Jul 08

Niceness Is Toxic

The Dalai Lama

“Kindness is my religion,” the current Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso has famously said. A person could do worse. Photo credit: abhikrama via photopin cc 

I have a theory. This will likely come as no surprise to those who know me, as the more accurate statement is “I have theories.” Being keenly aware of my human fallibility, I don’t pretend to know things that I don’t. Instead, I theorize. … But I digress. Like you do. Fine, like I do.

My theory, which will not come as a surprise to some of my friends who have had to listen to me prattle on about it already, has to do with niceness vs. kindness.

We are raised—especially women, natch—to be nice. Always nice, above all else. Some internalize this societal suggestion more than others; I, for instance, swallowed it whole for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and then I bathed in it for good measure. I was really, really nice. Sounds lovely, except it’s not. It’s toxic. Niceness is toxic.

It’s easy (notice I did not say painless) to be nice. Takes very little thought at all. All you really have to do is what the other person wants, whatever that may be. On the outside, you’re calm, unruffled, and sweet as syrup. Oh, but the inside is a different story. The inside is human, all generous impulses warring with a little voice that cries “But what about ME??” But when you’re nice, those feelings cause shame. As if it’s some kind of awful thing to matter to yourself, to sometimes put yourself first, to be (gasp) selfish.

What. Utter. Bullshit.

Because the truth will out. It will. If you ever find yourself being passive-aggressive (that was my specialty) or actively not taking care of yourself (did that too) or stuffing it until you explode (not me, but I know people like this), maybe that’s a good time to look within and see what is happening. In my case—in many cases, I think—it was the poison seeping out. It infects your relationship with not only yourself but others. It’s crippling and enabling. Perennial niceness is just not a sustainable state. It is incompatible with a happy life. At least, it was for me.

But what am I do to, then? you ask. How am I to be? I cannot just go around being RUDE and OBNOXIOUS.

Well, sure, you can … but I understand. That’s not how I want to see myself either.

So I’m aiming for kindness. Kindness, I think, is the grown-up version of niceness. Where niceness is easy, kindness requires careful thought. Where niceness is always doing what the other person wants, kindness is doing what’s going to be best in the end. Where niceness is (supposedly, but not really) all about the other, kindness implies a distinctive primary element of self-care.

Kindness is the equivalent of putting the oxygen mask on yourself before you help those around you. For me, and I think for most of us, it’s the healthiest, sanest way to be. Sometimes, though, kindness is difficult. It can mean doing things you thought you would never do. It can mean making another person sad for a time. It can mean goodbyes. It can make things tough for a while.

But when I do something that is truly kind, even if it is not easy, I feel a small, satisfying click, as of a key sliding home into a lock. That’s how I know it is the right thing. That’s how I know it will come out best in the end. That’s how I know I am being true to myself and those around me as best as I can.

Niceness is toxic. Kindness is wonderful. Kindness is beautiful. Kindness is everything.

Apr 15

Random Thoughts: 27 Facebook Statuses

Inside my head: the interpretive dance version. Or something like that.
Photo credit: Xavier Donat via photopin cc

Several months ago, I posted this roundup of my recent Facebook statuses after realizing I’d had a little too much Sturm und Drang in my previous blog posts. Today I was getting that same feeling again, so without further ado, here are some of my more recent FB statuses—a handful of random thoughts to enliven your day.

  1. I just saw a link on Pinterest: “Lunches for under 300 calories.” Um. No. NO. Those are called “snacks.”
  2. I think I might have a little H in my ADD.
  3. Pinterest manicures make me feel inadequate.
  4. I suck at naps. I guess maybe I don’t fully understand how they are supposed to work. Like, the part where you actually fall asleep: how does that happen? Is there a secret incantation or ritual?
  5. “But your booty don’t need explaining” might be the dumbest song lyric in recorded history.
  6. Life is short. I’ll clean out the freezer tomorrow.
  7. Goat Simulator is a thing. Huh.
  8. “Let’s think the unthinkable, let’s do the undoable, let’s prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself and see if we may not eff it after all.”  —Douglas Adams
  9. So. Um. SOMEBODY put a load of darks in the washing machine several days ago, ran it, and completely forgot about it. There might not be enough vinegar in the world …
  10. I just had to go to Sam’s Club. For some reason, as I was wheeling the cart down the giant aisles, I had an irrepressible urge to skip and hop. (I’m not kidding; I caught myself several times bouncing like Tigger.) I think I figured it out, though: the giant carts make me feel like I’m about seven. Bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy, fun fun fun fun FUN!!
  11. There is so much to do around this place, but I just … I just … ugh. No.
  12. Sometimes you run down to the car and get a package of toilet paper and four bottles of wine from the trunk, and that’s perfectly okay.
  13. My back feels like a Jenga game, from the neck and shoulders to the vast plains of Upper Butt Crack.
  14. Beep. Creep. Deep. Heap. Jeep. Keep. Leap. Peep. Reap. Seep. Steep. Weep. Lotta words rhyme with sleep, I just noticed.
  15. If anyone was thinking about sending me a case of Malbec, a giant box of chocolates, and eleventy hard-working minions, now would be a really great time.
  16. If dishes don’t come clean in the dishwasher, I run them through again—because I believe in second chances.
  17. So. We meet again, 1 AM. I can’t claim to be pleased by this state of affairs.
  18. Guess who just ate a Taco Bell combo burrito in the car without getting any on me? SCORE. #winning
  19. Is there one lab somewhere on earth that produces that ubiquitous, wretched pre-shave/aftershave/shaving cream fragrance? Can somebody please explode it or burn it down or whatever? Seriously, why can’t that stuff smell like shampoo?
  20. I think our upstairs neighbors are keeping a young wildebeest, or perhaps a very active pony.
  21. I just saw a Chevy Aveo with a sticker family on the back windshield totaling seven. I’m guessing they’re clowns.
  22. I’m doing an assessment for a recruiter, and one of the T/F questions is “People around me can often sense my power.” I’m not sure what they mean. Like, telekinesis? The shining? My ability to bench press a gallon of milk?
  23. Hot showers are so awesome that I almost fear that someday we’ll be told they cause cancer.
  24. I just broke my favorite wooden spoon. It’s a cruel world out there, people. Be careful. — feeling sad.
  25. Shorts inside out again. I really gotta stop getting dressed in the dark.
  26. I had an animated dream last night. Yep: I dreamed in cartoon. That has to be a sign of something awesome.
  27. It’s weird how I can be a train wreck in so many big ways, yet the paper seal remnants on the peanut butter jar threaten my equilibrium.

This is how it is in my head probably 73% of the time. The other 27% is where I have to fit adult thoughts and earworms.

Apr 08

Fear Factor: Hiking Alone in the Woods

A recent morning at one of my favorite hiking spots.

I like to go on hikes, mostly short ones down woodsy trails (someday I’ll remember to bring toilet paper with me, and the hikes will get longer). Sometimes I go with other people, but usually I end up going alone because A, I’m a morning person, which is apparently a rare and wondrous thing, almost by way of being a miracle; B, I enjoy hiking way more than most people I know; and C, sometimes I just like to go alone. It’s like mobile meditation. Because of this, I frequently end up alone in the woods.

Though I usually go hiking alone, I often encounter other hikers. Couples and families, typically, but lone hikers too. And the solitary hikers are almost always male. (Only once have I ever seen another woman by herself; I felt like inventing a secret handshake with her.) I’m quite certain that is not coincidental. And it’s not like women don’t enjoy hiking. But by and large, the truth is that they are afraid to go alone. I know that fear. I have it sometimes myself, when I see a man walking toward me on a path or feel him walking up behind me or come upon a structure that would make a good hiding place. I’m aware of the potential for violence against my person. I feel the fear that awareness creates. AND IT PISSES ME OFF.

It angers me that simply by being a female, I am a potential target of violence, like if I somehow made myself look like a man (I have no clue how I would accomplish that, considering my body type, but I’m just sayin’), I would almost cease to become a target, even though the space I take up and my behavior would remain the same.

It angers me, yes. But it also makes me determined. I will not give in to that fear. I won’t. Not just because most men are, in normal circumstances, perfectly decent people, but also because a life lived in fear is not worth living. Yes, I am cautious, and I evaluate each person I encounter, watch the signals they’re sending, watch their behavior (ignoring their appearance when possible; bad guys don’t look like bad guys, usually, which is how they get close enough to their victims to inflict harm). How nice it must be to not have to evaluate every stranger of the opposite sex for violence potential. But I’m a woman; I don’t have that luxury.

When my instincts send up a red flag, I respect it and stay the hell away from the trigger, whether it be a person or a situation. So far, that system has worked effectively; I’m still breathing unassisted. (Side note: I strongly recommend the book The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. Title notwithstanding, it will clue you in on how to identify which of your interpersonal fears are reasonable and which are not and what to do about them.)

So yes. I feel the fear that other women feel. I respect it. I listen to it. But I will not allow it to rule me. This is my planet too. I belong here. I have a right to go places by myself, and I WILL. I’m not going to stay locked up in a box, or feel that I have to rely on someone else to keep me safe, just because the world sometimes seems frightening and intimidating. And fear is a funny thing: the more you face it, the more it shrinks down to its right size.

Facing fear is choosing life. I choose life.

Mar 13

The Secret of Happiness

You can’t buy happiness. But you can buy ice cream. And that’s sort of the same thing.

The Dalai Lama once told a waitress at a ski resort the meaning of life. The article is a good read, but I’m going to give away the punch line: he said the meaning of life is happiness. Ah, but how do you get there? What is the secret of happiness? His Holiness is a tricksy one.

“Folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be,” Abraham Lincoln supposedly said, and there is some truth to that. Sometimes simply reminding yourself that you want to be happy has the power to make a difference in your attitude. But as someone who has spent significant stretches of time floating, jellyfish-like, in the murky underworld of dysthymia (or, as I like to think of it, “depression lite”), I believe I am qualified to say that simply willing yourself to be happy is not quite enough to get you there if the other pieces of the puzzle are not in place.

What are those other pieces? See, here is where it gets tricky, because I’m not going to tell you anything you haven’t heard before, and I’m afraid that if you’re stuck in that not-so-happy place, you’ll do what I did for years: mentally nod your head, dismissively think “sure sure,” and keep moving along in autopilot, because it can’t be that simple/won’t work for you/you’re already fine just the way you are (except maybe you’re not). DON’T DO THAT. Please. This is important stuff.

Secret of Happiness #1: Take Care of Yourself

When I say “take care of yourself,” I mean physically. I skipped this step—parts of it, anyway—for a looong time. In fact, the old me, reading this, would have stopped right here and said “right right, sure sure, won’t work for me, anyway I’m fine just the way I am.” The current me would like to smack the old me upside the head, because the current me is pretty certain that this is a required foundation for a Glittery Castle of Happiness. Without it, all the lovely turrets and towers and corbels and whatnot that make up all the pretty bits of life will eventually sink quietly into the Sludgy Moat of I Feel Dead Inside. What I’m saying is that if you are inclined to dismiss this, then you probably need to read and absorb it more than most. I know, because that’s who I was, too. Because I think taking care of yourself physically is SO important, I’m going to go into a little more detail.

Eat the Food

I stole the phrase “eat the food” from Amber Rogers of Go Kaleo, a website dedicated partially to the proposition that diets suck and that eating a sufficient amount of reasonably good food is a requirement of good health. I happen to agree. What is good food? Mostly whole foods that you enjoy, with fruits and veggies and sufficient protein and fats, plus a little that’s just fun¹, in quantities that allow you to not feel like you’re starving but also don’t burden you with excess calories. It may require some playing around to figure out what works for you. Her website happens to be a good place to start (or to check up on yourself), if you are so inclined.

Move

Until I started regularly exercising earlier this year, as a dedicated couch potato, I had no real idea of the transformative powers of moving your body several times a week. Oh, I gave lip service to it, but until I felt myself growing stronger, until I saw the changes in my body, until I began to actually look forward to my time walking or biking or (in bad weather) on the elliptical, I didn’t really know. Exercise. Is. Amazing. If you don’t exercise now, just start walking. Go outside every day. Walk for 15 or 20 minutes at a pace that feels purposeful. Maybe you’ll graduate to hiking (which I love) or biking (which I also love) or yoga (which … I’m trying to love). Or maybe you’ll just keep walking. That’s perfectly fine! Just move regularly several times a week. I promise it will improve your life.

Go Outside

Speaking of outside: go there. Plants need sunshine, and so do we. We really do need it to make Vitamin D, which is so important for, among other things, mood. And hey, if you’re pale and freckly like me, something like 15 minutes a day is all it takes to get what you need. Ooh! You could walk or hike or bike at the same time! Efficient!

My favorite place to go is the ocean. It calls to me. Tragically, I live hundreds of miles from the ocean, so it’s mostly a long-distance relationship. But closer to home, I like to hike at a place that feels removed from cars and asphalt and LCDs (though I admit to whipping out my phone from time to time to snap pics). In addition to giving me a good workout, it recharges my emotional batteries and centers me. A walk in the woods, for me, is like meditation (which I also recommend).

Sleep

Try to get seven or eight hours a night. You’ll get more done during the day if you are well-rested than if you drag yourself through it, zombie-like, because you are tired. If you aren’t sure how to make that happen, google “good sleep hygiene.” Then try the suggestions, even (especially) the ones that sound too simple to work.

Eat, exercise, get some sunshine and fresh air, rest. This won’t fix everything, but knowing what I know now, it’s what I would always recommend as a starting place. And this is really important: when it comes to taking care of yourself, thinking about it will just make you feel worse. Less thinking. More doing. Don’t over-complicate it. Have a snack. Go for a walk.

Secret of Happiness #2: Other People

Okay, now that you’re on your way to taking care of yourself, it’s time to add other people into the equation. Look, I don’t care how much of an introvert² you are. You need other people. Yes, you do. Maybe you only need a few other people. Maybe you need 300 other people. But you—we—need other people.

And I think we need them in person. Really. One trap that I sometimes fall into, though I’m getting much better about this, is the tendency to socialize mostly online. I love Facebook. It’s how I keep up with people I don’t get to see often. Buuut … in the past, I have used it to pretend I wasn’t isolating myself. Except, really, I was. The best parts of human life happen in meatspace, where you can literally touch other people. Typing “(((hugs)))” is not the same as a real, actual hug. A smiley face emoticon does not have the crinkly eyes so important to a real, actual smile. Social media is great. It has its place. But if it is your only way of interacting socially, unless you literally have no choice (in which case, it’s certainly better than nothing), that is a problem.

Regularly make plans with people. Keep them. If no one’s inviting you, invite yourself. Or invite them. Eventually it will become reciprocal. It was true in grade school, and it’s true now: the best way to have a friend is to be one.

Human relationships are important because they help us feel connected. The more connected we feel, the more we see that we really are all so much alike, the more contentment and joy we will have. What sucks more than thinking you are all alone in the world? NOTHING, that’s what.

And if you want a good, quick pick-me-up, there is no better mood lifter than doing something nice for someone. It can be a small thing. It can be a big thing. It can be for someone you know or someone you don’t. Get a “thinking of you” gift for a friend going through a tough time. Pay for the guy behind you at the drive-through. Look at your local Freecycle site and see if you have something someone else needs. Drop off homemade baked goods. Give someone a compliment. Total, instant, magical mood lifter.

Secret of Happiness #3: Feed Your Mind

By “feed your mind,” I mean consciously choose what you experience. I love to read books. Not everyone does, but there is something almost transcendent about climbing into someone else’s head for a while. It gets you out of your own, for one thing, and I think it helps us empathize with other people in general. (Oh, hey, there’s that connectedness thing again.)

Another thing I like about reading is how purposeful and focused it is. It’s calm. It’s intentional. Somehow it’s different from the influx of media that shouts at us daily from our TVs, radios, news sites.

I think a lot of the benefit of reading, in fact, comes from the time NOT spent listening to the shouty media. Limiting our exposure to news (which, nearly by definition, is filled with all the bad crap in the world) is one of the healthiest things we can do. The human brain is not equipped to handle a constant flow of “LOOK HOW HORRIBLE THE WORLD IS” and still maintain equilibrium, and mass media is designed to make us keep tuning in to hear about how horrible everything is. This planet is full of good stuff too! Yes, there are awful things in the world. But does hearing about them constantly do anything to fix them? It does not. So turn off the TV and go find your starfish to fling into the sea. You’ll feel better—and so will the starfish.

Secret of Happiness #4: Be Yourself

This is the part I can’t tell you how to do. Only you can figure it out, because you’re the only one inside your head. What I can tell you is that on your journey to be yourself, you will encounter many people who want you to be someone else. They generally don’t mean to harm you, and it’s usually worth at least listening to others and balancing what they say against your own judgment and good sense … but in the end, it’s you who will have to live with yourself until, one day, you don’t. Trying to make everyone else happy is an unwinnable game, at least for you. You are responsible for behaving like a reasonable human being. You are not responsible for anyone else’s happiness. Be yourself. Find your tribe.

So … that’s it. People have written book after book on the subject of how to be happy, and as I said at the beginning, most likely nothing I’ve said here came as a surprise to you. But then, the most profound truths are often the ones we really knew all along. The real surprises come when you start practicing what you already know.


¹I read once that it’s a good idea to get about 10% of our joy from eating. While of course something like that is hard to quantify, the point was, I think, that if a high percentage of the joy in our lives comes from eating, we might want to examine ourselves to see if we’re as balanced as we want to be, or if perhaps we might want to seek out other sources of joy.

²An introvert is someone who gets energy from being alone or with a few key other people. I used to think of myself as a relatively social introvert. But now I think perhaps I get my energy from the balance of alone time and social time. Maybe I should take the Meyers-Briggs assessment again.

 

Mar 10

Random Roundup: Forgiveness, Goodness, Coffee

Mmm, coffee … Photo credit: OliBac via photopin cc

It’s been quiet around here, I know, but that doesn’t mean it’s been quiet in my head. (Is it ever? No. No it is not.) I’ve been having lots of thinks and lots of reads, but not so many writes. THAT ENDS NOW. Bonus: for patiently waiting (and not at all because I’m having trouble focusing on any one thing), I’ve gathered up a lot of different thoughts here. It’ll be like reading several posts in one.

Forgiveness

Gosh, we get angry sometimes, don’t we? It’s so easy to be mad at other people. And yet … most people don’t go through life looking to hurt others. But it’s a busy, crowded, confusing planet we’re living on. We bump into each other, we say things that get misunderstood, we say things in anger, we borrow stuff and forget to return it, we step on toes. Notice I didn’t say “they.” I said “we.”

Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone. We’ve all offended people, cut other drivers off on the highway, misspoken. And that’s the minor stuff! People who remember every offense given them are, quite frankly, miserable lumps of coal and much harder to be around than the people who offended them in the first place. A person who remembers with bitterness sucks much of the warmth and kindness out of their immediate surroundings. They do more damage to themselves (and the people around them) than the person who inflicted the original injuries did. And either the people who gave offense originally don’t realize what they did, know and took care of it as they felt they could, or don’t care/aren’t affected by the vitriol. In any of those three scenarios, what’s the point in holding a grudge? Let it go. Just let it go. (Yes. You can. It is within your power. LET IT GO.)

Goodness

Humans can do some bad stuff, for sure. But … couple thoughts: what is the actual likelihood that YOU are a good human but most of the others are bad? What kind of sense does that make? I think maybe it goes more like this:

You find what you look for. Literally. I recently got laid off, and the kindnesses I have experienced in response have been a boon of warm fuzzy. At one point, a stranger actually paid for some of my groceries! But if I’d stayed curled up in bed with the covers over my head, figuratively or literally, I would have missed that and all the other good stuff. When you open up and let people know that life has kicked you in the naughty bits, especially if you seem to be willing to keep your chin up, people want to help.

Good is relative. If you expect others to live by your moral code, invariably you will be disappointed. Most people probably don’t even know what your moral code is. (Pro tip: They’ll ask if they want details.) There’s a general societal baseline, which is why no matter what we believe most of us don’t go around whacking others with baseball bats, but once you get to the finer points, we each are responsible for deciding how to live our lives. And then we have to live with the consequences. Pretty good system overall, really. But if you believe that your way is the proper yardstick, only people who believe exactly as you do will ever be able to measure up. No wonder everyone else looks like evil-on-a-stick! It’s funny how what looks like “bad” from one point of view might easily look like healthy self-interest from another.

There’s good and bad in everyone. With apologies to Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, and every person who now has “Ebony and Ivory” stuck in their heads, there are indeed actions that are societally agreed upon as being bad things, such as the aforementioned “whacking others with baseball bats.” And yet, we each of us have the potential to do those things, to inflict damage upon others. We all carry a potential for violence, figurative and otherwise, in our hearts (or lizard brains). Sometimes the monster gets out. Live long enough, and you will surely do something that you swore you would never do—and justifying it afterward doesn’t make it go away. We’re human. Nobody’s perfect. (See Forgiveness, above, for help in dealing with that.)

Coffee

Seriously, there’s no point in messing about with anything that’s not Arabica. Whatever other magical tweaks you do, however else you adulterate your brew (and I’m not judging; I can’t seem to quit powdered coffee creamer), if you don’t start with Arabica beans, you’re just going to be disappointed.

Jan 10

Bad Mothers

“No more wire hangers!”

I am not a mother, but I watch all of you—the ones I know as well as the ones I don’t. I do. I watch what you do with your children. I see you in the grocery store, seething (and sometimes yelling) because your three-year-old will not. Stop. Whining. I see you when you helicopter parent, refusing to let your child out of your sight. I see you when you don’t even seem to know where your kids are. I see you when you rush to pick them up and cuddle them when they fall down instead of letting them learn to calm themselves (because don’t they need to learn to self-soothe?). I see you when you let them cry after they’ve been hurt instead of swooping in to comfort them (because don’t they need to know their mom will always be there for them?). I see you rushing to the store at the last minute to get posterboard for a project, due tomorrow, that your son should have told you about days ago. I see you telling your daughter that you aren’t going to rescue her again so that maybe this time she can learn responsibility. I see you do things so differently from how I would do them. I even see you making what could, based on real data, objectively be defined as “parenting mistakes.”

What I don’t see are very many bad mothers.

I do, however, see a lot of human mothers. In fact, as far as I can tell—aliens-among-us scenarios notwithstanding—all of you are human, which means two things. One: as a mammal, you have a vested interest in survival of your genes, which means that whether you know it or not, you are following the biological imperative to get your kids to adulthood relatively intact so that they can have a hand in continuing the species themselves. Two: you make mistakes. Every single day.

Translation: You are doing the best you can, but sometimes you screw up. Well, welcome to life, sweetheart. You are never, ever, ever, EVER, never-ever going to be The Perfect Mommy™ (as defined by Pinterest and the mommy bloggers, natch). No matter how hard you try, you are going to screw your kids up in one way or another.

And that’s TOTALLY FINE. The important thing is that you are screwing them up the best way you know how.

Look, I’m not saying that it’s not important to think about how you’re raising your kids. Of course it is. I’m not even saying that there is nothing you could be doing better. Of course there is. (To paraphrase the great Maya Angelou, you are doing the best you can with the knowledge you have. When you know better, you do better.) And I’m sure not going to tell you to let go of that guilt that you carry around with you 24/7 like the biggest load of baby weight in the world—not because I think you deserve all that guilt, but because I don’t want you to have yet another task to complete—and then, of course, feel guilty when you can’t. Guilt is just part of it, I think.

All I’m saying is that there is someone you know who thinks you are executing very well on an incredibly important job that is in turns mind-numbing, intellectually challenging, thankless, rewarding, draining, and fulfilling. That someone is me.

Oh! And your kids. They think that too. You think you love them more than they could ever know, even though sometimes the whole process makes you insane, and every once in a while you really don’t like them much at all. The funny thing is that that’s also how they feel about you.

Partnered, divorced, single, adoptive, birth mothers (even—maybe especially—if your bravest act of parenting was to try to give your child a life you couldn’t provide), mothers who work outside the home, mothers who don’t, mothers with 10 children, mothers with one child, mothers with only memories and mementos of their children, stepmothers, foster mothers, mothers with full custody, mothers with partial custody, and even dad-mothers: you are a good mother. You are enough. You. Are. Enough.

 

Dec 30

A Year of Change

At the gym this morning, I tried to hit five miles in my 40 minutes on the elliptical. I didn’t quite make it, but by the end of this week, I know I will. Half a year ago, I was sedentary and about 40 pounds overweight. Now, a healthy BMI is well within my capabilties.
This time last year, I wasn’t writing at all. While I haven’t been producing much the past few months, by the end of 2014 I plan to have a healthy blog, a short story done and out in a collection, the first draft of a middle grades novel finished, and–a big one–an agent. A year ago, I was bobbing along on a raft that was starting to take on water at an alarming rate. Today, I’m captaining a sailboat; I can’t control the wind, but I’m adjusting my sails as I go.
Life (including therapy, friends, family, and everything else that makes up a good support system) has taught me a few things lately. One: all we really have is right now. We can’t control what the universe throws at us. I might not reach any of the goals I’ve set for myself, simply because obstacles arise that cause those particular goals to be rendered unrealistic or undesirable. If that happens, though, am I going to give up? No. NO, I SAY. I’ll simply … set new goals. (Unless I’m hit by a truck and turned into road pizza, in which case none of this will matter to me anymore anyway.)
The other thing life has taught me lately: change is inevitable. It can be growth, or it can be decline, but there is no such thing as stasis. We are not static beings, and we don’t live static lives. For me, from now on, when I feel “same old, same old,” I’ll know that what I really am experiencing is a decline, because change in the other direction is growth, and since I’m an adult, growth is most likely the result of intent.
I used to be afraid of change, but I welcome it now. It’s going to happen anyway, so we might as well point that sailboat in the direction we want it to go, right?
Here’s to 2014. May it be filled with hopes and dreams–or even better, plans and goals–and may our sails be filled with favorable winds.

Nov 01

Vulnerability and Connection

Connection

Connection. Photo credit: Images by John ‘K’ via photopin cc

When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable.
— Madeline L’Engle

A few days ago, Rev. Naomi King posted this question on Twitter: “In what ways are your vulnerabilities gifts?”

I replied with something about how vulnerability and connection are intertwined, and then later I asked myself what exactly I meant by that. This is my answer.

Vulnerability is scary, and being genuine makes you vulnerable. In some ways, it’s easier to put on a personality like a suit of armor, because if someone doesn’t like your suit of armor, well, that’s just your attire they don’t like, not you. Once you put your real self out on display, though, there’s nothing to hide behind if you’re rejected, is there?

The armor works both ways, unfortunately, like any fence worth its salt. It interrupts the flow of communication coming into you and also going out from you to others. And you can’t just keep the bad stuff from transmitting. If you can’t share (sometimes even with yourself) the thoughts that make your heart ache, the good stuff—the joy, the warmth, the happiness—won’t get shared either, and it might eventually die from lack of sunlight.

To be vulnerable is difficult, but also necessary, I think, for connection. To connect with another person, really connect, you have to put your whole self out there. Maybe they won’t like you or love you; not everyone will. Maybe they will judge you and find you wanting. Maybe all those things you believe about yourself not being good enough (thin enough, fit enough, disciplined enough, maternal enough, pretty enough, strong enough, active enough, whatever enough) are true, and once you open up, you’ll find out that you really are unlovable. Or maybe we are all worth loving ourselves and being loved by others, in all our unsolvable imperfection.

It’s funny how so often, when you start thinking about a thing, you see references to that thing everywhere without even trying. I had most of these thinks already, and then I stumbled across this TED talk, and it’s really, really worth watching.

[ted id=1042]

Oct 17

I Don't Care What You Think

This pic reminded me of my favorite thinky place. Flickr photo by satanoid.

I don’t care what you think. That is, I don’t really care what you think about me. A few months ago, I would have … well, I would have been afraid to say that. Because I’d have worried that you would think it sounded selfish. Lately, though, I’ve learned a few things about myself and the world.

The first is this: worrying about what other people think has very little to do with other people. It’s all about you. Me. Whomever is doing the worrying.

Think about it: in the sentence “I worry about what people will think,” the unspoken bit at the end is “about me.” Now what sounds selfish?

Once it occurred to me that there is literally no way to make everyone happy—someone is always going to disapprove of my life choices, no matter what—and in fact, no way to make anyone feel anything in particular, and thus I might as well be myself … That freed me to be who I want to be, certainly, but it also had a side effect that I did not expect.

When I stopped worrying so much about what other people think, I became more genuinely concerned about how other people feel. And without a lot of intent on my part, that has changed how I interact with the world. I freely compliment strangers and give myself a mental high-five when I see their eyes light up. I send thank you cards to people I know just for doing what they do. I cherish and love family and friends more than ever, even when it’s hard. Loving myself, really loving myself, has freed me to love others.

Change is a journey, and mine has not always been easy on me or the people around me. Learning to be myself is sometimes messy and clumsy and awkward and difficult, but I am trying to have patience with the process, because I know the end result will be worth it. As e.e. cummings said, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

Here’s to becoming who we really are. May love and green lights speed us on our journeys.

Aug 26

Kelly Braffet's Save Yourself: It's Complicated

Save Yourself

The Save Yourself US cover, the author (looking like she knows something we don’t, which is probably true), and the proposed UK cover, which she says probably won’t have that little blurb under the title.

Kelly Braffet’s Save Yourself is angry, sad, and dark. It’s a story of flawed—broken, really—people doing things that, to an observer, would look pathetic, tragic, incomprehensible. But once you start reading, you won’t be on the outside anymore, and while the actions will remain pathetic and tragic, they will no longer seem incomprehensible.

Save Yourself is told from several points of view, an approach to which I don’t normally warm, but in this case, it really couldn’t have been done any other way. In fact, I’d venture to say that that’s the theme of this book: how our points of view impact what we see, what we do, who we are. First, there’s Patrick, the convenience store employee who has committed the crime of having a drunk driver as a father, for which he’s been convicted and sentenced on that harsh judge of all things partially known, the Internet. (Let that be a lesson to you, kids: NEVER READ THE COMMENTS SECTION.) Then Verna, the good girl of strict Christian parents with the bad older sister Layla, whom she can’t help idolizing a little. We get chunks of Layla’s viewpoint via Verna (hearsay, but that’s okay; this isn’t a court of law). Finally, in a smaller dose, Caro, the it’s-complicated girlfriend of Patrick’s older brother, Mike.

As I said, I sometimes don’t like having a story told to me from multiple points of view because it can feel like a plot exercise, just a way to get things moving. But in Save Yourself, it’s so much more than that. To Verna, Layla looks like a brave, if somewhat misguided, rebel. To Patrick, Layla looks lost and sad. To Layla, her kinda-boyfriend Justinian looks like a misunderstood hero. To Verna, he looks—okay, I don’t really want to get into that. I try not to venture into spoiler territory in my reviews, and I’m getting close. Let’s just say that Braffet’s juggling of multiple points of view is a masterful handling of funhouse mirrors, and it brings to mind the Chinese (or so the Internets tell me) proverb: “There are three truths: your truth, my truth, and the truth.”

Save Yourself is not an easy book to read. (That might be me; everything I’ve read  lately feels so SERIOUS to me. I don’t think so, though; it’s pretty hardcore.) But no one in it is a caricature, not even the strict home-schooling Christian parents, who are often so easy to make into cartoons. This is a serious book about serious people. Notice I avoided using the word “characters.”

If you are a reader, read it. If you are a writer, read it, then study it. That is all.

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