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?

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?

must be nice…

The other day, while waiting in line at the grocery store, I overheard a comment about a TV show host that caught my attention.

“Must be nice,” the person said. “Getting paid that much to just work a couple hours a day.”

I am obviously not a TV host, but still this comment made me bristle. Because I recognized the inherent criticism in these words: the idea that the value of one’s work is dependent on the amount of time one puts in, and furthermore that all the behind-the-scenes work somehow doesn’t “count.”

All of our jobs have behind-the-scenes work; but I think we as a society tend to recognize this work more in some jobs than we do others. When we watch a Broadway play, we understand that the actors don’t just come onstage and perform and that is their entire job—we know that there are many, many hours of rehearsal behind each glittery performance. When we hire someone to remodel our kitchen, we “count” the work it takes them to draw up the plans. When someone clocks into work, especially a 9-5 job with traditional hours, we generally think of their behind-the-scenes work—all the emails and meetings and billing and drudgery—as part of that work time. We measure it and count it and value it. All of it.

But what about when someone’s job has less clearly defined parameters? Someone whose “working hours” in the public eye might not include the entire scope of their job? One example that springs immediately to my mind are teachers. “Must be nice,” I have heard people say about the teaching profession. “Get off work at 3pm and then have the entire summer off.” I think statements like these are ludicrous. My friends who are teachers, including my aunt and my sister-in-law, are some of the hardest-working people I know who care immensely about their jobs. My sister-in-law might leave school property at 4pm, but more often than not she goes home and plans lessons until late at night. She is there for her students before school, after school, during lunch, and she regularly goes above-and-beyond planning field trips and interactive learning events for them.

Plus, beyond all the hours great teachers put in “behind the scenes,” they are such treasures because they make such a difference! I have been so fortunate that I can point to a dozen teachers who have had a profound impact on my life, who I still think of often to this day. Teachers are educating our future. Why do we, as a society, not value their work more? Why do we write them off with, “Must be nice…”?

Let’s stop doing this. Let’s stop writing each other off. 

Perhaps it’s a grass-is-always greener situation. Just as we should not compare our insides to other people’s outsides, we should be careful not to compare the insides of our jobs with the outsides of other people’s jobs. For example, my dad was a sports columnist for many years {he is now a general interest columnist and also writes books and magazine articles} and people often remarked to him how lucky he was to “get paid for watching sports.” While he was fortunate to have a job he was passionate about, watching a sports event in order to write about it for the newspaper is entirely different from watching a sports event as a fan. He was working. Taking notes, conducting interviews, shaping and writing his column during the game, having to go back and erase and change it based on the outcome, and then having to bang it out and file in time for the next day’s paper to be printed. Dad used to joke that the best type of game as a fan—the nail-biting, triple-overtime, down-to-the-wire thriller—was the worst type of game as a sports columnist, because you had no idea until the final buzzer what the outcome would be. You pretty much had to write TWO columns, one for each outcome, because there would never be enough time to write the entire thing after the game ended before your deadline. It would be easy for people to look at my dad’s career and think, “Must be nice…” But they had no idea all of the “behind the scenes” work his job entailed.

The reason that I think this “must be nice” mindset is dangerous is because it isn’t just fair to the people we are undervaluing: it also isn’t fair to ourselves. This mindset puts us in the realm of “victim” and ignores the drudgery and busywork and unglamorous parts that are present in pretty much every job. Susan Hyatt writes about this very eloquently in her blog post/podcast “The Parts You Don’t See.”

Furthermore, this mindset takes away our power rather than empowering us. It pretends that other people have it better than we do, easier than we do, cushier than we do. It does not acknowledge all the hard work they put in to get where they are, and also undermines our own efforts to work hard and advance in our careers. When you accomplish your big career goals, do you want someone looking at you and saying that you are so lucky to be where you are? No! It’s not darn luck—it took years of busting your butt!

When you feel yourself slipping into the defeatist perspective that other people have it easier than you do, I challenge you to take a step back and think about all the hard work it took for them to get where they are. Then challenge yourself to focus on your own hard work to accomplishing your own goals. Keep your eyes on your own paper. Cultivate a mindset of gratitude. Think about it. What makes you more motivated: feeling jealous of other people’s lives, or feeling grateful for all the beauty and blessings in your own life? I know for me, the answer is easy. Gratitude wins by a landslide every time.

 

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 for some free-writing:

  • What are the “behind-the-scenes” aspects of your job that other people might not recognize?
  • Write about a time you felt valued, or undervalued. What was your reaction?
  • What is your “dream job”? Why?
  • Are there any professions you envy? What do you envy about them? What hard or unglamorous work might also be wrapped up in these jobs?
  • What do you love about your current job, right now, in this moment?

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.

mom to the rescue

I was a freshman in high school, playing in a weekend basketball tournament down in San Diego. It was the off-season and this was sort of like an extra-credit team, separate from the high school team. It was for those of us who wanted to improve and hone our skills before the real season started up again. My parents weren’t able to come to this tournament because my dad had to work and my younger brother had a track meet. My mom was president of the youth track club and had a million-and-one things to do at the meets—especially back then, in the days of dirt tracks and non-computer timing. Plans were made for me to drive down and stay in a hotel room with one of my new teammates and her mom. I didn’t know her very well, but she seemed nice. My parents made me promise to call between games and tell them how I did.

After the first two games, I felt close to tears. I had traveled all this way… just to sit on the bench. They weren’t even close games, but the coach didn’t put me in once. I felt embarrassed and unworthy. Like everyone was laughing at me behind my back. Why was I even on this team? I had busted my butt in practice, the same as everyone else. Why was I singled out as not good enough to get a chance in the game?

{Side note: at the time, I thought this was unfair, but I also felt to blame. Like there was something wrong with me and that was the reason I sat on the bench the whole game. Now that I’m older and can look back with some perspective, it makes me angry. This was a high school basketball summer league. This wasn’t even Varsity, but Junior Varsity. This was not the WNBA. These games were not life-and-death. If I was good enough to make the team, I should have been good enough to play in the games. Coaches of our youth need to remember the power and influence they hold. Sports are meant to build up the confidence and character of kids and teens—not tear them down. For a long time, basketball was something that tore me down and made me feel bad about myself. But that’s a post for another time…}

When I called during a break after our second game, my mom answered the phone. “Hi sweetie, how’d it go?” she asked.

“I didn’t play,” I reported numbly.

“What?” she said. “What do you mean?”

“I sat on the bench the whole time.” I bit my lip, trying to keep the shame from leaking out of my eyes. I wanted more than anything to teleport home, to my snuggly warm bed, where I could just pretend this weekend never happened.

“Sit tight,” my mom said. There was a firmness in her voice I recognized. My mom is the kindest woman I’ve ever met, yet she is also the fiercest. She has taught me, by example, that one should never mistake kindness for weakness. “Hang in there, Dal. I’m on my way.”

I’m on my way. When you are feeling sad and alone, are there any more beautiful words in the English language than those?

Never mind that my mom was exhausted from being on her feet, running around, leading the track meet all day. Never mind that it was a 3-hour drive to San Diego. Never mind that I would be home the next day. She knew I needed her right then. So she was coming, right then.

You know in books and movies, when a superhero will sweep down from the sky and save the day? That is how it felt in my little world when my mom arrived that evening. She swept me off to dinner, and suddenly I could breathe again. I was safe again. I could just be myself. I could cry if I wanted to. I could be angry if I wanted to. I could be anything I wanted to. My mom was there with me.

The tournament continued the next day, and even though a large part of me wanted to just quit and go home early, a larger part of me did not want to be a quitter. I wanted to stick it out. I was hopeful that maybe I would get game time the next day. Mom said not to worry, she would get a hotel room and I could stay with her. The next day, we would go to my games, and hopefully I would play. And then she would take me home.

Only… the hotel where our team was staying was booked up. “No problem,” Mom told me. “We’ll just go to a different hotel nearby.”

As we drove around, every hotel glared at us with NO VACANCY lit up in red fluorescent lights. Later, we would find out that there was a NASCAR event in the city that same weekend, and all the hotels were booked up for miles around.

We drove and drove and drove. Eventually, when we had almost given up hope, we found a motel with one room available. The person working the front desk excitedly informed us that it was the king-sized suite with the whirlpool jacuzzi tub. I don’t remember much about that room. I’m sure it was overpriced. I do remember we were both too scared to try the ancient jacuzzi tub. The bed was probably not very comfortable, but I slept like a baby because I was just so relieved to have my mom there with me.

That basketball tournament may not seem like a big deal, but it was for me then. I felt so lonely at the beginning of that weekend, but then my mom came and the rest of the weekend I felt so loved. Her presence turned everything around.

That was just one of many times my mom has come to my rescue. When I broke up with my first real boyfriend, I flew from Los Angeles to the Bay Area because we were long-distance and I wanted to do it in person. Then I had to fly back home. I am usually a nervous flyer, but I was not nervous on that flight because I was too overwhelmed and sad. My mom picked me up from the Burbank airport with a chai tea latte from Starbucks and a great big hug, and seeing her made me feel just a little bit better. Four years later, she would be the one boarding a plane, this time to Indiana, to come to my rescue in the aftermath of the second big break-up of my life. She helped me pack up my belongings, sell my car and all my furniture, and tie up all the loose ends of that chapter of my life. I remember eating cheese and crackers and drinking wine, binge-watching Friday Night Lights together. I remember her neat lists of tasks that brought order to the days and made me feel less unmoored. I remember laughing with her about some childhood memory, and feeling for the first time like I would be more than okay—that I would not just survive, but thrive, without him. My mom has always made me feel stronger than I feel by myself.

I know that Mother’s Day has come and gone, and this post might seem a little belated. But for some reason, the memory of that hotel with the whirlpool jacuzzi tub popped into my head this morning, and it made me think about my mom, and all the times she has dropped everything without a second thought to come to my aid. As a child, it is easy to take that sort of thing for granted. Now, as an adult, I feel suffused with gratitude that I somehow got so lucky to have her as my mother.

Sometimes, when I am feeling discouraged, I think of driving with my mom down that nighttime freeway towards the next exit, searching for a hotel room in the midst of all of those NO VACANCY signs. At times, that can feel like a metaphor for life. At times, it can seem like there will never be a room that is meant for you. But, I promise, there will be. You just need to keep driving long enough to find it.

When I get discouraged, I try to remind myself of that night. Because it was not an experience of despair. In fact, I don’t even remember feeling very worried. I felt sure that, eventually, we would find what we were looking for. And I was content, in the meantime, to be in the passenger seat, my mom behind the wheel, Bonnie Raitt singing on the radio. I looked out the window at the lights of San Diego, dotting the hillsides like fallen stars. I knew everything was going to be okay. After all, I had Mom by my side.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and use these questions as jumping-off points for some “free-writing” of your own:

  • What are some memories your treasure with your mom?
  • When has someone come to your rescue? When have you come to the rescue of others?
  • If you ever feel lost or discouraged, what gentle words might inspire you to keep going?

how far will your ripples go?

Last night, I went with my friend Marjie to UC Berkeley to see the Scottish Ballet’s stunning performance of Tennessee Williams’ famous play “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It was my first time going to a professional ballet performance—my only previous ballet experience was attending community performances of “The Nutcracker.” I always enjoyed “The Nutcracker” and was always impressed by the talent of the ballerinas. Still, I was not expecting to feel so emotionally moved and enraptured as I watched the performance last night.

The dancers conveyed so much with their bodies and expressions; I forgot they were not speaking in words. Because they were speaking in movement. Even without dialogue, they were able to capture the aching hope and despair of Williams’ play, and bring his story to life in a new way. What’s more, this performance imagined and fleshed out a vivid backstory for Blanche’s character, inspired by the original title Tennessee Williams considered for the play: “The Moth.” The ballet closed with a vulnerable portrayal of Blanche as a moth, struggling to get close to the light. Illuminated in a spotlight centerstage, one of her hands fluttered skyward like a moth’s delicate wings. A hush descended over the audience and some people even gasped, viscerally moved by the image, and then the curtain fell to thunderous applause.

I wish Tennessee Williams could have been there to see this interpretation of his play as a ballet. I think he would have been pleased to see his story brought to life in this new way, filled with the tension and drama of music and dance.

I have felt a connection to Tennessee Williams ever since last Thanksgiving, when my family and I traveled to New Orleans and tracked down the apartment that he had lived in during his New Orleans days at the end of his life. Serendipitously, while we were outside, taking photos and reading the small plaque affixed to the front wall, a man who lived there just happened to be returning home. He introduced himself as Brobson and invited us inside for a drink; he had lived there for many years and had known Tennessee Williams. He kindly welcomed us inside and shared many stories, even taking us around to the backyard to see the pool where Tennessee used to relax in the afternoons. {My dad wrote a terrific two-part column about our visit with Brobson, which you can read here on his website.}

Before that day, Tennessee Williams had been larger-than-life to me; a name in a list of Great Writers I Admire; a photo on a Wikipedia page. But seeing where he had lived and meeting someone who had known him turned him into a real person. There were surely days he struggled to write, as I sometimes do. Days when he doubted himself. Days when he wanted to give up. “A Streetcar Named Desire” was once merely a glimmer of an idea on the edge of his consciousness. Thankfully, he wrote the idea down, and he kept writing until the play was finished. Even when it was hard. Even when there were a million other things he could have been doing, or would have rather been doing. Even when he wondered if the words he was painstakingly stacking up, one after the next after the next, would amount to anything at all.

Tennessee Williams had no way of knowing how much his plays would impact people and how far the ripples of his creativity would extend. He had no way of knowing that on a Thursday evening in Berkeley thirty-seven years after his death, hundreds of people would be moved to tears from a new portrayal of the characters he had dreamed up.

None of us know how far our own ripples will go. The gifts we create. The lives we touch. The kind words we share. All of these are stones dropped into water. What was once still is now in motion.

You have no idea how your daily actions might inspire others. What you do and make today might affect someone tomorrow, or next week, or ten years from now. Others in the future might learn from you and build upon what you have done, creating something of their own that is entirely new and wonderful, something else that will launch more ripples out into the world.

Back when I was in elementary school, I wrote and self-published a small book of stories and poems. Nearly two decades later, I received an email from a composer named Alex Marthaler at Carnegie Mellon University. He was creating a song-cycle around the theme of childhood and adulthood, and he had somehow discovered my little book. Would it be okay if he used some of my poems as lyrics for the songs he wanted to compose?

Yes! I quickly responded. Yes, that would be amazing!

Would I be willing to write a few companion poems, responding to the themes of the poems I had written as a child, now from an adult perspective?

Yes, yes! What a fun project!

And it was an extremely fun project, unlike anything else I had done before or since. I looked at the poems my child-self had written with fresh eyes and new appreciation, and I wrote new poems that were in conversation with them. It was like talking to the girl I had once been, and listening to her replies. She helped me remember why I first fell in love with writing to begin with. The magic of setting your thoughts down onto paper, and then releasing those words into the universe. Like launching hundreds of miniature paper airplanes into the sky.

I sent him the new poems, and a few months later, Alex sent me the recordings of the songs. Listening to them, I was blown away with wonder. Who would have imagined that a few little poems I wrote in pencil on lined notebook paper at my kitchen table when I was nine years old, would one day be turned into beautiful songs performed at Carnegie Mellon?

{Me in fifth grade with copies of my first little self-published book}

I love this quote from Brene Brown:

“Creativity is the way I share my soul with the world.”

How will you share your soul with the world? What ripples will come from what you share? One thing I do know is that our world will be so much richer for it.

P.S. You can listen to Alex’s song rendition of my fifth-grade poem “Peanut Butter Surprise” below, and if you’d like a copy of my first little book, it’s available here. And here is a free download of my childhood poems with their adult counterparts, in case you’d like to read them.

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open up a new document on your computer. Here are some questions to get your “free-write” going today:

  • What is a creative project you are currently struggling with or feeling discouraged about? What small step can you take right now to make it feel easier or lighter?
  • Is there a project in your heart that you are afraid to share? What might happen if you released it into the world, in all of its imperfect and messy beauty?
  • What ripples can you create today?
  • Write about a ripple that someone else created that has touched you or impacted your life.

my morning routine

I was thinking the other day about how some of my favorite posts to read by other bloggers are the ones where I get a peek into their daily lives and routines. I have always been so intrigued about the daily details of people’s lives {maybe that’s why I’m a fiction writer!} and something about these types of blog posts always inspires me. Lately I have become super fascinated with morning routines and I’ve spent some time the past month or so trying to tweak my own morning routine to serve me best.

It seems pretty crazy that it took me this long to figure out, but I’ve realized that I am someone who flourishes with structure. I like the IDEA of spontaneity and “see where the day takes me” much more than I actually like it in practice. When I think back to my days in school, I really enjoyed the structure of classes. The clear, concrete schedule made me feel grounded and kept me from getting overwhelmed because I wasn’t trying to do everything at once. In math class, I was focusing on math class. In English class, I was thinking about English. Whereas, when you work for yourself and mainly work from home, like I do, all of that built-in structure goes out the window. I love the freedom of being able to design my schedule, and the flexibility to mix things up… but I’ve come to understand that, for me to feel most productive and centered, I need to plan out a structure for myself in advance. I also tend to be happiest when I follow pretty much the same routine week by week. Without a structure, I flail around trying to multitask and do all the things all the time — and whatever I’m doing, I feel like I “should” be doing something else! It’s my own personal recipe for burn-out.

lake-tahoe-2

One reason I’ve become slightly obsessed with morning routines is that I’ve noticed that what I do in the morning definitely creates a tone, an energy, for the rest of my day. {Although I LOVE Alex Franzen’s piece “Today is Not Over Yet” and it has become my mantra for those days when I look at the clock and it’s noon and I get that panicked feeling of, “What have I even being doing the past five hours??”… Alex’s wise words always help me get my mojo back and rescue the day.}

But, in an ideal world, each and every morning I would set myself up for success by setting the best possible tone for the rest of my day. I definitely notice the difference on days when I make time for what is most important to me first thing in the morning. It makes me feel energized and focused and abundant and ready to take on whatever comes next. Moreover, in my current work schedule, mornings are “my time”… afternoons are when I get out of the house and drive around to various appointments with students. If I waste my mornings, I’m left feeling depleted at the end of the day, feeling like I didn’t do anything for myself the whole day.

My morning routine is a work-in-progress, and it does vary sometimes. Below is my weekday routine, except for Mondays, when I go to my favorite yoga class at 8:30 and hit the grocery store and errands on my way home. Our weekend routine is quite flexible — some days we sleep in and have slow mornings; other weekend days we are up and at ’em early. I think the important thing is finding a routine that works for YOU and your own unique and beautiful life.

my morning routine

My alarm goes off at 6:40—I used to press “snooze” but I have recently conquered the snooze button, and I’ve noticed that when I get up at the same time every day, my body tends to wake up naturally at that time and it is easier to get up. {Though, as I wrote in this post a while ago, something I’ve learned about myself is that I almost always feel tired when I first get up, even when I’ve gotten plenty of sleep… it takes me a few minutes to “rise and shine.”} Allyn tries to be out the door by 7:15 to catch his train to San Jose for work. He’s always up at 6, but I sleep in a little later. I do like to get up before he leaves so we can have a little time together in the morning.

I like to make the bed and then wash my face right when I get up. I used to not wash my face right away, but it’s a small thing that really makes a difference in how awake I feel. Something about a squeaky-clean face says, “Hello world! I’m up!”

I always wake up thirsty, so right away I down two or three glasses of water. Then I drink a glass of this supergreens drink — it looks like sewer sludge but I swear, it doesn’t taste *that* bad.

my green drink

Then I help Allyn get his lunch packed and ready — I often chop up veggies for him to take. He, meanwhile, steeps a mug of tea for me while he makes his own coffee to take to work. I kiss him goodbye and he heads out the door. I always watch him carry his bike down our apartment hallway. He turns and looks back at me when he gets to the outer door, and I wave. It’s a little thing, but it’s a moment every day that I treasure.

As soon as my hubby leaves, it’s my time to par-tay! Haha, just kidding. Usually the first thing I do when he leaves is clean the kitchen.

For some reason, I’ve noticed that I really like starting the day with a clean kitchen. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen throughout the day — since I work from home, I make all my meals and snacks throughout the day whenever the hunger monster strikes — and Allyn and I rarely go out to eat, so most nights we cook dinner at home, too. Often when we get up, there are dishes soaking in the sink, some dirty pots sitting on the stove, or a clean dishwasher to empty. If I don’t get the kitchen cleaned up first thing in the morning, I tend to feel “behind” in the kitchen the rest of the day — I’ll need to wash a cutting board before I can cut up my veggies for lunch, or unload the dishwasher before I can load it with new dirty dishes. When I get the kitchen straightened up and wiped down first thing, I feel like I’m starting my day with a “clean slate.” Something about a clean kitchen makes me feel like I can conquer the world!

clean kitchen

I like to do some stretching and exercises in the morning to get my body moving. My current favorite yoga routine is this gentle slow stretch video by Sara Beth Yoga. Then I do some hip exercises {I’m always tight in my hips for some reason} and some core strength work like squats, push-ups, and planks. I usually spend about 30-40 minutes doing my various exercises and afterwards, I feel both more energized and more relaxed, if that makes sense. I’m excited to get to work, not bogged down with stress!

After yoga and my exercises, my computer time begins. I sip on a mug of herbal tea and eat breakfast #1, which is usually a muffin or avocado toast. I seriously can’t get enough of avocado toast, generously sprinkled with sea salt and fresh-ground pepper.

avocado toast

One thing I’ve been focusing on this year — my year of FOUNDATION — is to work on the projects that matter most to me when I first sit down to start my workday. For me right now, that is my novel-in-progress. I’m about two-thirds of the way through the manuscript, and it’s really starting to “gel” and come together. The characters feel alive and I’m excited each day to see what they have to tell me! So right now, as I am blogging about this, it during a lovely creative period when is fairly easy for me to get into the writing each day. But my goal is to have writing time be a focused component of my day even when the writing is NOT going so well or is not so easy to get into. Again, like getting up in the morning, I’ve noticed that it gets easier if I “train my mind” by writing around the same time each day. A good time for me is from about 8:30-10am. Sometimes I’ll keep chugging along to 10:30 if I’m really in the groove. But I do like to follow Hemingway’s advice and always end my writing session in the middle of a scene — a place where I know what is going to happen next. That makes it a million times easier to jump into the writing the next day. If I stop at the end of a chapter, that is just asking for writer’s block when I sit down the next morning.

When my writing time ends, even if it’s been a sluggish day, I always feel happy and proud of myself. I may not always enjoy the process of writing, but I always love the feeling of having written. Sometimes I’ll have those special days where the words are really flowing and all of a sudden it’s been an hour and I’ll have written 1,500 words. Those days make my entire week! But no matter how the writing goes — it’s a good day if I kept my promise to myself and put in the time. No Facebook, no emails, no distractions. Just steadfast work towards my biggest goal. Nothing beats the feeling of looking at the clock and it’s 10am and you’ve already checked off your most important task of the day!

Usually when my writing time ends, my stomach is growling again, which means time for breakfast #2! This is almost always a green smoothie. My favorite blend is a couple handfuls of spinach, some frozen berries, half a banana, almond milk, ground flax and chia seeds, a spoonful of collagen, and a teaspoon of spirulina powder.

I’ll usually drink my smoothie while checking my email {although I don’t always succeed, my goal is to wait until this time of the morning to check it} and taking care of some business-y tasks. Then, I spend the next 2 hours or so powering through work for clients and students. This might entail editing essays and reports; writing copy for a client’s website; creating curriculums and lesson plans for my writing classes; conducting interviews for literary journals {I have one forthcoming in The Tishman Review this summer!}; updating my website; having Skype coaching calls with students; or a thousand more projects. One thing I love about my work is that it varies every day! I feel like I am constantly taking on new challenges, creating new content, learning and growing!

Something that has helped me that might be helpful if you are a fellow structure-lover, is to explicitly write down what tasks I am tackling that day and how much time I estimate each one will take. I do this the old-fashioned way on lined paper, because I love to cross things off a list. I’ll draw a simple grid with the hours on one side and the corresponding tasks on the other, and plan out what I’m going to work on during what time. This has been immensely helpful because it forces me to be honest about how long things will take and how much I can realistically get done in a day, and it also forces me to focus on one task at a time instead of jumping around, trying to multitask, and losing productivity.

When you’re juggling lots of clients and students, it can be easy to fall into a “guilt trap” of never feeling like you’re getting enough done. What used to happen is I’d be working on a report for one client while my brain was freaking out about the lesson plans I still had to create and that other potential client I needed to follow up with, and and and… Does this happen to anyone else?? Specifically writing down tasks and assignments for each day, with corresponding times, has freed me from this mental merry-go-round and has made such a huge difference in my happiness AND productivity!

Aaaaand that pretty much brings us to lunchtime. Thanks for joining me on this virtual tour of my morning!

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and use these questions as inspiration for some free-writing.

  • What does your current morning routine look like?
  • What does your IDEAL morning routine look like? Is there anything you wish you had time for that you aren’t currently doing? Is there anything you are currently doing that you wish you could stop?
  • What are your biggest priorities that will help you make the most progress towards your goals? How can you dedicate more time for these priorities in your day?
  • What is one thing you could add to your morning routine that would make you feel more centered, calm, and happy?

paint fumes + a haircut

The other day around lunchtime, I wandered into the kitchen to wrangle together something to eat, and I noticed a funny smell. I couldn’t quite place it. It wasn’t a food-related smell. It was something more… chemical.

“Allyn?” I called. “Does something smell weird to you?”

He came into the kitchen and confirmed that, yes, our kitchen reeked. He also nailed the smell I was having trouble pinning down.

“It’s paint fumes,” he said. “They must be painting the apartment downstairs.”

Soon, the strong smell had wafted into our living room and bedroom. There was no escaping the paint fumes. I’ve always been sensitive to smell, and I started to get a headache. It was cold out, but we opened the windows and turned on the fan to blow in fresh air. It helped some. Eventually, either the smell dissipated or our noses became acclimated to it. My headache receded.

The next day, Allyn and I came home to our apartment after a long afternoon of running errands, and when we opened the door and stepped inside, we wrinkled our noses. The paint fumes were back!

“Do you think they’re painting again today?” I asked.

Allyn shook his head. “It doesn’t smell as strong as it did yesterday. It’s probably just lingering, and we noticed it more coming in from outside.”

Again, we opened the windows and turned on the fan. Eventually, the smell went away.

This pattern continued for another few days, until the paint fumes finally disappeared. It was such a glorious relief to feel like I could breathe again.

A few afternoons later, I laced on my shoes and walked a few blocks downtown to a local hair salon. I’d never been there before and I was a bit nervous, but I told myself it was no big deal. Just a little trim. I didn’t want anything drastic—just to get rid of my split ends. I didn’t think it would make that much of a difference in my appearance, but I figured it was time. My last haircut had been more than a year prior, when I cut off eight inches of my hair to donate in honor of Céline. That was the shortest I could ever remember cutting my hair, and since then I’d been growing my hair out. Now it was long again. Not just long–straggly. Limp. Flat.

I told the stylist what I wanted, and she quickly began to work her magic. She trimmed off my split ends and added some layers. Snip snip snip. Snip snip. Soon, she was blow-drying my hair and turning me to face the mirror. And I couldn’t believe it.

What a difference!

She had only cut off a couple inches. I looked at the scraps of hair littering the floor, and it really wasn’t that much. Yet, I looked so different. Fresher. Lighter. More vibrant.

Walking home, I felt free and energized. Like I’d had a total makeover, when in reality the only thing different about me was my hair and it was not that much different at all. {Real talk: Allyn likely would not have even noticed my haircut if I had not told him about it.} It had only been 45 minutes since I left my apartment, yet in my mind it felt like a Before/After transformation.

Such a little thing. And it had such a big impact on how I felt. A blow-out and some fresh layers, and I was a woman ready to take on the world!

On the surface, these may seem like two small things in an ordinary week. Paint fumes and a haircut. What’s the big deal?

I think they are symbols for other things—important things—in our lives.

The paint fumes are the pesky, lingering thoughts that are taking up space in your brain and are not serving you at all. You know what I mean. The toxic thoughts. The ones that say, You’re not good enough. You’re never going to accomplish that. You might as well just give up. Who do you think you are? And all of the other mean things we say to ourselves. So many of us talk to ourselves in words that we would be horrified to hear said to someone else.

What paint fumes are stinking up your mind? What paint fumes are giving you a headache?

It’s time to open the windows. It’s time to turn on the fan. It’s time to air things out and drink in the fresh cold breeze.

You might have to air out those paint fumes many times. As with our apartment, they did not disappear overnight. We had to air things out again and again and again, until finally the smell dissipated completely.

Air out your negative thoughts. Keep noticing when you are hard on yourself or get down on yourself. Keep opening windows and letting new, positive thoughts in. I promise—eventually, it will make a huge difference. You have no idea how lovely it will be without those paint fumes wearing you down.

My haircut was a symbol of a small act of self-care that can create huge ripples of goodness in how you feel. About yourself, about your relationships, about your life. It was just 45 minutes. It was not a big deal or a drastic change. But it made me feel so much better to let go of those straggly split ends. I felt so much lighter and freer and my hair is so much more buoyant without the weight of those extra couple inches dragging it down.

What “split ends” can you let go of in your life? What is dragging you down? What is making you feel tired or bored or listless? When you look over your calendar for the week or your schedule for the day, is there anything that you dread? If so, is there a way you can get rid of that thing? Can you say no? Can you delegate to someone else?

What if you replaced those split ends with buoyancy and energy? What is a small act of self-care you can take today that will make you feel nourished and restored? Self-care is an investment that pays huge dividends. It might be taking a walk, taking a bath, taking a nap… or something else that you love to do. Even twenty or thirty minutes are enough to boost your spirits and create positive ripple effects in your mental outlook and self-esteem.

This week, my challenge to you is to identify your own “paint fumes” and “split ends.” Air it out. Get a haircut. Your body, mind + spirit will think you!

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a document on your computer. Free-write about whatever these questions spark inside you.

  • What are the negative thoughts that drift in your mind? Write them down. This can help take away their power. Now, for each negative thought, write out a positive thought instead. What things do you like or love about yourself?
  • Write about something that is dragging you down in your life. What might it look like to cut this out of your life entirely? Write about how you would feel without this burden. If there isn’t a way to get away from it entirely, can you at least minimize it or delegate it?
  • What are some activities that make you feel rested, restored, energized or joyful? Make a list you can return to when you are craving a bit of self-care.

when is the train going to come?

When I was in college, I studied abroad in England for a semester, and the school calendar included a whole glorious month off for spring break. Two of my best friends and I took the opportunity to backpack around Europe together, bopping around from Portugal to Spain to France to Germany. We traveled mostly by train, which was awesome. As someone born and raised in California, my experience with train travel was extremely limited; in Los Angeles at that time, our public transportation system was pretty much just buses that never ran on time. {The L.A. metro system has been wonderfully expanded since then, and now in the Bay Area I often take the BART train.} But back then it was a marvelously new experience for me to travel by train, much less travel from country to country that way! I loved gazing out the window as the changing landscapes rolled by.

Mostly, the trains were very impressively on time. But there was one day in particular that sticks out in my mind. It was about mid-way through our trip, mid-way through the day. We were grungy and tired and hungry, and our train was delayed. We were told it would be at least a couple hours. So we left the station and explored the little village a bit. It was a Sunday and most of the stores were closed. We ended up buying snacks from a mini-mart shop and eating them back at the station. We sat there on the train platform, waiting. And waiting. And waiting. We stood up. We paced around. We looked down the long, empty tracks.

Logically, I knew the train would eventually come. But emotionally? It felt, in that moment, like the train was never going to come.

 *

In the years since, I’ve come to think of waiting on that half-empty platform for that delayed-and-delayed-again train as a metaphor for life.

Yes, there are many things you can control. You can work hard. You can maintain a fierce curiosity about the world. You can consistently gain knowledge in your field. You can believe in yourself and in your abilities. You can set goals and take little steps, every day, to move forward towards your dreams.

But there is also a lot that you can’t control: luck, serendipity, chance. Timing and fate. The whimsies and opinions and subjectivities of other people.

You can buy your train ticket and stand on the platform, gazing down the track, ready and waiting. But you can’t control when the train is going to come.

More than fifteen years ago, when I was a freshman in high school, I wrote a personal essay titled “The Role of a Lifetime.” It was about my second-grade teacher who cast me in the lead role of our class play, even though I was painfully shy. How her confidence in me sparked a self-confidence that I still carry to this day. Mostly, I wrote the piece as a tribute to a phenomenal teacher who truly went above and beyond for her students.

I was proud of that essay. I worked hard on it. I edited and rewrote it, asked for feedback and rewrote it again. I submitted it to a Chicken Soup for the Soul anthology about teachers. But it was rejected.

A couple years later, I saw a call for submissions for another Chicken Soup anthology about teachers. Excited, I submitted the essay again. Again, it was not chosen for publication.

I was disappointed. I read the essay again with fresh eyes. I still liked it. I was still proud of it.

Over the years, I submitted that essay many other times to many other publication opportunities and contests. In return, I received nothing but rejection letters.

Last year—more than fifteen years after I wrote the essay—I saw a call for submissions for the upcoming Chicken Soup anthology Inspiration for Teachers. “What do you have to lose?” I thought. And I submitted my essay again.

Guess what? This time, after all this time, my essay was accepted. “The Role of a Lifetime” is going to be published later this year. My story about an amazing teacher is going to be shared. This particular train finally pulled into the station. I’m so glad I didn’t give up and leave the platform too soon.

*

Lately I’ve been listening to the most recent Blind Pilot album on repeat. One of my favorite songs is called “Don’t Doubt” and here are my favorite lyrics:

Don’t you doubt
Everybody’s seen some winter
Don’t you just take the dark way out

I think “the dark way out” means making excuses for yourself. Stacking up your reasons to quit and building those reasons into a prison around yourself. Letting yourself think that just because you sometimes doubt yourself, it means that you should give into those doubts. No. It just means that you’re human and you’re not an emotionless robot. But strength equals fighting against your moments of doubt with hope and grit and persistence. Remember — everybody’s seen some winter.

For the past three weeks, my sweetheart has been waiting on a phone call. At first, he felt very confident that the call was going to come. But as the days slipped by, he grew less and less certain. Eventually, he began using humor to deal with the situation—every day, he would joke with me about the various reasons he might not have received the phone call yet. Throughout the day, we would pretend to cheer on this person, as if picking up the phone was a physical task that required Herculean effort. I could tell that Allyn was doing all he could to fight off his doubts and to keep his faith in the potential of the situation.

And then, quite suddenly, the phone call did come. And it was exactly the outcome he had been waiting for, hoping for, and working towards for a very long time.

I know this might sound cliched, but it’s true—the success meant more to him because of the winding, difficult path it took to get there. The questions and doubts make the answers, when they finally come, that much richer.

I love this blog post Alex Franzen wrote about making excuses and making progress. She writes: “You can make excuses or you can make yourself proud. You can make excuses or you can make progress. You can make excuses or you can make art. Every day, it’s your choice.”

*

So what do you do? What do I do? What can any of us do?

You hold onto that patience and you nurture that faith inside of you. You keep working hard. You keep taking little daily steps towards your goals. You keep learning. You keep believing in yourself and believing in that train. Stare off down those tracks. Because it’s coming. It’s coming, and you want to be ready when it does.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

  • What is a doubt that you are currently holding in your heart? What would it feel like to let this doubt go?
  • Write about a time when you felt like “the train was never going to come.” What ended up happening? Looking back, what would you tell yourself in that situation?
  • What is an excuse you are making to yourself right now? How can you move past that excuse and take the first action step towards something you desire?

my dad, the “streaker”

This is my dad:

He is a proud and accomplished “streaker.” And no, I don’t mean running naked through the streets. He has a streak of running at least 3.1 miles every single day for the past 13 years and 8 months, which is even officially certified by the United States Running Streak Association. In fact, today he is celebrating the milestone of 5,000 days in his running streak!

Think about that. 5,000 days. It is quite remarkable. Is there anything in your life that you have done, or can even imagine doing, for 5,000 days straight?

I am so proud of my dad. I am also super inspired by him. He has taught me so much simply by example. Here are five things I have learned from his day-by-day running streak:

1. Streamline your decisions. When possible, just make the decision once and be done with it.

My dad doesn’t make the decision every single day to go for a run. He has already decided that he will run every day. The only decision left to make is when to go for a run — and, actually, he has streamlined this decision, too, because he runs at around the same time every afternoon. Dad tells me that this is infinitely easier than if he was weighing the choice every day about whether to go for a run or not. Becoming a “streaker” may seem like the most difficult undertaking, but Dad claims it is actually easier to run every single day than to run every other day, or five days a week. Why? Because he has already chosen to run every day. Being a streaker takes the guesswork or decision-making out of it. Of course, there are days he doesn’t feel like running. But he already decided that he will run. So he laces up his shoes and gets out there.

I am applying this principle to my writing and yoga practices. I try to work on my novel and do a simple yoga routine every morning when I get up, just as part of my daily routine. No longer am I trying to decide if I “feel” like writing or moving my body. I just do it, no questions asked. And it has become an infinitely easier and less fraught process! I am always happier after I’ve written, and never do I regret my yoga time.

2. Don’t worry about what others think of you, especially when you are pursuing what you love.

Epictetus once said, “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish.” There are certainly people out there who don’t understand why my dad runs every day. There are times he has been thought foolish. One specific memory that comes to mind is when Dad flew to England to visit me when I was studying abroad back in college. His flight left very early in the morning, and based on the time difference, he only had a small window of time to get his run in that day when he arrived late at night. So, Dad laced up his running shoes and went for an 11pm run through the narrow cobblestone streets. Some young Brits out partying thought he was crazy and shouted at him, “Bloody Yank, what are you out running for?” Dad loves to tell this story with a chuckle. He doesn’t mind when others don’t understand his passion for running. What matters is that he knows how important his running streak is, for him personally. What matters is that he runs for his own satisfaction and joy.

3. You can do hard things.

Dad runs when it is cold and rainy and when it is blazing hot. He runs on Christmas and on his birthday and every holiday there is. He runs when he has a cold or the flu or a sinus infection or sore muscles. He gets up early and runs before long trips, and once he ran loops around the airport. He runs on vacation. He runs when he is tired. He runs when he is sad and when he is excited and when he is bored. He runs when it is hard. If you had told Dad when he first started his streak that he would run for the next 5,000 days straight, it might have seemed overwhelming. But he has plugged along, slowly adding to his streak total day by day by day, week by month by year. He has shown me that we are all capable of more than we could ever imagine.

4. You never know how many people you are inspiring.

Every day, my dad runs loops around a local park. Running on grass is easier on his joints and muscles than running on roads and sidewalks, and I can imagine there is a meditative quality to running loops around the same park each day, and watching the scenery change slightly with the seasons. He runs so much that he has created his own path in the grass that has become trampled down by his thousands of footsteps. Now, other people use his path in the grass for their daily walks. Children bike through the park on their way home from school and wave to him — they call him “The Path Man.” A little boy came up to him recently and said they look for him every day on their drive home from school past the park. They call him ORM — “Our Running Man.” A few years ago, when news broke about the Boston Marathon bombings, strangers came up to him at the park with relief on their faces — they had been worried he was in Boston, running the marathon.

My dad didn’t begin his streak to inspire others. He doesn’t run every day to inspire others. He runs for himself. And yet, simply by doing what he loves and doing it with passion, he inspires countless people with his dedication and effort. He has taught me that you never know who is watching you and learning from you. When you light up yourself, your light spreads to others around you. When you light up yourself, you inspire others to light up themselves, too.

5. Celebrate the milestones, and also savor the everyday moments.

Today is a big day for Dad. After his afternoon run, he is getting together with friends at one of his favorite local breweries to celebrate the magic of 5,000. It is a day to look back and be proud of what he has accomplished.

But, you know what? Tomorrow is another day to be proud of. And so is the next day. And the next. I know that tomorrow, Dad will lace up his shoes and savor the everyday magic of day 5,001. Because every run — like every day — is its own unique gift. As my brother Greg likes to say, “Each day is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” Dad truly embodies the maxim to make each day a masterpiece, and I could not be prouder to be his daughter.

Congratulations, Daddy! I love you!