Episode 4: Write Your Own Wellness

Episode 4: Write Your Own Wellness

A discussion on balancing writing, family, and one's own mental health.

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Jason Reynolds 00:00

I think I identified first as a human, you know, then I think it's irresponsible to not see myself embodying what it means to live in a male body and then as a Black person.

Aja Monet 00:21

Hello, listeners. My name is Aja Monet, and I'm a surrealist blues poet, organizer, liver, lover dreamer. Here now present with you, very excited to welcome you all to Sound Bath, brought to you by Lush Cosmetics. This podcast explores what personal, social, and environmental care and wellbeing really mean in today's society. This show is designed to be listened to in the bath. So sit back and enjoy the conversation. At the end, stick around for a beautiful, meditative, sonic sound bath. Today's guest is my really good friend, poet and author, Jason Reynolds.

Jason Reynolds 01:08

You know, to me, I'm not sure any of those things count as much as me being a son and me being a brother and me being a friend, somebody who loves deeply.

Aja Monet 01:16

He is a young adult author, and some of his titles Include Ghost, Long Way Down, All American Boys and Stamped. Jason thinks deeply about how to connect with kids. He is so good at it. What children need in order to be loved and to feel loved is a big part of his life's work.

Jason Reynolds 01:39

And then on top of all those things, of course, is me as a, as a person who makes art and tells stories and tries to, you know, shine a little light on my folks and these children and my children. You know what I mean?

Aja Monet 01:55

He also has a lot to say about what it means to be a writer and to try to balance the joy and the creativity in writing while also being a successful writer, someone who people look to and listen to and aspire to be like.

Jason Reynolds 02:10

And I said, really, I'm a simple guy when it gets down to it. I just love, and I try to be of service. That's it. That’s what’s up.

Aja Monet 02:27

You know how so much stems from our childhood, so much comes from there and then yet, children seem to be the least protected, the least defended in society and knowing that social media is a big part of that, so as someone who has captivated the inquisitive minds and hearts of young children and young adults, I wanted to know, what are some of the things that you learned being not just someone who speaks to children but someone who has learned to listen to them?

Jason Reynolds 02:58

Yeah, I think well, you know, first, let me say that I think that the one thing that they, that I'm learning most is that they need only three things, you know, and perhaps by the way, maybe we all need these things. Perhaps this is, you know, if we had to take the concept of love and itemize it, right? If we had to say, like, what are the components that make it? How do we, if we were to make love an equation, what exactly is the theorem that creates love? And so for me, I think it's humility, intimacy, and gratitude, right? I think I think I try to move through the world, especially as it pertains to children, operating from a space of humility, intimacy, and gratitude. What does that look like? I think that, I think that young people are waiting for adults to, to be okay with standing in front of them and saying that I don't know. Right, and, and then to also allow them to, to take the platform for a moment to show what they know, right, and to exchange ideas, to exchange expertise, because young people are the experts of their own lives, in their own time in a way that I just don't think we're giving them credit for because we believe that we know what it is to be young. But the truth is, is that we don't know what it is to be young in this time. Right? It's not the same, I mean, they living through a pandemic, they’re growing up with technology almost as an added appendage, it's a very different, a very different time. And so, so I always enter into space with young people, making it clear that I don't have all the answers, that I'm here to be your brother and your cool uncle but the truth is is that I can't wait to learn, teach me your Tiktok dance, I'm wit it. Like I'm wit it, right? Whatever it leads us to that next step, which is intimacy, I'm game for, right? And then it gets to the intimacy part and I think, well, what does that look like for us? Well, intimacy works the same in every space, even when it comes to young people and in any other space that's not young people what intimacy requires is that both parties or however many parties involved have to give a little, right? So so I can't expect you to tell me who you are unless I tell you who I am. But so many young people don't have adults in their lives who are willing, to be honest about who they are. So they, so they say, “little Johnny, tell me what's wrong.” But why would Johnny tell you what's wrong when he don't know you? Just because you his teacher, or a neighborhood person, doesn't mean that he knows you well enough to tell you what's the matter because you've never told him anything about you. Nothing. Why would he assume that you can relate, right? And once you build that intimacy, whether it be through whatever form of communication, I think the last component is to exercise gratitude. I think young people want to feel like giants and I think, and I think they should, and I think it's up to us to be grateful for their lives because, without them, our lives actually have no purpose, no meaning, you know what I mean? I get people who are like, I don't really deal too much with children, that's okay. But you still want what's best for them. And without them, there is nothing that you're doing that will matter because there is no future to inherit it. And so these, this is my way in, this is the way I move, this is the way I operate when it comes to the shorties. Now, in terms of right now, what do I think is going on with them, how do they feel. They feel like we feel, they’re sad. They feel just as down and confused that many of us feel trying to figure out how to process this, these complex times. On top of that though, the beauty of young life is that sadness is not all-encompassing. Right, like the beauty of young life is that every day is new, the humdrum of life that so many of us adults sort of, you know, ease into without knowing, they haven't necessarily eased into every day to day to discover a new thing and because of that, the possibilities keep them hopeful. And because of that hopefulness, if we stay around them, we might actually get to just through proximity, be hopeful as well. I think they're thinking, they're imagining, they're organizing in their way, they’re learning how to navigate in this time. They're using the, and this is why I bring up TikTok is that when you really think about what happens with Tiks side, you got kids locked in houses for two years, locked down in pandemic and quarantine, and then you got one little younger who might feel a little alone to get on TikTok, and they do a dance and a week later, there’s a million people their age doing that same dance. You can tell me that that don't make them feel a little less alone. There's something to be said for that, right? And I think that using these sort of technological mechanisms as a way to at least have a semblance of community, even if it's not the community in the way that you and I might know it.

Aja Monet 07:23

Yeah, I think when I'm trying to be intentional about using social media, I've always seen social media as it began, which was a way to connect. So our hoax, right? I think what becomes dangerous and I think what Lush is trying to shed light on with even this podcast, is just the commodification of the mediums. And that no one really is thinking about strategic ways to implement safeguards for our children.

Jason Reynolds 07:54


Aja Monet 07:55

Years ago, I was interning with Nickelodeon and we used to do these things called creative on-air promos which is, remember that part, that segment in Nickelodeon, this is showing my age, but it was like Nick Jr. in them, it'd be like, “Now back to the show”, you know, “And we'll be right back”, because there was federal law that made it so that they had to do that because children from certain ages cannot distinguish between reality and fantasy. So you had to let them know that they were leaving a television program that was fantasy and going back into reality, right? And that this one little mechanism was a part of how they regulated, in some facet, the relationship between young people and the television. I don't see that being done in terms of social media.

Jason Reynolds 08:41

And you're right. And I want to be clear that because that when I mentioned TikTok as sort of that resource, I think you're right in terms of the double edge, and the slippery slope, right, that we are fully aware exists at this particular juncture. So you’re absolutely right.

Aja Monet 08:55

And so I see you using social media in an interesting way, where rather than saying, “Okay, let's turn it off and not engage it”, you've been doing this incredible game, where, you know, in the middle of COVID, you kind of just started this game and allowing parents to kind of also engage in this process. I wanted to know, in that game making, you know, maybe you can explain a little bit more of it for the listeners, but also, what do you find is useful in being able to engage and what has been your balance in discussing with parents and children, the need to step away or the, even the need to advocate or maybe for policy that can just try to be more accountable to these corporations who are controlling the way the social media shows up in our lives?

Jason Reynolds 09:39

Yeah, this is, this is agood question. I think, you know, when I started Brain Yoga, which is the name of that game,

Aja Monet 09:45

Yeah, that's what it is, yeah --

Jason Reynolds 09:46

Yeah, you know, I serve as a National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, and it's a part of the laureate system. So I'm the laureate for Young People's Literature. And you know that my job is, all the laureate's jobs are the same, which is to be America's poet, quote unquote, or America's children's writer, like to be the person that people look to when trying to figure out where it is we are, or who is the banner for this particular thing at this particular juncture, right. And so I got inaugurated in January of 2020, COVID started in March, and my entire platform got turned upside down. And so I was trying to figure out ways to still engage with young people and still do my job because, because I take it seriously. So I created this game Brain yoga. When it's simple, you just show two images, and you give young folks 10 seconds to come up with a new invention by combining these two sort of household goods or everyday things. You take a rake and a steering wheel and you say, 10 seconds, can you come up with a new invention? And some kid might say, “Oh, I would take the tines of the rake, and I would attach them to the steering wheel. And then I would use that as a special way to catch fish.” And who knows, right? And you kind of let their imaginations run. And there is no wrong answer, you just let them do their thing. And then I would, you know, buy everybody books. And I would do this every Friday, the parents would get on, the kids would get on, they would come on my live, and they would interact with me, and we just had a blast and it was a fun time. And so I think the first thing that you're bringing up in terms of the way that we create safeguards is I think that social media, I think what's missing, perhaps, is that there's not enough generational bleed. Like, why aren't we doing more communal things on social media, iIntergenerationally? Because that was super dope, right? That was super dope to say like, all right, I click on a live, and it's like a mother, a dad, two kids, you know what I mean, like, everybody's on there, everybody's on there and we're all playing this game together. And I think this way about everything, by the way. I think this way about YouTube. Furthermore, I think this way about literature, right? So like, people banned books, we're going through all of that stuff, but there's no reason to ban a book if you just read the book with your kid, right? If there was more of like communal sort of spaces for those things, that's the sort of buffer, some of the rabbit hole that has become social media. A rabbit hole, by the way that all of us are affected by, but I'm as addicted as everybody else. You know what I mean, and trying to break myself free and knowing better. So if I'm, if I'm struggling, imagine what it's like for a 12-year-old.

Aja Monet 12:31

Yeah, then that's a great transition and segue into what are the ways that you struggle through usage of social media and also just in general, like, you're a brilliant, in terms of time management, I don't know, I need, I need the pointers. But for real, your practice is admirable and I wanted to ask, like, what are some of your like, maybe non-negotiables or practices that you have created around your wellness in order to be the best writer, to show up the best when you come to the page? What are the things that you have instilled in your life that have been useful for you?

Jason Reynolds 13:10

Yes, you know, I've worked hard and that work over time has afforded me a certain kind of space and resource to do certain things that I know and want to be clear about the fact that I know that not everyone, perhaps, can do it this way, right? So for me, I operate, I live by like strict habits. You know, this is a quote, I read gosh, when I was 22 from W. H. Auden, “To discipline your passion is to discipline your time.” And I've been doing this for a very long time. And so I get up at six o'clock every morning. I exercise, right, because I believe that like, all the things have to be functioning, right, the body has to be where it needs to be in order for the mind to be where it needs to be. And then I do my meditations, my devotions for the ancestors and for whatever I need to ground me spiritually because I think that's a part of it, that's a part of those pistons that have to all be firing, I do all of that. And then around eight o'clock, 8:30, I sit down, and I get busy and I work through until about one o'clock, and I don't really play. Like don't call me I'm not gonna respond. Everybody who knows me knows that. And I have a separate phone, right? So I have, I got a batphone, but a different number, and that phone doesn't have any social media on it or anything like that. So I can leave my iPhone in the basement or in my room or in a drawer and just have the batphone which there’re five people who have that number, my mother, my siblings, right, like, like that’s who have that number, and I focus in, you know what I mean? And I don't write on a laptop. Because the laptop got too, it's too much going on the laptop.

Aja Monet 13:20


Jason Reynolds 13:23

I write pen and pad and I get busy, and I sit down, I make my pot of coffee, and I get to it, and I sit. So there's all of that stuff, and on top of that, there's an unhealthy obsession. And so, I don't want to pretend like the way that I've been able to create work and make work is always healthy. ‘Cause I don't, because I don't think it is. I don't think it is only, I mean, I'm in therapy every Monday. I don't play with that either. 11 o'clock, right? And this is what I talk about in therapy is, I'm trying to figure out how to undo some of it because so much of it is rooted in fear and, and in scarcity, and, and all this other stuff from my childhood that I'm trying to sort out.

Aja Monet 15:36

It's this strange thing, right? Because you're supposed to have a certain kind of discipline with what productivity looks like in a Western society when you call yourself a writer, or a poet, or any title for that matter, that somehow in order for you to be taken seriously as that thing, you must be writing books, you must be submitting things. And I think, part of my spiritual practice, but also my actual literal practice as a writer, has been kind of what is the, what is healthy, right? And then, in what ways can we disrupt like a Western notion of productivity when it comes to art? Because I don't know that art is the best when it's associated with how well it's doing in the world.

Jason Reynolds 16:25

Okay, so there's this like this Japanese, this Japanese tradition of this ancient sort of school of thought that says like, okay, we go to work, to do the thing, but we're only doing the thing that is in front of us and we're doing it with joy, right? But we're not doing it with any intention of being great. We're just doing it and with the intention of it being joyful in the moment. And it just so happens that if I can do that, and I can do that every day and show up with pure intention to just do the thing to find joy in the thing I'm doing no matter how mundane, or minuscule or tedious it might be, whether it's, if it's making rice, and if I can do that every single day, then 20 years from now, I become great, but my intention was never to be great. Now, the Western way is to be great. Not to be joyful or purposeful. To be great. We, I be listening to people to have conversations around legacy all the time. Like it's always about like, yo, what's your legacy gonna be? And I'm like, champ, I don't even know what day it is my g, I'm trying to figure out I hope that somebody says that, instead of saying, like, what I contributed to the world, I hope somebody said, yo because he was happy. He was a good guy. He was, he was a joyful man. And I don't know that I feel that way in this moment. And I don't think that I'm willing to continue to live my life, believing that the artist has to be tortured, that we have to be. I just don't know any more about all of this, Aja. Yeah. This is what I've been thinking about. I'm so glad you brought it up because I feel a little less alone.

Aja Monet 17:56

Yeah it's making me emotional, you know? Because, yeah.

Jason Reynolds 18:01


Aja Monet 18:03

Yeah. I really appreciate this conversation with you.

Jason Reynolds 18:09

Of course, it's always good to talk to you. I feel like at least you know, what I know about you is, it's always gonna be honest.

Aja Monet 18:19

I hope that's something that, that's good.

Jason Reynolds 18:23


Aja Monet 18:25

Yeah, just, it's hard, you know?

Jason Reynolds 18:30

Yeah, it is, it is 


Aja Monet 18:33

And especially when so much of what you create is rooted in how deep you can go. And, you know, this, the way society works is where we're supposed to celebrate the product of what was made, but we have no idea about the process by which someone has had to endure, you know, to go to the, to the corridors and the places in the human heart and spirit that most human beings never ventured, because one, we don't have the time. You know, two, we're constantly being distracted. And, and then to have this strange, unhealthy obsession, whether it be with language, or images or movement, you know, whatever it is that, you know, I guess in some ways, all artists will have these things that are just, we can't explain them away. And I think that what's comforting in hearing you speak is that I have really been trying to define for myself what it means to just find the joy in the creating and also to balance the fact there's a purpose and that there's, you know, responsibility with what you have or your gifts, so to speak. And I wonder, like, as you've become, quote-unquote, successful in the eyes of the American public, like, what are the things that you've had to establish for yourself to keep yourself grounded in friendships and relationships? Like, what are some of your wellness practices in terms of your, some of your relationships in your life? Because I know that, you know, as you say, you have the batphone, and you know, you, you have certain people that can get to you in certain moments. Yeah.

Aja Monet 20:23

What moments are you creating for yourself? And for the ones you love?

Jason Reynolds 20:26

Yeah, you know, it's funny, Sunday mornings is my mom, right? She knows that on Sundays, I'm with the OG. And that's non-negotiable. That's where I'm at Sunday mornings, from, from nine to one, we kicking it, and we ain't doing nothing but talking trash and watching TV and laughing and joking, and I'm doing stuff around her house. But that means the world to me. So I mean, she's 76, right? So she in her twilight years, in the winter of her life, so to speak, and it's been a gift to spend that time with her. Um, the same thing with my father, who I lost a couple of years ago. It was a blessing to spend that time with him. And then there are things like, I got the same friends, Aja, like, I feel so fortunate, because I got the same friends I had, since I was like, five, six. And all these dudes, they got keys to my house, they got keys to my car. And so they know like, alright, we know that we can, if Jay, if he in that hole for too long, we're gonna go over there, right? So I don't know. And I got therapy. I go to therapy. That's a privilege. But, but it's, but it's important to me. The last thing I'll tell you, one of the perks of being successful, even though it comes with an awful lot of pressure and the other stuff that we’re talking about is yo, I got season tickets to the game. And I ain’t, I ain’t gonna hold you, it's been the greatest, the greatest addition to my mental health in 20 years.

Aja Monet 21:53


Jason Reynolds 21:55

I'm so serious. It seems so silly. But and you know this Aja, you know this because I just know how our brains are, we work similarly. Look, it's really difficult for us to be in any space, whether it be conversational space, social space, intellectual space, whatever it is, without figuring out how to send everything that we're taking in through the prism of creativity, filtering it through something that just might be written, except for when I go to the basketball game. I turn it all off. It's just sheer me just rooting for my team. I ain’t thinkin about writing nothing. I ain't thinkin about none of that. And so for those three hours, twice a week, or however, whenever they got home games, I make it a point no matter nothing gets in the way.

Aja Monet 22:40

It's mental health, bro. Like,

Jason Reynolds 22:42

It is.

Aja Monet 22:42

A lot of people watch those games to get away or to get through something.

Jason Reynolds 22:48

I'm gonna tell you right now, homie, I don't know if I would have believed it until I started going to every game and now being there, I'm telling you I'm in there, like, just screaming for the strangers who are playing, and then I built this community around me right, my man big Johnson in front of me, my man C sit to the left me because everybody got season tickets so we all sitting together every game. And then you build this strange family of these weird misfits of all different ages. You know, me and my man Sega MS, my man John is a white dude. It's just a weird thing. And we all just be there screaming for these dudes. And it makes me feel so good.

Aja Monet 23:21

You know, that's, it's like, actually really powerful and comforting to hear you talk about this, especially as a Black man, because, you know, this is part of it sounds like part of your wellness practice. But when I think about men thinking about, like, yo, what is it with men and sports? I feel like sports is the place where there's kind of this unspoken permission to be masculine and hyper-masculine and intimate. And I wonder what that stems from but--

Jason Reynolds 23:50

I mean, I secretly think we are projecting ourselves onto the players, right? I think

Aja Monet 23:54


Jason Reynolds 23:59

You know what I'm saying, like—


Aja Monet 23:59

Alright, good, I'm glad you're being honest.


Jason Reynolds 23:59

Of course, of course, listen, there's not a day that goes by that says that I don't wish I was Lebron James, right? But that being said, but that being said, I think that to some extent, there's something that they're modelling for us, though. I equate it to literature, right? I equate sports to the fantasy novel, right? It's like, well, why do we have fantasy novels and what is the point of the dragons and this, that and the third? And everybody will tell us because, you know, usually the person who was slaying the dragon is, is marginalized in some way. And so you have young people who project themselves into the stories and say, like, if I can slay a dragon in this book, then I might be able to slay a dragon in my real life. And I think what the way that so many of us sort of look at athletes is that athletes are oftentimes people who are coming from marginalized communities or who have had marginalized experiences. I mean, like the stories of the majority of specifically Black athletes is that like yo I'm coming from a particular space, and this is my way to slay the dragon. This is what I had to slay the dragons of my environment and of my reality. Mike Tyson is a prime example of this, right? Coming from Brownsville this is all I know, I have to slay the dragon of my environment, the dragon of what they said is meant for me and my future. I got to slay the dragon. So what I’ma do? Everything I can to win.

Jason Reynolds 25:22

It's interesting.

Aja Monet 25:23

Yeah, I think that framing it in the way of kind of like any other sort of story that we try to tell or that we've had been told any fantasy novel lives of sorts like it's very powerful because I think that makes a lot of sense. And I think most people can find themselves in that story. I wanted to, there's like two last questions I have. And one is, what have you learned through actual conversations speaking and talking to people? What are some of the things that you think are, are, I guess the benefits of having critical conversations and maybe some of the limitations of words?

Jason Reynolds 26:07

What I'm digging into heavy is the idea around resonant frequency. I actually think that communication, it has to do with language, but not in the way that I think we often think about it. I think the only thing that matters is something resonant or is it dissonant. And I when I think of resonant frequency, this engineering term that typically has to do with like, it's the way that engineers build bridges, basically. So like engineer builds a bridge, and they say, like, yo, we got to make sure we take into consideration the resonant frequency of the bridge, because if the wind blows, and it hits a particular sort of a sonic frequency that we can't hear that frequency could resonate and topple the bridge, right? It's the same concept that causes the opera singer to crack the glass when she hits the high note. And the basic principle is if you pluck a glass, and the glass resonates, whatever that tone is, if you match that tone with your voice and sustain it, it'll crack the glass because you're mimicking, whatever the matter is that makes up the glass. Now, if I think about all of this, and I think about human beings, I don't have to mimic being a human being because I am one. Which means if I can tap into who I am, right, my honesty, so I say like talking to you get to know you're gonna be honest, right? If I can be honest and tap into just get to know more and more who I actually am, and express that and sustain it, no matter who I'm talking to because they are human, too, and we are made of the same things the glass will crack. Right? I use it for young people. I use it for OGs. I use it for people who hate me. I use it for people who love me. I'm like, look, at the end of the day, the honesty in you will always attach itself to the honesty in me, even when it's uncomfortable. Like that's a human thing, just be honest with me. Like, like how you and I had an emotional moment minutes ago that's the resonant frequency. And that is what I'm thinking about these days more than anything in terms of conversation. Am I showing up as myself? Am I showing up as myself so much so the person I'm talking to has to be themselves? That's it.

Aja Monet 26:19

Thank you. The last question I have for you, and I have been asking everyone this as we end. You know, speaking about frequency and resonating, what sounds are the sounds that bring you the most calm or peace of mind?

Jason Reynolds 28:06

Children or elders, or both, laughing. That’s it. Works every time.

Aja Monet 28:10

Great. Yes. Thank you, Jason.

Jason Reynolds 28:11

Always good to talk to you, Aja.

Aja Monet 29:00

One of the favorite things I loved that Jason shared was about kids. It's been wonderful to see his commitment to kids in the role that he has with being the Children's Laureate of the United States. It's really dope to hear about his joy and the need for humility, intimacy and gratitude to feel love, not just for children but for all of us. These are things that I definitely take away from this conversation because I know that I need them and I know you all need them. And maybe we can be more intentional about how we show up for ourselves and therein for the children around us. Jason is real, he's a real person. You can listen to him, you can hear it in his voice. This is a human being who knows how to talk to other human beings and to listen, and I think that that's a really good example of a conversation that cleansed me, that's for sure. So I hope it cleansed you.

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