On Writing, Gardening, and the Death of a Grasshopper

Q.  How many posts will I write about getting my groove back before said groove returns?

A.  Every post I write will always be about getting my groove back.

The last several years have been a constant struggle to find my old creative energy.  Much like starting a new diet every Monday, only to find myself face-down in a pizza by Friday, I have made many declarations of, “This is it! I’m going to live like a writer now! I’m going to write every day and post regularly and work on my book and paint paintings and generally be glorious!” –only to find another six months has passed between blog posts. The paints dry up in their tubes. And the book remains in snippets and half-developed scenes in my head.

I sit down at my keyboard, again, to draft another post, again, and write about not writing. Again. My brain skips from angle to angle. I force myself to stay in the moment. Follow one singular line of thought. Start with the basics. Ask one question and answer it.

What gets in the way of working on creative projects? What interferes with the discipline of creativity? Answer it, Meg: what keeps you from posting to this blog?

I am not too busy.

I am distracted. I’m frustrated.

I’m afraid.

I am afraid that there is nothing worthwhile in me to share anymore. I’m afraid that it’s all canned and reheated. I’m afraid that there’s nothing novel or interesting about my life.

I’m living in such a way that nothing is novel or interesting.

I’m wasting my life.

There it is. That’s what’s in the way. I’m afraid that I’m wasting my life. I sit down to write and try to think of something interesting to say, and nothing comes up, so I am forced to consider that terrifying possibility. The title of this blog rubs it in: The Midlife Adventures of Meg. I’m halfway through my years on this earth, and no adventures are happening. Not even small ones.

Surely, I can find some small ones.

#             #             #

A few days ago, I was watering my plants. My daughter and I got a raised planter bed, and we are attempting to grow vegetables. I’ve carved a bed out of one corner of my yard and filled it with California native plants. And all along my fence I have pots: succulents, flowers, and a collection of culinary herbs.  Gardening is meditative, rewarding, and endlessly interesting to me. But if you look at my garden closely, you’ll see the leaves are riddled with holes.

Holey basilIt seems that no matter what I try to grow, grasshoppers come and eat holes in all of it. Grasshoppers are my nemeses.

So I was watering my holey plants, and when I got to the herbs, I spotted a small, green insect on the basil. It was narrow and oblong, with long antennae and arched legs. GRASSHOPPER! Caught in the act! I was filled with righteous anger as I adjusted my hose nozzle to JET and blasted it off its dinner.

Then something snagged in my mind and I looked more carefully at it, wiped out on the fence behind the herbs. It wasn’t a grasshopper. It was a praying mantis. A tiny, baby, praying mantis about as long as my pinky nail.

A month or so ago, I bought praying mantis egg sacs, specifically to combat the grasshoppers. Praying mantises eat all kinds of bugs. The store clerk told me that I wouldn’t see them hatch, but the egg sacs would produce hundreds of praying mantises. I didn’t really want hundreds of them, I told him. I’m not sure I could handle that.

Mantis eggs

“Don’t worry,” he assured me. “They’re very territorial, so they actually eat each other until there are just one or two left.”

Apparently, I’d wound up with at least one of these charming, helpful cannibals, and I’d just blasted it with my garden hose.

I could see the poor thing, about a half inch long, and obviously not a grasshopper. I could see its tiny, sideways head and its signature, articulating forearms.

“I am so sorry,” I whispered, and I meant it. I crouched down in front of the wood fence where it lay, swamped, its antennae twitching slowly. “I totally thought you were a grasshopper. Clearly you are not. Any idiot could see that. I’m very sorry. Please be okay. Please stay here. There is so much for you to eat. I promise I will be more careful.”

As I finished watering, I cursed my knee-jerk reactions. So stupid. Serves me right if I have grasshoppers. I wound the hose and stopped to check on the mantis before returning inside.

Gone. Damnit.

I poured myself a glass of wine and sat on the patio to mourn.  I texted my daughter and told her I’d killed our one surviving praying mantis. She sent a sad face emoji.

Then I went back to the herb planter to try to find him one more time. And there he was, standing on a sage leaf three times his size, walking around on perfectly functional legs.

Mantis“Hello!” I said, no doubt scaring the bejeebers out of him. “I’m so glad you’re okay! I’m so glad you’re back! Please stay! Eat everything you can!”

I cannot overstate how happy I was to see that bug. If my neighbor overheard me talking to it, he probably thought I got a new puppy.  I took pictures of it and posted it on Facebook.

I texted my daughter to tell her that the mantis was still alive. “I was thinking of naming him Walter,” I told her. “But then I remembered that he probably ate all his siblings and decided he needs something a little more badass than that.”

“Skullcrusher?” she suggested. “Doombringer?”

We are currently trying to decide between Doombringer or Vladimir the Bloodthirsty.

I was able to track my little friend for several days in a row. I may have spotted one additional mantis on the poppies, maybe a shade greener than Vlad and a bit smaller. Or it may have been the same mantis in a different light. Either way, I did not spray him with the hose.

I also spotted one small grasshopper. I watched him for a few seconds to be sure he was a grasshopper. Then I killed him.

#             #             #

Would this be a proper Midlife Meg post if I didn’t circle back and clearly explain the analogy for you with a tidy little lesson?

Seriously, this is when my inner critic starts to slap me around.  Here you go with the tidy little lessons again, Meg. So canned. So convenient.

Real life doesn’t come in tidy lessons. Everything doesn’t happen for a reason. Must an experience mean something to be important? Can’t it just be an experience? What kind of a writer are you, Meg?

And yet, this post wrote itself.  Unbeknownst to my waking consciousness, my brain made a connection for me and served me the praying mantis story as I free-wrote, searching for blog-worthy adventures in my small, simple life.

So here you go, O Ye Who Search for Deeper Meaning. A metaphor explained. Let the garden be the creative landscape of my mind. Let the grasshoppers be that self-loathing that creeps in and eats holes in everything. Let the mantises be the hundreds of ideas born there: tiny, fascinating creatures both helpful and powerful, if only I recognize them and let them live.

Mantis 2

Loneliness & Solitude

You know what’s terrible when you’re lonely? Facebook. It’s like watching a parade through the three-inch window of your prison cell.

I used to be great at being alone. I was proud of my independence, my lack of neediness.

Something shifted, though. For whatever reason, I’ve been struggling with loneliness in a way that I never have before. This is a brutal sort of loneliness that ambushes me at all hours. It’s accompanied by a vicious cataloging of all my flaws, all of the “reasons” why I’m alone. And it’s bleak, casting long shadows over my future, a doomsday prophet telling me to get used to it; this is how it will always be.

I’ve done my best to fight it. I packed my schedule with activity. I made to-do lists and set goals and started projects and joined groups. I drank too much. And the internet dates…ugh, the internet dates.

I’ve heard many times that if you want to get over something, you have to first let yourself really feel it. I thought maybe I would try that. Lean into the loneliness. Own it. Thoroughly experience it so that I could then let it go.

I don’t recommend it, leaning into loneliness. If you go looking for evidence that you are alone, you will find it, and it will hurt.

I decided that if I was going to be alone, I would be alone. I stopped trying to convince people to spend time with me. I stopped reaching out, and I stopped expecting them to reach out to me. I stopped scheduling every minute. And, probably most helpful, I turned off social media. I forced myself to stop the endless casting about on Facebook and Twitter for I don’t know what…Company? Attention? Distraction?

Once I did that, the clamoring inside me subsided a bit. I was left with something quieter and more peaceful: solitude.

Solitude is the graceful cousin of loneliness.

Loneliness stems from comparison and envy. I see a happy couple and immediately compare my state with theirs: loneliness. I see friends checking in on Facebook and feel another stabbing comparison: they are out having fun together and I am here, alone. Loneliness is a lack, a feeling of less-than, a focus on what you’re missing.

Solitude, on the other hand, is just the state of being alone. It’s being present with yourself, only yourself. Solitude focuses on what is, not what is lacking.

In solitude, there’s freedom. Do what you like. Listen to what you like. Sleep if you’re sleepy; eat if you’re hungry.

I spent a gorgeous weekend in solitude, puttering in the garage like I used to, in those days when I was great at being alone. I left my phone in the bedroom and forgot about it. I finished a painting. I worked in the yard. When the daylight faded, I curled up with a glass of wine and a book. These are things I love. Solitude gives me time to do them.

I began to recognize both loneliness and solitude as spirals. Solitude gives. Loneliness takes.

When you’re drowning in loneliness, you’re not just reaching for people; you’re clutching. You feel it. They feel it. You approach relationships—both existing and potential relationships—from a place of scarcity. When you show up with that sort of neediness, it’s a negative experience for you and for those with whom you interact, which may cause them (or you) to withdraw. Negativity and withdrawal reinforce your loneliness.

On the other hand, solitude allows you to fill up, recharge, and come to your relationships open-handed. You come from a place of abundance. You’re in a position to give, which feels good to you and to others, making you more likely to seek their company and them more likely to seek yours.

After a little healthy solitude, I can show up and be gracious again. I can feel happy for the happy couples instead of resentful and jealous. I can relax and joke with my friends. They laugh; I hear that they enjoy me, which makes me feel valued—an upward spiral.

I wish I could say that the loneliness is gone, but it isn’t. It’s right there, like a bruise that hurts if I touch it. The sensible thing, then, is to stop touching it.

No more leaning into loneliness. If you’re lonely, lean into solitude.

If you're struggling with loneliness, lean into solitude.

Throwback Thursday: A Classic Comeback to an Age-Old Question

If you have a teenage daughter, you know that there is no better source of cold, hard truth—especially about your appearance and fashion sense.

I rely heavily on my 19-year-old daughter for honest answers to critical questions like, “Hey, is it okay to wear socks with these?” I text pictures to her while shopping so she can assist with wardrobe choices. She screens my outfits before I leave for dates.

This may be her most significant contribution to our household—she keeps me from looking like a dork, or at least from looking like an old dork.

I became aware of Maddy’s gift for hard-hitting fashion feedback when she was very young. Consider this magnificent exchange from when she was just four years old.

I had just bought a new outfit, and it was a bit of a style departure for me. Fifteen years ago, I was every bit as bottom-heavy as I am now. Big butts weren’t as acceptable then as they are now. (They ARE acceptable now. I believe in my heart that they are.) So, I tended to hide my “curvy” lower half under big, tunic-style tops.

This time however, in a moment of body-bravado, I’d purchased a fitted black sweater and a printed wrap-around skirt. It was a long, narrow skirt with a tribal pattern on it. Between the fitted sweater and narrow skirt, my shape wasn’t hidden at all.

“Wanna see my new outfit?” I asked four-year-old Maddy, and she, already clothing-conscious and opinionated, gamely agreed.

I put on the outfit and stood in front of the mirror, where I could see her little face looking at me from behind.

Head tilted, she considered my ensemble with a definite frown. It was so clear that she didn’t approve, I just had to do it: I had to ask that age-old question. And she gave the best answer that I’ve ever heard.

“What’s the matter, honey?” I asked. “Do you think this skirt makes my butt look big?”

“No,” she said seriously, my joke lost on her. “I think your butt makes that skirt look big.”

Maddy age four 3

Knock-kneed Herons of the Apocalypse

I am happy to report that I have been painting. I promised to show you the fruits of my creative efforts, even the bad stuff, so here it comes.

For months, I wanted to paint something to fill the big blank space above my mantel. I’ve been stalling because big canvasses are expensive, and if I invest in one, I need a plan so I don’t screw it up.

However, plans and pressure suck all the joy out of painting. I like to paint because it’s meditative and freeing for me—but only if I’m not trying to achieve a perfect outcome.

While cleaning the garage, I found a possible solution: two plywood crate lids that my ex had left behind. They were each 3’ x 2’, so I figured I could make a diptych (two-part work of art). Free “canvasses” mean I don’t have to worry about screwing them up!

So, one Sunday, I sat in the garage and painted for hours. I set the two lids next to each other, top-to-bottom, and painted them like one big canvas. Freely, meditatively, I layered on base colors and then stretched big swaths of contrasting colors over them. I played with different brushes, different strokes, and different amounts of water. I got some good stuff.

I made a spirally sun and I liked it.

Then, like a dork, I got out a t-square and painstakingly laid out a compass rose in one corner. (If you’re trying to be free and meditative, don’t get out a t-square. Duh.) I painted it with metallic gold paint. Since I’m going for a travel/adventure vibe in my living room, I thought it would be perfect, but it looked really stupid. It pretty much wrecked one of the lids—I’d have to paint over it and then it wouldn’t match the bottom piece anymore– so I figured I’d just paint them separately and ditch the diptych idea. Diptych is such a ridiculous word anyway. Who even wants a diptych? I painted over the stupid compass rose.

On the other board, now a solo project, I thought I’d try to paint the silhouette of a heron. For some reason, I kind of want a heron in my living room, too. I don’t know where any of this comes from.

The heron started out awesome, but ended up looking like it was doing a pee-pee dance.

Hmmm. What do you do with a knock-kneed heron? You don’t hang it in the living room, that’s for sure.

I wasn’t thrilled that I’d jacked up both my free canvasses. In fact, I was more than a little disappointed. I set the boards aside and began to clean up my work area.

A little while later, I turned around and there they were, leaning next to each other, not top-to-bottom as I’d originally planned, but side-by-side—a different perspective all together.

knockneed heron

And they looked kind of cool.

I called Maddy, my 19-year-old, whom I can trust for an honest opinion. She said, “Well, it looks like a spaceship is going to abduct the heron. And it kind of looks like the apocalypse.”

Okay. I can see that. All valid.

But I was still excited. Not because I want to hang it in my living room, but because it helps me know what works and what doesn’t. Yes, I do want a big heron in my living room. No, I don’t want a compass rose. I like the rough texture and not the smooth, I know which colors work, and I have to watch out for the apocalypse effect.

See? Progress! I actually feel like I could drop $50 on a real canvas now and paint something living-room worthy.

That’s the beauty of letting go of ideal outcomes—you can engage in the process without fear of failure, and find value in whatever results.

I so often hear, “I want to try that, but I’m afraid it’ll turn out terrible!” People who have great stories are afraid to write them. People are afraid to try painting, crafting, whatever—because it might turn out shitty.

So what? Make something shitty! Get it out of your system. Use it as a practice run. Use it to determine what you DON’T want. Not only is it acceptable to write shitty dialog or paint ugly birds, it is often necessary. And sometimes, you make something and feel lousy about it, until you step away from it and give it a little distance…and then you find something redeemable in it. Maybe even something awesome.

Gotta save up for the big canvas. When I make my masterpiece, I’ll let you know.

Let the Games Begin…Later

It’s already been six months since my big breakup. Time flies whether you’re having fun or not—have you noticed?

It’s time to get back on that horse. (tee hee hee! Save a horse; ride a cowboy? Nevermind. I will spare you the stream-of-consciousness “riding” jokes. Sorry.)

Let me tell you, as much as I would love to start dating again, I’m having a little trouble.

A) I don’t know how to meet men in real life. Remember the mattress guy?
B) That leaves online dating, and OH MY GOD, I’M SO SICK OF ONLINE DATING.

Here’s what happened.

A few months ago, I re-activated my profile on OKCupid, which is a free online dating site. I hadn’t been on there in a couple years, of course, because I’d been dating someone. I was surprised to find that all the familiar faces were still up there.

I’m not speaking archetypally here. It wasn’t just any old foot fetish guys or twenty-something cougar hunters: the actual same people were still there on the site.

Buncha losers, right? Still on the same dating site after TWO YEARS? I was feeling mighty superior until I realized that if any of them logged on and recognized me, they’d assume that I’d been on there for two years, too. I was tempted to post a disclaimer: HEY, DON’T JUDGE ME. I HAD A REAL LIVE BOYFRIEND FOR 18 MONTHS!

I skipped the disclaimer. No point in drawing attention to my failure. Instead, I updated my photos (my favorite!) and refreshed my catchy, definitely-not-desperate, sexy-yet-respectable profile.

This is so ridiculous it makes me cringe. And yet, I'm not above it.

Oh god, the shame. Either way. This is why internet dating blows.

Let the games begin.

Within a couple days, I had begun corresponding with a man who seemed intelligent and pleasant. He was reasonably attractive (a ginger, but I’m open-minded, you know) and had a job that was absolutely fascinating to me: a dealer in rare antiquities. Yes, my BS radar went off, and I wondered if he really was just an unemployed guy who believed he’d found the Holy Grail in his great-aunt’s basement. Nevertheless, he did seem smart and interesting. If he actually was a legitimate antique dealer, then that’s about the coolest, most Meg-perfect occupation I can think of.

The Ginger was quite romantic, and had big ideas about a romantic first date: walks on the beach, picnics and the like. I asked him, “Have you ever done this before?”

Nothing says “I’ve never been on an internet date” like premature romantic hopes. Let me tell you, a couple internet dates will kill those early romantic impulses dead. The first meeting is not a date; it’s an awkward, fact-checking, mutual evaluation exercise that is best accompanied by strong drinks in a public location with at least two exits.

So I convinced him to settle for ordinary drinks in an ordinary bar and scheduled a meeting for the following Friday, just a few days out. He gave me his number and encouraged me to call him.

I didn’t. I grew a big knot in my stomach instead.

Thursday night I found myself sitting on the couch, eating ice cream out of the container, bawling in front of the TV for some unidentified reason.

ABORT MISSION. REPEAT. ABORT MISSION.

I sent the romantic, unsuspecting Ginger an apologetic email cancelling our date and took my profile down before he could reply. I’d never called him, so he had no way to reach me and tell me what a flake I am.

Newsflash: if you’re still bingeing and bawling on the couch, you’re probably not ready to date yet.

Fast forward a couple more months. I was starting to get lonely, among other things. Time to try again. Couldn’t go back on OKCupid because the Ginger would probably be on there still, along with every other guy I’d interacted with over the last two years. So, I tried Plenty of Fish.

Plenty of Fish is known as a hookup site. It’s free and there are a zillion users so it’s like a giant man catalog. Incidentally, it’s where I met my ex. (There’s more where he came from, right? That’s why they named it Plenty of Fish.)

New profile. New pics. New inane conversations with men that have absolutely nothing in common with me, except that they like vaginas and I have one.

After a few days, I had begun conversations with two men who seemed intelligent and interesting: a tall, quirky I.T. guy, and a short, well-dressed Art Director. Both seemed like decent guys—courteous, articulate, and genuine. Both gave me their phone numbers and made tentative plans to meet me.

And I did it again. No bingeing and crying this time, just a big panic in my gut that said NO FREAKING WAY. I CAN’T DO IT AGAIN. I sent more apologetic emails and deleted my profile, again. Left two perfectly decent guys in the lurch.

I can’t even tell you why.

This is not a self-esteem thing. I wasn’t feeling unworthy or what-have-you.

This is not about my ex. That’s water under the bridge and I’m not harboring any hopes or could-have-beens about him.

I’m not exactly sure what’s going on. I just know that there was no way in hell I was going to call either one of them, or pick out an outfit and try to look pretty and show up in a bar and make dumb small talk or any of that first-date nonsense.

Just can’t do it. Not yet. Maybe never. Maybe this time I’ll have to drag myself out into the real world and not hide behind a computer. Or maybe I will go back to the internet dating sites when I’m ready.

I always say that online dating is like shopping at T.J. Maxx—you have to dig through a lot of crap, but if you’re patient you can find some good stuff there. Maybe I just have to build up my stamina a little bit before I’m ready to hit the racks again.

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.

So. Much. Change. AllAtOnce.

I haven’t blogged in over two months. So much has been happening, I don’t even know what to blog about. If you could screw off the top of my skull and release the contents of my brain, the thoughts would come leaping and scrambling out like clowns from a tiny car.

Remember the post about job hunting? Well, I have a new job. That job includes a new schedule and longer hours. Still haven’t figured out how there’s time to cook dinner and get some exercise and write and pay attention to my family and my boyfriend all before bedtime. (Plus there’s Netflix; damn all those TV shows.) I know that working moms all over the country do it—heck, I did it for years—but it’s kicking my hiney right now because I’ve had this cakewalk schedule for the last two years. Welcome back to the world of grownups, Meg.

Also, I moved. I read once that moving is the third most stressful event for humans, after death of a loved one and divorce. (Pretty sure “job change” was high up on that list, too.) So, I guess it could be worse, but yeah—it’s pretty stressful. Also included in moving stress: I shacked up with my sweetheart and we’re ADJUSTING.  “Adjusting” involves trying to fit two households into one home and trying to remember how to share space with someone after you’ve been single for 15 years. I’ve only freaked out once so far.

And the big, downhill-rolling boulder that is my daughter’s departure for college continues its rapid descent onto my poor mom-heart. Maddy leaves in less than a month. She needs plane tickets and dorm furnishings and a laptop and luggage and a warm winter coat. Hopefully I can come up with the money to pay for all of those things and still have enough left for a case of Two-Buck Chuck to drown my sorrows. It’s pretty bad. I’ll be driving down the freeway or doing the laundry—just minding my own business– and out of nowhere, BAM! Emotional ambush!  Fine one minute, a weepy mess the next.

So, all in all, this is a good time for me—new job, taking the relationship to the next level, kids are growing up and doing what they’re supposed to do—but it’s also a boatload of transition all at once. I’ve got no cause to whine because all my transitions are good transitions, but most days I feel like my life is racing ahead of me and I’m being dragged along behind it with a death-grip on the bumper.

Oh! Suddenly I thought of a metaphor! (I really thought of this right now, spontaneous-like.)  My life feels a little bit like parasailing right now.

Victor & I went parasailing a couple weeks ago. (Because, you know, things weren’t crazy enough—let’s get suspended 600 feet over the Pacific Ocean while hauling ass in a speedboat!)

I was totally game for the parasailing, when Victor asked me to go– I didn’t feel afraid at all. That was stupid, because as it turns out, parasailing is actually pretty terrifying. I was fine until it was time to go up.

We were on a boat with two other couples.  The staff harnessed us up in strangely loose-fitting harnesses, and offered no safety instructions whatsoever, except to say, “If you want to hold on, hold the rope; don’t touch the metal hooks. “

IF! IF you want to hold on! Holding on is optional! So my rational mind knew that it had to be pretty safe—they let any schmuck do it; you don’t have to be fit or strong or know what you’re doing, and obviously you can’t screw it up or they’d give you more directions. Must be safe, right?

We climbed up on the back of the boat in our big, loose harnesses and they hooked us up and ZOOOM! Up we went! 600 feet! It felt just like an elevator. My harness felt just like a swing. My boyfriend was with me, taking pictures all around with his iPhone, dangling next to me without a care in the world.

And I was CLUTCHING the ropes for dear life. White-knuckled, rigid arms—clutching. I understood that I was safe, that I could not fall, that holding on was optional—shoot, Vic was right next to me, happily using all his limbs—but NOTHING could have pried my fingers off those ropes. Nothing.

We were up there for about 12 minutes, I think. I managed to take in the amazing view; I marveled at the coastline and all the tiny people on the beach—probably pointing up at us lunatics dangling over the ocean—and I even enjoyed it when the captain reeled us in and dipped us low so our feet could trail in the water. But all the while, I held onto those ropes like my children’s lives depended on it. I squeezed so tight that my arms started to fatigue, and I was terrified that my strength would give out and I’d have to let go.

Vic took this...how's that for perspective?

Vic took this…how’s that for perspective?

There’s the metaphor: clutching. My life feels like it’s flying out ahead of me and all I can do is hold on. All this frantic feeling…all this desperate clutching for nothing…questioning my own strength when my strength is irrelevant, because this ride won’t stop no matter what I do.

Just like I knew I was safe in that harness, I know am safe now.  Everything is going to be fine. The clutching is instinctive, self-protective, but it’s not necessary, and I’d enjoy things so much more if I could just let go.

One way or another, I will let go. I’ll either wise up or wear out. And either way, I’ll be fine.

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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Anything Would Do…

When I was a kid, there was a 7-11 on the corner near my house. The parking lot was walled by a cinder block fence, and there was a cinder block dumpster enclosure in one corner.  There weren’t any dumpsters in it, so I didn’t know that’s what it was. I just thought it was a special little outside room with no roof.

I wanted the dumpster enclosure—badly– for a clubhouse. I remember thinking it would be so cool– I could make a little roof and put a bed in there, and it was just big enough to put my stuff in. I would check it out every time we passed, and no one was ever using it. I figured if I asked nicely, maybe the owner of 7-11 would give me the dumpster enclosure and I could live in it. Oh, I would be so happy if I could just have that dumpster enclosure for my very own.

This is the enclosure I wanted. They've upgraded it since I was a kid; now it has a roof and even landscaping. Dreamy!

This is the enclosure I wanted. They’ve upgraded it since I was a kid; now it has a roof and even landscaping. Dreamy! Too bad they put a dumpster in it.

Of course, I grew up, and my ambitions outgrew the dumpster enclosure. First I wanted an apartment. Preferably an apartment like the one on Too Close for Comfort, with rainbows on the walls—but any apartment would do. By the time I got an apartment, it was 1994, so instead of rainbows I had country blue hand-me-down furniture. But I was fine with that—for a while.

Then I developed a burning desire to own something.  Anything would do, as long as it was mine. In 2001 I bought a grimy condominium wherein every surface was either dusty rose or mildew-colored. I can’t imagine why anyone other than a five-year-old girl would want so much pink. But that pink condo was mine, and once I cleaned that sucker up and painted over the pink with fashionable Tuscan colors, I loved it.  For a while.  Until I started to want a house.

Oh, how I wanted a house.  Any house would do, as long as it was mine.  My condo was cool, but it didn’t have a yard or a family room and it wasn’t big enough to host my family and suddenly, it just wouldn’t do. I had to have a house.

Well, I bought a house. Not just any house—I bought the house I grew up in. Just an ordinary ranch house in an ordinary suburb, with an extraordinary wealth of childhood memories in every room.  It had a swimming pool, a garden, and a garage to keep my hoard of craft supplies and half-done projects.  It had an antique piano in the living room. Not only was the dining room big enough to host my family, it was the very dining room in which we’d celebrated every major holiday since my parents bought it in 1979. It was more than mine; it was ours.  How I loved that house.

Until.

I wish there were no “until,” but there is. I loved that house until I had to sell it or lose it to foreclosure. An extended period of unemployment (2008-2011, just like everybody else) left me behind on the mortgage and nothing I did was enough to catch up.  It broke my heart to sell it. Still hurts to write about it.

I was in a crisis, earning half of what I’d earned before the recession, and I had to find a place I could afford—anything would do, with one tricky criteria: I wanted to keep my dogs. I had to find a place that would rent to me with two pit bulls. In case you don’t know, that is like trying to find a place that will rent to me and my herd of water buffalo. It’s really freaking difficult.  People questioned my priorities: you’re broke, and you have no place to go, and you’re going to keep those dogs? Yes, dammit, I already lost my house; I’m not losing my dogs, too.

Would you give up this dog? Me neither.

Would you give up this dog? Me neither. (Photo credit: Maddy Faulkner)

So I found one: a two-bedroom apartment that allowed pit bulls. Lucky me! Except I hated it. I tried to feel grateful because I wasn’t homeless, which is kind of a big deal. And I had my dogs, which was even something of a luxury. But I hated that damn apartment. I hated the crowded laundry room and the stupid ranchero music blasting all weekend and the idiot who parked his truck in my space and the damn yapping Chihuahuas across the way and did I mention there were COCKROACHES? (Cockroaches actually make me cry.) I hated that apartment EVERY DAY. I knew I was lucky to have it, but I couldn’t wait to leave.

Enter the ghetto cottage.  You can read about it here. It’s funky and older than dirt, and I was stoked to get it. It’s cheap and they don’t mind my dogs and it even comes with an exterminator.  Every day I am grateful for my own laundry, my own driveway, my yard, etc.

So what prompted this little walk down memory lane? Well, the GC finally got a paint job. I had been waiting for the paint job for six months.  I was so excited when they told me it was getting painted, it was like Christmas and my birthday all at once. Then I had a tiny meltdown.  WHAT ABOUT THE COLOR? WHAT IF I DON’T LIKE IT? WAIT, IS THAT PEACH? GOD ALMIGHTY, PEACH AND RED?!?

Have you ever gotten on your own nerves? I drove myself nuts obsessing about the color, when the proper response was to be grateful for the paint job. As often happens when I freak out, the reasonable part of my brain started to laugh at the crazy part. Criminy Meg, shut up. Out of the blue, I remembered that dumpster enclosure, and the kid who longed for four cinder block walls of her very own.

Oh yeah…perspective.

The ghetto cottage looks a million times better with the new paint, even though the color is a bit weird.  Now I feel even luckier to have it. As with everything in life, the key is to focus on the positive aspects while you’re working to improve the rest.  The truth is that I have everything I need, and then some.

You can't see the red behind the security door, but it's there. But look how pretty that white trim is! Woo!

You can’t see the red behind the security door, but it’s there. But look how pretty that white trim is! Woo!

This is the back door. It goes to the laundry room. I love the laundry room.

This is the back door. (It goes to the laundry room. I love the laundry room.)

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.