Wide-Open Writing

riverI love writing this blog. I haven’t posted anything in several months, but it’s never far from my mind.

I feel that my responsibility as a blogger is to give my reader some kind of takeaway: a laugh, a different point of view, a helpful insight…something of value. So, as I consider topics to write about, I’m always looking for that takeaway—what is the punchline? What is the lesson? What is different or interesting about this post that makes it worth reading?

Unfortunately, these last few months have been so overwhelming that I haven’t been able to boil the chaos in my head down to anything useful. I’ve been swept along in the current of my life– new job, new home, new relationship status/living arrangement, newly empty nest—and it’s been tough to stay afloat.

When I used the expression, “swept along in the current,” what I actually envisioned was more like falling off my raft on a whitewater rafting excursion: me, totally unfit for whitewater rafting in the first place, bobbing and flailing in a churning, twisting river with rocks all around. Periodically my head breaks the surface and I suck in a big gasping breath and then bam, back under I go. I’m not trying to swim in any particular direction; I’m not even trying to avoid the rocks. I’m just trying to remember which way is up and when I have the opportunity, breathe.

Over these last few months, my creativity feels dead. No writing, no painting…any creative effort I begin seems forced and frustrating.

Today I am feeling particularly overwhelmed. I googled for a lifesaver and found this gem from Pema Chodron:

Take the whole teatime just to drink your tea. I started doing this in airports. Instead of reading, I sit there and look at everything, and appreciate it. Even if you don’t feel appreciation, just look. Feel what you feel; take an interest and be curious. Write less; don’t try to capture it all on paper. Sometimes writing, instead of being a fresh take, is like trying to catch something and nail it down. This capturing blinds us, and there’s no fresh outlook, no wide-open eyes, no curiosity.

Maybe that’s why I’ve been struggling to find something blog-worthy to write—I’m trying so hard to capture something and boil it down that I have no fresh take, no wide-open eyes, no curiosity. No wonder I can’t find anything new to say.

A long time ago I learned a lesson about creating for the sake of creating, without fear of failure or pressure to achieve an expected result.  It was one of the most memorable days of my life. (You can read that post here.) Even so, the lesson seems to have gotten buried and writing this post has reminded me of it.

For writing, for painting, for whatever your creative process– and that includes the life you are creating for yourself–you don’t need to know how it will turn out. You don’t need to fear that it won’t be right.

The nature of creating is venturing into the unknown. True creativity is making something NEW, bringing something into existence that didn’t exist before.  If you’re in a true creative state, you’re not traveling an established path. So how can you possibly know you’re right?  More importantly, how can you be wrong?

See, I spend a LOT of time worrying about screwing things up. Can’t write this blog post; it might turn out stupid. Can’t paint a painting because I don’t have any ideas, or for that matter, painting skills. On a bigger scale, I have life decisions staring me in the face and I’m paralyzed that I will choose the wrong path.

So I started writing today not to achieve a tidy result, but just to feel what I feel, to look around me with wide-open eyes, and to practice creativity for its own sake.  As often happens when I start writing, a shape starts to form and I figure out what I’m writing about after I start writing it. In other words, I found my takeaway. It’s mostly for me, but I know there are others in my shoes who might find this helpful, too.

We create our lives. You are the first to walk your path, and I am the first to walk mine. Therefore, there is no established way: no right way and no wrong way. So we have nothing to be afraid of.  We can’t know how it will turn out, but we don’t need to fear that it will turn out wrong. It’s ours to create, and the process of creating is where the joy lives.

Thanks again to every one of you who encourages me to keep writing. You can’t possibly know how much that means to me.

Philadelphia Flourishing

So, it’s been two weeks since I left my daughter in Philadelphia.  I’m doing alright. She’s doing alright. I miss her. It was harder than I thought, letting her go.

I listened to Pema Chodron talk once about getting through emotional difficulty. She advised that if you feel like you’re going to get swallowed up in grief, or loneliness, or fear—try to step back and imagine you’re watching a movie of your life. There are sad parts and happy parts, funny parts, romantic parts…all in the course of the movie.  You feel sad in the sad parts of a movie, but you don’t lose yourself; you don’t come undone with sadness.

This is a helpful tool for me. In the movie of my life, this is the part where Maddy and I are separate for a while. It’s the part where I resume my own life, now that the hands-on, daily parenting part is over.  I know there are more happy parts coming. I feel sad, but I won’t come undone.

The part in Philadelphia was really hard. I watched it like a movie. The harder it got, the more movie-like it became.

It was a movie starring me, Maddy and Benjamin Franklin. Really.

Before the movie, I imagined the part where I had to say goodbye to Maddy. I imagined all the wise, inspiring, helpful things I would say. When it came time, standing in her dorm room, I couldn’t say anything at all. I just stood there, crying in her hair, and finally managed to choke out, “Please be careful.”

Then I sat on a curb outside the building, waiting for the crying to stop long enough for me to call a cab. Only I didn’t have to call one, because this is a movie, remember? And in movies the cab just drives up and you wave at it and it stops. So that’s what happened.   “7th and Pine,” I mumbled to the cab driver, because my tourist map labeled that corner “Antique Row.” I had four hours to kill between leaving Maddy and catching my flight back to Orange County.

You may know me as a dramatic sort of person, and I admit that I’m all for exaggeration if it gets me a laugh or makes my point. But I say this with no trace of hyperbole: if you had asked me, that day as I wandered through the city, what it feels like to choke on your own heart, I could not have replied because of the lump in my throat. But I would have known the answer.

The antique shops weren’t open yet but the buildings were beautiful, and the windows were full of antiques so old they blew my West Coast mind.

I found a community garden, a cheerful pocket of green between the buildings, and snapped a picture of this plant because of its stunning purple pods.

IMG_20130920_102442_305

There is a character in an Ann Tyler book who wonders, as she prepares for the funeral of a loved one, whether it is possible to experience grief so severe that you stop observing yourself in it.  I reminded myself of that character, hurting but watching myself in my movie, walking alone with tears running down my face in such a picturesque place. I felt ridiculous and cliché. I laughed at myself, then realized that laughing must make me look even crazier.

I walked another block or two, taking in the lovely old architecture all around me, thinking how fortunate I was to have such an amazing setting to walk off my heartache.  I turned a corner and saw this building:

IMG_20130920_104239_221

It’s the Pennsylvania Hospital, the oldest hospital in America, founded by Ben Franklin in 1755.  It’s still a functioning hospital, though this original structure contains offices now. I wandered through the park-like grounds til I got close enough to the building to read this sign. Read the words; I love them:

IMG_20130920_110241_041

“Well Mr. Franklin,” I thought to myself, “I am certainly miserable. I could use some relief.”

There’s no way he could have known, when he wrote that inscription 258 years ago, that the city was going to crowd up around his amazing building, and a heartbroken mother was going to stumble through it and find herself in this restful place.

As I sat there, thinking about that inscription, thinking about the brilliance of Ben Franklin and his reach through the centuries, I found myself comforted by the phrase, “Philadelphia Flourishing.” It’s a beautiful phrase, just the sound of it. I’m a hoarder of words and phrases. All day long I’d been drowning  in weepy words like “bereft” and “alone” and “empty nest” but then here was this lifesaver: a definitive, triumphant, bold-stroke of a word–flourishing.

The phrase hung around all morning as I continued to explore. The city surrounded me with fascinating historic distractions: Independence Hall, The Liberty Bell, Betsy Ross’ house. History is like wilderness, the way it can make you feel small and your problems seem insignificant.

The people reached out to me, too. I ducked into a used book store where the clerk took one look at my face and said, “Can I help you? I mean really…you look like you need…something?”   Touched by her kindness, I burst into tears again, and choked out, “I’m just having a hard day.”

Then I stopped at Lore’s Chocolates where I met two sweet, senior ladies working there. “Oh, you’re from California? Did you enjoy your time in Philly?” they asked.

More tears. Yes, I said, but I left my youngest child this morning at Drexel…

”Oh honey,” one of them sympathized. “That’s going to hurt a while. I remember when I sent my son to school, and he wasn’t nearly so far away. I cried for a week.”   They gave me extra samples. Chocolate and sympathy is a good combination.

I visited Ben Franklin’s grave on my way back to the hotel. It was definitely underwhelming, which may be appropriate given Franklin’s earthy, democratic nature, or inappropriate, given his monumental genius and contribution to society.  (And his supernatural ability to speak to sad, modern-day moms.) Then I hoofed it back to my hotel at Penn’s Landing, where I had just enough time for a beer before catching the shuttle to the airport.

*       *        *

Woman waits alone in an airport terminal, holding a magazine but not reading it, looking back towards the city with tears in her eyes. Then she closes her eyes, shakes her head, and laughs at herself.

Roll closing credits.

Thoughts on Graduation: At Least They Don’t Eat Bugs Anymore

A momentous occasion is happening today: my youngest child is graduating from high school.

As usual, the clichés are all true. It really does seem like just a short time ago, she was following me down the sidewalk with a lunchbox bigger than her five-year-old head.  This post isn’t really about that, although I’ve been shaking off those thoughts all morning.

The thing that’s freaking me out is this: although my daughter is almost 18, and my son is 20, suddenly I feel like a brand-new parent all over again.

When each of them was born, I felt excited, terrified, proud, overwhelmed—like every other new parent.  The stakes were high: life and death. If I slept too hard, they might suffocate in their crib. If I chose the wrong foods, they might have an allergic reaction. If I failed to pay attention or made the wrong decision, I could ruin them or even lose them for good.

To make matters worse, it seemed like for the first few years of their lives, they were actively trying to kill themselves. You know how it is with babies and toddlers: turn your back for a second and they’re sticking their fingers into light sockets, wandering out into traffic, trying to eat toxic substances….remember?

You probably see where I’m going with this.

Parenting an almost-adult feels exactly the same. The stakes aren’t life or death anymore, but they’re still high. Decisions my kids make at this stage will absolutely impact the quality of their lives for years.  In some ways, early adulthood is a trajectory, and a degree of difference now can have a big impact on where they wind up in a decade or so.

There are the big life decisions, like where to go to college, and what field to study. Whether they’ll follow their passions or follow a paycheck. Then there are those insidious, spur-of-the-moment choices that could change their lives forever: driving drunk, just once. Skipping the condom, just once. All the time, every day, whether they realize it or not, my newly adult children will be making choices that determine the courses of their futures.

So yeah, I’m not sleeping very well these days, just like when they were babies. I’m constantly second-guessing myself, just like when they were babies. And some days, they seem like they’re actively trying to ruin themselves, just like when they were babies.

They don’t stick their fingers in light sockets any more, but some of the choices they make are just as stupid. And just like “Don’t eat that bug” didn’t make sense to them when they were toddlers, my pearls of wisdom are lost on them at this age, too. They speak English now but they don’t speak Perspective. I probably sound like an adult from a Peanuts cartoon: “Wah wah wah, wah wah, wah.” I want so badly to help them through these tough years, but I can’t. They have to grow up on their own.

I don’t mean to sound negative—this time is very exciting! It’s like when they were learning to walk: they fell down a lot. I wasn’t any less proud of them for it. (Can you imagine? “Get up, you little hobo, learn to walk right!”). It’s worrisome and frustrating, but that’s what kids do when they’re learning to walk. At this age, they’re kids one minute and adults the next, and I love them either way. They make me angry, sure, but they also surprise and delight me with the people they’re becoming.

Last night I went to my son’s apartment—his first—and there he was, living like a starving twenty-something, nothing in the fridge.  He’s working, going to school and barely scraping by. I’m so proud of him I could bust. I’m so worried about him I can’t sleep. He’s right where he’s supposed to be, and I guess is this is probably just how I’m supposed to feel.

And today my daughter will graduate. My heart’s all swelled up with tenderness for her. Like when your baby starts to smile and coo—you knew it was coming, and every kid does it, but there’s something so magical and heartwarming when it’s YOUR kid. I know I’m going to lose it when I see her in the cap and gown. I’m excited, terrified, proud, overwhelmed—just like 17 years ago.

Congratulations and good luck to all the graduates in the blogosphere today, and to their parents, too.

Work, Luck & Payoffs– or, Some People Are Already Badass

This post was prompted by another blogger, Beth Brousil. I always enjoy her posts. Beth was mulling over the expression, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” In her post, she talks about working hard for a break in the art world. Some artists get a break, and some don’t. Is that based on hard work? Or just luck?

Both, says I. Some people work their hineys off and reap financial rewards. But some people—particularly in the creative world—work their hineys off and never enjoy the luck, or the break, that results in the recognition or payoff they’ve been hoping for. Meanwhile, others who seem less talented or less deserving get recognized and make a bazillion dollars. And that sucks.

I often discuss this with my dear friend, Valerie Noble. I’ve known Valerie since I was 10 years old. Now I have the great pleasure of working with her every day.  Most days, I subject her to my entire stream of consciousness while we sit in the office. Lucky girl!

Anyway, Valerie wrote a novel. It’s young adult sci-fi, and it’s good. Really. You may think that I am biased, and maybe I am. However, when friends ask me to read their writing projects, I usually cringe. I’m pretty critical, and very honest, but I’m also kind. Which means that usually, when people say, “Read this and let me know what you think,” I’m screwed.

Now, Valerie is a smart woman. I know she’s an avid reader with great taste in books. (More precisely, my taste in books. I borrow hers all the time.) She’d been working on her book for a long time and had input from a few different readers, so her manuscript wasn’t raw. So when she asked me to edit her book, I figured well, it won’t be terrible, anyway. Plus she was going to pay me to edit it.

I sat down with my pencil, ready to edit. Somewhere in the first chapter, I dropped the pencil because I was too engrossed in the story to notice the mechanics. I stayed up until two in the morning and finished the book in one sitting—just like I did with The Hunger Games.

Yep—it’s REALLY good.

So now she’s working on getting it published. She did everything she was supposed to. She researched the proper format for manuscripts and how to write a good query letter. She began to self-promote by starting a blog and a Twitter account, and networking with other authors and agents. She sent out query letters in search of an agent, and she got one! She has worked, and worked, and worked.

I hope with every fiber of my being that it gets published. It’s like she’s my pregnant friend, and I’m waiting for the baby. Whenever she calls me, my first thought is always, “Is this IT? Did she get a book deal?”

She deserves it. We all want it for her. But the truth is, a book deal may or may not happen and we have no control over that.

This is what I’ve told her from the very beginning: whether she gets published or not, she has already achieved something GREAT. How many people could be that creative, to conceptualize a novel? How many people are full of ideas, but never execute them? How many people start but don’t finish? She had the creativity and the discipline to actually get it done. And she had the humility and sensibility to subject it to the criticism of others and work out all the kinks. Then she did the boring, discouraging work of querying agents.

Did I mention she did this while she was in school full time, working, and a mom?

If the right reader from the right publisher reads her manuscript at the right time, she will get a book deal. But whether or not that happens, Valerie is already a success. Yes, I hope she gets recognized and I hope she gets paid for her work. But I could not be any more impressed than I already am. I could not admire her more than I do right now. She conquered all the dragons we all fight: self-doubt, a busy schedule, distraction, writer’s block… and she did it anyway. Now she is working on the sequel.

Back to the expression, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”  Maybe working hard doesn’t always result in lucky breaks. But it does generate results. In Val’s case, it produced an engaging, original book. It also gave her the confidence to start a second. It opened a new world—the world of writing and publishing—that she had never explored before. She’s earned the admiration of family and friends who’ve read the book and encouraged her. She’s got an incredible sense of accomplishment.  And she got her story out—she gave life to the characters born in her imagination.

Here’s another expression we’ve all heard before: the joy is in the journey. Seems that there’s quite a bit of payoff in the journey, too. We have to learn to recognize the other kinds of payoffs—not just fame and fortune. I deeply respect people who have the courage and discipline to pursue their passions, whether or not they become commercially successful.

Fingers crossed that it happens for her. She has definitely earned it. Because the book is with a literary agent now, I can’t tell you too much about it—seems there are rules about that. But if you want to know more about Valerie or follow her journey, you can read her blog here.

Me and my badass writer friend, Valerie Noble.

Everyone should have a badass writer friend for inspiration. Valerie is mine.

 

.

The Proper Use of Weekends

Those of you who’ve been reading for a while may be wondering how it’s going with Mr. Wonderful.

It’s going wonderfully, of course.

I’m trying not to bore (or gag) everyone with tales from Cloud Nine, so I’ve been blogging about other things. Still, Mr. Wonderful (his name is Victor, and he approves this message) has been teaching me a thing or two and I think they’re worth sharing. I’ll try not to overdo it. I don’t want any eye-rolling out there.

The most dramatic lesson I’m learning has to do with the proper use of weekends.  Here is something I never quite grasped: every weekend is, potentially, a mini-vacation and should be treated accordingly.

I’ve been a single working mom forever. Historically, my weekends were for laundry and housework, sandwiched between errands and maybe some trips to the park. Every other weekend, when the kids were with their dad, I’d have the same dilemma: should I get some rest or go have fun? Or accomplish things that cannot be accomplished with kids underfoot?  Most of my weekends were squandered in an indecisive state of “should”…I should be dealing with that pile of paper; I should be painting the living room; I should be getting a jump on cooking for the week.

I live 20 minutes from the beach and an hour from beautiful mountains. I live in Orange County, one of the most desirable locations in the world, and I seldom take advantage of it. I never go anywhere. I have been to the beach no more than three times in the past five years, because there was always housework or some other priority. What’s wrong with me?!?

Since I started dating Victor—just four months ago!—all that has changed.  With Vic, I’ve hiked to a waterfall, visited Catalina Island (wow), and scrambled among tide pools.  I’ve visited new places and made new friends.  We never miss a chance to go to the beach. It’s a matter of prioritizing.

I actually go places now. This was at the Wrigley Memorial– one of many magical moments during our Catalina Island trip.

It’s Not About What’s Closer

Here’s an example. One Sunday morning, we didn’t have anything planned, so we were going to go to Homegoods and look for wall décor. We went online to find a Homegoods location.

Meg:  There’s one in Seal Beach and one in Costa Mesa.

Vic:    Hmmm…which one should we go to?

Meg:  Well, Costa Mesa is closer.

Vic:    It’s not about what’s closer. If we go to the one in Seal Beach we can have    breakfast by the beach and then take PCH up.

So, what would have felt like running an errand on a Sunday BV (before Victor) became a leisurely breakfast out, followed by a stroll around the Huntington Pier. We browsed a little beachside craft fair and stopped to smell hand-made candles poured into coconut shells.  We watched a Veteran’s Day service on the beach, with World War II veterans in attendance. (Those guys always get to me.) Then we drove up Pacific Coast Highway, enjoying the view all the way to the store.

See the difference? I sure did. I won’t even go into all the fun we had in Homegoods. Suffice it to say that for the rest of my days, I will look for feet below the big hanging rugs, because I am now aware that those hanging rug displays make a great hiding spot.  We didn’t get anything for the walls, and we didn’t care.

What comes after Long Beach?

Another Sunday morning, we sat at Starbucks discussing what we should do with the sunny day. Nothing came to mind.

Vic’s car was in the shop and his rental was a convertible, so we just started driving. We gravitated towards PCH, because leisure drives should offer good views. From Huntington we drove through Seal Beach and then Long Beach. I realized that although I’ve lived here for 33 years, I haven’t ever gone any farther on PCH.

“What comes after Long Beach?” I asked.

“Torrance, I think…” He fiddled with his phone, checking the map. “Hmmm…”

For the record, San Pedro comes after Long Beach, but it doesn’t matter when there’s sun on your face and wind in your hair and your sweetheart holding your hand.  While I watched the beach towns pass by, Victor kept an eye on the map, and we wound up here:

Don’t you feel relaxed just looking at this picture? I never get tired of looking at beautiful views.

That place is called Palos Verdes Cove. I never even knew it was there.  We just stood on the cliff for a while, taking in the view while dolphins played in the water below.  Views do something to me—something relaxing and refreshing.  That was a heck of a view.

So we went from Starbucks to dolphins in 45 minutes, without planning ahead—all because Victor has a sense of adventure and the ability to follow a map. We could have defaulted to the sofa and watched reruns all day, and I would have gone home feeling guilty that I didn’t get the laundry done. Instead, I had another mini-vacation, with gorgeous views and romantic memories, and the laundry never even crossed my mind.

Cupcakes and Competition: Lessons from a High School Bake-off

Hot Fudge Sundae Cupcakes with Cookie Dough Centers. Yeah baby.

“Mom,” my daughter said. “I have to bake cupcakes for Huffman’s class. It’s for a bake-off and I get 25 points for entering.”

“Great,” I answered. “How many points do we get when we win?”

Oh, we won. We don’t mess around. We made Hot Fudge Sundae Cupcakes (a la Joy the Baker) with a cookie dough center, complete with whipped cream and cherries. Some of the other kids—kids who brought inferior baked goods–criticized Maddy for trying too hard.

Trying too hard?? It’s a competition! Do you criticize your basketball team for trying too hard? Do you tell your track runners to slow down? No. You tell them to WIN.

My daughter and I are both highly competitive. Our competitiveness is exceeded only by our lack of athletic ability. So while we can’t run faster or jump higher or hit harder than you, we will KICK YOUR ASS in a bake-off. Our cupcakes will mop the floor with your lousy cookies and then stuff them down your throat, LOSER.

Only we won’t say that out loud, because we’re ladylike.

Maddy and I were cracking ourselves up, talking about our aggressive baking and how our thwarted competitive natures spill over into non-competitive arenas because we have no other outlets. Maddy said something like, “Yeah, I’m good at all the lame stuff—baking, board games, logic puzzles…”

Then, because I am a mom, I jumped in with a little lesson that I wish I’d learned earlier in my life.

“Baking isn’t lame. Logic puzzles aren’t lame. You think it’s the lame stuff because it’s what you’re good at,” I told her. “Other people wish they were good at the things you’re good at—it’s not lame stuff. You just don’t value your talents because they come easily to you. But they don’t come easily to everyone. ”

When I was younger, I felt like I was only good at easy things. My strong suits are words, pictures and people.  To me, those are all easy, fun, fluffy talents. Even my strongest skill, which has always been writing, seemed inadequate to me. Because I have a simple, straightforward style, I felt like my writing was unsophisticated and childish. I always believed that the real value was in the numbers skills–the logical, left-brain sort of talents. Yeah, I can make things look nice and I can get along with people but who cares? Who’s going to pay me for that?

As I entered corporate America, I was subjected to personality and aptitude tests that reinforced that belief. No matter which test they administered, I was cast straight into the bimbo category: you’re a Sanguine! A High I! An ENFP! They all seemed to indicate that I talk too much and I can’t keep my act together. I think my elementary school teachers were in on those tests.

I wished I could be more like the analytical types, or the bold, Type-A types. I wished my skill sets were more practical. Basically, I just wanted to be what I wasn’t. Don’t we all?

One perk of getting older is that as we gain perspective through experience, we are able to see ourselves more clearly and understand how we fit into the big picture. I have now read enough bad writing to realize what a gift it is to be succinct and articulate. I have now worked for enough terrible bosses that I see the value in people skills. I have seen enough ugliness to appreciate my own ability to make things beautiful.

I’ve also figured out that not everyone thinks that what I do is easy. Even smart people with great ideas can’t always put them in writing. They think it’s some crazy superpower, just the way I feel about people who can do math in their heads.  More than one employer has capitalized on my people skills—turns out that people skills, or “soft skills,” as they are referred to in corporate-speak, are very hard to teach.

I’m not sure if this is universal or just women who do this, but it took me a long time to understand that the “easy stuff” only seemed easy to me because I am good at it.

This phenomenon of downgrading our own talents seems to be an extension of the grass-is-always-greener mindset.  We always think someone else’s talents are more valuable than our own.  Someone said, “If the grass seems greener on the other side of the fence, try watering your own lawn.”  Genius.

In this case, we need to recognize that just because it comes naturally to us, doesn’t mean it’s cheap or lame—someone wishes it came naturally to her, too.  Someone wishes he could write a better sentence, or bake a better cupcake.  My abilities are unique and valuable, even though it took me several decades to realize it. They are worth cultivating.

Another perk of being middle aged: I still have time to implement all this wisdom I’m trying to impart to my daughter. It’s not like I’m croaking out advice on my deathbed. It’s not too late to capitalize on those talents—not too late to water my own lawn.

It’s June 15; do you know where your New Year’s Resolution is?

2012 is almost halfway over already. I’m shocked by that, and I’m also shocked by the notion that I can continue to be shocked by the same thing that shocks me every year. Time flies. I should be used to it by now.

What did you vow to change in 2012? Have you done it? Are you still working towards it? Or would you like me to shut up now?

I could be doing much better, but it’s not too late to work on it. I’m putting mine out into the blogosphere—it will create accountability for me and maybe it’ll inspire you to keep trying, too.

My resolutions

I was mentally kicking my own ass the other day, thinking about how I have once again fizzled out on all those things that were so important to me just few a months ago. I looked back in my journal to where I wrote them down. (You have to write them down or they don’t count.) After a little evaluating, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that while I haven’t excelled, I haven’t completely bombed, either.

I have three resolutions:

  1. Lose 50 pounds.
  2. Publish something.
  3. Finish the year with the bills current and a certain (secret) amount of savings in the bank.

The First Six Months

Weight loss is the worst of the bunch. I’m up four pounds. I should be down 25 or so by now, or maybe 15 if my body were being uncooperative.  There’s no excuse for gaining—my eating is out of control. However, I have exercised fairly consistently for the first time in my life, so I will give myself credit for that healthy habit.

Publishing is a little bit better.  This blog was the first step towards that goal. Blogging is self-publishing, and I would really like to get some articles published traditionally, but there is more value in blogging than I realized. First, it’s super fun—I highly recommend it—and inspiring, too! I’ve found a number of kindred spirits in the huge, diverse blogging community. I didn’t see that coming. I also didn’t anticipate so much support from you lovely readers.  I am so surprised at who’s been reading this. People mention it and I think, “REALLY?? YOU READ IT?”  Your encouragement has bolstered my ego and my resolve to pursue a freelance career, and it feels pretty wonderful, too. Thank you for all the feedback.  Finally, the process of blogging keeps my writer-brain active and fuels my creativity. I put off blogging for a long time because I didn’t think I had anything to say. Turns out I have all kinds of stuff to say.

I think I’ve had the most growth financially. Much of it is circumstantial; my circumstances sucked last year and they’re getting better. The bills are current and I feel a level of control that I haven’t felt in a long, long time.  My savings goal is lagging; I should have twice as much saved by now. The money that’s in my savings account is not a result of disciplined saving, which is what I really want to develop. It’s there because I resolved a tax issue and it worked in my favor. But I am giving myself credit for resolving the tax issue, because that is part of financial health, too. In recent years I have been so overwhelmed and hopeless that I avoided the tax issue and other things like it. I’ve made great strides in dealing with those financial uglies, and I feel much, much better.

The Next Six Months

Here’s the good news: there is still plenty of time. Six months is enough time to hit every single one of my goals, although it’ll be harder now.

50 pounds in six months may not be realistic, but I would be delighted with 20 or 25. I know how to lose weight; I could write a book on eating for weight loss. However, my motivation is dead in the water. I have to find a way to get it back. I need something different.

Inspired by my friend, Linda, I tried a new gym yesterday called Train Insane.  Linda has lost a lot of weight through their program, and she has developed a love for working out. I want that! I do not love working out. Train Insane offers a weight loss plan and accountability, so I thought I would give it a shot. It was horrible. And painful. I cursed Linda throughout the entire workout. I almost cried in front of the trainer at least four times. Today my muscles are so sore, I am jerking around like a corpse who’s been reanimated by an alien. It sucks.  I will probably sign up for Train Insane. I can’t even tell you why. Maybe so I can get strong enough to beat up Linda. We’ll see how I do.

On the publishing front, I want to continue this blog, of course. But I need to start sending out query letters. (That’s how you get articles in magazines: you come up with a story idea and send it to the editor of a publication.) If I don’t do that, nothing will ever get published by anyone but me. It’s pure procrastination that’s holding me back.  Maybe I need an accountability partner for that. Any takers?

And the money…that’s harder.  I can tell you I’m 50 pounds overweight and not flinch, but the shame I feel about my poor money management is actually painful. The reason my savings goal amount is a secret is because it is so small, I fear that most people would laugh at it. Shame makes it hard to ask for help, but I am learning to be open.  No one can help me save money, but being transparent with people helps me stay on track. There is no way to increase your savings without ACTUALLY LEAVING THE MONEY IN THE BANK, which seems to be where I have trouble. Hopefully, the momentum I’ve gained this year will make it easier for me in the second half.

There you have it—the good, the bad and the hopeful. If you have resolutions you want to revive, comment—maybe we can help each other.

That’s why they call it The Present

Lately I’ve been yo-yoing between two unpleasant feelings: the feeling of being stuck and the feeling that I’m careening through time without brakes.

If that doesn’t make sense to you, think about payday vs. rent day:  it takes forever for payday to roll around, but the rent is due every time you blink, right?  How is that possible, when it’s all on the same calendar?  (Maybe that illustration only works for broke people. Financially stable people, you will have to come up with some other example. I know you have one.)

Of course, it’s a matter of perception and how we feel about those two events.  A twenty minute wait in the dentist’s office feels like three hours; three hours having coffee with an old friend feels like twenty minutes.

Right now, that paradox is my whole life.

In the slow lane: weight loss. I have a tiny mental tantrum every time I stand on the scale. Even if I’ve been good all week, I’ve only lost a pound—at this rate it’ll take a year for me to get to my goal weight.  A WHOLE YEAR. 52 weeks of protein shakes and veggie sticks? Forget it. Just order a pizza and pass the ice cream already.

On the other hand, I have very real panic when I think about how fast the year is passing, because at this time next year, my baby will be graduating from high school.  She wants to go away to college—away from me!  Can you imagine? My eyes tear up every time I think about that, even right now while I’m typing. ONLY ONE YEAR. Oh my god, skip the ice cream and bring wine.  Lots of wine.

There’s a lesson here somewhere, a big-picture angle that I’m struggling with.  Something about balance, focus, priorities…maybe it’s time management, the lesson I’ve struggled with my whole life. It just feels more important now that I’m older. The stakes are higher. My priorities have shifted.

The stuff that I want to rush is accomplishment stuff: I want to lose weight faster, save money faster, get the heck out of this dumpy apartment faster. The stuff I want to prolong is the beautiful stuff: I want my daughter’s childhood to last. I want a few more years with my dogs. I want time with my girlfriends to linger. I want to stretch the sunny afternoons so I can plant more plants, paint more pictures, and still have time for a nap.

It’s exhausting, this push and pull of time. I can only make things happen so fast, and I sure can’t seem to slow anything down.  I make my to-do lists, cram as much as I can into each day, work towards goals that seem light years away, and try to hang onto the fleeting moments in between.

Hmmm… something about balance…something about focus.  I need to focus on what’s beautiful, the things that speed past, so I don’t miss them.  Accomplishments are important—I do need to save money, I do need to lose weight—and if I do those things, everything gets better.  But weight loss and saving money are auto-pilot functions; I can put systems in place to address them and not make them the center of my attention.  That frees up time to pay attention to the areas of my life that deserve it:  the people and passions that bring me joy.  And a fringe benefit of focusing on what brings me joy is that I will be satisfied, and less likely to mindlessly eat or spend money and derail my material goals. Ha! Now I am getting somewhere.

The older I get the more I realize that time really is precious.  (Also, the older I get the more happily I toss clichés around. They’re cliché for a reason, you know.)  The bottom line is that another year is going to pass, just like the last thirty-nine have, and at the end of  the year, I will be thinner or not, I will be broke or not—but the year will pass either way.  If I spend the year racing towards accomplishments, I will run right by the important things—things that are moving fast enough already.   If I recognize that time is a gift, I will never rush—instead, I will spend it on what’s truly valuable. Yes, it may take a year to lose the weight. In the meantime, I will just enjoy the beautiful things, like my daughter. I’ve only got one more year.

Beginning, for Somewhat Ineffective People

If you’ve spent any time in corporate America, or in the self-help aisle of the bookstore, you know about Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  I have spent a great deal of time in both, so I’m pretty familiar with the Seven Habits.  I admire them, I respect them, and occasionally I even try to practice them.  Alas, I’m still not terribly effective.

Habit #2 is “Begin with the end in mind.”   The idea is to have a clear picture of what you’re trying to achieve—a detailed, crystal-clear vision of the result you want.  This applies not only to building mousetraps or what-have-you, but to your whole life—envision the life you want and the things that are important to you, and make your choices accordingly.

(You people who have your acts together—you Highly Effective People– can stop reading right here. Go make some choices and be effective.  Somewhat Ineffective People, please continue.  You might find this helpful.)

Here’s my problem: I can’t picture the end. I don’t know exactly what I want.  I’m almost 40, and my life vision is as clear as mud.  I put a lot of mental energy into it. I do workshops, take tests, see therapists…. I make some decisions, get my vision all squared away, and then change my mind. While all this thinking is going on, nothing gets done.

That’s highly ineffective.

But a couple months ago, my aimless wandering paid off in an unexpected lesson.   I took a painting class on right-brain painting at The Art Bar in Santa Ana. The instructor was Whitney Ferré.

The class wasn’t about creating fine art or learning techniques. It was about quieting your left brain—the logical, linear, rule-based side—and allowing your right brain to do its intuitive, free-form, creative thing.  For the sake of the lesson, we were going to paint owls. That’s all I knew.

Also, I could bring wine…wine and painting is a good combination.

Each person was given a big, blank canvas, a paper plate with some paint on it, and a fairly chunky paint brush.

The first instruction was to cover the canvas with paint. “Just cover it,” Whitney said, “It doesn’t matter what it looks like; you’re going to paint over this part anyway.  Don’t worry about the colors. This part is just to get you past your fear of the blank canvas.”

For the record, I’m a crafty girl. I like step-by-step tutorials, templates, and pre-coordinated collections of fashionable colors.  I like to see a completed example of what I’m about to make, so I can mimic it. I’m good at that.

So I wasn’t exactly comfortable with this “it doesn’t matter” approach. I didn’t even get to pick my colors. How was I supposed to know what I was going for, without an example?  In this case, I really, really wanted to have the end in mind.

But, I’m also a conflict-avoidant girl, so I just did as I was told and covered the canvas.  My plate had red, yellow and white paint on it, so my canvas turned all kinds of gorgeous shades of pink and orange.  It was lovely.

The next step was to paint an outline of an owl using basic shapes.  (For this step, she did give us some examples to copy. We were a bunch of beginners, so we needed some help.)

Reluctantly, I took my chunky paint brush and, with black paint, slopped an outline of an owl over my pretty sunset background. It didn’t look like Whitney’s; it was kind of lopsided and way too big, but whatever.  I was sipping my wine and happily covering my canvas, and the “it doesn’t matter” approach was growing on me.

Just then, Whitney said, “Now get some different colors, and fill in the shapes you’ve created.  Just paint right over your background.”

WAIT! Those are my favorite colors! I don’t want to paint over them!

“And you’ll paint over the next layer, too, so don’t worry about the end yet.  Don’t worry about how it’s going to turn out.”

ARGH!  What kind of stupid art lesson was this? Don’t worry about how it’s going to turn out? I heard my corporate-trained left-brain squawking all kinds of effectiveness at me; I could feel myself obsessing.

With eerie timing, Whitney advised the class, “Don’t obsess. You’re taking yourself too seriously. That’s ego.”

Well, far be it for me to have EGO. I painted over the orange. I tried to pick other colors I like just as well, like aqua. Maybe some purple.

Dang, it was turning out cool.

After a quick lesson in color strategy, a couple more layers and a little more wine, my painting was complete:  a big kooky owl with goofy eyes and ridiculously bright colors. He looks like he dropped some acid and flew through a rainbow and landed on my canvas. I love him.

I love that silly owl every time I look at it, and here’s why: because I tried something new, I didn’t know how it was going to turn out, I shut off my ego and my need to be CORRECT, and out came something colorful and fun.   It’s a product of my own fearless, intuitive right brain.

The moral of the story is this: if you can’t begin with the end in mind, begin anyway.  Just try.  Sometimes the vision takes shape after you pick up your brush, or start typing, or say hello.  Sometimes it evolves after some layering, some learning, or a glass of wine. The important thing is to be open to all kinds of beginnings. Don’t worry so much about being effective. Just begin.

Here I am in The Art Bar with Whitney Ferre and my owl painting.

 

The Marvelous Moods of Midlife Meg

Moods moods moods. Moody mornings, moody Monday, moody Mom.  Moody Mom on Monday Morning. I am like a depressive Berenstain Bears book.

Sometimes the moods are fun, zippy moods, where everything cracks me up and I’m friendly to strangers and downright goofy with my daughter.

Sometimes the mood is just a black cloud hovering over my head, Charlie Brown-style.

I used to take mood medication, but I quit. I took it on and off for about 15 years. No, I’m not embarrassed to share that with you.  Half the population is on anti-depressants, and if we’d all just admit it, there’d be a lot less secret shame in this world.  (Secret shame feeds the collective bad mood.)

Since I quit the mood medication—and by the way, I’m not advocating that anyone else quit; that is between you and your doctor—I have noticed that I have to re-learn self-control. I feel that bad mood coming and I feel the big giant anger and I want to kick and scream and shout ugly things, but I’m a grownup, and I’m well, so I CAN stop that behavior.

That doesn’t mean I always do. I lose it when I’m driving, when the dog pees on the carpet, when my boss loses it first (he started it!) and worse, I lose it in front of the kids. Sigh. Sorry, kids.

But, for the most part, I manage. I reel in the rage and the f-bombs and I don’t explode…but I’m left with the mood. I get to work with my crappy mood and I log into Facebook (so productive!) and see all the fun you had this weekend, with your cute, skinny friends and your cocktails…or you, on your vacation with your well-established husband, and I think CRIMINY, what’s wrong with me? Where’s MY cocktail? Where’s MY husband?  A few minutes down that path, the Charlie Brown cloud threatens to crack wide open and become a full-fledged, non-cartoon, tornado-type storm, with flash flooding and cows in the air and EVERYTHING crashing down.

I can stop this behavior, too.  Reach for the gratitude, Meg. Some days it’s a gratitude umbrella, some days it’s a gratitude life raft, but either way, it looks like this:

  • Two healthy children
  • Best family ever
  • Super awesome co-worker
  • Job with a paycheck
  • Car still starts
  • And so forth…

Sometimes I don’t actually feel grateful; I still feel grumpy. But the process of stopping and counting my blessings interrupts the mood spiral and gives me enough space to change my focus.

If that doesn’t work, there’s painting. I’ll tell you about that in another post.

What do you do to dispel a bad mood?  If anyone is actually reading this, let me know.