Category Archives: books
A Facebook friend was seeking some advice from her friends in the computer for handling a five-year-old’s mixed emotions about starting Kindergarten.
Do you downplay fears and talk up the fun? Acknowledge the sadness at leaving a familiar preschool? On that first day, do you stay for just one more minute, or do you exit quickly without looking back at the forlorn, tear-streaked face of your abandoned baby?
As I move through the second decade of parenting, I’ve taken the philosophy that what I do isn’t all that important. It’s what the kids do. So my advice was to help the child feel competent to handle whatever unpredictable feelings come up: feel sad? feel scared? feel lonely? That’s OK, you can handle it.
Introducing yourself to new kids making you feel shy? That’s OK, you can handle feeling shy. Getting frustrated when your handwriting doesn’t look like that strip pasted on your desk? That’s OK, you can handle feeling frustrated.
This was of thinking was a revelation to me when I first discovered it. Somehow I grew up believing that bad feelings—mine or anyone else’s—were to be avoided at all costs, and were a sure sign that something was wrong, dreadfully wrong. Meditation helped me to learn that feelings were just feelings, not events or situations that require action, and practice taught me that I could sit through feelings that seemed unbearable and still be there the next day.
Then I had a choice: I could choose to try control my feelings, maybe by shutting down and withdrawing, or by going seriously Type A and controlling every aspect of my environment. Or I could simply remind myself that having a feeling, no matter how bad, is not going to kill me, and no feeling, no matter how intense, lasts forever.
In the book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, author Susan Jeffers says that “I Can’t Handle It” is the belief at the base of all fears. To fear rejection is to believe that you can’t handle rejection. To fear loss is to believe that you can’t handle being sad or disappointed.
As a freelancer, I’ve recently ended a contract that has provided almost half our household income for several years. Talk about feeling the fear . . . But I’m lucky to have experience—and I don’t just mean experience as a writer or editor. I have experience having less money, so I know I can handle that. I have experience being turned down for work, so I know I can handle that. I hate feeling uncertain about the future, but that’s nothing new either. Uncertainty—I can handle it.
And yet the great thing about “I can handle it” is that it neutralizes so much of what makes uncertainty unpleasant. There’s no controlling outcomes: maybe my parents will react badly to that decision, maybe that investment is going to tank, maybe my child is going to hate school. But can I handle it? That’s entirely up to me.
There is an obvious risk with “I can handle it” as well. “Handling it” doesn’t mean lying there and taking it, or going it alone. Too many people I know act as though asking for help or even venting a little bit about their concerns proves that they couldn’t handle it. “Sorry for whining,” they say. “That’s OK, I’ll do it myself,” they say. “That’s just the way it is,” they say.
Just like self-acceptance doesn’t have to mean giving up on yourself, “I can handle it” doesn’t mean “I am the world’s doormat.” “I can handle feeling bad” doesn’t imply “and therefore I will not investigate how I could lessen the frequency, duration, or intensity of my bad feelings.”
It’s deceptively simple: “I can handle it” merely frees you from the urgency of feelings—yours or someone else’s—so you can focus on what is really happening and what you can really do about it instead.
I have a very strange habit of picking up books that I really want to read, at the library or bookstore, and then leaving them sitting on my shelf. This leads to some scary-looking, double-shelved, broken-down, saggy-ass bookcases.
Exhibit A. There are many many more scenes exactly like this one almost every room of three floors of my house. I haz a shame.
Most recent example: State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett. I am not a big lover of contemporary fiction for adults, but Bel Canto quickly became one of my all time favorites. I had been hearing that State of Wonder was even better, and after finding that I was 1028th in the line of requests in my library system (with 100 copies to go around) I would be better off just buying the dang thing.
So I did. And it took me weeks and weeks to read it. Nights when I wanted a little something to read, it sat on my nightstand forgotten, a part of the wallpaper in my cluttery bedroom.
Then one day I had nothing to do but sit in the hammock — well, strike that, reverse it. I have everything to do but sit in the hammock, but I was tired of the tyranny of busyness and decided to plant myself in the hammock with a book and a beer regardless.
I started into State of Wonder. For a couple of nights I was up until at least 1am reading. Laundry went undone. Groceries went unpurchased. Children drank maple syrup and ate empty tortillas in a vain attempt to fill their hungry bellies. And then I finished the book. (It was wonderful.)
Dance with Dragons awaits, but the same pattern has emerged — forget, ignore, re-read a snippet of a David Sedaris essay before falling asleep. And now I think I understand in the front of my mind what the rest of my brain already knew: once I pick up the book that I really want to read, nothing else will happen.
As usual, I am the last to know these crucial facts about myself. A friend posted this on my wall recently: “Saw this and thought of you.”
Is this you? Take it. Claim it. Get in the hammock and stay there until it’s too dark to read. And then tell me, what book are you lost in right now?