zumba classes. We have different instructors, classmates, playlists, and settings, but week after week we’ve both been forced to learn and re-learn: just keep moving. Can’t figure out how that arm swoopy thing goes with that kick-shuffle-kick thing? It doesn’t matter, just move your arm. Move your feet. Just be present. Keep moving and trying.

Rest is really important. So is celebration. So is mourning. There is deep sleep you deserve to sink into, there are big bites of SFAHd foods I hope you slowly savor, and there are long quiet stretches of newsfeed-free stillness I hope you can access soon if you haven’t lately.

But.

Here are two things we can do right now:

First, share your voting woes with someone who will put them to good use.

Dhara, a designer and racial justice organizer I know, is working on a new tool that will help people have an easier time voting, and then help them stay connected to take action on issues they care about after Election Day. She needs some real world examples and insights.

  • Was it hard for you to register? Did you, like my cousin in Pittsburgh, realize just three days too late that you’d missed the deadline to get an absentee ballot, and have to rearrange a super long day of work and parenting to make it to the polls?

  • Did you arrive at your polling place and find, like my friend in Brooklyn, that your name had been scrubbed from the rolls sometime between the primaries and yesterday?

  • Were you told you couldn’t vote when legally you totally could?

  • Was the line just so long that you had to leave for work before you could vote?

  • Was the wifi unreliable, so you couldn’t pull up the handy online voting guide you’d planned to rely on? Did tools like BallotReady help you to a degree, but you wished for more?

  • If you didn’t or couldn’t vote, what were the barriers? Is there something that would make it easier or possible next time?

Anything you can share would be so helpful! It doesn’t have to be a long, perfectly written essay. Email dhara.shah67@gmail.com with any stories that might help her build a better product.

Second, send some money to Georgia.

Today is Diwali. Help good triumph over evil. As a friend said, Brian Kemp doesn’t get to be both player and referee. Stacey Abrams is still fighting, as she should. Donate to help make sure every vote is counted.

To my fellow white folks, especially white women:

Don’t turn away. Take these in:

I’m thinking about rivers. Some days flow, some days churn, some days you can barely see the ripples. But we can’t afford to become stagnant. White women voted for Kemp at an even higher rate than white men. We have to keep learning and trying. And moving. And working.

See you next week.

Reminder: If you’re reading this, it’s either because you subscribed yourself or someone forwarded it to you (in which case you can subscribe at julia.substack.com). There will be 35 emails total; this is email #11.

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