seeking the story in the ordinary

The other morning, I woke to speak with a man I’d never met.

After 13 minutes of failed Google+ attempts, we got through. It was just after 5am and pitch black outside the window above the desk. I curled my legs underneath me as we smiled with relief.

Conversations with strangers are so touching and intimate these days. Maybe it’s simply that any conversation with a stranger, since such conversations are more and more rare, represents something you almost didn’t do.    – Heidi Julavits, The Folded Clock

It was (a shortened version of) this quote that prompted Philip McCluskey, the Thirsty Wanderer, to reach out over Twitter and then suggest we meet for a virtual drink. He does this often. He has drinks with strangers.

The premise is simple, yet stunning: you have a drink and conversation with someone you’ve never met. It need not be alcoholic—we, for example, had coffee.

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 5.56.31 AM

He was kind and accommodating and sincere. He says what he thinks and asks good, hard questions. He listens to the answers.

There was a slight (inevitable) awkwardness, and yet a surprising ease to our conversation. Either because of limited time—threatened as we were by the impending wake-up of my youngest son—or his nature, probably both, we got right to the heart of things.

What matters? What do you wish you could tell the world? Did you see yourself ending up where you are?

In the span of an hour, we talked of faith and friendship, religion and travel, parenthood and professions, family and where we’re from. He told of other people he’s met—each had left a mark, I could tell. This is a man who is affected by those who cross his path. We spoke of taking comfort in uncertainty as we grow older, and how writing creates uncommon connections, allows you to be more honest somehow—like in a conversation with a stranger.

As Philip says in his brief video intro to the project, “There is no past with a stranger. And there’s probably not going to be any future either. There’s no broken-in feeling of comfort there, but there’s also less expectation.”

It reminded me of being 17, when I would talk long and late into the night to a red-haired boy named Jon until we’d fall asleep with the phone receivers still pressed between one ear and the pillow. He referenced books I scrambled to read, quoted song lyrics like poetry, and made me question…everything.

Why do we have to stop having these conversations at 20?

I used to wander city streets on Sundays, alone, and strike up conversation with anyone. I once met an actor waiting for his scene in a Jack Nicholson movie they were filming on my corner, an older gentleman riding out his last days in a laundromat, a woman with a thick Russian accent who clerked at the local video store and spiritedly debated me on the meaning of the movies I rented.

But at some point we settle down, get set in our ways. We find our four walls and, for the most part, stay within them. But what if we blurred the line between self and other, between here and elsewhere?

What if any two people, anywhere, could meet and talk?

I let him in to my morning. Still in my pajamas and, at points, with a sleepy two-year-old on my lap. It wasn’t pretty, but it was real.

When I opened the front door for my oldest son to board the school bus later that morning, I lingered a little longer, took in a few gulps of fresh fall air and thought of him, stepping out into his own day. Many miles lay between us, but for a moment, an hour, our paths crossed, our lives ricocheted off each other, and it was as if, particle by particle, a strand stretched across the vast space separating us…

What matters?

What matters, I wanted to say, is this. Exactly this. Connecting with someone else in a sincere way. Breaking down boundaries, seeing one another for who we really are, discarding fear, diminishing distance and difference. Starting with a simple hello, a warm smile, a good morning, it’s nice to meet you.

And going from there…

…the quiet of stealing hours from the night

…of the early morning hours, when you wake, before sun, before sound

…pierced only by the click-clack of keys that, for now, are typing the most dreadful first draft

…of what might, one day, be a book…with a binding…that bears your name

…the silent stir of your spoon in the coffee as you strain to keep it from clinking

…the quiet in the weeks and months that stretch out after “submit”

…while you await a response

…or receive a pass

…the whispering echo of your own self-doubt

…the quiet resignation of seeing each rejection as evidence of an attempt, as proof of a willingness to try, to fail

…the quiet here, as I write elsewhere

…of words sitting still on a page, written but unread

…the quiet of remembering when

…of conjuring conversations where you speak both sides, without saying a word

…the quiet loneliness of few friends in a temporary town, a waypoint where we will not stay

…the comforting company of questions unasked

…of a secret, carefully kept

…of friendships formed only in the ether, by messages sent through silenced phones

…the quiet of staying in, missing out

…of staring into old photographs

…of sharing silent space with someone you love

…of a rural landscape, left behind

…the quiet of arriving first at a room that will soon be filled

…of sitting in solitude on an evening train into the city, watching out the window as the sky yellows, then pinks, then settles into a deep navy

…the quiet at the slow outset of a song at a concert of an old friend

…on a familiar stretch of a city where you once lived

…of walking its streets to find that storefronts haven’t stayed the same, that nothing does, that nothing will

…the quiet of a bed in a room of your own

…of him working late and long into the night

…of a light left on

…of sleeping alone

…of the tick-tick of time, of a life fading from present to past while your sights are set on simply getting through the day

…the quiet of sliding calloused feet between cold, clean sheets, of pulling the comforter up to your chin

…as you sigh, quietly


Thirty-five is the rhythm of everyday life.

It’s seeing someone and thinking, I knew you well once.

It’s knowing where you are happiest—but how to cope when you can’t be there.

Thirty-five is realizing you’ve lived twice as long as the counselors caring for your kids at camp.

It’s getting dizzy on the roller coasters you once loved as a child.

Or collapsing cross-legged on the floor—but “needing a minute” to get back up.

Thirty-five is confidence in The Way You Do Things.

And at once an awareness of how little you know, how much is uncertain.

It’s being comforted, not frightened, by that.

Thirty-five is out of the honeymoon phase of, oh, just about everything: parenting, profession, marriage, friendships.

It’s realizing life goes on after losing its luster and digging in to the gritty work of it all.

Thirty-five is watching friends become wildly successful in ways that make you tearfully proud, but still remembering that time you shared a bed or bath in your younger days—over twenty-five years ago.

Thirty-five is appreciating time alone more than ever before. It’s knowing what to do with it.

It’s feeling less patient with other people’s peccadillos. But mastering not letting that show.

Thirty-five knows just how to comfort her children during a thunderstorm.

It’s unsubscribing from new moms email groups, viewing those early months of motherhood as a quaint memory.

It’s feeling secure in and sated by your marriage.

Thirty-five relishes setting out, but knows returning home is far sweeter.

It’s coming to terms with the fact that you’ll never wear red.

Or listen to your old mix tapes again.

Thirty-five is feeling that life is, for the most part, sorted and known, while still harboring hope for possibility on your path.

It’s songs on the radio that remind you of someone, soap scents that transport you to a specific place. Thirty-five is wistful. Thirty-five is remembering when…

It’s part of you wanting to go back, and all of you knowing you can’t.

Thirty-five is still battling breakouts, while simultaneously mapping the lines that etch and extend their way between your eyes, around your mouth.

It’s wearing undergarments that suck all of you in.

It’s feeling comfortable letting it all hang out.

It’s finding bars too loud. And Friends reruns far more alluring.

It’s the same gray hoodie and black sweats thrown on at the end of the day.

It’s a long pour of red wine after sundown.

Thirty-five is facing the frailty of family and friends, coming to terms with the truism that every day on this earth is a gift.

It’s accepting certain vices—nail biting, that coffee addiction, your stubborn streak—as immutable.

It’s realizing that, even as you become more set in your ways, dig deeper grooves in the ground beneath your feet, you can connect with anyone over something.

Thirty-five is looking in the mirror to see beautiful-tired staring back at you.

It’s salt and pepper strands slowly overtaking, but not to the point where you do anything just yet.

It’s making sure that nighttime moisturizer says something about anti-aging on the label.

Thirty-five is wondering if jeans with a slit in the knee is trying too hard.

Thirty-five is neither here nor there.

It’s kissing your kids goodnight and then turning in yourself, giddy to have a good book in hand.

It’s waking at 4am to the contemplative quiet of the early morning hours before your world wakes.

At thirty-five, freedom is flooring it in your minivan.

It’s imagining one more…positive pregnancy test, round belly, warm soft baby against your slackening skin …but worrying whether your body, and everything else, will break under the weight of it all.

Thirty-five is cobbling friends together in odd places and in ways perhaps you’d once scoffed at—through office companionship, school drop offs, social media.

It’s knowing that however these friendships formed, they’re the ones you can’t live without.

Thirty-five is feeling at peace with your life and lot, but still sensing the subtle stirrings of discontent. A nagging awareness, a whispered question: can this be all there is?

Thirty-five is not the end of the story.


My 35th birthday was a little over a week ago, and I wrote this post to capture a moment in time. I was inspired by Galit Breen’s gorgeous This Is 39.

“That’s all that exists in the end, what has been written down.” – James Salter

I’ll spend much of this summer at my alma mater overnight camp with my three sons. I’ll work in the front office while the boys enjoy programming designed for staff kids. Each day, we’ll step outside to the dewy chill of early morning air. Come nightfall, we’ll huddle under fleece blankets in a modest bunk–two rooms adjoined by a bathroom–with a shared porch.


our home in the woods

It is the way we disconnect and reconnect. Internet access is spotty at best. The rhythm of life slows to a stripped-back simplicity. The nights are black and still, with no dishes to wash or house to keep. After the camp quiets and the boys are kissed goodnight, it is just me, my words, and the wilderness.

my utterly unrealistic reading stack

my utterly unrealistic reading stack

Yet there’s a steady buzz in the front office. And we eat our meals in a communal dining hall that accommodates several hundred people. Walls are thin, and little separates you from nature or neighbor. It’s a strange confluence of constant community and soul-searching silence.

It is the way we mark time. We did this last year, and that we’ll be back there again signals another year has passed. It leaves me thoughtful of all that’s come between summer’s brackets.

Frankly, we’re in need of a change. Our routine has grown rote. We cycle through our days like a tired, monochromatic wardrobe. I’ve prepared the same dinner each night for two weeks straight (pasta, chickenless nuggets, edamame, if you’re curious), only to use the leftovers for lunches. The boys have fallen into an undesirable habit of waking in the 5:00 hour, and I know: we all sleep more soundly at camp.

Sometimes we need to shift perspective to truly see. It’s time to take in the tiny new freckle on the small of my oldest son’s back. To listen carefully as he fills my ears with the complicated details of last night’s dream. To step away from the minivan that shuttles us everywhere and be within walking distance of all our destinations. To sit on the earth. Summer is for slowing down, for noticing. And this narrowing, scaling back, stripping away–it’s also somehow an expansion. It is in this smallest, simplest life that we see what looms large.




I may not be as connected or responsive over the coming months, but you can be sure I’ll be writing, and living, in my cabin in the woods…surrounded by all that matters.

Wishing you a wonderful summer of stepping back, sinking in, taking stock…whatever suits you.

There once was a time Before Computers–a second B.C.–that we’re now using our computers to delete: a time before e-mail, msgs, apps, and urls, when privacy wasn’t a setting and attachments were to people, when search meant finding something in the real world, and being connected meant you weren’t alone. – Adam Ross’ blurb on Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen


The garage door lifted against the night. 4am may be morning, but all pitch black and silence, you wouldn’t know it. The car beep startled me awake as I slid into the driver seat, coffee clutched, and set out for Pittsburgh.

Minutes before, I’d fingered the wisps of hair that fell across my baby’s forehead. When he woke for the day, I’d be halfway across the state.

As much as I crave time away, it’s always hard to leave my children. I grip that moment of farewell—when we are still within reach.

This dark morning, I followed 76 West clear across Pennsylvania amid unwelcome truck company, the sun’s coppery first light at my back—as if driving away from day and deeper into the departing night. We are always moving away from something. Each minute leaves behind the last.


And yet, I carry a relentless sentimentality for all that came before, all that once was. I walk forward with my head slung over one shoulder, ever looking back.

In Pittsburgh, I was met—at the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference—with a room full of people who believe in excavating their minds and memories for story. “Memory should be interrogated,” Dinty W. Moore taught, “it’s where the discovery happens.” “Telling stories matters. It’s always mattered…” said Lee Gutkind.

In writing memoir, we are researching our own lives (to paraphrase Jill Kandel)—to seek understanding, to ask endless questions about why something was the way it was, why we were the way we were, to push on what we’re curious about, what we don’t understand, what continues to puzzle us, even years later (to paraphrase Moore).

We take our idiosyncratic experience, examine it, and then throw it out into the world, hoping it helps. “The reason to write,” Gutkind said, “is to make a difference…to figure out how what we know can impact other people.”

Many are troubled by how much of our lives are now lived out loud—in this age of (over)exposure, where every person has a platform, where the minutiae of any given day are splashed across the screen: Joe had pancakes for breakfast, people! Jamie chopped off her hair! People (like me) create their own websites on a whim and post personal content for public consumption.

It bothers me little, perhaps because I like to know the mundane details of others’ lives—even acquaintances or strangers. I’m that much of a voyeur.

But also because I believe that’s how Joe and Jamie are marking their moments, telling their stories. Is it the stuff of memoir? Probably not. (I often think of Dani Shapiro’s writing advice that “just because it happened doesn’t make it interesting.”) But they’re letting people in, sharing their truths.

All we have is who we are and what’s happened to us along the way. Every lived life is a story worth telling. I soften, harboring a strange affection for my mind’s hoarding tendencies, my reluctance to let go—I’m gathering data. What better fodder for story than the stuff of real people and place? What better way to connect to your before and to the world all around than to tell the tale of your one little life?

At the Pittsburgh conference, there were several opportunities for attendees to share their stories orally: a “pitch slam,” where brave participants delivered their book or essay pitch to a panel of editors—with the entire conference looking on (did I mention brave?), or the “story slam,” where volunteers took the stage to deliver a five minute true story on the theme of rejection.

A writing conference is already wonderfully strange for putting you within reach of those you’ve only known on the page. Suddenly, the faces and voices of the people behind the prose take shape, stand before you, trade jokes in the foyer, have chance encounters on street corners, affectionately pat your shoulder.

Your mind works overtime, trying to square what you’ve read with what you see; you know, from now on, you will hear their voices as you read their words.

It’s sensory overload. It’s almost too much.

Hearing writers deliver deeply personal narratives in the rise and fall of their own voices before a stilled crowd added yet another dimension to this work of storytelling. My preference remains the written word, which permits us precision—the luxury to revise and refine, to approach control over our expression—the words we use, where they fall—while allowing the reader his own intimate interplay with the text.

But at the end of the day, the key is that we’re standing up and speaking our stories at all—with pen, on paper, on screen, by mouth. The young and old, black and white, gay and straight, the 70ish Russian history PhD and the wild-haired 17-year-old high school student. Each tale worth telling, every story worth hearing.

So tell me about those pancakes, Joe. Share on.

“Memoir is important…so people can be inside the life of another person. That’s where empathy begins.” – Dinty W. Moore

Jena Schwartz

The blog formerly known as Bullseye, Baby! Visit to stay in touch!


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