On practicing stillness

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Photo credit: Flickr user Pictoquotes

Ever since my best friend’s wedding in early July, I have felt the tug. The tug is a constant nagging reminder that I must move forward; must make something major happen in my life. What is that something, exactly?

I have no idea.

Perhaps watching my best friend take a major step in her life propelled me to think I should be doing the same. Or perhaps the tug has been lying dormant in me for a long while, pushed down to the depths of my subconscious to be dealt with at a later date. All I know for sure is that it’s there, and that it can’t be ignored. It’s always tugging.

For the better part of my life — ages 2 through 25 — I was a student, which was rather simple. My goals were clear: to graduate and to find employment. Outside of graduating from college and law school, the only other tangible #lifegoals I can ever remember having were: to move to New York City, to find someone to love, to write, and to eventually move to the beach. Check, check, check and check.

Now what?

I guess I never considered the fact that I might accomplish my major milestone goals by 30. Or that my “life goals” were not very specific or ambitious (unlike the adorably unrealistic goals I used to set for myself in my journal, like “I vow to lose 4,000 pounds in the next 3 weeks!” or, “I will become fluent in Spanish by the new year — two months left is plenty of time!”).

So, I decided to take some time to reflect on where I’m at and where I’d like to go. All summer long, I have allowed myself the luxury of stillness. I haven’t written much, or accomplished much at all, other than the usual work and chores around the house.

I swam in the ocean almost every day, convinced that the salt water would invigorate my mind and pull me from my stupor. I went for long walks in the woods and did yoga, and even tried meditation after years of resisting the very idea of it. I thought if I could just learn to listen to myself without the judgment of my critical inner voice, I might understand where the tug was coming from.

No such luck. At least not yet.

In some ways, it’s extremely frustrating to feel like I am falling behind, when there is no good reason for it. The reality is that I’m doing just fine. I’m happy and healthy. I’m in a long-term relationship with an incredibly supportive partner. I have two perfect little fur-babies, a good job, a beautiful apartment 4 blocks from the beach, many friends who love me deeply for who I am, a family who always comes to visit, and a blog with engaged readers who put up with my endless and often insufferable philosophizing. By most accounts, I’m living the dream! (Permission to want to punch me in my face for even listing these things out, or thinking they’re not enough: GRANTED.)

Maybe the lesson in all of this is that I must learn to appreciate my life as it is, and to stop itching for something more.

As frustrating as the tug can be, it is also an extraordinary gift. I’m slowly learning to let go of all of the pressure and expectations I put on myself and others. Instead, I’m choosing to listen — really listen — to my own inner voice, and the whispers of the world around me. In doing so, I am humbled. I haven’t figured it all out, and that is ok. I will never figure it all out. There will probably always be another tug of discontentment right around the corner.

In the meantime, I think I will take one more swim in the ocean today, and revel in the joy of being exactly where I always hoped I would be.

——

Readers: have you experienced the tug lately? How have you dealt with it?

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Welcome to the freedom trap

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This is how it feels… kind of.

I have a confession to make. Despite the fact that my mother dying of a freak stroke was one of the most traumatic and world-shattering things to happen to me to date, there is another side to my grief. A side I don’t normally share with others, because it’s ugly and taboo.

Here it goes: My mother’s death gave me a freedom I have never known before.

Let me explain. It’s true that she was my closest confidant, my guiding light and my biggest fan. But it’s also true that she had expectations of me. Many, many expectations.

I spent my entire life with a critical eye watching carefully over my every move. I felt my failures keenly, as my mother tsk-tsked me over a B+ or shook her head at me from the stands of a basketball game where I only hit 40% of my shots. “USE YOUR LEGS!” she would mouth furiously at me from her seat, as I tried desperately to keep my cool. Despite every coach I ever had begging me to stop looking constantly at my mother, I never did learn.

Nothing ever seemed good enough for her. A 3.7 GPA was good, but probably could have been a 4.0 if I’d just put in a little more effort. Losing 15 pounds on a crash diet was great, but if only I could lose 10 more, I’d really be in good shape. Scoring 17 points was a solid way to finish a basketball game, but if only I’d hit one more three, I could finally be on college-recruitement lists.

Needless to say, I had (have? Ok, ok HAVE) a complex. My inability to rip my eyes away from the bleachers really did a number on me. My entire life, I have felt less than; inadequate and unable to reach my supposedly limitless potential. And while I’m sure my mother was pushing me for “the right reasons,” her actions still shook my confidence, and had me questioning whether I would ever be good enough.

Meanwhile, if you asked anyone else in town, I was her golden child who could do no wrong. She bragged about me constantly. This dichotomy never ceased to amaze (or confound!) me.

All of that is to say that I always felt her judgment, even when she didn’t say a word. Take my writing, for example. I knew that my mother thought I was a great writer. But for some reason, I always felt that she didn’t believe I could — or should — make a career out of it. She never said so explicitly, and she never even came close to telling me which career path I should choose. Her fallback mantra was always, “I just want you to be happy.” But I never believed her. I never felt free. I always felt like I needed to take a certain path — one that would lead me to traditional success; one she could brag about and hold up as her own parenting win.

It’s also quite possible that a lot of that perceived scorn and judgment from her was in my head. Maybe I just watched too many 80’s and 90’s teen movies where the characters rebelled against their parents’ school/career expectations for them, and went to art school to follow their passions instead.

I was always envious of those singularly driven passion-followers. I chose the other path, the “practical” path and lived to make someone else happy. I now have two marketable degrees, and an endless pile of student debt that keeps me up at night. And the person that I did it all to impress isn’t even here anymore.

So, I’m free now. I’m free to pursue my dreams, and to write about whatever I want. I no longer have to fear the judgment of the only person whom I ever really wanted to make proud. And that’s really incredible, in some ways!

Sometimes, my newfound freedom makes me soar. It makes me feel limitless. Like, there’s nobody I have to please but myself. I can do whatever I want in this world and I only have to answer to me.

But other times, it’s just exhausting. Some days, I just wish I had my mommy to call up. I miss her guidance and support. Her earthly presence made me feel like I didn’t have to have every single thing in my life figured out. No matter how old I got, I was free to be a child with her. Now, it’s all on me; no coach, no scapegoat. My driving force is gone, and that can be pretty terrifying. Hence, my inertia as of late.

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All the time!

Freedom is a bit tricky in that way. You are free to pursue your dreams, but you’re also free to do nothing at all — to never move forward; to never try.

I’m not sure how to overcome the paralyzing fear that seems built into my brain, or how to drown out my inner critic, which sounds suspiciously like my mother. But I do know that ultimately, this is all within my control. It is my choice: I’m free to fly, and risk falling, or stay on the ground where it’s safe.

How I choose to move forward is what matters. I hope I will choose to fly.

The 7 stages of moving

Stage one: Create a brilliant plan and set a budget

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Relax. It’s all in the plan!

First, you make a plan. Not just any plan, but a Donald Trump-level plan — AKA the greatest plan in the world! This move is going to be different than your last move, because you were so ignorant back then. Now, you have your shit together. Now, you have 12 moves under your belt. You’ve learned! So this time, things will be easier. You talk yourself in circles figuring out every last detail, and spend way too much time convincing yourself that moving over a period of 2 weeks will definitely be easier than doing it in one shot. You won’t be stressed out, you tell yourself, because you’ll have so much time. SO. MUCH TIME. Luxurious time! You dismiss the nagging thought that dragging your move out might prolong your stress rather than relieve it. Your plan will surely save you!

Stage two: Make a pact with partner/roommate

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“I totally promise never to snap at you.”

Before you really start packing, you take your partner’s (or roommate’s!) face in your hands and you promise not to turn on them. “Let’s not let the stress get to us!” you say. “Let’s make sure we make time for one another. Let’s try to have fun with this.” At this point, you still naively believe in your perfect plan, and that everything will go smoothly. You are gushing with excitement for your new life and are still a few weeks out from being buried in boxes. Being kind to one another through all of this seems somehow feasible. You have your priorities in order and your ducks in a row. Continue reading

Moving has set my brain on fire (in a good way!)

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Moving got me like

I’m moving this week. So as you can imagine, I’ve been kind of freaking out. Ok, so I’m only moving about three blocks away from my current house. But still! Moving is a lot. Especially if you are a person with anxiety and being in a state of upheaval causes you to temporarily lose your damn mind. There is so much to keep track of; so much to remember. As a side note, I have no idea how military families do this like all the time (RESPECT!). But of course, I digress.

The reason we decided to move was to downsize significantly. Or current house, which I’ve written about before, is both huge and crazy. The rooms are gigantic and some of them have a single purpose (like the music room, or the bar room). When I left NYC to move to the Jersey Shore, I wanted ALL. OF. THE. SPACE. But once Dave and I had to actually clean all of the space, it didn’t seem so glamorous and attractive anymore. I do love having a place where I can entertain large groups of friends in the summer. Many of my people inevitably want to escape their insane city lives for a weekend of easy living at the beach come June. But for the other 42-ish weekends of the year, when it’s mostly only Dave and I, we’re usually just wandering around in these gigantic rooms, wondering how we’re going to get the house under control.

Yes, “under control” is the phrase we typically use. And that’s to say nothing of actually getting ahead. There is no getting ahead when you live in a giant, hundred-year-old house that has a mind of its own. You simply trail from behind and try to put out fires as you go (the metaphorical kind of fires, of course… we’re not pyromaniacs or anything). There are about a million projects I would very much like to do, but it’s impossible to find time for them when we spend so much time just catching up on the chores.

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Me on the morning of cleaning day.

When Dave first mentioned wanting to move because our current place was too much work, I scoffed: “You obviously have amnesia about how terrible moving is. Cleaning this house for the rest of our lives might actually be easier.” He dropped it, but the seed was planted.  Continue reading

The balancing act of vulnerability and self-preservation

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If you’ve ever spent any amount of time with me, or even if you read my blog, you’ve probably noticed that I’m a very open person. I wear my heart on my sleeve (for better or for worse) and my empathy for those around me knows no bounds. For example, I routinely find myself listening to the struggles and life stories of complete strangers.

“It’s like they can sniff you out,” a friend joked, “I’m not sure how you do it.”

But really, how could I not? If there’s something happening on my face that’s telling people, “you can trust me with your secrets and I won’t judge you,” then who am I to refuse an ear?

While my empathy and sensitivity tend to help me connect with people, these traits also leave me quite vulnerable. My openness actually makes me the perfect target. And my penchant for forgiveness and seeing the best in people means that opportunists often take advantage of me. A vulture can quite easily cash in on chance after chance while I make excuses for their behavior.  Continue reading

Perspective from a pink-haired angel lady

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For the last few weeks, I have been feeling uninspired and dragged down. A wave of grief has come over me like I lost my mother yesterday. Even as I remind myself that grief knows no logic, rhyme or reason, I find myself constantly surprised by how it catches me off guard and sweeps me into its tide. Despite my best efforts (and of course, constantly berating myself), I can’t focus on my goals. I can hardly even motivate myself to take on my to-do list. January felt like I was running a marathon without my feet even touching the ground. February feels like I’m walking through quicksand; going nowhere fast.

My long, careful progress at the gym has turned on me. My knee injury is flaring up for reasons I don’t understand. Despite going through a full stint of physical therapy last year and doing everything in my power to prevent re-injury, I’m back to experiencing pain, patella maltracking and limited mobility. Needless to say, I’m very frustrated. It’s been starting to feel like no matter what I do to care for my body (Healthy food! Frequent and safe exercise! Vitamins! Getting enough sleep! Stretching and yoga! Cutting out high-impact activities, despite loving them desperately!), it betrays me.

My researcher brain demands answers for my injury flare-up: Is it the weather? Did I go too hard with the squats? Am I being punished for wrecking my joints with youth sports? Am I doomed to stop-and-go activity for the rest of my life? How can I nurture my body when it screams out in pain every time I try to do right by it? Why does it insist upon rebelling against me, even as I pour love into it day-in and day-out?

My grief compounds the injury. Everything feels more difficult without my mother to lean on. She had a way of making everything feel manageable. Without her, I sometimes feel like I’m aimlessly paddling a canoe out in the middle of the ocean without knowing which way is land. It’s enough to drive me up the wall. Yesterday, while in the pool working out with my trainer/mentor/friend/cheerleader/counselor Coretta, I started to weep.

“This is good,” she assured me. “We need to talk about it. And I need you to understand that as you age, injuries are an inevitability. You don’t just go through rehab and bounce back like you did in your early twenties. Your body has to reckon with all you put it through when you were young and destroying it with sports. This is not going to go away. We’re going to have to find a way for you to manage it and not let it derail you.”

While technically (ok, fully) correct, this was obviously NOT what I wanted to hear. I stubbornly fought her, the woman who has saved my life on more than one occasion, by listing off my reasons why it isn’t fair; why this shouldn’t be happening to me.

“I know. It sucks. But you’ll get through it.”

“I feel like I’m back at square one.”

“You’re not. You can’t see it, but you’re not.”

I resisted her tough but empathetic love throughout the rest of my workout, stewing in my anger. I wrongly assumed that if I did all the “right” things, my body would fall in line; that by my sheer will and grit, I could put myself back together both physically and emotionally. It all felt so unfair. Have I not suffered enough? I’ve always known that life isn’t fair, but for some reason I thought that the universe would recognize how much I have been through, and cease my suffering accordingly. Why should I be hurt again? I played by the rules and it didn’t matter. I was despondent.

Coretta left me and proceeded to worry about me all day. I know I hurt her heart every time I hurt, but I can only be where I am, even if that place is Shit Palace. Thankfully, she always understands.

This morning, I woke up and could feel my will beginning its triumphant return. I arrived at the gym with a decent attitude. As Coretta and I worked out on the floor, I could not keep my eyes off of a woman working out nearby. She was super fit and trim — an obvious gym rat — with long blonde hair adorned with pink streaks. Not going to lie, I was pretty envious of her body, and feeling a little insecure working out next to her. Coretta complimented her hair, and we all got talking. The woman proceeded to tell us that that she had recently undergone neck and knee surgery to correct decades-old injuries from a car accident she was in over twenty years ago. Like, we’re talking screws in her neck and building a new ligament in her knee. These were serious surgeries! “My neck isn’t working so great,” she explained. “I have limited mobility, it cracks all the time and it hurts every time I turn my head.”

“How do you do it?” I asked, gesturing towards the weights she was lifting.

“Well, it’s going to hurt either way. I figure I may as well be here, doing something that makes me feel good.”

I was shocked. I mean, completely shocked. Suddenly, my gimpy (but fixable!) knee didn’t seem like such a big deal. And knowing that this woman has been through so many physical setbacks, but still rocks it at the gym and has maintained a body I can only dream of, really lit a fire in my belly. If this woman can drag her ass to the gym after neck and knee surgery, I can, at the very least, have a good attitude about the things I can still do. I am not back at square one. I am so much further along than I give myself credit for. I guess I just don’t let myself recognize my progress. Typical!

The woman finished up her workout, and left me with some words of encouragement: “you’re doing great. No matter what, just keep going.”

Talk about eating a piece of humble pie.

As I pushed through the rest of my workout, I could feel my perspective shifting. I could also see the elated (and maybe a little smug) sense of self-satisfaction Coretta was feeling from watching me have my a-ha moment. I’m not really one to see signs, but this happening felt so pointed; so necessary for me in this moment.

“Sometimes, a pink haired angel lady shows up just when you need her,” Coretta said.

Indeed. Thank you for the lesson, angel lady.

And now, I keep going.

What are you willing to sacrifice?

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Photo Credit: Flickr user CelestineChua

As a newly-minted 30-year-old, I spend a good portion of my time grappling with impossible questions: what am I doing with my life? What should I do with my life? Should I have a family? Should I be doing more for my career? Should I fake my death to get out of paying my student loans? (Kidding… sort of.)

One issue I’ve been working through lately is the pursuit of my writing: On the one hand, I am pulled to be a successful writer who makes money with my words. On the other hand, I’m not sure if I’m willing to do all that being a successful, paid writer entails.

This dichotomy is illustrated perfectly in this brilliant article by Mark Manson, “The most important question of your life.” Manson (I think rightfully) claims that asking ourselves what we theoretically want in life isn’t as important as asking ourselves what dreams we’re willing to sacrifice for:

“Because if you want the benefits of something in life, you have to also want the costs. If you want the beach body, you have to want the sweat, the soreness, the early mornings, and the hunger pangs. If you want the yacht, you have to also want the late nights, the risky business moves, and the possibility of pissing off a person or ten thousand. 

If you find yourself wanting something month after month, year after year, yet nothing happens and you never come any closer to it, then maybe what you actually want is a fantasy, an idealization, an image and a false promise. Maybe what you want isn’t what you want, you just enjoy wanting. Maybe you don’t actually want it at all.”

Manson’s words are so spot on it hurts. I love writing, and I think I’ve always imagined myself as a writer. Writing is one of the only clear goals I have ever had in my rather directionless life. Yet, when it comes to the sacrifice — the long hours spent keeping up on Twitter, posting to Facebook, reading and commenting on other blogs to build WordPress relationships, promoting myself across social media, pitching myself out to media outlets, writing every single day, never being able to unplug — it all feels like too much.

It’s no longer enough to hole yourself up in a beach cottage somewhere, write the next great American novel, and ship it off to publishers. These days, to be a successful writer, it feels like you have to have absurdly high follower counts, a “strong social media presence,” the body measurements of an E! host, professional photography skills, an intermediate understanding of HTML, and oh yeah — you have to be “on” at all times.

It seems endless and it all totally overwhelms me. I’m going to keep it real here: by the time I’ve spilled my heart onto the page and pressed publish, I’m kind of exhausted. I’ve barely got the energy to halfheartedly post my article to social media, much less follow up on comments, cross-post, or even submit my essays to media outlets who have outright asked to publish my work.

The truth is, if I don’t bother to sacrifice myself at the alter of social media and shameless plugging, someone else will. Let’s face it, thousands will. There are millions of wannabe writers out there, many of whom are willing to do what I am not. I could have all the talent in the world, but without the hard work, I am a waste.

I love to write. I love to blog. I long for more. But at what cost? The idea of being chained to social media day in and day out fills me with dread. I do not like the thought of giving up the balance in my life and tirelessly throwing myself into the dream.

Perhaps I really am just in love with a powerful illusion; a vision of me sitting in that little cottage composing my life’s work. It’s a beautiful chimera, that’s for sure.

But maybe there is more inside me. Maybe that little voice that says what I’m doing now isn’t enough is pushing me out of my comfort zone for a reason. Maybe, after nearly three years of deep, all-encompassing grief over my mother’s death, I am coming back to life, and ready to try again.

In 2015, I promised to publish more. I did that. I posted essays rather consistently, built a moderate following, got syndicated by Thought Catalog, and overcame my incessant and damaging need to be liked. 2016 could very well be the year I go further, and really sacrifice for my art.

I think I’m ready to throw myself in.

What are you willing to sacrifice to accomplish what you want in life?