Choosing Simplicity (When Applicable)

As the summer winds down, a funny thing has happened for the two of us. For as long as I can remember, the academic calendar has provided the framework for my sense of time. The year was a double marathon of two semesters, split on either end with recovery time: the intermission of winter break and the longer pause of summer. Even after I finished graduate school and drifted from the semesterly ebb and flow, my husband’s academic schedule held it intact as the background music for our lives. But since he finished his doctoral coursework in the spring, we’ve been cut loose from its contrasts for a while. Our pace held steady as we worked through the summer, and the impending change of seasons won’t hold as much significance for us this time around. Back-to-school sales and the return of students to campus don’t register as much from where we stand. I take note momentarily, then carry on as usual.

What’s left is the sense that the end of summer is a time for reflection. Even if the temperature is the only thing that changes for us between here and September, I can’t shake the urge to take stock of what I’ve learned in the previous year and what I hope for in the year to come.

A little over a year ago, I settled into this space with a question or two about simplicity. What is it, exactly? And how does it work? And is it really even possible?

Of course, I didn’t find all of the answers, but I did catch sight of a common thread as I wondered aloud about simplicity in different contexts, from eating to writing to making a wedding. It’s a thread that’s become even clearer as I make my way through the book I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Bird by Bird.

It’s that most things, from eating to writing to making weddings, are not particularly simple. It would be naïve to imagine that we could ever simplify our feelings about the daily rituals, momentous occasions, and creative errands that shape our lives. Each is layered with memories (our own and others’) and colored by place and time, culture and nostalgia. And even if complexity is often a source of stress, it is also a source of richness and depth.

The opportunity for simplicity, then, is in the process, and we get to choose when and how we’ll make it work. Even if I can’t simplify how I’ll feel about writing on any given day, I can know when and where I’ll write, what tools I’ll use to do it, and what I’ll do before and after. And while we can’t simplify our own and others’ feelings about life cycle events, we can seek out opportunities to simplify the material aspects of the occasion. And although every dinner will not be simple, we can discover simplicity in the fact that a meal may be composed of whatever is at hand and that we’ll have a chance to try again at about the same time tomorrow.

My task, I think, for the coming year, is seek out those spaces where simplicity is possible and to find beauty, too, in the spaces where it isn’t.

The Youest You

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I'm pretty good at a number of things, but I don't have a special skill, talent, or hobby that I can really call my own. When it comes to my education and career path, I've managed to achieve many of the traditional markers of success. However, I'm fairly confident that's because I've chosen to stick within the boundaries of what comes easily to me, essentially avoiding failure by not challenging myself. It's also possible I'm adept at pretending that I'm better than I really am or know more than I really do.

Maybe I'm truly lazy and don't work hard enough to consider myself accomplished or skilled. Maybe I'm particularly attuned to the fact that there will always be people better than me. Maybe I'm just not cut out to excel at anything.

I'm not even sure why it matters to me. I don't want to walk around with a medal or read about myself in the paper. Am I so insecure that I'm seeking outside validation to make me feel good about myself —like my inner ten year old who wants to get picked first for the team at recess? I think having some sort of special talent would feel like a worry stone I could keep in my pocket and touch when I needed a little pick me up. Maybe what I really need is a worry stone.

Sincerely,

Just ok

 

Dear Just Ok,

It sounds like what you are searching for is greater meaning in your life—some kind of driving narrative about what you are meant to be doing and how you should shape your life.

Some call that a calling.

Recently, I read a book to my daughter (every day, several times a day, for two weeks) called Ella Takes The Stage.  Are you familiar with it?  In this children's story, Ella the Elegant Elephant is asked to participate in her school talent show.  She gets really nervous when she looks up "talent" in the dictionary, and it says, "a special natural ability."

She tries out several (singing, juggling, etc.) but eventually she just ends up supporting everyone else—mending a ripped pair of tights on a dancer, baking cupcakes for all the performers, saving the day by getting the monkey to jump into her hat for the grand finale.  Everyone claps for Ella, who does not win any medals but is appreciated as being the "wind beneath the wings" of all the people who did acts.

The message is: maybe you don't have special talent, or it could be that your special talent is supporting those who are actually talented!  To which I was like, "Oh great, teach my daughter to be a shadow artist who caretakes those with 'real talent'.  Awesome."  Don't get me wrong.  I want to champion all kinds of expression, even those who are more "behind the scenes."  But a total support person is not a fulfilling or sustainable role. So, don't buy into any of that "maybe you're just a worker bee” bullshit.

Here's how I would have ended Ella the Elegant Elephant.  Ella loves to sing, but is shamed out of it by people who think she's not good enough.  In my version, Ella would find a song she feels highlights her unique voice, even though it may sound really odd, maybe writing it herself to make sure it works.  Then she'd perform it at the Talent Show, and some people would get it, and some would cover their ears.  Ella wouldn't win the top medal in the show, but she would start down a path as an experimental musician that was highly fulfilling even as she enjoyed supporting her fellow artists by baking cupcakes and painting posters.

Shit, now I want a cupcake.  Anyway, enough elephants, more you.  It is excellent that you are thinking about this—don't shame yourself out of it.  It means that you are taking yourself, and your life, seriously.  You are craving meaning and purpose, not just empty praise.  You want to find something you're incredibly good at, not necessarily to be successful, but because it feels amazing to excel at something.

It sounds like you have gone down the "usual" pathways for finding that special something you are wonderful at doing, and have come up empty.  So here's where we flip it on its head: perhaps you're not going to find that thing in education/work right now.  Also, your idea of talent needs a re-vamp.  Maybe what you are amazing at is being you.  You need to find the medium to express your "you-ness", and follow that, even if you are not perfect/successful/praised at it.  I promise you, this will scratch the itch that you have to be "great".  You will get so much out of the process that your whole goal of life will shift.

The inimitable Martha Graham once said, “There is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.”  So, I'm going to ask you, Just Ok, to go off the beaten path if you have to, to find that way to express your uniqueness.  Don't let it be lost in the effort to obtain society's hallmarks of success (degrees you spend a lifetime paying for, houses that depreciate in value, climbing a job ladder you realize you want to jump off).  That stuff doesn't last, and you're right, it's not worth caring about.  But finding out what you are truly passionate about, and what you can do well and feel good doing, is worth pretty much all of your effort.

So here’s what I want you to do.  Make a stream-of-consciousness list of things you’d like to try, even if it turns out you’re not the pillar of perfection at them.  Then choose one to do this week.  Laugh at how terrible you are at first, but see if you get the hang of it.  What did you love to do as a child, before the idea of “success” entered your consciousness?  Were you shamed out of it and into a smaller support role, like Ella the EE, or have you just never thought about what the adult equivalent of being a master at Light Bright is (I think it’s coding, or furniture design)?

The roof is about to be blown off of this “just okay” life you’ve built for yourself.  It is going to be surprising and strange, and you may never gain the kind of external achievement that our culture so cherishes.  But you will know where your strength lies, and that is something that no one can take away from you, and which you’ll need for the inevitable ups and downs of life.

It’s time for you to be your own worry stone.

Love,

Sibyl

P.S. I don't want to influence you too much on this search, but might I point out that your quandary letter was exceptionally well-written?  From one writer to another... whatever you do next, you should write about it.

Introverts on the Internet

I was on my way to a first-time meet-up with some women I’d been admiring quietly online for a while. I loved their work and believed so much in what they were doing. And then, when the opportunity arose to meet in real life, well, it seemed too good to be true. Of course I would go. Except, the thought of meeting in person also set my already overactive worry machine spinning. I’m sure most anyone would get butterflies at the idea of meeting her idol. But it was deeper than that. It was the worry about kale in my teeth or saying something awkward, but it was also the worry about being disappointing or disappointed.

And so, I did what I always do when I don’t know what to do: I phoned a wise friend for advice. Here is what she said.

Arrive early, and pretend that you’re the hostess. Make it your job to make sure everyone else is having a good time.

At first, it seemed counterintuitive. What about being fashionably late? Isn’t it awkward being the first one to arrive?

I took her advice, though, and it worked like magic. I arrived at the hip (and rather intimidating) bar just as the door was being propped open. I gave the bartender a shrug—“I guess I’m early?”—and played musical chairs among all the empty stools until I found the one I liked. After perusing the menu for a long while, I knew just what to order and what to recommend.

By the time the others began trickling in, I felt at home, and I wanted to make sure everyone else felt that way too. I made a point of saying warm hellos and of staying late for the last warm goodbyes. For the whole middle of the event—the part with overlapping voices and jostling for attention—I was a quiet observer, taking note of social dynamics and the ebb and flow of conversation. Meaningful bookends to the evening were my first priority.

In Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, she recommends a similar approach to parents of introverted children. When it comes to large gatherings, she says, “It’s much easier to be one of the earlier guests, so your child feels as if other people are joining him in a space that he 'owns,' rather than having to break into a preexisting group.”

I’ve taken this advice to heart for in-person gatherings, but I’ve often wondered what to do about introversion online. Unless you’ve just started your very own community with yourself as the first member, it is nearly impossible to ever feel that you’ve joined an internet community or conversation early. How often have I come across a blog post that’s months old but feels as if it’s speaking directly to me, right now. Then, my excitement gives way to disappointment as the end of the article begets a “conversation” in the comments that’s 800-posts long. My initial impulse to respond and connect over the topic is shut down by the sense that the party was way too big, and more importantly, is long over. How could I possibly come up with anything interesting to contribute?

It happens too with online communities. An internet space you’d never heard of catches you off-guard, and you smile with anticipation while creating an account. But the process culminates in one of those inevitable “Who to Follow” pages, complete with an illustrious welcoming committee of celebrities and internet personalities. A rock lands in the pit of your stomach. Oh, no! I’m already late, and everyone else is already here.

I felt that way when I first joined Twitter. I remember remarking aloud that it felt like shouting in a crowded room. Why is everyone yelling? I thought. I couldn’t actually hear them, of course, but something about the fast-paced stream updating in real time seemed loud and overwhelming. It was as if I were standing on the sidelines of a chaotic race, looking hard for an opening to join in too.

It took some listening and observing, but before long, I caught the rhythm of the conversation. Fast forward to today, and Twitter is just another one of the many ways I communicate. It has its own rituals and idiosyncrasies, like any community, but by now, it feels familiar. I wonder, though, about my fellow introverts, especially those on the sidelines of internet conversations, waiting for an opening or an invitation to participate.

If the internet had a doorway, I’d love to stand at the entrance with a sign that says, “Welcome, quiet people.” We could gather at the entrance to stare at each others’ shoes and then work up the courage together to make our way toward all of the commotion. I’d want to make sure that every voice was valued, even (and especially) those who need some time for reflection before jumping into the fray.

Waiting

diving girl

By Ariana Pritchett My mom always says she could predict how my sister and I would approach new experiences in life by the way we entered the pool as children. My sister always started out on the stairs, taking them one step at a time, slowly getting used to the water before fully submerging. Me, well, I would take a running leap and dive head first into the deep end.

I am impulsive by nature.

If I get a hankering to do something, I want to do it now. I don’t want to ease into it. I don’t want to wait around and get prepared. I. WANT. IT. NOW.

This is why at 17 I ran off to San Francisco without thinking about needing money for gas or food. Why at 21 I flew to Spain by myself without a place to stay when I landed. This is why at 24 I got married, at 26 I bought a house, and at 27 I got pregnant. And it’s why three years ago I committed to adopting our second child without any information on what that really entailed. I was not going to wait around for anything. If there’s something I want in my life, my motto has always been, ‘Why wait? You’ll figure it out when you get there. No regrets.’

And so of course it’s only fitting that the universe would show up now with a big package of Waiting, my name written all over it.

Adoption for me has been all about the surrender of control . . . and waiting.

If I’d been given the green light I’d have jumped in head first to raising our second child three years ago. But adoption doesn’t work that way. First there was saving for the huge financial investment. Then there was the paperwork, which felt never-ending. Now I am waiting to be matched to a birthmom who chooses us to raise her child. We could get a call today. We could get a call in two years. And there’s still more waiting to come. Once we get matched we have to wait for the birth, and even then the adoption is not final until 6-12 months after the baby is home with us.

My family and friends question how I’m able to handle all this waiting. Tell me how difficult it must be. And it is, especially for me.

But after working my hardest to push through this wall of waiting, I’ve finally given in to it. And it’s amazing what I’ve found here sitting on the steps:

~ I’ve treasured my time with my son and husband all the more, because I know that soon it won’t be just the three of us anymore.

~ I’ve had more time to think and dream about this baby before s/he even comes into being. With each daydream I can feel my heart expanding in anticipation for this new life.

~ I’ve actually begun preparing for our child’s arrival without feeling rushed. This is new for me. We’re thinking through feeding, diapering, figuring out what is actually needed to prepare for a new addition to our family. I’ve spent quiet time mentally creating a nursery that will be a soft space of safety and comfort. Because I can take it slowly this time, activities that in the past would have caused me stress and worry are now relaxing and fun.

~ I’ve noticed all the opportunities that have presented themselves because the baby didn’t arrive in a hurry: work opportunities, travel opportunities, and time for personal growth.

But the learning that is the most tender to me is the build-up that comes from waiting, the love that continues to grow each day that we wait for our child. The knowledge that by the time we meet our son or daughter we will not be able to imagine it being anyone else.

Diving in is fast, furious and exhilarating. It has brought incredible experiences and countless blessings into my life, and I still do love to leap big. But lately I can’t help but wonder what might have been possible if I’d tried wading in slowly instead of jumping into the deep end of these huge life decisions. Because it is in the steady, gradual entry that I can really feel the water rising up over each inch of my body, until I finally immerse myself in the experience and just float. It is through this slow surrender that a deeper love and appreciation of each step of the journey is fostered and the space is created for something miraculous to be birthed.

If you want to know more about the Pritchett families adoption journey you can follow their facebook page (link to https://www.facebook.com/ThePritchettFamilyAdopts) or share their adoption website (www.thepritchettfamily.com) with your community as  50% of birthmother matches come from personal networking through the adoptive family.

[photo source]

Bridesmaids: Broke Edition

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I'm honored to be a bridesmaid in my dear friend's wedding later this summer. The only problem is that being a bridesmaid costs approximately one million dollars and I'm a starving grad student.

My friend isn't a wedding-crazy bridezilla who expects us to pony up for hair extensions and matching "bridesmaid" bikinis for pre-wedding pool time (that's totally a thing---I saw it on television). She's been so thoughtful that she's even arranged for family members to host us in her hometown since she knows we all have to pay for plane tickets to get there. The expenses that go along with traditional weddings just add up -- for everyone involved.

At this point I've adequately scrimped to get the dress, the shoes, the plane tickets, and the wedding gift. Unfortunately, her bachelorette party is coming up in a couple weeks and it's a weekend trip to her family's vacation house. Between the plane tickets, the dinners out, etc, I don't see how I can swing it. This is one of my very best friends and I hate the thought of not being there for a big event in her life though. How do I handle this?

Sincerely,

The Penniless Pal

 

Dear Penny P,

It appears to be a trend that, instead of a night out of debauchery, bachelorette parties are now days-long events.  Should we blame The Hangover?  Perhaps not---in general, it is pretty great that women are asking themselves, "How do I really want to usher in this new phase in my life?" and what they are coming up with is having their closest friends around them for a weekend, soaking up support and relaxation before all the bustle of the wedding begins.  It's sort of a last hurrah before joint couple vacations happen.

But that's what this is: a vacation.  You stated you are sad not to be there for a big event in your friend's life, but the event is the wedding. This is a vacation, that your friend has invited you on, that will be totally centered on her.  I hope I can adequately explain that I have zero judgment about this practice.  I have been invited on many such weekends in the past few years, as ladies getting hitched have decided they'd prefer a fun time away with their friends rather than a sure-to-be-slightly-embarrassing "bachelorette party".

Many of us cannot afford vacation, however.  We simply don't take them.  A "weekend away" is not a reality for us, or if it is, it is rare and hard-won.  People from income brackets and lifestyles that give them actual time to take vacations and the funds to do so take week (or month) long vacations, and then consider these little weekends away to be just something you do with your Saturdays and Sundays.

Which must be nice.  But those of us without that kind of life spend our weekends at the laundromat, planning meticulous weekly meals that fit our tiny budget and shopping for them, and, often, working our second job.  Most of the time, it feels okay to do this.  This is the life we either chose because we believed in it, or are willing to accept, at least for now.  However, it goes from feeling fine to feeling like shite when all your friends are on a weekend vacation while you are wondering if you have enough pennies to splurge on the tiny box of fabric softener this week.

So, where does that leave you?  You have two choices.  The first one is: you stay home, sit with your disappointment, and work hard at not turning it into resentment.  Perhaps you can offer a special night later in the month with your friend that is just the two of you---you can cook her dinner at your place, present her with a thoughtful homemade gift, and talk about the coming changes for both of you as she embarks on marriage.

You'll have to work together on managing the fact that you can't show up for your friend in the way that you want to, because of your different lifestyles.  This is going to keep happening.  We always want to give more to our friends than we can, and often it is because it is impossible to be at the same place at the same time in our lives every step of the way.  She sounds very thoughtful and understanding, so forgiving yourself for not going on the weekend will be tantamount.

The second choice is you ask for help.  If this is just too important to miss, you must lay it all out for your friend.  You tell her you can't afford the dinners out, so can you all cook dinner at the place where you are staying?  Ask her if she has some frequent flyer miles you can use to get out there.  Let her know how much you want to be there, but you simply can't do it on your own at this time in your life.  If she can help you, I'm sure she will, and it will bring you closer to work on raising the funds together.

Either way, you have to be really vulnerable and truthful with your friend about your financial situation, and your desire to be there for her.  I really believe she is going to be understanding either way, so the hard realities will be all your own.  Your love for your friend is non-monetized.  This is only one weekend, and it sounds like you are a friend who will be with her in the grander sense, for much longer than that.

In Broke Solidarity,

Sibyl

Trust No One

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

Okay, you asked for it . . . This question doesn’t appear to be about relationships, but then again, maybe it is!

Yesterday, one of my best friends was doing an energy healing when with no warning whatsoever, he started speaking (something he doesn’t normally do during a healing!) an unintelligible language and making a lot of weird clicking sounds. It was later revealed that he was bringing in Sirian and Pleiadean energy to prepare him for his next level of consciousness. As if this isn’t mind-blowing enough, my friend was told that he is an ET ‘in disguise’, that he’s only pretending to be human, and that he will reveal himself within the next couple of years. As you can imagine, my friend was a little shaken by this experience.

So here’s our question: Assuming that we are living in multiple dimensions simultaneously (see Brian Greene’s Cosmos series on PBS) or at the very least have lived many lives in many galaxies throughout the multiverse, aren’t we all ETs? Is it just a matter of semantics?

Thanks,

Cosmic C

 

Dear CC,

You have a pretty exciting social life.  Seriously, the best I can do these days when I get together with friends is try not to insult each other's politics by serving only sustainable agriculture.  I am obviously hanging out with the wrong crowd - no one reveals their true identity as an alien, no matter how many glitchy hip hop beats we listen to.

So, you are clearly doing something right, at least on the level of some cosmic shit happening on any old Tuesday.

Now, to your question.  I absolutely cannot claim to be an expert in human-Extra Terrestrial relations, as my experience with communicating with beings outside this earth is confined to whistling the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then feeling a little creepy thinking about who might be listening.

However, I suppose we are all E.T.s, to someone.  In many ways, we are all aliens to one another, our own little universe in our experience.  Sometimes communicating even with the members of my own family feels as complicated as mastering an intergalactic language.

And if it turns out that life does exist on other planets, it will be important to remember that to them, we are the aliens.  I suppose it is all a matter of perspective, and I commend you for widening yours.

I don't think I'd take that friend of yours to Las Vegas, though.  What if all the lights and sounds communicated something to him, and he turned into a creature from a Ridley Scott movie?  Then you'd really have a quandary on your hands.

With Roswellian love,

Sibyl

Bloom

One summer I am watering a lavender plant, which, I suddenly realize, has begun to look rather like a twig than a plant. I had known all along that it wasn’t thriving, but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly when the transformation had taken place. The plant had seemed mostly the same to me from one day to the next. On that particular day, I was certain that it looked much the same as it had the day before, but I was equally certain that it looked quite different from the lush lavender plant I’d picked up months before at the farmer’s market. I intercepted a wise roommate and asked for her opinion on the matter.

“Do you think it’s dead?”

“Oh, yes. Definitely.”

“Are your really sure, though? I mean, I don’t want to throw out a plant that’s still alive.” (Translation: I am not ready to let go of this plant.)

“Well,” she said, generously accommodating my denial, “try not watering it for a while and see if anything changes.”

I did, and it didn’t.

Since then, there have been a handful of plants, some of which passed quickly and mercifully and others which have persisted miraculously despite my neglect. In fact, I’ve just repotted an orchid that’s been with me for two years, and a peace lily of four is still hanging on for dear life.

There’s a little saying from the Talmud—I’m sure you’ve seen it on a greeting card somewhere—that every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and whispers, “Grow, grow.” These two sturdy plants must have very attentive angels because their earthly guardian has no idea what she’s doing.

Still, I’m fascinated by the slow and quiet surprises of living with green things. Another summer, I remember watching with delight as the long-flowerless peace lily suddenly sprouted a few delicate white blooms. I couldn’t say what made the difference. To me, it was a summer just like any other summer, and the water was the same and the sunlight was too. It must have been something too subtle for me to notice, but in any case, there were flowers briefly and then they were gone.

So often we measure our lives in terms of how many paces it has been since the last milestone and how many more till the next. Lately, though, I’ve been learning to find joy in slow blooms and brief delights—the everyday wonders quietly awaiting our attention.

Why We Need Feminism, Reason #3849

Asking For It with Sibyl

Hi Sibyl,

I feel very lost.  Within the past 4 years, I've moved to another state, lost my job, gotten married, cheated on my domineering husband, gotten immediately divorced due to the shame of my actions, started my own business, moved 4 times within this city, and had the misfortune to fall in love with a wonderful man who turned out to be an alcoholic.

First and foremost, I struggle with the cheating and divorce.

My husband was a great guy, but treated me very much like a mother, being bratty until I fed him and coddled him, and took care of him -- and at other times, he treated me like I was a child.  After moving to his hometown, I made friends very slowly, but when I did, it upset him and he became jealous and would scorn me..  I felt trapped.  I lost my job as an architect, and went to work as a hostess at two restaurants, at my husband's immediate urging.  I also began working at starting my own business.  I had no access to our checking account or shared car, and he was grumpy whenever I needed rides.

I just snapped at some point, and began drinking, partying and had decided it was worth it to let a predatory co-worker have his way and we began a sexual relationship.  I've always been a good-hearted person, slightly bookish and nerdy, so when this co-worker cornered me at a work function and told me that I was beautiful, and sexy and basically proceeded to force himself on me, something in me felt amazing and energized, for once.

But it only made me ashamed of myself and unable to face my husband.  I pulled away, sure that our marriage had crumbled because of me.

That became a turning point in my life.  I ended the affair, moved out, got a new job, and ended up falling in love with a man that I felt immediately kindred to.  During my marriage, I had this feeling that things were happening TO ME, rather than me being in control of my life.  As soon as I made the decision to finally face what I had done, and began rebuilding my life, I felt for the first time in my life that I could see clearly what was important to me and how I had failed to have agency in my own life with my husband.

I remembered all the times when his dominant personality had prevailed, turning me into a submissive and scared person, at his mercy.  I have never been a fighter, always sensitive to the needs and wants of others, and can easily see their perspective.  However, this type of personality, without a sense of grounding in what I wanted, turned quickly into people pleasing, rather than being understanding.  I was an easy victim who fed right into the types of emotional manipulation that people like this rely upon to keep others under their control.  Being isolated from friends and family meant that I had fallen into the perfect situation for an emotionally abusive person to take hold of me.  It's taken me a few years of therapy and personal growth to understand this, and my role in the situation.  I vowed never to get into such a bad situation again.

Very shortly after leaving my husband, I met S, a very charming, handsome and successful entrepreneur.  He was everything my ex-husband wasn't: fun, super sexy and totally energetic.  Whereas my ex-husband never had many friends, S had a million.  He was adventurous, loved my cooking, and we'd talk for hours about life, design, and literature.  He felt like the adult I had been looking for.

We quickly moved in together, and began building a life of trust, health, adventure, and business-building. I had even quit my boring marketing job to begin my business full time, with S's new company as my largest client.  Things felt like they were falling into place.

After two years of our life together, I found out that he had been cheating on me with roughly 5 other women.   Of course I was devastated, but because I had committed similar acts of deception, and had known the healing effect forgiveness could provide, I decided to listen to him and give us a chance to reconcile.

That's when everything began to unravel.

It was right around this time I became aware of S's upbringing.  He was one of 7 children in a fundamentalist Christian household, and was celibate until age 23.  He had carried a Bible around with him every day, and was very fanatical about his religion.  Until he decided that he didn't want that life anymore, choosing the opposite.  He left the church, began drinking heavily, opened up a bar with his brother-in-law, and began sleeping with as many women as possible.  He would start fights about anything that resembled family values, like having children, getting married, being faithful, creating a home, etc.  Though, he also became extremely hard on women who might be like him, dating multiple guys, being expressive of their sexuality.  On one hand, he wanted to be near these "slants" as he termed them, yet also hated them.  I believe he also has a similar feeling about himself, which leads me to the drinking.  I believe he has such internal conflict about how he lives his life, that drinking and girls ease that pain for him.  From my experience as a cheater, the worst part is facing the other person that you hurt.  There are a few ways to get around that.  You find someone new, who has a good opinion of you, surround yourself with others who have low morals and wouldn't judge you anyway, and numb yourself with booze or drugs.  I fell into the "new people" and "drinking" categories.

I've never written this story, and I apologize that it's so long.  Basically, I learned from my own experience that people fall, they fail and deserve a chance to be forgiven.  So I honored this decision and began to work with S to understand him and be there to help him get past this.  I knew that forgiveness would have gone a long way for me.

Another reason that I'm attracted to S is that he is a creative, very successful entrepreneur.  That's something about him that I wish for myself, to be as successful and well-respected.  Being accepted by him somehow makes me feel less insecure about my own shortcomings, which stem from financial instability, building a small business, and taking responsibility for my life.  I also love him, and we truly have a wonderful connection---or so I thought.

As soon as I discovered exactly what S had been hiding from me-- the girls, the drinking, the deception-- he was never the same.  He turned from a loving and supportive partner into a combative, irrational, mean-spirited person.  He began to blame me for "finding out" and for expecting too much from him.  He cared less and less about falling short and hurting my feelings.  I found out that he had been in an on-again off-again relationship for 8 years (which went on during an engagement to another woman, and during my relationship).  I know all this yet, my main problem is giving up and moving on.

Our city is small enough that getting away from someone like this business-wise is extremely hard to do.  My clients are linked to him and his to me.  He constantly makes it seem, to these people, that we are a couple, or at the very least that we are on good terms.  This is what I've termed "emotional-business abuse".  He's mostly concerned with how the public sees him, because he runs 6 restaurants/bars and wants to be seen as a leader.  He threatens that if I tell someone who he really is, that he'll destroy my business.  He constantly tells me that he created my current success.  He represents us as a couple to whoever it seems like it might be fitting to do so (without my consent and without me being there).  Everyone loves him and is fooled by him.  It's kind of a mess.  And I end up feeling so overwhelmed and (again) not in control of my life.  I didn't want this to happen, I wanted to build a life with S, and focus on doing good work and building a great business.  It just seems that because he can't come to terms with who he is, and forgive himself, that he needs everyone to like him to combat the truth of his life.

I feel courageous for having gone through what I did, and to have emerged with a greater sense of who I am, but now I'm just baffled at how to create a life that I am happy with, because so much has been destroyed in the last few years.

The whole situation leaves me with these feelings:

1.  Did I make a mistake leaving my husband?  When it comes down to it, I would love a partner and a family and a home.

2.  Why does someone like S have this power over me and why is it so hard to not equate my self worth with what he thinks of me?

3.  How can I begin to feel happy again, to plan my life with excitement?  Right now, I tend to feel like a failure.

4. How can I let this go and pursue a life that I love?

Thank you so much for reading all of this.  Just writing it makes me seem like I'm spending too much of my time thinking about this.  Please help me gain a new perspective on this situation.

Thank you,

Baffled

 

Dear Baffled,

You are in what I like to call a Patriarchal Shit Spiral. What I would really like to do is plunk you down in a feminist re-training program, where you are not allowed to date a man for at least a year, but I am not sure that exists.

The current man in your life is really no different from the last, he's just a bit more interesting. Both of them see women as objects to get what they want, rather than whole people.

I'm going to directly address your questions rather than speak overarchingly, since there is a lot here.

1. You did not make a mistake leaving your husband. Divorce is a two person endeavour, and there are very real reasons that you cheated on him and left him. You felt it was your only recourse to get out of a marriage in which you were completely stifled as a person. Could you have done it more gracefully? Perhaps. But you needed to get out of there, and sometimes the only way out is to implode it all from the inside.

2. S has power over you because of what you find attractive. In order to stop dating men like S, the co-worker, and your ex-husband, you are going to have to radically change your idea of what is "hot". You'll have to take back a lot of the power you've been giving to men to run your life, and make choices for yourself. It is extremely scary to do this at first, but in the end you'll find yourself wondering what you ever saw in those kinds of overpowering male personalities. I really want you to ask yourself some deep questions, about why you are attracted to these kinds of men, which I think would be best done with your therapist. Have you ever been into a person who wasn’t a domineering personality? How did that relationship go?

3. In order to feel happy again, you need to be free. You are completely bound up in the expectations other people have of you, particularly what the men in your life think of you. You need to get in touch with who you really are internally, rather than whether or not you are a success in your relationships, career, and life trajectory.  I know you are reluctant to let go of S, because all you see down that path is loneliness and ruin, but believe me, this man is not as universally liked as he appears to be. You will have allies if you leave him, and you will rebuild both your business and your self-worth, on your own foundation, not someone else’s.

4. Self-forgiveness is tantamount to your ability to let go and build the life you want. In order to fully embrace that, you need to understand that your choices, and your subsequent shame about them, were a part of the patriarchal system designed to uphold the image of men as powerful beings that get to call the shots, and women as mercurial sprites who exist to support and serve them. It is a system that is hurting men as well as women, and you are seriously caught in its web right now. You’ve got to cut your way free, which will be painful, but incredibly worth it.

In closing, you are definitely not thinking about this too much. It is all you should be thinking about.

In Solidarity,

Sibyl

Slippery words of another tongue

eternally nostalgic

Every so often an article catalogues untranslatable words from around the world. For example, as this Matador Network piece tells me, mamihlapinatapei means "the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start" in Yagan, an indigenous language of the Tierra del Fuego. According to the same article, the word 'tartle' in Scottish refers to "the act of hesitating when introducing someone because you have forgotten their name." And then there is my personal favorite: saudade. Not quite nostalgia, not quite longing or yearning, not a blend of both. There is more to saudade---and perhaps its magical grip lies in that untranslatable space the other words do not quite capture. I grew up in a word-loving family, with Greek as my mother tongue. Tallying up the score of Scrabble games with my father exposed me to double-digit addition and to the perennial "is that a word?" any game of Scrabble inspires. Studying for the SATs as part of the process of admission to an English-speaking university in the United States exposed me to a whole other family of potential Scrabble words. While I excelled at the questions that required knowledge of words with a Greek root, I struggled with the ones that required test-takers to pair an animal and their young. What do you call a young lamb in English? What do you call many doves flying together? The kind of knowledge that one acquires in her childhood when English is her native tongue was foreign to me. And so at the age of 16, I scribbled on flashcards: "An ewe is a baby lamb." "A calf is a baby cow." "A constitution is a group of doves, a pride is a group of lions, a pack is a group of wolves."

The realization of my own English fluency sank in when I began to dream in English, when the English words started seeping into my subconscious, displacing the Greek ones. When I started learning Spanish, or German, or even fledgling Arabic and Hebrew, I noticed that there came a moment when the precious few words I had mustered would find their way into my dreams---or, indeed, my nightmares, as that one night in Bogotá when I dreamed that I could no longer speak a word of Spanish in front of a room of 750 ex-combatants would attest to. I still maintain my connection to my mother tongue and actively try to cultivate it, even when there are few people with whom I can speak Greek in my daily life at present. I read the Greek news, and I return to my favorite book of Greek poetry by Odysseas Elytis when I am homesick for Greece or hunting for inspiration. And still---I can feel the words slipping away as soon as the language of my dreams shifts away from Greek.

It is not just the words that slip; it is also the fundamental functionalities. For a long time, I spoke 'professional Spanish.' You could ask me to lead a conflict management training and I would produce polysyllables comfortably. Put me in a bar surrounded by Spanish speakers and I would be effectively mute. The casual rhythms of a language often lag for me. I long for familiarity with those words that break the stiffness. When I aspire to fluency in another language, I hope for those words of wit and smiles, the teasing words or casual words you only learn by living somewhere and listening closely for motifs and idioms. The more of those I accumulate in a language other than my mother tongue, be it in English or in Spanish or otherwise, the more the informal Greek slips away from me. Put me in a bar in the Greece of 2013 and I would struggle with not having the ease of conversing naturally like a young person who knows she can find the word that best describes what she wants to express---the perfect word for saudade or mamihlapinatapei.

When I first arrived in the United States as a college student, I felt the impact of words in Greek. "I'm sorry" was a concept I understood by relating it to its Greek iteration: συγνώμη. "I love you" was Σ' αγαπώ. It was as though I experienced the full weight of those words only if I uttered them in my mother tongue. "I love you" did not feel intimidating in the way that saying 'Σ' αγαπώ' for the first time did---because I associated the nerves of young, unuttered love with Σ' αγαπώ and not with "I love you." Saying 'I love you' in English initially felt like performing in that way that speaking a second language often does, thus robbing the words of their full power which only existed in Greek in my mind at the time. After living in Guatemala and Colombia, I became conscious of the many linguistic iterations of "I love you", of the difference between Te deseo and Te quiero and Te amo. Despite the beauty and benefits of multi-lingualism, I never quite want the impact of αγάπη to fade---I never want the Greek iteration of words to feel more foreign or distant to me than the English word 'love.'

Every time I arrive at a new country for my job, there are words I am immediately curious to learn how to say. Empathy is one such concept, as are the words that express gratitude or respect or compassion. English is the default language in which I think now; every new word learned in a foreign language gets translated in my head to English before it's fully comprehended. And much as I celebrate fluency and linguistic curiosity, a little part of me grieves for the Greek words that quietly slip away.

*If you have a moment, look up my favorite untranslatable Greek word: filotimo -- φιλότιμο, as telling of my mother tongue as it is of my people.

Dream Job

Growing up, I imagined many dream jobs. Astronaut, architect, interior designer, novelist, journalist, professor, magazine editor, ballerina. I directed sustained and passionate efforts toward a few of these trajectories; others were brief but memorable blips on the dream job radar. In college, publishing caught my attention, and I began to distinguish between the various logos on the spines of my used paperbacks. One fall, I made a starry-eyed pilgrimage across campus with droves of other English majors to a Random House info session. I clutched my brochure and free pen with equal parts hope and anxiety. I remember every word.

After about two hundred runs through the brochure and a chat with a career counselor, I decided to let go of that trajectory too. From what I could tell, it seemed the only path toward making books went like this: move to New York, clamor for unpaid internship, starve. I decided I couldn’t afford the risk and let it go.

But a winding and unexpected journey took me through grad school, finding love, moving to Atlanta, creating my own hodgepodge internship of sorts, almost starving (how many different ways can you cook rice and beans, people? seriously.), and finally picking up that thread again, of helping to make books and sending them into the world. I couldn’t have planned it that way, and if I had, it would have seemed like a weird and crazy plan.

Of course, dreaming of a job is entirely different from actually doing it. A recent post by Lisa Congdon helps explain some of the unexpected challenges of making your dream job your real job, and I’ve been wondering lately about the whole concept of dream jobs in general.

Sometimes it seems as if the internet is full of people with dream jobs, people on their way to dream jobs, and people giving advice about how to get/find/create your dream job. Is anybody else overwhelmed by this? I am a little overwhelmed. Here’s why.

The most obvious path toward landing or creating a specific dream job is to work very hard over a long period of time acquiring a particular combination of skills, experience, education, and expertise. But here’s the catch: along the way, you will be changed by your experiences, and that dream job will be changing too.

Since I attended that fateful info session around 2007, publishing has undergone (and is still undergoing) massive changes. And the day-to-day work in any of my childhood dream jobs must be very different now from what it was when I first imagined it. (For one thing, everyone is on Twitter, including astronauts and ballerinas.) There are also plenty of brand new dream jobs to wish for: Content Strategist, Full-time Blogger, Etsy shop artist/entrepreneur, Social Media Maven, Ninja (this is a thing, I guess?).

A dream job, it seems, is a moving target. At any given moment, you, your dream job, and your perception of your dream job are changing. The idea of a dream job can offer inspiration to work hard and to meet goals, but, held too tightly, it can also be a recipe for disappointment and disillusionment.

How about you? Are you doing your dream job, or working towards one? Is the idea of a dream job inspiring you, or just getting in your way?

It's Not You, It's Me. And By Me I Mean My Job.

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I am young and employed at the exact place that I said I would love to have a job at when I graduated with my undergraduate degree just over a year ago. I have a benefits package and vacation days. I rent a small home with a fenced-in yard and a small vegetable garden in the back. Every morning, when my alarm goes off, I seriously consider calling in sick to work. Some mornings I cry.

I have struggled, over the years, with chronic "mild" depression and anxiety issues. I have gone to therapy, tried medication, and have no issues with either of these things. They helped! It was great! I have been off of both for five years to no ill effects. But I have always been "moody" and "high strung," even when it wasn't bad enough to require medicine or therapy. Coping is not my biggest strength. But I'm trying to find a therapist in the area and maybe that will alleviate some of what is happening. I'm just not sure that is the entire problem here.

I loved my job at first. But staff has changed, and now the situation feels toxic. A new coworker is saying negative things to my boss about me. My boss is increasingly taking anger about mistakes made prior to my hiring out on me. I've become paralyzingly afraid of making even a single mistake.  My boss gets annoyed if I don't respond to emails they send after hours or if I leave before they do.  I miss interacting with (and helping, even in small ways) customers, as the nature of my tasks is devolving rapidly into standard unpaid intern-type tasks (and that's about the level of credit I get). Twice last week I came very, very close to having anxiety attacks while I sat at my desk. I've only been at this job for 6 months, although I've been with the organization for 3 years.

Sibyl, do I just need to get over myself? Is this job really not for me? Should I consider jumping back into the job search, even if it means leaving my current position after just a year (assuming I am able to find an alternative after a brief job search [I probably wouldn't be so lucky])? Are the issues with my job just a figment of my currently depressed and very stressed imagination? I should be happy right now---so why aren't I? And how do I get there?

Sincerely,

Sick Of It All

 

Dear Sick of it All,

Perhaps you are familiar with this quote, attributed to Steven Winterburn: “Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.”

I think you may be finding yourself in the latter category, my dear.  You absolutely need to get out of that job.

I can understand your confusion.  It is noble to ask yourself first, "Is it me?  Am I the author of my own unhappiness?"  But I think that before you come to that conclusion, you've got to say, “Well, maybe it’s a little of both.  Let me rule out some external suckiness and see how I feel.”  If you want to find out whether depression is plaguing you once again, you need to get to a baseline of peace to see what your natural state is.

It's possible that you are getting hit with the solemn reality that, for most of the world, work really, really sucks.  It's dehumanizing and disempowering, and all the infographics about "doing what you really love" don't help when you're punching a clock to make payments on student loans that you'll never actually pay off in your lifetime.

However, it does not seem like your issues are normal work drama stuff.  Something in you is reacting strongly to this current environment, and I'm here to tell you, you can make those changes you want to make.  You must be willing for your life to look really different, but it is possible.

Having spent way too long in a job that went sour, I asked myself, once it had all blown up in my face, "Why didn't I get out sooner?  I saw the writing on the wall months ago - what kept me there?"  Everything I could think of: loyalty, security, false hope, all could be summarized by one thing: FEAR.

I feared I wouldn't find anything better, I was afraid of having less money, and I feared what people would think of me if I left.  So, eventually, I was forced out, and once the dust cleared I saw that not working there anymore, even though it meant I was out of the full-time workforce for a considerable amount of time, was the best thing that ever happened to me.

I came to the realization that no job, if you are miserable every time you’re there, is worth the paycheck, if you are paying in mind-body-spirit health.  We spend more time at our jobs than anything else we do.  I’m not saying we need to love every second - all jobs have their equivalent of “taking out the stinky garbage” - but yes, I think you should look for a different one.  And if the garbage still smells so bad that you are hyperventilating at your desk, follow up on those therapy referrals.

Be smart about it---don’t do your job searches while you’re on the clock, don’t burn your bridges (you never know when connections you made at a miserable job will pay off in the future---someone is watching your hard work, believe it!), and save as much money as you can, so you’ll be in the position to take a less-paying but more fulfilling job next, if that’s what happens.

The first step is opening your mind to the possibilities that await, and deciding that being so upset at your job that you are questioning your own sanity is not okay.  You need to break up with this bad job like it’s a really terrible partner that steals your money and crashes your car.  No looking back.

Love,

Sibyl

Note to Self

A full-time work schedule has recently plopped down into the middle of my life, sending everything else hurtling toward the edges. I’ve always wondered how anyone manages to tend to the stuff of life when business hours are reserved for, well, business. What I mean is, how do you get to the bank if you are working during all of the hours when the bank is open? The answer, as far as I can tell so far, is that you stop going to the bank. You start doing everything you possibly can online (if you weren’t doing it that way already), and you do it in the margins. It’s not that I haven’t worked long hours before. It’s just that I’ve generally been able to leave my work and tend to other tasks and thoughts as they arise. Lately, though, I can feel the various pieces of my life shaking loose from their cozy overlap and settling down into neat compartments.

While chipping away at a spreadsheet last week, an article I’d read over breakfast came back to mind. I pulled out a Post-It and stuck it to my phone, adding it to my post-5pm to-do list: “Follow Hillary Clinton on Twitter.”

I can’t say that the shift is necessarily good or bad—at this point, it’s just funny. On the one hand, I am probably increasing my productivity as I learn to interrupt myself less. On the other hand, my mind has not caught up with my newly compartmentalized schedule (will it ever?). This means that I end up sending myself a lot of emails for later and sticking Post-Its to my phone (am I the only one who does that?).

I’ve written before about how much I love the margins, so I’m watching closely now as they change. The margins have become the place where my home self sifts through notes from my work self, trying to decipher what she really meant or why on earth she was thinking about Hillary Clinton at 2:55pm.

Besides writing notes to my future self, I’ve been venturing into the past as well. A recent letter from Erin Anacker to her younger self prompted me to go poking around in the ancient archives of my blog. I had the funny realization that if I wanted to find out what my younger self was thinking and offer her some advice, I didn’t have to conjure her up. I could dig up her posts and shake my head at them, though I’d stop just short of leaving any “what were you thinking” comments.

I’ve been smiling just as much at the notes from three hours ago as I have at the posts from years past. We’re never entirely the same from one moment to the next, and I’m thankful for the breadcrumbs my yesterday self keeps leaving along the path toward today.

Let Bravery Be Your Blanket

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

My father was abusive to me growing up. Not very frequently was the abuse physical (the verbal variety dominated), but it was enough to instill a fear of him into me that I've never been able to shake. When he got angry, he took it out on me, I assume because I was the only one who would ever speak up when he was being cruel to my mother or sisters.

As a young adult, he used physical violence against me once; that incident alone is etched onto my memory with crystalline precision, and I cringe every time I see a person in the throes of anger. I had thought that now, since I was an adult, he couldn't hurt me anymore, but that experience settled that false assumption. Since that particular episode, I have just zipped my lip around him and kept my opinions to myself.

We do, however, have a decent relationship now---especially given the circumstances---and I have forgiven him, though I never confronted him about it and I’m not sure I ever will.

Now, however, I am going through a period of rather extreme personal change brought about by recovering from addiction. Through all this healing, I've discovered I’m not the person I once was, with the same strictly conservative viewpoints I once shared with my parents. My father especially cares passionately for right-wing politics and strict religious doctrine---it’s a hot button issue for him, and I've gotten frightened just watching him talk about it. So far, I've hidden my new opinions from everyone so as not to make any waves, but I’m getting tired of stifling my thoughts just so they won’t “get back to them” and result in a confrontation. I want to finally be myself without shame or fear.

The thing is, though, I am still afraid. I’m afraid of my father finding out, trying to engage me on this, and me melting down. I’m not necessarily scared he will hit me, but I am afraid of not being able to defend myself against his anger.

Advice?

Confused and Scared but also Fed Up

 

Dear Confused and Scared but also Fed Up,

The experience of having the person who helped bring you into the world, the man who represents your origins in many ways, turn on you in violence is something that shakes you to the core of yourself.  So my first thought is: though you see yourself as scared, you are actually incredibly brave.  Cloak yourself in that bravery like a grown-up security blanket.  It's why superheroes wear capes.

You were so brave to stand up to him as a kid, you are so brave to work on yourself through recovery, you are so brave to move beyond the values he clings to and find your own, and you are so brave to want to want to be yourself fully, in front of him and the whole world.

You are fucking awesome.

I hope he knows that.  I think he does, and fears it.  That's why he attempted to reassert his power over you by being physically abusive to you as an adult, and with the loud tirades about his politics and religion, which I consider spiritual abuse.

People who pontificate about politics and fundamentalist religions in a hostile way that excludes all other viewpoints are really just trying to order their world.  They see the world as an out of control place, and all the structure and rules of that way of life help them to make sense in the chaos, and find their place in it.

The thing is, in that world that makes perfect sense, where there are such heavy rights and wrongs, what you lose is love.  Love is inherently risky, and folks who are stuck in judgmental worldviews can't risk the rigid walls they've put up to hold everything in place, to love someone who might act in ways they can't control.

Whenever I consider standing up to someone, especially someone with this kind of strict worldview who may not be able to hear me at all, I ask myself this question, "Do they have any real power over me?"  If they do, if they are my direct boss or my landlord or the person holding the papers that say whether I graduate or not, then I consider holding my tongue in their presence.  However, if they don't, then I feel that it is not only my right, but my duty to be a change agent in their lives.  We don't have to wag it in their faces, that we don't believe what they do, but simply and firmly being who we are will be enough.

In fact, it is probably going to enrage your father, to see you asserting yourself, expressing views that are different from his.  The whole cycle of abuse is about power and control, so to see you moving off of that wheel and onto your own path is going to rock his whole sense of self and relationship to you.

My question to you is, what have you got to lose?  It's not like you will be giving up too much if he turns on you.  You say you have a "decent" relationship with him, which sounds to me like you are still in the role of peacemaker in your family.  What would happen if you let that down?  Your mom and siblings might say, "Why are you stirring things up with Dad?" but you could answer, "Why aren't you?  Are we all going to wait until he dies to be our true selves?"

Listen, I'm not suggesting you directly confront your father, provoking his rage.  Where I think you should start is with a therapist whom you can practice expressing yourself.  Engage in some drama therapy exercises, in which you picture your dad in an empty chair, and tell him what you really think about what he's done to you and your family, and how you truly feel about the world.  Then move into the chair and embody him, playing out his rebuttal.  Then move back into your chair, and tell him, "You had no right to be violent with me.  You have no power over me anymore.  I'm going to be myself, and no amount of posturing can stop me."

Then, start simply being your bold self, even if that means you publicly express things that your dad disagrees with.  He'll yell, he'll send you crazy forwards, he'll give you the cold shoulder.  You'll scoff to yourself, "I've survived worse", and let your bravery blanket flap in the wind.  He can’t take anything away from you anymore, because you aren’t under his control, and you know who you are now.  And if he cuts you out of his life, that will indeed be very painful, but then again, you'll be free.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

Learning by Doing

When it comes to trying something new, my approach has often tended toward signing up for courses and/or reading a lot of books about whatever that new thing might be. There is much to be said for this approach, and especially for the process of learning in company with others under the guidance of a skilled instructor. But when I finished graduate school last spring, I felt as if I’d sort of maxed out on the classroom learning experience for a little while. A great course will leave you with a better understanding of how much you do not know. It will give you the space to experiment with new ideas and the tools to continue learning on your own. And I have had many great courses. Consequently, at the end of many consecutive years as a full-time student, I began to feel completely overwhelmed, and a little paralyzed, by how much I did not know. There is only so much you can prepare and test your wings before venturing beyond the nest.

In one of my first job interviews, I was asked if I had ever done anything for which someone else’s resources were at stake. I asked for some clarification and still fumbled for a response. She wanted to know, I think, whether I had ever handled a budget other than my own or given a presentation that mattered for anything other than a grade. I hadn’t, or at least, I couldn’t come up with a good example, and I didn’t get the job.

That conversation stuck with me over the following months as I learned a slew of new things through a process of trial and error (emphasis on the “error”). My history of Google searches would be telling: “tips for phone interviews,” “define freelance,” “affordable health insurance,” “chicago manual of style vs. AP,” “how to write an invoice,” “InDesign tutorials,” “html tutorials,” “what is work/life balance.”

The Google searches have sometimes helped, but mostly, I’ve been learning by doing. It can be a messy and frustrating way to learn, especially for a perfectionist like me who would prefer to do everything the “right” way on the first try. Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear instruction manual for how to make the transition from being a student to earning a living, probably because there are as many ways to do it as there are people making that transition. There is no better way to figure out what works for you than to try and fail and then try something different.

Since that early interview, I realized not only that I would need to make an effort to take more risks, but that I would need to seek out people I admired who would value my potential and be willing to take a chance on me. Every CEO had a first job once, every author has had a first publication, and every great [insert dream job here] has made mistakes. And thank goodness for that. One hopes it is reason enough for a bit of humility and for the graciousness to encourage, mentor, and respect those who come along after.

Even Vera Wang Can't Save Me Now

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I'm going wedding dress shopping with my mother tomorrow. I didn't really want to go and still feel ambivalent about it. My mother can be a loving, generous, supportive person.  However, her insecurities can easily and unexpectedly be triggered, turning her into the Witch of the West. She can be mean and offensive in the most passive of ways, making it difficult to call her out on it. I fear she'll hurt my feelings at some point and take the joy out of the moment.

I also realized recently that she's not a selfish woman but definitely self-centered: everything is about her. I’m uncomfortable with a lot of attention, and I don't ask for much from others, but I do feel the moment I try on wedding dresses for the first time should be about me.

This all makes me sad because I want a relationship with my mother and I want to share these special moments with her, but I've learned that she's so limited and I don't want to be too disappointed in the end.

I decided to bring a friend along for protection, (so sad that I need this) but I'm not sure it will be enough. And with 13 months left until my wedding, how do I continue to protect myself and set appropriate boundaries, while trying to connect with her through this experience?

Thanks,

The Naked Bride

 

Dear Naked Bride,

This is your homework, for the rest of your engagement: practice saying no.

Start small, with someone who wants you to give them money for some charity you’ve never heard of (“Not today, thanks”), or the person who asks, “can you watch my dog while I go in this store really quick?” (“No, I cannot, sorry”), or your co-worker who wants you to finish their work for them (“I can’t get to it, unfortunately”).  No, no, no, and, guess what?  No.

Then when you need to put up boundaries with people you really do care about, like your mom, you’ll be able to do it with a little more grace, because you have practiced.  It won’t come out in an adolescent rage fit in which you bring up every little way she’s hurt your self esteem since you were six.  You’ll just say, “No, I’m not wearing that hideous doily of a veil that’s been in your family for 6 generations.  I totally get it if that is disappointing to you.  But it’s not going to happen, so let’s talk about something fun we can do together.  What song do you want to dance to with me at the reception?”

It’s really sad, but true, that we have to manage our expectations quite a bit with our parents, once we are adults.  We get to this point where we can see them for who they really are, how far they’ve come, but also what their limitations are.  We want our parents to be superheroes, but they aren’t.  They’re just people.  Who had children.

Weddings are ritual events, and all good ritual is acts as a cauldron that brings out everything in people---all the ways we are transcendent beings striving to love one another in the face of impossible struggles, and all of the little wounds that are still festering, and cause us to react in unflattering ways.  They show us who we can be and also where we still need to work.  Rather than seeing this wedding as one day in which you pledge your love to your partner in front of your loved ones, start seeing it as a whole process of creation---you are actually going to become a different person through bonding yourself to another.

So yes, your mom is probably going to hurt your feelings in this transformation process.  But the ways in which she does will give you so many clues to where you are still growing, what sensitivities your partner can help you with.  The best thing to do, rather than protect yourself from all those barbs she’ll throw at you, is to catch them mid-stream, as they are flying at your face, and inspect them.  Ask yourself, “can I use this?  Can I bring this to my partner and let it draw us closer as we go through this together?  Or do I really just not need this shit right now, and need to say a hearty NO?”  Then decide whether you can take that on right then, and use it in your becoming, or not.  As the time draws nearer to the celebration, you’ll be saying “no” all over the place, as you’ll really have to focus all your energy on fighting your way out of the cocoon.

Weddings and marriage are not the smiling photo shoots we see.  They are deep transformative acts, and they unsit all of the important relationships in our lives, especially the ones with our parents.  In the end, however, hopefully it all helps us fly.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

First Things First

A few months ago, I wrote about the advice that made writing a thesis feel effortless. It sounds simple, and I’m sure you’ve heard it before: write first thing in the morning. It’s something Julia Cameron recommends for anyone on a creative journey, even for those who are not writers. And in general, I think she’s really onto something, especially in terms of creating a sustainable practice. Let’s revisit those precious morning hours, though, because sometimes they’re not as straightforward as they seem. When is first thing?

Perhaps, like many, you don’t have much control over the series of events that unfold in the moments after your eyes blink open. You wake to a crying baby or a hungry cat. You wake in the evening because you work at night. You wake at a different time each day because you are on call or work different shifts. Many of us don’t wake on purpose but because we have to, after too little sleep. Much of the work of this world, especially when it comes to caring for living beings, is unpredictable.

Many have waxed poetic about those first moments after waking, which precede the cares of the day and still linger on the edge of dreaming. I can vouch for the magic of those moments, especially when combined with a first glimmer of morning light. If you can swing that delicate combination and dedicate those moments to your most pressing creative errand, sometimes or always, I hope you will.

And if not, never fear. I am quite sure that many great and wonderful things have been created by the light of the moon. Perhaps first thing, for you, is simply the first moment in a 24-hour period when you can snatch up a few quiet moments alone. You can leave those snooty morning makers in the dust; it might just take a little more effort to keep from getting in your own way.

Which first thing?

Let’s say you do have some control over your waking moments. You’ve turned in early, so you can rise before the sun and before all other living things within a ten-mile radius. Now the question is: what will be your first thing? Will it be writing your three longhand morning pages, as Julia insists? Will it be yoga or running or meditation? Maybe you have many loves, and you know you can’t fit all of them into that first morning hour.

The idea of cultivating a “first thing” habit to support a creative practice can be very effective, especially when tailored to the needs of the practitioner and her life. It may be even more effective, though, and less intimidating, when counterbalanced with another bit of advice. “God-willing,” a wise friend once said, passing along to me advice she herself had received, “it’s a long life.”

When what you need most in this world is a kick in the pants, I hope you will pay attention to the former and ground yourself in a practice of putting your first thing first, whatever that may be. When what you really need is an extra hour of sleep or a shorter list of “first things,” consider that you may only be able to do one very small thing in a day but very many over the course of a lifetime.

To be born over and over again

over and over

By Joy Netanya Thompson Remember the song “It’s Raining Men”? Well, I’ve never experienced such a phenomenon, but for the past year it’s definitely been raining babies around here. It’s like the windows of heaven have been opened and new little souls are falling into my life everywhere I look. I no longer have a newsfeed on Facebook; it’s now a baby feed.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I’m 28, and most of my friends are my age and into their early thirties. It’s “time”—whatever that means. Since my husband Robert and I married a year ago, we’ve always laughed off the “so when are you having kids?” question with “oh, ten years or so” kind of answers. But the deluge of babies in my life are having an “everybody’s doing it” (literally—HA!) peer pressure about them, and I’m second-guessing the loose timeline we’ve created.

But the truth is, I am terrified of having a baby. I’m scared of losing the life Robert and I share, of losing freedom and fun and, yes, my halfway decent figure. I pop birth control pills with the determination and discipline of a soldier—no babies on my watch. All the while in the back of my mind I hear a little tap-tap-tap, the secret code the Holy Spirit uses to let me know fear is driving my actions. This isn’t the first time—it’s my MO to draw up the blueprints for my perfect life and present the plans to God, asking him to bless them.

My reluctance to experience one of the most life-changing events possible is not surprising—I’ve never liked change. In the past, though, God has had a way of preparing me for change long in advance so I’m not a total basket case when it arrives. Back in my post-college traveling days, marriage was a totally unappealing idea to me. I wondered if perhaps I would turn out to be a single missionary after all. But I knew that deep down, one day, I wanted to be married. The preparing of my heart came so slowly and gradually that the first time I actually admitted out loud I wanted to find someone and get married, it still surprised me.

I can’t say I’ve gotten the hang of marriage yet, but I do like the feeling of getting the hang of something, be it a job or a new city or a life stage. The very nature of life, however, never allows you to stay in that place for long—knowing what’s best and most effective, how to avoid mistakes and conflict. In Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, one character says, “To live is to be marked. To live is to change, to die one hundred deaths.” And this, truly, is what I am resistant toward. I am resistant toward those hundred, those thousand deaths that make up a true, growing life, keeping us from stagnation and decay. The death of dependence as I walked into adulthood and learned to pay my own bills and manage my own affairs. The death of childhood friendships as we diverged into different life phases—marriage, children, singleness—and could not keep our ties tight enough. The death of dreams, of relationships, of innocence, of longtime habits and sins, of ideals and ignorance. We all die these deaths.

And yet if we have lived long enough to be marked by death, we know by now the great mystery that death brings life; all births require a kind of death. To live is to die a hundred deaths, but you might as well say to live is to be born over and over again. It is the approach to that birth that we fear and resist and see as death. But the pain of letting go of my girlish dependence made way for the birth of the woman Joy. One day, this fear and pain of giving up my independence will make way for myself to be born again as a mother—just as the literal pain I endure will bring forth my own baby. Frederick Buechner, speaking of Mary giving birth to Jesus as a metaphor for all of us, says we have every reason to be afraid of giving birth. “It is by all accounts a painful, bloody process at best…the wrenching and tearing of it; the risk that we will die in giving birth; more than the risk, the certainty, that if there is going to be a birth, there is first going to have to be a kind of death. One way or another, every new life born out of our old life . . . looks a little like raw beefsteak before it’s through. If we are not afraid of it, then we do not know what it involves.” 

And so for me, the labor pains have begun once again. It will be a long labor as I work through my fear and dread of becoming a mother, though I have no idea what that will look like. Perhaps a child from my own flesh, perhaps an adopted baby from somewhere and someone else. But the birthing process, and the first terrified and joyful weeks, will be raw, because that is an essential quality of new life. And I must labor again when I agonize over my children’s taking flight from our nest, and I must be reborn as another woman, another Joy, and learn to give birth to other ideas, relationships, and dreams. Oh God, let me never resist the deaths and the births that make up my life.

Recalibrating

I am completely fascinated by the relationships I’ve witnessed between drivers and their GPS systems. I used to assume that a GPS was simply a disembodied robo-voice that warns you when it’s time to make a turn. Apparently for some, however, a GPS is more like a bossy friend—someone you talk to, argue with, and refer to by name in casual conversation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve interrupted a discussion to ask, “Who’s Karen?” only to have everyone present refer me to the contraption on the dashboard. Go figure. In case you haven’t guessed, I am a relatively new driver and do not yet own one of these curious devices, so my methods for finding my way from Point A to Point B tend to be rather unconventional. For instance, it would not be out of the ordinary for me to call up my sister in Pennsylvania and ask her where I am as I repeatedly circle the same block somewhere in metro Atlanta. Although I’m sure you might consider this method to be entirely ineffective, it happens to be very calming. After a few minutes on the phone with a familiar voice, I have regained my hope and confidence and am much better equipped to face the task of figuring out where I am in relation to where I want to be. It works (almost) every time.

Earlier this week, I had to make a drive of about fifty miles to a place I’d never been. I was determined to complete this journey without A) phoning a friend, or B) taking ten hours to do it. I decided to bolster my chances of success by setting up two foolproof navigational systems.

By this, I mean that I taped a series of Post-It notes to the dashboard with instructions for both legs of the journey. I also set up the Google Maps app on my phone with its rather unpredictable voice guidance. I am proud to say that I made it to my destination without a hitch. The return trip, however, was another story altogether.

Only a few minutes in, I noticed my surroundings had nothing to do with anything on any of my Post-It notes. As soon as I realized I was lost, I silenced the Beyoncé album that had been keeping me company and pulled into a deserted church parking lot. I took a few deep breaths and considered my options. I could try to retrace my path and start over, in hopes of getting back on track with my notes. Or, I could start from where I was already and try to find a different route altogether.

Before I knew it, an ironic voice with an Australian accent popped into my head and sighed, “Recalibrating...”

I chose the latter option, and in the end, discovered a simpler route home than I’d originally planned.

When I finished graduate school and moved here nearly a year ago, I kept wishing I had a compass for my life. If only I knew which direction I was headed, I thought, it would be much easier to plan my course. Lately, though, I’ve been wishing more for a work/life GPS (and a real one too, for that matter). Rather than a fixed point on the horizon that I’m working toward, I wish for a guiding voice to argue with about my journey, a system that recalibrates for wrong turns, and even the option to change my destination altogether.

It seems, as I discovered on my recent journey, that my internal GPS is already built in, complete with a colorful Australian accent. All I have to do is turn down the radio, from time to time, and listen.

What Happens in the Margins

For those of us who are planners, it can take a lot of restraint not to plan our days and lives down to the very second, so that nothing is (theoretically) left to chance. Of course, planning helps us make sense of where we’re headed and how we’d like to get there. It can help us tackle our to-do lists and meet our goals. Planning can make it easier to collaborate with others and can give us the sense that we’ve got some handle on the chaos of life.

But as Erin Loechner and Sarah J. Bray have explained so well, over-planning can sometimes be the death of creativity, motivation, and inspiration.

When Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir in verse first appeared in 2011, I loved it immediately just for its title, I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, which is itself a quotation from Thoreau. The timing of its publication felt particularly serendipitous to me, as I encountered it while trying to emerge from what had felt like a very long hibernation.

A brief glance at my calendar from September 2010 is enough to make my present self hyperventillate. Every single day of that month is planned down to fifteen-minute increments, with a few hours sometimes allotted for sleep. My calendars for the following six months, however, are mysteriously blank.

It shouldn’t have been so hard to realize that my life was bursting at the seams. Unfortunately, I was too busy to take the time to notice (or care), and it took a crisis to slow me down. In fact, a simple, quiet illness brought me to a full stop.

My memories of those next few months are dim, but I can call up most vividly the grief I felt as all the things (good and wonderful things, mostly—just too many of them) I had planned so well were pried from my sleepy hands by fate and loved ones.

For much of the time that I spent flat on my back, I thought I would mark my recovery by the moment my life (and my calendar) returned to what it had been. I thought I would know for sure that I was really well again when the pages of my life were filled to the edges. That moment never came, and it was not because I didn’t get well (I surely did). It was because I fell in love, in those months of quiet emptiness, with the margins.

While I was still mourning the bright and busy calendar that had been wiped clean, the things I had crowded out of the disappearing margins of my life began to trickle back in. After years of wishing for more hours in the day, I knew what it felt like to have more time than I could ever need. All of a sudden, there was space for curiosity and wonder and reflection. A few deep and heartfelt friendships finally had room to grow. In the midst of all that quiet, I began to hear the sound of my own voice again and to really listen. I also learned to receive help and love, even when I had very little to offer in return.

For all those months, I worried constantly about the fact that I couldn’t doing anything “productive.” Instead, I was mostly lying still while my body repaired itself and the quiet worked its strange magic on me. By the time I felt like myself again, I was a different self altogether—one who knows the joy of fullness and hard work and the equal value of guarding and loving and noticing what happens in the margins.

An Adopted Dad

adopted dad

By Cindy WaiteRead the first piece in Cindy's series here

I never planned out my wedding. I didn’t imagine the decorations, or the finger foods, or even my dress. I told my family, defiantly, that I’d wear jeans and a sweatshirt on my wedding day because, “Ew, dresses.” I made the sour milk face you’re envisioning. Then I did back flips on my mom’s bed, made mud cakes in the backyard, and fell asleep reading, a flashlight hidden under my covers. I was maybe a strange child.

I always said I wanted a chocolate cake on my wedding day.

“No, honey, that’s what the groom has. The bride’s cake is white,” My mom impatiently told me, again. I made my sour milk face so contorted I might have passed out from disgust.

I can see her now, my Mom, at our scratched wooden kitchen table, the plastic covering pulling over the edge, the kitchen garbage pail at her feet, a Russet potato in one hand and a peeler in the other. She would have looked up at me without missing a beat with the potato.

“Why can’t I have a chocolate cake, too? Who said only boys can have them? I’m going to have a chocolate cake.”

It made all the women around me laugh whenever I said things about my chocolate cake and jeans wedding, so untraditional was I, so my cake grew in brown, sugary divinity each time the conversation arose.

“It’ll be a BIG chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, covered in M&Ms, with chocolate sprinkles on top of that.”

Then I bested myself, “It’ll be a three layer chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, covered in M&Ms and sprinkles on top.”

I didn’t spend my young years daydreaming about my nuptials, but I did spend a lot of time wondering who would walk me down the aisle.

I call Rob, my mom’s best friend, “Adopted Dad.” He spoils me. He got me my first perfume, “Romance” by Ralph Lauren, for my birthday because I smelled it in a magazine and liked it. I liked the name as much as the scent.

I’m moderately more graceful than a baby giraffe, only slightly lighter on my feet than Shrek. I smelled Ralph Lauren’s newest scent when I peeled back the bulky page in Seventeen, and I saw myself transform from my not-quite-or-at-all-grown-into-myself body to a romantic heroine starring in my own meet-cute love story. I’d be sophisticated. I’d be urbane, a word so sophisticated, saying it put me in a new class.

Adopted Dad is divorced. He’ll be happily remarried in a few years, when I’m 17 or 18. He’ll stop being Adopted Dad then, but I’ll hold on to the title for keepsakes. Divorced Dad can be a Dad to me; he has room and time in his life to adopt me into it.

Adopted Dad lets me drive. He’s okay with me behind the wheel, guiding me from the passenger seat. He doesn’t grip the door handle and dashboard until his knuckles turn white---that’s Mom’s job, and she should get a pay raise she’s so excellent at it.

I’m driving out to Six Flags with Adopted Dad and his 10-year-old son, my babysitting charge. Adopted Dad took the day off, and he handed me the keys. I didn’t know my palms could produce sweat so fast, but those keys felt like they were dipped in oil they were so slippery. I drove through Newnan straight on to 85 North, headed for Atlanta.

I’m on the interstate, driving through Spaghetti Junction---six, eight, fifteen lanes twisted like noodles, my heart racing with nerves in the snaking, speeding traffic. This is my opportunity to prove my maturity.

I’m 16, but I swear it’s more like 20-something because that’s what everyone says. I’ve grown up in single parent years---that’s 1.5 for every 1 normal kid year. I sort of get how dogs feel, passing everyone by.

Rob tells me, “It’s okay to speed,” as matter-of-factly as though he’d said, “There are cars on the road right now.” I stare at him out of the corner of my eye, my peripheral vision stretched as I also try to keep both eyes straight ahead, my hands at 10:00 and 2:00 and my heart from fluttering straight out of my chest onto the console.

“If you have the money to pay for a ticket, then you can take your chances exceeding the speed limit,” he continues. “You can choose to break the rules if you know the consequences and accept them.”

I feel immensely loved in this moment.

This is real dad advice. This is a life lesson that seems absurd on the surface---one a Mom would yell about, eyes bulging out of her head, demanding to know what on earth he was thinking telling a 16-year-old something so irresponsible. But Dad would know that he has a smart daughter, one with a head on her shoulders that got it, that gets him, that will be a more responsible driver and person because now she’s empowered with choice and the weight of responsibility.

I’m choking up because he said this and I’m imagining that scene, and a car cuts in front of me, and my reflexes jerk the wheel enough for us all to notice, but Adopted Dad doesn’t critique. And I’m calming down now because I can do this.

Men bonded with Chris mostly, growing up. What’s a boy without a dad? They went fishing and hunting, and he learned to tie knots and change a car tire, all while I played beneath the towering oak tree in the front yard. Men lent me a lap to crawl on when I was little and reassuring, big hugs as I aged. Men taught Chris and comforted me.

But Rob took me on busy Atlanta interstates and taught me to trust my gut. He taught me the tools of the Dad trade---lecturing me on too much time spent online talking to boys and wondering if I’d like to learn how to change a tire, after all.

I still wear Ralph Lauren’s Romance. I still think of Adopted Dad when I spritz it, pushing my shoulders back and my head high and entering the mist as any urbane woman might do.

I put Adopted Dad in the “maybe” column to walk me down the aisle.