Relatively Speaking

 

I have been thinking a lot about relative experience.

“Relatively speaking” is a phrase we toss around casually, an improvised rescaling of any given comparison. Hidden in the phrase is an acknowledgement that the scale of comparison has been significantly reduced to include a limited range of possible experiences or perceptions of reality, and that range is defined by a supposedly shared context—both speaker and audience must acknowledge some general truths about the things being compared.  But it can also be a catch all, a brief acknowledgement that the context is not the same from one person to the next, that “the worst day ever!” in one life cannot be appropriately compared to the “worst day ever!” in another.

In my relatively limited (there’s that word again!) understanding of economics, I am able to grasp at least this concept: an apple does not cost the same to everyone who buys it. While the price of the apple may be fixed, the cost of that apple relative to the income of the individual buying it is not. Things can get more complicated when you don’t just compare income (we each make the same amount of money, so the apple should cost the same to both of us) but expenses as well: if we each make the same income, but your rent is higher than mine, that apple will be a greater percentage of your food allowance than it will be of mine. In that way, the apple could relatively cost you more. 

This sort of relative cost idea can be translated to experience as well, so that any given experience can cost or benefit any individual relative to the other experiences in their life — everything needs context. A fender bender on a day where everything else is going well most likely won’t be perceived as negatively as if it happened on a day when several things seem to be going wrong. However, the context that a person operates in is not daily, but cumulative: even if nothing else is going wrong today, things have been going wrong all week, all month, all year, for the past decade. Any new experience is measured against previous experiences in order to determine its particular impact, positive or negative.

And yet, “nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Without this comparison, any given experience could theoretically stand on its own. It wouldn’t be good or bad, relatively speaking, but simply good or bad, inherently. Or, in what I imagine as Buddhist thinking, neither good nor bad, but simply existing, ideally without impact, without contributing to some greater context, acknowledged and let go. If we could escape our contexts, maybe we could escape relative thinking. In theory, that is how to escape suffering.

Except an apple doesn’t cost the same to everyone. “Expensive” is a relative concept. So is safe, and healthy, and successful, and all the things we end up having to measure for ourselves, individually. I read in Loneliness (Cacioppo and Patrick, 2008) that people even have a biological set point for their need for social connection, varying from one person to another. Even our biology forces relativity on us.

So we seek out contexts similar to our own, or as close as possible. We look for people with similar experiences, similar perspectives, similar measurement scales. This is how I make sense of a world where otherwise nice-seeming people don’t seem to grasp the pain and suffering of others. Their experiences are so far removed from those different than them that they have no reference point of comparison. For example, a white person living in an all-white community may not have had any direct experience with seeing a friend or loved one deal with racism and have trouble believing either that it exists or that it is as systemic as it is. It’s the way that many men don’t seem to get sexism until it impacts their daughters. If we are all stuck comparing everyone else’s experiences to our own, relatively speaking, we all start to think that apples cost the same to everyone, and that other people are just complaining for no reason — or are incapable of understanding the true value of an apple. It takes concerted effort to try to see the world through someone else’s lens, and to understand how their cumulative experiences shape any given moment in their lives, to understand, for example, the anger that seems to come out of nowhere but is for that person the result of the straw that broke the camels back. 

Our internal scales can be powerful forces. But we can change those scales, and alter what we measure all of our experiences against; change the thinking, change the comparison, build compassion. In the meantime, if we resize our experiences, as Munroe said, to fit the scales in our head, it might be worth noting that other people have their own scales, too. And that we can’t erase someone else’s experiences just because we have no reference point to compare them to. We’re not all buying the same apples with the same money, and we aren’t all carrying the same straws on our backs. For those of us with privilege, the apples are always going to cost a little less, and we’re going to start off with less straws to carry. For those without relative privilege, apples will always cost more, and their camels have been pre-loaded with burdens.

It really is all relative. And context is everything.

Strength Undefeatable

I can’t remember if my mom picked it out for me, or if I found it myself. I am pretty sure the appeal of the poster was that it was long and narrow, perfect for putting on the back of a college dorm-room door. The colors were pastel-bright and dreamy, that vague 90’s swirly artwork of stars or flowers or something like it served as the background, and all in all it screamed: young girl leaving home to go to college.

On the poster were the words:

I’d done a grade-school project on Anne Sullivan, the woman credited with dramatically changing Hellen Keller’s life. That you could be deaf and blind and still connect to the world amazed me. That you could see past someone’s isolated and nearly savage exterior and believe that there was a person worth connecting to still amazes me. I knew there was wisdom in the words of the poster, and over the next four years, I’d find myself going back to them over and over.

And then my brother died in 2001, and I felt completely lost.

I would feel lost for years. I would bounce from job to job completely unsatisfied. Panic about spending my time well made me waste it. I had this need to not only live my life, but the life he might have lived as well. I became more reckless. I felt restless. I dreamed up and dropped plan after plan after plan, trying to find one that might fit, that might make my life worthy of the word “life”. I didn’t fully understand survivor’s guilt then. I didn’t have the words “complicated grief” to describe the way my mother withdrew into herself. I was trying to be a free spirit. I was trying to find my strength undefeatable. I was trying to make every moment count, and feeling like no moment was good enough, would ever be good enough. I was trying to find myself; that’s what people in their 20s do, even if they don’t start the decade with losing their older brother.

I didn’t understand what strong was. I didn’t understand that creating a hard shell wasn’t the way to go. Undefeatable strength shone like a diamond — cold, bright, beautiful.

And then…

I found a new path, one that would take me to a new city, a new career, and a new outlook on life. I started to soften. I started to read about shame, about vulnerability. I discovered Brené Brown, a social worker who spoke about what it means to “dare greatly” in life, and what we need to do so:

“If we’re going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path. And I know it’s seductive to stand outside the arena, because I think I did it my whole life, and think to myself, I’m going to go in there and kick some ass when I’m bulletproof and when I’m perfect. And that is seductive. But the truth is that never happens.”

So I started to try to enter the arena of my life as I was, and not wait until I was that perfect hard diamond I thought I needed to be.

And then…

My mother died. All my instincts said to go hard again. All my instincts told me the world was a cruel place that will take things from you unpredictably, or when you are on the verge of accomplishment, or starting a new, promising path. It will wait until you have your guard down, and it will strike, so you should never have your guard down. I was in the presence of fate again, and I needed to be strong.

I always thought choice was about action, about taking a path as literally as walking in the woods, and that every path had an inevitable destination. So every choice came to me dripping with expectation, great blobs of insecurity dropping all over me.

It now occurs to me that choices aren’t always linked to action, like hopping from stone to stone. Choices aren’t always about where you are going, but about who you choose to be in the here and now. Not how you set up the next moment, but about how you experience this one. Into all this self-reflection and reframing came other words:

A plant has deep roots and is strong because of them, able to withstand storm and damage and regrow again and again. And I thought, now that’s strength undefeatable.

The world has gotten scary again, and once again I am struck with feelings of loss, of confusion, of fear about the future. Once again I must face the reality that life will always be filled with changes, tragic or otherwise, and that the only thing I can control is whether I try to be a diamond or a plant — cold and hard, or fragile and vulnerable.

Strong and vulnerable do not seem to go together, and yet…

To keep our faces toward change, to be good human beings by staying open, and to to embrace the vulnerability of engagement – that is the strongest stance any of us can take.

Here’s to staying engaged…

Words of Resistance

On January 15th, 2017, I made my way out to the front of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library to attend a rally.

At about 10 minutes after the officially posted start time, a young girl that no one could really see started singing the national anthem in a clear strong voice. There was no MC, no announcement that the rally was officially starting, and there was a long silence while the first speaker made her way to the podium, which, the crowd noted shortly after, was too low on the steps. The volume of the microphones was also too low, and shouts of “louder!” came from the people furthest back.

It took a few readers — each coming up to the podium, saying their names and telling the crowd what they were reading– but finally someone pulled a microphone from a stand, asked the crowd if they were loud enough, and stood high enough up on the steps to get a huge roar of approval.

The empty podium, abandoned in the cold, became a symbol for the rally itself: when the people speak, its time for a change.

The PEN America sponsored Writers Resist rally was a solid two-and-half hours of authors, poets, and even politicians reading excerpts from Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, and of course, Martin Luther King Jr. — as well as many many others — in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and in protest against an incoming presidential administration that regularly attacks the media and individual writers. Former United States poet laureates read inaugural poems from past administrations, and many other writers shared their own work, some written specifically for the occasion. There were readers and writers of every race, from myriad countries of birth, and from a multitude of backgrounds.

The themes of the readings were about fighting for freedom, standing up for democracy, and finding a place as a American when so many others might tell you that you don’t belong. Some people read song lyrics (a reading of Frank Zappa’s “It Can’t Happen Here” stands out), and others read parts of the constitution, including the First Amendment. The battle, the thing everyone was there to resist, was the silencing of words. Audre Lorde’s quote, made into a poster, was held above the crowd: “your silence will not protect you.”

As a writer in the crowd slowly inching her way closer and closer to that empty podium and the readers standing several steps above it, I felt like I was getting a master class in the power of words. Even as the cold numbed my toes and fingers, and my feet ached from standing still for too long, my ears still caught carefully constructed lines, doing what precise prose and perfect poetry always does: inform, impress, and inspire.

While I found much of it moving, it was the inaugural poems that got me thinking. The first president to have an inaugural poem was John F. Kennedy.

“When power leads man to arrogance,” Kennedy is reported to have said, “poetry reminds him of his limitations. ”

When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”

According to Wikipedia, only four other presidential inaugurations had poets prepare something for the occasion: Bill Clinton’s two inaugurations, and Barack Obama’s two inaugurations. That hasn’t stopped me, and indeed others, from imagining what poetry might inspire President-Elect Donald Trump. As I listened to speaker after speaker reading words about what it means to fight for freedom, I tried to imagine what sort of words Trump reads, what philosophers, what authors, what poets.

As the saying goes, “watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions.” We are all shaped by what we read, the stories we take in, the ideas we absorb. More than the President-Elect’s tax returns, I want to see his reading list. I want to know what words will guide this new president; I fear the only words he cares about are his own, that he is a president without poetry.

I fear that he is a president that would rather censor the press than face criticism, that his attacks on the media are part of a greater attack on free speech. I fear that because he “knows all the words,” and “has the best words” he thinks he doesn’t need to listen, to read, and to learn.

So I gathered with hundreds of others in New York City (and hundreds more across the country) to listen to words, and to march to Trump Tower with a pledge to defend the First Amendment (signed by over 160,000 people) and to shout more words, as is my constitutional right. Peaceful protest (and not so peaceful) has been a part of every great change America has ever made. Our country was founded in protest of another country the people who made their way to our shores thought was unjust. The Founding Fathers wanted to create a space where democracy would thrive and understood that this could not happen if the very tools of the revolution they fought — including protest — weren’t protected. Every social revolution brings us ever closer to those ideals fought so hard for: a more perfect union with equality for all.

But not everyone has made the same study of those words, and many do not share the same vision for what equality looks like. As another saying goes: when you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. For every person who wants to make America great again, there is another who is still trying to find a way to make it great for the first time, to find their place under the great umbrella of “for all.” For this second group of Americans, words of resistance — resistance to settling, to taking less, to living in despair — are what keep them going, keep them hoping, keep them dreaming.

And keep them reading, and keep them writing. Our very constitution is a poem to the ideals of freedom. This country was founded on the promise of words. I marched to help hold our country to that promise. And whenever I can, I will brave cold or heat and crowds and shouts to hear that promise spoken again and again.

Words have power. It’s why people in power fight so hard to silence them. And its also why writers will always be at the heart of every resistance.

Everything That is Not An Elephant

I am notoriously bad at remembering the source of stories, so I can’t remember where I heard this story first. I have been using it, and telling this particular version of it, for as long as I can remember. This is the version I tell:

There was a master sculptor and an apprentice sculptor, and one day the Master set a huge block of marble down in front of the Apprentice.

“Apprentice,” he said, “I want you to carve me an elephant.”

“But Master,” said the Apprentice, “I don’t know how to carve an elephant.”

“It’s simple,” the Master replied. “Simply start by carving away everything that is NOT an elephant.”

The moral, I tell people, just in case they have missed it, is that sometimes the best way to figure out what we are is to start by carving away everything we are not.

 

(When I looked up the story to try to find the origins, I found many versions, several attributed to Michelangelo about carving “David” by carving away everything that was not “David”. In some ways that’s an even more apt analogy than the version I tell, but I’ll stick with mine because I like elephants and not everyone wants to try to carve out themselves as a Greek version of the perfect man.)

I break out this story whenever people talk about mistakes. “Feedback, not failure” was a popular motto at one of my old jobs. Every time we find a way toward a goal that doesn’t work, and every time we carve away some part of ourselves that is “not an elephant”, we get closer and closer to success, and to finding who we really are. Mistakes, for better or for worse, shape us.

Most people will be starting the new year with a list of resolutions. In therapy, I prefer to use the word “intention” because it doesn’t have that same “do or fail” feeling to it. While resolutions often feel like a destination, intentions are about the journey. Intentions make room for all that wonderful feedback that will come from finding all the attempts at change that don’t work.

Here is my other grand piece of advice: motivation will fail you. Trust structure. If you want to change your life, reshape your day, and build into that day space for the habits that will lead to change. Start with one habit a week — eating breakfast, going to bed an hour earlier, stretching. Keep in mind that your day is already filled with those things you currently think of as bad habits, so you will have to replace an old habit with a new one if you want to actually change. Sleeping instead of more time on social media. Exercise instead of that extra hour of TV a day. If you want to know what changes you actually will be able to make, start with a list of things you are willing to give up in your current routine. Carve away everything that is not part of the kind of day you want to have. Fill the space with your elephant of choice. And be prepared for finding lots and lots of ways that replacing “bad” habits doesn’t work, until you finally find the way that does work (personalized to you).

For the record, none of this is as simple as it seems. Change always seems simple to someone who has mastered it, and terrifyingly difficult to the apprentices just starting out. And it seems like every turn of a new year makes apprentices of us all.

Happy carving everyone!

*Originally published on The Stiletto Gang blog on 1/3/17

Science Fiction: A Bastion of Hope

Social work, I tell people, is about holding hope for others when they are unable to hold it for themselves. More often than not, I meet people when they are in the midst of some sort of crisis. That crisis has painted their world pretty dark, and optimistic isn’t very high on the list of things they are feeling. And yet, the very act of going to therapy is an act of hope — it’s taking a chance that there may be another way to feel, another way to live life. They come with a spark, and it’s my job to help them nurture and grow that spark. I help them see the strengths they already have, and learn to accept that being human means having imperfection. When all else fails, I sit with them in their darkness until they can contemplate the existence of light again.

The world feels very scary to a great deal many people in my life right now. Here in the US, the electoral college just elected a man that the majority of the nation did not vote for, and he is pushing for policy most of us oppose. I have teenage clients being told by bullying classmates that they will be deported, Jewish clients being threatened with swastikas, trans clients terrified for their safety, and countless female clients terrified for their rights (including the right to not be sexually assaulted). Facts are being re-branded as opinions, and science dismissed as an elitist and biased view. People don’t know how to tell if the stories they are reading are real or fake — and too many people don’t even care. If it sounds like the truth (or rather, like what they already believe), that’s good enough.

It’s times like this that I hold on to one of my first and greatest loves: science fiction. Science fiction and fantasy have covered all this territory before. I think I have managed to read a story or see a movie about every kind of terrible thing that humanity can do to itself, or have done to them by some greater power. I have read every kind of ending as well, from the dark and nihilistic, to the fiercely optimistic. The most recent was the latest Star Wars movie, whose tag line is this:

While I can’t assume to know the motivation of every author out there, I can’t help but think that the reason why so many writers create such dark worlds is to show people a way through that darkness. However big the odds, there are always heroes willing to take them on. However hard the path, there are feet willing to walk it, and however horrible the consequences, there are people willing to risk it all. For hope.

Hope is one of the great themes of science fiction: where it lives, how it endures, what it can accomplish, what happens when it dies. You cannot tell a story about human beings without also talking about their hopes and dreams. My particular interest in science fiction and fantasy is the way it can take the human condition to the furthest stretch of “what if” and provide a possible answer to what humans would do then. And more often than not, what humans will do, whenever given even the tiniest chance, is hope.

Like many others, I found 2016 to be a very challenging year. I don’t know if we all just collectively only focused on the bad and missed the good (though a lot good happened as well), but it seemed like the year when a lot of people realized, as the great William Goldman (of The Princess Bride) said: “Life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” None of us are buying this year.

Still, it’s my job to hold hope. The only reason I have been able to is that I spent my childhood practicing this skill. I usually needed it about midway through a book when everything in the story started getting darker and darker. I definitely needed it right before the end, when it seemed like any sort of happy ending would be impossible. But I stuck with it (and didn’t skip ahead) and even if all the characters would not survive the story, one thing almost always did: hope.

So I’d pick up the next book, and the next, and the next, and get the same message again and again. However dark the world, there were good people in it. However horrible humanity could be, there were other humans willing to stand up for the weak, for the innocent, and for the best in all of us.

And that is why I can look at 2016 and understand — the story is not over yet. I don’t know if 2017 will be a dark chapter or not, but I do know that in the end, however long this series goes, the good will win. We just have to keep flipping the pages, and we’ll get there eventually.

*originally published on The Stiletto Gang blog.

A Moment of Discord

What makes a person change?

This is the question that fills my life — my life as a therapist, and my life as a writer. How does a person grow and evolve? What makes them change their minds, their hearts, their views? According to Wikipedia, “a character arc is the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. If a story has a character arc, the character begins as one sort of person and gradually transforms into a different sort of person in response to changing developments in the story.”

In fiction, the character arc — and the general plot of the story — begins with the inciting incident, or the thing that starts the whole plot rolling. Without this incident, there would be no conflict, no push forward. Without the inciting incident putting events into motion, there would be no reason for the character to have an arc, for the character to change.

Real life rarely has a linear plot, and so it’s really hard to find inciting incidents in it. Sometimes big events happen that force people to deal with them, like death or moving, or gaining or losing a job. And yet the event itself doesn’t necessarily lead to any sort of lasting change. Events come and go in a life, and it is how people respond to those events that actually lead to change or not.

From what I’ve seen, the most common event in a person’s life is a moment of discord — a moment where something that someone thought, believed, or knew as an absolute truth gets challenged. In fiction this might be something as big as aliens landing on Earth, or a character seeing a ghost. In real life the moments tend to be smaller and much more frequent, like hearing a story that surprises you about your friend, or meeting someone from a group you were sure you knew everything about and discovering they are nothing like you imagined they would be.

With every moment of discord comes a choice — either a person can double down on what they thought they knew to be true, or embrace the discomfort and move to change. Often, in fiction, it takes several beats and/or chapters to get from an inciting incident to the thing that locks the character into the plot and toward the course of change. Even in fiction, we recognize the human need to resist change, to cling to old ideas or ways of being. We deny the ghosts in front of our eyes, the aliens walking down the street, or even the possibility that our long-held view of the world could be anything but right and true. It takes  more discord, more discomfort to lodge us from the path we were already walking and lead us toward something new.

Some people never lock in to their action, never embrace the change. They stay constant in how they act, in how they see the world, regardless of what events unfold in front of them. They likely don’t make very good protagonists, since their arcs look more like straight lines.

I don’t see many of those types in therapy, since the act of going to a therapist is about actively seeking some sort of change. But even if people want to change, it doesn’t mean they don’t resist it. There are barriers, there is push back, there are relapses and setbacks. In a story, this is the series of conflicts that creates tension while driving the story forward. In real life, these are the things that drive people crazy.

Change in a story comes at exactly the point the author needs it to come so that there is some sort of resolution. Change in a life is a process that may or may not have a definitive end. Both types of change take commitment, time, and perspective.

So what makes a person change? I’m still not sure. Lives are scattered with inciting incidents and moments of discord nearly every day. Events don’t change people — people change themselves.

In the end I think it comes back to my favorite social work joke: how many social workers does it take to change a light bulb?

One, but the light bulb has to want to change.

Everything else is just the story of how.

 

*Originally posted on The Stiletto Gang on December 6th, 2016. 

When Gratitude Isn’t Easy

The common wisdom is that a daily practice of gratitude is not only good for the soul, it is also good for your mental health. As a therapist, I often help my clients focus on the positive in their life, and on their own strengths. Strengths-focus is the heart of Positive Psychology, “the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive.” Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive psychology wanted to find a way to help people “to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.” He found it in practices of strength-based focus on positivity.

I am a huge fan (and amateur practitioner of) positive psychology, so I get all the health benefits of gratitude. But lately, I have found gratitude to be particularly challenging — I am having a hard time staying focused on what is good.

Right now, there is a lot of hurt in the world. Here in the US, we have water protectors at Standing Rock getting hosed down in freezing water, and the Southern Poverty Law Center reporting a high number of incidents of hate crimes since the Presidential Election. My clinical clients are struggling — some have been targeted by hate crimes themselves and most are afraid of what will happen next. Plus, there is still a lot of bad things happening outside our country, the most recent being yet another huge natural disaster in Japan (BIG earthquake). In the midst of all these horrible things, how do you stay focused on the strengths? How do you continue to practice gratitude?

I want to remind people that gratitude is not an absolute feeling. It’s not something that requires that you feel it, and only it. Gratitude is an “and”, not a “but”. There are horrible things happening in the world, “and” I am thankful that most of the people I love are safe and sound. There is a lot of fear and hate floating around, and I am grateful that people are still able to come together under the umbrella of love. The “and” is not trying to eliminate, or even counter, everything that comes before. Gratitude is not about balance — some things are so horrible a simple expression of thankfullness could never even begin to counter them. Gratitude is a practice of opening up all the parts of us that are afraid, sad, and overwhelmed just enough to let some of the good in — and some of the good out. It is the the thing that lets us keep the words of Mr. Rogers in mind:

Gratitude reminds us that we are strong — is the very act of focusing on strengths. It says, life is hard, and I am capable enough, talented enough, and brave enough to handle it. Life is hard, and it is beautiful, and worth living.

It is when gratitude is the hardest to find that we most need to look for it, to look for the “and” as a way to help bolster us against everything that comes before. This Thanksgiving I will be far away from family, and still reeling from the events of the last few weeks, and still worried about the future. And I will be with friends, will be eating bountiful food in relative safety, and will be able to find moments of laughter to share. Life is never just one thing. This year, I am grateful for “and.”

*     *     *

Originally published on The Stiletto Gang on November 22nd, 2016.

Fall is the Time for Book Giveaways!

October is one of my favorite months and Halloween one of my favorite holidays. It’s no secret to anyone who has read my book Perfect Likeness that I am a fan of the supernatural, and having an entire month dedicated to exploring the edges of humanity and playing in the great “what if” just makes me happy. I break out the glitter pumpkins, the purple and orange string lights, and the creepy LED candles (which are much more cat-friendly than actual fire), and then enjoy an entire month of baking, soup making, and pumpkin spice having.

Fall is the perfect season to cuddle up on the couch and read, which is why I am super excited to announce a book giveaway from my publishing company Blue Zephyr Press. By clicking the link below you can enter for a chance to win a $75 Amazon Gift Card, one of three print novels (Exile by Karen Harris Tully, An Unseen Current by Bethany Maines, and Perfect Likeness by me), or a package of five ebooks: Exile and Inheritance, books one and two in the Faarian Chronicles series by Karen Harris Tully; the San Juan Islands murder mystery An Unseen Current, and supernatural romance Wild Waters by Bethany Maines; and of course, my own romantic comedy with a supernatural twist, Perfect Likeness. The contest runs through October 30th, 2016, and if you tweet about the giveaway, you can win extra entries!

Click on the image and/or follow the link for a chance to win!

Or

>>ENTER CONTEST AT RAFFLECOPTER<<

When You’re Busy Making Other Plans

There is this saying:

 

For most people, the shape of that life can be found in their daily routines, the tiny habits that carry us from waking up to going to sleep. Routines are seen as either amazing and wonderful, or soul-sucking and dreadful.

I am someone who has always resisted a routine. I wanted each day to look different than the one before it.  I wanted spontaneity and that sense that anything could happen. And yet, I fell into a routine anyway, because that is the nature of life. Work and school and other external structures shape our days, forcing us to wake up at certain times, which forces us to go to bed at certain times. The space in between carries all the usual things — taking showers, eating meals, doing chores, walking the same familiar paths of each day.

Moving to NY from LA, there were certain routines that made me feel safer. I began to go to the same places over and over again, and countered my fear of being alone in a new city by becoming a regular. There is a pub in midtown where they not only know my name, they know my order, and at least as much about my life as a casual social media friend. There is comfort in that, comfort in the familiar, in the steady rhythms of the day-to-day. Routine is just being a regular in your own life.

What I have come to learn as I’ve gotten older is that routines happen whether we consciously form them or not. And in fact, consciously forming them (or changing them) is actually really hard. Now that I have a new job, many of my old routines have been forced to change, and I’ve been in this weird in bet

ween space where I haven’t figured out the new ones yet. I keep hoping this will be a great chance to shape how each day will look with more consideration than my days before. I want to add healthier habits to my routine and break away from some older, less desirable ones. I want to take my lunch every day, and do laundry more than on a “now we really are out of clothes to wear” basis. When my friends joke about not being able to adult anymore, I really feel like what we’re saying is that the routines of life can be overwhelming. The laundry always needs to get done. The dishes always need to be washed.

And if you’re a writer, that next project is always going to be in need of more work — writing, editing, planning, marketing. Work only gets done through the careful application of regular effort. Or it doesn’t get done, because your routine doesn’t include that particular effort.

No one wants to feel like each day looks just like the last. But I think that sometimes my own resistance to that is actually doing me more harm than good. Each day DOES look like the last, because it turns out spontaneity takes its own kind of effort (and that I’m really more of a plan-ahead girl). Weeks get defined by regularly weekly activities — taking out the garbage, watching a particular weekly show, that family member that calls every Sunday, like clockwork.

I am hoping that I will be able to actually use this external change of a new job to help me build a new and improved routine. The thing about things moving along like clock work is that they move along. If you want the gears to keep grinding, you need to give them a familiar path around the wheel.

*Originally published on The Stiletto Gang blog on September 20th, 2016.

Embracing the Change

 

Like many other writers, I have a day job. I am a social worker and have spent the last four years working in child welfare. While this can be a very rewarding field to work in, it is also a very draining field to work in. Self-care is a constant challenge due to the demands of the job. When you rarely get time for lunch, it is even harder to make time for writing — which has not been good for me, or my publishing schedule.

It’s not just the hours, which are long, or the paperwork, which even the most prolific of writers would find daunting to keep up with — it’s that the constant stress leaves you so little mental energy to dig into character and conflict. Writing is work, of course, but it began to feel like more work than it ever had before.

Every writer, regardless of their outside life, struggles to fit writing into that life. Writing is a very time consuming enterprise, and much of that time is spent away from other people, and away from the maintenance of every day living. It’s hard to write and do dishes at the same time (though so easy to get dishes done when you are avoiding a particularly challenging writing session). Time spent writing is time AWAY. You have to have the time to spare (or the ability to create it).  I was running out of away time to dedicate to writing (or laundry, which was piling up on the regular). Something had to give.

So I sought out and found a new job at a mental health clinic — I will now be working as a therapist full time. What I am hoping this means is that I will have more time — and energy — for writing.

And yet, change is hard. Change makes people very uncomfortable. (As someone who helps people change their lives for a living, I can attest that most people find it at best, a frustrating experience). So even though I’m very excited for this change, I am also nervous. What if this doesn’t work out the way I hope it will? What if I start to feel burned out again? What if I don’t make time for writing in this new schedule?

Change comes with risk — it invites the unknown into your life. It leaves variables on the table that only time and experience can solve. And at this point, I’m still not sure what X will turn out to be.

It feels very much like sitting down to write a new story with only a vague outline in mind, and no real idea how it’s going to end. So you’d think I’d be used to this feeling, used to facing down the unknown. The very act of writing is the act of embracing change over and over, solving for x time and time again. Writing is meant to be uncomfortable and challenging, or else it wouldn’t also be rewarding. Change, like writing, is hard every single time. It also is the only way that something new, and potentially amazing, can happen.

Here’s to opening the door and inviting in the amazing!

*Originally published on The Stiletto Gang blog on September 8th, 2016.