Category Archives: questions

How do you love yourself?

Last night I was feeling kind of insecure about mistakes I’d made earlier in the day, about times when I was not my best. My mind went to the old familiar place of shame and fear that I am not good enough. Then I went to the next habitual place of “what can I do to be better?”

I think I set a lot of challenges for myself, like Nanowrimo, or this month’s, “exercise everyday for 60 min”, for not totally healthy reasons. I think I am often trying to better myself as opposed to loving myself. And maybe, probably, those two things don’t have to be opposed. But for me, loving myself hardly ever enters into my mind, or my life. I am not sure I even know how to love who I am, without the constant striving. I have a really hard time forgiving myself for not being better.

But that is not how I treat people that I love. I love my husband, my daughter, my friends, for every little part of them. They don’t have to be perfect, or better than they are. I love the whole package.

So, how do I turn even a fraction of that love towards myself? Last night, in my quasi-dream state I thought I might make it into a challenge (of course I did), something like “Try loving myself for 30 days.” Heh.

I am really not sure how to do that. I have some vague ideas about being attentive to what I am feeling when I am eating, drinking, walking, reading, etc, to see if I like how I am feeling, as well as notice my self-talk and try to develop a more loving “inner voice.”

I don’t know. I feel like I have come a long way in the last few years. Therapy and avoiding situations that reenforced a negative self-concept have really really helped. But there are so many layers to this onion. I need to keep working at it.

So, how do you love yourself? Do you have any insight? Practical, spiritual, psychological? Cause I would like to feel better about not being better.

[cross posted from my blog]

“You Need More Art in Your Life”

I had a lovely moment of serendipity today. I don’t believe that “the universe provides” for those who ask — unless the universe seriously hates the Congo and has a mad crush on upper-middle-class Unitarians — but I do believe that having ears that hear and eyes that see happens more often when you know what you’re looking for.

Last night I had dinner with my husband while my girls were out trick-or-treating with other friends, and I took advantage of the time between my girl-tini and the arrival of the sushi platter to talk to him about the stuff I thought I might figure out by writing (sporadically) on this blog. In short: how did I wake up this side of 40 somewhere I didn’t plan to be, and how do I get somewhere else, somewhere I like a little better?

I don’t believe in trying to reclaim your younger self, but as I said to him over little scallop purses, there was a time when I paid more attention to making things and making them well, and learning things, and mastering them. When it didn’t seem the point of the day was to get to the end of it as quickly as possible, ideally — oh, the high standards! — with enough energy left to watch a sitcom before going to bed.

“You need more art in your life,” he said: art as in making, art as in beauty, art as in creating something for the sake of creation.

Today while I was cleaning up in the basement, I found stacks of old notebooks, mostly containing useless notes about ancient freelance projects. But in one of them I happened to find this. It’s so old I can almost share it without being too embarrassed, like a poem by a relative rather than something of my own. It’s a poem I wrote, no revisions, for no reason, 10+ years ago. It’s not great, but that’s the thing: I made it to make it. And it’s about doing things just to do them.

Housekeeping

These days
I sweep my floor like
my daughter does . . .
Not yet two, she gently
strokes the hardwood with a hairbrush
or maybe a comb.

Her purpose is not to whisk away
the dirt, the crumbs, the onion skins,
but to care for the floor,
lovingly,
like you might pet a cat,
like I might stroke her brown hair
while she sleeps,
imparting a tender blessing.

I can’t go back to being the person who wrote that poem: the person who was waking up from a terrible depression, or the person who was, consequently, falling in love with being a mom and discovering an earthy, messy joy in a way of life that had seemed, only a few years before, a lame consolation prize in the race to the top. I can’t be her anymore than I can be a teenager again, but I can remember some things that she knew.

Finding that poem reminded me that I know how to have art in my life. Everybody does; we’re born that way. Why I stopped, I don’t know. Stuff gets away from you. But starting again doesn’t have to be a big deal. I’d like to start playing Chopin again, or publish a book of essays, or audition for a play, but I can also just pick up a pen and a notebook, or a broom.

After dinner last night we went to pick up one of our girls, drank some wine with friends, and then drove home singing Elvis songs. The day had been insanely long, and almost 4 hours of it had been spent driving in construction and traffic. My most creative act of the day was making green cupcake frosting, most of which ended up in the trash anyway. I stretched out on the sofa to watch 30 Rock but I couldn’t get to the end; my eyes kept closing and then the storyline kept changing in nonsensical ways until my husband woke me up and told me to go to bed. It was a fine day, but no art. Not even a wakeful sitcom viewing.

There’s been precious little art in this day too, but I still have about 4 hours to go. What will it be: the salad? a little piano practice? another poem for the archives?

And you: do you have enough art in your life?

I love me, I love me not

So, there is more that I want to say about Unconditional Love, not that I am an expert, far from it.

First of all, I am not even sure what it means to love unconditionally. How does it work, in a practical sense? What does a relationship of unconditional love look like? Is unconditional love detached? Dispassionate? Would you ever want to love your spouse or lover “unconditionally”? Should you give unconditional love to your abuser?

I don’t know if I will ever find satisfactory answers to those questions. I just keep living and trying to love people the best I can. Sometimes I do a pretty poor job, especially when it comes to loving myself unconditionally. It is a good trick to try to imagine that you are your own good friend. How would you treat yourself? How would you talk to yourself? How would you change the way you support and care for yourself? Could you possibly smile with happiness at seeing your good friend when you see your own reflection in the mirror?

Sometimes I wonder if anyone is able to love themselves so unconditionally. Then I wonder if maybe lots of people do and it is just me that doesn’t get it. Maybe the phrase Unconditional Love is too lofty. Maybe I could start to do it, with baby steps, if I just said I am loving myself where I am at.

childhood fancies

We were driving to Lowes, for the second time today, and I was just exhausted. I started to fall asleep in the passenger seat when suddenly I smelled something, and you know how strong smell memory can be. It brought me back to my childhood and I experienced that safe, comfortable feeling of freedom that was once common place in childhood but rare as a white unicorn in adulthood.

I need a vacation from being an adult. I know I supposedly just got back from a vacation, fifteen days in the Mediterranean, but that trip was ridiculously busy. We had to get up early, catch buses, stand in lines and in crowds in 95+ degrees, and walk, walk, walk. Don’t get me wrong, it was an amazing trip, but I would never describe it as relaxing and I certainly didn’t have freedom to follow my own star, in my own time, along my own path.

I also recognize that I am unusually busy these days. The moving vans will arrive and start packing us up in T-minus eleven days. And for every chore I mark off our list two more that I hadn’t thought of get added. Not only are we moving to a new state, but we are trying to sell our house and our truck. And dealing with property and finances in the aftermath of my father-in-laws death. I feel like I have a hundred and one things to think about. There is just so much that needs to get done, and I have to organize it all. My brain is like an overstuffed filing cabinet, and the drawers won’t shut.

I just want to breathe deeply of that childhood memory of freedom, where there was nothing to think about other than what was right in front of me. To tell the truth I lived in my head a lot as a child, in my head or in a book. But I also spent a lot of time outside, wandering in woods, through the neighborhood, into empty houses or construction sites. I climbed trees and lay in the grass. The hours after school and before dinner were mine. I had no responsibility, except to my own whims. There was no credit card debt, no car to fix, no home to sell. Just my hands getting dirty and my shoes getting worn.

I still love to walk outside. Nature renews me. It is the most likely place I could catch a glimpse of that white unicorn. But for now, all I can do is hope that there is still freedom to be had, that life does slow down sometimes, and that even grown-ups, mothers and wives can catch the elusive magic of freedom.

What’s the Best Advice You’ve Ever Gotten?

I kind of suck at taking advice. I am better at reinventing the wheel, because dammit, I’ll make my own wheel my own way.

This can be a lovely trait, but let’s be honest: sometimes, it can be a stupid one. I know this well as a parent and teacher. I have watched children, teens, and young adults plow headlong into disasters of varying scale that could have been prevented had they Just Listened to the voice of experience.

I’ve gotten a lot of good advice from my mom: “This isn’t your last chance to eat cheesecake,” she once told me, and I pull that one out all the time when I can’t make a choice or I really want something I shouldn’t have just then.

When I couldn’t choose between two gorgeous wedding dresses she said, “If you like them both, you can’t make a bad choice.” Another one I use a lot.

I recently heard a friend say to his son, “Don’t say ‘no’ to something you want.” So true. I don’t know if it’s the girl or the midwesterner or the shy person (or lazy person) in me, but I say no way too often.

Funny how great advice often seems obvious when you look at it later.

One of my favorite pieces of advice was not for me, but for Lisa Simpson. Lisa, with whom all former nerdly 2nd grade girls can identify, has a substitute teacher who likes her, who gets her. He gives her some hope that somewhere there’s a place for girls like her, and then, too soon, he leaves. He leaves her with a piece of advice that gets me to this day, written on a note that he hands to her as his train pulls away (see left).

What’s the best advice you’ve ever heard? Who gave it to you?

Do You Have a Mentor?

I pride myself on being pretty independent minded, and I like to think that this trait has developed nicely over the decades.

But when I’m stuck, really stuck, I often cast about for someone or something to say simply: “Take this step next.” Or, “you’re wrong, he’s right, deal with it.” Bad as I am at dealing with authority, sometimes an authority is exactly what I want. Just for a second.

Ideally we all have someone to play that role now and then, just for a second. Someone who stops being neutral and humble and “oh I’m sure you know best” long enough to tell you something that gets you unstuck.

Tons of (now faceless) people told me as a young person to be realistic and have a Plan B, but it was the one who said things like “Somebody has to write the books” that I remember. I think the best advice my dissertation advisor gave me, and I don’t even remember what it was in reference to, was “Aww, fuck ’em.” That one is truly multipurpose.

The thing about growing up and finding a little success is that your mentor pool gets smaller. Everyone likes to give advice to cute college girls.

For now, most of my mentors are in books. Sometimes it’s an author, like Anne Lamott. Often it’s a character, like Anne Elliot or Esther Summerson or Propsero or Granny Weatherwax.

As you might guess, most often I want a mentor to help me figure out how to deal with difficult people, to be the calm center of the storm. I want mentors for taking charge, and for letting go. I want mentors for practical creativity that isn’t sappy or mystical, but sharp-edged and real.

Who have your mentors been? Who would you choose as a mentor now? What do you want mentors for?

A Declaration of Independence

I love this idea from Crescent Dragonwagon: Each 4th of July, consider, “What would I like independence from this year?”

I’ve thought about it for days, however, and I really struggled to com up with anything. I think it’s because I self-helped myself nearly to death as a thirty-something, always doing something for 20 minutes a day, or 3 pages every morning. But how many things can you do for 20 minutes a day before wide swaths of time are dedicated to the idea that you need to do more, be more, think more—and weigh less?

At some point I swore them all off, and since then I have been reluctant to make any grand plans—a shame, really, since apparently the quick route to success as a memoirist is to do something, anything, for one year and then write a book about it. I was so disappointed to learn after turning over My Year of Meat at the bookstore that it was a novel, not a diary.

The good thing is that I am a lot more accepting of myself. Life gets in the way a lot more than it did even 10 years ago, and I hate setting myself up to fail by making a promise that I will write a blog post or write down all food consumed every day. Sometimes giving up on a grand scheme and tucking into bed with a book is the best freedom of all.

Still when I try to think of a specific intention for this year, my mind still goes there, to the programs and routines and “every day without fail” that feels much more like a prison

I think what I would most like independence from this year, then, is tomorrow. Today I can write a blog post; tomorrow, who knows? Today I can sit down for lunch instead of a PMS-driven feast of peanut butter covered pretzels; tomorrow, we’ll see. Today I’ll sit and watch my breath when I find the time, whether or not that same time will be good tomorrow.

It’s funny: some days all I want is more tomorrows. This week: two more friends with cancer. I look at my children, my husband, the unfinished business, and think, “Please, please, many many more tomorrows.”

But that can deprive you of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness just as surely as days and weeks measured out in 20-minute blocks. Maybe even more so.

What do you want to be independent from this year? What petty tyrant needs to sent across the ocean so you can let freedom ring?

Note: Years ago I purchased and absorbed, sponge-like, much of CD’s Passionate Vegetarian, possibly the hugest cookbook I own. I rediscovered her as a tweeter and blogger who often writes about midlife, and writing, and a little about death. And her midlife is further along than my midlife, so it’s like having a little lantern swaying ahead of me, farther down the path. (Kind of like how I enjoy having a husband 6 months older, just clearing the brush a little for my next birthday.)

Saturday Night Blues

Ever have one of those days where you feel pretty terrible about yourself? Like you are too fat, and kind of a bitch and your refrigerator is gross and everyone knows that you are actually lazy? *sigh* I hate those days.

Bright Girls Grown Up

Most of my female friends are pretty smart women. And most of them don’t give themselves enough credit. At worst, sometimes friends seem to engage in a race for the bottom: “I’m the dumbest!” “I’m the least successful!” “No me!” Humility is a good quality, abject self-abasement less so.

A lot of women I know could identify with these questions:

How often have you found yourself avoiding challenges and playing it safe, sticking to goals you knew would be easy for you to reach? Are there things you decided long ago that you could never be good at? Skills you believed you would never possess? If the list is a long one, you were probably one of the Bright Girls — and your belief that you are “stuck” being exactly as you are has done more to determine the course of your life than you probably ever imagined.

I’ve entertained a variety of theories about these issues: maybe women are discouraged from succeeding, maybe women are acculturated to believe they should not be ambitious or put themselves forwards, maybe women are multi-tasking and set lower goals accordingly. And I think, yeah, maybe, but as a daughter of 1970s feminism I feel like those factors are not as powerful as they once were.

Another possible factor comes from the “Mindset” school of development:

What makes smart girls more vulnerable and less confident when they should be the most confident kids in the room? At the 5th grade level, girls routinely outperform boys in every subject, including math and science. So there were no differences between these boys and girls in ability, nor in past history of success. The only difference was how bright boys and girls interpreted difficulty — what it meant to them when material seemed hard to learn. Bright Girls were much quicker to doubt their ability, to lose confidence and to become less effective learners as a result.

Researchers have uncovered the reason for this difference in how difficulty is interpreted, and it is simply this: More often than not, Bright Girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.

While I have been, at times, ambitious, hard-working, and willing to keep chipping away at a challenge, I have also let a setback lead me to question myself: “I’m not as smart as people say, and now they’ll know it.” “I guess I wasn’t meant to reach this level of accomplishment.”

Those “greatest hits” of the tween and teen years play in our heads as adults too, and sometimes when we’re feeling uncertain it’s easy to forget that we control the volume and the power switch. That’s one reason I love reading stories about people who make dramatic midlife changes, people who live for years as one type of person who do something dramatically different: NFL cheerleader to anthropologist, screenwriter to Senator, oil company executive to noir fiction master.

Changes like those can’t happen for people stuck with a particular idea of who they are.

How many different ways have you filled in this blank: I’m not a ( ) person. Which one would you like to let go of?

Full article, “The Trouble with Bright Girls,” here.

(Still) Living with Loss

I didn’t want to go here in our first few months of blogging, but to some extent the universe has forced my hand.

I confess: the transitions I’ve been trying to think through have long been colored, sometimes saturated, by persistent thoughts about death. At the same time, the drumbeat of sickness and loss that has thumped steadily for the last year or more has accelerated. I haven’t gone 48 hours in the last two weeks without hearing about another death: the death of a good friend’s parent, or child, or a suicide. For the last two weeks in many of my circles the refrain has been, “I’m so sorry” and especially, “It’s just too much.” A Terry Pratchett fan, I picture Death with his hood and scythe saying Welcome to Midlife, without cruelty or sarcasm. Just an almost sympathetic acknowledgment of the truth.

None of these losses are about me. It seems childishly selfish to see other people’s tragedies as life lessons for me. At the same time, it seems willfully obtuse not to try to learn from them. I feel strongly that the universe is not trying to send me a message about anything. But here I am, wanting to write about and through this phase of life, and the sadness of loss runs through this phase of life like an electrical current: you don’t want to grasp it directly, but try to turn away from it and you are pretty much powerless in the dark.

I really have no intention for this to be the Death and Dying Blog. Still, I wanted to write about buying eyeshadow for the first time in years, and then someone called me about a car accident. I wanted to write about energy, but someone e-mailed me an obituary. I wanted to fix the damn Facebook page for this blog, but my kids and I were making dozens of cupcakes for a funeral. So I’m writing this instead.

I assume this is not unusual. Loss and serious illness are not unique to me and my social circle. How do other people do it? How you do you dance over the top of that steady drumbeat instead of cowering behind the battlements?