Contests & Giveaways, Gender & Sexuality, Girl Power: You Are Enough, Guest Posts

Essay Winner of Jen Pastiloff & Emily Rapp’s Vermont Retreat!

September 14, 2015

Note from Jen Pastiloff, founder of The Manifest-Station: 

This was not easy. This is not easy. I had one spot to give away to our retreat (and yes, we will do it again next year as this is our third year leading the Vermont retreat.) I had one spot which then turned into FOUR, thanks to various generous donors including Lidia Yuknavitch, Amy Ferris, Elizabeth Quant and three others.

And yet and still, we have 70 essays to get through. You read that right: 70. In just a few days, 70 essays piled in.

I sat reading through all of them with eyes spilling over. I was so moved that I decided I could not stop here. I would keep giving and finding ways to be of service. My teacher and mentor, Dr. Wayne Dyer, passed away last week- that was his big message. How many I serve? 

I intend to carry on that legacy.

I decided I could not stop at these 4 spots to Vermont so I am giving away 3 spots to my New Years Retreat in Ojai, California as well. Nothing makes me feel better than to do this.

I also have 20 spots to give away to my Girl Power: You Are Enough workshop for teens next weekend in Princeton and NYC. Ten available for each workshop. Email me for a spot. I want girls who could not afford the cost to be able to attend. Here are the details. Please note: the Princeton workshop is 13 and up and the NYC workshop is 16 and up.

Girl Power! Who is with me?

And yet and still, there are so many others that were not chosen. There was not one essay that didn’t move me. There was not one essay that did not want me to push through my computer screen and embrace the woman who wrote it. Not one. I had a team helping me as I could not do this alone. I think we need to remember that more often: we cannot do this alone.

How bold one gets when one is sure of being loved.

Which brings me to my first winner. Her essay floored us but her friends also wrote in on her behalf, unbeknownst to her. How bold one gets when one is sure of being loved indeed. Jena Schwartz is the first recipient of the four scholarships and I am proud to share her essay below with you. She has been notified and will be attending the retreat with Emily and I next month in Stowe. She is over the moon. The retreat is sold out. Congratulations to Jena. I hope you all will be moved to share this. I know I was.

At the end of my life, when I ask one final, “What have I done?” Let my answer be, “I have done love.”

Love, Jen Pastiloff



Free Associating about Fear & Faith (Or, What I’ve Forgotten)
By Jena Schwartz

In this moment of sitting down to write, there’s the lump in my throat and the tears behind my eyes and the tension of holding them in. There’s fear. And behind that, faith. And there’s something I’ve forgotten that needs remembering. It has to do with connection, to myself, to moving slowly and having enough time and trusting that shit always work out in the end, and that there’s no end, only the unfolding of our days and the thank you. The thank you I need to remember to say, in the morning and at night.

Mani, my beloved wife of one year come September 27, is not feeling well this morning. She is shaky and nauseous. She drank an Ensure and rolled onto her side to try to sleep; she did not sleep well during the night. She is getting better. Two steps forward, one back. Like the two-step dance that magical weekend in Phoenix, when I flew out there to meet her and a whole group of us went to the Cash, my first-ever gay bar. Little did we know then, that we’d end up together, much less married!

Most of the time, I’m able to stay in a place of faith and trust. I’m able to stay in the light. I’m able to remember the partnership she and I discovered not only between us but with God, too — how when Rabbi Efraim witnessed and blessed our vows, God was there with us under that chuppah last September 27, the day before her 37th birthday and a few months before I turned 41.

Who knew then, that her health would decline and decline in the coming months, leading to a winter of fear and white rice and forty-pound weight loss and then the sudden, startling, even more life-changing reality of neuropathy in her feet so severe that she would become more or less bedridden? Her closest friends thought she was dying. We, too, feared this, even as in our deepest, quietest pockets of faith, we remembered to trust life and the body.

The summer brought two hospital stays for her.

Today marks my two-month anniversary of not smoking cloves–longer for her–and we are both proud of ourselves for this life-affirming decision. Twelve weeks of unpaid medical leave from my full-time job as a career counselor led to another major decision, which was to resign altogether in the name of caring for her and being able to be home full-time, but also in order to step off the edge of the cliff into the big open sky that is being an entrepreneur.

Now I am here, leading my writing groups, writing new prompts, launching a new school and community with a wonderful business partner I’ve never met in person, and simultaneously remembering who I am and confronting the terror that I will lose everything. That the Earth is actually flat and I might go walk right off the edge of it.

I know better, of course. I lost everything once, five years ago when I came out and left my eleven-year marriage. And the truth is, I didn’t actually lose everything at all. I gained agency and autonomy that had simmered and bubbled and caused a lifetime of internal toil and trouble until finally the mine was tripped and the genie exploded out of the bottle and bam! Once she–I–came out, there was no going back. Did I lose a thing?

Aviva, and Pearl, my beautiful kids, are here with us half of the time, back and forth they go between our sweet, sunny, second-floor apartment and their dad’s house two miles away. And they are, of course, full-time with me, in my heart, lodged just so. My body still revels at their hugs, ages nine and nearly 13 now, as if they were babes. To my body, they will always be babes.

There is no going back. There is no real forgetting. There is loss, yes, and there is learning to both live with loss and also learning what’s soul-sparking to remember as opposed to the more quicksand-like memory that evokes despair or doubt. Seeing the difference seems to be my life’s work, this pendulum between depression and joy, between loneliness and connection, the solitary confines of my mind and the mind-blowing beauty of community. Swinging like a primate across these vines is what I seek to do, with my writing, with my days.
My faith and my fear could be at odds. They could be boxers in a ring, in a clinch, unable to let each other go. If fear were to win, then what? I’d spend my days in a puddle? No. I will come sit on my little side porch on a September morning, listening to the birds chirp, soaking in the last of the warm so that I can draw it close when winter closes in, which it soon will. The treetops are already beginning to show some color; September is here, school has started, and no, there’s no going back. Not back to being in the closet. Not back to having a bona fide job, the kind with a paycheck and benefits. Not back, to when she was so healthy and well that even at the hint of a cold, she’d say, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” Not back to when my girls were tiny nursing babies. Not back to being a smoker.

There is only now, and there is a path. There is a tree and there is a bird. There is a writer, a teacher, a reader, a friend. A woman in need of finding her voice in community, her confidence not only online but in person again. Her place in the family of things. Her hallelujah and her amen.

A friend told me about this scholarship. She said, “Just tell your story.” I’ve been telling my story for so long now; online and off, in poems and blog posts, in writing groups and in self-published books, and in the day-in and day-out of making a living and making a life. Sometimes, I think I get so caught up in the telling that I am realize I’m missing more of the living. And sometimes, I think that that, too, is a mindfuck; living is never somewhere else, and ultimately, I come back to gratitude for this simple fact.

Our life, because of both money being tight and then Mani’s health declining (and the two are not unrelated) have shifted so drastically from what we’d imagined it to be. She was diagnosed with a rare disease last year, Mast Cell Activation Disorder, about two months after we got married. Even the thought of my going away for a weekend is complicated; we would see if a friend of hers could come spend the time here with her.

There is so much deep joy and devotion between us. And my own heart right now feels shaky. This is scary to me to write, but only when I forget faith. It hints at depression. I have drifted from friendships that were once anchoring for me, just as she gave up living in a tight-knit urban community, not to mention with her kids, to come east to be with me. We longed for time together during two years of a long-distance relationship, and just last night we were realizing how amazing it is, that we now have so much time together.

Nobody said it would be easy, though easy is exactly the word we started out with and return to. What I am needing is time with people, time in the woods, time in my body in a way that grounds me, returns me from mind and heart and hard work to ease and exhale and surrender again.

This isn’t the most coherent or eloquent thing I’ve ever written. In fact, I may have just taken free-associating to a whole new level. But it’s uncrafted in the most genuine possible way, from the heart, with no revision or looking back, just my story in this very moment, my truth as of today, September 8, 2015, at 9:56am. Here, now, and looking ahead to what’s around the next curve.


Jena Schwartz is a poet, writer, and one-of-a-kind writing group facilitator whose creative prompts are poems in their own right, crafted with thought and care. She is known to run rich, safe and deeply nourishing online groups and real-life retreats that serve as a vessel for writers and people who want to write—creative sanctuaries emphasizing the dual practices of writing and of showing up. Arguably at her best while swimming in fresh-water or standing in half-moon, Jena lives in Amherst, Massachusetts with her kids, Aviva and Pearl, and her beloved wife, writer and artist Mani Schwartz.
Ring in New Years 2016 with Jen Pastiloff at her annual Ojai retreat. It's magic! It sells out quickly so book early. No yoga experience required. Just be a human being. With a sense of humor. Email with questions or click photo to book.

Ring in New Years 2016 with Jen Pastiloff at her annual Ojai retreat. It’s magic! It sells out quickly so book early. No yoga experience required. Just be a human being. With a sense of humor. Email with questions or click photo to book.

Sign up for Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner's newsletter launching this fall!

Sign up for Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s newsletter launching this fall!

Book Girl Power: You Are Enough now! A workshop for girls and teens. Space is limited. Sep 19 Princeton! Sep 20th NYC. The book is also forthcoming from Jen Pastiloff. Ages 13 and up. (NYC is 16 and up due to studio policy.)

Book Girl Power: You Are Enough now! A workshop for girls and teens. Space is limited. Sep 19 Princeton! Sep 20th NYC. The book is also forthcoming from Jen Pastiloff. Ages 13 and up. (NYC is 16 and up due to studio policy.)

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  • Reply Danielle September 14, 2015 at 8:10 am

    Thank you for sharing your story. I love how you are are so vulnerable and honest and particularly how you free associate. I am so excited to meet you. I too, am a story teller and also a person who lives to listen to stories. I am sending you so much light on this New Year, a new beginning for us all.

    • Reply Jena September 18, 2015 at 12:10 pm

      Danielle, I can’t wait to meet you. Sending you new year light, too! xoxo

  • Reply Erika Robinson September 14, 2015 at 9:39 am

    You picked a deserving one in Jena, I think, my beloved CD! I read this essay while sipping ginger ale for my own nausea as I recover from a second spinal fusion surgery. The reference to the can of Ensure was what grabbed me, and the words about trust, including trust in the body at times when it seems to be at its most untrustworthy. I wish Jena, her wife, and her children all the best, as they all four set about the business of seeing the beauty of autumn when it sometimes looks like nothing but a fall. I’ll bet Jena’s an awesome writing teacher who’s good at showing others how to see autumn in fall too. Hope she enjoys the retreat!

    • Reply Jena September 18, 2015 at 12:12 pm

      Erika, may your healing be swift and complete. Thank you for these words–you made me “see autumn in fall” with your beautiful words.

  • Reply Jennifer Pastiloff September 14, 2015 at 11:23 am

    I Love this. Thank you for sharing.

  • Reply Tammi Scott September 14, 2015 at 12:24 pm

    Jenna I am so grateful to read your story! Thank you for sharing yourself, you life and in the process thank for moving me deeply. Love, Peace and blessings to you and your family!

    • Reply Jena September 18, 2015 at 12:13 pm

      Tammi, many thanks! I so appreciate you taking the time to share these kind wishes.

  • Reply Jena September 18, 2015 at 12:15 pm

    Jen, in addition to pinching myself, now I’m also counting the days to October 22. I can’t wait to meet you.
    Big love & blessings on Girl Power!

  • Reply Nina September 20, 2015 at 4:46 pm

    Congratulations to the generous, talented, soulful, Jenna. I’m so thrilled for you.

    • Reply Jena September 22, 2015 at 9:29 am

      Nina, thank you so much for this note! Love sharing in each other’s good news.

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