Stretching out of My Comfort Zone

It all starts with an idea. What if…?

And then you have a choice — follow through with the idea, or don’t. Not following through is easy. You just have to avoid taking any action.

But following through often means doing something new, stepping out of your comfort zone, taking some sort of risk.

 

This year, I am putting out a Christmas-themed novella. I have never written a holiday-themed story before, so this is all new territory. There is the added stress that I have a very tight deadline to get this story done.

The fun / hard part is having to think about Christmas stuff when in the middle of a heat wave. At this point, “Christmas in July” is a cliche, but I have found myself listening to Christmas carols, and watching Christmas movies to help me get in the mood for my story.

It has definitely been hard to concentrate on Christmas themes with fireworks going off, but it has also been nice to keep some of that holiday cheer up year round. I even have some decorations out for visual inspiration.

Trying something new always feels at least a little risky. And while all writing feels risky, stepping outside of your usual genre or style feels like an even bigger leap than usual. My fear and anxiety is at war with my excitement, and any given day one or the other wins. Good writing days, the excitement wins. Bad writing days, the fear wins.

I find this same fear vs excitement battle happening in other parts of my life, forcing me to take deep breaths, control my catastrophizing thinking, and remind myself that the stakes are not nearly as high as my emotions want me to feel they are.

In the end, I know I will be proud for stepping outside of my comfort zone, whatever happens with the book. That’s what I keep holding on to whenever the fear threatens to take over — there is going to be another side of this feeling. All I have to do is plow through, endure the discomfort, and make it to that other side.

Going Home

Going Home

This week, I am writing from home. In this particular case, home is the last home I lived in with my parents – a lovely house with a gorgeous pool in Santa Clarita, California. It has a special place in my heart — I even set  my first novel in this town.

But home is a complicated thing for me to define. Whenever I go back to California, I say “I am going back home.” But whenever I go back to Washington, I also say (and feel) “I am going back home.” And of course, whenever I fly back to New York, I very much feel, “I am going home.”

I spent my early childhood in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Then we moved. So I spent my most formative years — middle school through the end of college — in Washington State. Many of my closest friends come from that time and place in my life.

Then I moved back to California and spent my identity-figuring-out years in various places in and around Los Angeles again. My parents bought a house there where I lived (after moving “back home” for a while), and of course all my childhood things — boxed and moved around for decades — reside there.

And then I moved to New York, where I currently live, and built amazing relationships there too.

Every home, of course, shaped me, and continues to shape me. Every place I have lived put its mark — the constant sun of southern California and the heat and deserts; the near-constant grey of Seattle, and the amazing green forests; and the constant noise of New York City, and the density of buildings and people. Home is the Pacific Ocean, but also the Williamsburg Bridge. Home is watching the sunset over the water, toes in the sand. Home is walking a muddy trail among evergreen trees. Home is hard concrete and the constant noise of people everywhere.

But mostly, home is the people in those places, the friends who spent hours in book stores with me, or on hiking trails, or in dance clubs. The family who told me I could do it (even when “it” kept changing), and cheered me on. Home is the conversations that helped me figure out what I believed and who I am.

Still, it feels strange to be back in this particular home, where things are starting to be packed up or given away in anticipation of eventually selling the house. Even though this is not my childhood home, I am having many of those same feelings as I look at shelves emptying and closets cleared out. I am feeling the passing of time, feeling my age. I am going through all the emotions of holding on and letting go (and telling myself that it is okay, better even, to let go).

My head is filling with stories real and imaged — the stories I still tell when I try to tell people about myself and my life, the stories I only remember because I have a photograph or item to anchor them to, the stories that kept me company in each place, and the stories inspired by them.

There are a lot of saying about what home is, but I find myself drawn to this particular one over all the others:

Advanced Generalist

I am a know-it-all. This is not a confession I make likely, because being called a know-it-all when I was growing up was not a positive experience.

And yet, I couldn’t help myself. I liked knowing things. I still like knowing things. It goes deeper than needing something to feel superior about (I know something you don’t!). Knowing things was how I held on to an objective reality when my personal reality was constantly being challenged when I was growing up.

Feelings, I learned early on, lied. They did such a good job of lying they could rewrite the past, shape the present, and make the future seem like destiny. If things were good, they had always been good and would always be good. More often than not, if things were bad, they had always been bad and always would be bad. I needed something I could depend on to hold on to. And that’s when I discovered facts — things that were undeniably true. Things that surpassed emotions. Things that I could use as anchors so that my life could make some sort of sense.

My hunger to know things, really know things, also meant a huge reluctance to accept that the things I knew were wrong. My family had invested in a set of encyclopedias when I was a child, and I went to them on a regular basis. These days I use the Internet to verify that I do in fact know what I know (and that it is knowable), using skills garnered in my years as a journalist to test sources and information. Fact-checking, once a part of my job as a reporter, has become part of my daily life. To this day, I go into an emotional tail spin if a fact I have held on to is questioned — how could I get something wrong? What is actually knowable? Will life ever make sense?

It is with old-fashioned journalistic confidence — the confidence of someone who has done the fact checking — that I can say that when I know something, I know something. I have spent more time than is probably healthy looking it up and verifying its veracity, or else I will be light in my presentation of said fact, using “I think I read somewhere that…” instead of stating it as something actually true. Being a know-it-all is not something I take lightly — I try very hard to accurately share what I know.

I have also had a lot of different jobs. In my years attempting to be a freelance journalist (which I was never great at because selling my writing was always harder than doing the writing), I took a lot of day jobs, and in fact, spent a great deal of time being a temporary employee. Being a temp suited me since I have always been able to learn fairly quickly, and because I like being helpful. And since I was a temp, there was only so much filing I would have to do before getting (or asking for) a new assignment. Eventually, I became one of those people who knew at least a little bit about a lot of different things. I was a generalist, in the old terminology.

So it greatly amused me when I found out that one of the methods I could study in social work was “advanced generalist.” An advanced generalist social worker can work in multiple systems and at multiple levels, from direct services to policy. Advanced generalists are considered part of the mezzo or middle level of social workers (with strictly clinical social workers at the micro level, and those working on policy or high admin levels considered more macro level workers). As such they get training both in clinical work and in administrative work, learning how to diagnose individual clients as well as assess communities and organizations.

It matches my know-it-all spirit to be an advanced generalist. I have worked in various jobs in various fields, including journalism, public relations, marketing, administrative work, English and math tutoring, teaching, office management, case manager, social worker, and now, therapist. And I have learned a ton of different things both formally and informally (including that time I took a class called “acting for the nonprofessional” and that other time I learned how to waltz). In fact, lacking any other language to describe my particular brand of know-it-all-ness (I know at least a little bit about a really large number of subjects), I often refer to myself as an advanced generalist outside of the field of social work.

So I was very pleased to discover that my particular brand of know-it-all-ness is not something unique to me, and in fact has a (relatively) brand new name: multipotentialite. According to Wikipedia, In 1972, R.H. Frederickson described a multipotentialed person as people who:

“When provided with appropriate environments, can select and develop a number of competencies to a high level.”

Emilie Wapnick coined the term multipotentialite to help unite folks who fall under this general definition into a single community. Essentially, it’s a fancy term for generalist, which Wapnick talks about in a TED Talk about why not everyone has “one true calling.” Which would explain my multiple jobs, two distinct careers, and constant need to learn new things.

I have never been the best at anything, but I have managed to pull off “pretty darn good” in a lot of areas.

The only time I get use use all my know-it-all-ness — without penalty — is when I engage in writing, particularly creative writing. I suspect every author I know is in some way a multipotentialite, and certainly every one has done a ton of research on a variety of subjects (including various ways to kill people or cover up having killed someone). In a way, I think every creative writer is — or is forced to become — an advanced generalist.

Which puts a whole new spin on the old adage: “write what you know.” If you don’t know it, learn it, and then write about it.

Writers Need to Stretch

I’ve been hitting the keyboard hard lately, and even though I have adjusted  my set up with cushions and things like that, there is still no escaping the fact that extended time writing is hard on the body.

Healthy body movement is one of the things I struggle with most. I have a tendency to treat my body like a last minute project — I suddenly feel a pain or ache and then break out ALL the moves I should have been doing all along, as though one marathon session of stretching will undo months’ worth of damage.

So, this is as much about helping me take accountability as it is to help anyone else with their own stretching goals. My goal is not to do ALL the stretches, but to start by picking five I will attempt to integrate into my daily life.

Fortunately, there are a ton of articles and videos about the best kinds of stretches for people who spend too much time sitting in front of computers. For writers, of particular note are things to help  maintain hand health and back health, since both take a beating with lots of writing.

This article talks about carpal tunnel signs, symptoms, and prevention: https://thebodymechanic.com/active-release-technique-blog/carpal-tunnel-syndrome/

And this article has great stretches to do in a (sturdy) office chair, with gifs on how each one should look: https://www.healthline.com/health/deskercise#head-and-shoulders

To be a good writer is to be a whole person, and I have to regularly remind myself that means taking care of my body as much as my imagination.

Here’s to stretching for writer health!

Regression to the Mean

Two days before Christmas, I had to put my beloved cat Oscar down.

The holidays have been hard for me for a very long time. Grief is like a shadow that is always with you, but changes size and shape depending on what light is around. On the brightest moments of the brightest days, the shadow can shrink down so small you can’t even tell it’s there. Other times, it stretches out so far, it’s the only thing you can see.

The shadows that bother me the most are the ones that come after dark; cast by the light of streetlamps and headlights, they pile up two or three at a time, and are rarely still. There is no true dark where I live in Brooklyn, just as there is no actual silence, just various levels of noise you learn to live with. As such, my nights are filled with shadows.

Christmas lights throw their own particular shadows. The lights are my favorite part of the holiday, and I relish in the opportunity to throw them up on windows, and keep my (fake) tree up as long as possible to help ease the passing of dark-too-long days. I am struggling now with wanting to keep them up even longer, because there is already so much change in my small apartment with my cat gone. I am haunted by the shape of his absence: the lack of warmth against my legs when I sleep, the missing noise of him jumping up or down from things, the many places and things he is not laying on or in. His loss thickens the others that have come before: my grandparents, my brother, and my mother, not to mention other beloved pets. Every time I look for him and he’s not there, I think of the phone calls I can’t make, the people I can no longer hug, and the memories that are fixed and fading.

The passing of a new year is of course something worth celebrating, but it is also something that triggers my grief. Every new turn of the calendar adds to the time after someone I love passed. Every time I count down how long it’s been, I am newly shocked and thrown back into those early days of denial. No, really? It can’t have been that long already… And yet, it is.

Recently I heard someone talk about regression to the mean, a concept in statistics that states that if a variable is extreme on the first measurement, it will be closer to the average on the second (and vice versa). How I understand it from a clinical standpoint is that all things in life — the very big moments either good or bad — eventually return to a sort of baseline. The baseline itself may change over time, but the mean, the average, the day-to-day — we all come back to it eventually.

What I tell my clients is that if you want to see your overall progress toward something, you can’t look at a single data point — a single good day or bad day. You have to look at the trend over time to see if it’s moving in the right direction.

I am not sure what direction I want my life to move in, other than a vague urge to want to have a sense of progress. The loss of a pet is inevitable, if you live long enough, and I knew what I was getting into when I adopted my cat. In fact, I was more aware of the potential of his loss than pretty much any other loss in my life, and that in itself is a gift he gave me. Knowing our days together were naturally numbered, helped me better understand the nature of life and loss.

We love, anyway. And eventually I think I will likely seek out that particular kind of love again, when I’m ready.

In the meantime, what I want most from 2018 is a regression to the mean. It will come — the grief will be less acute, the days will stay lighter longer, and the shadows will feel less omnipresent. I’ll adjust to a new normal, and, as heartbreaking as it sounds, not having him in my life will feel as normal as having him in life did for over a decade.

My one and only New Year’s Resolution is to give myself time. Time to grieve, time to heal, time to write, time to breathe, time to sleep, time to create, time to just be. Next year will come (if I am lucky), and I won’t have to do anything except let the days go by as they are wont to do.

In the meantime, I may keep my tree up until at least the end of January. Some things I’m just not ready to let go of yet.

Frustration and Counting Your Spoons

I have had a very frustrating week, followed by a frustrating weekend. I suppose part of this is the nature of the holiday season — too many things squeezed into too little a space of time. Part of this is connected to my day-job and what feels like a never-ending and overwhelming work load. And part of this is just vicarious frustration as so many of my clients are also feeling their ire rise.

In simple terms, frustration is the feeling of being upset or annoyed, especially because of inability to change or achieve something. Frustration tolerance is the idea that we have a capacity for how much frustration we can tolerate without having some sort of emotional breakdown.

What I try to get my clients to understand is that everyone has limited daily energy. That energy is being used up by all sorts of things. I have people picture a battery — throughout the day, every task they do takes energy from that battery. The lower their battery level, the greater the percentage of what they have left each new task takes. In short, the more you have on your plate, the less energy you have for each thing, and that includes emotional energy. The end result is that your frustration tolerance goes down, and those little things that you might be able to brush off with a full battery — like traffic, rude people, or even dropping your keys — suddenly feel like really big deals because you have so little energy left to deal with them.

Other people use the spoon theory to describe what life is like with chronic illness (physical or mental) or chronic pain — the idea that your battery (or in this case, the number of spoons you have) is already lower than someone else not dealing with that condition:

The point of both analogies — batteries or spoons — is to recognize when your levels are low. Because when your levels are low, your irritability will be higher, your problem solving skills will be impaired, and your emotions in general will be closer to the surface.

So as we move forward into the holiday season, and the multitude of things that comes with it, please be sure to keep track of your battery levels. You will need to recharge them — with rest, with time for yourself, with delegating tasks to other people, with turning down obligations. And more importantly, you need to practice self kindness when you start to lost it — snap at your loved ones, get emotional over small things, or feel too drained to do as good a job as you want to. It just means your battery — and your frustration tolerance level — is low.

Essential Self-Care

The news isn’t good again. I can’t remember the last time I read the news and felt anything other than dread and sadness. I feel like a collective anxiety has taken over most everyone I know. In times like these, it is important to remember to take care of yourself — and easy to forget.

Everyone pushes the concept of self-care these days, but it too often feels like yet another thing people feel like they should do, and never get around to doing. First, self-care is not all yoga classes and bubble baths. Self-care of it is all those things you do to take care of yourself, your mental and physical health, and your environment. These things are essential, not just for your physical health, but for your mental health. Here are some ways you can focus on self-care when you are feeling tired and tapped out:

Body Maintenance: did you shower today? That counts! Eat food, drink water, brush your teeth? This is all literal self-care in that you are taking care of your body. Anything you do to take care of your body, from a haircut to trimming your nails, is all a part of self care. While you may not have energy for full blown exercising on your low days, try stretching for five minutes for both a sense of accomplishment and to relieve tension in your body. I personally love doing a forward bend that is supported by a sturdy chair (mostly because I have zero flexibility.) The chair helps me feel steady while the bend takes a lot of tension out of my back.

Space Maintenance: doing the dishes, the laundry, taking out the recycling (my own personal struggle) — all of this is actually about taking care of yourself. Not only is your life better when you have clean clothes, clean dishes, and room to walk in your kitchen (again, I struggle with recycling), it is a way of saying “I matter.” This stuff is not fun and is often the first to go when we’re stressed out. And then it piles up. And then we feel really bad about it. So do yourself a favor and pick one of these chores and work on it for five to ten minutes. Wash two dishes, sort your laundry, bag your recycling — you don’t have to do it all, and you will feel better after.
Social Maintenance: Reaching out to friends via text, email, or even social media is another way of taking care of yourself. Everyone needs a support network, and any time you spend maintaining yours will ultimately help you better take care of yourself. Feeling extra ambitious? Don’t just reach out — make plans! And even if you feel really tired and like you just can’t, I encourage you to keep those plans. Again, you’ll likely feel better after. It helps to make plans closer to your house or even at your house if you are feeling extra low energy.

Luxury Maintenance: Here is where all the usual self-care stuff happens — shopping, bubble baths, vacations, spas, resorts, etc. These definitely have a place in self-care, but they are not always as accessible as some folks need/want them to be. Self-care doesn’t have to look like a wine tasting or yoga retreat. But if that is the type of thing that helps you take time for yourself, go for it! But also spending extra money on time saving can be a great form of self-care. For example, I get my groceries delivered (yay NYC!). I know a lot of people who use laundry drop off services. Some folks use meal kit services to inspire them to eat more variety. Research has suggested that people feel better about spending money that saves them time more than other purchases.
Dream Maintenance: This one is harder to define, because everyone had different dreams when they were growing up, and a lot of people have had their “dream life” change as they got older. But we all want something. Finding a way to keep that dream alive, however small, is a huge part of taking care of ourselves. For me, it is constantly trying to make room for writing in my life when I have so many other things (like recycling) taking up my time. I also have been actively pursuing my professional dreams like starting my own private therapy practice, and while these goals are hard to focus on and sometimes seem impossible to accomplish, even sitting down and brainstorming steps helps me feel better. Doing research, planning to take a class, finding fellow hobby enthusiasts — these are all ways that people keep their dreams and interests alive. Dream maintenance is all about keeping hope going — imagining a future that is better than where you are right now. Even in these hard times — especially in these hard times — it is essential that we can picture a brighter tomorrow.

Try making and keeping a list of ways you like to take care of yourself to refer to when you feel sad, down, and stuck in your life.

The Power of “Me Too”

One of the most powerful feelings in the world is that moment when you realize that something you thought just happened to you, that only you understood or experienced (often with fear and/or shame), also happened to someone you know. Somehow sharing the experience changes how you feel about it. It shifts the burden from you to some universal truth — this is a thing that happens to people, not just me. 

It needs to not just be “me” in order to take away some of the shame. To that end I often self-disclose with my clients that I also suffer from depression. Me, too. So when I talk about how its the little things — the laundry, recycling, dishes, and trash piling up; the constant need for distraction and inability to focus on anything; the sleeping binges and insomniac binges; the appetite that refuses to stay consistent — they nod their heads. Oh yeah, that happens to me, too.

On social media, there is a trend happening right now of women saying “me too.” It is a way for them to share that they have also experienced sexual harassment and/or assault, to show how common the problem is (and is a throwback to #yesallwomen, popularized in 2014 as a response to #NotAllMen). But for me at least, it is having a secondary effect of showing me just how not alone I have been in my own experiences. It is showing me that whatever I have gone through, someone else has gone through something similar, and that means I can feel a little less ashamed about my own experiences, a little less convinced I somehow did something wrong, inadvertently “asked for it” in some way, or had something specifically wrong with me that invited other people’s bad behavior. Instead, I can see more directly how the culture at large is to blame, how systemic the issue is, how real rape culture (and the way it contributes to mass harassment) is.

For me, the power of “me too” in this instance is that it helps me continue to chip away at the shame I have had about my body since I was a little girl and was “made to feel funny” by adult men paying too much of the wrong kind of attention to me. My body was remarked on, my looks analyzed, my freedom curtailed because my very femaleness meant I would forever be a target. Pretty little girls don’t get to go play outside by themselves. I was taught that a healthy amount of fear would keep me safe. It didn’t. I was taught that a certain amount of modesty would keep me safe. It didn’t. I was taught that not wrestling with the boys would keep me safe. Not only did that not help, eventually learning self defense by “wrestling with the boys” was the only thing that did help me feel safer as an adult.

Every “me too” I saw on my timeline made me feel a combination of sad — and relieved. I wish the problem wasn’t so prevalent. But at the same time, I feel reassured that this was never just about me but about all girls and women. This was never just my problem — it was all of ours.

And I feel better still after reading wonderful messages of support from my male friends. A secondary trend of posting “yes I have” has popped up, with men sharing their own stories of giving in to rape culture and being complicit in the behavior of others, or participating in that behavior themselves. Their confessions and heartfelt apologies mean the world to me, because they come with a pledge to do better. It’s another version of “me too” that carries the same kind of power — we have all done things we are ashamed of. The first step is recognizing the problem. Together, we have a chance of changing things.

Learning to Let Go

A writer friend of mine told me that being in your 20s is all about unbridled optimism that anything can happen, while being in your 30s is about figuring out your limitations, and what really is possible. Limitations are hard, she said. But it makes life so much easier when you just accept who you really are instead of constantly banging your head against your own weaknesses, hoping they’ll stop existing.

When I was younger, I had all these visions about what my life was going to look like, and what the future was going to hold for me. I was sold on my own potential, something adults had assured me I had plenty of for most of my life, but I also found it paralyzing. I could do anything. I could do anything. And that meant I had to pick and choose and apparently be very very good at it or else I would be wasting all that potential.

Things in my life did  not go as planned. In fact, they keep not going as planned. I have spent a lot of time trying to fit myself into spaces where I just don’t fit, and even if I managed to force my way in, being in them would make me constantly uncomfortable, and completely inauthentic. And why? Because of some worry that I was failing to live up to something as ill-defined as potential?

I was talking about feeling stuck, overwhelmed by the potential of my story. “Over determination is the enemy,” my friend reminded me. She told me to stop trying to force it, to move back toward writing as play. It was almost shocking advice. I have spent a long time trying to embrace writing as work. Somewhere along the way I forgot that it is also supposed to be fun.

And that life is supposed to be fun — or at least not miserable. If I was working on not forcing things in my greater life, why would I then be willing to force things in my writing? I had to let go.

It’s scary to let go. It’s scary to abandon plans — or to at least pull back on the details. It’s scary to imagine that at best you can aim for a certain direction and see what happens. As in life, so it is in writing. All the outlining in the world won’t actually take your story where it needs to go.

More importantly, worrying about living up to the potential of a story — or of a life — is a great way to squander said potential. No one person can do ALL the things in life. The therapist part of me of course knows this, but the writer part of me often forgets it. The story will come when it comes, and how it will come, and it won’t be forced.

So that’s where I am these days — trying to learn the art of letting go. My hope is that my letting go this idea of unrealized potential I can start to better focus on what already is, what I am already good at, and what I already know. I can stop living in the shadow of what could be, and enjoy the light of what actually is.

I think I’d rather be in the light.

 

*Originally posted on The Stiletto Gang

The Flying of Time

There comes a point in a new position where everything begins to feel routine. Where the schedule is pretty locked in, the tasks rote, and the days start to blend together. I always worry when this happens, because as the weeks whirl into months, I feel my life passes before my eyes at an almost numbing speed. I become complacent.

Writing is the only thing that seems to help keep the flying of time in check, because it is a measurable use of time. Most of my tasks disappear, as it were, by the next week. As a therapist, I see the same people over and over again, marking their progress with notes written weekly and treatment plans written every three months. But the progress in therapy is sometimes is small, and hard to see from week to week, like tracking the growth of a child. You know they are growing, but it takes a while to actually see it.

At the breakneck speed of a mental health clinic where I see clients one right after another, with one short break midway through a stretch of 9 clients in a row, it’s hard to spend a lot of time processing each session to look for those moments of growth or change. Each week picks up on the topics of the previous, so it feels sometimes like I am binging other people’s lives.

And it sometimes feels like in doing so I am neglecting my own. Again, writing is one of the few things that keeps me grounded in my own goals and dreams, and helps me see my own growth. I can see the pages that mark the passing of time, see the drafts build, one on another, and when I hit that final draft, have an actual product to give people that is a physical manifestation of “how I used my time.”

However, I struggle to make time for writing. It often comes after — after work, after chores, after general life maintenance. It’s been hard to put writing first. When I look back over a stretch of time and see how few pages I have to show for that period of time, I know my priorities have drifted away from me, and that my routine has taken over.

You’d think that the natural thing to do is to make writing part of that routine, and that has always been my goal. But with so little time, and so many other things going on, it continues to be very hard to make the kind of dedicated writing time I want. I end up getting snatches of time here and there, which never seem to let me get to the place I want to get to, where the words just flow and the story takes over. That is what I miss, more than anything, when I say I miss writing. I miss being a conduit instead of a work horse. I miss feeling inspired instead of feeling obligated. I miss getting quality time with my own imaginary adventures.

So, now that I see that my time management has gotten away from me, it’s time to make adjustments and put writing back up on the priority list. I know doing that though means that some other things may start to slide. There simply just isn’t enough time for everything. I have to use the time I have better.