the allure of the vending machines

Last week, I taught an all-day camp in writing and public speaking for fifth graders. The camp was held at a community center and there were a variety of summer camps going on at the same time—down the hall was Crafts, outside was Nature Explorers, and the next room over was a Dance Camp for adorable five-year-olds in pouffy dresses. {They danced to the theme song from Moana over and over and it became the soundtrack of my week, looping through my mind on repeat.} One thing that all the camps had in common was that the kids were obsessed—I mean, seriously obsessed—with the vending machines.

There were two vending machines in the narrow hallway next to the public bathrooms. One was filled with drinks and the other with snacks, but they might as well have been filled with gold for how they mesmerized all the kiddos who wandered past them en route to the restroom. The other teachers and I would share sympathetic smiles as we coaxed and herded our respective students away from the vending machines and back to class. Often this required physically positioning our bodies between the kids and the machines, blocking the view through the glass.

Sometimes, after camp ended for the day, I would leave the restroom and see a small child proudly showing off the vending machines to her mom or dad, pride in her voice as she named the various options. “But what did you do at camp today?” the parent would ask in confusion. I always sent home notes to the parents of my students, detailing what we did in class, urging them to look through the binder and see all the progress their child was making. I could envision, when asked what they did all day, a student answering, “We played on the playground and Steve got Hot Cheetos!” It was true: I always took them to the playground during our lunch break.

The same kids who announced, “I’m bored!” within seven minutes of a classroom writing activity could easily spend twenty minutes just staring up at the array of salty and sweet choices {perhaps, for some, forbidden choices}, their faces awash in the fluorescent glow, imagining ways to con the machine into giving them free food and chattering about what they would choose if their parents let them bring money the next day. I quickly learned not to let a student go alone to the restroom—that hallway would snag his attention and stop his legs like quicksand, and he would never return. Sending pairs of kids was not any more successful. Those vending machines were like the Vegas Strip to a gambler; they just could not help themselves. I pretty much always had to walk down the hall myself and drag them away from the colors and lights.

What is it about those vending machines? I wondered to myself, driving home midway through the week. Some of the kids bring Fritos in their lunch—why do the same Fritos have so much more appeal behind the glass?

I arrived home, exhausted, and sat down at my computer to answer a few emails before starting dinner. However, I soon found myself clicking over to Facebook. No news or notifications. Nothing to see here. Still, that didn’t stop me from checking again on my phone two or three times while making dinner. It was the allure of possibility—maybe the next time I checked, there would be a new notification and my brain would bask in that dopamine hit.

And, just like that, I realized—I was caught up in those same vending machine lights. So many of us are. We may not be standing in front of actual vending machines, giddily contemplating the choices, but metaphorically we are just like those kids staring up at the sodas and chips. We are sucked in by the possibility and the glamour of what we don’t have. Once we do get it, often the appeal melts away. The excitement of the Facebook notification disappears once we click on it. One of my students, who had been salivating all week over the beef jerky packages in the vending machine, was finally given money by his mother on Friday to buy something for a snack. I was shocked when he only ate a little bit of the beef jerky, then tossed the rest in the trash. “It tastes weird,” he said with a shrug when I asked him why he threw his prized snack away. All week long he’d been staring at the package through the glass. Then, when he got what he’d been dreaming about, it was no longer special but ordinary, and he was disappointed.

air hockey, guys, games, guys weekend

Teaching kids, I’m always struck by how much they remind me of adults. How much do we ever, truly, grow up beyond our child selves? Both kids and adults find creative ways to avoid discomfort as much as possible. And, guess what? Learning and growing and evolving are uncomfortable.

So many times, when teaching a new concept, I would watch a student make great progress: write an amazing hook for their essay; analyze the author’s purpose of an editorial; prepare a list of pro’s and con’s for a persuasive essay. But then, discomfort would hit. The student would feel tired. The student would want a distraction. The student would raise his or her hand. “Mrs. Woodburn, can I go to the bathroom?” Of course I would let them go—I never prevent students from going to the bathroom if needed—but, 9 times out of 10, what they would really be asking was: “Can I go look at the vending machines, and dream about the possibility of a snack I might get tomorrow, because that is so much easier than muscling through this sticky learning process right here, right now?” After a few minutes, I would walk down the hall to check on him. I would find him gazing up, awash in the fluorescent lights. I would gently prod him back to class, back to the discomfort, back to the growing.

That is what we need to do for ourselves, too. We need to be the teacher coming to check on ourselves. When you notice yourself craving a distraction—wanting to take a break from a project you’re working on and check your email, or browse Facebook, or scroll through Instagram, or even do something “productive” like wash those dirty dishes or organize your closet—ask yourself what the root of your desire truly is. Are you actually at a good stopping point, with that joyfully wrung-out feeling, when a break to recharge and rest your mind is needed? Or are you simply feeling uncomfortable or afraid, craving the “easy out” of a quick distraction, that will only leave you feeling restless or depleted when you eventually make your way back to your important work?

Of course, it is necessary and fun and important to daydream about the future. Sometimes we all need to take time to bask in the glow of the vending machines, and all the colorful options and choices that we might make tomorrow, or next month, or next year. Sometimes we need to celebrate the allure of possibility.

But we can’t spend all of our time there. We can’t live in our daydreams for the future. We need to do the tough, uncomfortable, sometimes boring, sometimes grinding, day-in and day-out work to get there. Only then will we turn our exciting dreams into reality.

And once we do reach those dreams? Once we do feed the quarters into the vending machine, make our selection, and watch the item fall from its perch and into our lives? We need to appreciate it. We need to look around at our lives and be grateful for what we do have—for all that we once coveted and now might take for granted. We need to savor every bite of that beef jerky. And then go run around on the playground with our friends. And then head back into the classroom to keep learning and growing, learning and growing, always.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

  • What are the “vending machines” in your life?
  • What is one daydream you have for the future?
  • What steps might you take—starting today, right now—to make that dream a reality?

the magic of finishing what you started

Hi everyone! It feels good to be back in this space. I did not intend to miss my post on Tuesday—I was so busy writing something else, that I did not have time to write a blog post here. But what happened on Tuesday spawned the idea for today’s post, so in a way everything is connected.

If you’ve been following the blog for a while, you might remember that I’ve been working on a new novel. In fact, a key cornerstone of my word of the year—FOUNDATION—has been vowing to make time each day for writing projects that nourish me: this year, my goal was to finish my new novel manuscript. Back in January, the Word document on my computer contained nothing more than a title, a handful of scenes, and a burgeoning sense of great possibility.

The idea for this novel was birthed last summer when I took a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii for the first time. I fell in love with the island and soaked up many new experiences, like snorkeling with manta rays and hiking waterfalls. When I returned home from my trip, I jotted down a few ideas for a novel that took place in Hawaii. But then, as life tends to do, it got busy. That was an especially hectic time in my life. I got married and honeymooned. I developed and began teaching a weekly creative writing class for high school students. I helped students brainstorm and edit their college essays—my workload in the fall always tends to pick up for that reason. Allyn and I navigated our first holiday season as a married couple, balancing time with our two families.

The novel idea sat on my computer in a Word document, twiddling its thumbs.

In January, I felt burned out and exhausted. I had been so consumed with my work as a writing teacher and editor and coach, helping other people bring their beautiful words to life, that I had neglected to carve out and guard time for my own creative spirit—and, thus, I felt depleted. I decided that 2017 would be different. I read a lot of articles on setting boundaries, recommitted to work-life balance, and made a promise to myself that my mornings would be for writing. My own writing. I knew that I would be a happier and better teacher for others when I was making sure to give time to myself.

In January, I attended a wonderful writing conference to work on a separate novel idea. I still do like that idea, and I might return to it in the future. But my characters in Hawaii would not leave me alone. This idea kept pushing its way to the forefront of my mind, like a rude child who refused to be ignored.

Does that ever happen to you, with ideas? One thing I have learned is that ideas may behave like children, but you do not have to treat them as such. You do not have to teach them to be patient and wait their turn. If you have an idea that keeps “cutting in line” so to speak, begging for your attention, poking and prodding you all day and refusing to leave the back of your mind—you must pay attention. That is the idea you should pursue. No matter if other, less vibrant or less exciting ideas have been lingering around the corners of your mind for a long time. Life is short, and we will not have time for all of our brilliant ideas. We need to give time to the ones that make us come alive.

So it was with my novel idea. When I returned from the writers conference at the end of January, I kept slogging away for a week or so on the other novel that I had been working on. But my brain kept drifting to Hawaii. Eventually, I gave in. Reluctant {and feeling slightly guilty} to give up the other one, I told myself that I would work on BOTH projects simultaneously. Perhaps some writers can do that. But I have a hard time holding together two expansive, spilling-over, messy novels in my head at the same time. Perhaps some writers birth neater, tidier novels than I do. Mine are always a chaotic overflow. Trying to keep on top of two volcanoes at once was not sustainable.

And so, before too long, I was working solely on my insistent novel idea. My subconscious was living in Hawaii. I was fully invested. I was excited. Actually, more than excited—I was obsessed with my idea.

I think that is a good rule of thumb about whether you should pursue an idea. Are you obsessed with it?

I began riding along the path I had chosen. Nearly always, I begin new fiction projects by thinking about the characters. Their voices came out onto the page in quick bursts, but I still did not know them very well. I still had many questions. This was the fourth novel manuscript I was embarking upon, and the beginning—while exhilarating—is always the scariest part for me. I have some writer friends who love the beginning of a new project. They find energy from the huge wide-open landscape of blank pages before them. For me, those blank pages cause anxiety. At the beginning of a novel, I feel like I am diving into a huge body of water, tentatively beginning to swim to the other shore. At this point, I cannot even glimpse the other shore that I am heading towards. There is only mist and water as far as I can see. Who knows what I will find underneath the surface. There is no other way to go but forward, and so I start to swim. I start to write. Stroke by stroke, keystroke by keystroke. I know that if I put in the work, eventually, I will reach the other side.

This novel progressed much more quickly, and more joyfully, than my previous three novel manuscripts. Some might say it is because I am “getting the hang of” writing a novel, although in my experience every novel is different. I don’t think writing a novel is a formula you ever truly “get down.” Each novel is a whole new animal, a whole new experience—and, for me at least, that is part of the fun!

This one went so much faster—six months from start to finish, as opposed to a year spent meandering around trying to find a storyline and write the very rough draft of my thesis in grad school, and two-plus years drafting my other novels. It was also a much more enjoyable and less angsty process. I believe this is for two reasons. One, I have wholeheartedly embraced the advice that novelist Elizabeth Berg gave me many years ago at a writing conference: “First, please yourself.” Unlike grad school when I was writing a novel to impress my thesis committee, or in college when I was writing a novel hoping to become A Famous Author, now I write simply to please myself. I follow my own internal compass—especially during the drafting phase. Of course, I still hope to eventually get published and please readers. And I know that my writing is far from perfect and that editors, now that I have completed the first draft, are invaluable gifts. But I believe it stifles the creative process to think about any of those things when you are birthing your story.

The second reason this novel was different from any I had written before is that I truly committed to my schedule of writing time. For the past six months, I have been immersed in the story, thinking about it all the time both consciously and subconsciously, because I wrote at least a couple hundred words five days a week. “Work on novel” was the most important thing on my daily To Do List. I treated my creative work with respect. And my idea responded generously. There were parts of the novel that were more difficult to write than others—I always feel stuck in the “muddy middle”—but I never struggled with writer’s block. I always had a sense of where I was going, and new ideas and connections were sparked constantly. Our creative brains are so incredible, once we give them our time and attention and let them do their thing.

Which brings us to Tuesday. I was getting very close to finishing the first draft of my novel. I had written the ending already, and just had a few scenes I needed to finish up. It felt like a puzzle with only two or three patches of blank space left to fill in.

I woke up on Tuesday morning with a searingly clear thought: “Today is the day. Today I am going to finish my novel.”

I don’t know why the thought struck or where it came from. I don’t know why it felt so necessary to finish that day as opposed to later in the week or next week. But it did. I felt like my creative subconscious had sent me a mission.

I didn’t have any teaching appointments scheduled that day. I had emails and grading to do, but that could wait until later. I made myself a mug of tea, sat down at my computer, and dove in.

I wish I could fully describe to you the magic of that day. It felt like getting a “second wind” and sprinting the last mile of a marathon. It was like when you are reading a book you love, and you speed through the final pages because you are so excited to find out what happens. I knew what was going to happen—I was writing it, after all—but at the same time there was still this miraculous sense of discovery. My characters fully came alive. They leapt off the page. By noon, I had written more than 3,000 words. I had to break for lunch because my hand was sore from typing.

I could have stopped there. I knew I could always come back to the novel the next day. I could finish later. But I didn’t want to. I couldn’t stay away. I dove back in and kept typing.

I finished at 4:43pm. I texted my family and sweetie and shared the news. My final word count for that day was close to 5,000 words, or about twenty pages double-spaced. I don’t think I’ve ever written that much in a single day. If you had asked me on Monday, I probably would have told you there was no way I could do that.

{My sweetie left a note for me on our kitchen bulletin board.}

It’s funny. I spent the whole day sitting by myself in front of a computer. But I didn’t feel alone at all. I felt like I spent the whole day in Hawaii with these two people I had come to know so well over the past six months. That final sprint to the finish felt like a last hurrah with them. It was perfect.

It was 4:45 pm. I sat down on the couch. I felt so many things. I felt sad to say goodbye to my characters. I felt exhilarated and exhausted. I felt an overwhelming sense of peace that I had made good on my promise, to my characters and to myself. I had finished telling their story. I had stayed with them until the end.

There is such profound magic in finishing what we begin. In staying true to our promises. In following through with our ideas. No matter what eventually happens with this novel—no matter whether it eventually gets published and sells thousands of copies, or never leaves the hard drive of my own computer—I gave a huge gift to myself when I typed THE END on page 256 on Tuesday. I felt such extreme satisfaction and pride in myself. I had said I would do it. And I did it.

When we finish what we start, we build confidence in ourselves. That confidence keeps growing and growing. We begin pushing ourselves further. We wonder what else we might be able to start and finish. The limits of our world expand and, eventually, fall away. Our pride and confidence and imagination become limitless.

I still have a lot of work and editing to do on my Hawaii novel. But I’m already excited to start a new novel manuscript. I can’t wait to see what my creative spirit comes up with next!

 

Your turn {if you want}:

  • What is a project you have started but petered out on? How would it feel to actually finish? What are some steps you could take to work your way back into this project?
  • Write about a time you finished something you had been working on for a while. What did you do to celebrate? What did it feel like to finally finish?
  • Set a timer for five minutes and jot down a list of every creative idea that flits into your mind. These could be future projects, hobbies, things you want to pursue in your personal life, trips you want to take. Write them down. Which ones jump out at you? Which ones light you up with sparks?

it’s okay to feel sad sometimes

Last week, for whatever reason, I found myself in a bit of a funk.

I typically wake up feeling excited to face the day, raring to go on my projects. I typically feel focused and motivated about my daily tasks. I typically look at the clock and can’t believe how late it’s gotten. Where did the day go? Is it time to start dinner already?

But last week, I was dragging. Last week, I felt stuck. I felt lonely and restless and, most of all… sad.

And I couldn’t pinpoint the reason. Everything was the same as it had always been.

It makes me feel vulnerable to write these words to you right now. It scares me a bit, to admit to feeling sad. Especially because I know that I have so very much to be grateful for. I used to feel guilty anytime feelings of sadness crept in. Like I wasn’t allowed to ever feel anything less than joyful and blessed. I wanted to be strong and self-reliant and cheerful, always. I wanted to comfort other people and never need comfort myself. I liked to think of myself as a giver, not someone who needed to cheering up.

But I realized that pretending to never feel sad is simply another way of building a wall around myself, pretending to be something I’m not, refusing to let people truly see me. I was trying to be “perfect” instead of trying to live wholeheartedly and authentically. I can be grateful for all the bounty and beauty in my life, and still have hard days and still feel down sometimes. I can hold both gratitude and sadness in my heart at the same time. And, I realized that never wanting to need anyone else is just another way of never wanting to be vulnerable. I like being able to give comfort to others. I need to trust that others like being able to give comfort to me sometimes.

Last week, I cried more than I’ve cried in the last six months put together. It seemed anything could set off the tears. Listening to a podcast about an empty-nest couple, the bittersweet pride in their voices as they talked about their youngest child heading off to college. Thinking about Mr. Murray, sleeping on the rug by the front door, and wishing that I lived in the same town as my parents, that I could walk right in and surprise him with a ginormous hug. That commercial with the ostrich who learns to fly, Elton John’s “Rocket Man” playing in the background. It was like I walked around with this constant lump in my throat, just waiting to see what would cause the tears to spill forth.

It was so weird. It was so not the version of myself I have come to believe in over the past three decades. I have never been a crier.

One afternoon my brother called to say hi—a routine thing for us—and after a few minutes of talking, I started crying. Like, ugly crying, the kind when you can’t fully catch your breath, and you stay quiet on the line because you know as soon as you try to talk your voice will break again.

My brother was so great, as he always is. He sat on a bench outside the bar where he was meeting some friends for happy hour, and he patiently stayed on the line and talked to me for a little while until I was ready to hang up. He didn’t sound alarmed by my weepiness. He didn’t rattle off a list of things I should do to feel better. He didn’t tell me all the reasons I shouldn’t be feeling the way I was feeling—all the reasons I should only feel joyful in my wonderful life. Instead, he told me that it was okay to feel sad sometimes. He told me to let myself feel what I was feeling. He reminded me that, even though I was feeling genuine sadness in that moment, that the sadness wasn’t going to last forever. That I would begin to feel better soon. And, in the meantime, he told me how much he loved me. He said that multiple times, and each time he said it I began to cry again—but out of gratitude and love for him more than sadness. When we hung up the phone, I still felt sad, but I felt so much better than I had before he called me.

My wish for everyone reading this is that you have a friend in your life like I have my brother. Someone who knows you, at times, better than you know yourself. Someone who isn’t afraid of your ugly crying. Someone who says exactly what you need to hear, exactly when you need to hear it.

{This photo was taken shortly after another time I cried with Greg, when I was visiting him in NYC. It was shortly after Celine died and I was hit with a huge wave of missing her.}

One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I don’t tend to get angry or annoyed or frustrated very easily. I don’t yell or snap at people very often. When I get tired, I don’t get crabby. I get sad.

Growing up, when I would feel weepy, my mom would say gently, “Dallas, honey. Go to sleep. You’re tired. You’ll feel so much better when you wake up.”

She was pretty much always right. I would feel better after a nice nap.

So that’s what I still do, if it’s a possibility, when I notice myself feeling “off.” I take a nap, or I sleep in late, or I go to bed early. And I do usually feel a bit better when I open my eyes again. Like the gray film over the world has been swept away. The light seems a little clearer, a little more sparkly.

Other things that made me feel a bit better last week: reading for pleasure; drinking tea and eating dark chocolate; texting with family and friends and Allyn; doing some yoga; going for a walk outside; working on my novel and surprising myself with the story; watching silly videos online; going to the dentist {I was worried I had a cavity, but I didn’t!}

This week, I’m back to feeling much more like myself. The waves of sadness I felt last week seem almost like a strange dream. But I know they’ll be back at some point, because that sadness is a part of me just as happiness is. My varied emotions are all puzzle pieces that fit together into the beautiful, complex mess of being human. As Brooke Castillo reminds us in many of her podcasts, life is about contrast. We wouldn’t have light without darkness. We wouldn’t have happiness without sadness.

In order to embrace my deepest, truest self, I have to be brave enough to acknowledge all of my emotions, not just the ones that make me feel strong and comfortable. I’m learning that embracing my sadness does not give it power over me, as I once thought it would. Just the opposite: only by opening up about feeling down—to myself as well as to others—am I able to move through the discomfort, and, eventually, to move past it.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and use the following questions to spur on some “free-writing”:

  • When was the last time you felt sad, or angry, or frustrated, or “off” in some way? Was there a certain reason, or was it harder to pin down?
  • What helps you feel better when you’re feeling down?
  • What advice would you give a friend who calls you feeling upset? What might happen if you shared those same gentle words and generous spirit with your own self and your own heart?
  • What is an emotion that makes you uncomfortable? How might you take small baby steps to embrace this emotion in your life?

on toughness, empathy + being gentle with yourself

When I was in high school, I played on the basketball team for two years. I’ve loved basketball since I was a little girl playing for youth teams, where the coaches would sometimes bring boom-boxes to blast music during warm-ups. In elementary school I spent many recesses playing H-O-R-S-E and pick-up games with the boys. At home, we had a basketball hoop in our driveway and I found a sense of calm in the hours I spent after my homework was done, practicing my shot, my dribbling, my lay-ups, until the daylight faded away to dusk and it was time to come in for dinner. Track and cross-country are close contenders, but basketball might still be my favorite sport. I love the team camaraderie. I love the fast-paced energy of the game. I love elegance of shooting, that clean feeling when you release the ball from your hand and just know it’s going in, and then the joy of that SWISH through the net.

My freshman year of high school, I was so excited when I made the Frosh-Soph girls basketball team. Immediately, I felt welcomed and my confidence blossomed. The sophomore girls on the team were so friendly and they took me into their fold. We worked hard in practice, but the ultimate goal was to have fun. I played center or power forward, so I never dribbled the ball much. But I remember one game in particular when, for whatever reason, the defender wasn’t guarding me until I reached the half-court line. So Coach told me to dribble the ball up the court each play, and I did it successfully. I was nervous at first, because I never thought I could be a point guard! But after that game, I felt like I could do anything. Like I didn’t have to box myself into a specific role. And, the more confident I felt in myself, the better I played.

Then, mid-way through the season, the Varsity coach decided to move a girl on the JV team up to Varsity, and to move me up to the JV team. I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. I felt honored to be chosen, but it was a difficult situation to move into a new team partway through the season. I was the new girl at the bottom of the totem pole, playing with girls older than me and better than me who already had built their own team dynamics—on and off the court. On the Frosh-Soph team I had started every game, but now on the JV squad I sat on the bench and felt lucky to play a couple minutes. My confidence tanked, but I still tried my best to be positive and work hard.

The biggest obstacle was my new coach. A nice man off the court, during practices and games he would yell constantly. I have never been inspired by yelling. The coach constantly berated me for not being “tough” enough, and it seemed like nothing I did could convince him otherwise. No amount of showing up early for “optional” practices, busting my butt during block-out drills, or hustling up and down the court changed his option of me—that I was a nice, “soft” girl who needed to “toughen up.” It is true that I have never been an ultra-competitive person. To me, playing basketball was as much a contest against myself—to continue working hard and improving my own game—as it was a contest against the other team. I didn’t have that desire to crush my opponents, and if we lost, I shook it off pretty easily. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t tough.

As I entered my sophomore year, I hoped for more stature and confidence on the JV team. Yet, the situation was pretty much unchanged from the season before. During each game, I sat on the bench, my knees jiggling. I yearned to play, but I was also filled with nerves—I worried about making a mistake and being yanked out of the game, banished to the bench again. I tried to remain confident in myself and my abilities, but it was hard.

One game will be forever etched into my memory. This was the turning point when I knew that I would not go out for the team again the following year. I just couldn’t handle the emotional toil anymore. It wasn’t worth it.

This particular game wasn’t an especially important one. It wasn’t a playoff game, nor was it a game against the rival high school across town. Personally, it was an important game to me because our family friend, my Uncle Wayne, was in town and he was planning to attend the game with my parents. I looked up to Uncle Wayne very much {I still do!} and wanted to impress him. I hoped that I would get some playing time to show my best effort.

It was a close game. In the second quarter, Coach put me in. I don’t remember much of the next few minutes. It’s possible I scored a basket or two. It’s possible I made some passes. Someone on my team fouled a player on the opposing team in the act of shooting, so we all lined up for free-throws. Since the other team was shooting, my team got to line up on the innermost spots. The player shot the first free-throw. I bent my knees, elbows out, preparing to box out for the rebound if the second free-throw was a miss.

It was. I successfully boxed out my player. But another player—a guard from the other team, who had not been boxed-out—swept in and grabbed the rebound.

Immediately, my coach was screaming. He called a time-out and we all hustled for the bench. I was not prepared for what happened next.

Coach had yelled at me before. Not just me—he yelled at all the players. He had pulled me out of the game before. He had expressed displeasure and disappointment. But it was nothing like this. Loudly, leaning right in my face, he screamed at me for not getting the rebound. He screamed that it was all my fault that we were losing. He screamed that I was “killing” the team, that I wasn’t trying hard enough, that I wasn’t tough enough.

I was completely caught off guard because I had boxed out my player. I didn’t expect that I had done something wrong. I didn’t think I had made a mistake. But even if I had—even if I had purposefully dribbled the wrong way down the court and deliberately scored two points for the other team—his verbal outrage would have been completely out of bounds. I realize that now. A grown man yelling in red-faced rage at a sixteen-year-old girl is never okay. Especially in front of her peers and her community.

I would learn later that it took every ounce of self-control for my father not to run down from the bleachers and yank me away from that screaming man. He didn’t want to embarrass me or cause any more of a scene. And he knew how much I loved basketball. He didn’t want to jeopardize that for me. But he—and my mom, and my brother, and Uncle Wayne—were appalled. He tried to catch my eye, so he could thump his chest with his fist in our signal for “I love you. You’re doing great.” But I wouldn’t look at him.

The reason why I wouldn’t look at my dad, or my mom or brother or Uncle Wayne, or anyone in the bleachers, was because I was ashamed. Already, as I took my place at the end of the bench and avoided my teammates’ eyes, I was internalizing my coach’s words. He was in a position of power and he was telling me that I was a loser, and in that moment I believed him. I believed that everyone in the bleachers, including my parents, saw things the way he did. Everyone thought that I was “killing” the team. Everyone thought I wasn’t trying hard enough. Everyone thought I wasn’t tough. Red-hot shame coursed through my veins that I had messed up enough to deserve such a torrential smack-down.

It never crossed my mind that perhaps I didn’t deserve it. That perhaps Coach, not me, was in the wrong. That perhaps everyone sitting on the bleachers was horrified not by my playing, but by his out-of-control outrage.

Later, my parents would comfort me and I would feel better, coming to believe that I had nothing to be ashamed of. Later, they would schedule a meeting with my coach and talk with him about the incident, although he would never apologize. Later, I would decide to end my basketball career and focus on cross-country and track, and later still I would become involved with my high school’s drama department, which was a life-changing experience in the best way. Although I still loved the game of basketball, I did not miss the self-doubt and negativity that came from playing on that team.

These days, I only think of my old coach very occasionally, when I make a mistake and catch the way I’m talking to myself. Not usually, but sometimes, the words that I say to myself could be coming directly out of the screaming mouth of my old coach.

I can’t believe you just did that! What were you thinking? You ruined everything! You’re so stupid! It’s all your fault!

Whenever I catch myself doing this {like that time I spilled green tea all over the table} I feel a punch in my gut. I try to immediately silence that critical voice in my head by taking a few deep breaths. Then I ask myself,

How would you talk to your best friend or one of your students if they were in this situation?

The answer: I most certainly would not yell or berate them. I would treat them with gentleness, compassion, and understanding. I would offer words of encouragement and support. I would tell them that everything was going to be okay. I would build them up by reminding them of their past successes.

My self deserves that same courtesy and love.

Unfortunately, it is likely that every single person reading this has been yelled at before. Perhaps you were yelled at by a parent, or a teacher, or a coach, or a boss. Or perhaps you yell at yourself when you do something wrong. These experiences bury themselves inside us. They can last for a long time, their reverberations rippling outward to the present. {Recent studies have shown the damaging effects that yelling and shouting can have on children and teens—possibly as detrimental as physical hitting.} A friend told me recently that, as a child, he always felt much more at ease when he was over at a friend’s house and their dad was at work. It wasn’t until recently that he realized the reason: his own dad was a frequent yeller who frightened him, and so he was frightened and nervous of his friends’ dads, too. He associated all men with yelling.

It is up to each one of us to break the cycle. Not only in our behavior towards others, but also in the way we treat ourselves.

I do not want to be an angry basketball coach screaming at my self. Instead, I want to be like the coach of my Frosh-Soph team, who made me feel confident enough to be point guard for a game even though I had never played that position before. Who never would have yelled at me, even if I had failed—and, with that knowledge, helped give me the confidence to succeed. I want to talk to myself the way that my dad and mom and brother and Uncle Wayne talked to me that fateful day, taking in the shadows of my shame and erasing them with light. I want to talk to myself the way that Allyn talks to me, centering me with his calm support and love no matter what happens.

After all, that little voice inside my head is powerful. It is the only voice that I hear all day, every day. It never, ever needs to yell to be heard. A gentle, compassionate whisper will do just fine.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Open up your journal or a new document on your computer and use the following questions as inspiration for some “free-writing”:

  • Write about a time when someone yelled at you. What was your response? How can you find peace with this memory and move forward?
  • Write down a list of self-talk phrases you often direct at yourself. Are they positive or negative? How can you be more kind and gentle to yourself? Look at your negative words. What are some loving phrases you could replace them with?
  • Who in your life makes you feel loved and supported? What does this person say to you? Write down these words of affirmation. Can you say them to yourself?

on vulnerability + saying “i love you” {part 2}

{If you missed Part 1 of this story, you can read it here!}

 

Happy Friday, friends! I’m back to share the rest of the story I started on Tuesday. If you remember, I was on a trip to Mendocino with Allyn and his family, after we had just started dating a couple months before. I knew I loved him, but I didn’t want to be the first to say it. I was hoping that he would tell me he loved me, and that this trip would be the catalyst for him to say it. We were resting during the middle of a hike, sitting side-by-side on a log in the sunshine, when our conversation took a turn I did not expect…

“Do you want to stay together?” he asked. “Long-distance, while I’m gone in New Orleans this summer?”

I’M IN LOVE WITH YOU, YO-YO HEAD! I wanted to scream at him, using one of my grandma’s favorite expressions. ARE YOU CRAZY? OF COURSE I WANT TO STAY TOGETHER!

But I didn’t say that. When I feel hurt, my first response is never to lash out. Instead, I hide and retreat. My thoughts swirled in a panic. Does he not want to stay together? Does he want to date other people? But I thought this was serious. I thought we were on the same page. I thought we loved each other.

I think about that conversation sometimes, looking back from the vantage point of our happily interwoven lives. I feel confident that even if we had completely bungled up that conversation and misunderstood each other, we would have found our way back to understanding at some point. I don’t think we would have broken up or “taken a break” while he was in New Orleans. Because neither of us actually wanted that. The only reason Allyn was bringing it up {I would later learn} was that he wanted to make sure that I didn’t feel pressured to stay with him while he was gone. He was all-too-aware that we had only been together for a couple months, and that he would be away for the whole summer, and he didn’t want me to grow resentful or feel trapped in a relationship with him. Perhaps, in some ways, I was a bit of an enigma to him, too. Perhaps we all are enigmas to each other in some ways, especially when we are first getting to know each other.

Right now I’m listening to the audiobook of Brene Brown’s Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution, and I’m so inspired by what she says about vulnerability.

I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. With that definition in mind, let’s think about love. Waking up every day and loving someone who may or may not love us back, whose safety we can’t ensure, who may stay in our lives or may leave without a moment’s notice, who may be loyal to the day they die or betray us tomorrow—that’s vulnerability.

When I fell in love with Allyn, I was letting myself be vulnerable. But I wasn’t fully embracing that vulnerability—not yet. I was in love with him, but I was still afraid to say it. I wanted him to say it first, because that would have made the confession feel “safer” to me.

During the trip to Mendocino {spoiler alert} we did not say “I love you” for the first time. But that conversation we had, sitting on the log under the dappled sunlight, was a really important moment in our relationship. If life was a video game, during that conversation we would have “leveled up” our vulnerability power—and, in turn, our connection power, and our honesty power, and our trust power too.

It took courage for Allyn to bring up the question of our impending long-distance relationship. And, in my own act of courage, I did not retreat or hide from his question. I did not try to “play it cool” or act like I would be fine either way, breaking up or staying together. I did not hold my cards close to my chest, so he wouldn’t see how much I cared about him. I did not try to mitigate the risk I took in loving him.

Instead, I took a deep breath, and I was honest. I let him know how I felt, even though it was scary to put myself out there. I told him that of course I wanted to stay together, and I didn’t want to date anyone else but him, and my feelings for him were serious. Like, really serious.

His response? That he felt the same way. I could hear relief in his tone.

We had this habit then, in our pre “I love you” days, of adding a lot of modifiers to our statements of affection. I don’t remember our exact conversation. But I’m sure Allyn said something like, “I really really really like you.” To which I would have responded, “I really really really like you, too.” {Meaning, of course: “I love you.”}

I remember feeling this enormous welling of relief in my heart as together we talked about when I might come to New Orleans to visit him—both of us knowing that we were All In, that this wasn’t just a decision made from convenience; no, we were both consciously and full-heartedly deciding to stay together, even though it would be hard and even though we would miss each other. In many ways, that long-distance summer would end up making us an even stronger and more sure-footed couple than we had been before Allyn left for NOLA.

The week after we returned from Mendocino, I learned that none of the stories I was telling myself about why Allyn had seemed a bit “off” or distant during the trip were true. In fact, his behavior had nothing to do with me at all. We didn’t have Internet or good cell reception at the vacation house in Mendocino, and he was feeling stressed out about work for his grad school courses; he had expected that we would at least have half-decent Internet so he could be in contact with his teams. So, if anything, it was actually a good sign about our relationship that he felt comfortable enough with me to just be himself during the trip!

{us in new orleans, summer 2014}

It wasn’t long after we returned from Mendocino that I found myself next to Allyn one quiet morning in his room, feeling a surge of gratitude for him and for our relationship, and knowing I was going to miss him so much when he was gone that summer.

“I really really really like you,” I said. But no—that wasn’t enough. That didn’t come close to capturing how I felt about him in that moment.

“Actually, no,” I corrected myself. “I don’t like you. I LOVE you.”

Just like that, those three words were out there in the space between us. I had finally been brave enough to express in words what had been building up inside me for months.

“I love you, too, Dallas,” Allyn said. Simple and sure.

We kissed. I felt filled up with light. I said those three words again for good measure, wondering what exactly I had been so afraid of. It turns out, telling someone you love that you love them is one of the most spectacular feelings on the planet. And having them say it to you back? Now that is miraculous.

The clouds parted. The angels sang. We sat there smiling goofily at each other, our chests split wide open and our brave little vulnerable hearts on full display, beating, beating, beating.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and use the following questions as inspiration for some “free-writing”:

  • Write about the first time you said “I love you” to someone. What was the experience like?
  • Write about a time you have taken a risk and been vulnerable.
  • When you feel hurt or attacked, what is your typical response? What are the stories you tell yourself? Are they true?
  • How can you embrace more vulnerability in your life?

what i learned from a week of teaching kindergarten

Happy Friday, friends! Today I’m delighted to share a guest post with you that I wrote for Candace Bisram’s wonderful blog Pocketful of Smiles. It’s about some lessons I learned from my week of teaching kindergarten a few summers back. Hope you enjoy!

 

What I Learned From a Week of Teaching Kindergarten

Home from work, I flopped onto my bed without even taking off my shoes. “Oh my gosh!” I sighed into the phone to my parents. “I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so exhausted.”

It was summer, and I was teaching a weeklong writing and public speaking class through the local Parks & Recreation Department. When I signed up to teach the class, I didn’t know what age group I would be assigned. And then, when I learned my assignment, I wasn’t worried.

Kindergarten. How hard could it be? We would read picture books, sing songs, draw some pictures. Golden.

The first day, I realized the extent of my misconception…

 

You can read the rest of the piece published on Pocketful of Smiles here!

 

That’s all for today! Hope you have a relaxing and rejuvenating weekend. 🙂

why i don’t care about being “cool”

When you work with kids, like I do, they have a way of keeping you pretty dang humble.

Like last week. I was teaching a lesson with two young students who moved to the U.S. recently from Taiwan, and are ESL {English as a Second Language} learners. I was guiding them through a reading comprehension activity I developed, based on my children’s book There’s a Huge Pimple On My Nose! Usually, the kids reading this story know what a pimple is, but “pimple” was a new word for these two students.

“It’s a bump you get on your skin,” I explained to them. “Like a mosquito bite, but smaller. Then it goes away on its own. Usually when you’re a teenager is when you start getting pimples.”

The girl pointed to my face. “Like what you have on your chin?” she asked.

I laughed. “Yep, like what I have on my chin. Adults get pimples, too!”

Later that same day, I was leading a writing lesson with two third-graders. We were talking about brainstorming strategies and how, when you feel stuck or are struggling with writer’s block, it can help to write down every single idea that pops into your mind, no matter how silly or off-topic it might seem.

“Writer’s block happens to everyone,” I told them. “Even professional writers get stuck sometimes. I’ve been writing for twenty years and I still get writer’s block! All you can do is keep trying your best and don’t give up.”

“Wait–you’re a writer?” the boy asked. “Like, do you write books?”

“Yep,” I said, thinking maybe I was earning “cool points” in the eyes of my students.

“Then how come I’ve never heard of you?” he asked innocently.

“Well, I’m not famous yet,” I said, shaking off my stung pride. Elementary schoolers, man. They can be tough!

{But then sometimes they make you feel like a million bucks!}

I remember a time in my life when I cared about being “cool.” Back in middle school and high school, I definitely paid attention to the trends and tried to stay on top of things. I used to straighten my wavy hair when I wanted to feel “pretty” because shiny, stick-straight hair was the coveted kind. {Now my hair is naturally straighter, and—guess what? I miss my waves.} I remember using babysitting money to buy face glitter {I really think that’s what it was—not eyeshadow, but glitter for all over your face, because we were ridiculous like that in the late 90s} and the honeydew-melon spray from Bath & Body Works, which was THE popular scent in my middle school locker room. To complicate things further, the guidelines for what was “cool” sometimes contradicted each other. On the cross-country team, high running shorts and low invisible socks were the “cool” uniform; but on the basketball team, baggy shorts and high socks were in. I played both of these sports in high school. Usually the seasons were at separate times of the year, so coordinating my outfit wasn’t a problem… except for during the summer, when I had both basketball AND cross-country practices. I remember running into the bathroom to change my shorts and socks, slipping from one practice to the next—knowing that I would feel like everyone was looking at me funny if I showed up to cross-country with high socks and baggy shorts, or to basketball with short-shorts and low socks.

As I type this out now, it seems so silly. But at the time, it felt so important.

It wasn’t that I felt like being cool was the most important thing. I cared more about being kind, and curious, and thoughtful, and respected. I cared about being a good friend and a good sister and a good daughter. I cared about learning and growing and striving for my dreams.

But I also cared about being “cool.” I wanted to fit in. I wanted boys to like me.

When I think about that thirteen-year-old girl, peering critically into the mirror and wielding a straightening iron, I want to take her hands in mine and kiss her on the forehead and tell her, You are perfect just the way you are. There is no way you can make yourself any more beautiful than you already are, right this moment. You are exactly, wonderfully enough.  

When I went to college, my world opened up. What had been deemed irrevocably cool at my school had not necessarily been cool at someone else’s high school. I remember sitting around one afternoon with my college friends, going through our high school yearbooks. Looking through the line-ups of senior portraits, none of us were able to pick out who had been in the popular crowd at each other’s schools. It was such a strange, liberating realization. Those old rules didn’t apply anymore. Perhaps they never really had. We had been in small fishbowls, but now we were in the wide-open ocean. There was so much more room here. So much more life and light and color.

I began paying less and less attention to what the outside world marked as “cool” and more and more attention to what I liked, what made me happy, what made me comfortable. It didn’t really matter what someone else said was cool. What did I think was cool? I began to listen to that voice inside me, instead of the voices outside myself. I let my hair air-dry, wavy and natural. I wore tennis shoes. I listened to country music. {Holly and I loved Taylor Swift back in her early, first-album days, when our other roommates thought she was lame.}

I learned that true coolness isn’t about following someone else’s list of rules. It’s about being happy in your own skin and being joyful in your own life. That is what gives you the sparkle. That is what other people are drawn to. Not your face glitter. Not your high socks. Not your honeydew-melon body spray or perfectly straightened hair. It’s your… you-ness. Your confidence and contentment. It happens when you embrace the knowledge that you are the only person in human history who will ever be exactly like you, living your unique and beautiful life. Why try to cram that life into a one-size-fits-all box?

It’s probably not surprising that once I stopped trying to be cool, I became cooler. Boys asked me out on dates, tennis shoes and all.

At my wedding, I put on my tennis shoes and compression socks for the reception, because I wanted to dance my heart out and I wanted to be comfortable doing it. For most of the reception, they were hidden under my floor-length dress. But one of my favorite photos is of Allyn removing my garter for the garter toss. My shoes and compression socks are on full display. Our friends and family who were gathered around loved it. I felt like the coolest bride in the universe.

These days, when I think about how I want to be remembered, I don’t care one iota about being cool. I want to be remembered as someone who lived her life boldly, and freely, and generously, and gratefully. I want to be remembered as someone who spoke her truth, wrote about things that mattered, and loved others with all her heart. I want to be remembered for how I made people feel: encouraged and inspired and cared for and confident.

When my students grow up, I want them to remember their writing teacher Miss Dallas—yes, Miss Dallas with the pimple on her chin and no bestselling books to her name—as someone who believed in them and in their dreams. I want them to remember Miss Dallas as a teacher who made them feel empowered to express their wonderful, complicated, messy, hilarious, impossible ideas down on paper, and to actually have a bit of fun doing it. I want them to remember Miss Dallas as someone who always let them know how proud she was of them, and who taught them to be proud of themselves.

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer, and use the following questions as jumping-off points:

  • What was “cool” when you were growing up? Did you feel pressured to be “cool”?
  • Write about a time you felt distinctly uncool. What happened? How did you react to the experience?
  • How do you want to be remembered?

a thank-you note to the universe

Dear Universe,

You really outdid yourself with my thirtieth birthday. It was one of the most special days weeks {I mean seriously, whose birthday celebration lasts multiple weeks??} of my life. It was filled with reminders of all the people who have made every day of my past thirty years on this planet such an incredible gift. I just wanted to write a little note to say thank you.

Thank you for my parents, who created me and raised me to be kind, curious, and confident in myself, to strive for my dreams and appreciate the present, to dive forward and dig in with both hands. They turned the story of my rocky premature birth into a story of strength and determination. Every single day of my entire life I have felt loved, because of them. I was so grateful to be able to celebrate my birthday, and my dad’s birthday two days before mine, with my family in my hometown over Memorial Day weekend. We ate so much delicious food and went mini-golfing and watched movies and relaxed together on the couch and took Mr. Murbur for long walks, and it was simply perfect.

Thank you for my brother, who has been my “twin” since the day he was born when I was two and a half. It is such a blessing to have someone in my life, for as long as I can remember, who shares my history and inside jokes and who just “gets” me. He may be my younger brother, but he is my role model. He is so wise, and I learn so much from him. It was such a gift that he flew out from NYC to be there for Memorial Day weekend, and he even ran the Mountains 2 Beach Marathon and totally kicked butt! It was his first-ever marathon, and he did it in 2 hours 52 minutes and creamed the Boston Qualifier time! I am unbelievably proud of him. Thank you, universe, for the gift of being able to cheer him on for the last mile of the race and hug him at the finish line. He inspires me all over!

Thank you for my amazing husband, who drove down to Ventura by himself on Saturday morning {with my flexible work schedule, I was able to fly down a few days earlier to squeeze in more family time} and was his sweet, thoughtful and generous self all weekend, even though he was probably exhausted from a long workweek and a long solo travel day. He fits in with my fam so naturally and I love seeing them share inside jokes and long conversations. He also was amazingly helpful to my mom–she has officially crowned him “Best Son-in-Law Ever”–washing off chairs and running to the grocery store and setting up tables for our big party on Sunday. {More about that later.} And, if all that wasn’t enough, he also made me the most wonderful personal birthday gift I could imagine, and he threw a party for me up in the Bay Area the weekend after my birthday, so I could celebrate with all my friends and family up here. He spent months planning it and even baked funfetti cupcakes with homemade cream-cheese frosting for the event! Universe, you were so generous to introduce me to this man three and a half years ago. He’s made me smile every day since. #luckiestgirl

{mini-golfing!}

Thank you for the gorgeous weather all weekend–especially on Sunday, when my parents threw a big party to celebrate my birthday, my dad’s birthday, and my brother’s epic marathon! My mom worked her booty off prepping for the party, as always without a hint of complaint. She gives to others with such joy. So many people from my childhood came by–old family friends, former teachers, my cousins and aunts and uncles, plus newer friends too! It was a whirlwind of chatting and visiting, eating and drinking and laughing. I love being able to introduce various people I adore to each other!

Thank you for bringing Erica into my life in seventh grade; she has been one of my best friends ever since. She has always loved me and accepted me for exactly who I am, which is such a gift in a friend. I was so happy to get to see her twice while I was home: for one of our marathon catch-up coffee dates, at our favorite spot Simone’s, and at the party on Sunday, where her parents came along too! It was wonderful to see them again, and they got to meet Allyn for the first time. It always warms my heart to see my hubby bond with my friends. Anyway, universe, I’m just so grateful for this girl!

Thank you for the dozens of sweet cards and thoughtful messages and phone calls I received from friends near and far on my birthday. From notes on Facebook to text messages to sunflower bouquets to birthday packages in the mail, I felt like the most loved lady on the planet. Now I have cards displayed all around our apartment that give me the warm fuzzies as I go through my day. I am so fortunate that my path has crossed with the paths of so many incredible people in the past 30 years!

Universe, thank you for blessing us with more gorgeous weather last Saturday for my second birthday party—a picnic at the Lake Chabot regional park, just down the street from our apartment. Allyn reserved our picnic area back in January, and it was absolutely perfect: up on a little hill, tucked away, our own private spot to BBQ and hang out with friends.

Thank you for my wonderful in-laws, who came early and schlepped coolers and grilling trays and drinks and food and camping chairs and propane up the hill, who helped us get the tablecloths and decorations all set up, who were grill masters and made sure everyone had enough to eat. Allyn’s mom saved the day by bringing along some metal tongs—Allyn and I realized when we started unloading things for the grill that, despite months of careful planning and triple-checking to-do lists, we had completely forgotten to bring any sort of implements to turn meat and veggies on the grill, like maybe a spatula?? Haha! After a few moments of panic, Barbara realized she had metal tongs, which she brought along to serve the delicious ribs she had made for everyone. Problem solved!

Thank you for all of our dear friends and family who took time out of their busy lives to come celebrate with me. It is so rare for all of us to be together in one place—it felt a bit like my wedding all over again, in the best way! Hours flew by in what felt like a blink. It was such a treat to spend time just relaxing, eating, sharing stories, laughing, piñata-ing, throwing around the football, and soaking up the sunlight together.

Finally, universe {coming around full-circle} thank you once again for my parents, who totally surprised me by driving 6+ hours to come to my picnic party! Allyn was the only one who knew their plan, and he was a master secret-keeper. I was completely blown away! I will always treasure the memory of seeing them walking up the hill to the party, a huge smile breaking across my face as I realized… “Hey, that’s my parents!!” I couldn’t believe they would travel all that way to celebrate my birthday all over again. {Actually, I could believe it. My parents are such generous people who always make me feel so special!} I absolutely loved having them there, getting to introduce them to my friends and showing them around the park where I love to go for walks during the week. Plus, we got to hang out with them for dinner that night and lunch the next day, before they hit the road to head back home. Even though I wish we lived just down the street from each other, I’m so grateful that we’re only a car ride away.

Universe, I can’t imagine a better 30th birthday. Thank you for my health, my people, and for all the love in my life. As everyone sang me “Happy Birthday” over funfetti cupcakes with divine homemade frosting, I looked around at all the smiling faces and my heart felt full-to-the-brim with pure gratitude. How beautiful this life is. How lucky I am to live it. I am savoring these moments as deeply as I can, even while I am so excited to see what my next trip around the sun brings!

Love,
Dallas

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer, and “freewrite” your thoughts on the following prompts:

  • Write your own letter to the universe. What are you grateful for?
  • Have you ever been surprised or been thrown a surprise party? Or, have you ever surprised someone else? Write about the experience.
  • What is one of your favorite birthday memories?

thoughts on turning 30

Hi, everyone! Hard to believe, but this is my very last blog post of my twenties. My birthday is on Monday, and I schedule blog posts for Tuesdays and Fridays. So the next time you hear from me, I’ll officially be in my thirties! A brand new decade. I feel ready.

I used to expect that I would feel some anxiety about turning 30. Society makes such a big deal about it, and 30 somehow seems so much older than, say, 28. There’s also the fact that part of me still feels sixteen sometimes, and it is strange for your actual age to progress farther and farther beyond an age you remember being so vividly. At some point, I’ve crossed over from “girl” to “young woman” to, simply, “woman.” How did that happen?

{My sixteenth birthday, with goofy Gar}

But, on the other hand, there are lots of ways that I can tell I have grown. I remember my first semester teaching undergrads at Purdue, just a year out of college myself, and I felt very much in the same demographic check-box as my students. But it does not feel that way now. When Allyn and I visited my cousin Arianna in college last October, I couldn’t get over how young the undergrads seemed. Had we been that young, too? Looking at them and listening to Arianna’s dorm room stories, I felt the same way I feel when my students talk about middle-school PE class: I remember that time in my life and that version of myself so clearly, and yet it feels like I am peering at her through a pane of glass or reading about her in a book. I am not that same Dallas anymore. I have morphed and expanded and grown and learned a lot since then.

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons I am not dreading turning 30 is that my whole perspective on aging shifted forever when Celine died so tragically and brutally young. Now, every birthday feels like such a privilege, such a stroke of luck, such a thing to celebrate. I no longer take birthdays for granted, in a way that was not as true before we lost Celine. I would give up chocolate for the rest of my life if Celine got to turn 30 and 40 and 50 and 60 and get all gray-haired and wrinkly.

{Celebrating her 21st birthday… what a fun night that was!}

So I am utterly stoked that I get to turn 30! What a blessing it is to enter this new chapter of life.

In truth every day is a new beginning; as my brother wisely says, “Every single day is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” But there is something about birthdays, and particularly about turning over a new leaf of a sparkling new decade here on this planet, that feels exhilarating and shiny.  Yes, my twenties were wonderful in many ways: I lived with three of my best friends, studied abroad in England for six months, graduated college. I moved back home for a year and got to live with my parents again, but in a different way: inhabiting the house as three adults more than two adults and a child. That was such a precious year, to simply be together and soak up time with them, even though I was anxious about my future and what would happen next… and then something did happen, I got into graduate school, and I moved to Indiana and got my MFA in Fiction and learned so much and lived on my own for the first time in my life. I learned to cook and I learned to trudge through the snow and I learned how strong I was. I fell in love and fell to pieces. I went on blind dates and terrible dates and online dates and magical dates. I wrote three novels and one short-story collection and I got a literary agent. I moved to the Bay Area and lived with my grandparents, and they became two of my best friends, and I learned that life is too short but it is also long and will surprise you sometimes in the best way. I fell in love again and knew that this was what I had been searching for, waiting for, dreaming about, always. And, reader, I married him.

So my twenties were glorious, yes. But they were also lonely and painful and searching in many ways. Now, from where I stand on the cusp of thirty, life feels sturdier under my feet. I feel sturdier in myself. I know who I am and what I want and where I am going. Not only can I successfully blow-dry my hair and flip a pancake without making a big mess, I realized the other day that I truly feel happy in my career for the first time in a long time. I feel like I am doing the writing I am supposed to be doing, and I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. No longer am I sweating through criticism in workshops, feeling like I’m not “literary” or “tortured” enough. I am proud of my writing and I no longer feel the need to “prove myself” to anyone else. As novelist Elizabeth Berg once told me: First, please yourself. I finally understand what she meant. I genuinely feel excited to wake up each day and get to work on things, and there are never enough hours in the day to do everything I want to do.

For my tenth birthday, my parents surprised me with a gift I had been begging for and dreaming about: a boxer puppy. Gar would light up my life and expand my world, making me laugh with his goofy antics, sleeping at the foot of my bed most nights, and curling up beside my computer as I wrote stories late into the night. At ten, I would publish my first collection of short stories and poems, and my dream of making a career as a writer would officially be born. I felt like the luckiest girl in the whole world.

For my twentieth birthday, I was home from college for the summer and my family and I flew kites at the park. Gar was no longer in our lives, only in our memories and photographs, and we had a new exuberant boxer puppy on our hands: Mr. Murray. After turning twenty, I would spend a summer abroad at Cambridge and later would study abroad for a whole semester in England, where I turned 21 and it wasn’t even that big of a deal because the drinking age was 18 there. I remember celebrating with Chinese take-out and ice cream, surrounded by my British flatmates, feeling impossibly lucky and impossibly grown-up.

{My roommates threw me a surprise 21st birthday party 8 months before my actual birthday, before we all went abroad. I don’t think I’ve ever been more surprised! It was such a fun party, and so thoughtful of them.}

For my thirtieth birthday, I will be in my favorite place I’ve ever been: my childhood home, with my parents, and my brother, and my husband, and a gray-faced Murray snoring on the couch. I no longer feel impossibly grown-up—there is still so much I have yet to learn. But I don’t feel impossibly young, either. There are some things I have learned. There are some things I know for certain. One of them is how lucky I am. No matter how old I get, I hope I always remember that.

Cheers to 30! I’m all in.

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer, and use these questions as jumping-off points:

  • What are some of the highlights from the decades of your life?
  • What lessons have you learned in the past 10 years?
  • How do you approach birthdays and getting older? What are some of your favorite ways to celebrate?

what our boston fern has taught me about self-care

When Allyn and I moved into our apartment together, his sister gifted us with the perfect housewarming present: a beautiful large Boston fern. I have never possessed the greenest of thumbs, but I really wanted a houseplant—both for aesthetic reasons and to help clean the air of toxins in our new little home. From what I read online, ferns did not seem too difficult to take care of. Allyn and I christened him “San Fern-ando” and snuggled him into his new home beside our bookshelf, in the pretty blue pot and stand that Allyson had also bought for us.

{Allyn and San Fernando}

House plants are funny creatures. They don’t talk; they don’t wander around; they don’t whine or sigh or thump the floor with their tails like pets do. But they are definitely alive, and their presence definitely changes the dynamics of a room. I spend most of the day working alone from home, and San Fernando makes me feel like I have some company. I even find myself talking to him sometimes. He doesn’t seem to mind my off-key singing.

San Fernando, I quickly learned, liked to be watered more frequently than what I read online. Every Sunday, Allyn would put him in the shower and spray him liberally, leaving him in there overnight to soak. But once a week was not enough for our little fern. I began to spray him with our mister bottle every three days, and then every other day, and he seemed happiest of all when I remembered to spray him every day.

But, dear reader, I must admit: I did not always remember.

San Fernando is such a patient companion. He never complains. He never interrupts my day to ask for anything. He simply sits there in his pot, filtering our air, his green tendrils providing life and color in our home.

I have written before about how easy it is to take things for granted. Sometimes, San Fernando blends into the background and I forget about him. The days whirl by and while I could swear I watered him yesterday, in reality it was three days ago.

The weather has also been getting warmer, hot and dry, which means San Fernando needs more water than ever. Last week, I looked over at him and noticed that some of his leaves were turning brown and shriveled. He looked quite sad. “San Fernando!” I exclaimed. “Poor little guy!” I ran over, filled the little spray bottle, and sprayed him all over until he was dripping.

Now, I am trying to nurse San Fernando back to good health. I am spraying him morning and evening, and it makes my heart happy to see new little green tendrils sprouting up from his heart. San Fernando just needed some TLC to get back to a healthy place. But it will take some time to help him get there. It won’t happen overnight. Because I neglected San Fernando, and didn’t spray him a little bit every day, now it requires much more effort to get him back on track. {I’m sorry, San Fernando. I promise to be a better plant mother from now on!}

This is not only the case with Boston ferns. It is true for humans, as well. This ordeal with San Fernando made me think about the parallels with our own self-care.

Has this ever happened to you? You are super busy at work, or school, or with a new project, or a big volunteer event. In order to get everything done, you begin “burning the candle at both ends”—staying up late, getting up early. You’re exhausted, so you down a lot of caffeine each day—lots of coffee, or soda, perhaps even those “energy drinks.” You forget to eat enough, or you grab fast food instead of nourishing yourself with whole, healthful foods. There is no time at all for the gym. No time to relax with a good book, unwind with a bit of yoga, or daydream in the bath. No time to chat with your friends on the phone or write in your journal or practice gratitude. You are simply too busy!

You tell yourself that it is only for a little while and then you will get back on track. But “busyness” has a way of stretching out and stretching out, lasting and lasting. There is always something else that comes up—some new request, some extra task or obligation. Before too long, you end up like San Fernando: your leaves are shriveled and brown and droopy. Maybe you get sick. Maybe you “crash” during a meeting. Maybe you lash out, or break down, or feel entirely overwhelmed.

My dad likes to say, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” I think this also applies: “An ounce of self-care is worth a pound of wellness.” If you take care of yourself, carving out time for self-care even during the busy times, then you will be able to withstand even the most stressful of days. If I had been more vigilant in spraying San Fernando with water every day, then he would have been able to go a few days without water and his leaves would not have shriveled up. It was only because I had neglected him routinely that he began to wither.

So now, I am committing to diligently watering San Fernando every single day, and I am committing to “watering” my own soil and roots every day with small acts of self-care. I hope you will join me in this practice!

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer, and use the prompts below as inspiration for some free-writing:

  • Have you ever neglected a house plant or outdoor garden?
  • When was the last time you felt really busy or overwhelmed? What did you do to get out of that mindset?
  • Write a list of acts of self-care that make you feel nourished and rested.