Monday, October 23, 2017

23. I interrupt this series to practice what I preach.

I am sitting at a terminal in my beloved second home, the public library. It’s seven p.m. on a Monday night. I’ve worked all day, done the grocery shopping, and now it’s time to write.

Life hasn’t stopped being stressful, but I’d adjusted to the ever-present stresses and things were moving along swimmingly. And then the past couple months got bumpy. The bumps didn’t feel like speed bumps. They were the kind that seemed to cause my stress and anxiety to accelerate.

Then on Saturday, with six blog posts planned out, but not yet written, my four-year-old laptop’s charging port stopped working. I knew it was losing juice on Friday morning when the screen displayed: "The battery level is very low. Plug in the computer." The problem was the laptop WAS PLUGGED IN.

I ran downstairs. I grabbed my flash drive and ran back up the stairs. I went into the office where I store my external hard drive and went to town backing up files and photos I should have been backing up all along.

“Mom, have you saved Astrid?” Cadence’s first thought was of my book. And her question reminded me that while I did have it backed up, I hadn’t backed it up since working on it two weekends ago. With a calm determination, I breathed deeply and kept copying files. Gratefully, the laptop still had power after I’d completed the back up.

I’m annoyed that I’ve got to buy a new computer. I’m annoyed that I didn’t have all 31 posts written ahead. I’m annoyed by the inconvenience of having to make trips to the library to do my writing.

But actually more than anything, I’m grateful. I'm grateful that I had time to save all my stuff. Not having a computer at the ready means I have to be creative with my time management. And this: I’ve learned how to schedule my posts for the next few days. This was a feature I hadn’t employed before, but necessity demanded I figure it out, and put it to use, which may potentially ease the need to go to the library every day for the rest of the month.

The biggest thing I am grateful for? The test of whether I can take it easy with myself and my expectations when life doesn’t go as planned. Do I mean it when I write about being gentle with myself? Do my actions match my words?

This computer mess is giving me the opportunity to prove to myself that I really do. As a 31Days participant, I am part of a network of writers who cheer each other on for the month as we write and publish our posts and read each other’s words. I have often observed how hard on themselves these women are when they find themselves a day off their schedule, or they come down with a cold, or life simply gets in the way of the writing. For the past two years, I’ve cheered them on. I’ve reminded them that there are no real rules to this challenge. Writing and publishing for 31 days is a guideline. The world won’t come to an end if a day gets skipped or they have to finish the series after October 31.

Having my computer malfunction before the series ended presents an opportunity to tell myself the things above that I’ve shared with other writers. Am I listening? Do I believe my own words? Am I giving myself a break?

The answer is yes. A resounding yes. As I have said in the past, it will not matter in a week or a year on what day the series is completed. What’s most important is that a body of work will exist after a strenuous period of contemplation, writing, and publishing. That is where I am concentrating my focus, and I believe it wholeheartedly. I know these circumstances would have knocked me sideways two years ago. I appreciate the self-care I am offering myself in real time. I call that progress.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

22. Weekend Wisdom

"When fear makes your choices for you, no security measures on earth will keep the things you dread from finding you. But if you can avoid avoidance—if you can choose to embrace experiences out of passion, enthusiasm, and a readiness to feel whatever arises—then nothing, nothing in all this dangerous world, can keep you from being safe."

- Martha Beck

21. Weekend Wisdom

-For DH-

"If you ever meet someone brave and powerful enough to walk with you directly through your most unconscious wounds and shadow caves--someone with the stupefying courage to see through the chinks of your armor and then help you take it off--love them because they have done something for you which is impossible to do alone. They will show you the treasure you've been seeking all your life--and they can do this because they aren't afraid of your fear."

Friday, October 20, 2017

20. Relinquished Allegiance to the All-Mighty To-do List

I come from a hearty stock of do-ers on both branches of the family tree. Strong, determined farmers on one side and miners and blue-collar folks on another. I have always been surrounded by people who have worked hard. List makers who were devoted to checking things off the list. I don't know any other way.

But any good thing can become an obstacle in too great a supply.

A few years ago as I could feel the tectonic plates of my internal geography shifting, I began questioning my busy-ness and how well it was serving me. I began exploring the role of rest and sabbath in one's life, and how it might nourish and enrich the work I did.

The first noticeable benefit of sabbath appeared in my writing life. For years I dogged myself in periods where I was only thinking about what needed to be written. I noticed it particularly at work. I felt bad for all the moments I wasn't hunched over the keyboard. In time, I began to notice that when I did finally sit down to write, the words flowed more freely. The resting produced overflowing supplies of words when they were ready. Because I am stubborn, it took me awhile to accept this as part of my writing rhythm, but once I did, I used it to my advantage.

Years later I read the book, The Gift of Rest – Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath by Senator Joseph Lieberman. I was struck by his dedication to observing the Sabbath through his Jewish faith in the midst of the life of a public servant. I kept thinking, "If this busy senator can slow down, press pause on his important responsibilities for one 24-hour period each week, surely so can I."

I do not observe Sabbath in the same way the Lieberman family does, but I have relinquished the guilt I used to feel if I wasn't "doing something" every moment of my waking hours. As time passed, I've come to know that it's not the rushing that gets things done. It's the rest and restored energy that does.

These days I write lists as a way to soothe a busy, chatter-y mind. There is some alchemy in unloading my mind of what's zipping and zooming across my grey matter. I no longer hold myself to the list as I once did. I trust that the important things will always get done. And the other stuff will either get done or will no longer matter.

I mother myself by doing those things that must be done and by letting go of the pressure to do all the things all the time. I feel more content, more pleasant to be around, and when the right moment strikes, more productive.

Martha Beck's words have been particularly helpful as I've come to appreciate the role sabbath observance plays in my well-being and self-care:

"During the times we think we’re being “unproductive,” the seeds of new worlds are germinating within us, and they need peace to grow."
I find myself less and less impressed by the busy lives other people and families are living. What's the rush? Where's all this busy-ness going to get us in the long run? Other than frazzled and grumpy?

Here are two more quotes that have resonated with me:

"What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead we celebrated how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives?" - Greg McKeown

"If you don't want to burn out, stop living like you're on fire." - becoming minimalist

I mother myself by honoring the sabbath moments in my life--even if it's a few hours on a random Tuesday night--time away, no matter how long or on what day does my heart and mind and body a world of good.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

19. I ask for help.

In my early twenties, as I was learning how to be an adult, I asked for help a few times. Once I was really unhappy in a job and another opportunity came my way. I asked for help in pro'ing and con'ing my options. I had a sense that I should pass up the opportunity, but I wanted some guidance before making the decision. What I received instead was an unhelpful and protracted lecture over the phone about how this job change was a terrible idea. Old stuff that had nothing to do with me was drudged up. There was yelling. For minutes without end. I felt belittled and demeaned. I felt as though I wasn't to be trusted with my own decision making. I sobbed and finally stopped the tirade by saying I wouldn't take the job.

A few other times, I asked a particular friend for help and he was conveniently never available. I had allowed myself to be vulnerable with this friend. Each time he went out of his way to be unavailable, the story I was writing in my head about asking for help grew gloomier and more twisted. Asking for help was futile. It was a sign of weakness. It didn't get one anywhere. One might as well knock off the neediness and get to work sorting things out for oneself.

There were benefits to this do-it-yourself approach. I learned that I was a resourceful and creative thinker. I found work-arounds that I wouldn't have found if I'd been working with others. I was proud of my self-sufficiency. But this approach was also isolating and lonely.

Then a new chapter of my story began. I found myself owning a home solo, and creative work-arounds go only so far.

Excessive rains the day after Christmas caused my basement to flood. The carpet and padding were ruined and had to be torn out and removed.

The ceiling fan and light in my bedroom stopped working. The switch needed to be replaced.

The wooden patio steps rotted and needed to be rebuilt.

You get the idea.

These broken things needing repair came at me in rapid succession. Sometimes I couldn't catch my breath between one problem and the next. The corrective tasks were above my skill levels. It was time to admit I needed the help of people with different expertise. I mothered myself by insisting and encouraging the idea that asking for help was not the sign of weakness or failure I once believed it was. In time, I regarded my requests for help as signs of maturity, growth, and strength.

I also realized that in the give-and-take equation of life there must be people willing to take or the equation can't work. I'd spent so much time being the giver. By insisting on going it alone so much, I wasn't contributing to the equation by giving people who care about me an opportunity to help.

Recently, I received a letter in the mail saying that the peeling paint on the trim framing my garage was in violation of some city ordinance. I was caught off guard and super annoyed. I did not have time, energy, or money for this. I let the initial feelings of frustration and embarrassment pass, and then I texted my neighbor for help. He made recommendations for next steps. My parents were in town during this time. My fix-it dad pulled out the ladder and the supplies he needed and got to work.

I thanked him profusely and let him do his thing. I didn't feel any of the old feelings of weakness or being incapable. I simply felt gratitude. I know that asking for help is an important element of self-care.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

18. Kinder Self-Talk

Removing negative self-talk from my inner chatter has been another of the most nurturing things I have done to improve my life. Negative messages recorded themselves on my mental tape from an early age, so I believed that the conversations I was having with myself were accurate reflections of who I was.

I repeated terrible things to myself and believed every word. I convinced myself that sometimes I wasn't enough and other times I was way too much. I heard the voice that told me I talked too much, and so I was always self-conscious about the things I had to say. I heard another voice tell me that I was terrible in the kitchen. So I proved myself right every time I tried to cook or bake something. The hurtful things I believed about myself ran even deeper.

A few years ago, I began choosing a word of the year to guide my thoughts throughout the coming twelve months. One year the phrase "let go of outcome" came to me. Each time I felt anxious about how something would turn out, I would recite those four words, and noticed that I breathed easier and interrupted the flow of sludge mucking up my mind.

Since then I have mothered myself into kinder self-talk with the words Gentle, Trust, and Quiet. Gentle was the word that got me through my 40th year when I was scared, in brand-new emotional territory, and working my way through the 40/40 list. That year revealed what exacting standards I had for myself. Gentle was the right word to soften those hard edges.

Last year, I meditated on the word Trust. I needed to re-engage with the idea that I could trust again. Trust myself, trust men, trust my gut. Each time I had a decision to make alone, I would conjure up the word. I could feel myself relax as I recognized I was capable of whatever was before me.

As the calendar page turned into the new year, I had one word, but then another better-suited word landed on my mind. I decided it was time to be Quiet. To listen more than I spoke. To be attuned to what my gut wanted for me to hear. As the months have passed, sometimes the world around me gets too noisy, and I'm grateful for my word. It's the prompt I need to re-energize and re-calibrate.

All of these words have taught me about the importance of learning how to soothe myself. They have helped to turn down the volume on the loud, obnoxious voices that do me harm. With practice, those voices do not pipe up as much, and when they do they are quickly silenced by kinder, gentler talk. I have no idea what the next word will be, but I will get quiet and trust that the right one will come at the right time, and that it will carry the message I need for the coming year.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

17. Therapy

One of the most nurturing things I have done for myself is to seek the guidance of a counselor. Under this woman's patient, kind, and professional care, I have peeled back the layers to discover the origins of my pain and confusion and what caused periods of depression and anxiety. She also helped me see the role I played in the suffering I have experienced. She has bolstered my confidence to face it head on and to not be licked by it.

This woman introduced me to the idea that certain behaviors I was putting up with are unacceptable—no matter what my relationship is to the person doing them. She taught me a new vocabulary. She helped me connect dots. She told me she was proud of the hard work I was doing to heal. She even set before me a vision of who I could become as I healed.

I found the person in my corner who told me, “This stuff you've been through, the things you are describing, are not right. They never should have happened to you, but since they did, here are the tools to climb your way out.”

My life is better. It's easier to navigate with her encouragement echoing in my mind. I go with the flow better. I don't shutdown as quickly—if at all. Life feels good and navigable and worth the effort and heartache. I feel confident about who I am and how I choose to express myself. This is a new feeling, and it is wonderful.

My pain has not been in vain. I am now in a position to share what I know about setting boundaries and caring for myself. I have empathy for the pain of others because I have experienced my own. I'm not afraid of my pain anymore. And I know that sharing my experiences gives other people hope that they can heal from their own circumstances.

I mother myself by seeking the objective perspective of a counselor. I love myself enough to insist that I do not stay where I am. I push myself to challenge hard things, and and continue to grow into the person I'm meant to be.

“The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.”

- Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer

Monday, October 16, 2017

16. Welcoming the Liminal

"All the buried seeds

crack open in the dark

the instant they surrender

to a process they can't see."

                                                 - The Book of Awakening                                        
                      Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have 
                                                           by Mark Nepo

When I first wrote about liminal time last summer, it was a brand-new concept to me. It's definition—the time in-between—brought immediate relief. It's a transition, the space between when an ending occurs and before something new begins. I could feel my body relax when I heard an explanation of what it is and the importance of leaning into the time. Having a name for the strange place I found myself in brought comfort and made it easier to drop my resistance to not knowing what the future held.

It's a scary, uncomfortable space, but when one surrenders to its possibility, it can nourish, restore, and be a time of preparation for the next season. When one abides this time, it has a protective feature too. It prevents leaping into something before one is ready. It also requires discipline—a letting go of plans, a sense of control, and the need to be assured of what's to come. It also requires a lot of faith.

Now as I write a year later, I feel the benefit, wisdom, and peace that comes with having relaxed into the in-between. I am far better at not knowing what's around the bend. I'm not surrendered to the unknown 100% of the time, of course, but I'm much more settled about waiting to see how the future unfolds than I have ever been.

I mother myself by letting go of the need to know what "the plan" is. I rest easier in the unknown and see it as adventure now. Acceptance of liminal time is one of the harder forms of self-care to practice, but it also reaps more powerful results. It is worth all of the effort, and definitely gets easier with time.

Friday, October 13, 2017

15. Weekend Wisdom

"She is both, hellfire and holy water. 

And the flavor you taste depends on how you treat her." 

- Sneha Pal

14. Weekend Wisdom

"She's a searcher of her own soul; a seeker of her own joy; a discoverer of her own light; finally a friend to her own heart."
- S. C. Lourie  

13. Set Goals. Don't reach all of them.

2015 was the year of the massive goal-setting. I created my 40/40 list in celebration of my milestone birthday. A friend told me later that I approached the list "like a military operation." She's right. I had never been so goal oriented in my life. I leaned on that list for stability when everything else in my life made me feel wobbly, uncertain, and scared. Then I completed the list, and wasn't sure what to do with the free time and mental space that had been absorbed by the task completion of the year before. I rested the following year and reflected on my goal setting. I set an outline for the year. They provided some shape for my days: read more, work on my book, and rest. There were no deadlines, no absolutes. They were guidelines rather than goals to be met. They were exactly what I needed at the time.

The pendulum has been swinging in big long swipes—far to one side with excessive goals, back the other way with barely any. This year I've felt my goal setting finding its way to the middle of these extremes.

I am also coming to terms with the idea and inevitability that I will not reach every goal I set or at least not in the time frame that I imagined. This seemed problematic when I was working my way through the birthday celebration. Now I understand it is an important element of goal setting. If I am managing to hit every goal I set, I am likely not setting my sights high enough.

I have not reached most of the goals I set for myself in 2015--outside of the 40/40 list and 80,000 word count for the novel--seen in the photo below. But the exercise was invaluable. It forced me to take a broader view of my writing life. What did I want to accomplish in the next few years? What steps could I line out to work toward that? This year I have honored the spirit of the goals by writing for submission and setting my sights on specific publications where I want my work to land. Most importantly, the goals pointed me in the direction of sitting my butt in the chair and doing the work. Whether I've crossed off all the items or not, my butt has been in the chair much more than in the past.

I mother myself by giving myself goals to pursue while also extending grace when I don't hit them all. What's that saying? Shoot for the moon and you'll land among the stars.

"Glory lies in the attempt to reach one's goal, and not in reaching it."

~Mahatma Gandhi

Thursday, October 12, 2017

12. I am not my blemishes.

I did not have flawless skin in my teens and early twenties. Who am I kidding? Some days, I still don't have clear skin in my forties. In the years when I was under the care of a dermatologist, it seemed bad skin swallowed my entire identity. It didn't matter that I was funny or kind or smart. I was invisible behind the blemishes. Once in high school, my wanting to avoid dealing with the issue caused a really big fight in my home. My need to be seen for more than my blemishes outweighed my desire to find a prescriptive solution to the bad skin. This upset the order of things within the family. The offended parties left the house, took a walk, and subjected me to the silent treatment. This was a reminder that I was on the wrong side of the issue. It also underscored that my feelings were valid only when they aligned with the others'.

Another time, in my early twenties, I was on a long car ride to my cousin's wedding where I was going to be a candle lighter. I was asked if I'd been to the dermatologist lately. When I sheepishly answered no, I was reminded that "no 25-year-old man would want to date a girl with bad skin."

These were the days when a date was hard to come by. When my younger cousin was getting married, and my younger sister was engaged. These words cut more than skin deep.

These days, I take a gentler approach at how I characterize my appearance. I look in the mirror, and notice the high points. My light blue eyes, my gently sloped brows. I appreciate the lines around my eyes and mouth—the ones carved in by a lot of laughter. I see my imperfections too. The bridge of the family nose that others have suspected was once broken. The faint spots and scars leftover from hormonal surges of the past. I tell myself that I am more than my shortcomings.

I worry less about the opinions of others, particularly those who think it's acceptable to say unkind things. Who deliver opinions as facts.

I mother myself by accepting the light and dark that make up who I am.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

11. Yoga

My sister was a sophomore, and I was a senior. Posters hung in our high school hallways about joining each grade's Powder Puff football teams. The guys were going to coach and also cheer lead. I wasn't a fan of football, but I was interested in being part of the hoop-la. The Powder Puff experience looked fun. I also thought that maybe if I was on the field and being given a position, it might finally click how this dang game is played. Powder Puff might help my spectating later.

There must have been a conversation about it over dinner. My sister was going to play for her class. And I was going to sit in the stands and cheer. My parents were firm. Julie would not be playing Powder Puff football. She could get hurt. There was no discussion, and I don't remember fighting the decision. Inside my head, some message was received though:

My skinny body wasn't up to the job.

I labored long and hard to bring my daughter into the world. I was induced, which meant that unnaturally powerful contractions built quickly and did not relent for hours. I met those pains without medication for hours. When it finally came time to push, I machined my way past counts of ten for two hours. This little human wasn't budging. She finally emerged by c-section. I was grateful for modern medicine. I was grateful for her safe delivery. I was also grateful labor was over.

In the weeks that followed, I was met with a variety of comments confirming the need for a c-section.

"You're so little. We knew you couldn't do it naturally."

Again, it appeared my skinny body wasn't up to the job.

I entered a yoga studio weeks before I lost my job. It was yoga that kept my head straight through the fog of grief and fear and extra hours that had once been employed behind a desk. My teacher later told me, "It was an advanced class. I wasn't sure you'd return." And here I was showing up. Me and my skinny body were doing the hard work. And not crumbling as a result.

Over the past six years, yoga has helped me show up not only on the mat, but in the present, often in extraordinarily difficult moments of my life. Yoga has taught me how to breathe and be still in the tricky positions. Yoga has reflected back to me the strength of my body. It has shown me powerful results with hard work.

Yoga unlocked a part of me that had been shut tight. I've lived so much of my life in my head and my heart. I've been shut down and cut off from my body. Yoga gave my body back to me.

I mother myself by moving on my mat, challenging my beliefs about my physical limitations, and taking that new found trust and wisdom in my body into real life. Yoga is squashing the messages that trained me not to trust my body.

This spring when I bought a new bed, friends came to help me move out the old mattress and to assemble the bed frame. My friend bore the weight of the old mattress by guiding it down the steps first. I stabilized it from the top of the stairs. We eased the mattress down the flight of stairs and out the front door. We maneuvered it down my front steps and into the garage. When we set it down in the garage, my friend said, "Girl, you have a strength I'm not sure you knew you had. Wow. I'm impressed. You really pulled your weight."

It was a proud moment. I was glad to have this strong, kind man notice and confirm what I already knew.

She began to measure herself in contentment and laughter rather than in inches and pounds. 
- Unknown

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

10. Being Good versus Being Whole

It was autumn. My first semester of college. My friends and I were hanging out in the guys' dorm. At least six, but probably more like eight or ten of us were packed in this tiny corner dorm room on the fourth floor. Somebody stood at the mini-fridge and offered cans of soda. He tossed one my way. I dropped the soda and then blurted out my first swear word. The room fell silent and then erupted with laughter. No one expected Julie, including Julie herself, to say something like that.

It was a shocking, exhilarating, authentic moment.

Over time my good girl status became a self-inflicted burden. I really was a good girl—it wasn't in my nature to do things most of my peers did, to step outside prescribed boundaries. The problem was my motivation. I was so intent on being good to make other people happy and to not disappoint that I wasn't making decisions for myself. There is nuance here that I hope I'm able to convey. At 42, I am making decisions solely based on what's best for my heart and soul and while on the surface those decisions may not look much different from decisions I've made in the past, they FEEL COMPLETELY DIFFERENT because I'm no longer looking for approval.

This is what I wish I could have known at 22. I came to a crossroads a few times where I had to choose one direction over another and in those early adulthood years, I always chose the "approved" route. I am certain I missed out on adventures that would have been really good for my younger self to have experienced.

All of this is topical for me now as I carve out a solo life for myself and also contemplate how to guide my pre-teen daughter as she enters her teenage years. I want her to be safe and smart, but I also want her to experience life. I want her to know that she's going to make mistakes, and I will be there for her when she needs to debrief and figure out where she made a wrong turn.

While every parent wants their kids to be "good," at this stage of life my interest is focused on my child being whole. I want her to practice making decisions that honor herself, that keep her safe, but also that make for a rich, "extraordinary-in-its-ordinariness" life.

I am mothering us both toward wholeness.

Monday, October 9, 2017

9. I lose my cool. Then I accept responsibility and apologize.

The early toddler months of my daughter's life were hard ones for me as a mother. I remember vividly saying out loud, "Why are you acting like a 13 (and 14, 15...) month old?" The question would start in frustration and then the absurdity of it would make me laugh. It gave me a moment to collect myself and to chill out. I'd pick her up and cuddle her. It was a reset button—those ridiculous out loud questions.

The truth behind my outbursts was that I was no longer coping well with the status quo. In those early months of toddlerhood she was asserting herself, but didn't have the language to help me understand what she needed. This natural frustration was coupled with my own exhaustion and feelings of isolation, and created tantrums for both spirited mother and daughter.

When she was about 18 months, I read the book Raising Children with Character by Elizabeth Berger. My flashes of explosive frustration with this precious little human startled me and wracked me with guilt. They also frightened me because I was certain I was continuing a generational loop that started long before me. That was the last thing I wanted to bring into the present.

It was within the pages of that book that I learned one of the most important parenting lessons: frustration and losing one's cool comes with the parenting territory. As adults, it's important to remain in the driver's seat, but these flashes of anger and irritation are going to happen. We best serve our children by acknowledging our shortcomings and apologizing for our mistakes. In doing so, we teach our children that even adults make mistakes. Being accountable for our actions and apologizing for our missteps role model to our children how to correct these mistakes. Children grow up learning how to acknowledge their own mistakes and missteps. They also grow up with a more realistic view of adulthood. That adulthood is not some magical state where all goes well all the time.

I felt a tidal wave of relief, and began putting this new information into practice. I acknowledge my moments of weakness, short tempers, and impatience with my daughter. Every time I do it, (and thankfully now that I'm in a healthier mental and heart space it happens less frequently) it creates space for really nourishing conversations about personal responsibility, mutual respect, and being kind.

I am mothering myself as I mother my daughter with new emotional tools.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

8. Weekend Wisdom

"And as she fell apart her shattered pieces began to bloom-- blossoming until she became herself exactly as she was meant to be..." 
-Becca Lee

Saturday, October 7, 2017

7. Weekend Wisdom

"Sometimes the journey has to be traveled alone in order to appreciate the strengths that lie deep inside of us."

- Steve Atchison

Friday, October 6, 2017

6. Buying Flowers

As I write, there's a vase of lemon yellow and electric pink roses sitting on my dresser. When I stand in line at ALDI's I survey the day's inventory of cut flowers. When the roses are looking good, I choose a bouquet or two. The dozen roses in my room cost me $8. A small price to pay for a spark of beauty in my home.

I mother myself by allowing this frivolity to balance out the overarching and overwhelming bents toward pragmatism and practicality that generally rule my choices and my spending.

During courtship, I was showered with flowers (on one particular occasion, two dozen red roses were delivered to work). Once married, the floral parade abruptly stopped. I was scolded for not watering the flowers I'd been gifted. I was punished for my perceived lack of appreciation.

Buying myself flowers is an act of healing, but it's also a subversive act. It's tripping a wire in my brain. It's disrupting the message that for a long time reinforced that I didn't deserve to have this splash of beauty. That I wasn't worth the effort.

The frugal part of me also delights in the fact that I am accomplishing this with so few dollars.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

5. Generosity

The morning I graduated from college I was doing final dorm room move-out cleaning. My parents stood by as I moved the vacuum around the square of space I'd called home for the past nine months.

A friend came to my open doorway. "Julie, could I borrow your vacuum when you're done?" she asked.

"Sure, I'm finished. Here, you can have it now," I offered the vacuum without thinking.

She pushed the vacuum down the hallway to her room.

"That is an expensive vacuum," my mom said in hushed tones. "We don't share things like that. I've loaned things and had them returned broken." A lecture ensued. (The vacuum was returned without incident.)

The impulses I've had to be generous in adulthood have had to first run through the filter of that encounter years ago. I have questioned my desire to be generous and whether I should act. Twenty years later, and maybe precisely because of that moment, I hold my possessions lightly. I know the risks of sharing material goods—they might not be returned or might be returned a bit more used—and yet, I choose to share anyway. I've decided to take the risk with sharing my heart too.

I mother myself by honoring this generous impulse. It feels GOOD to share what I have. That dorm room scene set the parameters for my own philanthropy: Give what you can. Give when you can. Give without an expectation of return.

I am gratified to see how another generation is moved by an impulse of generosity. I took my daughter shopping at IKEA to spend a birthday gift card. In the shopping cart she placed three polar fleece throws to give to homeless people who are cold this winter; a surprise for me (pack of three journals, a spiral notebook, and a pack of three pens); and two glasses to fill with candy to give to my co-workers. I cannot remember what, if anything, she bought for herself. I was struck by the need to remind her that it was okay to shop for herself with her birthday money.

"It makes me happy to buy gifts for my friends," my daughter answered. If I recall, there was also a mention of random acts of kindness in her explanation.

I recognize the feelings she described. It's what makes being generous feel so good.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

4. A Hand to Hold

This is the strangest form of comfort I have found. Some nights when sleep didn't descend on me immediately, I felt loneliness the most acutely. The future seemed vast and uncertainty loomed so large that it stamped out my imagination's ability to consider the possibilities (things seem bigger and more worrisome when I'm tired). The bed was too big, and I was swallowed up in it's emptiness. On those nights, I really wanted a hand to hold. This thought comforted me. And then I got sadder because there wasn't one to hold. Then I got a really strange notion: what if I held my own hand?

Could that be a comfort?

I felt silly and glad I was trying this in the privacy of my own room. My right hand clasped my left. I closed my eyes. I sighed deeply. I scanned my mind and body to detect a reaction. Was this helping? Did holding my hand make me feel less lonely?

The answer was yes.

This small act of mothering myself lifted the weight of feeling so alone. It eased the burden that made this loneliness feel like a permanent condition.

I held my hand a lot, and in doing so, I learned about the importance and steadfastness of being my own best friend. In an unexpected way, holding my own hand taught me about the wholeness I could muster from within.

And in time, I've found that this practice has soothed that particular ache for another's hand to hold.  I'll hold my own hand forever, but it feels like progress that it's no longer such a deep need anymore. Mothering myself in this small way has led to great healing.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

3. Massage

This alone time reinforced the fact that hugs are few and far between. Hugs were hard to come by long before my divorce, so touch deprivation is not a new thing for me. While I am grateful to have an affectionate, snuggly child, a mama needs more than the embrace of a school-ager sometimes. I have a great friends at church who hug me every Sunday. But I need more healthy touch than even that provides, so I enrolled in a monthly massage membership.

I read an article recently that outlined four things that neuroscience has determined helps people feel happy. Hugs are one of them. (You'll hear more about the article later in the series.) I was pleased to learn that according to neuroscience, if hugs are in short supply, massages are a good substitute.

Once a month I spend an hour (sometimes more) in the expert care of a massage therapist who helps ease the tension of too much desk sitting, migraines, worries over money, and whatever creeps into the muscle and fascia of my body.

I am grateful to both therapists (depending on their schedules) who make that hour's oasis a safe, nurturing, and restorative time. I float out of the room after they have worked out the kinks and tight spots that inevitably make their way to my neck, back, arms, and legs day-to-day and week-by-week. I breathe easier and am more conscientious about how I move and lift my always-heavy bag for a day or two after every massage. 

These massage appointments help me take stock of my physical and emotional health. I am genuinely happy. Instead of fixating on what I don't have in great supply (hugs), I have learned to concentrate on what I do have (massages and the embraces of my daughter and my amazing friends.)

Monday, October 2, 2017

2. Books

I was the lone reader in my family growing up. Reading made me feel isolated because there wasn't anyone who loved to read with whom I could share what I was learning and experiencing. At the same time, reading gave me a sense of belonging and expanded my network as the characters became cherished friends.

On occasion I would ask to be read to. Reading snuggled up together wouldn't happen, but the details from that time are fuzzy. In adulthood I was asked, “Remember when you asked me to read to you when you were little? I just couldn't. Reading to you reminded me that I was never read to as a child and it made me so sad.”

It was a missed opportunity for both parent and child. Reading together could have healed those hurt places in one, and fortified the bond for both.

I kept reading solo in those years, and the more I read, the more I loved the pastime.

I mother myself now through reading in two ways: I allow myself long stretches of reading on weekends when I'm alone, and I snuggle with my daughter and read to her when we are together—I've even read to her when we're apart via Skype. 

In a funny twist of fate, my daughter is also not a reader—yet. But she likes to be read to. She appreciates the closeness that reading together induces. So do I.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

1. Sleep

A mama puts her child down for a nap or tucks her in early when the day has been extra full or the child is especially frazzled. In the early months after my divorce, I felt frazzled a lot. I had an abundance of spare time alone. For so many years, I had been occupied with my own daughter's schedule and needs that this free time felt heavy, empty, unstructured, and endless. Some days I couldn't figure out what to do with myself. I was restless and didn't know how to fill the last few hours of an evening without feeling sad or despondent. I was nervous about my sad moods plunging  into depression. 

On those nights, I tucked myself in much earlier than ever before. One Friday evening while the SUN WAS STILL SHINING, I pulled back the sheets of my too-big bed and fell asleep. I fought thoughts of being a loser for going to bed at 7:30 at the start of a weekend. I slept nearly 12 hours. Proof, indeed, that my body and spirit needed the rest. I wasn't a loser. I was a mama who made sleep a priority. This rest formed a new self-care habit that would help me feel better and grow stronger.

Now I relish early bed times. I haven't gone to bed at 7:30 in months, but a new rhythm developed, and my sleep schedule is in better balance. More and better sleep helped repair the frayed edges of my heart and mind.

"The juiciest action step for you at any given moment may be to rest. I can’t emphasize this enough. Everything in nature ebbs and flows, and trying to flow without ebbing is a stressful, anxiety-based strategy. Wayfinding magic often needs you to literally fall asleep so it can proceed. The final step in joining up with a horse is to walk away from it. The final step in connecting with anything you’re trying to bring from Imagination into Form is to let go, surrender, totally detach. Napping is one of the most powerful steps in many a Forming. If the impulse to rest or sleep arises, cancel everything and crash."

- Martha Beck

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Rejection 15

I feel one season ending and another beginning, and I'm not talking about the summer to autumn transition. I have spent the year writing hard things that I needed to examine and release from my body. I took the step to send those words out into the world to see if they might get accepted for publication somewhere.

So far, they have been rejected by each place I have sent them. I have been upbeat about the rejections. In some ways, I have been relieved that they haven't been published. I have done the work and been accountable by submitting them, but as time passes, I understand that this particular season of writing and its results are primarily for me and my healing. I mustered a lot of courage to consider writing the words and the considerable more by sending out any of this work. I sent it all out. That in itself is a victory.

This particular rejection from Full Grown People stings more than the others. I have set my sights on getting published there. It's a personal goal, and so to learn that the editor is “taking a pass” on this essay feels more personal. I know it's absolutely not personal, but right now if feels like it. I feel a bit discouraged.

Three hundred rejections feels like A LOT of rejections. I know what 15 rejections feel like. How will 300 feel? It's also an incredible amount of writing.

I keep wondering, what do I have to say that will get accepted at this site? I feel emptied of things to say. This is actually a good thing. It means I've written myself dry. It's time to set down the submission writing and pick up the novel writing. I am learning how this writing life ebbs and flows for me: devote time, energy, and mental space to a project for awhile, feel its natural ending approach, pick up something else, repeat. I need the cycle to do its work, so I can be ready for the next thing.

By calling the submission season closed, I won't be distracted as I enter the novel writing season. That particular season closed last year when I'd worn myself out amassing 80,000 words and began writing draft two. I was spent. I needed time to rest, recuperate, and refuel. Writing essays refueled me. They moved things around in my mental attic space. Now there is room for me to consider the lives of my characters more attentively.

I'm ready to dive back into story telling. Acknowledging the sting of this rejection helps. I trust that I'll have other things to say later that will be considered publishable. I am not there yet. But I'll get there, and I'll be a better writer for all effort.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Dream Big, Live Small

I've been contemplating a new way to live my life. It's an integration of all the heart and soul work I've been doing over the past few years. I have learned a few truths:
  • Difficult circumstances are temporary states.

  • You learn what you're made of during said difficult circumstances.

  • The bad stuff has a unique set of lessons to teach that cannot be accessed any other way.

  • Debt stinks and drains. 

  • Life doesn't have to be on hold whilst paying down said debt.

  • Small gestures of kindness make a big difference. 

  • Goals create structure.

  • Writing is my world.

  • Dreaming is free.

Basically, I have considered these nine truisms for me and come up with this: 

I am happier than I have ever been because I sense my purpose and am devoted to that pursuit. I am letting go of things—thought patterns and old habits—that no longer serve me. As I let go of the things that don't work, I'm picking up others—mostly relationships—that nurture me and allow me to nourish in return. I have learned the value of being on the receiving end of the giving equation, and have grown in my ability to accept help.

I have big dreams: travel the world with myself, my daughter, and with friends; write and submit essays, short stories, books; get published. I am unconcerned with name or brand recognition, big publishing houses, or big book advances. Sure, in my fantasies, those things will come. But in my real life, I want to live a small life where my love, smiles, and contributions make a big difference in the corner of the world I occupy.

This smallness is not the same kind that author and lecturer, Marianne Williamson, references in this, my favorite quote:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It's not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

I am no longer playing small as I have done in decades past. There was a time when I identified with this deepest fear of being powerful beyond measure. I did play small. It fit within others' expectations of me. No more! The smallness I am referring to now is the confidence that the extra cans of soup and green beans I pick up as I grocery shop will be a helpful donation to the pantry at church. That the small donation I sent to a non-profit after the rally trauma in Charlottesville is a worthy contribution. Before my family was the recipient of an anonymous giver's small gifts during our stints of unemployment, I didn't believe that small gifts could make a difference. I know they do now. And I am committed to giving of myself in common, ordinary, small ways knowing that they actually do make a difference. 
I received the most stunning thank you letter this week from the organization I referenced above. It's opening paragraph blew me away and reminded me that this sort of living small is the right fit for me:

If you had just thought of our students, of Charlottesville, we would have appreciated it. If you'd just sent a message of support and strength, we would have been moved. But you sent us a gift, made a monetary investment in ensuring the future of Jewish life at the University of Virginia, and for that, we are humbled and grateful...Your gift...was part of that support. And though healing doesn't happen in an instant, your gift makes an actual difference in the strength of community we will continue to nurture and sustain here in Charlottesville.(I would have removed the justs, but that's a different blog post.)

This was a humbling letter to receive because a. I gave what I could-- a mere $10, and b. writing letters is what I do in my day job. I want the letters I write to take donors' breaths away like this one took mine.

Every line of Williamson's quote is sterling, but I am especially drawn to these words: “And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

I am learning that what is written here at 300 rejections plays into this idea. I admit my fears and struggles, and it creates space for others to acknowledge their own. It is humbling and extraordinary every time I ponder it. Living like this sets me up to show up, do the work, and wait with anticipation for what's to come. To think, once this way of living terrified me. Now it's pure exhilaration. I know there's nothing to fear.

This girl is learning how to dream big behind the wheel of a Tesla

“Do not ask your children to strive for extraordinary lives. Such striving may seem admirable, but it is the way of foolishness. Help them instead to find the wonder and the marvel of an ordinary life. Show them the joy of tasting tomatoes, apples and pears. Show them how to cry when pets and people die. Show them the infinite pleasure in the touch of a hand. And make the ordinary come alive for them. The extraordinary will take care of itself.” ―William Martin

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Rejections 10-14

Rejection 10 arrived in my email on a sunny day. My friend was driving, our children were in the backseat, and we'd spent a lovely mid-day with a mutual friend. I checked my email and found this:

Could the day get any better?!?!

When I'd submitted the essay online, the publication provided a check box to request feedback. It wasn't guaranteed, but it was a possibility. I absolutely checked the box. Abbey, the editor, gave me a gift. She called my piece "interesting" and wished me luck in "placing this piece elsewhere." I am so glad I took the risk to put this piece out in the world. I would much rather it be rejected and learn that it was deemed interesting than to choose not to submit it and always wonder how it rated.

This isn't the last time I'm going to submit this work. I've got a few more rejections in me before I hang up this particular piece's towel.

I wrote recently about going through old piles of writing from as far back as fourth or fifth grade. In that stack, I was reminded that long before I created the 300 rejections blog, I'd slowly been writing and submitting work. I also applied for a creative arts grant for artists who are raising children. As I put together my application, I remembered other work I had submitted that was not published.

Since I'm the Chief Executive Officer of 300 rejections, I get to make up the rules as I go, so I am retroactively counting these other rejections:

Rejection 11Over the Shoulder,” Spoonfuls of Stories with Cheerios, children's story contest 2009

Rejection 12 Real Simple Essay Contest “What was the most important day of your life?” 2010

Rejection 13 From Skinny Nanny to Well-Rounded Mama: A Journey to Acceptance,” Pregnancy and Newborn Magazine 2013

Rejection 14 Birthing the Mother Writer,” Literary Mama 2014

So there we have it. I have been submitting work longer than even I remembered. I am so grateful for the exercise of preparing materials for the grant. I'm already a winner with the confidence I gained in the process.

Rejections to go: 285

What in the world will be written in the next 285 submissions? It's so exciting to think about. Thanks so much for going on this journey with me. 


Thursday, August 31, 2017

Rejection 9

Last night I received another rejection email. Narrative does a great job of letting a writer know that her work hasn't been selected:

Thank you for entering “The Ring” in our Spring Story Contest. We were grateful for the opportunity to read and consider your work, and we regret that your entry was not one of our winners or finalists this time.

We continue to look for engaging new works to publish, and we hope you will keep
Narrative in mind for your writing in the future.

Again, thank you for your entry, and please accept our kind wishes.


The Editors 
Narrative is a responsive publication, which is a much-appreciated-trait by writers. But it also charges $25 per submission. The cost finances the prize money, which is great, but it also adds up, so I'm going to take a break from submitting work there. I have other work under consideration at other publications, so I have a few more opportunities for publication or to add to the rejection list. Of course, I will keep 300 rejections updated.

I will have blogged twice in the month of August. It's been a month with Charlottesville and Hurricane Harvey. I needed the quiet to ponder all the feelings that these events churned in me. Plus, nothing I had to say seemed to hold enough importance in light of these events. I don't want to be tone deaf, so I opted for some reflection time. 

August has also become a month of grief anniversaries, and I needed time to chew on these. I lost my grandmothers in the same week of August a few years apart. My marriage heaved its last breath in August. Then I had a health scare. This time last year, my Nissan Pathfinder began a four-month long repair escapade that set me back thousands of dollars when those dollars were already scarce.

I've been honoring my word of the year—Quiet—by pondering all of these things away from my blog. What I have marveled at in all this quiet contemplation is how very different I feel two years after I started writing with honesty and vulnerability about these events. I am strong and resilient. I have rested and no longer feel the soul-sucking exhaustion that had seeped deep into my bones. The practices of observing rather than reacting, living in the moment, letting the future greet me as the days peel away have had their way with me. I not only feel different, I am different. I have done the hard work that makes living easier even while life remains messy, complicated, and rocky. I'm not afraid of life's ups and downs like I was in the past. I'm also not afraid of the unknown—on a regular basis. That doesn't mean that I don't stumble into momentary freak outs when I have little grasp of what's to come. When those moments strike, I yoga breathe and calm my fears with mantras that soothe and smooth out my wrinkled brow.

Despite all of this, I have been writing. I've picked my theme for this October's write31days series, and have written the first eight days' worth. I also prepared a grant application that supports creatives who are raising children. In answering the application questions, I was reminded that I have been working at this craft for a long time—even when I had a five-month-old baby, was nursing exclusively, and working full time. I broadened my definition of being published, and was happy to realize how many times my work has made it into print over the past decade. 
I look forward to hearing the decision of that award. I should know something by mid-to-late November. As far as waiting for decisions go, November is only a few calendar page flips away.
I have no idea how much I will write in September, but you can be assured you'll find my words here every day of October. I'd love to meet you back here then. Thank you for your kindness, generosity, and willingness to read my words.

PS: I also bought a clearance pair of "Old lady strappy/sassy" heels;

made this delicious pie twice and ate a bunch of it by myself, YUMMO;

Instituted a new afterschool responsibility program in my home with glowing, well-folded-towel results;

And got my first trim after the big chop in May.

A month of ups and downs. Exactly as life is designed to be.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Letter to my Younger Self

Dear Julie at 22,

I look at your sweet face, and wish I could have mothered you better then. I know I did my best, but young one, I've learned so much in the past twenty years. I know there is pain behind your smile—a mess of stuff you don't even understand yet. I remember your senior year of college. There was good stuff going on, but there was also so much confusion and fear. It paralyzed you. The world was wide open, but you couldn't see it for the depression and anxiety made more acute by the weight of the opinions and expectations of others.

Dressed for Homecoming Court - 1996

I shake my head at the depth of your suffering, especially knowing how it would plunge you even further in the decade to come. That's why I'm writing you now. I'm writing as an act of mothering us both. I am telling you now what I wish you could have known then. I am sending a lifeline to my younger self. It's a marker of how far we've come, precious.

I want you to know that that elusive love you were always on the search for from so many places—remember that? Well you found it, darling. Not in the people or places you wanted or expected, but, oh my goodness, you found it in abundance.

First, your heart broke. And not once, but over and over again. It had to. It was in those cracks and crevices that the joy and light seeped in. Your breaks made you fierce. You didn't shy away. You kept loving and hurting, growing and loving some more. In the process, you collected a series of mentors who showed you the ropes of a better way. They gave you words and tools and courage. These mentors formed the foundation of your tribe. Then a select few of your peers grew with you. They loved you even when you were a mess. And they kept loving you. Your tribe grew and so did you.

After a lot of years of contemplation and even more years of unproductive stewing, you hit your “enough is enough” point. You finally got tired of your story, so as you were famous for saying, you “girded up your loins” and got busy changing and improving your life. It was the hardest thing you'd ever done, but in the process, you figured out that the fearful stories you conjured in your mind were scarier than reality.

The damage had been done though. You were one parched plant. Your self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth were wilted. In the process of transplanting your life in a bigger pot with fresh, more fertile soil, you received unexpected showers in the form of kind words and affection from friends from your past. It took awhile for you to believe these men's versions of the woman they saw when they remembered you. It took courage for you to believe that good, kind, smart, funny, beautiful men could be attracted to you. They helped you grow into this new vision and version of yourself.

These friends helped you see how a different story about you could point you in a different direction as you rebuilt your life. They told you they were proud of you, believed in you, and held your proverbial hand until you were ready to let go. You were afraid to do it, but you'd done far scarier things before, so you stared down the fear of solitude and not knowing what came next. You beat out the fear.

And then with all this new-found energy and verve, you found comfort in your own skin. You owned your skinny body. You treasured all it had done to nurture and support and nourish your baby. You moved in new ways and watched your body transform into a strong, lean vessel able to carry you through life, unburdened and free. You felt something new. It was a sexiness that you knew had nothing to do with how you looked or who was looking at you. It was all about attitude, belief, vision, and loving life. You came to love yourself in ways you never had before. You trusted yourself. You became your best friend. You loved your daughter and your tribe with a ferocity you didn't recognize, but that you quickly adjusted to. You built boundaries to protect that beautiful, broken, mending heart of yours. SEXY.

You figured out the qualities you'd like to find in a man, and then you set aside the list, and got busy living. You don't worry about the details or logistics. You know if he comes your way it will be wonderful, and if he doesn't, life will still be glorious.

You have no idea what the future will bring, and for the very first time in your life, you are enthralled. You know that you have what you need to weather whatever storms, sunshine, and wind blows your way. You call yourself a writer and a mother—your two most important labels. You want to teach yoga, to use it as a tool to help other people heal. You dream of the trips you will take. Beyond those plans, you are staying open. To trust that you can handle whatever comes your way. You know you can handle it. You know that worry is pointless, and that living in the present is the best way to spend your days.

This, dear heart, is a true story.

I know you can't believe it yet. You are listening to Mariah Carey's Christmas album on repeat months before the holiday. It's the only thing that comforts you these days. It's okay. Keep listening.  Hang on, and believe me when I tell you it gets better. So, so much better. The pain and effort is worth it. Every single tear, hurt, misunderstanding, and doubt. It is all worth it.


Julie at 42

Spring Break - Washington State - 1997

Surprise Milestone

     I love surprises, and what I learned yesterday definitely was a surprise.
    Before the essay became Rejection 8, I read it to my counselor as proof that I'd taken her advice to write the “hard stuff” as a form of therapy. I had expected to read a few excerpts, but the more I read the better it felt to read this piece to the person who had been so instrumental to my healing and progress.
     Yesterday, I read her another piece I was preparing to submit. Within the framework of this essay I was able to discuss with her how the writing had helped me clarify my feelings about a situation with which I have been wrestling.
     We discussed Rejection 8 and how important it was for me to write those words. “I blacked out your name and have been sharing it with clients.”
     I paused, breathing in her words.
     “Thank you. This is fantastic! What an honor. My words are helping people. In this case, this is better than getting published.”
     My counselor reaffirmed the potency of my piece and how it's helping people understand their circumstances. I am living my dream. I have actually accomplished the hard work of transforming my pain into something bigger than the burden I carried for so long.
     I left the appointment and texted a friend. “My words are helping people.”
     My friend didn't exactly write, “Duh,” but I know that's what she meant. Instead she told me that when I blog, my words “spread farther than you realize.” She also informed me that she uses my writing in a college course she teaches.
     As I read her text, I felt waves of elation, humility, gratitude. I also felt tears prick my eyes.
     This unexpected moment reinforced that what I've been saying I actually mean: I am writing because it is part of who I am. It brings me joy and healing and is a form of companionship with myself and my reader. When I say that I'm not writing to become famous, I have proof that I actually mean it. I am so honored to know that my counselor is using it as a tool for others who are finding their way.
     This is what it looks and feels like to show up, do the work, and let go of the outcome.
     “No part of our experience is wasted. Everything you've experienced so far is part of what you were meant to learn.” - Martha Beck
I like the glow of my laptop in my glasses. Up too late doing what I love.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Rejection #8

Tonight I received the latest rejection.

It was a solid rejection letter--a keeper:

"Dear Julie Steele:

Thank you for sending your work to Narrative. We are always grateful for the opportunity to review new work, and we have given [your piece] close attention and careful consideration. We regret, however, that [it] does not meet our needs at this time. We hope that you will keep us in mind in the future.


The Editors"

I keep scanning my head, heart, and body for sensations. Do I need to cry? Do I feel disappointment? Am I discouraged?

It's the strangest thing. I am none of these things. Sure, I'm bummed that I'm out of the running for the $4,000 prize, but...that's not why I submitted it. I threw my work into the ring because it's a solid example of showing up, butt in chair, and doing the work. I feel relief that I don't have to wonder about this submission anymore.

It's the best thing I've written to date, but because of that, I know I've already won. There's more living and writing to do.

I have a lot of story ideas swirling this week--THAT's what has me feeling a little woozy. So today at lunch, I walked to my favorite nearby cozy, shady park, sat down on the grass, and worked on a messy first draft of a story idea that has captured my heart and imagination.

Another activity that helps ground me is to go through something old, decide what I need or can let go of and organize it. Tonight, I came home from work and went straight to the piles of papers documenting my writing life.

These projects always get messier before they get ordered. Photo evidence #1:

As I made my way through the "early work" (the college years are ESPECIALLY cringe-worthy given my broken heart at the time), I found this gem from 1985, photo evidence #2:

In the FIFTH GRADE, I wrote: "...I'll be out of college and be a writer or editor." 

Well, dang. More proof that Tammy was right. This writing seed has long been planted in me. I feel grateful every time I am reminded of it. It helps me stay the course. To remember that I'm writing because it's what brings me joy. It has the potential to encourage and help other people. These are the reasons I write toward rejection 9...152...300.

My writer's statement is:

     "To feast on words, explore their power and serve up writings      which inspire and encourage my readers and myself."

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A Longish Post about Leadership

Beginning in middle school, I found myself on the “leadership track.” If there was an event or workshop designed to build leadership skills, I was invited to participate. In the 80s and 90s, the leadership being emphasized was the kind that put the leader front and center. It would take awhile for me to experience the power and value of a quiet, steady, behind-the-scenes kind of leadership. And even longer for me to recognize that that was the kind of leadership that I embodied.

I remember a few coveted leadership opportunities being given to other people. At the time, I was disappointed and confused about being overlooked. Wasn't this what I'd been primed for? What was wrong with me? What could I have done better to achieve this role?

Now I see the value (and good fortune) in those perceived losses. So often we learn far more from the nos than from the yeses. What I now understand is that another narrative was being written, and it would take some time, life experience, and perspective for me to recognize and appreciate the other story.

I stood on the edge of the stage in my high school auditorium. I was small in the cavernous, ornate space. The other teenagers attending the auditions seated in velvet seats beyond the stage were acquaintances. I didn't know yet they would soon become good friends. I had never auditioned for a musical. I could carry a tune, but could the director hear my voice over my nerves? They took center stage as my voice quivered and registered low in volume.

Days later those same teens gathered around the orange stage door where the cast list was posted. I was in! I was a nameless member of the chorus. Play practices dominated my after school schedule, and I quickly realized this nameless role was perfect for me: I could sing, dance, and enjoy the camaraderie of my cast mates without the pressure of memorizing tons of dialogue. From my marked spot on stage, I saw how the dedication of the chorus formed the backbone of the whole production.
I noted the times when the members of the cast—basking in the glory of their leading roles—weren't prepared. They stumbled over their lines. They couldn't get the timing of their solos. They tripped over the choreography. They relied on their natural talent assuming it would take the place of hard work or repetition. The director scolded them for these lapses, scratching his balding head. Why does the chorus have the choreography down? Why can we run through their songs without interruption?
Arriving at practice prepared and taking my behind-the-action work seriously was a form of leadership.

I bundled up in head-to-boots winter wear intended to keep out the cold. Shoulders up to my ears, I stretched my mittened hands over the open fire burning in the metal drum. I was a junior in college, vice president of the group forming a campus chapter of Habitat 4 Humanity. On this frigid Iowa night in November weeks before finals, we abandoned our studies and recreated a homeless night in the cold. It was intended as a lesson in appreciation and a reminder of what Habitat 4 Humanity was working to eliminate. Toes tingled with penetrating cold. We snuggled close to friends inside the shelter of a cardboard box. Some slept, others merely rested. The discomfort was bearable since hot showers, clean clothes, and warm breakfasts would greet us with the morning sun.

From cardboard shelters on snowy ground to planning meetings in the warmth of a conference room, this service work engaged my head and heart. I was a motivated, vital member of the chapter. I had ideas and knew how to implement them beside the other board members. I found my groove; I was in a leadership position, but in a supporting role to the president.

My senior year I ascended to president of the chapter. I missed the members who had graduated. We were still an active group, but something felt different. I was overwhelmed by my role as president. I didn't feel as effective as I had the year before. It wasn't that I was incapable of leading or didn't want the responsibility. While no one suggested that I performed poorly, I knew I was far more effective in the support role than I was as the figurehead. It was a gut feeling. And it struck me as an important thing to take with me as I graduated.

This behind-the-scenes leadership has taken me into adulthood. My day job entails writing gift acknowledgments for medical school executives. I write the letters, and other people sign them. The only visible mark of my work is the lower case initials that follow the upper case initials at the bottom of each printed letter. But the powers-that-be trust my judgment and the power I wield with words. I am often consulted on how to approach the delicate nature of donor relations using well- crafted words.

In a politically charged environment, I am finding my footing as a novice activist. I am working to figure out how to best use my voice and my energy to advocate for those who are voiceless and for causes that honor all of humanity, not simply a segment of the privileged few. I often have found myself overwhelmed and disappointed that I am not doing more. As I navigate this uncharted territory, I am reminded that it takes all kinds of temperaments and personalities to achieve great things. And so, I return to my strengths: calm under pressure, quiet confidence, empathic awareness of the needs of people around me, solution oriented, and optimism. I live and lead from those places, and I am certain I can make a positive impact. 
I have been a witness to transformation in the lives of two little boys. My friends have devoted months to training, home preparation, and heart and soul exploration to become foster parents. Shortly after their credentials were finalized, two young brothers were placed in their care. When we first met these children, they were shy and scared. Under the loving, firm, and consistent parenting of my friends, these precious boys have blossomed. They smile often. Their eyes twinkle. They run straight into my arms and shout my name with each visit. 
I am certain that I could not do what my friends have done. Theirs is the front and center leadership that does not come natural to me. But I have also learned that foster parents need supportive safety nets and safe places to share and recharge from the intensity of the parenting and advocating they do on behalf of these children. I can be the soft place for this family to land by babysitting, active listening, and checking in via text. I can be a member of the village that supports these children, and I am proud to do it. 
This post has taken me months to write. I struggled with questions. By asserting that I'm a behind-the-scenes leader, was I selling myself short? Was I falling for a message spoon fed to women that promotes fading into the background?

I marinated in these questions waiting for answers, to better understand what I was working to articulate. I've given a lot of thought to who I have become in the past two years. I am a vastly different woman. I trust myself more than I ever have. I listen attentively to what guidance my gut offers when I ask her for clarity. This quote from Martha Beck appeared in my email in-box one day a few months ago. It comforted me and reinforced what I've been working out in this post.

We typically think of leadership as a “superior” dominating the behavior of an “inferior.” That is not the kind of leadership that will help the Team, or save the world. Part of the transformation of human consciousness is understanding that we can lead from any social or economic position, if we access our power to direct our own thinking, make our own choices, and respond to our own sense of right and wrong.” 

I better understand that I will continue to grow and evolve. Perhaps someday life will call me to things that today seem unlikely or impossible. But if that doesn't happen, I feel confident and competent to express myself and lead in the ways that I have cultivated since I was a child.
Among the many differences in me over the past two years is the fact that I now direct my own thinking, I make my own choices, and I respond to my own sense of right and wrong. I also trust myself and honor the spaces I am leaving behind, the new ones I am living into, and the liminal spaces in between. I have heard repeatedly as I blog about the hard places, as I check off items from my bucket list, and live into my new life that I inspire people. I am surprised by this every time I hear it, but I also understand. By living truthfully and openly, I create space for others to do the same for themselves on their own terms and timelines. 
It's appropriate that I end this leadership post with the words of one of the presidents whose biographies I have read. His words encourage me to continue accepting the quiet role of leadership that comes naturally to me.

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”                                                                                    

                                                                                             - John Quincy Adams