We Are the Authors of Our Lives

As many of you know, I’ve been a long-time fan and follower of Rob Brezsny’s Free Will Astrology — since my early 20s, when he was an 8-point type addition at the back of the old New Haven Advocate. Now, his poetic wisdom arrives through the ethernet, always delivering good things to think on and fodder for deep contemplations.

This week’s newsletter included, among other tasty morsels, thoughts on Mercury Retrograde, change, transition, and Zen Buddhism, a poem by William Stafford, a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, and pieces of good and redeeming social news to soothe the weary soul.

And then this, my horoscope for the week:

Cancerian novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (1819–1875) is famous for Vanity Fair, a satirical panorama of 19th-century British society. The phrase “Vanity Fair” had been previously used, though with different meanings, in the Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes, as well as in works by John Bunyan and St. Augustine. Thackeray was lying in bed near sleep one night when the idea flew into his head to use it for his own story. He was so thrilled, he leaped up and ran around his room chanting “Vanity Fair! Vanity Fair!” I’m foreseeing at least one epiphany like this for you in the coming weeks, Cancerian. What area of your life needs a burst of delicious inspiration?

Well, funny you should mention it, Rob.

For the past month, I’ve been putting the finishing touches on my new book, Water Under the Bridge: A Sort-of Love Story. But something has kept me from saying Done! and hitting Send! I wasn’t sure what until…

Vanity Fair! Vanity Fair!

A brilliant piece of inspiration that walked into my consciousness just two days ago and handed me the keystone. Handed me a beautiful, odd-shaped addition that holds the whole story together — thank you Brené Brown’s Rising Strong. Done.

Now one might think that sending a new book off to press in the throes of Mercury Retrograde is risky, but let’s consider it brave, shall we?

Brave because not only is Mercury Retrograde a dicey time for all things technology and communication, but also brave because Water Under the Bridge: A Sort-of Love Story is a sweet piece of creative non-fiction, a true story deserving to be told by this writer who finally decided to claim it as her own.

Watch for more about Water Under the Bridge, due out this spring!

I overcame myself, the sufferer; I carried my own ashes to the mountains;
I invented a brighter flame for myself. — Friedrich Nietzsche



Copies of my new book Water Under the Bridge: A Sort-of Love Story can be pre-ordered now, click here. Books are expected to ship by the end of March 2020. (Sales processed through Words by Jen of Branford, CT)



Post ©2020, Jen Payne. IMAGE: Writing, Zhang Xiaogang. Blog title is a nod to Brené Brown’s “Manifesto of the Brave and Brokenhearted,” from Rising Strong. Horoscope text from Rob Brezsny’s Free Will Astrology. Book cover art by Sarah Zar.

First Love

It’s the first love I resent so much I can’t look back,

can’t muster enough for even a retrospective love poem —

the glare of that reflection is blinding, still, and perhaps for the best.

She so young and hopeful and revoltingly naive.

He so wrongly fit one wonders why no one said anything those first long years,

put a stop to the nonsense before

that first virginal kiss, that awkward stumble into love,

that goddamn Brides magazine under the mattress after the glittering rooftop proposal.

What were any of us thinking?

It was no more a match made in heaven than my parents

who would suffer like good Catholics for only a few more years themselves.

Thank god he went to war, ate a dog, voted for George Bush —

I might no longer recognize myself.

Poem ©2020, Jen Payne. Image: Lovers by House, Jeffrey Smart

Upon Meeting My Dad at the Library

I want to be the one
who sharpens the tiny pencils
tucked neatly in the cubby
next to the Library’s
card catalog.

They are all that’s left
of the long wooden drawers,
their well-worn finger pulls,
the alphabet instructions:
how to get from here to there.

The tap-tap-tap machines
have replaced the tactile cards,
the rhythm of sorting,
the meditations of
this simple space where

The clocks tick
and pages turn
motes settle
on memories

and there at my fingertips
as close as those pencils
he appears, my age now
this young or this old
I do not recall…

except for the moment
he said I want to be the one
who punches the clock,
works from here to there
and nothing more

nothing more
after giving so much more
for so long

but it was too late
for anything else
or anything more
than that beautiful secret
said out loud

this young or this old
I do not recall…
his whisper of a wish
the change of heart
frozen in time as

The clocks tick
and pages turn
motes settle
on memories

and now I want to be the one
who punches the clock
or sharpens the tiny pencils
or something quiet and simple
so very simple
for whatever time I have left.


Reprinted in memory of my Dad, Henry C. Payne, who left this planet 24 years ago today.
Poem ©2018, Jen Payne

Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday Dad

This morning — Wednesday, June 12 — I sat down on my yoga mat before the sun rose and thought about my Dad. He would have been 76 today.

And I wondered: what would he think of this life I’ve made? This weird, independent, non-conforming, yoga at 3 a.m. life. It’s certainly not what either one of us expected, and yet…

When I was 8, he wrote me a letter while he was traveling for business. “I’m glad to hear you wanted to be different this year,” he said about the Halloween costume I was making.

Perhaps that same sentiment would apply to this different life that does not include the expected traditional trappings of the young woman he was raising in the 70s.

In that letter, written from a hotel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he also wrote that he was proud of me. That he loved me very much.

What more could a girl ask for — then or now?

The box I keep the letter in still smells like my Dad. Inside, there’s a stack of letters he wrote when I was little and when I was at UMass. Birthday cards with his familiar signature, “Love, Dad.” His watch, a stack of photos. The last photo I have of him, taken two weeks before he died, when he was just about the age I am now.

But my favorite thing in the box is a video of my Dad singing Happy Birthday to a colleague. He’s on a stage with some other people, but he has the mic — of course. He’s being loud and goofy, and obviously had one or two drinks. He’s dancing. And smiling. And signing off-key.

It makes me laugh. And cry. And laugh again …because that’s exactly how I remember him — the LIFE of the party.

Happy Birthday, Dad. I love you.


P.S. I know that was you who knocked over your picture on my desk just now.

Mary Anne Siok: Remembered

From May 2018

Mary Anne and I met in a freshman English class at UMass in 1984. We were just joking a few weeks ago about how it’s been 30 years since we graduated. I said “How the hell did that happen?” and she said “Because we’re old.”

But the MA I knew – the one we all knew – was never old. Very often her texts would go on and on about what she was doing and where. (Even her cousin Katherine couldn’t keep up!) The weekend before she died? On Friday, after a full day of work and a train commute home to Rhode Island, she went out for sushi with Billy. On Saturday, she and I spent an entire day walking around the mall, shopping, talking, toasting her birthday with bloody marys. On Sunday, she was with friends at Foxwoods to see the Hollywood Vampires, and then on Monday she celebrated a gorgeous spring day with a drive along the coast and lobster rolls.

THAT, in a big long-weekend nutshell was our Mary Anne.

MA was my best friend, my secret keeper, my sister, my person…and the most fabulous yin to my yang.

Me ever so cautious and worried, the introvert full of specific plans to her come what may, live life to its fullest, hell yeah we’re doing that extrovert with an absolute love of life.


So much so that in recent years, I’ve taken to asking myself WWMAD? As in: What Would Mary Anne Do?

What would Mary Anne do? Mary Anne would say Yes.

YES to the next concert, the Red Sox or Patriots game, the fireworks, the dive bar, the music festival, the movie night, the road trip, the matching tattoos, and one more Hallmark Christmas movie.

YES to the beach. Always.

YES to anything in black, the sales rack, the sparkly earrings, the extra glass of wine. And YES to Dunkin Donuts. Of course.

YES to dancing … anywhere, drinks at the Hard Rock Cafe, going to the symphony, enjoying a home cooked meal, taking a spinning class … or yoga, cheering on her boyfriend’s band.

YES to shopping at the outlets, seeing an art exhibit, wandering a museum, getting tickets to a play, or a long full day at the Big E.

Jump off a 3-foot ledge into the ocean while a crowd cheers? Yes.
Help you check off something on your bucket list? Yes.

YES to coming to your BBQ, your daughter’s dance recital, your campaign event, your nephew’s first birthday, your sons’ soccer game, your girls’ weekend, your wedding, your holiday dinner. Probably all on the same day … usually with a gift … always with that big, sweet, joyful smile.

A smile that said YES, I’ll move in with you. YES I’ll meet you at the winery. YES I’ll be at the party. YES let’s go shopping.

YES, we have to do this again soon.

Not everyone can do that — be so wide open to life and love and friends and experiences. No holds barred. Fearless. Hell yeah, we’re doing that!

And so, in honor of the blessing that was our wonderful, bold and brazen, brave and beautiful Mary Anne Siok, I challenge you — all of you — to say YES a lot more often.

And I thought we could practice right now…ready?

In memory of Mary Anne Siok, May 31, 2018. Click here to read her full obituary.

Light Years from Lilac Sunday

this is it, Memory

that day when lilacs bloom

and I think of him…………of us

our trespass in the arbor

boughs so heavy with starlight

we felt drunk…………or were we

when those first expected kisses

found places in the sky and he named them

like he named the flowers and trees

his fingers marked the heavens

the branch the blossom

the small of my back so

still now a trace remains

forever notes

the day when lilacs bloom

and we made you, Memory

light years from now,

never love…………never nothing

just a sweet, sweet something in between

solace for heartaches never dreamed.

POEM ©2019, Jen Payne. For CG. Image: Lovers among Lilacs, Marc Chagall.For more poetry by Jen Payne, purchase a copy of Evidence of Flossing: What We Leave Behind! BUY THE BOOK TODAY!

France on Fridays: Escalier au Ciel

REPOSTED from a 2011 series of posts

Stairway to Heaven • Sunday, June 4

In a city with one of the most famous cathedrals in the world, where do you go on Sunday morning? Mass at Notre Dame, bien sur!

Leaving the hotel, DeLinda and I walk the now-familiar streetscape, winding past the shops and cafés we’ve come to know on this daily passage. It is not as foreign as it was that first, map-in-hand day. The pâtisserie, the copy shop, the boutiques. The lovely French women in scarves and heels with wisps of perfume drifting as they pass. The short Napoleon-like Frenchmen, confident in stride and stance. It is the transition that happens whenever you travel, small and careful steps concede to confident stride.

We stop at one of the pâtisseries along the way to sample the morning fare.

Bonjour,” we smile to the woman behind the counter; she reminds me of my high school French teacher, Mrs. Masaccio.

Bon matin,” she smiles back.

In broken French, we make our selections and watch as she wraps our treats in tissue paper and slips them into parchment bags.

She is the owner, and I think of the business owners I know at home. My clients opening their shops on Main Street in the early morning.

“What is it like?” I want to ask, “being a woman business owner in France?”

“I own a business, too.” I would tell her.

“How long have you been doing this? Do you enjoy your work?”

But I do not have the words for the conversation I would like to have, so I just nod my appreciation and give her a knowing smile. I like to think she understands.

The Metro stop is around the corner, and we descend into the winding tunnels of lovely white tile, decorated with bold colored advertisements, and glide along to Île de la Cité and Notre Dame.

The plaza in front of Notre Dame is early-morning quiet. Instead of the hum of tourists, DeLinda and I are greeted by the glorious sounds of the bells of Notre Dame chiming out the hour. Above us, the three amazing carved portals, the crazy-quilt of architecture, the immense flying buttresses, and the famous gargoyles watching our every step.

Inside, a heavy smoke of incense lofts overhead, the choir sings in French, and a muffled “Amen” marks the ending of the 8:30 mass. It sends a chill up my arms. This place is dark and still, holy and…familiar.

I was raised Catholic, but it has been many, many years since I voluntarily entered a church to attend a mass. I am not prepared for the wave of emotion that fills me as I walk around the tourist perimeter of the cathedral. The tears sneak up on me as if to reveal some past, deep sadness, and they don’t stop.

“Was it a spiritual moment?” a friend will ask me later. Spiritual, perhaps, but in the moment it is quite off-putting, and I wonder to myself, “Am I supposed to be Catholic after all?” The thought surprises me, here in Paris, here on vacation.

Sitting through the 10:00 mass, old memories visit. I remember my Grandmother and her quiet reverence of her faith. I remember my father and his Catholic upbringing. I remember how important it was to my parents that I be raised Catholic. And for a while, it seems like this is an important moment. Perhaps I’d been too stubborn in turning away from the religion of my family. Perhaps I had not understood it enough, not given it enough time or patience.

And then, in a dark and righteous voice, the priest reads the second reading, while I follow along in printed English…

“I mean this: if you are guided by the Spirit you will not fulfill the desires of your lower nature. That nature sets its desires against the Spirit, while the Spirit fights against it…. Anyone can see the kind of behavior that belongs to the lower nature: fornication, impurity, and indecency; idolatry and sorcery; quarrels, a contentious temper, envy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, dissensions, party intrigues and jealousies; drinking bouts, orgies and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who behave in such ways will never inherit the kingdom of God.”

His voice reminds my of my Grandmother’s funeral and the priest who warned us of the error of our ways, the darkness that would come to us in the end. “Beware,” he’d intoned in a deep, ominous voice, “for ye know not when you will be taken.” There had been no celebration of her life, just a dark foreboding of death and damnation. I’d felt alienated then, and again, now, as I sit in this beautiful testament to faith and art and reverence.

“What a shame,” I think, “to use this magnificent creation for the execution of man-made rules of right and wrong. Here, in this impressive space, it should be a celebration of our amazing gifts, the beauty of this place…the magic of this life.”

Then I relax into my seat, tune out the sermon, fold the mass program in quarters, and silently celebrate all that is in front of us. The mass is spoken and sung in French, voices echoing against the immense stone walls, the grand Rose Window glows from the morning sun. Heavenly French perfumes mix with divine incense, and stir the senses.


Click here for a slide show of photos called: The Spirit of Notre Dame


Sitting against our small wooden chairs, DeLinda and I pat each other softly as if to say: “I know, isn’t this amazing?,” “I know, aren’t you so glad we did this?” “I know, it’s almost over.” I forgot how long a Catholic mass can be.

After mass, we wander the grounds of Notre Dame and stop for lunch — French onion soup and croque-monsieur — at a café amidst the sudden flurry of tourists. From our window seats, now, it is hard to believe this space was so still and silent just hours earlier.

Despite our agenda for the day, the café insists we stay a while. It is like that here — sit, stay, relax — not at all like the fast-lane, drive-thru, hurry pace of home. The French, for example, have yet to master “to go.” After lunch, our “take-away” coffees take 10 minutes to prepare and are served in scalding-hot cups sans lids!

Leaving Notre Dame, we make our way across the Île de la Cité to Sainte-Chapelle, a 750-year old Gothic chapel said to house Christ’s Crown of Thorns. Perhaps this is the reason we encounter the x-ray machine and pat-down security at the main gate. Another sign, like the machine-gun-carrying guards at the Eiffel Tower, that our world has changed greatly since my early dreams of this place.

Saint-Chapelle is a glorious structure that, once inside, appears to be made entirely of stained glass. In the upper chapel, every inch of wall, floor, and ceiling is gilded and ornate. Detailed mosaic tiled floors, decoratively painted trompe l’oeil walls, and elaborate wood carvings set the stage. The King’s throne sits high above; it looks like the inside of a Fabergé egg. And then! The stained-glass windows! There are 15 windows totaling more than 6,500 square feet of glass. With shimmering colors of cobalt and ruby and emerald, you feel like you are standing inside a kaleidoscope.

We stay for a while, then leave and find our way to an outdoor flower and bird market, across the Seine to the Centre Pompidou for a visit to the famous colorful, dancing Stravinsky Fountain.

It has been a long day, but we have one more stop before day’s end — the top of Notre Dame. In preparation, we find a corner café and feast on chocolate mousse, fresh raspberry tart and frothy, decadent hot chocolates! Outside the café window, the Seine and street vendors, and Paris in her Sunday best.

“You should not ascend to the towers if you are pregnant, have a heart condition, or suffer from vertigo,” warn the signs at the entrance of the Notre Dame towers, sounding like one of those U.S. pharmaceutical commercials. DeLinda and I, feeling young and healthy — and appropriately nourished with chocolate — walk through the doorway.

As our eyes adjust to the dim light, we see a dark column of stone spiral steps leading upward. 387 steps, to be precise. Three hundred and eighty-seven. The width of the staircase is no more than five feet across, and the steps no deeper than 10 inches. Their centers are worn, with smooth indentations marking the millions of visitors who have also braved this staircase.

We hold tightly to the metal railing along the outside of the column and pull ourselves up, step by step, trying to stay at the widest edge. In doing so, we find ourselves looking down, guiding our feet so as not to lose footing. And then, looking up to see where we are…it turns out we do suffer from vertigo after all!

“It’s a good thing,” I wheeze to DeLinda, “we did this for my fortieth birthday. Any later, and I’d be dead by now.”

We would have laughed. We didn’t have the lung capacity.

And so we climb. Around and around. And around. Small windows at each story trick us into thinking we’re almost there. Voices above and behind us encourage the same, “We’re almost there. Almost there.” But we’re not, so we just keep climbing. There’s no alternative, really.

Three hundred and eighty-seven steps and several seated pauses later, we find ourselves at the top of Notre Dame overlooking Paris; it is worth every gasp of breath and aching muscle!

From the top, we visit up close with the gargoyles of Notre Dame, including the famous Stryga. We see the magnificent facets of the stonework and sculptures. We see the details in the city below, the perfect lines of streets and houses and building laid out in geometric perfection.

We can see for miles, and catch glimpses of where we’ve been and where we have yet to go. We watch the tiny specks of people walking in the plaza below, the skateboarders performing on the sidewalk — each of us silently dreading the 387 steps we must now descend to find our way home for the evening. There’s no alternative, really.

Do you know how, when you learn something new or are thinking about something in particular, you see it more often? Notice it more than you would have if you weren’t thinking about it? Well, I will tell you, there are an awful lot of steps in Paris! I had not noticed them before our trek to the top of Notre Dame, but I do now: the steps down to the Metro, the steps from one train line to the next, the steps out of the Metro station near La Madeleine up to Rue Royale, the two stories of mercifully carpeted spiral steps we must climb to our hotel room — the elevator mysteriously out-of-order for the evening.

We settle in to our nightly routine. DeLinda writes quietly in her journal, and pens poetic postcards home. I shuffle through my backpack — dumping everything out on the bed, tucking away the day’s collections, reorganizing the contents neatly for the next. We wash our clothes in the sink, roll them to dry and hang them where we can with hopes they will be clean-enough and unwrinkled by morning.

As we crawl into bed wearily before seven, we look forward to the day ahead, our last full day in Paris.

• • •

Les Deux Amis En France, ©2011 Jen Payne. All rights reserved.

See also:
C’est La Vie
La Plus Longue Journée
À Travers La Ville
Petits Oeuvres D’art

Photos ©2011, Jen Payne, DeLinda Fox.

For more by Jen Payne, purchase a copy of Evidence of Flossing: What We Leave Behind! BUY THE BOOK TODAY!

9 – The Blue Room, Version 1

In the blue room where I stayed at my grandmother’s house
all those long afternoons and evenings
the only things blue were the walls and the ceiling
everything else was white —
a dull white that reminded me of mushrooms,
like a mucousy Campbell’s mushroom soup—
really, white and nicotine-stained from a toxic tonic
of acrid smoke and dog dander that made its way under the door
despite best intentions

maybe my parents could see the difference between that smoke
and the fine, gray mist of the humidifier set high on the dresser for maximum results,
but I couldn’t……………….breathe

at least the ceiling was blue, almost like the sky,
but even it assumed a certain dullness of spirit —
it was hard not to in that room

that room where the only real contrast was the black door
the creepy black door that led to the creaky attic ……………….and bats

now that’s something to think about while you’re trying to breathe
the bats……………….or the kids playing in the yard beneath the window
all those long afternoons and evenings
running and laughing with deep, unasthmatic shouts

one could think about them, too, but I rarely did

stay focused on the breath, my yoga instructor reminds me now
and I take it for granted……………….oh how I take it for granted
back then, in the blue room, breath came at a price
the cost of which included that odd solitary confinement
and drugs to induce my fight or flight to breathe

one would think not being able to breathe was induction enough
to fight or flight the fuck out of there,
but the shiny white pills were too much for my ten year old self
who had no choice but to sleep off the tremors
and lose herself in the pages of words and worlds
all those long afternoons and evenings ……………….breathing still

Poem ©2019, Jen Payne. National Poetry Month #9 and NaPoWriMo poem. #NaPoWriMo. For more poetry by Jen Payne, purchase a copy of Evidence of Flossing: What We Leave Behind! BUY THE BOOK TODAY!

Ode to An 8-Sheet Cross-Cut Shredder, Sort of

“I am impressed that we both keep shreds of each other’s memories.
Why do we feel a need to hang on to these things? Still visit them?”


Line by line, page by page,
left shredded in a 2-ply bag

these are the words that broke me
{ TOOLS : Word Count : 40,000 }

I won’t tell you how or why exactly,
you know the power words wield:

……..You are amazing. You’re a liar.
……..I can’t stand you. I Love You. Good bye.

But those are the Lifetime Channel words,
the obvious Hallmark clichés,

and we didn’t write any of those.
Our destruction was more subtle —

intended or unintended or just the kind
born from a history of small betrayals.

They tell you now that trauma wraps itself around human cells,
creates webs that bind us so we can’t move forward.

In this verse, I cast those webs myself with words —
and bound myself to a story long since passed,

with a keyboard melody of second chances
and his favorite It’s karma, kismet refrain.

Bound my dreams, too, in a familiar sway
of hope and mistrust, hope and mistrust…

but you can’t dance with bound feet
and you can’t love with a bound heart

so sooner or later — even much much later —
you have to let go, you just have to

find a way to change the words,
change the story, create a new ending —

like the artist who hand makes paper,
beats into pulp what gets left behind,

makes clear, blank surfaces born from shreds
onto which I can write the new story:

a decoupage of unexpected clichés and odd refrains,
of mea culpla and (yes) karma and HOLY COW!

Poem and Photo ©2019, Jen Payne. Watch for Jen’s new book, WATER UNDER THE BRIDGE, coming in 2020, from Three Chairs Publishing.