Jena Schwartz: The Space Between Lives

“Wisdom is the ability to distinguish between things; to make sense out of confusion.”


I met my wife in the space between lives. Both of our marriages to men had ended. In the name of sovereignty, we’d also severed the transitional relationships with other women that had respectively followed classic trajectories from headlong to toxic. In fact, we’d supported each other in making healthy and self-respecting decisions via a secret online group, where for months we’d shared words and photos from the front lines of our hearts and daily lives, along with a dozen or so other women from around the country. What we didn’t know is that we’d wind up together.

We met in the space between, with no suspicion that our meeting was in fact a kind of reaching for the other side of a chasm. On the one side was a heterosexual marriage going into its eleventh year, homeownership—a sweet house on a cul-de-sac, no less—and the apparent ease that is borne of fitting into social norms. Across that canyon stretched the unknown, where to be true to myself meant walking away from life as I knew it. The decision to leave my marriage felt a lot like jumping out of a plane, naked, without a parachute. After I realized I was gay, I spent three months gazing over the edge, feeling like I was going to throw up. I lost 15 pounds and had an affair with the woman who had drawn my genie out of her bottle, never to be stifled back inside. It was exhilarating and shattering, all at the same time.

The woman who would become my wife was in a similar period of loss and reclamation; she, too, had left her husband and suffered the consequences, facing an ugly divorce. And she, too, had moved into and then beyond a passionate but short-lived relationship. I suppose you could say we’d chosen these outcomes, but it would be true only in the sense of the things that choose us when we surrender to the rapids instead of the fighting the current of our lives. Sometimes diving into the waves is the best way not to drown. We’d done just that, and were now emerging. Little did we know, life was leading us to each other.

Meeting in person for the first time was like feeling feet on solid ground again after so much disorientation and reorientation. I remember having this profound realization—at least it felt profound at the time, though in hindsight I wonder if it’s obvious—that “sexual orientation” really does have everything to do with how we see and face the world. In coming out, my entire worldview, my perception and experience of friendships, my neighborhood, even my own body moving through space, had changed in ways that felt impossible to describe and equally impossible to overlook. It was not dissimilar to how I felt after giving birth to each of my two children. The air was different. My cells were different. My knowing of myself was wider and deeper, both more anchored and more expansive than before, while at the same time massively reconfigured.

By the time we met that January day when she picked me up at the Phoenix airport with a carful of women—she later told me she’d insisted on driving, practically fought a friend for dibs, but couldn’t pinpoint why she’d been so stubborn about it—we were both ready for a new kind of love: Love that would not make demands, would not hold us hostage, and would not manipulate or coerce or demean. In other words, we were ready for one-night stands with no strings attached. Ready for ease.

That was nearly six years ago. We just celebrated our third anniversary.

*

This morning, in the space between sleeping and waking, I shimmied my backside up against her, my ass against her belly. The other night I said something about spooning and she quipped, “Put your peaches in my spoon,” then we both cracked up. “Did you just make that up?!” I asked her. She had. Her brain makes me as happy as her body.

She is the spoon to my peach, the dark to my light, the light to my new moon when I cry, when I can’t see where I am. “You are right here,” she tells me, and every time, I choose to believe her. When she tells me everything is ok, I choose to believe her. I begin to believe this without asking, though it’s always nice to hear.

*

They didn’t believe me at first. “How can you be sure?” an in-law asked. “It’s a trend these days,” said one acquaintance. “It’s because you live in Vermont.” “Sexuality is fluid.” “It might just be a phase.” “You’re having a mid-life crisis.” “Don’t throw away your marriage.” “You’ve never even kissed a woman.” While there was no shortage of opinions, some were more encouraging: “Do you want to have a near-life experience?” asked a friend, twenty years my senior, from her unique vantage point as a self-described “seasoned old dyke.”

Even before my lips had touched another woman’s, my 36-year-old body had revealed to me its lifelong secret, and denying it evoked an inner fury I didn’t know I possessed. I tried to keep my life from unraveling by avoiding physical contact with the woman I’d fallen for; I attempted to dance around the truth six ways to Sunday, but it kept waiting for me on Monday morning. Once I knew what I knew, I cried every time my husband and I had sex. Both of us were devastated. And while my parents implored me to stay—“for the kids” and to “keep the family unit intact”—I knew with every fiber of my being that coming out was ultimately for them as much as it was for me. Years of being good fell around me like a house of cards.
Staying meant leaving.

All of this said, it’s important that you understand this: I didn’t know until I knew. My innocence had taken many forms: Domestic goddess, breast-feeding mama, dinner-maker, serial seeker always looking to belong. I felt like I found my people when I went to my first coaching training in my late twenties.  I felt it again at a Hillel conference, dancing in a circle with hundreds of Jews. I felt it among women, always among women, and yet never once stopped to think, “Huh.”

But that’s not the whole truth, and this is where innocence gets a little murky. “Not in this lifetime,” I told myself, and I did count myself blessed. I had two amazing healthy kids and a supportive marriage. We wanted the best for each other—but I also lamented that I wouldn’t get to see what it was like, that mysterious wistful thing called “being with another woman.” I was not in the closet; I didn’t even know there was a closet. The thought that I was sexually curious was so confined, so compartmentalized, so totally cut off from felt experience. In my imagination, maybe it could be a one-time thing, something to get out of my system. I came to see later that it existed somewhere outside of my body—in a small, airtight box off to the far right of my consciousness.

When I got tired of being chronically depressed and unsatisfied by what by all rights looked like a perfectly lovely life, I went back to therapy. “I feel like I’m sitting on a landmine,” I told the therapist. “And I want to know what it is.” Several months after embarking on this search for what I did not yet know but was determined to discover, I sat on another woman’s couch reading Yeats, our feet touching lightly, out way past my bedtime while my husband lay in our bed, wondering where I was. The next day, listening to a mixed CD she’d made for me, the landmine exploded. I was alone in our blue RAV4 on my way to pick up our four- and seven-year-old children. And I just knew. I punched the steering wheel and sobbed as Bon Iver’s “Blood Bank” played over and over. My whole life made sense to me in a matter of seconds.

*

When your body tells you something, believe her.

“Everything is okay,” she reminds me, when doubt rolls in like so much fog some mornings.

I choose to believe her. I choose to believe myself. I no longer feel the need to explain.

*

I lie in bed in the morning, listening to summer rain on the bedroom skylight, drifting in and out of sleep. I like it when she tells me I reach for her in the night. I like knowing that my love is real and not something I’ve invented, not a waking lie I have to convince myself of.

The sleeping body doesn’t lie.

In the space between lives, I had to come to learn—and unlearn—all the ways I’d practiced lying to myself and others. It’s subtle and sneaky—an orientation, if you will, and one I’d mastered not because of any special skill but as a result of years of repetition. Two things can happen when you do a lot of something for many years: One is that you get really good at it. The other is that you can cause injury, to yourself and others. For me, both were true.

I didn’t mean to lie. I meant to be good: A good wife to my husband. A good mama to my small children. A good friend. I smoked cloves behind buildings. I started a blog. I started writing a book, but couldn’t figure out what it was about. I “went out” a lot, usually with my journal and a hidden pack of smokes. I loved my life—but I was missing in action, searching myself out in ways something deep within me knew would require leaving.

*

I have two lifelines on my left palm. My ex-husband does, too. For years, I’d study them, musing about this odd mark we seemed to share and wondering what would happen. Something had to break but I found myself unable to imagine its form. Illness? Death?

*

Not two years into our life together, my wife got so sick we didn’t know if she’d survive. An anaphylactic reaction to a piece of baklava nearly killed her, and months later finally resulted in a diagnosis of Mast Cell Activation Disorder, sometimes called an “orphan disease” due its rarity, followed by a severe neuropathy in her feet that kept her housebound and bedridden for months. Not six months after our wedding day, she was barely able to walk from the bed to the bathroom, much less work or enjoy our new marriage. Some days, I cried out of sheer fear and exhaustion. What if this was it? Her illness brought us both to our knees in prayer, if in different forms, and taught us how to stay—in the body, in relationship with each other as spouses and partners and lovers, and in life. Roles neither of us would have volunteered for became opportunities to root down, not fight or flee reality.

Now she is healing and in some ways, we are beginning again, newly aware of how everything can change, can be taken away in an instant. Now the between space we wake to each day is one where we inhabit life unfolding, where love is really love and the notion of unconditional presence has been tested and strengthened by the fire of our first years together.

*

A footnote in a prayer book tells us that the light and the dark are not separate realms, and that the Hebrew word for “between” has its roots in “understanding.” Whatever it is that governs our deepest knowing stitches day and night together. The seams are invisible, requiring no explanation. Hers is the last face I see before we turn out the lights, and the first when I open my eyes each morning. And my heart, too, has stitched itself up.

There will always be a break between my life lines, reminding me that stepping into the space between things is a necessary and unavoidable part of any creative act. And by taking action, by surrendering to the body’s knowing along with whatever life is asking of me, confusion will clear and clear seeing will follow. It’s only a matter of time.

***

Jena Schwartz is a poet, promptress, and author of creative nonfiction who creates and facilitates online and in-person spaces that offer fierce encouragement for writing practice and the creative process. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts with her wife and two children. Visit her blog and website at www.jenaschwartz.com.

JenaStrong-6

 

Comments

  1. I really love this post! It’s super interesting and and kind of funny. I’m gunna follow you for more stuff. Maybe you’d do the same and check out my latest piece of writing? Thanks, Conor. http://bit.ly/2yz7n7q

  2. Reblogged this on jennifersekella and commented:
    Such amazingly honest and beautiful writing.

  3. Reblogged this on Jena Schwartz and commented:
    I’m thrilled and honored to have a new essay published in this wonderful magazine!

Trackbacks

  1. […] The Space Between Lives and Why I Don’t Feel Proud of America from Jena […]

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