A Snake in the Basement: Can We Conquer Our Fears?

Photo by Jérémie Crausaz on Unsplash

Since moving into our lush lake community ten years ago, I’ve had to dial down my skittishness toward bugs and other creatures. We share our wooded neighborhood with all kinds of wildlife, and slowly I’ve grown more comfortable with walking through spiderwebs and dodging flying insects that look downright prehistoric.

But lately the snakes have been out and about. First there was a snake in our back yard, and then one in the front yard. One day, I couldn’t walk down the stairs from our deck because a large black snake was slithering its way up the steps!

A week ago, my husband emerged from the basement and informed me that he had seen a snake in the storage room.

It’s one thing to be forced to give a snake a wide berth in the great outdoors, but the thought of one slinking around inside our house made me shiver.

“Well,” I announced, “I guess I’ll never go in that storage room again.”

Throughout the following days, I pondered my predicament. Staying out of that room forever was not a practical solution. We could ask the local wildlife wrangler to remove the snake, but it had already disappeared by the time my husband went back down a few minutes later.

We started jokingly referring to “snakey” and wondering where it might be. This helped bring some levity to the matter. Might it be possible to conquer my fear after all?

I’ve been working on my emotional growth over the last five years, so I have some insight into the challenge of personal change.

Like many humans, I’ve developed stories about myself and the world. These stories started in childhood and center around my insecurities and fears. My brain repeats them as a way to keep me safe from scary things.

I’m too chicken to do that.

I’m jumpy and high-strung.

I’d never try anything like that.

I’m anxious and paranoid.

This is just who I am.

Does leaving such stories intact grant them too much power? Can they be replaced?

I’m not a big fan of the “fake it ’til you make it” philosophy. I don’t think the most effective way to change is to tell yourself something that your mind knows is not true.

What’s worked for me with other long-held beliefs, has been a more gradual process of: 1) trying to understand why I adopted a certain story; 2) questioning its ongoing usefulness; and 3) imagining how my thought patterns might evolve.

With the snake, this looks something like:

  1. As a kid, my family life often felt beyond my control, and I transferred that fear to other things that threatened my sense of security, like bugs, snakes, and other creepy crawlers.
  2. Does continuing to subscribe to this mindset serve me now? Not really.
  3. I believe it is possible for me to be careful around potentially dangerous snakes without getting so distressed that it negatively impacts my life.

Thus, when I needed to go down to that storage room yesterday because my husband was otherwise occupied, I did so. I banged on the door before opening it and announced loudly to any snakes that I was entering the room. I kept my eyes peeled, did what I needed to do, and exited quickly and calmly. I even went in there again later in the day.   

I think we can rewrite our stories. We can change assumptions about ourselves that feel fundamental to our identity. Now, don’t expect me to go adopting a snake anytime soon. But if I can tame this fear even just a little bit, it will help the next fright seem far less menacing.

Why Life Doesn’t Have a Skip Button

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

About a month ago I was driving around one morning running errands for my book signing that evening. (In case you haven’t heard, I’ve written and self-published a book!)

My heart was racing in anticipation of a gathering centered around me and my memoir. I was anxious about speaking in front of a group, and imposter syndrome was rearing its ugly head.

My brain said to me, “I’ll be so glad when this is all over.”

What the heck?! Why did I want this special moment to be behind me?

Adrenaline was flowing through my bloodstream, but there was no need to allow this physical reaction to steal my joy. I was not in any actual danger, and I needed to send my body this message. I also needed to interrupt the negative script running through my head.

I took a deep breath and talked back to myself: “Lisa, you deserve to enjoy this celebration of your achievement. You worked hard on that book. Savor this day!”

I kept breathing and telling myself that I was going to be okay. This event, even if it didn’t go perfectly (because how could it?), would be a learning experience and a critical step in my progress as an author.

Long before this landmark occasion, I used to dream of fast-forwarding through life. Even fun activities often felt like tasks to be checked off of my never-ending internal To Do list. I fantasized about reaching a point where nothing more was expected of me, and I could relax without anything hanging over my head.

The problem with that attitude is: a) no such moment exists, and b) I was literally wishing away half my life.

Over the past five years, I realized that I was in charge of creating the unburdened moments that I craved. I had to practice doing exactly what I did in the car that morning of my book signing—taking deep breaths to calm my nervous system and replacing my defeatist thoughts with more supportive ones.

Life doesn’t have a skip function. Nor should it! The only way we figure out how to get through a scary or difficult moment is to do just that: get through it. These challenges teach us all kinds of truths about ourselves, others, and the world—truths that are only unlocked by plowing forward.

Since I love a good analogy, here’s a quick one: I take indoor cycling classes, and I am usually the slowest person in the class (I know this because we receive an email at the end of each class with our ranking). I don’t let this bother me because I’m getting exercise and pushing my own personal limits in the process.

Each time I start riding and the instructor tells us what our RPM (revolutions per minute) should be, I’m at the very low end of that range. Like if I was riding a real bike, I would probably fall off! I struggle to get up to speed, and every time I think to myself, “Why am I so dang slow?!”

As the class continues, we are urged to ride faster and faster, and then we slow down briefly to recover, and then we pick up speed again. By the end of class, it’s no longer a battle to ride at that minimum speed that was so hard to achieve at the beginning of class.

I learn this little lesson at every spin class: The hard parts of life make us stronger, and before we know it, what was once intimidating seems so much easier.

That night of the book signing, I managed to relish the moment, and I came out the other end more confident and with a story to share.

The Gift of Five Alcohol-Free Years

Today I am celebrating five years of sobriety. Six years ago, if you had told me I would one day use the words “sobriety” and “celebrating” in the same sentence, I’d have laughed out loud.

But a quiet part deep inside me would have been elated to learn that change was possible. Part of me had been hoping I would eventually find the courage, strength, and determination to give alcohol the boot.

Drinking was a big part of my life from the age of sixteen. I couldn’t imagine going out to dinner, starting the weekend, or marking an important occasion without an adult beverage. Feeling happy? Have a drink (or two). Feeling sad? Have a drink (or two). Stressed out? Have a drink (or two). Kinda bored? Have a drink (or two). And once I had a couple glasses of wine in me, it was likely that many more would follow. I didn’t do this every night. But I did do it often enough. Consistently. For decades.

When I finally decided to quit, it wasn’t a life or death matter. But it was a quality of life issue. For what seemed like ages, I had been running the cost-benefit analysis of drinking in my head, and the trend was not headed in a good direction.

I wanted to write. I wanted to be more active. I wanted to try new and interesting things. But I was most certainly not doing any of this.

So, on May 12, 2017, I decided I had had enough. It was time to give sobriety a try.

At first, I concentrated on resisting the cravings, and I gritted my teeth when everyone else was getting buzzed and I was consumed with FOMO. I paid attention to my triggers and slowly dismantled them one by one. (A completely unexpected trigger still pops up from time to time!)

As the years went on, the journey became less and less about drinking. Removing alcohol from my life was like discovering a door to a whole new wing of my psyche. I uncovered other coping mechanisms that I was using to soften the edges or distract me in the short term—fixations such as TV, social media, and shopping that did not produce positive results in the long term.

Sobriety ended up being about so much more than declining to put a substance in my body. It was and is about emotional growth, building skills that last, and developing hard-earned confidence. At last, I was able to focus more productively on my anxiety, fear of death, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. All the stuff I thought alcohol was offering me—I had to learn how to give those things to myself.

And I kept the promise I made to myself: I committed to my writing. I ended up writing and self-publishing a book about my experience, in which I explored the patterns and stories that had kept me idling in place for so long. I tried all kinds of new things, including meditation, Pilates, aerial yoga, spin class, zip-lining, flotation therapy, paddle boarding, pole dancing, indoor rock climbing, and much more. I still do several of these activities regularly.

Not everything I tried to do was a success. The drum lessons I took at the beginning of my sobriety came to a quick end. My husband and I pursued two small business ideas—I even attended a six-month course related to one of these ideas—neither of which panned out. I started to build an online course in habit-shifting that I thought had real potential, but it was too much to take on at the same time as writing and editing my book. I did end up sharing it on this blog—and who knows, maybe one day I will get back to it.

The gift (there’s another word I didn’t think I would ever use in this context!), the gift of sobriety has been the ongoing process of unearthing who I am. “Coming into your own” is a phrase I never fully appreciated. But now I can tell you that it feels like bursting forth from a long dormancy, like opening up and reaching toward the sky.

Surviving People’s Best Intentions

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

Have you ever been the recipient of unsolicited advice? Some of the circumstances that can trigger an influx of helpful suggestions include: having a baby, buying a house or a car, trying to lose weight and/or eat healthier and/or get in shape, making home improvements, suffering a lingering illness or injury, experiencing a legal challenge. People have lots of opinions on what are the right and wrong things to do in such situations.

Some of these people know what they’re talking about, and some do not. The overwhelming majority of them mean well. They really do.

A month ago, I self-published my first book. I’ve been very public about this on social media, so I have effectively invited folks to weigh in on how I should successfully market my book.

As someone who has struggled with self-doubt and anxiety pretty much my entire life, it can be difficult to absorb these recommendations while maintaining a positive frame of mind.

My brain hears a tip that had not occurred to me, and it immediately thinks:

Does this person think I’m in desperate need of help?

Do I appear to be floundering?

Why didn’t I think of that idea?

Does the fact that I’m not already doing it make me look stupid?

Do I have the time to tackle this task?

What if I don’t have the energy or desire to do it?

Ugh, how am I ever going to do everything I need to do?!

I’ve noticed that when my brain goes into this panic mode, I feel obliged to make explanations. I want to assure the advice-giver (and my own ego, if I’m being honest) that I really am being thoughtful about my choices. Inside, my mind is screaming: What about all the things I am doing, aren’t they good enough?!

Sound familiar?

This natural defensiveness is a sign that we are unsure of ourselves. And that’s ok. Doing something for the first, second, or even third time can be scary. You don’t have a lot of experience, so you’re learning as you go. Making mistakes is a given—it’s one of the most powerful ways of learning.

But it’s critical to remember that we don’t owe anyone anything. We can reject or “park” unsolicited ideas with no explanation. I’m quite certain that most people are fine with throwing out their advice and then moving on with their lives. We do not need to report back to them like they’re our boss. Well, unless you follow their advice and it works magic—you might want to tell them in that case.

When you have a lot on your shoulders, like a new baby or a new book, it’s ok to follow your instincts and to move at your own pace. We don’t all have the same energy or capacity levels. We don’t need to justify our decisions to others.

After that defensiveness subsides, and perhaps our time opens up a bit, we can always revisit that unexpected idea. I’ve found that days or weeks later, an idea that felt impossible at first starts to look like a possibility after all.

I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me at work over the years. I’ve pooh-poohed an idea in the moment only to warm up it to later. I guess my ego just needed an adjustment period.

We all want to feel competent, capable, and knowledgeable. That’s part of the reason we hand out advice, and its why we sometimes chafe at it. Realizing that we all share this need makes me more accepting of everyone’s good advice.

Learn more about my new book, My Unfurling, on my website or head straight to Amazon and order your copy now.

What Scary Things Can Teach Us

For the past 14 months I’ve been writing and editing a book about my life. This memoir tells the story of how self-doubt, drinking, and anxiety kept me from chasing my dreams. I am 56 years old, and this is my first full-length manuscript.

The young woman who chose creative writing as her major in college, and who relished the praise she received from her professors, would be dejected to learn that it took her more than three decades to finally write book number one.

Don’t get me wrong—I am proud of many of the things I’ve done over the years. During my most recent read-through of the manuscript, I noticed a number of times when I didn’t let fear get the best of me, when I took on challenges that were outside my comfort zone.

But those scattered moments of pluck were not enough to build a solid foundation of confidence that could sustain a writing career. It took years of self-exploration, sobriety, the death of a dear friend, and a worldwide pandemic to finally get me to draft this book.

After the writing came the endless editing. Just when I thought the revisions were done, they were not (and possibly still aren’t). Once my work was in good enough shape, I recruited people to read my manuscript to make sure I wasn’t deluded in my belief that it is worth publishing.

And, because I’ve written a book that recalls real scenes with real people whom I love and respect, I decided to reach out to some of the more prominent people to give them a chance to read the passages that involve them.

Sending your book out into the world before it’s perfect (is it ever?) is terrifying. At least it has been for me. I still have several more steps in the creative part of this process, and one of them is the most difficult step yet: talking with my mom about the chapters devoted to our complex relationship. I’ve been putting this off, and I cannot procrastinate much longer.

I know from the earlier steps I’ve already taken that I can do things that scare me. When I do scary things, I usually learn something about myself. One of the things I learn (almost every single time) is that I am brave and strong—braver and stronger than I could have imagined.

And when you keep doing things that intimidate you, you get to discover over and over how brave and strong you are. And who wouldn’t want to confirm that fact over and over? I think maybe this is a lesson we are meant to learn.

Over the past several years, I’ve taught myself that it’s ok to be frightened of doing certain things. I don’t have to pretend that I’m not scared in order to do these things—I can acknowledge my fear or discomfort and then do them anyway. An open and willing mind can lead me to take desired actions, and taking those actions produces an increasingly positive mindset.

In other words, the more I do this, the easier it gets. I only have to look back to yesterday or last week for proof that my heart can pound and my stomach can twist itself in knots and I might lose some sleep, but I will not fall apart.

Nervous Newbie in the Room

The tag on my tea bag reads “When fear is forcing you to give up, call upon your heart’s courage to continue.” (photo effects from Nexmuse.com)

Recently I signed up for a two-week trial period at a local fitness club that offers yoga and cycle classes. I already love yoga, but I had never taken an indoor cycling (“spin”) class. The whole idea intimidated me, which was part of the appeal.

You see, for the past five years I’ve been pushing myself to try new things—not just the activities I’ve been dreaming of doing, but the ones that take me beyond my comfort zone as well.

I’m not a huge fan of riding regular bikes. As a matter of fact, last summer I dragged my unused bike out of the basement, dusted it off, and sold it on Facebook Marketplace. And I’m familiar with the stereotype of the screaming, over-caffeinated cycle instructor. So, I was really curious to see how I would take to this new form of exercise.

As I walked through the studio door to take an introductory cycle class, I felt as if the fear was written on my face, as if my every step announced that I was out of my element.

At the intro class, we were all beginners. The instructor went over terminology, how to set up our bikes, and how to position ourselves. The actual cycling was minimal—no need to worry at all!

The big challenge came a week later when I took my first regular class with experienced riders. As I struggled to adjust my seat and handlebars and get my heart rate monitor working, I was sure it was painfully obvious I didn’t know what I was doing. Ugh, I just wanted to be invisible.

How many times had I let this kind of unease with being viewed as an incompetent, clueless newbie stop me from trying something?

Later that day, I started thinking about how being seen and not seen are two sides of the same coin.

For the past year I’ve been writing a full-length memoir, and lots of memories have surfaced. As a kid, I felt like I was often ignored due to my small size and shyness. Sometimes it seemed as if the only thing worse than being disregarded was being sized up by judgmental eyes.

I think even the most introverted human wants to be noticed on occasion, with kindness if at all possible. We all want to know that we matter, that we deserve to be accepted and understood. But we can’t control how others interpret us.  

I’ve heard that you shouldn’t assume that others are gawking at you and tallying up your faults—that strangers truly don’t care that much about you. They are likely too busy thinking about themselves and their own stuff.

Still, when you are getting ready to do something scary and different, it’s like a spotlight settles upon you as each movement is magnified and time practically stands still.

I don’t have a magic solution for this predicament. The first thing to remember is that you are not alone. In my first full cycle class, the instructor could not get her music to come out of the studio speakers. Her struggle reminded me that we all have moments when things don’t go smoothly.

Even when you feel like the biggest sore thumb in the room, this too, shall pass. In several weeks or months, you will look back and grin at your frightened, novice self. With your awkward phase so fresh in your mind, you can now serve as the perfect guide for other beginners. You can tell them how pushing through those first awful moments will be so worth it in the end.

I haven’t always liked the new things that I’ve tried, but I have committed to always giving myself the chance to find out.

The Accidental Thumb Experiment

Yup, that’s my hand. I used Nexmuse to make the X-ray look even cooler.

Six years ago, I injured myself in a gardening-shears incident. No, I didn’t nearly cut a finger off or anything that dramatic. I just clipped with such vigorous force that the tendon in my left thumb became inflamed.

In the following weeks, I put additional pressure on the sore spot by going kayaking. Eventually, my thumb became locked in a straight position, something known as trigger finger. Forcing it to bend created a popping sensation inside that made me shudder.

You might already know this, but our “opposable” thumbs are really important. You appreciate this once your thumb becomes nonfunctional, even if it’s the one on your non-dominant hand. You can’t turn doorknobs with that hand, open jars, or do anything that requires a firm yet flexible grip.

My doctor referred me to a specialist, who gave me three shots of corticosteroids in my thumb over the course of 16 months. The shots failed to work, leaving surgery as the last option. By the time I completed post-op physical therapy, my thumb had been messed up for at least two and a half years.

During this time, I happened upon a podcast interview with Dr. Neha Sangwan, the author of a book called Talk Rx: Five Steps to Honest Conversation that Create Connections, Health and Happiness. Dr. Sangwan explained that before her patients are discharged from the hospital, she asks them five questions designed to help them avoid returning to the hospital with the same ailment. The questions include: Why this? Why now? What else in your life needs to be healed?

I asked myself these questions, and they led me to conclude that I was working so hard on our yard, all the while ignoring the pain that was developing in my thumb, because I was still feeling out of place in our new home and neighborhood. I didn’t think I was worthy of living in a house that was so nice compared to my previous residences, and I thought I needed to prove to my neighbors that I belonged.

Problem solved, right?

Fast forward to last fall, when I injured my right thumb. I was using kitchen shears in a similarly obsessive fashion, trimming fat from meat. Again, I followed this up by paddle-boarding a couple days later, further irritating the same area.

The soreness started to transition into stiffness, and I could tell that the popping was coming soon. The same doctor administered a shot, and this time it worked. I was so relieved!

I asked myself Dr. Sangwan’s questions again. Perhaps I was preoccupied with how much fat was in my food because I am fearful of gaining weight—an issue that has troubled me since adolescence. Plus, my perfectionistic tendencies make it hard for me to know when to quit.

This past month, some friends were coming over one Saturday. With both thumbs in working order, I indulged my itch and did a little trimming in the yard, promising myself that the minute I felt any discomfort I would stop. Well, I went a hair or two beyond that threshold. And then, a couple days later I aggressively used the kitchen shears.

So, here I am, my thumb is sore and getting worse, and I have an appointment with the doctor later this week.

What was I thinking?! Well, clearly I am still insecure about my home and my weight (among many other things).

Addressing my self-doubt is a lifelong process, but in the meantime, there are things I can do to minimize the damage I cause to myself.

I am now well aware what actions I need to steer clear of—I know that once I get a pair of hedge clippers or shears in my hands, I will go overboard. And once I hurt myself, I don’t let up on other activities that I know will make the issue worse.

This situation reminds me of my drinking. I had to finally admit that my dreams of being a take-it-or-leave-it drinker were just that—dreams. Some nights I could stop after two glasses of wine. But other nights, there was no off switch.  

Thus, I chose to say good-bye to alcohol. I could have kept trying to make moderation a reality, all the while hurting myself and wasting precious time. Or, I could quit and start reclaiming all that time, health, and peace of mind.

Some (maybe all) of us have behaviors and impulses that we struggle to regulate. We might fear that ditching them entirely says something unsavory about us—that we are weak, that we didn’t try hard enough to find the right balance, that the object of our preoccupation is running the show. I don’t think that anymore.

In an interview with Kathy Caprino, Dr. Sangwan says: “Your body is talking. Are you listening?”

I’ve decided to listen to my body and to reject those actions that produce negative results. I have more than enough data from this six-year experiment with my thumbs, and I’m going to use it to set healthy new boundaries for myself.

Are You Ready to Shine?

Basketball isn’t exactly my favorite sport, but I’m familiar with the major players. I was a big Michael Jordan fan back in the day, I’m mildly obsessed with Shaquille O’Neal, and my current faves are Bradley Beal, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant. If one of the NBA teams from my various hometowns appears headed to the playoffs, I usually start paying attention.

So, when the New York Knicks brought backup player Jeremy Shu-How Lin off the bench in 2012, and the team proceeded to go on a thrilling run, I took notice. It’s hard to overstate the frenzy that became known as “Linsanity.” Lin was on fire, helping resuscitate the Knicks at the end of a disappointing season.  

The crowds were going nuts. Fans held up signs with playful puns on Lin’s name—like “Truly a Linderella story”—and waved giant carboard print-outs of Lin’s face. Suddenly, I was counting the minutes until the next Knicks game. The energy exploded through our television, and I found myself jumping up and cheering.

Lin was all over the local New York City newspapers. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated several times, scored the cover of TIME magazine, and even had his own flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The Knicks made it to the postseason thanks in large part to Lin’s play, but he exited prior to the playoffs due to a knee injury. Linsanity was over, but what a ride it was while it lasted.

Not to insult Lin, but I’m guessing he won’t be remembered on the same level as basketball greats like Jordan or LeBron James, or even within the next several tiers of players. But for seven glorious weeks in 2012, no one was more talked about or admired in the sports arena.

I have long enjoyed watching people excel in their chosen fields. I think most humans are drawn to dramatic success stories. Our appreciation is usually limited to those whose work takes place on the public stage—like athletes, actors, musicians, and other performing artists.

As a writer, I have struggled to come to terms with my lack of achievement. While I was in college, I came to believe that rising to the top of the literary world was essential to my sense of self-worth. Anything less would indicate that I was inadequate. Instead of working hard to prove that I was more than adequate, I simply gave up under my own judgmental eye.

These days, I’m comfortable admitting that it’s a long shot I’ll ever be a famous, decorated author. Very few people get to sit atop the heap. But I do believe that Linsanity-like moments of transcendence are available to us all, regardless of who we are or what we do.

I’m talking about experiences where everything comes together, when you’re in a groove and it just feels right.

Here’s a real-time example: I wrote a full-length memoir recently. After thoroughly editing it twice, I recruited some test readers to determine if I have something worth publishing. Despite my fears, I took a deep breath and hit send on a series of emails. The comments have started coming in, and I’ve had conversations with several readers.

For someone who less than five years ago thought she had given up on her writing for good, it sure is a bizarre feeling to discuss your manuscript with someone, to hear what passages touched them and what made them laugh. Maybe this book won’t be read by more than a handful of people, but the experience of having it reflected back to me by someone else has been priceless. I imagine it’s a little like having a crowd painting your name on signs and screaming for you.  

A New York Times article reported how Lin was “underestimated and overlooked” for years and credited his breakthrough with the Knicks to his “perseverance, hard work and self-belief.”

You have to be open to the possibility of channeling Linsanity. You have to put yourself out there. You have to let the coach of the universe know that you’re ready to shine.

Stepping up to the line is scary. Going for a promotion, taking your first-ever ballroom dance class, heck, even attending a party after these long lockdowns—challenges of any size can be intimidating.  

But if you can get past the assumption that being “the best” is the only trophy worth having, then you can bask in your own personal breakthroughs.

Hokey and Proud

The wall above my desk is super cheesy, eh?

I just wrote a book—a full-on 64,000-plus word book! The process started last September, and it took me five months to finish the first draft. Then, I needed three months to complete two extremely thorough edits. Yesterday, I sent the manuscript out to some trusted folks to give it a read and let me know if I have something worth publishing.

For a person with a history of anxiety and catastrophizing, this is a big leap. Especially since the book is about my self-doubt—how I came to have it, how it held me back, and how I am finally moving past it.

I have much trepidation about the forthcoming responses from my test readers. Amongst my many fears is the sinking feeling that this memoir reveals me to be hopelessly trite. And I don’t think I’m alone in preferring not to be associated with that trait.

Call it what you like—hokey, cheesy, corny, sentimental, earnest—it’s a quality that our society doesn’t typically value, at least not proudly. These words might mean slightly different things, but I think they all imply a certain softness, and being soft marks us as vulnerable.

On the Ten Percent Happier meditation app (which I use faithfully), co-founder and journalist Dan Harris has referred to his aversion to coming across as cheesy. It’s helpful to know that someone as successful as Harris struggles with the connotations of this label.

I’ve come up with some examples from my own life to help illustrate what I’m talking about here. I think you will agree that some of this stuff is pretty embarrassing:

Hokey – Making up a song about our dog, sung to the tune of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy

Cheesy – Clapping along with an audience on TV (I get this from my mom)

Corny – Using sayings like “good golly!” and “holy guacamole!”

Goofy – Dancing down an empty aisle at the grocery store

Sentimental – Crying while watching This Is Us

Treacly – Crying while watching Top Chef’s Restaurant Week (it was soooo good this season)!

Trite – Hanging inspirational quotes, like “enjoy the journey,” on the wall above my desk

Earnest – Believing an “angel” in human form was sent to save me at just the right time

As I typed this list, it occurred to me that these behaviors and emotions are coded (at least partly) as feminine and/or young. Our culture tends to idolize femininity and youth, but we don’t seem to respect them. There is a delicacy that makes femininity and youth special but not dignified.

Dignity, on the other hand, is a characteristic that conveys strength and power, which is coded as masculine and mature. I’m not saying I agree with the associations of these words as being female or male, or that one or the other is necessarily good or bad. I just wish we could get beyond the kinds of simplistic characterizations that hem us in and make us anxious.

Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being soft. We are all fragile sometimes. And if we’re lucky, we feel free to act silly when the mood strikes us. I don’t think anyone is immune to these attributes—it’s just a question of whether we are in touch with them and can embrace them.

If my book, and by extension me, turns out to be sappy, I will wear that badge proudly.  

Seeking Self-Worth in Unemployment

Watching something you created come off a giant printing press is pretty thrilling.

The original “Party of Five” television series ended in 2000, when I was 34 years old. In one of the final episodes, the character Julia (played by Neve Campbell) can be seen reading a copy of the National NOW Times, a newspaper that I edited and produced for the National Organization for Women.

Someone from the show had reached out to us for materials, but I had no way of knowing if they were going to use anything. I literally squealed when I saw it. Something I had created had appeared, if only fleetingly, on TV. After years of coveting public acclaim, I was fame-adjacent!

Twenty-one years later, I am 55 and unemployed. A couple days ago I saw a news segment about how women have been leaving the paid workforce in droves during the pandemic, and a sense of sadness washed over me.

March 13 marks one year that I’ve been out of work. Unlike so many others, I did not lose my job due to COVID (though it may have happened eventually, had I stayed). Before the lockdowns started, I made the decision to resign because I was buckling under the pressure of looking after my mother while trying to work a part-time job that could not be done from home.

Thankfully, my husband was willing to see if we could make things work on his salary alone. It’s not like I was making much money, anyway. The bigger sacrifice, financially, had been two years earlier when my mom first went on dialysis and I exited a full-time marketing job that was satisfying and paid pretty well.

So, here I am, having scaled back first to a minimum-wage job and then to nothing. I shouldn’t say nothing. I am a caretaker for my 81-year-old mom, who no longer drives and has multiple health conditions. There is honor in this role. But a large part of my identity was wrapped up in earning pay and accolades for my vocation.

After college, I discovered that working hard and winning promotions could provide much-needed boosts to my self-confidence. Work became the arena where I proved to myself that I was smart and capable and resourceful. I particularly liked producing print publications that I could hold in my hands.

But after 30 years of working in offices, it turns out I was relieved to step off the management track. I no longer hungered for higher titles and increased responsibility. I just wanted to do what I was good at without having to constantly prove I hadn’t grown complacent.

I come here to confess my complicated feelings about paid work—fears and insecurities that others may share. I didn’t appreciate being constantly evaluated, and though I enjoyed collaborating with people, I resented that supervising larger and larger teams and then departments is a necessary means to moving ahead in so many fields.

As a feminist, I find it embarrassing that I like not working right now. With less pressure and expectations, my anxiety has decreased. I have been able to explore other interests and interview my mom for the memoir I’m writing.

And yet, I’m not sure who I am without a regular paycheck for my efforts, without a boss to praise me. I worry that depending on my husband financially betrays my values and makes me uninteresting.

I also fret that the longer I stay out of the workforce at my age, the harder it’s going to be to reenter if and when I need to—this concern has produced some sleepless nights.

Will my personal writing save my dignity? Stay tuned.