The Key to Success is Persistence

Several years ago, I was warming up my horse for a dressage clinic when one of the women in the class asked, “Does he always just go on the bit like that?” Her tone was clearly one of admiring envy.

I had to laugh. ‘Going on the bit’ requires the horse to round his back and be compliant to the rider’s hands, the impulsion of movement coming from the hind end. It is a measure of the communication between horse and rider, and in certain disciplines, it is highly prized. It is impossible to do if the horse has his head flung up high and his back hollowed out.

I’d bought my horse as a three-year-old from a slaughterhouse, at the going rate of eighty-nine cents a pound. He was the world’s homeliest Saddlebred, a high-stepping breed designed to move with its head up in the air and back curved so that riding feels like you’re sitting in a rocking chair. He was the last horse anyone would expect to become a dressage champion, and when I first began appearing at the local shows, people shook their heads and wondered what I was doing there. Over a period of nearly a decade (and many hours of diligent training), we went from being the horse and rider that made people snicker to the team that came home with the ribbons.

The woman at the riding clinic was stunned when I told her of my horse’s background and how much work it had taken to make coming on the bit look natural for him. In the world of competitive riding, most people buy the right horse for the job. The right horse, the right saddle, the right boots, the best equipment money can buy: these can make a huge difference in where you place in the show ring. It doesn’t eliminate the need for disciplined training, but your starting point on the podium is higher simply by virtue of having an athletic horse and a saddle that prevents you from making a wrong move. However, I’ve seen sheer hard work and determination overcome genetics and natural ability. I competed with my meat-market Saddlebred because he was the only horse I had, and the hours I put in riding him were a labor of love. Winning ribbons wasn’t the goal. The horse shows just gave me a structure for the time we spent together.

So I have to laugh when people ask me if I’ve always been a writer, in that same sort of wondering, envious tone. As though having a natural gift for something is more valuable than working your butt off to achieve the same results. The truth is, I wrote passionately as a child, only to give it up entirely as a teenager because I didn’t think I was good enough to be a ‘real’ writer. I thought it was time to put away childish dreams and get on with the business of making a career for myself. I wasn’t a natural.

It wasn’t until I discovered online fanfiction archives as an adult that I rediscovered my love for writing. My creative self, having been ruthlessly starved and repressed for several decades, woke with a vengeance. I read everything I could lay my hands on regarding my favorite show, and then tentatively, I began writing my own stories. Not because I thought I was any good. Not because I ever thought I’d be any good. Because I loved the characters so much I wanted to spend more time with them. Because I felt compelled to tell stories about them and share them with like-minded souls. Over a three year period of time, I wrote over a million words of fanfic. The enthusiastic support of friends gave me the courage to try my hand at original fiction, and eventually go on to submit my stories for publication. Making the transition to original fiction was tougher than I’d imagined, but in the end it was no different from moving up a level in dressage: everything that was once seemed effortless becomes hard work as you increase the challenge and have to master a whole new set of skills.

Being a natural is over-rated. It tends to teach poor work habits because everything is easy for you at first, and then when it gets harder, as it always does, you get discouraged and frustrated because you’ve never learned how to put in the hours to reach a specific goal. If you want to get better at anything, you have to put your hours in: under saddle, swimming laps, on the dance floor, at the keyboard. You ‘train’ when you don’t feel like it, when it’s raining, when you’ve had a bad day. That’s what it’s like to be a writer, too.

One of my favorite quotes is from Calvin Coolidge:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

They are words to live by—but especially if you’re a writer. You don’t wait until the muse strikes you. You don’t let reviews sink your confidence. You don’t compare yourself to others. You write, pure and simple. Every day, without fail. You hone your skills by practicing. Your creativity is a muscle you exercise. The more you write, the stronger you get. The better your sentences become. Sure, you can sigh and wish you had more talent, but in the end, it is the person who puts the words to paper who is the winner. It is the person who persists who achieves their dream. That person can be you.

The Art of Accepting Compliments

My lilacs are at least twenty years old, having grown into enormous, rangy bushes that burst into lovely color every spring, filling the air around my house with their delicate scent. This is a photo taken last spring.The bushes were just starting to bud this year when a late April snow storm nipped them all. The buds all shriveled and died. The bushes themselves were damaged by the heavy, wet snow, with huge pieces breaking off and splintering down almost to the core.

I’ve been telling people this is a metaphor for my life lately. I’m only partly joking. The last 14 months of my life (oddly enough corresponding with the current Presidency, don’t think I haven’t noticed) have been very difficult. The damaged lilacs, just on the verge of blooming, seem very apt these days as a depiction of my life.

But recently I ran across a thread on Twitter that made me pause. It was about self-deprecation with respect to your writing, but this is something I struggle with in general:

 

I shared the tweet, adding my own comment, “Guilty. I’ve been digging that groove deeper every day of my life. The problem is self-praise sounds like bull sh*t to me. Gotta work on both issues.”

This resulted in one of my Twitter friends suggesting looking in a mirror every day and saying something nice to myself. We tweeted back and forth on the subject, but the truth is yesterday was a bad day in so many ways and my ability to believe I was anything other than a horrible human being and a talentless hack was nil. I wasn’t very encouraging or cheerful in response.

I’ve tried doing the positive affirmation thing. I even went so far once as to record a bunch of affirmations so I could listen to them daily in a kind of meditative state. I created a journal, lovingly decorated, where I could record my kick-ass affirmations too.

I make talismans for myself, like the I Know My Value bracelet (because I love the Peggy Carter quote so much) and my Persistence bracelet I got from MyIntent.org.

I do these things because every day I need to reverse the well-worn narrative that’s been playing in my head as long as I can remember–the one that I was taught so well I took over the lessons long after the original input ceased.

There’s a Facebook post that’s been circulating on my feed recently about Jim Carey and his self-belief in his comedic talent, even when he was shot down again and again in the early days. I find that kind of belief and persistence admirable, but I don’t understand how someone can have it. How someone can make themselves believe if the belief isn’t there in the first place.

There’s a great scene in the old Steve Martin movie Roxanne, where Martin’s Cyrano-type character Charlie is accosted in a bar by a jerk who attempts to insult him by calling him “Big Nose”. Charlie comes back with, “Is that all you’ve got?”

In the ensuing scene, Charlie insults himself with 20 better insults than the one he’s just received.

 

 

I confess, I have long identified with Charlie. I’ve always been of the mindset that you can’t say anything to hurt me because I’ve already said worse to myself. But at some point, what is a useful coping mechanism for getting through middle school becomes a chain around your legs that prevents you from getting what you want out of life.

The thing is, I’ve always been better at accepting insults than compliments. I don’t trust compliments. When someone compliments me out of the blue, I have a tendency to squint and think, “What do they want?” On the rare occasions a compliment comes my way, my response is always padded with qualifiers. Thank you, but this isn’t my best work. Thank you, but actually, I’ve gained weight. And so on.

I’m working on a conversation between characters in the current book about this very subject, where the heroine explains how difficult it is for her to believe compliments about her looks after growing up hearing how ugly she was. Because I think this is important. I think we need to stop running ourselves down–our appearance, the decisions we’ve made in life, our abilities, our intelligence–all of it. I was raised to believe self-deprecation was far more appropriate than arrogance, but the laughable thing is arrogance will never be one of my flaws. I’ll be lucky if I stretch up to reach a point of self-confidence.

And yet most days, it’s a struggle not to fall back into the old patterns. Probably because arrogance and ‘putting yourself forward’ were portrayed as something far uglier to me than believing in yourself. But I know the power of the mind. I know the things you tell yourself on a daily basis are the things that come true. Maybe you don’t look at yourself in the mirror and think how ugly/old/fat you are. But perhaps you tell yourself you don’t deserve that raise, or you aren’t that good a writer, or you’ll never get ahead, or bad things always happen to you. On the surface, these don’t seem like terrible things to say to yourself. You probably think they’re true. But are they really true or is it that your belief makes it so?

In the past week two compliments have come my way that I do trust because I trust the people who made them. The first came from a friend I’ve known since college, who is well-aware of my sensitivity toward aging. Out of the blue, she said, “I know you won’t believe me, but honestly, I can’t see any difference in your appearance now than ten years ago. It’s like you’ve stopped aging.”

Hahahahahaha. No seriously. I can see the changes, even if she can’t. But this friend isn’t prone to complimenting lightly just to do so, and I found myself oddly able to accept her kind words.

The second came last night. I’d had a horrible day to cap off an extremely stressful couple of weeks. Tearfully, I expressed to the SO that I wasn’t sure how much more I could take, given the past year. He had me sit down while he made dinner. He went all out–grilling steak kabobs with baked potatoes, and serving them with apple pie, salted caramel ice cream, and a bottle of Merlot. All my favorites.

And then he apologized for not realizing sooner I was struggling. “You just always seem so resilient.”

Resilient. I like that. I like to believe that’s true, and so it is easier for me to accept the compliment without any added ‘buts’. It also makes it easier for me to lift up my chin when the Next Bad Thing comes down the pike and say, “Yeah, I got this. I’m resilient.”

Those are the kinds of words–the ones I can believe in–that make it possible to undo some of the harm of a lifetime of negative self-chatter. 

Remember the lilac bush that isn’t blooming this year? The one that is such a perfect metaphor for my life right now?

I just took this picture just a few minutes ago.

Huh.

Well, what do you know?

 

 

Wake Up Call No. 457

It’s no secret that I’ve had a staggering amount of loss in the past year. I’ve alluded to it before. If I gave all these losses and traumas to a single character in one of my stories, readers would howl at the unbelievable plot.

Loss of communities and my own sense of identity as I re-brand myself as an author in a new genre with a new pen name. Death of multiple pets and family members. Earlier this week, my brother who’d been battling cancer for some time, lost his fight. Next week, I will be attending my third funeral in a year.

The last conversation I had with him was a good one. He spoke of his plans for his celebration of life service, and visiting with old friends who’d made special trips to see him one more time. How the love of his life was also his best friend, and how he was glad he hadn’t waited to travel and do the things most people do once they retire. I was glad he’d reached a point of peace and acceptance in his world full of pain, but I was struck by one statement in particular.

“I have no regrets.”

I honestly couldn’t say the same. It’s not that I’ve made terrible decisions in my life, but the choices I’ve made have locked me into certain pathways from which I can’t escape. Most of those decisions were based on following a calling and choosing a way of life I thought best suited to my personality, but the reality of it is I’m fried from work commitments. I spend the day putting out other people’s metaphorical fires, and then come home drained and empty, with nothing left to give to my loved ones or to myself personally.

I’ve had some health scares too. I’ve been to the ER twice in the last year, both of which should have served as wake up calls to clean up my diet, to slow down, to take more walks with the dogs, to shut off social media and shut out my fears for my country and the rest of the world. To take a deep breath and calm down.

But the truth is, that’s easier said than done when you’re living off your adrenal glands. When work is so stressful you’ve developed a twitch under your left eye, it’s hard to settle for a salad for lunch when there’s a bowl of Easter candy sitting in the employee lounge. It’s easier to throw the ball in the yard for the puppy for a half hour in the evenings after work than it is to take the dogs for a walk. Get up earlier and exercise? I can barely drag myself out of bed as it is. I wish all mirrors could be banned as I look at myself and note every line, every wrinkle, every roll, and an increasingly visible scalp. An old woman looks back at me, and I don’t recognize her. I am utterly exhausted. I don’t know how to squeeze more out of my day.

And I do have regrets. I hate that I wake up every morning playing a negative soundtrack in my head about how much I hate my job, I hate the way I look, I hate the way I feel, I hate the clutter in my house, I hate the person I’ve become.

Again and again over the last ten years, I’ve said I need to make changes. And each time, I start out meaning to do so, only to let the stresses and demands of my daily life suck me back into grabbing processed food on the run, living off soda and cheese & crackers, starting exercise programs I never complete, and continuing to feel crappy and exhausted. I think for most middle-aged women, the combination of stress plus changing hormones sets us up for all kinds of ‘failure’. We simply can’t stop being the workhorse of the family to take care of ourselves, but we have less reserves than we had when we were twenty.

But we only get so many wake up calls. I’m lucky I’ve had as many as I’ve had, to be honest. I’m extremely fortunate that good genes have left me relatively healthy despite the abuse my body takes at my hands on a daily basis. Given the junk food I eat, it’s a bloody miracle I’m only 20-25 pounds overweight and not more. My heart is healthy, and I’m not pre-diabetic. I still have my gallbladder. While not an athlete, I go hiking and horseback riding. My biggest issues are pain-related, stemming from a lifetime of refusing to respect my body and joints that are severely annoyed with me. There is also the ever-increasing list of foods I can no longer eat because of my skin condition, or digestive issues, or food sensitivities. I’m running out of time to coast on my genes. I have caught a glimpse of my future and it’s a scary place–unless I make changes now.

There are reasons I’m not a fan of some of the more popular and successful diet systems. I have friends who’ve lost tremendous amounts of weight through Weight Watchers, etc. But most of these systems require a degree of tracking that is very triggering for me, coming as I am from a household of people with eating disorders. I’d never really considered myself as having an ED, but I suspect now my extreme pickiness is a form of it. Likewise, only a few days of logging food intake on WW or My Fitness Pal has me running in the opposite direction.

I also have a slew of minor but frustrating issues relating to food: I have a skin condition called acne rosacea that is that is triggered by certain foods. I’ve developed a caffeine sensitivity that has resulted in my having to give up caffeine entirely. I struggle with heartburn and digestive issues. So following a specific diet plan is often an automatic fail for me. I just can’t do it. I have to tailor my meals around what I can eat.

But I think I need some accountability, which is why I will be posting about my journey here. No pictures–I’m neither that brave nor that vain. But I will be logging what I’m doing as a whole on my path toward health–mental, physical, emotional. The Wake Up Call for a Middle-Aged Woman, so to speak. The focus here isn’t going to be on weight loss, though that would be a nice bonus if it occurred. It’s going go be about feeling better: about myself, about my life, about my future.

Because I don’t want to have any more regrets than I already do.

 

 

 

Stepping out of your Comfort Zone: The Power of Big Decisions

Back in the fall, I wrote about the indecision I had over getting a short hair cut after years of long hair. 2017 had been a bad year for me: lots of loss, lots of sorrow. By the end of October, however, I could sense an awakening in me. A desire to put all that behind me and pick up the pieces of my life.

Making a decision to drastically cut my hair seemed part and parcel of this need to change. But as you know if you read the post, I had my doubts. Those doubts must have conveyed themselves to my stylist, because though I went in armed with photos of what I wanted, she’d never been through one of my cutting cycles and she was concerned I’d hate it once I cut it all off. I was too, to be honest.

So I let her talk me into cutting it in stages. It had been down to nearly mid-back level. I had her take it to shoulder length before I went on vacation, with the plan to go shorter on my return.

When I went in, I was ready for something dramatic. Something reflective of the changes I was making in my life. I wanted a clean slate.

What I got unfortunately was the exact thing I told my stylist I didn’t want. “Please”, I said. “Whatever you do, don’t give me a chin-length bob.”

But that’s what I got. When I came home, my husband greeted me with a single question: Did I mean to look like Velma from Scooby-doo? VELMA. Okay, I don’t care how much he said he liked the cut later, there is no coming back from VELMA, baby.

Then there was the problem of the cut itself, beyond how I looked. I asked not to get this cut because I know what my hair does. Freed of the weight of length, every time it got the slightest bit damp outside (which is 90% of he time here, what with the general humidity), it began to lift up on all sides until I resembled a dandelion in the puff-ball state. It was too short to put up and long enough that I couldn’t get it out of my face for work. I hated it.

When a friend of mine (a former hairdresser herself) begged me to let her cut my hair, I gave in. It couldn’t be any worse, right? Well, I’m so glad I took her advice. She gave me the pixie cut I wanted and I love it! Not only is it everything I wanted but people keep telling me how much younger I look, and that’s never a bad thing. And it is so much easier to take care of. I’m telling you, I’m never growing out my hair again.

I saw a video on Facebook today of a lovely woman who shaved her hair off because it was something she’d always wanted to do. She’s a seriously pretty woman who never liked her hair, and while I’d never go that extreme, I definitely could understand her love-hate relationship with her hair. When she took that first swipe across her head with the clippers, I gasped along with her at what she had done. You could tell she wasn’t 100% sure about it, and yet she’d just cut a wide swath across the top of her skull! She was committed now.

What I found most interesting was her reaction at the end. Not just that she loved her new look (and she totally rocked it in a way I never could!) but that she was so proud of herself for making a bold move and stepping out of her comfort zone. Kudos to her.

The decision to cut my own hair short led to another: the decision to declutter the house. This has been something I’ve been meaning to do for years but keep putting off for one reason or another. I mean, why do housework when you could be writing, right? The truth of the matter is the house is a bit of a disaster, and it’s hard to get motivated about cleaning it up. But something about cutting my hair short made me look around at the house and think this needs fixing.

And the decision to declutter made me realize something had to be done about the house itself. We’ve been in a holding pattern for years on the place. It needs major repairs, the kind worth more than the house itself. We don’t want to sell–we love the farm. But the house never should have passed inspection and the problems have been gradually making themselves apparent over the years. Seriously, the guy who sold it to us could have been Mr Haney from Green Acres. Somehow we let ourselves get stuck: do we sink major money into the repairs or sell and move? And the end result was we did neither.

But we’ve finally decided to bite the bullet, take out a home equity loan, and tackle the worst of the problems. It will make our lives a living hell for several months during the renovations (and I suspect play havoc with my ability to meet certain writing deadlines) but when it’s done we’ll have a house we can either love OR sell if we so choose. And hey, decluttering is exactly what we need to do before the reno!

I guess the lesson here is that making one big decision makes others seem less scary. Once you make one scary decision, it gets easier to make others. Like the woman who shaved her head, I’m stepping out of my comfort zone. For a long time now, my comfort zone has been one of hunkering down and waiting out the never-ending storm.

Now I’m stepping out in the rain and dancing in the puddles.

The Power of Creating Your Own Talismans

Long before it ever became a thing, I was in the habit of declaring “This would be my year of living ____________.”

One year it was fearlessly. Another was without doubt. Once it was passionately. As with most things, I would start out with good intentions that will fizzle along the way.

I tend to do a bit better if I can put my intentions into a form I can keep in front of me as a frequent reminder.

I also firmly believe in the power of talismans. Even more so if you create them for yourself.

Even as a child, I had a vivid imagination. My parents, imminently practical people, would come into the bedroom once to show me there were no monsters hiding there, but after that, it was up to me to deal with my fears. I used to lie awake quaking with terror over the hump of clothes piled in a chair (which I was sure was a gargoyle, just waiting for the lights to go out) or the shadow in the corner that was probably a burglar.

I finally conquered my fears when I decided I had the power to seal the monsters in my closet. Each night when I was sent to bed, I would round up the imaginary horrors, chase them into my closet, and cast a spell to contain them there. Problem solved. I was able to go to sleep without fear. The funny thing is, to this day, I’m unable to get a good night’s sleep unless my closet door is closed. If it is open even a crack, I have nightmares.

It illustrates the power we have within ourselves to overcome certain kinds of fears and doubts if we put our minds to it. Not everything. But many things. Especially the kinds of restrictions we’ve put on ourselves in the first place that keep us from being all that we can be.

As an adult, I find I still reach for objects I can imbue with strength when I need something to carry with me as a reminder. I love polished stones with words carved into them. As a child, I used to assign words to stones and carry them in my pocket as I needed them. One day I might carry courage. Another, hope. Today I carry joy.

These days, it’s much easier to find stones with words carved into them, but I still have the stones from my youth. I can grant them any word I wish. I love putting my hand in my pocket and coming across the smooth stone, rubbing it as a reminder of the word I wanted to keep near my heart that day. I’m not particularly religious or spiritual. I just find comfort in these small acts.

As an adult, I’ve frequently found strength in fandom, in a favorite character’s courage or behavior. I’ve taken to having iconic quotes made into bracelets or necklaces to remind myself the kind of person I want to be. I seem to need a lot of reminders! I think this is because my negative self-speak is so strong and has been honed over a lifetime of insecurities. So yes, I need to create my own talismans. Not as wards against evil, though sometimes they feel that way, but to offset the self-hate that’s been in place for so long.

For a while I had a ring that said Never Surrender. I bought a bunch of them and wore one until I found someone who needed it more than I did and then I gave it to them. I’ve given them all away.

So imagine my delight when I found out that declaring your intent for a year is a thing now. I noticed people on my timeline talking about what their word for the year might be. And then too, I’ve been seeing people get encouraging phrases stamped on aluminum bands like the one I’ve shown above. I love what I’m seeing. The Etsy store The Broken Circle has all kinds of great phrases on metal bracelets–like “Doubt Not” and “Slayer of Words”. And I recently discovered a website called MyIntent.org that will make a custom bracelet or necklace with the word of your choosing. How cool is that??

So what are you waiting for? You can assign a word of power to ANYTHING. Or you can search for the right phrase that will lift you up every time you see it and create your own talisman–or have someone make one for you. I ordered a bracelet from the My Intent project that said “Persistence.” That’s my word for the year. It’s to remind me of my favorite Calvin Coolidge quotation.

Tidying Up Your Life in 2018

I’m bad about making Great Plans to change my life and not following through. Plans to clean up my diet, plans to exercise more. Promises to spend more time doing the things I love. Good intentions to write more, worry less, stop just treading water and strike out for the far shore.

I could run a nutrition workshop with all the books I’ve purchased. I have gym equipment gathering dust in the garage and more exercise DVDs than I can count. I’ve started (paid) diet programs only to drop out and I frequently sign up for workshops on body positivity and the like without ever completing the courses.

I suspect one of the reasons follow-through is poor is that I’m already stretched pretty thin. Which is why my house is the last priority on a very long list. I’m starting to re-think this, however.

For Christmas, my husband got the oldest Girl-Child a copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. I picked it up the other day and read it cover to cover. At first I scoffed at the idea of tidying by category instead of one room at a time. That’s not how it was done! And besides, it would take forever to sort things in this manner. But as I read on, it began to make more sense to me. De-cluttering one room at a time means you usually just shove things into another room, another set of drawers, out of sight to be dealt with later. And by sorting things from least to most sentimental, by the time you reached the objects you were the most torn about throwing out, you are already in a mindset of keeping only the things that are the most valuable to you. The things that bring you joy.

I’ve always been a bit of a pack rat but my longstanding pattern had been to do a ruthless purge every four to five years. I meant to do it the last time we moved, only I ran out of time and ended up carting things with me I probably would have thrown out, given the chance. Somehow 12 years have gone by since my last purge, and man, am I overdue.

Things have been complicated by inheriting a bunch of my mother’s stuff when she died earlier this year. The spare room became the catch-all for most of her things, while the garage was stuffed to the rafters with her furniture. I was executor of her estate, so there was always something more important to do than sort through her stuff. Besides, what was I to do with the photos and memorabilia no one else in the family wanted but I felt would be wrong simply to toss out?

I think the hoarding mindset begins innocently enough. It frequently starts from a place of deprivation. Money is tight, so we don’t toss out clothing, even when it no longer fits, is outdated, or is completely worn out. We throw that electronic device that no longer works (or has been replaced) in a drawer along with the old dog leashes and owner’s manuals to half-a-dozen appliances. We hang on to them because we might need them some day, and we don’t want to have to replace something we already own. We keep pieces of furniture simply because we’ve always had them, and besides, it’s too much trouble to haul it away. We collect coffee mugs because we like them, but we never get rid of the chipped ones or the ones we never use. We run out of storage space in our drawers and closets, so we buy storage containers and stuff them under our beds and in the attic because we just might need that hideously ugly sweater some day.

I have shoes I can no longer wear because the heels are too high for me but I don’t get rid of them because they are pretty. I have outfits I will never fit into again and yet I cling to them in the hopes someday I will. Anything not fit to wear in public becomes ‘barn clothes’.

I have more barn clothing than anything else.

The thing is, we’re not in the tight financial situation we were in when we last moved. We’re not millionaires, but things are okay. But the mindset of deprivation and want is still there.

It’s also hard to come home after a long hard day at work and tackle the mess the house has become. Correspondence is stacked on the table by the door, along with coats, boots, scarves, gloves, and hats. Books I want to read are piled on various surfaces. The cabinets are full-to-bursting for the apocalypse I’m sure is coming any day now. The fridge and walls are covered with photos, stickers, post-it notes, and inspirational sayings.

I think about decluttering from time to time. I’m a fan of the website unf*ckyourhabitat and sometimes I take before and after pictures of a room and spend 20 minutes sorting and putting things away. But the basic clutter is still there. And I suspect Marie Kondo is right–I’m just moving stuff from one place to another instead of ruthlessly unloading the crap weighing me down.

I feel like Sarah in that scene from Labyrinth, in which she wakes with amnesia on a junk pile, and the old woman starts binding Sarah’s belongings to her back…

 

“It’s all junk.” Yes, indeed. I’d hazard a guess that 75% of what’s in my house right now is all junk.

And then today, I had one of those weird connections between different subjects that made me go ‘huh.’ See, I’ve been half-assed doing one of those body positivity things online, and of course, one of the things that keeps coming up is how we’ve been taught to hate our bodies, even though they are marvelous, wonderful things, without which we’d be dead. And I get that, the idea we should be kind to ourselves, that we should appreciate the bodies that shelter us, that we should not bombard our bodies with hate. It’s the worst thing we can do to ourselves. Sure, there may be room for eating better and exercising so we can keep doing the things we love to do–but self-loathing doesn’t do anyone any good, and it might even potentially harm us.

Then it dawned on me. From nearly the moment I moved in, I’ve hated this house. Hated that it was poorly insulated and a probable fire hazard. Hated that it was a money pit that hardly seemed worth cleaning, let alone repairing. And yet it shelters us and provides us with a place of our own, a place where we can have big dogs and too many cats. A place where we can find rest at the end of the day. So maybe this house could use a little ‘body positivity’ style love.

And that means, among other things, cleaning out the clutter that has taken over our lives here.

I’m going to give the Tidying Up method a go. I have a feeling the end result will be far greater than just a clean house.

 

A Little Writing Advice for 2018

I don’t know about you guys, but I was glad to see the backside of 2017. In some ways, it was one of the most difficult years of my life. There was a lot of personal loss, and I finished out the year sick with a respiratory bug that has knocked me flat.

I just saw a tweet from George Wallace that read:

Sorry 2017. It’s not you, it’s me… Okay, fine, it’s you. Asshole.

It made me snort out loud. Yeah, that’s how I feel, 2017. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Yesterday was the first day I woke up without a fever and feeling remotely human in almost a week. Thank goodness I was off for the holidays! I began reflecting, as one does, over the past year. What I’d learned. What I would have done differently. How I intended to move forward into 2018.

I wasn’t yet coherent enough to put together a blog post. I just hammered out some thoughts on Twitter. Later, I thought it would be nice to turn them into a blog post, but I believe storify isn’t an option for Twitter threads any longer, so I decided to screencap them here instead.

I hope you find it useful. Here’s to a better 2018 for us all.

 

The Big Chop: The Hair Dilemma for Middle-Aged Women

I’m obsessed with my hair at the moment.

Let me preface this by saying I’ve always been ‘the girl with the hair.’ Mountains of hair that could barely be tamed. People have been commenting on it my entire life. Stylists jokingly begged my mother to stop putting “Miracle Gro” on my hair when I was a child. I like to think I looked like Rachel from Friends, but the truth is, I looked much more like Young Hermione from Harry Potter.

So I’ve always had this love-hate relationship with my hair. I go through cycles where I can’t stand it any longer and I chop it all off. This provides relief for a variable period of time. I love the convenience of short hair. I love being able to zip in and out of the shower, without the prolonged ordeal of shampooing and conditioning a pelt worthy of Chewbacca–especially living as I do now, in a house with low water pressure. I love being able to run my hands through my hair messily and dash out the door. No blow-drying. No attempts to tame the frizz. No hours of damp hair (of particular concern now that winter is rolling in again). Better still, I’m not using my hair as an excuse not to do things. I don’t know when I turned into that person to be honest. Maybe it was when I moved into a house with crappy heat and water pressure. But I find myself weighing whether I have time for a shower before I choose to do certain activities now. And forget about swimming. Between the coloring and the chlorine, my hair felt like straw. The big chop is an excellent way of getting back to healthy hair.

What I don’t love is looking like an angry hedgehog. Because that’s what I look like with short hair. I am not a pretty woman, and it takes having the right kind of face to pull off a pixie cut. Heck, there are beautiful women out there who can’t wear a pixie well and they don’t have my square jaw and rather masculine features. So any love I have for the short cut soon turns into absolute loathing. I begin the growing out process and swear I will never cut it short again.

The things I love about long hair? I love how it makes me feel sexy. I love being able to style it different ways. I do a little cosplay, and I have more options when my hair is long (unless I want to invest a lot of money in wigs…) With long hair, I can toss it back in a ponytail or barrette and it’s out of my face. I can put it up to look professional and curl it to look romantic. Most actresses have long hair–for a reason. We associate it with not only beauty, but youth as well.

A small part of me thinks as a romance author, I should maintain the ‘look’ of romance, if you know what I mean. I’m also very much aware that, no matter what my SO says, he prefers my hair long rather than short. (A wise man, he avoids rendering any sort of opinion on my hair, only to say it’s my hair and I should do what I like with it.)

This time, my chop or not chop decision is harder than usual. I’ll be honest, this past year has been rough. 2017 has been a train-wreck of colossal proportions: personally as well as for my country. I’ve been struggling, and only recently felt like I might be turning the corner in my downward spiral. For the first time in over a year, I find myself getting serious about cleaning up my diet, exercising more, eliminating or decreasing the stressors in my life. I want to spend more time writing and less time stewing. Cutting my hair short feels like it would be a step in the right direction to meet these goals. A clean sweep, a fresh start. A dramatic change to signal the dramatic (well, okay, little shuffling baby-step) changes I’m making in my life. Part of me really wants to do this.

Another part, the chicken-shit part, is afraid. Scared I’ll look as terrible as I fear. Worried that I’ll hate it and then be stuck with it while I go through the misery (the YEAR LONG MISERY) of growing it out again, wearing hats and refusing to look in mirrors and in general being a snarling bitch until it is long enough to pull back off my face again.

But mostly worried that I’m somehow kissing youth and beauty goodbye with the big chop. Yes, I know, not beautiful in the first place, but okay, the possibility of beauty. Of somehow announcing that I’m done with romance. That I’ve accepted middle-age and am willing to look my age. I read an article that suggested far too many women my age hang onto their long locks well-beyond the time a shorter cut would look better on them. I feel I might be in that category now.

When I read back over this, I’m struck by the vanity of it all. There are women out there who have no choice when it comes to their hair. Illness or hormonal imbalances or simple genetics have determined their choices for them. And I still have a lot of hair, though my part is definitely wider than it used to be. But for most of my life, my hair has been the only thing I could be vain about. So yeah. Decisions, decisions.

I’m excited and nervous. I want something dramatic but want something easy to grow out if I change my mind. I think the worse thing is the sneaking suspicion that no matter what decision I make, it won’t change my life in any meaningful way. I’ll still have to work on that diet, and fit more exercise in, and park my butt in the chair and write the next story. The puppy will still need training, work will still be stressful, and my house will still have crappy heat and low water pressure.

But maybe I’ll lose twenty pounds of pressure to be something I’m not. Maybe I will find the shedding of locks to be freeing in more ways than one.

 

My Me Too Story

It wasn’t my intention to go into details about my experiences with sexual harassment and assault. I’d seen the #MeToo hashtags on social media and shared them, in part because I believe there is value in victims realizing they are far from alone. I understood that many people who have experienced such negative situations might not be in a place where they felt like they could share, and I was okay with that too.

I also felt that though I’d been harassed and assaulted too many times to count, my experiences didn’t count on some level because I’d managed to avoid the ultimate assault: rape. So perhaps it was best that I simply shared the hashtag and otherwise remained silent on the subject. What did I know anyway?

But here’s the thing. The Harvey Weinstein revelations opened some real dialog, and had the potential to provide healing across a large scale. In the course of some of the fallout from these discussions, Twitter has promised to invoke stricter rules with the intent of protecting people from online harassment. We’ll see if they follow through, but at least it’s a step.

People from all walks of life shared the hashtag. Sometimes that was all they could share, and they typed those words with shaking hands. Sometimes seeing those words on someone else’s timeline led people to share more deeply, and in doing so, bring a measure of comfort to those who have suffered in silence so many years.

But then Mayim Bialik posted her opinion piece in the NYT. I have to say, as one of those, ‘Gosh, if you just obey the rules, nothing bad will ever happen to you’ opinion pieces, this is one of the worst. Because the whole thing reads like one long ‘n’yah, n’yah, n’yah’ to every woman who intentionally or otherwise made Ms.Bialik feel bad about her appearance while working in an industry where the roles are largely assigned based on appearance. Whereas the post pretends to be a ‘guide’ on how to avoid sexual assault by dressing modestly, not saying anything that could be misconstrued as flirting, and by all means, go get a degree in neuroscience because everyone knows brains aren’t sexy, the piece is really a giant FUCK YOU to beautiful women everywhere and the popular girls in high school.

Let me say for the record, I belong to neither of those groups.

I take exception to Ms. Bialik’s post on many levels. For one thing, sexual assault is not about sex. It is about POWER. It is about someone saying they own you and they have the right to do things to you without your consent, and the assaulter gets his (or her) jollies out of degrading you to the point you feel helpless to report them. It is a power trip. Your personal attractiveness has nothing to do with it. I would hazard a guess that the greater the disparity between power bases, the more pleasure the perpetrator takes in his or her actions.

The other thing that pisses me off about pieces like this is the implication that if you just followed the Good Girl Rules, then nothing bad will happen to you. The flipside of this implication is if something bad HAS happened to you, it must somehow be your fault for not obeying the rules. And crap like this shuts down any possible healing that might be taking place with the Me Too hashtag, as it turns into a finger-pointing game.

Case in point: me.

I’m going to leave out all the times I was catcalled and harassed on the street. Ditto the times I’ve been flashed, or the times old men have said lewd things to me in passing. I’m not even going to recount the time I was followed on the interstate for over 150 miles (I didn’t notice at first, but once I did, I couldn’t shake the guy until I pulled a dangerous stunt to exit the interstate at high speed as he was passing me) or the time I was run off the road at night by someone who’d been tailgating me with the high beams on. Fortunately, I had no hesitation about putting the car in reverse and backing up the interstate at 70 mph…  I’m not even going to include the letter I received from the father of one of my high school friends six months after his wife died, professing his long-standing desire to date me.

The main reason for not telling all these stories is they are simply too numerous to count, and honestly, after a certain point, it starts to feel like the normal cost of being female. I’m not saying that’s right. I’m just stating a fact. I’d be hard pressed to name a woman who doesn’t have stories like these to tell.

But let’s look at the more serious infractions. I should point out that all of my high school year book pictures were so bad, I never bought any, nor did I buy any of the yearbooks themselves. In high school, I had mountains of frizzy hair, glasses with Coke-Bottle-thick lenses, and teeth only a gargoyle could love. I graduated early, and wound up in college at seventeen, wearing braces. Seriously, as unsexy as you could get, and by Ms. Bialik’s reasoning, should have been utterly safe.

Only I wasn’t.

My first experience with sexual assault came when I was flunking organic chemistry. I approached the TA for help; he recommended a tutor and gave me a name. At the very first session, my male tutor said the only place in his dorm with enough room for us both to look at the books at the same time was on his bed. I spent 40 minutes trying to get him to keep his hands to himself and refocus back on the material, but it was no use. I could have insisted on future meetings at the library or a study room, but I was too freaked out by the experience. I could have reported him, but I didn’t know to whom, and beside, who would believe me? They would take one look at me–gargoyle in glasses–and one look at him, your average clean-cut All-American rich boy–and said it was wishful thinking on my part. Or worse, an attempt to extort money or something. At the time, I bought into the myth that rape and assault were about sex. I must have done something wrong. So I did what most teenagers would do. I said nothing and dropped the class.

The next time I got assaulted, it was by a professor. I was in the lab working on my project by myself. It was 2 pm on a sunny afternoon in a building full of people. I was working at a point where the two counter tops came to a right angle, and standing with my back to the door when this professor entered the room, came up behind me, and pressed his erection into my backside. He pinned me in the corner without escape.

I stomped down on his instep while at the same time driving my elbow into his gut and shoving him backward. Then I turned in all innocence, blinking at him wide-eyed as he bent over double, and said, “Golly! You surprised me! You know, you really shouldn’t sneak up on people like that.”

He never came near me again. I found out later he had a reputation for hitting on college girls, but again, I said nothing. I’d taken care of the problem and because he wasn’t my professor, he wasn’t in a position to give me a failing grade. I know now I should have reported him. At the very least, that report would have given ammunition to the next girl who filed a complaint.

The third time was more serious. I was trying to get into grad school and studying hard, no time for a social life. But I met a guy, and he was cute and made me laugh, so when he asked me out, I said yes. On our first date, we somehow never made it to the movie we’d intended to see, and spend most of the evening talking. He wanted to go out again that weekend, and we made tentative plans, but when Saturday afternoon rolled around, I had to finish a project and suggested we meet with my friends for dinner that night instead of going out that afternoon.

When he came over that evening, he took me aside privately and castigated me for ‘canceling our plans’, letting me know he didn’t appreciate that. I honestly couldn’t see what the fuss was about, as we were having dinner that very evening, nor did I appreciate his attitude, but what was I to do? Kick him out? Tell him he was being a jerk and I wasn’t going to put up with that? These days, that’s exactly what I would do. But of course, at the time, I didn’t. I was 21 and raised to be polite.

After dinner my friends wanted to go out, and we went as a group to hear a band play at one of the local bars. I was uneasy about my date, but felt safe because I had company. Then, while the guys got drinks, my roommate informed me that earlier in the day, she’d caught my date going through my car. When she questioned him as to what he was doing, he said he was looking for my schedule. This creeped me out, but again, I thought I was safe because I was surrounded by friends. Only later when I went to the restroom, I came back to find my friends had left without me–and I was alone with my date.

In retrospect, I was very close to being a dating statistic that evening. Probably the only reason I’m not is because I instinctively knew not to let him in the apartment–and because I did some pretty fast talking when he dropped me off. Even so, I shouldn’t have gotten in the car with him, and I never should have told him I didn’t think dating was a good idea on my doorstep. At the time, I was certain he was going to hit me. I realize now I was in far more danger than that. But I made myself the bad guy–it was me, not him, I was trying to get into grad school, I couldn’t allow myself to be distracted, he needed a girl friend who could treat him with the respect he deserved. When he brought up the fact that people got married and went to grad school all the time, all the alarm bells went off, but I kept it cool. It had nothing to do with him being the Conductor on the Wackadoodle Train. It was all my fault.

He eventually left–and immediately sought out my friends, telling them he’d ‘lost’ me and begging to know what to do to get me back. My roommate, clueless as to what had happened (no cell phones in these days) suggested he write me a letter telling me how he felt. So he did. A letter so full of misspellings and poor grammar that I knew everything he’d told me about himself and his career was a lie.

And then the stalking began. I ended up cutting off all my hair and relinquishing my contacts for glasses again. I took an unlisted number. I got a big dog. I moved. Eventually, he no longer knew how to find me, and the harassment ended. Several years later, I ran into him in public and I swear, I saw murder in his eyes. I know that sounds like an exaggeration but you had to be there. He would have killed me if he could. I pretended not to recognize him, all the while my heart pounded hard enough to burst through my chest any second. Only when I saw the doubt cross his face as to who I was did I make my excuses and leave the party.

So when I say I Mayim Bialiked myself big time, it’s true. For years I went about in defensive coloration mode, and I’m telling you, it’s no protection. Years later, I was working at my new job in a new town, and stopped for groceries after work on the way home. I was in hurry, so I dashed across the parking lot into the store, grabbed a few things, and ran back out again. As I exited the store, a truck at the far end of the parking lot turned its headlights on. I thought nothing of it. It was on the other side of the parking lot. Probably someone headed home, just like me.

But by the time I’d opened my car door and tossed the groceries inside, the truck had pulled up in the parking space next to mine. As I closed my door and pressed the automatic locks, a man appeared at my driver’s side window. And the look on his face was that of a predator that had missed its kill. I’ve never been so unnerved in my entire life.

Again, before cell phones. And I wasn’t sticking around to confront the guy. I peeled out of the parking lot as though pursued by the hounds of hell. No, I didn’t report it. What would I have said? Some middle-aged white man with dark hair pulled up beside me in the parking lot. Big whoop. Or if I’d been taken seriously, the police may have watched the lot for a few days, but that’s all.

With ALL of these incidents listed here, my dress was the same, my standard uniform: jeans, T-shirt, and hiking boots. It’s how I dress 97% of the time. Tell me how that is being provocative or flirtatious.

So yeah, when I read Mayim Bialik’s opinion piece, it pissed me off. I said as much on the Twitter feed of someone with a LOT more followers than me, and someone else jumped in to MANSPLAIN my reaction, saying I shouldn’t twist Ms. Bialilk’s words. Um, go read the post yourself. No twisting necessary.

This mansplainer did have some good points in the cascade of Tweets he sent in response to me. He (and I assume male because his Twitter account was in a male name) stated (and I paraphrase here) that seat belts don’t guarantee you will survive a car crash, but to ignore the advice to wear seat belts is foolish and dangerous. That though the drunk driver is still the cause of the accident, don’t negate the importance of seat belts in improving survivability. That because seat belts don’t convey 100% safety, I shouldn’t act as though being ‘safer’ isn’t a valid reason to use them.

Now this is the point at which I stopped responding to the guy. A) He had his own axe to grind and I wasn’t going to let it be at my expense. B) He wasn’t listening to me when I said I that every decision I made was with my personal safety in mind and that I only took exception to people who implied the lack of ‘seat belts’ must have factored into someone’s victimization.

As neat as this little seat belt analogy is, it still points the finger of blame in the wrong direction. We shouldn’t be asking, “Was she wearing a seat belt?”

We should be asking, “Why was he driving drunk?”

The Power of Self-Forgiveness

WARNING: Discussion of self-harm and other destructive behaviors

I’m a tiny bit embarrassed to admit it, but this past weekend, I was tooling around the back roads in my car, listening to my iPod when a song by a favorite artist queued up. Most of the songs on the CD are about standing up for yourself, not letting anything hold you back any longer, and there is an underlying theme of getting out of abusive relationships and situations. It’s a powerful CD by a great artist, Anna Nalick. So when “Scars” began playing, I started singing along–only to be struck like a sledgehammer when I finally realized what the song was about.

It was about cutting.

I was staggered by two things: first, the fact it took me so long to recognize the meaning of a song I’ve listened to several times before. I’ve lived with a cutter. I know the signs. Sadly, knowing the signs doesn’t always mean you understand what compels some people to self-harm. In my defense for not picking up on the meaning of the song, in it, the singer speaks to that part of her that self-harms as though it is another person outside of herself, and the first couple of times, that’s how I heard it: that the singer cared about someone who she wasn’t going to give up on, someone in a dark place that needed help. Once I realized she was speaking about herself–the part of her that was twisted and in pain, I was gobsmacked.

The second revelation followed closely upon the first: there are many more ways to self-harm than cutting. You can practice self-harm by staying in a bad relationship, or eating the wrong foods, drinking too much, using drugs, or simply by hating yourself.

I hit replay on the song I don’t know how many times. All because of one line: Know that I forgive you.

Wow. I can’t tell you the effect that had on me. Here I am, on a lovely Sunday morning, tootling along country roads with a tired puppy in the back, having just gone on a hike in the woods. And this song hit me with something on the level of an epiphany: we have to accept the part of us that is destructive in order to heal. We have to learn to love the whole of us, even the parts we hate, in order to get better. Sure, today we might not be the person we want to be, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be that person tomorrow. Aside from habit and exhaustion, two things that make it very hard to change anything about our lives, I think it’s critical we stop denying that part of us that hurts, the part that uses pain and distress as a coping mechanism, that says, this pain (be it the way you feel when you slice skin or the way you feel when you binge and purge or whatever your not-so-great coping mechanism might be) is better than the pain you were feeling before–of being unloved, unwanted, unworthy.

And when I sang those lyrics about forgiveness, I felt something inside me shift. Something I hadn’t even realized was bound in chains. Something gave, took a deep breath, and said, “Okay. We’ve got this.”

We. As in all the parts of me. The good and the bad. The parts I like (which admittedly are few) and the parts I dislike (the list of which seems to grow longer each year).

No, I don’t think I’m magically healed. You don’t spend a lifetime running a negative commentary on yourself and erase its effects overnight because of a pop song. I don’t think I’m going to immediately stop doing the things that are counter-productive to the life I want to lead. I suspect I’m going to find myself choosing between the lesser of two evils for a long time to come. But I think I’ve taken a big first step here because I realize now it is a choice. I can choose to keep walking in the direction I want to go or remain stuck in a quagmire of angry thoughts and bad decisions.

I choose to sing.