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

One Big Awesome Tide Pool.

diary of a filmmaker

Dear Diary, Last week I started working on my first podcast. It’s a new sub-project of my documentary film Stories From The Green Cabin. The podcast is a little silly, really. It asks people to talk about their work as if it were a wilderness. Say, for example, that someone is an essayist. The podcast asks them: What would essay writing look like as a physical place? Is it like a lush rain forrest, a freezing tundra, or a beautiful, peaceful field?

Then more questions along those lines: What is in an essayists backpack? Do you need a map, or is there a clearly marked path? Is it lonesome or are there lots of others like you?

What is the most dangerous animal to an essayist? (The Internet? An empty coffee cup? Self-doubt?)

What’s in your canteen? (Tea? Coffee? Whiskey?)

What’s your advice to a newly exploring essayist? How important is it to go to school or have a guide before venturing into this wilderness?

What would a Girl/Boy Scout style badge for your work look like?

I’ve had this podcast idea for a long time. I had been listening to shows online about writing, pop culture, science, international news, cooking , etc. Eventually I started using the Sticher app on my phone, which helped me burn through even more podcasts while walking my dog, sitting in traffic, or riding the train. Most of the shows were great. I loved them. Two of my favorites were The Dinner Party and Hash Hags. I liked the content and the hosting of Hash Hags, the theme and the structure of The Dinner Party. I wanted to listen to a show that combined the two, but couldn’t find one.

So I bought a bunch of audio equipment and told a few close friends about my idea.

Then I let the audio equipment sit unused on my bookshelf for almost six months.

Then I emailed Elisabeth and Miya and said “Hey, I have this idea for a podcast, can I share it on Equals?” They said yes.

Then the audio gear sat on my bookshelf for another month.

Something was wrong.

My desire to produce a podcast was there but wasn’t strong enough to justify a stand-alone project. The podcast didn’t have a home within Stories From the Green Cabin at that point. Would I really want to create a new website and media presence to support this podcast? I wondered. Would I really want to bother my friends about having them as guests on a silly little side project without knowing where it was all headed? There were so many people I wanted to talk to about their work but there was little reason for me to set aside the time in my schedule to record, edit, and promote this quirky program.  It seemed to me, at that point in time, that the podcast idea was just a distraction.

It wasn’t until recently, when I was halfway though an application for a summer media program*, that I realized how the film and podcast were linked. Applying for something always has this clarifying affect on my work. Regardless of whether or not I secure the grant or get accepted into the residency program, the structure of an application always demands a simple, straightforward explanation about the project in question.

The boundaries an application presents in format and word count always leave me with a better understanding of what I’m really up to. This time around I came to see how both the podcast and the film satisfy this intense curiosity I have about identity, creativity, and work. It seems so obvious now, but just months ago I couldn’t make that connection.

When I was little I was obsessed with tide pools. They felt like mini-oceans suddenly and perfectly contained for observation. Every once in a while a big wave would come and wash all of the little tide pools into one big awesome tide pool. I felt the same sense of wonder and excitement when connecting the film and podcast. For a long time I was just waiting for the next big idea wave, I guess, when all it really took was filling out that application to change the tide.

*The program I applied to (and have since enrolled in) is hosted by AIR (Association of Independents in Radio) and Uniondocs in Brooklyn. It’s called the Full Spectrum Storytelling Intensive. For any freelance radio or film producers out there, check it out---there are still a few spots available!

 

Lemon

Two memories.

1) 3rd grade. My friend Rebecca’s mom was an artist, like my mom, and she did a painting for our class based on Charlotte’s Web. I wanted everyone to know that my mom was an artist, too, so I suggested to her that she should paint our class a picture of the Boxcar Children (you know, in her spare time). She told me that she was sorry, but she couldn’t ever seem to get excited about making things that were other people’s ideas.

2) Junior or senior year of high school. Sitting on my bed, looking at an art school course catalogue, and thinking, “All of these majors look really cool...except for graphic design. I would never do that.” The page about the graphic design department had an image of a lemon. I recoiled from it the way one might a person whose behavior reminds you too much of your own secrets—the kind of reaction so strong it deserves to be examined, but usually isn’t.

I spent most of my life assuming that no matter what kind of artist I was, I would never, ever be a commercial one. Like, it would be much better to work at a job I don’t care about at all, than to compromise the purity of my artistic expression.

I came of age, after all, during the grunge era, and if I learned anything from Kurt Cobain (and from my mom), it was to avoid being a sell-out.

Now it’s 2013 and lo-fi has become an aesthetic found in car commercials and Taylor Swift videos, twee is an insult, and punk is an exhibit at the Met. Sleater-Kinney broke up and Carrie Brownstein is on TV making fun of the hegemony of the DIY aesthetic (“put a bird on it!”) We’re in a brave new world, people.

The friends I have who make art either:

a) Are commercial artists in one way or another (even if they also have a fine art practice)

b) Are part of academia

or

c) Feel like they have no idea how to make a living as an artist, and have a job doing something else.

I’m not sure if this is just me growing up or an actual cultural shift, but I do feel like the successful artists I’m aware of these days seem less like Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites and more like Ben Stiller in Reality Bites. I mean, it’s easy to make fun of the Ben Stiller character because he kind of betrays Winona Ryder and he's such a people pleaser, but...he’s trying. Ethan Hawke is just stealing candy bars and making fun of her dress and sitting around the house acting like he’s above it all.

I’m almost done with the book trailer I’ve been working on—someone else’s words, someone else’s story, but my aesthetic and my visual interpretation. The overall “voice” of the project isn’t purely mine, but I believe in it to the extent that I feel good about putting my name on the finished product.

I’m thinking about that lemon. I remember the paper, it was matte. I remember the colors, yellow and green. It was a nice lemon, you know? You can do a nice still life painting of a lemon and photograph it and make a cool graphic image of it. You can do whatever you want with that lemon. It's a lemon, it's not going to get mad at you.

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.

xxxx. paris

postcards from france

I first lay eyes on the Eiffel Tower, that eternal symbol of France, in the summer when I am 15 years old. I haven’t even had my first kiss yet, but I am filled with romantic visions of Paris — ones that I’ve carefully cultivated during repeated viewings of Amélie and Before Midnight.

On a hot afternoon train back from Versailles, I quietly watch as a French girl a few rows in front of me is approached by a cute Spanish boy, both about my age if not a few years older. Their common language is English, so I listen as she points out places to go on a folded, faded paper map of the city that he’s pulled out of his pocket. Before their separate stops in the city, she writes her phone number somewhere around the sixth arrondissement. He flashes a heartbreaking smile back at her as he steps off the train.

If only I’d sat in that seat, I scowl.

For a long time, I think of travel in this way — a matter of happenstance and luck where something magical might happen only if I’m in the right place at the right time. To a certain extent, I still think this is true. But the most magical things I’ve experienced so far have happened when I make them happen — when I uncross my arms, get up, and move a few rows over.

The Diary of a First Time Filmmaker

diary of a filmmaker

Dear Diary, I am making a film. Does that make me a filmmaker? I'm not sure how this all started.

I guess it began back in August last year when I traveled from Virginia to New York to go to that blogging conference. I wasn’t much of a blogger, really. I was mostly unemployed, living in a dank hunting cabin that was infested with stink bugs and a rowdy squirrel family, and feeling mixed up about my next step in life.

I had hoped the cabin would help me make progress towards my goals. I hoped blogging would magically make me more dillegent in my writing practice. I hoped I would find a way to get out of coffee shop and retail jobs for good. The blogging conference was my first real step towards what I wanted to be doing with my time.

Don’t get me wrong, Diary. There’s nothing wrong with working in retail or pulling shots of espresso to get by. I still work in the service industry to pay rent. It was just that I didn’t know how to balance that work with the work I wanted to be doing in writing and filmmaking. The cabin gave me time to apply to writing residencies. It gave me the safe feeling I needed to share my work with someone other than my writing partner.

My time at the cabin also gave me some perspective on other work I had done that hadn’t been a good fit. I had worked as a production assistant on commercials, documentary films, industrials, and reality shows. But I think it was a safety net to work those kinds of jobs. I wanted to be close to filmmaking, but I never actually made any films. I was close to something I loved, but not actually embracing it full on. I enjoyed working in production but I wasn’t sure it was helping me find my voice. It wasn't much different than working at a coffee shop or in retail.

At the blogging conference, just like when I had worked on production gigs, I struggled to explain my story. I was a complete failure at “branding” myself in a way that made any sense or felt honest. Freelance production assistant/barista/salesperson? Aspiring director/editor/ writer? I didn’t know what I was about, let alone what my blog was about. Was it about my move to the cabin? About my budding interest in food? My pets?

It mostly became about my pets. 

I had a hard time connecting with people at the conference because I was so confused by my own blog. One person I did connect with was Lisa Weldon. We met at a small group session about writing book proposals based on personal blogs. The content of the workshop went in one ear and out the other, but Lisa’s story stayed with me. After the session I introduced myself and wrote a little note on a piece of paper with my contact information since I didn’t have any business cards. I also wrote “you’re awesome!” because, well, she is.

After a few weeks back at the cabin thinking about why I liked Lisa’s story so much, I emailed her and asked if I could write a screenplay about her experience. Lisa had walked every block in New York City the summer before and mastered social media in the process. She said yes.

Eventually I realized that reaching out to Lisa about her story was also a security blanket of sorts. I thought if I wrote about a compelling story that had really happened I’d have justification to write a screenplay. None of my own ideas could be good enough for a script, I figured, I needed someone else to help me along.

Lisa encouraged my writing through emails and calls. We even hung out in her hometown of Atlanta so I could do research for the screenplay. But then a funny thing happened. The story stopped being mostly about Lisa’s trip to New York two years ago, and started being about our relationship. We sent each other drafts of stories, sample chapters, and general positive vibes about our respective creative ventures. We stopped talking about the screenplay, and started talking about a documentary.

Now, almost eight months later, I’m almost halfway through with a short documentary — my first film — about Lisa and a few other talented people who shaped my time at the cabin.

I find it hard to think about what the filmmaking process has been like so far.

This is all I can think of:

At the cabin I used to sit on a concrete bench beneath a rotting old walnut tree. I’d look out across the flood plain and watch deer flicker through the trees. I would watch groundhogs perk up on their hind feet, nibbling grass and rolling their wary glistening eyeballs back and forth across the field. I’d watch birds, those bright little singing kites, gliding through currents of sky.

Making my first film feels something like watching a wild animal from far away. Maybe it's the not knowing what will happen next. Sometimes the deer disappear into the trees, other times they freeze, heads perked up like the wary groundhogs. And sometimes the birds take off over the ridge and soar higher into the clouds, higher than you'd think a bird could go.

Lessons from the workplace...(part two)

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara, Last week, I started to think about the lessons and wisdoms that I have learned over the years from my mentors and colleagues when it comes to work and the workplace.  But soon I was also thinking of lessons I learned more broadly there as well.  These have served me well as I moved from one workplace to the next, and I have applied many of these same lessons from my work life to my non-work life:

  • People need to know what you’re about in 30 seconds or less: Be efficient.  Know yourself.  Know what you want.  Be able to communicate that to others.  I know it sounds simple, yet it is amazing how many people don’t know how to do it.  Sometimes when we spend a lot of time thinking to ourselves, we forget that others don’t necessarily know what we’re thinking unless we tell them.  And they’re likely not going to take a lot of time to hear us out---practice giving your “pitch”, that way it will be perfect when it matters.
  • The deal isn’t done unless there is ink on the paper:  This will happen to you.  At work . . . in real estate . . . with your local florist . . . doesn’t matter, it happens all the time.  When we get excited about a project or an offer or a possibility, it’s easy to assume lots of things just by talking about it.  When you’re on the receiving end of an offer, remember that the terms aren’t done and decided until the proverbial ink is dry.  Deals will fall through, offers get rescinded . . . until you are one hundred and ten percent sure and signed, always have a plan B. You’ll be less disappointed in the long run.  And if you’re the one doing the offering, try to keep your descriptions as flexible as possible for as long as possible.  That way, you’ll be disappointing others less in that same long run.
  • Some things will just "go away”: It’s not possible to get to everything that’s asked of us at work (or at home, or at school). Part of learning how to manage what’s on your plate is prioritizing what you know will be important and then taking your very best guess at what is less important.  As you get older and have more experience, that guess will become easier---but you will get it wrong sometimes.  This will result in some mistakes, and definitely in lots of effort as you make up for it, but overall, it should help keep workloads manageable.  Develop your radar for truly important and critical projects and requests that are priorities, and pay less attention to the stuff that will likely “go away”.
  • Check the headlines the morning of: It’s just good practice.  I don’t know if the news will still even be printed on paper by the time you are my age, but in school, in work, before big meetings, check the headlines.  You’ll be surprised how much you reference them because they are relevant or because they help make conversation while you wait for relevant things to start.
  • The best bosses aren’t necessarily the friendliest ones: As you start working , you’ll work for and with a variety of people, and you might not immediately like some of them.  That’s okay.  But there is a difference between liking someone and learning from someone, and in the end, I’ve learned the most from people who sometimes weren’t always the friendliest or the most approachable.  However, by doing good work and building up your credibility over time, you’ll gain access to them and lessons that they can teach from their experience that you will not easily get elsewhere.  Look for bosses and mentors that you can learn from.  Then one day, it will be your responsibility to teach it back to someone else.

All my love,

Mom

 

Zelda Fitzgerald: Flapper. Artist. Author's Wife.

historical woman

In our ruggedly individualistic culture, I often wonder: what is it like to be famous because of the person you’re married to? To appear in the press, go down in history books, as “so-and-so’s wife”—to never, ever be mentioned without your spouse as starting point or explanation? In some ways, I think it must be harder even than being a nobody, like the rest of us. At least we can pretend at the idea of absolute autonomy, that we achieved what we have on our own. Even if you’re nobody, you are your own nobody. You’re second to nobody.

Zelda Fitzgerald, whose life reads like an exciting tabloid drama (and who, clearly, would make the best E! True Hollywood Story), is one of those, a Somebody’s Wife. Her Somebody is renowned Jazz Age novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. You know, The Great Gatsby guy. That book you had to read in high school that you still kind of remember and is now a Baz Luhrmann movie. Their life together was glamorous, whirlwind, tumultuous, and ultimately short-lived. It reads like an American Greek tragedy. And while F. Scott had some tough breaks, I have to say, I really feel like Zelda had it even tougher.

Zelda Fitzgerald, born Zelda Sayres, came from a prominent family in Alabama. There were senators, judges, etc. amongst the men in her family, so she was definitely your classic, privileged Southern Belle. However, it seems Zelda was a little, I don’t know, spunkier than her fellow SBs: drinking, smoking, seeing boys. That might have been why F. Scott was so taken with her upon their first meeting—he probably recognized a kindred spirit.

As soon as F. Scott’s first novel, Tender Is the Night, was published, he and Zelda were married. In no time, they were the It Couple of the 1920s New York (and later Paris) party scene. They drank. They cavorted. They spent money. They fought. It was all very Great Gatsby. Also, as you probably saw in Midnight in Paris, they were friends with many other American artistic luminaries: Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas.

As her husband’s star was on the rise, Zelda threw herself into her childhood passion, ballet. It was a little late in life to start a career as a dancer, but for a while she devoted herself wholly to the art. It didn’t come to anything. Later, she would also take her shots at both painting and writing. The gist is, she seems to have been pretty good at all three. But what kind of career could the hard-partying wife of a super-famous hard-partying author really expect to have?

And eventually, even her role as Famous Wife wasn’t going too well. The drinking and fighting started to dominate a little too much of the couple's time. They both had drinking problems; they both had affairs. Zelda’s emotional health declined. She did one stint in a sanatorium (old-timey rehab) before checking into a psychiatric facility, which she was in and out of for the remainder of her life. She died in 1948, in a North Carolina hospital, trapped in the building when a fire burned it down. Terrible way to go, and first on my list of two tragic famous people psychiatric ward deaths (the other is composer Robert Schumann).

Only more recently has interest in Zelda’s artistic output been renewed, both her paintings and her 1932 semi-autobiographical novel Save Me the Waltz.

Zelda’s story, for me, brings to mind Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s amazing, amazingly creepy short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which a confined housewife slowly goes mad in the room where she spends most of her time, and which was based on Gilman’s own experiences with mental illness and marriage. Zelda and Gilman’s heroine are different, sure—one was stuck indoors in the 1890s, the other was liberated and living it up in the 1920s literary party scene—but that stifling quality of being forever in the shadow of your male partner, constantly searching for that space that through your accomplishments you can call your own, seems in line on an emotional level with that more, perhaps, timeless female struggle. Maybe that’s why Zelda’s story still resonates today.

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.

Lessons from the workplace...(part one)

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara, Late nights at the office have had me thinking about work recently.  This year actually marks ten years that I’ve been in the work force, and in many ways I feel like almost no time has passed by at all.  I feel that there is still so much learn, and there are so many jobs I’d like to have before I would feel that I truly have the experience to be considered qualified.  But then, I look at our incoming summer interns, or the candidates that will be starting with firms here in the fall, and I know that to some degree, I’ve also come a long way.  I was that young too at one point, starting out with nerves and anticipation.

With that in mind, I’ve thought of a few things I’ve learned from some of my best mentors along the way---things I definitely didn’t know when I first started:

  • Check, check, and double check: First lesson from my first boss and I still use it today.  Of all the things that we do at work, no matter what the field, when you are new at doing them, or do them a lot, or do them tired, or have others help you do them, the bottom line is that you have to check it . . . check it again . . . and then check it once more.  Just because you “thought” something got done, or got done right, doesn’t mean that it did.  And no matter what the reason, often times you’ll find yourself being the one to explain something that didn’t.  You’ll be tempted to skip these steps, and you’ll regret.  Just check, check, and double check.
  • Don’t turn down a job you haven’t been offered yet: Same job, different boss for this one . . . It can be easy to imagine ourselves doing lots of different things in life---and that’s a good thing.  But it’s also just as easy to picture yourself not doing a lot of things . . . you don’t want to live somewhere . . . the pay wouldn’t be right . . . your skills wouldn’t be right. But you’d be surprised at how much can change between initial conversations and then actual offers.  Don’t limit your own opportunities before someone has had a chance to offer them to you.
  • Always leave the door open: Workplaces and clients and colleagues will come and go.  Sometimes on good terms, and sometimes on ones much less so.  When you’re ending a work relationship, if you have things to get off your chest about how things weren’t how you thought they would be, be sure to think twice.  End the relationship as diplomatically as possible, since the chances that you will work with that person or organization or brand or chain are high, and only getting higher the more interconnected we become.  Don’t let things you say professionally (or personally for that matter) come back to haunt you.
  • You’re not above anything:  One of the best feelings at work is the one you get when you’re promoted.  Not only does it usually mean you a make a bit more, but it’s a huge validation of your efforts.  When that promotion comes, just remember that it doesn’t make you better than others who were passed over, or who haven’t yet had theirs.  A promotion is an earned acknowledgement of your work but it’s not a free pass for all the things you’d rather not do.  Sometimes, the best way  to lead your team is to work right in the trenches with them.  Don’t put yourself above any tasks, since you never know when you’ll have to start from the bottom up again.
  • Will you live to work or work to live? Work is a funny thing . . . you will end up in all likelihood spending more time at work than you do anywhere else, including home.  But work will likely always have trade-offs between you might be passionate about and what the job actually entails.  You’ll have to pick the right balance, but just remember than in addition to finding work a fulfilling way to spend our time, it is also what pays the rent, what puts food on the table, what buys us our leisure and hobbies, and what will do the same for your own children.  At some point, the lifestyle you want will also dictate the work you need to get.

All my love,

Mom

 

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.

Lessons from Chicago...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

Sometimes when I travel for work, I have that sensation of needing to get outside right then and there.  Often when I travel, the routine involves heading from airport to hotel to office, and then back in reverse again, that it seems like I can go days without fresh air.  It happened to me again most recently in Chicago.  Outside of the huge wall to wall windows in the hotel room, I felt that I had to get some sunshine and fresh air, even if it meant working on my project until late into the evening.

I hopped out and started heading down the street, and came across the boat tours that go up and down the river and out onto the lake.  I bought myself a ticket, catching one of the last available ones for the day and had a just an hour to myself to take in the architecture and the breezes of the city and I realized:

  • Water is our most precious resource: Most of what Chicago grew to be as a city is due to the remarkable possibilities of having both a major river and a major lake.  And it’s that same lake that provides the water that comes right out of every person’s faucet, drinkable at that.  So much of our fortunes are tied to water; when a city is blessed with this kind of resource twice, it’s absolutely our job to take care of it.
  • It’s always colder on the lake: No matter how  the weather of day, you can always find a breeze on Lake Michigan.  On hot days, it’s a welcoming cool down; on cold days, it chills to the bone.  If you’ll be going on the lake, dress for it.  You won’t regret the extra sweater.
  • A good city plan both endures and adapts: As a city, Chicago is fascinating.  But what’s most fascinating is how the city’s plan has expanded and contracted while keeping its core intact as times and needs have changed.  Every city should have a plan, and every plan should do the same.
  • Public art is a public treasure: For some, art means expensive paintings that hang in dark corners of homes and museums.  But Chicago does a fantastic job of putting art “out there”.  Right in the middle of downtown. . .right in the middle of a park. . .right next to the lake.  In Chicago, where you can find people is also where you can find some of the best works of art.  They fit so seamlessly into the cityscape that sometimes we don’t necessarily notice that they were likely a huge investment on the part of the city in order to put them there.  Appreciate the efforts that cities make to keep things interesting and beautiful for the public benefit.
  • Surround yourself with smart people: While on the boat, I was thinking of how different life would have been if I had chosen to go to school there versus elsewhere.  I remember when I visited a noted university there to make my final decision, that it was the first time I realized that I was surrounded by extremely smart people everywhere I looked.   I liked that feeling, and I knew I would be smarter because of it.  I ended up choosing another place for my education, because it was a better fit for the future, but ever since then I have never stopped looking for strong qualities in others to surround myself with.  Other people’s strengths shouldn’t be intimidating, they should be something to learn from.

All my love,

Mom

RED SHOES

word traveler

What’s left when someone disappears? Only memories? What can the relatives hang on to? A sweater, a favorite book with scribbled notes, a shopping list on the refrigerator, a comb, a pair of shoes. Familiar and insignificant objects that suddenly become special when who used them every day is no longer with us.

Not much more is left from the women of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Since 1993, hundreds of women have been murdered in this desert city. Many of the bodies have never been found, no faces to be kissed one last time by the parents or the children. Estimates have been made by the local newspaper and they don’t aim to be accurate–878 women killed between 1993 and 2010. Not much has been done by the local authorities, and there are a very large number of women who are still lost.

As Haruki Murakami wrote in Dance, Dance, Dance, “Precipitate as weather, she appeared from somewhere, then evaporated, leaving only memory.

In Ciudad Juárez, pasted on storefronts and house walls, you see photographs of the missing women. «Disappeared. Contact us if you know something». Sometimes the remains are found in the vast desert that surrounds the city, sometimes they are not, and the families keep praying and hoping. The homicides continue, and the women usually come from poor families. What expect them are tortures and rapes, and cold nights and hot days in a desert that becomes their tomb.

In honor of the hundreds of women and girls killed in Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican visual artist Elina Chauvet started «Zapatos Rojos» (Red Shoes) in 2009. It's an art project that consists in lots of pairs of red or red-painted shoes to commemorate the cases of violence against women in the whole world. Her first work was realized in Ciudad Juarez—she, together with other people who acknowledged the “feminicide”, collected 33 pairs of red shoes and arranged them in place to simulate a protest march of absent women. Now it goes beyond the border of Mexico. This silent march arrived in my hometown, too, and I'm so proud about it: two installations occupied Piazza Vecchia (the Old Town Square) from May 12th till May 15th. It’s “public art” because people were making it. Everybody could contribute–many women were donating their old shoes, and painting them in red before leaving them in the piazza. It was nice to see families doing this together.

No words were needed, because those shoes were telling the stories of emptiness and torture of those who were left behind.

This quote from Murakami’s book somehow seems perfect to me:

Dance," said the Sheep Man. "Yougottadance. Aslongasthemusicplays. Yougotta dance. Don'teventhinkwhy. Starttothink, yourfeetstop. Yourfeetstop, wegetstuck. Wegetstuck, you'restuck. Sodon'tpayanymind, nomatterhowdumb. Yougottakeepthestep. Yougottalimberup. Yougottaloosenwhatyoubolteddown. Yougottauseallyougot. Weknowyou're tired, tiredandscared. Happenstoeveryone, okay? Justdon'tletyourfeetstop.” ― Haruki Murakami, Dance, Dance, Dance.

Meet the Local: Sydney, Australia

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a series designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  Over the upcoming months, I’ll ask locals from places all over the world the same set of getting-to-know-you questions.  This week, we meet Ben, a hometown enthusiast who has figured out the key to his happiness.

Meet the Local Sydney

What do you like about the place you live?

A million things.  Sydney is a terrific place.  It’s a very active place mainly because we have such a great climate, even in the winters.  You can always get out and about and be in the sun.  And there’s just tons to do---the bush isn’t far away, and the whole coastline is beach beach beach beach . . . It’s a really active lifestyle.  There are a ton of musical festivals every summer, there are pop up bars left right and center.  I quite like that Sydney is geographically quite disparate as well.  There are little valleys and basins and beachy areas that have different sorts of people so it’s not one flat lump; it’s a really interesting sort of tapestry.

What don’t you like so much?

A current gripe of mine is that Sydney and Australia as a whole is a very, very big nanny state.  There are rules and guidelines for everything.  As an example, I contribute so much money to the council coffers in the form of parking fines and speeding fines---it’s just silly little things.  They’re trying to make you behave a certain way---and it’s a terrific standard of living, don’t get me wrong---but you have to play within the rules.  It gets a bit stifling, a bit claustrophobic.  If you’re not of that mindset, if you’ve experienced different things, if you’ve been to third world countries, you just find it a little annoying.  It feels intensely civilized---a little too civilized, personally, for me.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

Two pieces of toast with butter on them, and Earl Grey tea.  It used to be coffee, but I’m trying to stick to one coffee per day and I need to get over that 3 PM wall, so that’s my coffee time.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your job to your sense of self?

I’m called a Community Manager.  I work for a company called Yelp, and as a Community Manager for Yelp I do a couple of things.  I throw parties, I teach people to use the website, I write a newsletter that goes out every week (I particularly enjoy writing, so that part is really appealing to me).  They often refer to it as the unofficial mayor of the city.  You know the places that are opening, you get asked so many times: where’s the best place for tourists, or for dates, or to enjoy a summer’s day, or for a bush walk?

My job is very important to my sense of self.  I used to work in advertising agencies in the corporate world and then I got to the point where I was making ads for a living and I did everything I could outside my work life to avoid ads---I just hated them---so there was that weird disconnect there.  It was really good money, but everyone was polluted, was whinging about not having a life, and working too hard.  It was the same sort of record on repeat.  I’m a natural optimist but I heard myself getting into this really negative mindset.  So I quit my job and was looking for something else, and then Yelp came along.  I really like the idea of setting my own schedule, and try new ideas.  Being able to have that freedom is really nice.  It has a real people power, which is what I was looking for after the corporate world with everyone just chasing money.  There was a lot of talk among my friends at the time going back to when you’re young, when you have to go to school and get good grades.  Why?  To get into university.  And then you have to do well at university---why?  To get a good job.  And then you have to get a good job---why?  To earn money.  And then you’ve got to get promotions---why?  To earn more money.  Money is just the root of all evil.  What we’re doing at the moment, it’s not the antithesis of that, but it’s more about community, being hyper local.

What do you do for fun?

I like being in nature, so I play a ton of sport. Swim and surf and beaches are so close that every weekend I go for a swim.  I really like music; I go to a lot of music festivals.  I read a lot.  I really enjoy writing.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

I’m trying to buy an apartment in the city right now, which is shockingly difficult.  I think we’re the second most expensive city in the world right now to buy real estate – a half a million gets you nothing.  So I moved back home with my mum to try and save, otherwise it’s just an untenable position to be renting and trying to buy.  So I see my mum a lot.  My twin sister lives in Denver, and my brother lives in London, so we’re quite spread out, but we Skype at least once a week, maybe twice.  And we try to have at least one family holiday a year, where we all meet up in some destination.

 What’s your biggest dream for your life?

I want to keep traveling and I want to write, whether it’s for my own amusement or professionally.  Other than that, it’s fairly simple.  I don’t want to invest in properties or anything like that – I just want a house I can live in and a life in the sun, a family at some point down the track, definitely a dog – a pug – and that’s it.  That’s pretty much it.  And to live somewhere I can be in touch with nature.

 If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

I really feel an affinity for second and third world countries, where the boundaries are a little bit looser and you can do more things.  You can go shoot a gun in the hills if you want, you can take a car and drive wherever you want, you can camp wherever you want, because the land is free – not everyone owns every single inch of land like they do here.  So somewhere like Mexico or Morocco would be incredible.

 What are you most proud of?

This might sound quite trite, but I’m quite proud of figuring out what makes me happy and adjusting my life to follow those lines.  I’ve figured out that the more simplistic life is, the easier it is to be happy.  If you have worries and stresses and bigger things to look after, you can’t focus and you can’t really get true happiness.  The people that have the least are the happiest.

 How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I’m a massive optimist, I can see the good in anything, so I think I’m probably a nine.  I was probably around a seven before.  The downside of being a natural optimist is that you tend to stay in situations longer than you should because you can always see the good in them, even if they’re crap.

The change happened over the course of a year.  I had a really shitty year a couple of years ago where my dad died.  He’d worked so hard to provide for the family and it was really, really sudden.  He was riding a motorbike in the Himalayas. He was a mild mannered accountant, and he went on this trip of a lifetime and didn’t come back.  That was when I sort of found myself at a crossroads, asking myself if the corporate life was right for me.  My dad was a self-made man, an immigrant from Pakistan.  He came here with nothing and built a whole life up and all of the sudden, things were taken away.  So it sort of gave me a bit of immediacy and made me value my time a bit more.  I realized you can work and be happy at the same time – so that was my epiphany.

Check out previous answers from locals in Lisbon, Sarajevo and London.  Want to participate in Meet the Local or know someone who does?  Email liz@thingsthatmakeus.com for more details.

 

The Art of Uncertainty

process_header

Whenever a friend expresses doubt about moving forward with an art project, I tell them that the artist’s job is to feel that doubt and move forward anyway. It is our willingness to deal with uncertainty that makes us contributing members of society. Our job is to feel afraid that what we want to make is stupid or embarrassing and keep going anyway. That is hard work, and somebody has to do it. If we are sure that people are going to like what we make then we are probably doing something wrong—unless it’s a birthday card for our best friend, and then we should feel pretty confident that they’re gonna love it.

It’s easy for me to say all that when I’m talking to a friend who I’ve seen make excellent work in the past. I don’t have to deal with the fear, because I can look away during the process and just wait for the amazing art to come out at the end. But personally, when I feel that sense of uncertainty, a lot of the time I cave. I either quit what I’m working on, or I feel more excited about making something I think will go over well, because it looks like something I’ve seen/made before.

So this weekend I challenged myself to make something just for myself. The rules were that I wasn’t allowed to think, edit, or quit. I just had to draw exactly what came out, and then cut it out. I’ve spent so much time holding myself back and trying to plan out my art so that it will fit into the world—more specifically, my world. I want the art I make to match my personality. I try to be a nice, smart, comforting person, so I want the art I make to be those things too. When I draw without editing I feel like what I make is kind of weird. Maybe perverse. Repetitive. Crass.

But it felt so good, just to be in that space. Just to follow my rules and tell the judgements that came up, negative (“This is stupid! I still draw the same things I drew when I was 15. I was so depressed then. I don’t want to be depressed!”) and positive (“Maybe it’s not stupid, maybe I’ll show it to people and everyone will love it and I’ll get a gallery show because I let myself be freeeee!”) that they just didn’t matter. They were all judgements and so I wasn’t supposed to listen to them.

Part of me wants to say that letting myself make something without listening to my own judgements was giving myself a gift, but I think that oversimplifies it. Allowing/forcing oneself to make things without knowing how they’ll turn out, without listening to fear, is not simply a selfish pursuit. Art is a mirror. The lack of self-judgement comes out in the work, and when people see it, that openness is mirrored back to them. When I hear music that is really raw and strange and daring, when I read a book that is unabashedly honest, when I see art that is decidedly “uncool,” I feel happy. I feel like the world is more forgiving and has more of a place for me. I think we all have the capacity to contribute more of that forgiveness and freedom to the world. It’s funny how painful it can feel to do it.

9-to-5

My working life over the past year has been anything but simple. Creative, perhaps—especially in terms of scheduling. But simple? Absolutely not. When someone asks the dreaded question about what I do, I usually feel as if I’m being sucked into a vortex in which my mind races backwards over everything I’ve actually done in the previous week or so. Gleanings from that vortex vary drastically depending on the week, but may look something like this: blog posts, incoming mail, outgoing mail, email, phone, database, website, blog posts, other website, slow web, write something, footnotes, footnotes, nap, footnotes, bibliography, transliteration, tired, footnotes. Hmm.

Needless to say, I generally return from this cloud of confusion with nothing very satisfying to offer my interlocutor and instead respond with a question mark in my voice: “Publishing? Books, usually? Also, the internet?”

My journey into the working world began last year at this time when, armed with two consecutive diplomas, I strode with equal parts excitement and bewilderment out of the university gates and into the employment-seeking wilderness. The intervening months between then and now have been marked by a few shining moments of serendipity, a smattering of deep disappointments, and an unfailing stream of worry, fear, and self-doubt. If I could offer my one-year-ago self any advice, I would tell her to spend more time doing things and less time worrying about doing them. I would also tell her to stop submitting resumes to automated robots, start meeting real people, and just make something happen. She might have listened, though not without eyeing me suspiciously and worrying that my advice was completely biased and autobiographically motivated.

Since beginning this column last summer, I have wandered through the desert of too little work and the valley of too much. I have wondered about fostering creativity in work and play, and I have worried all the while about finding direction. I have managed an ever-evolving concoction of part-time and freelance work. I have copyedited books, written an essay, and helped make something happen.

In just a couple of weeks, my hazy vortex of work will crystallize into something a little more recognizable: a full-time job in book publishing (without the question mark). While the internet seems increasingly flooded with glamorous entrepreneurs and mysterious freelancers, I am trying to muster up some confidence as I march in the other direction—toward a lovely office with an finicky copy machine, Dunder Mifflin paper, friendly faces, and what seems remarkably like a 9-to-5 schedule.

I can think of a whole new set of questions to worry about (for example, what exactly does one do with an entire weekend?), but let’s leave those aside for now and get to work on making things happen, shall we?

Anna Comnena: Byzantine Princess, Crusades Chronicler

historical woman

I first became acquainted with this historical woman of the day because she was one of the only sources for describing a bunch of historical men. Isn’t that the way the historical cookie always crumbles?

Anna Comnena (1080 – c. 1153) was a Byzantine princess, the daughter of Emperor Alexius Comnenus I, and an eyewitness chronicler of the First Crusade and some of its most prominent Crusaders. In fact, it was her dad that invited those European macho men out East in the first place. It goes like this:

A SUPER SHORT SUMMARY OF THE FIRST CRUSADE Seljuk Turks were expanding out of Central Asia and into what we now know as the Middle East. The Byzantine Empire (Greek Orthodox, concentrated in modern day Turkey, capital Constantinople) started getting nervous. Though loathe to request help from Western Christendom (you know, Europe), who were Catholic, and probably kind of a pain about it, Alexius Comnenus finally felt like he had no other options. “Come over here and help us out, guys,” he said to the Pope. “We’re all Christian brothers and stuff.”

Pope Urban II got excited, because as usual the Church was having a lot of problems in Europe, and having one big CAUSE tends to make problems disappear (or at least go temporarily invisible). So he made this big speech in 1095 and announced that everyone should go on Crusade to the Holy Land. Your soul would get saved, yada yada yada.

So Crusaders poured out of what is now France, and Germany, and England, and Italy, and walked/rode horses all the way to what is now Turkey, and some of them killed a lot of innocent people on the way in what were probably fits of zealotry and testosterone, and then the leaders got to Constantinople by 1097 and (mostly) pledged loyalty to Alexius. They had cool names like Godfrey and Baldwin and Bohemond. Anna provides descriptions of all of them in her chronicle.

But they really wanted to do other things besides just save the Byzantines. Like what was in it for them? So they poured into Syria and Palestine and set up Crusader castles and some of them stayed for like a hundred years or more (their progeny, of course. Though I do like to picture like the Indiana Jones guy sitting around in a fortress in the mountains crumbling to dust). Oh and they also killed more people.

The end. (Until the Second Crusade.)

---

Anyway. Anna provides the only Byzantine-eye view to this whole saga, in a chronicle she wrote of her father’s reign, the Alexiad. In this she reminds me of Dmitri Nabokov or Christopher Tolkien—forever in their father’s literary shadow, translating his old stuff, writing down reminiscences, safeguarding his estate. Celebrity fathers, ya know?

But Anna was more than just a woman who wrote about men that historians care about, though this is probably why her memory has been kept alive so long. She was also accomplished and educated, serving as a physician in a hospital her father had built for her, specializing in, apparently, gout.

She also had designs on the throne. At the age of fourteen she married Nicephorus of Bryennium, and as her father approached death, she conspired with her mother Irene to have her husband named the next emperor instead of her good-for-nothing brother John. However, she was outmaneuvered, and on his deathbed Alexius blessed John as his successor.

Later, she was busted for conspiracy to commit regicide or its twelfth-century Byzantine equivalent, and spent the rest of her life in a convent. This is where she hunkered down and wrote the Alexiad. Which ended up not being a bad use of her time.

So as a woman of the medieval Byzantine court, she was able to carve out an occupation, some expertise, a decent education (although she was forbidden from reading classical poetry because it was indecent), and even came thisclose to becoming Empress, courtesy her own ambition and wile. We don’t know a ton about her, but what we know is pretty impressive.

Though why do these stories always have to end in a convent?

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.

The Vortex

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Philly is a vortex.

My friend Sarah just reminded me the other day. Psychic Jackie, who all our friends swear by, told Smoot once. There’s a vortex under the art museum—that’s why people get stuck. I moved away seven years ago and I still feel the pull.

When I lived in Philly, I was very ambitious for the immediate future. I was always making plans to put on an art show, to bake a strawberry pie, to go on tour. Now, older and living in New York, I’ve become ambitious in a different way. For the first time in my life I believe that if I persevere on the path I’m on, it’s possible I can eventually make a living doing art.

Specifically, I think it is possible that I can eventually make a living doing illustrations and animations. I never used to think of those things as distinct from just ‘art’. In Philadelphia, making crafts and cards and drawings all seemed like basically the same thing. When did they start to seem so separate from each other?

I thought of all this because making my wedding invitations brought me so much pleasure and satisfaction, even though (or because) it was just a small project to share with friends and family. Because it was strictly a personal personal project, not for a client or to try and put in a gallery, I experimented, I tried new things, and I persevered, blithely confident that I would figure it out in the end. I even worked with a team and didn’t get all uptight the way I normally do. In short, I let go of a lot of my normal hangups.

When I completed the first one, I looked at it and thought, “this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever made!” Which may not be true, but which is the appropriate feeling, I think, on completing a project. And which is not what I usually think these days—I’m so worried about being consistent, living up to my own standards, pleasing the client.

The thing I’m trying to learn from this—the thing I’m trying to remember—is that making things is just that: making things.

Graphic design or illustration or art or crafts or puppet show or pies . . . the drive behind them is the same. The impulse to create doesn’t need to be informed by market realities. It’s about diving deep and coming out shaking and surprised. It’s about figuring out problems and their solutions so quickly they’re inseparable. It’s about joy.