Suppose you have two road trips planned (for once this pandemic is behind us, of course). The first trip will take you only four hours away from home. You haven’t been to this city in forever, and you can’t wait to see some old friends who live there. On the second trip, you will drive for several days to reach your destination. You’ll be setting foot in this state for the first time, and you’re super excited to go.
Would you ever tell yourself that the second trip won’t be worth it because it takes too long to get there? That the first trip will be much more fun because you’re going to arrive sooner? I’m guessing your answer is No.
This is the kind of analogy I create to guide myself through self-doubt and disappointment. I have several big life goals I haven’t yet achieved—goals my younger self thought for sure I would have realized by now. Perhaps it’s just taking me longer to get there, which in no way invalidates the journey or the destination.
Travel as a metaphor appeals to me so much, I’m going to elaborate on it…
Imagine you’ve always dreamed of going to Paris. You thought for sure you would go there in your early 20s, but years have passed and you still haven’t seen Paris.
If you do make it there one day, will Paris be any less spectacular because you’re not in your 20s anymore? The experience might be different because you won’t be the same person you were when you were younger, but what’s wrong with that?
In the meantime, you’ve spent time in lots of great cities in the U.S.—like Boston, New York City, Washington, D.C., Miami, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, plus you’ve been to Mexico a couple times. For years, you’ve been discovering places your younger self didn’t even think to put on the to-see list.
What if you never make it to Paris? Is that ok? Can you find other locales to satisfy your sense of adventure?
You see, I was “supposed” to be a published author by now. I hoped a big publishing house would print my first book while I was still in my 20s, with more to follow. If I am completely honest, I guess I thought I would win a few awards and settle down in middle-age to teach creative writing at a university. These dreams were my Paris.
But none of that happened. What did happen is, I worked at several interesting and fulfilling jobs where I acquired multiple degrees worth of knowledge and met many hilarious, kind, and inspiring people. I am a changed person from the girl who thought she needed to publish her first novel before she hit 25. Those positions I held, the skills and confidence I developed, and the friends I made are like visits to Boston and San Francisco.
I may never be a published author. I am working on a book, and possibly the writing process will be sufficient reward all on its own. Or maybe I will self-publish. Whatever I decide to do, it won’t be any less gratifying because it took longer than planned.
Reevaluating old goals is acceptable, even healthy. You may learn that other goals suit you better now. Whatever you do, be patient with yourself—you may be on a winding road trip that is worth every precious second.
During Thanksgiving week, I took seven days off from social media, television, and podcasts. I’ve unplugged from media before with fruitful results. This round was prompted by Jocelyn K. Glei’s course RESET. Glei suggests taking a break from “inputs that play a huge role in the life of your mind” in order to “open up space for new ideas to flow.”
I’ve been writing a book, so I was eager to see if dramatically reducing external inputs could spark creativity and promote productivity. Full confession: I cheated more than once. However, it was still an illuminating experiment. Three observations stood out:
Silence Equals Discomfort
While making lunch, cleaning, or driving, I would normally listen to podcasts or my own music playlists. Once I eliminated these, I did not like the way I filled up the silence by singing the same lines from the same handful of songs over and over. My chattering mind is accustomed to filling in the blank spots. So, I tried listening to classical music to ease the transition. By the end of the week, I was better able to tolerate short quiet stretches, and I started generating ideas in these open windows.
I’ve come to think of this as giving my brain “me” time. The more silence I give myself, the better my mind gets at focusing my scattered mental energy. Like building muscles, developing a deep comfort with quiet time will take dedication and repetition.
Cable News Makes Me Anxious
One night I was meditating upstairs while my husband was watching TV downstairs. I could sense immediately when he switched to cable news by how angry the voices sounded. I know there’s a lot to be mad about in our world, but this shift in perspective helped me realize how unhealthy it is to pump so much tension into my brain every day.
With more time at home this year, my cable news routine had devolved to include watching my favorite news show on the iPad while preparing dinner, and then my husband and I might watch more news in the living room and again in the bedroom before going to sleep. Thanks to my media break, we rarely tune into cable news now, and I feel much calmer. We do listen to a brief news podcast while eating breakfast—just 15 minutes or less compared to the two hours I had been consuming daily.
Media is Like Pecan Pie
We bought a store-made pecan pie for Thanksgiving this year and salted caramel ice cream to go with it. It was delicious, yet I would never think to eat such a decadent desert regularly, let alone multiple times a day. Perhaps I should treat TV, podcasts, and social media more like pie and less like a staple in my diet.
Balance is everything. When I spend less time on screens, I read books, meditate, and exercise more. And I’ve come to the conclusion that social media works best for me as a tool rather than an endless conversation—I have to know why I’m on there.
But you know what? After cheating several nights in a row, I came to accept that my husband and I enjoy watching TV together in the evenings. And that’s ok. It’s also ok for me to skip a night now and then to write or do yoga.
Media and technology add value to our lives, if used mindfully. I’ve learned that occasional breaks shine light on my habits and alert me to how these inputs might be crowding out other positive experiences.
I love analogies and metaphors. By translating abstract concepts into relatable situations, analogies promote understanding. Analogies and metaphors typically work best when they use everyday examples. Like a worn-out couch.
Imagine you have a sofa in your living room that is faded and sagging. It’s uncomfortable to sit on and stuffing is poking out of the arms.
But this couch has sentimental value. You’ve had it for a long time—perhaps it’s the first nice sofa you ever bought, or maybe your grandparents gave it to you.
You know you need to replace this couch, so if you’re anything like me, you do one of two things…
A) After an embarrassing incident when a visiting relative struggled to extricate themselves from your sofa’s caved-in cushions, you banish it to an extra room or the garage. You now have one chair in your living room and a big empty space. You know you need to go buy a new couch, and you realize that if you keep putting off this task, you’ll be tempted to drag that dilapidated old thing back into the living room. Still, you procrastinate.
B) You go furniture shopping and fall in love with a snazzy new sofa. You purchase it, and the salesperson tells you it will be delivered in four weeks. You have plenty of time to make room for the new couch, right? But you put it off, and the next thing you know the furniture store is calling to set up a time to deliver your new sofa tomorrow, and your old one is still sitting right there.
In both cases, your shabby couch may be a reminder of good times, but it’s not doing its job anymore. At the same time, you have a living room with the appropriate amount of space for one couch. Zero couches will only work for so long, and two couches won’t work at all.
If you haven’t already guessed, the decrepit sofa in my story is a stand-in for any counter-productive behavior that is taking up space in your life. Like, say, social media scrolling, maxing out your credit cards, or gossiping. You may be well aware that you need to scale back or quit this habit entirely. But if you give it up without a plan for how to reallocate all the time and energy it’s been sucking up, you might find yourself right back where you started, like the couch-banisher in scenario A.
Or maybe you do have something you’ve been dreaming about—traveling the world, learning how to play the guitar, or starting a small business. Like the couch-shopper in scenario B, you have to make space in your life for this passion, otherwise where will you put it?
A little over three years ago I realized I was living in scenario B. My writing had been pushed aside while I drank wine and watched TV. I finally had to ditch alcohol and reduce my media consumption to make time for my writing and all the other things I wanted to do.
If you can relate to situation A or B, I’m pretty sure there’s an amazing new couch waiting for you. But you have to do the work of finding it and clearing the way.
Rag Doll livin’ in a movie, Hot tramp Daddy’s little cutie.
I can hear my friend Tami singing the song “Rag Doll” as if she were standing right in front of me. Her take was deliciously exaggerated—a cross between Mae West and an old-timey announcer. She loved Aerosmith. Lead singer Steven Tyler was high on her list of celebrity dudes she wanted to shag (the list also included John Cusack and Jeff Daniels).
Tami is gone now. She passed away suddenly on Feb. 23 of this year—just eight weeks ago, as I’m preparing to post this. I’ll never again hear her burst into song, which she did frequently, whenever the lyrics suited the occasion. We will never again sing any of the silly songs we both loved – like “Grab It!” and “Cars That Go Boom” by L’Trimm or “Girlfriend” by Avril Lavigne.
Laid out on my coffee table is an array of pictures of Tami and our close group of friends, taken mostly during our 20s and 30s. They tell the story of a woman who loved cats, often hoisting them high into the air for photos. You see a beautiful woman who looked great in a cowboy hat and once dressed up in a 1960s floor-length pink gown and shiny gold shoes for a small Thanksgiving dinner. A woman who loved going out with her friends. A woman who liked finger puppets, sunglasses, and the beach.
Because of our age, my friends and I made very few videos together—instead I have albums full of old-school Polaroids and pics developed at the drugstore. A couple weeks after Tami’s passing, I was scrolling through the more recent photos on my computer and happened upon a rare video of her from the weekend my husband and I got married.
Tami and I are cooking in the kitchen; my husband is standing outside on the deck, shooting video of us through the window. We are singing and dancing to “Word Up” by Cameo. Unaware that we’re being filmed, we aren’t playing for the camera. Our motions and voices are low-key and natural. Tami does, indeed, wave her hands in the air like she don’t care. At the end, she lightly slaps her hand on her chest, just below her collarbones. I probably saw Tami do that hundreds of times and never really thought about it. But when I saw it on the video, the familiarity of it made me gasp.
If only I had a few more videos of Tami—moving images full of life and sound and the ease we felt with each other.
Cat, hat. In French, chat, chapeau. In Spanish, he’s el gato in a sombrero.
I have no idea how or when Tami and I started saying this. It’s from a song in the 1971 Cat in the Hat TV special. One of us would randomly say, “Cat, hat,” and we would finish the rest in unison.
We had lots of running verbal jokes. In college, we relished torturing our friends with a weird game where we turned the lines of a song, any song, into a series of questions and answers.
“Tami, what is it?” “It’s all right” “When?” “Now!”
After a while, someone, usually Tracy, would ask us to knock it off.
“Hey Tami, ask me if we’re going to knock it off?” “Lisa, are we going to knock it off?” “I’m glad you asked, Tami. No!”
Tami would sit on the floor in the hallway of our dorm, talking to her mom or sister on the pay phone (another throwback!), and I would make it my mission to do a goofy dance for her until she cracked up.
One day when we were broke and bored, we spent hours going through a fashion magazine, making snarky comments about the content of every single page. I cut out a chart from the magazine that explained the different types of hepatitis and stuck it on her refrigerator door—just cuz.
I wonder what she had on her refrigerator in her last months. I hope there was something there that made her smile.
Do you really want to wake up next to Ramone? “Why you jump ze bed so quickly on zis morning? Last night you were like wild beast. You must give yourself again to Ramone.”
This is from a comic strip called “Think Twice!” by cartoonist Lynda Barry. For years, Tami and I would recite it fairly regularly, complete with a corny French accent for Ramone.
We met around the age of 11 or 12. We were both late bloomers. For a few years, we were glorious dorks together. We loved the soap opera The Guiding Light and wrote many poems and spoofs about the characters on the show.
Tami would sketch a boy she named Junior, who was always getting into trouble and calling on his mom to rescue him. During our early high school years, I would beg her to draw new Juniors for me, and his predicaments grew more elaborate over time. After her passing, I unearthed a folder full of Juniors and the other artwork Tami would pass to me in class.
We ended up becoming high school cheerleaders. We left those dorky little girls behind. But we never forgot. Well into our 20s, after a few drinks, we might recollect how miserable it had been to be so far behind all the other girls.
We both majored in creative writing at college. Tami was a Hemingway gal, and I was Team Fitzgerald. We both read and re-read Ann Beattie’s “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” Lorrie Moore’s “Anagrams,” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Edible Woman.”
Not long ago I sent her the illustrated book “Hyperbole and a Half” by Allie Brosh because it reminded me so much of our Lynda Barry fangirl days. I only wish we had gotten the chance to sit down and read our favorite parts to each other.
One of the delights of life is eating with friends; second to that is talking about eating. And, for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends.
Laurie Colwin wrote this in her foreword to “Home Cooking,” a book of cozy essays and recipes. Tami and I both adored “Home Cooking” and its follow up, “More Home Cooking.”
Many of the cookbooks on my shelf were purchased because Tami owned them first. Or because she picked up a yellowed 1970 copy of “The All New Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook” as a gift for me.
Tami was a whiz at cooking dishes all along the spectrum from simple to fancy. Terre recently reminded me how Tami introduced our group to Supremes de Volaille Printanier (chicken breasts with asparagus and carrots) from page 26 of The New York Times 60-Minute Gourmet cookbook.
Her macaroni & cheese was outstanding. And not only did Tami make great meals, but you could always assign her dessert for Thanksgiving or dinner parties, and she would produce something amazing. Her lemon cake—with white icing, not lemon or cream cheese—was one of Stacey’s favorites.
One of her prized skills was being able to tell exactly what size container was needed for any given amount of leftovers. Whenever I’m not sure if I should go with the larger or smaller container, I channel Tami’s supreme confidence in this realm.
Cooking with Tami was always fun. You might even get into a heated argument with her and Fred over whether a squirrel climbed up the side of the building and took a bite out of the chocolate cake that was cooling on the windowsill.
Speaking of squirrels, not so long ago Tami regularly carried a “nut sack” with her so that she could feed the squirrels in the park as she walked to the subway station. She swore some of those squirrels knew her and waited for her.
I don’t doubt it.
How much more can I take, Before I go crazy, oh yeah, Crazy, oh yeah, How much more heartache, Before I go crazy, oh yeah, Crazy, oh yeah
Tami and I were drawn to the Go-Go’s song “How Much More” in our senior year of high school because we were both going through a case of unrequited love. We bonded over how unfair it was that the boys we were infatuated with were unavailable.
To this day, I cannot hear “Total Eclipse of the Heart” without thinking of Tami playing it over and over after a bad break-up during freshman year of college.
For decades, we told each other everything about the crushes, hook-ups, and loves in our lives. We made up ridiculous nicknames for them and offered scathing re-evaluations of those who didn’t recognize what dazzling creatures we were.
In our 40s and early 50s, Tami was in a long-term relationship with my brother-in-law, which meant we got to see each other often, but it also made our penchant for sharing everything a bit awkward.
I feel honored and blessed to have shared so many moments with Tami over the course of four decades. Every decision, every milestone in my life was poured out to her in great detail. She was a best friend, a chosen sister, a steady presence—even when we were physically or emotionally distant.
Sadly, the last time I saw Tami in person was three years before her passing. We didn’t talk much on the phone anymore or text. But she was always in my heart and on my mind.
For many years I hid from becoming a writer. Even when I was in hiding, I was still a writer in my heart and soul. But I was not putting myself out there——and now I know why I was so scared.
To back up a minute: I’ve wanted a career in writing since I was about 10 years old. I majored in creative writing at college and did well in my classes. I wasn’t a prodigy, but I had some skills.
After graduating college, I moved to New York City. In a town full of publishing houses, magazines, newspapers, and ad agencies, I didn’t know what to do with my major. I hadn’t applied myself in school. I didn’t write for the literary magazine or the campus paper. There was nothing to distinguish me from every other person who wanted to write for a living.
I still could have tried to launch a writing career without any credits to my name. But I didn’t.
Flash forward three decades (yes, decades), and I finally decided to do something about my situation. Two years ago, I launched this blog. One year ago, I signed up for a writing program that encouraged me to build my online profile, pitch articles to outlets, and develop a book proposal.
For the first time in decades, I started thinking of myself as a writer with stories and opinions to share with the world, not just a writer inside my own head. I had energy and ideas, and the words started pouring out.
But. (There’s usually a but with me.) Suddenly, I was connected with other writers who seemed so talented and driven. I felt compelled to ask myself: Who am I as a writer? And most importantly: Do I like who I am? Can I live with who I am?
A few things I am not:
A sassy writer. I am actually pretty funny in person, but I’m not comfortable being humorous on the page—it feels forced.
A lyrical writer. I am not poetic or “dazzling.” I am not a master of metaphor.
A sophisticated writer. I do not have an impressive reserve of literary references. My style is not bold or experimental.
A few things I am:
A relatable writer. Yeah, I’m basic. Ordinary. In a good way, I believe.
An honest writer. I am willing to spill my guts for my readers. And I’m not afraid to get political.
An idea writer. I live to find the ideas at the core of my writing, the concepts that help illuminate our shared humanity.
A readable writer. I enjoy spending time constructing sentences and paragraphs that are clear and flow well.
Are those two lists a bearable trade-off?
Sometimes I read a beautiful or hilarious sentence by a brilliant writer, and I look up from the page or screen. I sigh and wonder if I should try harder to be a different kind of writer.
I never want to give up on becoming a better writer. Honing my existing skills is a must. But can I teach myself to be more poetic? Can I practice putting my wit into words? Can I bone up on literary stuff?
Or, should I spend my energy learning to appreciate who I am already as a writer and finding ways to make that work for me?
This is why I was scared all those years, though I wasn’t fully conscious of it. I was hiding from the pain of my own expectations, my self-judgment, the fear of facing my identity as a writer. And, if I have to be totally honest, the fear of facing my identity as a person. I’ve long been afraid that my authentic self is not cool or classy or intellectual enough to reach some to-be-determined level of success that will validate my worth.
These past few years I’ve been figuring out how to accept myself, to love the woman inside while gently nudging her forward. Because I’ve realized that the validation I so desperately crave needs to come from within.
Recently I ventured a wee bit out of my comfort zone on an essay. The two people I showed it to urged me to make substantial edits. My first reaction was defensive—I wanted to dig in my heels because their input felt like a wallop to my ego. Once I got over myself, and made the revisions, they really paid off. Clearly there is room to stretch within my wheelhouse without having to reinvent myself.
My aim is to elevate my craft while playing to my strengths and exploring my passions. My main goal is to reach people with my writing, help them feel not so alone, and shine light onto interesting paths. As long as I work at doing that, I won’t need to hide anymore.
As I began planning the subjects that I would cover in this blog, the list pretty much wrote itself. Most of the themes that I am addressing have been simmering inside me for months—years even. But I do plan to challenge myself periodically to take on matters that I don’t typically contemplate or put into words. So, here is the first topic from outside my comfort zone…
Naturalist John Muir said, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” This is one of the many lessons I’ve learned since moving to a more rural area.
Once upon a time, I was a teenager dreaming of escaping the boring suburbs and living in the big city. At the age of 21, I made this dream come true (with a little help from my friends). For close to eight years, I luxuriated in the civilized nectar that is New York City, and I didn’t think much about the natural world. I liked the look of the big trees in Central Park, but that was about it. I preferred instead to gaze upon the tall buildings and intricate bridges.
I then moved on to the suburban sprawl outside Washington, D.C. These suburbs weren’t quite as dull as the Florida one I grew up in, but they weren’t exactly inspiring either.
The yearning to live in a rustic environment snuck up on me. The seed was planted when we briefly rented a rundown house with a big back yard in a tree-lined postwar neighborhood.
But maybe the desire to be closer to nature is just something that happens as many of us get older, as the years of being out of touch with the earth accumulate? Perhaps it’s related to the search for self, to the desire to be grounded and connected.
Whatever the impulse, I find myself living now on a lake, surrounded by plants and animals and water. Sometimes it feels like I’m inhabiting a classic Disney cartoon.
The squirrels are literally everywhere, and the lake is full of geese and ducks. Sightings of chipmunks are sporadic, but they always provoke a squeal (from me, not them), as they are exceptionally cute and tiny. The rabbits out here are also small, and the raccoons are huge. In late summer the insects are downright prehistoric looking.
My husband and I find ourselves trying to mimic the distinct songs of our favorite birds. The owls sound like howling dogs. The egrets and other herons are beautiful to observe as they gingerly walk along the lake looking for fish, but their screeches can be terrifying.
We drive by farms every day, where we can see cows, horses, goats, and the occasional herd of alpacas. Deer are ubiquitous. We have a mother deer who sometimes shelters under the trees in our backyard, and we once saw her nurse one of her young in our neighbor’s yard. Bald eagles soar over the lake on rare occasions, and they take my breath away every time.
I’ve fallen in love with how the seasons change and how flowers appear seemingly out of nowhere. The colors, the textures, the shapes—how could one not admire the accomplishment of a perfect flower in bloom?
My favorite sight is the sunlight glimmering on the water. Depending on the time of day or the time of year, the light can look quite different, but it always makes me feel awestruck and at peace. I’ve started using this image while meditating, and it almost always relaxes my chattering, preoccupied brain.
Of course, even Disney cartoons aren’t all rainbows and roses—just look at Bambi. Nature means life and death, growth and destruction. You can’t drive around in our area without seeing a dead animal on the side of the road. I even ran over a very large raccoon one night, and I’m sure you’ll forgive me for not elaborating on the experience.
We’ve seen the damage that water, wind, and tree limbs can cause. In the ongoing clash between humans and nature, it often feels like nature has the upper hand (probably because it does).
One day I was in the yard, yanking at the ivy that grows everywhere. I was angry at it—the way it spread wherever it wanted, invaded territory without invitation. With perverse pleasure, I jerked another strand out by its root. Why do I hate it so much, I wondered.
Is it because the ivy is bold and remorseless, because it doesn’t need permission to run wild? Is the cautious, timid side of me jealous of the ivy that runs rampant in my yard?
That might sound ridiculous, but the more I thought about it, the more I concluded: Nature is just like the people in our lives. Sometimes we love it and want to surround ourselves with it. Other times it drives us crazy, and we wish it would just do what we want it to do.
And maybe that isn’t so unusual, because we are nature and nature is us. Learning to live with nature, and each other, is our only option. It won’t always turn out perfect, but it’s in our best interest to find fruitful ways to coexist. Paying attention and learning from nature might just save us after all.
So, there it is—my first “off-topic” blog post. Not sure yet how I feel about it, but one thing’s for sure…there’s lots of room for improvement!