Goodbye, Swoony McLovestruck

Seventeen months ago I posted about the absurdities of internet dating. Ironically, that very same night, I went on an internet date with a guy who knocked my socks off, triggered a series of lovestruck posts, and started me thinking that maybe, just maybe, I could step off the dating merry-go-round for good.

Alas, dear readers; that is not how the story ends. Oh, it ended. Just not like that.

My big romance is well and truly over. So, I’ve taken the usual steps: crying, ranting to my girlfriends, buying shoes, drinking, eating, buying more shoes…and all of that helped.   I’ve taken healthier steps, too, like painting and taking long walks. I even tried yoga for the first time. (Wow, yoga! More on that later.)

Mostly, I’ve done a lot of thinking. It was hard for me to let this relationship end, because I wanted so badly for it to work. This is the first time in my adult life that I really threw my whole heart into a romantic relationship, because this is the first time that I felt like I’d found someone who was worth that kind of risk. I fell hard, and I think in the process, I forgot something very important.

I went through a lot of crappy internet dates to learn this important lesson, and one sweet romance almost blew it right out of my head.  A year later, when things were starting to unwind with my beloved, the lesson came back to me.

Here’s the short version: I can’t control what another person wants, and I can’t become what another person wants. Instead, I need to decide what I want. I need to be who I want to be, and find someone I want to be with.

When I was younger, and I first started dating, I worried all the time about whether guys would like me. Was I pretty enough? Thin enough? Sexy enough? Wholesome enough? Should I be more open? Or more mysterious? I’d be out on a date, gripped with insecurity, always worried about whether I was what my date wanted.

Then I got a little older. The beauty of getting older is beginning to accept yourself.  I’m not perfect, but I’m perfectly acceptable. I started to see what a waste of time it was to try to be what someone else wanted. When I look at myself now, there are things I want to improve and things I struggle to accept, but the bottom line is this: it is what it is, and really, it’s just fine.

Instead of trying to be what someone else wants, I need to decide what I want for myself.

That outlook greatly improved my dating life. I began to go out more, because I stopped ruling myself out.  In my early days of dating online, I’d look at someone and think, “I’m not his type”—even, sometimes, when he approached me first! I started enjoying my dates more, because instead of trying to prove myself, I focused on each person I met. I’m sure that made me a lot more fun to be around, too.

Eventually, this strategy led me to my boyfriend ex-boyfriend. (Ouch.)  For the first year, it seemed pretty close to perfect. When problems cropped up, I thought, well, all relationships have problems; this is worth working for.

So I tried hard to not cause the problems. I tried to be more tactful; I tried to be more communicative; I tried to be more available; I tried to be more feminine; I tried to be less independent; I tried to be less stubborn; I tried to be more open; I tried to guard my words; I tried not to upset him. I found myself apologizing for things I never knew were wrong. I found myself trying to change things about myself that I’d always been proud of.  I tried and tried and then I remembered:

I can’t become what another person wants. I can’t change what he wants.  I can only decide what I want.

The fights continued, but instead of trying to prove that I was a good girlfriend, I began to try to evaluate our relationship. Am I being reasonable? Is he being reasonable? Are we really compatible? Are we really loving each other?

Is this what I want?

It sounds selfish; I know. “Meg, really? It’s all about what YOU want?”

Well, yes. Because I can’t control what he wants. And I can’t be what I’m not.

Sure, I can work to improve myself, and I can work at being better in a relationship. “What I Want” includes standards for me, too: I want to be reasonable, gracious, forgiving, open and kind. I know that I fall short of those attributes sometimes, and I know when I’m not at my best. But I trust my own judgment. I know when I’m trying my hardest to be the person that I should be. I want to be in a relationship that allows me to be that person.

And I wasn’t.

So it’s over.

It hurts; I wish I could breeze through this on the confidence that I’m doing the right thing, but it’s not that easy. The right thing hurts too, sometimes.

And the question now is… what do I want next?

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.

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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:

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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:

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“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.

Meg for Hire: Now with Big-Girl Pants!

I’m job hunting– blech. But this time, I’m going at it a little differently– and the process has got me thinking. (Thinking happens right before blogging, usually.)

When I first started working, I was a receptionist for a real estate investment company. I knew nothing about real estate or investments. One day, I heard some managers complaining about writing investor newsletters. In my naive, twenty-something confidence, I said, “I can write. I’ll write your newsletters.”

They let me write the newsletters. I just figured it out as I went along. Their existing newsletters looked kind of stupid, so I taught myself some desktop publishing software and redesigned them. Then, since I knew how to create newsletters, they started letting me create marketing materials.

Fast-forward eight years: I had become the marketing communications manager. I was thirty years old, with no degree, purely self-taught. I was hiring, training and managing a team of employees. I was responsible for all marketing and corporate communications company-wide. I sat at the conference table with the bigwigs, and I held my own—on the outside, anyway.

On the inside, I still felt like a receptionist. Like I was at that table to take notes, not contribute. I felt like no one took me seriously because I was “just a receptionist” who got promoted.

Never mind that they paid me seriously. Never mind that they trusted me to run a department. Never mind that I wrote a training class designed to introduce newbies to the business.  My self-confidence never caught up.

When I left that job, I believed my success at the real estate investment group was just a fluke. I felt like a sham. “I’m not REALLY a marketing communications manager…I couldn’t actually just do that job at any other company…I just got lucky.” I began to believe that no one would hire me at management level; I’d have to start small and work my way up again.

Self-fulfilling prophecies suck. It’s been 11 years since I left the real estate group. Since then, I’ve held some lesser communications jobs and done lots of admin work. The recession didn’t help, and some of my stagnation was due the lousy job market. But mostly, my lack of self-confidence is to blame.

My current job allows me some freedom to pursue other avenues of income, so I’ve decided to try some freelancing again. I shined up my resume and enlisted my boyfriend to help me set up a web site. I began to dig through my files, looking for work samples for my portfolio.

It’s been quite a dig, uncomfortable and encouraging at the same time. With the perspective gained over the last decade, I feel more objective as I look through my old work samples. I’m surprised to find that I still like them—they’re pretty good. I look at my resume and think, wow—I really did all that stuff! Why did I think I wasn’t qualified? I did the work, I did it well, and I did it with little formal education or training.

All that insecurity—where did it come from? I was focusing on what I lacked—a four-year degree—instead of what I had. What I had was the ability to figure things out on my own. Is there any more valuable skill? Well, maybe the skill to develop a network of experts to help you when you’re in over your head—oh wait! I did that, too!

So here I am back on the market, with a few more years under my belt. I’ve worked a lot of places and I’ve sat in a boatload of meetings. I’ve met plenty of bigwigs and worked on plenty of projects doing all kinds of office-y things. Here is what I’ve learned: most of corporate America is essentially faking it. The posturing, the lingo, the warrants of expertise—that’s how people stall while they figure out what to do next. Everyone is figuring it out as they go along. It’s all about how fast you learn and how well you can flex to each new scenario, each new personality, and each new environment.

In other words, I’m totally qualified.

Some people have more education than me. Some people have more specific experience. Some have certain talents that do not come naturally to me. But I can sit at a table with any one of them and contribute—because I bring my own combination of education, experience and talent, and I can figure things out with the best of ‘em.

I know I sound a little like Stuart Smalley here. (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”)   I don’t care. Job hunting is very hard on the ego. If I have to give myself a little pep talk every day to get through it, I will.

Here’s the shiny new portfolio site: www.megfaulkner.com.  My resume is on there, too. But only you, blog readers, will know about my little self-confidence issue. Everyone else will only see my big-girl pants.

A little positive self-talk can't hurt. I will avoid the jazz-hands.

A little positive self-talk can’t hurt. I will avoid the jazz-hands.

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.

 

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The Organized Life: Tips from a Reformed Slob

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A funny thing is happening to me on Pinterest. I’m not a big pinner, but I have a few boards. For some reason, my Organizing board now has over 300 followers, and more follow every day. This is very surprising to me. I’ve never thought of myself as any kind of guru on organization.

Except wait—maybe I am, kind of.

I’ve come a long way in terms of organization. I used to be a real slob. I used to never ever have my act together. I used to lose my keys EVERY SINGLE DAY. My family will testify to all of the aforementioned.

Just like the best weight loss advice comes formerly fat people, l suppose the best person to give organizing advice is a reformed slob, right?  So, without further ado, here are my super-basic tips for getting and staying organized.

  1. Have less stuff.  Most of us don’t need more storage, we need less stuff.  So purge! Getting rid of stuff you don’t love or use makes it easier to enjoy the stuff you do. Before you buy something new, try to imagine where you’ll store it and how often you’ll use it. Do you have a place for it? And is it worth the space? Think about that potential purchase sitting on a closet shelf, with all the other crap you thought you needed. Think about selling it at a garage sale in a couple years—for a dollar. That kind of visualizing really helps me buy less stuff.  The less stuff I bring home, the less I have to organize.
  2. A place for everything, and everything in its place. That expression has been around for almost 200 years.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_A._Goodrich) You can’t put things away if you haven’t established where they go. And you can’t keep everything on the counter or table or floor. Your belongings need a real home, where they are out of the way when you’re not using them.  Clear surfaces make your home much more peaceful.
  3. Read Organizing from the Inside Out, by Julia Morgenstern. This book was life-changing for me. The gist is to organize according to your natural tendencies, not someone else’s prescribed system.   Julia offers a simple method to make your surroundings and your systems fit the way you live. I still mentally refer to it whenever I set up or reorganize a space.  Best organizing book ever.
  4. Just do a little tiny bit. I am easily overwhelmed, and when I’m overwhelmed, I do nothing. So when the housework is piled up or I have a nasty organizing job, like the craft room or the garage, the trick is to not let it overwhelm me. I tell myself that I will just clean one counter. Or empty one box. Or, I will set the timer and tell myself I just have to work on it for 20 minutes.  I can stop when I’m done with just that little bit…but I almost never do. Progress begets progress. When you complete one small task, you feel motivated to continue.
  5. Make it pretty.  If I buy a $3 bouquet of flowers, it will prompt me to clean my whole kitchen, because I can’t stand to put something pretty in the middle of a mess. Likewise, if I enjoy my space aesthetically, I’m more likely to honor it by sticking to my organizational systems and keeping it tidy.  I found this cute dresser in my favorite antique store. I use it for all the small stuff– jewelry, socks, scarves– and it’s so pretty, I don’t want to mess it up– so I keep it neat!dresser collage 1
  6. Throw a party. Seriously. As a procrastinator, I find a deadline immensely helpful. I also have a healthy sense of shame* about my shoddy housekeeping tendencies. So if people are coming over on Saturday, then that paper pile-up on the dining table has to be gone, and the floors have to be cleaned- by Saturday. Otherwise, there’s no reason I can’t leave it messy for another week. Entertaining helps keep me on my toes. It doesn’t have to be a party, just a dinner guest will do—any new set of eyes around my house does the trick.

*Most shame is not healthy, of course. Your house doesn’t have to be perfect before you have someone over.   And you don’t have to scrub your shower or re-organize your garage before you have a dinner guest. Use this trick only to the degree that it’s helpful.

These days, my house still gets messy, but it’s definitely functional. Everything has a place and the places make sense to me.  And you know what? That’s all it means to be organized: my home works for me. There is a functional order to my belongings and I enjoy being in my home. I win.

New Year’s Resolutions: I’m for ’em.

In a recent discussion about New Year’s resolutions, my sweetheart told me that he doesn’t believe in that sort of thing. He says that you can always improve yourself, regardless of what time of year it is.

He’s right, of course.  Any day is a good day for positive change. If you wait ‘til January every year, you’re stalling. That’s like starting your diet on Monday…if you really want to lose weight, you’ll start making better choices right now. Not tomorrow, not Monday, not January.  If you want to save more money, stop spending it frivolously right now, not tomorrow or on your next paycheck or on January 1. You get the idea. (I’m not saying I actually apply this to my own goals, or else I’d be skinny and rich and well-published by now. Knowing and doing are two different things, alas.)

So that is important: don’t wait to start improving yourself.  Start right now, whatever time of year it is.

But there is something helpful about New Year’s resolutions, too. If you’re a procrastinator, like me, New Year’s is a great excuse to make a start. It’s almost a social imperative—everyone else is beginning their new improved life, so why not me?

It reminds me of getting into the pool when I was a kid. Our pool wasn’t heated. (I know…tough childhood.) On hot summer days, I wanted to swim—but I dreaded the initial shock of entering the cold water. So I’d stand on the edge of the diving board, bouncing in place, gearing up for the jump, and stalling. I would stand there forever…then sometimes I’d get down, run across the hot concrete to the steps and try the slow, creep-in-gradually approach.  That was torture. So I’d get back on the diving board and stall a bit longer.

You know what made it easier? Other kids. My friends would show up, and suddenly it was easy. Hold hands, count down:  ONE, TWO, THREE—JUMP! I stopped worrying about the shock; I just jumped—laughing, squealing—the cold was part of the experience. I didn’t HAVE to jump, but I didn’t want to be the only scaredy-pants, so I’d do it.

That’s January—everyone is taking a running start into the pool, and I’m going in, too! It’s way more fun this way.

Of course, there’s the argument that we aren’t likely keep our resolutions, so why make them?

I didn’t keep any of the ones I made last year. Didn’t hit a single goal. But because I’d set the goals, at least I kept some focus. No, I didn’t lose all the weight I wanted to, but I lost a little. And if I hadn’t kept reminding myself of those damn resolutions, I probably would have gained.  Same with saving money and writing…didn’t end up nearly where I wanted to, but at least I moved in the right direction.

So, I’ll get on the New Year’s bandwagon and line up at Weight Watchers like everyone else. I’ll write new goals and make new lists and plans. I’ll visualize my life at this time next year, with all the hope and resolve I always feel in January.

Who’s with me? What are your resolutions? We can take the plunge together: ONE, TWO, THREE—JUMP!

Meg’s Helpful Holiday Hint (Just one, really.)

toffee

Homemade toffee– I make about ten trays of this every season.

I love Christmas. LOVE IT.  Bring it on—sparkly lights, crowded stores, Bing Crosby…I want all of it. I don’t have a Bah Humbug bone in my body.

Here is my secret to a stress-free holiday season. When you find yourself getting stressed about Christmas, remember my one helpful tip: BLOW IT OFF. NONE OF THIS IS ACTUALLY IMPORTANT.

It’s December 12. Here’s what’s left on my to-do list:

Put up the tree. Usually, it goes up the day after Thanksgiving, but this year, it didn’t, and guess what? No one seems to have noticed. My tree is fake and pre-lighted, thank-you-very-much.  People get so worked up about having a real tree, but not me. Fourteen years ago, for my first post-divorce Christmas (I wonder if Hallmark makes a commemorative ornament for that one?), I tried to buy a real tree. I nearly died trying to straighten it in the stand. After the spiders all crawled out and the water sloshed on the carpet and the needles accumulated for weeks, I determined I would never have another real tree. I love my fake one.  I light a pine-scented candle, and that is plenty festive for me.

Make Christmas cards. I hand-stamp them. This also should have been done by Thanksgiving, but it wasn’t.  I could go buy cards like a normal person, but making cards is way more fun than sending cards, so why bother sending them if I can’t make them? Now that it’s mid-December, the pressure is on. Making Christmas cards under duress is less fun, so it might not happen, especially if something more fun comes along…then I will blow those Christmas cards right off. And you won’t even notice if you don’t get a card from me. Because WHO CARES? It’s just a Christmas card!

Shop. I don’t actually shop for very many people. One bonus of being a perpetual hardship case is that my friends and family have pretty low expectations. This works for me, because even when I have money, I don’t always find something worth giving, and I’m not buying some stupid Snuggie/ singing fish/ Chia Pet just to check someone off my list. Besides, if you can’t say to your friend, “Hey, I ran out of money/time/ideas and I didn’t get you a present– let’s just have a drink instead,” then that friend doesn’t deserve a gift anyway.

Wrap. Wrapping is like making Christmas cards: it’s fun to be creative, and I enjoy it when I have time. If I don’t have time, no biggie. I just obscure the gift with some kind of opaque covering and no one cares whether it’s a masterpiece. Also I’m not willing to spend a bazillion dollars on something that gets immediately torn up and thrown away.

Make toffee. Toffee has four ingredients and takes about 15 minutes per batch, plus cooling and bagging time. It’s delicious and pretty, and people go crazy for it and make me feel like Martha Stewart whenever I give them some. So really–let’s be honest–this is about my ego.  Toffee will happen, because in a pinch, it can replace shopping and wrapping and baking—I could just hand everyone toffee and that would get me off the hook.

Bake cookies. Despite the extensive toffee-production that occurs in my kitchen, my daughter still expects me to bake. So, for her sake, I will spend at least one or two days knocking out five or six kinds of cookies. Okay, the truth is that I bake because I cannot let the year end without consuming at least three dozen Molasses Crackles. Have you had those? Best cookie ever, with the possible exception of Finish Ribbon Cookies. And Chocolate-Covered-Cherry Cookies. Anyway, I have to bake the cookies so I can eat the cookies. This one is kind of time-sensitive because if I don’t bake and eat all the cookies before the January diet kicks in, that would suck. But the world would not end if I missed a cookie binge.

Host an intimate yet elegant holiday gathering. Just kidding. I do love to entertain. The ghetto cottage is tiny but it’s getting cuter and more comfortable every day, and I’m starting to feel like maybe I want someone to come over.  I envision a swanky little cocktail party with delicious finger foods and pretty stemware. In real life, I would shove all the wrapping paper off the dining room table into a Hefty bag, lay out some tacos that I picked up on the way home from work and then struggle to find the beer opener in the middle of the baking mess. Feliz Navidad. Watch for your invitation in the mail, sometime after the Christmas card shows up.

Okay, so that’s a lot to get done in two weeks. It’s not likely to happen, and I don’t care. If I stress about what’s not getting done, I will ruin all the wonderful things that are.

Christmas is something to enjoy, not something to achieve.  I’m not falling for the myth that I must be the perfect shopper-decorator-craftypants-baker. Just because there are one million adorable and affordable homemade gift ideas on Pinterest does not mean that you or I are required to execute them.

Instead, I will do what I enjoy doing to the extent that I enjoy it and give what I can give without stressing myself out or going into debt. If it doesn’t happen, guess what? The deadline is COMPLETELY ARTIFICIAL. There are 364 other days in the year. All of them are also excellent days to celebrate, decorate, bake, sing, give and show your loved ones that you love them.

See? No pressure. Merry Christmas!

 

 

Butthead Chatterbox: The Very Worst Word

When my son was very small, the worst word he could think of was “butthead.” Mo was shockingly articulate even as a preschooler. He had quite a vocabulary, but his arsenal of insults was still pretty childish. “Butthead” was his big gun. I don’t know where he picked it up, but can still picture him, about four years old and furious. He paused mid-rant to muster the courage to use it, or maybe he paused for dramatic impact—but I remember that hesitation and then his angry little face as he spat the word: BUTTHEAD.

Children are so literal. I can imagine why my son found that word so offensive. Picture a butt in place of a head–awful! Ugly, freakish… and if you are a butthead, whatever comes out of your face is poop, right? Taken literally, “butthead” is downright disturbing.

With my daughter, the worst word was “chatterbox.” Maddy is a born talker. It’s in her genes. Every time someone called her a chatterbox, she was crushed. “Aw, honey,” I’d soothe, “It’s not a mean word; it just means you talk a lot. Our whole family does. Don’t feel bad.” But she did feel bad; she felt gravely insulted whenever someone used that word to describe her.

Finally, I got it out of her: when Maddy was little, she equated the word “chatterbox” with the term “litter box.” No wonder she was offended. Is there anything more disgusting than a litter box? A stinky, messy box full of dirt and poop? (Again with the poop. It’s a recurring theme with children.) For some reason, her childhood brain overlapped those two concepts and every time someone teased her about talking too much, she felt like she was disgusting. Poor kid.

Despite my rich and varied repertoire of curses and insults, for me, the worst word is “worthless.” I’m not sure why that one hurts so much. I can’t recall anyone ever calling me worthless. No, the only person who ever uses that word about me is me. “Worthless” is a word that creeps into my head when my depression is acting up. In fact, that’s how I recognize that it’s depression. I really, really hate that word and I don’t use it….but my depression does.

If you’ve never struggled with depression, that may not make sense to you. Depression is not the same as being sad. If I tell someone I’m depressed, and they ask what’s wrong, I know they don’t get it. Nothing is wrong except my brain chemistry, which is telling me that everything is wrong. It tells me repeatedly and aggressively that EVERYTHING IS WRONG and there’s no hope of it getting better. There are no voices in my head—nothing that dramatic—it’s just my own thinking gone askew. I know it’s false; I know it’s chemical. But it still really, really sucks.

You know when you have PMS and you fly off the handle for some stupid reason, and you know it’s stupid but you can’t stop? Or you start crying and you realize it’s just your hormones but you’re not any less sad? Same idea. I have dealt with depression for most of my adult life. I usually recognize it as biochemical nonsense, but that doesn’t always make it easier.

“Worthless,” I’ll hear myself thinking. “This is all worthless. Why even bother? Nothing is going to change. Nothing is getting better. This is a hopeless waste of time.”

Truth be told, this is why I haven’t posted in weeks. I’ve been fighting with my moods. I have written a few posts, but I always abandon them when those vicious thoughts begin. If I write about depression, I sound whiny. If I pretend everything is fine and blog about something else, I sound false.

When I’m depressed, the critic in my head is blown all out of proportion and nothing gets past it. Everything is worthless: blogging, Weight Watchers, trying to save money, trying to be good mom…all my productive, healthy impulses are subject to attack.

When I was in therapy, they referred to this as “cognitive distortions,” which basically are flawed thinking patterns. They taught me how to counter those thoughts with more realistic, sensible ones. That helps—recognize the falsehood and replace it with something truthful.

When I was religious, they said those thoughts are the voice of The Enemy (yep, that means Satan) trying to bring you down. I know it sounds loopy, but it’s one of the more helpful lessons Christianity taught me: you don’t have to own every thought that comes into your head. You can reject the bad thoughts because they aren’t coming from you. Again, recognize the falsehood and replace it with something truthful.

One of the most useful techniques for fighting depression is a sort of hybrid of those two concepts. I can’t remember where I learned this—possibly from a David Burns book? The idea is that you reject those negative thoughts and refuse to own them—in fact, you give that ugly voice in your head a name. You give it a separate identity from yourself, and then you tell it to shut up. You tell it it’s wrong, and you tell it why, and you take a stand in your own head against the crazy talk.

I know, sounds like goofy psychobabble…whatever. Try it next time you’re beating yourself up. It’s pretty effective.

As I’ve been working on this post, I thought of a perfect name for my ugly depression voice: Butthead Chatterbox. So appropriate! That’s what I’m going to call it when I tell it off, like this:

Depression: This post is worthless. Trite…hackneyed…worthless. It’s also embarrassing. Do you think anyone reads this? And if they do, they’re just going to know what a mess you are. Why bother?

Meg: Shut up, BUTTHEAD CHATTERBOX. I don’t care if anyone reads it and besides, they do read it. They told me they miss my posts. You talk too much and you’re full of poop.

See how that works? It’s absurd enough to make me laugh, but it’s also a reminder of how hurtful words can be—even the ones that seem silly. When I think of my angry little boy and my vulnerable little girl, my protective instincts come out swinging…just what I need to fight the Butthead Chatterbox.

P.S: For an entertaining but oh-so-accurate picture of depression, check out this post by genius blogger Allie Brosh. In fact, read all her stuff; she’s hilarious.

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.