I’m not generally much of a retrospective kind-of person, and I’ve been watching other folks do their year-end and end-of-decade roundups (favorite books, favorite movies, what to look forward to in the next decade) with a bit of wry humor. It’s just another day, right? Another human-centric, artificially constructed milestone that offers us a chance to set new goals or assess progress or feel like we get a fresh start (that’s a loaded phrase for me, which you’ll understand after you read my memoir that is DUE OUT ON FEBRUARY 4 OF THIS COMING YEAR).

But I digress.

It turns out that 2019 was actually a pretty seminal year for me in many ways and it feels like it might be important to at least write about it for posterity. Or to solidify it in my head, to find a way to make sense of it and get a different perspective instead of having it just roil around in there like some swirling mass. So, in no particular order, as they surface from the messy tumult in my head and gut, here’s what my year was like:

* I got two publishing deals in 2019, neither of which I really expected to get. I submitted one of my bodies of work to an academic publisher on a whim because I had been trying to market my social-emotional education curriculum on my own and I was getting no traction. The publisher emailed me right back (which, if you’re a writer, you know is solid gold – so many agents and publishers and editors simply don’t respond to writers’ emails at all), and said that they felt it wasn’t right for them, but they knew a different publisher that might like it and I should send it there. Two amazing occurrences! A quick response and a referral to someone else instead! A unicorn! And because unicorns are magical, the second publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!” and the book One Teenager at a Time, was published in August after an avalanche of emails tightening it up and getting permissions and copyedits and excitement.

*The first book led to me learning a ton about PR, the disappointment of radio hosts ghosting you, and discovering how much I really enjoy being interviewed about my work and talking about teenagers and their special powers. I challenged myself to do a story slam for the Seattle Times Education Lab and while it was absolutely terrifying at first, I met an amazing group of folks in my local community who love kids as much as I do, who are as committed to making their educational experience better as I am, and who are working hard every single day to see that it happens. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

*The second publishing deal came about when I sent my memoir manuscript out one last time to a small press in New Jersey, CavanKerry Press, and promptly forgot I’d done it.  A few months after I sent it in, it snowed a lot in Seattle. A lot. The first morning, I woke up to that magical quiet that happens when there are eight inches of snow on the ground – no cars, no bird sounds, no city buses roaring down the street in front of the house. And then I heard a scraping noise, a repetitive, plastic-on-sidewalk scraping. My neighbor was shoveling my sidewalk and clearing the snow off of my car in case I needed to get out that day. By the next day, there were nearly 15 inches of snow and it was clear none of us was going anywhere on wheels. Seattle + snow = shutdown. The steep street I live on featured snowboarders racing down four solid blocks of perfect slope for days. On the third day, I borrowed the neighbor’s snow shovel and took my turn clearing the sidewalks and while I was out there, my phone rang with a number I didn’t recognize. It wasn’t worth it to take off my gloves and stop what I was doing to see who was calling, and only later did I realize whomever called had left a long voice mail. It was Joan Cusack Handler, the senior editor at CavanKerry, letting me know that she wanted to publish my book. I still have that voice mail saved on my phone. The letter they sent me to formalize the offer hangs on my refrigerator. I cried. I called her back immediately, thanked her profusely, ran up to my daughter’s bedroom and told her, danced in the living room, cried some more, and called my closest friends. After nine months of work with their team, the book comes out February 4. You can preorder it here.

*I also got to watch my daughters continue to shine. My oldest finished her first year of college, came home for the summer, and went back to start her second year of school with an eagerness and optimism that made my heart split wide open. She did that thing that some parents talk about where her perspective changed a bit and she chose to sit in the kitchen with me and chat while I cooked, emptied the dishwasher upon waking up before I had a chance to do it, offered to pick up groceries if I needed something. She fell in love with a philosophy class and ran for an executive position in a club at school and made friends I’ve never met. My youngest started nannying twin infants, juggled that while taking high school and college classes, and booked live gigs all around Seattle to showcase her musical acumen. She converted the guest room to a recording booth and put out an album’s worth of original music on Spotify and iTunes. She lobbied me for a pet snake, but we settled on a Russian tortoise.

*There were so many intangible things that happened this year, too. I learned that sometimes grief comes back to bite you when you think you’ve already dealt with it. I learned that I can say something in my head over and over again and it doesn’t necessarily change the belief I harbor in my body. I spent many, many lonely nights pondering how someone my age creates community and close friendships anew. I wrote less than I’ve written in 15 years – at least new content – and agonized over when I would get that flow back. I learned to do with less – cutting the cable, driving less, buying fewer things, killing 2/3 of the lawn to put in native ground cover and create a space to grow veggies and berries, actively participating in my neighborhood’s Buy Nothing Project. I remembered that every time I embark on a new self-improvement regime (exercise more, eat less meat, organize my writing life), it opens this checklist of things in my head that overwhelms me (stop drinking alcohol, no sugar at all, cardio 3x/week, don’t use plastic anything, make your own condiments, isn’t apple cider vinegar supposed to be good instead of shampoo? put solar panels on the house…) and makes me feel horrible about myself.

*I did stop drinking this year, though. I’d stopped for periods before – either when I was pregnant with  my girls or for fast-like fads – but this time that magical thing happened where I made the decision to stop (you can read about why here) and after a few weeks, I ‘knew’ I was done forever. Previously, I would see a tv commercial where someone was drinking a glass of golden chardonnay with a hint of condensation on the outside of the glass and I could taste the buttery sweetness in my mouth. Or I would open the refrigerator to start making dinner and my mind would go to the cupboard where the wine glasses are kept and I would begin the mental calculation of what kind of wine would be best with what I was making. But this time, it was different. Something shifted in my neurons that diverted the path from seeing alcohol or things I had associated with it and leading me to the physical desire for it. Yesterday, I walked past a woman who was sitting in the bar at Nordstrom (which is a really weird thing to write, that there is a bar inside Nordstrom, but that’s the crux of my essay in a nutshell), and she was talking on her phone and holding an enormous glass of white wine and I felt nothing. Thought nothing beyond, “hmm, that’s a generous pour!” I wish I knew how to make that shift happen, what is actually going on in my brain and how to trigger that particular phenomenon where I literally shut off one old, well-worn pathway that is no longer serving me in favor of a new way of being. It happened once before when I was able to forgive my abuser and shed all of the physical sensations that came with despising him and wishing him ill. It is an amazing feeling, incredibly powerful, and if I knew how to re-create it reliably, I could do so much more forgiving.

*2019 was a massive year for me. It was truly a roller coaster with enormous ups and downs. There were some dark, scary moments that bled in to weeks and simultaneously co-existed with joyous, optimistic times. It may be the year where I lived more outside my comfort zone than any other year, spending a great deal of time resting in equanimity, relying on the Universe to hold me as I forged ahead without knowing what the hell was coming. The list of things I did for the first time in 2019 is as long as I’ve ever seen it, and while some of those things flopped, many of them didn’t, and that is proof that continuing to put myself out there whether I know what I’m doing or not can be a pretty exhilarating way to live. Exhausting, but exhilarating, which is why I’m taking the rest of the day off to nest and rest.

Happy New Year, all. I hope that your 2020 offers opportunities to stretch yourself, reminders that you are held and supported, and lots of laughter. We’re going to need it to get through some of what’s coming.

Naturvetenskap 1

I am a storyteller and I have been my whole life. I carry them inside me, work on them, figure out the best way to share them. But sometimes the stories get heavy. Before I ever put anything on the page, the words and feelings chase each other around and around inside, making connections and trying to fit the puzzle pieces together. When I sit too long with the stories, they start to burn and I know it’s time to walk or go pull weeds. Somehow, being outside helps the sentences flow and combine in ways they can’t when I am indoors.

The stories of the last year and a half are heavier than many that have gone before, and I’m finding that walking takes on a new urgency for me and it also requires a focus I haven’t been forced to have before. These days, I have to walk farther away from home and immerse myself in places that are new and expansive in order to divorce myself from the circling thoughts and feelings. I have found an open space surrounded by trees where few people go and at least once a week I walk there and sit and untether the words from each other, and also from my head and heart. Sitting in this place just breathing helps to re-string it all in a way that offers clarity.

I am learning that there is a sort of chemical reaction taking place as I assimilate the stories and try to keep my heart and my head on the same level. Most days, the two are at war, fighting for supremacy, which sometimes means wild swings from sadness to anger. My brain can only witness so much grief before it burns it off with anger, like alcohol in a skillet. My heart is simultaneously relieved of its burden and seduced by the beautiful flames, but the anger is also expansive and  at some point I realize it is taking up too much space in my head. The sadness dissipated, but the stories are still there and they are all about other people. I imagine a large section of my brain colonized by the stories of others, the actions of others, the words of others, and I am impatient to evict them.

When I was in college, the days I spent in the Chemistry lab were some of my favorites. The cool, cave-like room with its expanse of concrete worktops and glass beakers and pipettes and orderly rhythms gave me a stillness and a focus. There were rules, a set of steps to be taken, and all that was asked of me was to do one thing at a time and remain curious – observe and report. Even if I knew what I was supposed to be creating, somehow the cascading chemical reactions along the way were always enchanting – sometimes it was a smell or a particular color flame that I hadn’t expected. Witnessing the magic kept me from getting caught up in the story or the sequence. I had my instructions. Observe and report. Remain curious.

 

I never know where inspiration will come from, but in general, it is spurred by conversations with people I don’t know as well as I thought I did. And for that, I am tremendously grateful.

I have been part of a book club for about four years that is composed of women who look an awful lot like me – upper middle class, white, most of us have children who are teenagers. Most are married (some for the second time), and about half work a traditional job. And yet, the disparate backgrounds and thought processes are interesting enough that we have some pretty deep conversations. I have to say, there have been some tense moments (for me, anyway, who is incapable of staying quiet when I think there is something privileged or provocative or unacknowledged), but they’ve generally been talked through, and all are sparked by books we’ve read.

Many of the books are ones I wouldn’t have picked up in the first place and I love that, too. There have been a few over the years that I couldn’t bring myself to finish (one that I didn’t even bother to start), but for the most part, I dive in with curiosity and look forward to the conversations we have. And nearly always, I am left with lots to think about in the ensuing days. Our last meeting was a week ago and I’m still chewing on one small exchange that happened around PTSD and when I think about something for that long, it usually means the only way I can process it is to write about it.

We read The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah which contains themes of domestic violence and PTSD (albeit largely unacknowledged – only alluded to) throughout.  At one point during our discussion, I referenced this post from a few weeks ago in an effort to talk about the way my brain worked to prepare myself for potential catastrophe when I was a kid and one of the other women chimed in, “From who?”

I stopped talking and turned to look at her.

“From who? Who were you afraid of?”

In the moment, I answered truthfully and moved on to make my point, but it is that exchange that has been stuck in a crevice of my brain for nearly a week now and I feel the need to elaborate on my original answer.

Here’s what I know about PTSD (in my case – I won’t generalize to other people’s experiences): it’s not rational, and it doesn’t limit itself to one trigger. If, as a kid, I was afraid of one particular person, anytime I encountered another person who had similar characteristics, my nervous system went into overdrive and sent me to fight/flight. So while I may have started out worrying about one person harming me, as soon as I went out in to the wider world, I saw potential disaster in all sorts of places that other people wouldn’t normally see it. I was, quite literally, prepared to duck and run at any time. I saw danger everywhere for years. This is how PTSD compromised my ability to function in my daily life – by keeping me on a hair trigger whether it made sense to other people or not.

Here’s another thing I know about PTSD; repeated exposure to triggers won’t give me the sense that I’m safe. This is not like experiments scientists are doing with food allergies where small doses over long periods of time gradually help the immune system become accustomed to ingesting the item and end up being ok with it. Repeated exposure to triggers only made me develop more armor which I spent a lot of time and money with therapists trying to dismantle. The way I overcame most of my PTSD was to have small repeated exposure to safe spaces, to people who didn’t violate or harm or scare me. With a lot of effort and mindfulness, I was gradually able to change the narrative in my brain, but it didn’t just happen. It took work.

If you love someone who has PTSD, please don’t explain to them why they shouldn’t be scared or anticipate disaster. Please don’t trigger them and later say, “See? I didn’t hit you. I just yelled. You were over-reacting.” A trigger sets off a biochemical chain reaction that completely obliterates language. By the time I realize you haven’t hit me, I’ve already felt the fear in every corner of my brain and body and it’s too late for you to convince me that I shouldn’t be scared. I already was. It happened. And that’s one more example in my brain of why it’s not safe to be around you – whether you hit me or not.

I realize that PTSD is unfathomable to people who don’t have it but the more we can try to understand what triggers our loved ones with PTSD, the more we can avoid those incidents that send them in to a frenzy of survival mode behavior. Just because we can’t understand someone else’s reaction to something doesn’t make it unimportant or irrelevant or over-reaction. PTSD starts with one trigger but our brains are so good at generalizing and so worried about keeping us safe that we can expand the list of triggers to include things that others think are nuts. If you love someone with PTSD, the best thing you can do is learn what triggers them and avoid doing those things as you continually remind them that you are safe and loving.

(For the record, I was dismayed that the book we read didn’t explore the idea that one of the main characters was clearly struggling with PTSD. There was a missed opportunity there, in my opinion, to make him a much more 3-dimensional character. )

My friend and coach, Kris, posted something on her Facebook page yesterday that gave me pause. I watched it again this morning before taking the dogs for a walk and let it filter through my brain as we sidestepped puddles and admired the fat cherry blossoms and smelled the daphne perfuming the air.

Kris was talking about inspiration and how, sometimes, we sit and wait for inspiration to push us to action, and as we wait, we are frustrated and discontent. She wondered whether it is the discontent that is actually the source of inspiration, that if we take that first step toward action, the path will open up and we will begin to feel the motivation to continue. What if the frustration is the sense that there is a difference between what we say we want and what we are doing to get there, and that is actually the driving force, but our desire to wait for a clear sign to begin keeps us from doing anything?

Well, yeah, when you put it that way.

I have been feeling stuck a lot lately and as I walked and ruminated on Kris’ words, it struck me that I have been using that stuck feeling as an excuse not to change some things in my life that I can actually control.

I have long felt that I rely on wine and chocolate as crutches to make myself feel better, but since I am not overweight and I never get drunk, I haven’t sensed a reason to change my behavior.

But here’s the thing: when I indulge in those things in the evening, the narrative that goes through my head sounds a little something like this – I deserve this. It’s been a long day. Or – It’s a pretty small vice and I don’t do it every night. 


More often than not, the next morning, I shake my head at myself, wishing I hadn’t had that extra piece of Easter candy (damn you, Cadbury mini-eggs!), and sometimes I even go so far as to come downstairs and throw the remainder of the bag away. And I wonder what message I’m sending to my girls when they see me with a glass of wine almost every night.

The incongruence between what I say I want – to be mindful of food as fuel, to be active and physically healthy – and how I act is grating. And this shows up in other places in my life, too. I see in my Facebook groups that there are other writers who are getting their freelance work published once a week and I feel guilty – I should be out there hustling more work that is visible because the memoir I’m working on won’t see the light of day for a year or more.

Often, the way for me to get clarity on things like this is to let my mind create a picture, and this morning was no exception. I imagined myself standing on a beautiful beach, dazzled by all the little, shiny things dotting the sand. There are rocks polished by the surf, fully intact shells, smooth pieces of driftwood. I walk along and gather the ones that are the most intriguing to me, filling my hands and pockets and not really thinking about what I’ll do with them or where I will put them. I’ll figure that out later. Right now, they are a tangible sign of what I have – like publishing credits or a wine cellar that’s full. I feel the land beneath my feet and I am grounded. This is real. I can walk like this forever, back and forth.

But eventually, my hands are full and I’ve walked the length of the beach. And I realize that what I really want is to be out there, in the ocean, floating, being lifted and held and open to possibilities. When I’m in the water, that’s my inspiration, my true passion, my purpose. It is where I can be fully supported and I’m able to really get some perspective. When I float in the water, I can look back at all of the glittery gifts on the beach in their entirety and really discern which ones speak to me. I don’t have to gather armfuls of things just because they are lovely, I can truly choose the things that are congruent with the big picture of who I am and what I truly want. And I can come back in to the beach at any time, but when I remember that the floating, the be-ing is where I am most grounded, that it is here where I draw my inspiration, the beach seems like a place for occasional visits, not someplace to dwell and get caught up in the doing and the gathering.

Yesterday, Jennifer Pastiloff’s site, The Manifest-Station, featured an excerpt of my memoir-in-progress on their site. I am thrilled to have this process begin. You can find it here. 

Because how do you write about the things that aren’t yours to tell? How do you begin to separate what is yours and what isn’t?

It is a tricky proposition, this. And not only because of the risk of hurting someone I love, but because of what it means to me. Sorting through the seminal memories and moments in my life means really looking hard at where my head was, where my heart was, and what I knew and wanted at the time. It would be easy to look back with the accumulation of experience and wisdom riding shotgun and nod knowingly in the direction of what should have been, but that doesn’t make for a true story. It smacks of justification or pity-partying and paints a picture of Right and Wrong that doesn’t exist in life, to be sure.

The hardest bit is in the owning of my entire, smelly backpack of crap and roses.

Own it, someone says, urging us to stand up for ourselves and not be ashamed of who we are. It sounds empowering – a battle cry for my generation. Owning it is frightening.

Owning it means I acknowledge an attachment to the story and once I’m attached to something, the idea that it could be taken away is frightening. Something owned can also be un-owned. Writing about other people’s shit is the epitome of non-attachment. It says, “That isn’t mine, but I’ll tell you all about it and together we can exchange looks expressing how happy we are that it isn’t ours.” There is a complicity inherent in telling someone else’s story. Telling my story – owning it – feels very lonely and vulnerable.

Owning it also opens me up to the risk of becoming defined by the story I tell; having it morph into a shorthand by which other people describe me or think they ‘know’ me. The complicity has shifted to include everyone else but me as soon as I own my story and tell it honestly.

I’ve discovered that it is so much easier to solve someone else’s problems than it is to deal with my own. I once told a friend. She agreed. And now, when I sense the urge to find the cracks in someone else’s armor, I am prompted to wonder whether it is because I am ignoring my own.

Ultimately, the only lens through which I can see life is my own, and that means that the only story I have the right to tell is mine. Anything else is just make-believe. And, it turns out, I’m not much of a fiction writer, so I guess I’ll just keep sifting through to find the stories that are mine.

Saturday, Sunday, Monday I had hours for writing. The luxury of time meant that I woke early, poured coffee, sat at a rented desk and pounded the keyboard until I had 60 pages. Walks along the beach, more coffee, shuffling pages of memories and piecing things together.

Tuesday and Wednesday I was back in my normal life – driving, cooking, shopping, working at my ‘other’ job which doesn’t entail writing so much as networking and trying to hawk what I’ve already written. But this morning, I could see a way clear to more writing.

First, the tasks that launch the day – packing lunch, toasting bagels, walking the dog.

My mind drifts and swells. I marvel at how much of my writing happens while I smear cream cheese on the bagel, tug the dog along our familiar route, stand in the shower.

I pass dogwood tree after dogwood tree, loaded down with so many blossoms that I can’t see the leaves beneath them. I am struck by the sheer weight of beauty, how it weighs down the branches, the stems of peonies curving to rest the flowers on the sidewalk, their scent rising up to me. These plants with their short-lived bursts of shocking glory are my favorite. The ones with the less showy, compact blossoms that live on sturdy stems and branches barely merit a glance. What does that say about me?

There is a Frito-Lay truck parked along our route to school and I think about how, sometimes, I have an uncontrollable craving for potato chips. Not often, but when it comes it is intense. I imagine being the driver of that truck, pulling over to a quiet alley, climbing over the seat to get to the boxes and boxes, ripping open a bag and plucking one paper-thin chip out and then another and another. Wiping the grease on my pants.

We pass an apartment whose living room window frames a birdcage and I think, “Do people still keep birds as pets?” I remember my sister’s parakeets – one blue and one green. The biting, ammonia smell of their cage, the wooden swing, the way she had to put a blanket over it at night to keep them quiet. What would have happened if we had simply turned out all of the lamps and let the actual night take over? Would they have slept?

Everyone else is gone for the day but there are imprints everywhere. Stray shoes, crumbs on the counter, a favorite pencil on the kitchen table. I am alone to write but the end of the day calls. What’s for dinner? Are there towels clean? What time is my guitar lesson?

It is really tempting to go back to “engineering smallness.” There is a voice on my shoulder that says that nobody would blame me for giving up, moving on, throwing my hands in the air and telling the world that I tried with a wry shrug. That voice says that it is all just too hard to figure out, that the reward isn’t guaranteed, and it might not turn out to be worth the work. In the rubric of our current culture, I need to cut my losses, stop the bleeding, and get moving.

Deep within, somewhere, is the longing to write, to get back to creating, to find the spark that sets the words free and lets them tumble out of me with abandon. It is a yearning for balance, a call to feed my own desires and tell the stories that are trapped inside of me. The voice on my shoulder calls that out as indulgent, selfish, more useless blather that won’t be realized, just like the other two projects I’ve started and nearly finished.

What is it about the path that I’ve chosen that leads me to this place again and again? The quiet, self-propelled churning that makes something I want to share with the world and eventually brings me to a gate that must be opened by someone else. The book I write that never finds a publisher or agent. The work I do that must be taught by someone else. I know that there is some larger lesson here, that I can’t keep piling up what I’ve worked on and believed in for so long without some outlet, some way to get it out into the world.

But maybe that’s the lesson. That it is out there and that has to be enough. Even if it is out there in a small way, for only a handful of people to see, that is enough. Maybe it’s my ego that tells me that I have to get paid for this work in order for it to be valuable. Maybe it’s my ego that says that I have to have sold X number of copies for it to be successful. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the simple act of creating it is enough. Maybe having had the time to do it in the way I did it was the point.

There is this tension between creating and making a difference. I write because I have to, because it is who I am, because I can’t NOT write. Not to make a difference in the world. But I have had a small taste of making a difference and it is intoxicating. I have heard those who say my words have touched them, and somewhere along the way I got the idea that that was my purpose, that I am meant to do this work in order to make a difference in the world. I have even gone so far as to believe that if I can’t live out my purpose, my work is no good, it is meaningless, as is the time I took to do it. Sometimes it is hard to discern between desire and expectation. It is so hard to un-knot the act of creation from the product itself, from the question of what it will do or can do or should do.

And so I spend time soliciting people’s attention and interest – looking for those who are interested in what I’ve created, and in the beginning it is wonderful. I like to talk about my passion, to share it with others, to connect with people who are passionate about the same things. But at some point when I become tied up in what the outcome will look like, I begin to feel defeated. When my fate rests on whether or not someone else likes my work enough to buy it and I get caught up in the minutia of how best to package it and whether I can replicate it or if it is good enough, I have lost my center. I wonder if I will ever find the sweet spot, or if there even is one.

I woke up this morning with a resolve to let go for a while, to let things un-knot themselves, to leave it up to the Universe and I’m trying. It’s surprisingly hard work to “let go.” It requires me to float in a state of limbo, to constantly redirect my thoughts away from imagining what could be and organizing toward that. It means that my usually long to-do list gets tucked away out of sight and I have to find other ways to occupy myself and be alone with my thoughts.  I have no doubt that it will all become clear at some point – it always has before. I know that just because I’m uncertain and a little bit scared, it doesn’t mean that I will always feel this way. I trust that I will look back on this one day and shake my head and be grateful that it passed.  And I suspect that I will find myself here again in the future. Frankly, it is that which has me the most agitated – the notion that if I don’t learn whatever lesson I’m supposed to be learning this time, I’m destined to do this again (and, if you hadn’t gotten the message, it’s not a comfortable place to be, so I don’t relish the prospect of being here again). But if I’ve learned anything from life, it is that things only get harder when I fight them. And, if I’m determined to live my values and practice courage, I won’t go back to being safe and engineering smallness, I will just sit quietly and wait and hold on to who I know I am at my core.

I am taking an online class taught by Brene Brown for the next two months, and if you’re a faithful reader of this blog, you know already that she is one of my sheroes. I love her no-nonsense style of talking that cuts right to the meat of any issue, and I find her endlessly quotable.  

So prepare yourself, because I predict many blog posts will come from this experience as I have epiphanies big and small, thanks to her words.
This week’s lesson was based on the first chapter of her book, Daring Greatly and it delved into the topic of courage. One of the things that she said struck me like a hammer to the thumb, reverberating into my consciousness and making me really think.  She told us that, for much of her life, she consciously “engineered smallness” into everything she did. While she may have had big dreams, she purposely did things in small, safe ways that would mitigate her level of risk because she didn’t want to get hurt or look like a fool or fall flat on her face.  
It takes a lot of courage to step out of that mindset, and some people never do. I think it’s akin to flying under the radar. You’re still technically flying, but you are really looking to not get noticed because you don’t want to get shot down. But the irony there is that you end up becoming resentful and unfulfilled.  I know, because I’ve done it that way for decades.
I, too, have engineered smallness into my life, dreaming large and taking baby steps, all within my comfort zone. Wishing that my work and my passion might “get discovered” one day, but without putting it out there for the world to see, what are the odds of that? It isn’t often that I send my writing to big outlets because I am both worried that I will be ignored or rejected, but also because, if they do publish it, how will I feel when the trolls come out and say horrible, horrible things about me (because they will)? 
It sounds trite, but all of those old adages are true:
Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
No pain, no gain.
If you don’t take the leap, you’ll never know whether you can fly.

I was happy for a while, living a safe life. Until I wasn’t. There was a time when safety was more important to me than courage, but I’ve changed. And while I am under no illusion that courage won’t be painful from time to time, I am willing to suffer the blows that come with living my values, if only so that I can say I did. It doesn’t make me feel very good about myself to live a life that doesn’t align with my values, and even if I get hurt or laughed at, I’d rather say I tried. 
It occurred to me this morning that the people I most revere are people who live with courage and demonstrate it in important ways.  The people who engineer smallness, who live in fear and advocate shrinking down, who shy away from the real work because it’s hard – those are not people I am interested in. It is the people who acknowledge that there are scary, challenging things out there and still forge ahead who have my respect. Those who choose the easy fights (ahem, every GOP presidential candidate) and criticize without ever really putting on the armor and risking something important? I’m not a fan. I’d rather align myself with folks who dig deeply, who feel strongly, who rise to the level of courage and risk personal disaster.  May I be one of them. Here’s to engineering greatness in my own life. 

The gifts just keep coming. I have read every book by Brene Brown at least once and I’ve compiled pages and pages of handwritten notes, written down quotes, and had some of the most fascinating conversations thanks to her work. Her TED talks inspire me endlessly and often, when I go back and re-read parts of her books, I discover things I hadn’t noticed before.  She is definitely on the short list of women whose work impact my life every day, who have changed how I parent and learn and make my way through the world. (It’s a pretty awesome list, including the likes of Gloria Steinem and Maya Angelou).

My most recent revelation thanks to her latest book, Rising Strong, comes as a result of digging a little deeper into the layers of my life. In one part of the book she writes about people who identify themselves as ‘helpers,’ and notes that the trap of using that label to build yourself up is that it becomes hard to be the one who asks for help. I underlined that passage and made notes on a separate piece of paper because that message resonated so deeply with me. For most of my life, I found control and self-worth because I was able to help other people, lift them up and provide emotional and logistical support. Well, to be honest, I didn’t often provide emotional support until I was a lot older. “Fixing” things was a great way for me to feel as though I was being useful and helpful and it kept me from having to feel the pain of others, to truly empathize.

I was in my thirties before I learned about the concept of holding space for others. It took a lot of practice and a willingness to sit with discomfort for me to not immediately leap to problem-solving and balm-offering when I saw loved ones suffering. I am still practicing acknowledging and sitting with a stranger’s pain without rising to the challenge of making things better in some physical, tangible way. Dr. Brown is absolutely right when she says that tying my own self-worth to the fact that I’m a helper means that if I need help, my self-worth takes a big hit.

I will admit, however, to some amount of patting myself on the back when I absorbed that portion of the book. About ten years ago I slammed up against a wall of depression that stopped me in my tracks and if I was going to be able to move forward, literally continue to exist on the face of the planet, I had to start asking for help. It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t easy, but I was lucky to have some pretty tremendous people in my life who were willing to support me. I swallowed my pride shame (I think they might be the same thing, or at least two sides of the same coin) and accepted childcare, meals, help around the house. I learned to get better at saying no to helping others in every single situation where I was asked to help and, over time, I began to warm to the idea that I was not an island. So when I read her words about letting yourself be vulnerable enough to ask for help and accept it, I nodded my head and congratulated myself on having learned to do that.

I should have known better. (Remember the pride/shame thing?)

The universe has a way of smacking me upside the head when I’m feeling a little too smug.

Literally one day after I scratched my notes on yellow lined paper, I was tested. I was feeling good, preparing to get away with Bubba for a long weekend of fun, and I got a phone call that rocked me, that threw me right back into the space I had spent so many years cultivating. I was needed. My problem-solving skills, my particular calm-in-a-crisis, my physical presence was requested, nee, necessary. I spent several hours on the phone working out logistics, asking other people for help and trying to design an airtight plan so that I could keep my plans with Bubba. And while this is my space, my forte, my wheelhouse, I couldn’t help but lose it once everything was in place and things were going to be okay.

What is this about? I wondered. I had averted disaster, well, helped to avert it. Well, asked for help to avert it. Wasn’t this what I was feeling good about yesterday? My ability to ask for help so that I don’t shoulder the burden alone? That’s the goal, right? I had done it. Why was I feeling so awful?

Most of my personal revelations come about when I walk the dog. This one was no exception. It hit me so hard I’m surprised I didn’t fall over. I am pretty sure I made some sort of whimpering noise when it hit me, but I did manage to stay on my feet and I don’t think the dog even noticed.

I have gotten good at asking for logistical help. That much is true.
What I haven’t yet learned how to do is to ask for or accept help holding my pain. I have no idea how to open up and let my pain out into the world so that I don’t have to keep it all myself. I am good at writing about it (distance, anyone?) and sharing my story, but if I am in the room with someone and I am really hurting, I don’t know how to accept empathy without feeling shame.

More work to do.