Saturday, September 16, 2017

The people we're supposed to be

Several weeks ago, I wrote about events that were changing my world too fast for me to keep up. My sense of humor was at half-power, my perspective was tired.  Worse than anything – anything - I felt uninspired.   

That's fine, that's life. Life isn't about removing stressors as much as going where they can't find you for a while. 

For me, it's my loft where I write.  Proof of my life is everywhere, from the crafty things my kids made for me as small children, to my first published article that my husband had framed. In the loft, I write to soft instrumentals and can see and feel the changes in the sunlight throughout the day.  

When my stretch of stress began, I decided that this would be a good time to make a list of all the things I haven't accomplished and, you know, just do all of them right now.

My big busy-ness would force my big issues into smaller spaces. Woe-be-gone! 

I made a calendar of twenty-five objectives (including "write novel"), put all my plans on a wipe board with dates and placed it where I would see it every day.

And every day I did that.  I looked at it and thought of how I would feel two or three months from now, when all those goals had checkmarks next to them.

I made my writing a shield.

My writing didn't want to be a shield.  It wanted to be the proof of my life, which is balanced, satisfying, promising, lopsided, frustrating, and precarious right now.

One morning last month, the thought of even going to the loft made me anxious. I dreaded the feeling of having nothing to say, nothing to care about, nothing to share.


But then. 

One morning soon after that one, surfing a sudden, surprising wave of nostalgia and social energy, I sent a group text to a small clutch of women I've known for a long time but have been wanting to know better, also for a long time.  I suggested we get together for a simple dinner and catch up. It wasn't like me. I've always been more of a one friend at a time person. 

But not this day.

We met last week. There were stories, there was laughter, there was intelligent discussion. We shared big plans and great memories. We talked about ridiculous things that have happened to us in the past and learned more about who we are today.  Mostly, we made plans to meet again next month, a thing that feels to me like a puzzle piece that's been hiding under the rug.

If you are in that spot of impending change, when you are moving too fast toward the next thing to say a proper goodbye to the old thing, or you're realizing you have two choices which are to grow or stay the same, or you are realizing that pals really mean a lot to you and you think you need more of them, 

Here are some things that might help you along

Don't give up on new ideas too soon. Give them a fair chance to unfold because before things feel completely right, they can feel like mistakes.       

You can't solve anything while you're in a panic over solving everything.  Calm down. Leave your loft for a while. Ask yourself: What is the most important thing on my mind? Go there.

Even things you love can be stressful – work, kids, spouses, friends. Don't overreact. Words you've said will be louder in your head when you're not upset anymore.

When change is forced on you and you're overwhelmed, take regular breaks to do something mindless and productive. Clean out a drawer. Return that sweater. Wash and vacuum your car. Get rid of the cloudy tupperware things in the back of the refrigerator. Easy stuff.

Stay in motion - drive or walk or bike – while you think about what you want to do. 

Compare what you need to be happy to what you're doing. Where you're short, pick a thing and plan it. Look forward to it. Do it.

Mostly. Mostly. 

Think of the people who have the greatest potential to wrest your attention away from yourself, who will make you laugh, who will force you to consider the bright side of things, and then, even if it's hard, make plans to see them, or talk to them, or text them, or all of those things. 

Be their shield, and let them be yours. 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Peace among the pieces: Standing up to anxiety

Here is person who looks
like she is being offered excellent
  anxiety ass-kicking instructions 
Not pieces as in ruins.

Pieces as in all the things going on in our heads about all the things going on in our lives: working, parenting, friending, spousing, dating and, especially now, college-ing.

My blog topics are pretty eclectic, but lately they have been veering into personal terrain. I've been watching my analytics to see what people care about, and share. Of all the topics, those related to anxiety are in the lead.  

By a lot.

It's not surprising; one in ten people will suffer an anxiety disorder this year. One in four will suffer an anxiety disorder in their lifetime.

As I've written before, I am a recovering anxiety sufferer. But more important, I am an anxiety veteran who knows that anxiety's ass can be very effectively kicked.

This week, I was contacted by a reader who began suffering terrible anxiety with the start of a major life transition. I could feel the distress this person was experiencing from the words on the screen alone, but also because here is what is different about  anxiety today versus twenty or thirty years ago: nothing.

When I was a wee anxiety sufferer, like wee anxiety sufferers do today, I carried the feeling around that if I was free of worry, I was probably not looking hard enough.

As a twenty-something, I no longer expected worry to hit me from behind, I just started to scan and plan anything out of my life that could be worrisome.

My "brand" of anxiety at this early-career stage of life was to fear mistakes; not small ones, but catastrophic ones,  ones that would be permanent, unfixable, humiliating, and to make it especially terrifying, would cost me the respect of people I really liked.

I knew I couldn't avoid mistakes so instead, I avoided attaching to anyone enough to care if I lost them. And that is what anxiety sufferers do. To avoid the feeling that life is bigger than they are, they shrink it.

That's sad, of course. But what is really sad, is that only some know in their hearts that it's not  okay to be like that, that they do not have to live that way, that they were not born that way,  and that life will not be a long-ass uphill trudge, punctuated by moments of stark terror and the intense need to flee.

It's not. They don't. They weren't. It won't.  

Somewhere in those anxious twenties of mine, when the only thing that seemed right about my life was my appearance, I changed this behavior with one decision. I looked up a psychotherapist – the mere word was terrifying -  and made an appointment.

"Do you know where I'm located?" he asked.
"No, but it's okay. I'll figure it out," I said.
"Would it be easier if I just gave you directions?"

It was the bravest thing I'd ever done to that point, and I'm not kidding. For some people it is just as hard as it ever was.

This therapist was a sensitive, mid-thirties guy who exuded warmth and affability, a person you could not imagine being at odds with anyone.

At the end of the first session, he looked at me and said, "Well. I believe you're going to be fine."

It was the sweetest thing I'd ever believed  with no proof that I should.

The feelings at the heart of anxiety are so powerful that whether you are a wee sufferer or veteran, you begin to feel it must mean something about the thing that's triggered them.

If you are a college student for example and are experiencing unbearable homesickness and loneliness, it's probably wrongly crossed your mind that you aren't ready for college.

If you are an older individual going back to work and feel anxious every time you see that someone has responded to your resume, it's probably wrongly crossed your mind that you are no longer a fit for the workplace.

If you are trying to make a major change in your life, and the uncertainty of it all makes you nervous and upset, it's probably wrongly crossed your mind that you are making a fatal mistake, one that will saddle you with lifelong regret and so on.

Basically, at glacier speed because I challenged everything before I embraced it, I was taught to separate  the feeling of anxiety from the situation that triggered it. I was to treat it as a thing to observe and feel until it passed, but no longer infuse with meaning, no longer trust to guide my behaviors toward or away from anything.

Anxiety stopped managing me, and I began managing it.

Do I occasionally step on a rake on the lawn? Absolutely. Do the feelings of anxiety feel better? Not at all.

But when they come, I know they're going to go and go they do, and whilst waiting, I make no sudden moves or decisions.

And it is the best feeling in world after knowing you're going to be fine, to start knowing you are the one making it happen.

It feels good to be your own proof. 

If this post is about you, believe, however you do it, you will do it.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

I want to, I would, but.

Here is a picture of old,
safe habits, and fear of the unknown. 
In 2014, Jim Carrey gave the commencement address at Maharishi University of Management. 

The speech was hilarious in places but took a sudden, poignant turn when Carrey described the fear of failure that keeps us from what we want, but won't prevent us from "failing at what we don't want." 

"As far as I can tell, it’s just about letting the universe know what you want and working toward it, while letting go of how it comes to pass. 

Your job is not to figure out how it’s going to happen for you, but to open the door in your head. And when the door opens in real life? 

Just walk through it."

We know more than we think we do. Somewhere in the tangle of craving change, we know what we want.  

We know.

We might erect our own barriers – put change out of reach – but it's in there, what you would do if those barriers came down.

It might not be easy to make the changes you know you should. You might have to put it off. You might have to plan it out. But it might be most uncomfortable, because:

You don't not know what to do.

You do know. 

If you are a millennial in a job that you don't love with no idea of what you would love, you do know, even if it might disappoint your parents and won't pay as well.

If you are a married person  in a troubled relationship and don't know how your life would be better, you do know, even if you hate the idea of standing up for your needs.  

If you are a new college student who can't stop fearing the unknown enough to settle, and don't know what to do about it, you do know, even if you'll have to risk social discomfort to get there.

If you are a  harried parent who has over-scheduled your life to the point of exhaustion and don't know how to back up and recalculate, you do know, even if you have to learn to say no a lot more than you do now.  

At the start of summer, I drafted a new book in my head. I couldn't wait to sit and write it out. With every day, I imagined character traits and plot points and this one, I knew, could sing with plot.

At the start of August, I had yet to draft it. 

I would like to think I don't know why, but I do. I've been ducking it because I'm afraid that after I take a year or more to write it, it will be rejected, and the only thing worse than rejection is feeling like it was inevitable the whole time you were wasting your time. 

Bringing this goal from my head to the page has predictably, churned up old mixed feelings about working on something with only the possibility of fruition, and distant fruition at that.  

But I'm opening the door in my head. For now, I'm allowing that to be enough. I am going to stop saying "I don't know," when I mean "it's too hard." I am going to break the habit of choosing certainty over possibility. 

If for you, change would be doable but for the uncertainty and difficulty of it, think about changing that.  

Some things to remember while you are thinking about changing that   
  • You know what you want. You do. 
  • If you've been trying and not getting what you want, you haven't failed. You just haven't gotten what you want yet. 
  • Ask yourself what the first step is. Spend a lot of time  planning how you'll do that one thing. 
  • When you're doing something very hard, it's possible to have a happy heart and a cranky head at once. Don't let the head win. 
  • Provide for yourself at least what you give to others. Practice this daily, until  it stops feeling selfish to get your way. Then keep practicing. 
  • Don't be sorry about not knowing more. Worry if you don't care about knowing more. 
  • Sometimes, things really are as good as you feared they might be, and will stay that way. Trust. 
  • The accomplishments you're aiming for probably won't happen if you aren't willing to try as much as you hope. Love the work.  Love the work. 
  • If you're keeping yourself from a thing you want, ask yourself why you don't deserve it.
I'm beginning to see old, safe routines and habits as the tractor that is traveling 4 mph and won't pull over to let you pass.  It is the sawhorse at the end of the street that bars you from your  favorite shops and restaurants.

Seize the energy of September and if you can't go right out and get what you want, just imagine having it for a while. The door will open, the tractor will pull over, and then...

you can take yourself shopping. 

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Empty Next: What will you do with all that you?

My empty next - writing full time

When our four children were under eight years old, I remember asking my husband not for a spa day or trip for my birthday, but a weekend alone in the house. What would I do with a weekend alone in the house, he wanted to know? 
"I'll spend two days in my own company, in my usual surroundings and eat Triscuits and cheddar slices for dinner," I said. 
Sixteen years later, our youngest left home and there I was, facing endless days in my own company, in my usual surroundings. And was I still as thrilled to have the house to myself? 
Yes. I was. 
However, a new challenge was before me that I hadn't expected, and it was this: to put myself at the center of my awareness where my kids used to be. 
I didn't need to embrace my freedom or go back to school, or volunteer. I needed to learn how to come first again, which felt like wearing shoes on the wrong feet. 
If you're going through this, or think you will, let me offer some pointers for getting used to this quirky twig of the empty nest. 
Starting now, journal and keep track of how you're changing. 
Before our youngest graduated, I started journaling every day; putting my feelings about the events that were changing me on the page where I could see them. The following year, when our house was empty, the proof of how I coped with ups and downs was right there.
When you've filled your awareness with other people for possibly decades, that awareness needs to go someplace when they leave. Be the someplace. Write to yourself. 
Empty nest is only one of the issues. The other is about empty "next." 
I remember leaning in the doorway of the first empty bedroom feeling a need to do something. If your empty nest is a couple of years or less from now, I can tell you, the "something" must  be planned in advance. It shouldn't be a thing to help you pass time, but a thing you would do now if you had time.  
I went to the local Boys and Girls Club and signed up to help kids write their life stories. It changed my life to blend my affection for teens with a passion for writing. It was hard to make time for it while my son was in the nest. But it was waiting for me when I needed the "next." 
The ghost in the house. 
When our kids were at home, I loved 5:00 in the afternoon. It was when I settled into the kitchen for cooking and conversation and where I felt most connected to everyone. When the house was empty, the old rhythms and the new ones collided in the kitchen at 5:00.  
When the kids leave, they leave that behind – a feel and rhythm in the house that has probably taken years to evolve. This phantom "feel" to things  can sting at first, but it won't last forever.
It won't be just a change in what you do and who you see that will move you back to the center. It will be the new feel and rhythm that grows around you if you let it. 
 Everything up or down, is just right now. 
After I'd become pretty good at my new me-in-the-middle life, a mid-November day sent me into a sudden, near-panic at the thought of November days that would feel nothing like the old ones.The ghost was back and with it came the earlier feelings of disorientation.  
And then they went. 
I helped myself by remembering a thing I had said so often to our kids:
Everything up or down, is just right now. No level of intense emotion, happy or sad can be sustained forever, unless you're a chipmunk. 
What you expect, you'll make true. 
Notice the relationship between your expectations and what you experience. I did not imagine I would be lonely and I wasn't. I did not fear I'd wander, but planned to meander mindfully.  More than I noticed quiet, I felt peace. 
Think hard about what you expect from a day, because with amazing consistency you'll see things happen as you envision them, up or down. 
Your work on-site is done now. But you are not through parenting. 
My children had my love, all the patience I was capable of, and the best of my intuition and intelligence as they grew. As adults, our relationships are true, and deep. 
I detect, in the expressions of some in my parent communities, their sense that an uncertain time is coming, like distant rain; something that might be overwhelming and cold, even dark. 

I say, get your rain coat and umbrella, and keep them handy.  The rain may come, as it should, but so will the sun shine, and growing things will be grateful. 

You included.  

A version of this post was originally published at

Sunday, August 13, 2017

After August

A while back, our two oldest children left for college one week apart. 

Jarring, yes. And yet, I remember thinking, I'm not upset enough.  It reminded me of when I was child and wanted to cry at a funeral because everyone else was.

July rolled into August. Suitcases filled, rooms emptied of posters and books and CDs, and while I found myself looking longer and harder at my children, I was still not weepy. Nor was I second-hand weepy around the mothers who couldn't get through a discussion about goodbye without tearing up.

I was even a tiny bit more cheerful as September came into view.  No more details, no more shopping. No more saying, "Did you," at the start of every sentence.

One brilliant green and yellow morning, I listened to the last movement of
 Beethoven's sixth, a piece my violist-daughter and I adore, and one I'd watched her perform the previous summer. I thought about that lilt in the beginning, the part she really loved, and wondered, where did it actually begin? I went to her room to ask her, and got halfway. In a week, I would not be able to do this.

I still remember my face getting cold, and a feeling of being hollow. And did I cry hard enough to make my best friend come over in her pajamas? Yes, I did.

As new parents write of lost identity when babies come, veteran parents write often of disorientation when babies go. What of the next relationship we ask ourselves, when we aren't yet those people we will be for each other?

For some, as drop off day looms, there is a wish to extend moments that are "special," and mixed feelings over unrealized joys, sadness over endless "lasts."There may be halting in the hallway, there may be cold faces. 

But most likely, there will be thoughts of who will we be instead of us?

I have come to understand the answer to this, and it isn't something I would have understood at all had someone tried to explain it before August.

It is this: my relationships with our four adult children, are more rewarding today than at any other time  because today, they demand more of me as a person than a parent. 

They are different people, but share a tolerant, kind view of the world which they require of those they intend to trust. I've learned from them, how it feels to want to be wrong, to step out of old thinking. I have started more than one conversation with, "Help me change my attitude about something."

I've never found it so easy to laugh at myself.

It wasn't like this when they were in high school and living at home. It was like this after August, when they began the work of becoming their adult selves. 

Until recently our daughter lived in Cleveland,  650 miles away from us. There, she directed a program which offered violin lessons to inner city children. Small children. Children who arrived tired and cranky and were more interested in my daughter's earrings than the piece upon which she tried to focus their little attention spans. 

She took me to tour the facility. When she left to take a call her boss resumed the tour, explaining the programs they offered and the value my daughter has brought to them. 

"We love her," said this man who has only known her as an adult, a kind, talented, professional woman. "She's a natural."

Later , we shopped for groceries and prepared dinner and talked in her kitchen about things we thought about, worried over, looked forward to, dreamed about. We had as much fun as two grown women can have when one is no longer – nor yet – dependent on the other. Today, we are more alike than we aren't, despite the twenty-plus years between us.  We share a mother-daughter relationship, but have adult lives in common.

My August hallway question is long behind me but I have learned this: children leave, and they travel as far as they must to become their individuated selves. But if we give each other that distance, don't try to close it, a very good thing can happen, next.

Whether they move down the street or text us from their living rooms across the country, they will reach out again. It will be for answers or approval, but as people with experiences to share, in need of comparison, in need of commonality.

The fall is coming. Parents will miss their college freshmen perhaps more than they imagined. I say, let the memories come. And as you remember the times you'll always cherish, also remember the times you wouldn't revisit for anything.

Above all, be joyous about the future, as love grows right along with you and connects you, long after August has come and gone. 

This piece has been updated. It originally appeared at in August, 2015.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sometimes, life is a bully on the bus.

Here is a brave person who is
saying "hi" to her new forest
When I was twelve, I shared a daily bus ride to junior high school with my friends, the other twelve-year-olds.  We all seemed to be doing life pretty well until we came to Marcia's stop. 

You could see from her expression, if Marcia, who was pretty, mean, moody and inexplicably popular, was out to tank someone's day, or not. 

You didn't want her to make eye contact with you. You didn't want her to ignore you. Her weapon of choice was random silent treatment. 

And so, did I, as well as the others, do everything we could to buoy Marcia's spirits, make her feel good about herself, laugh at her jokes, all in hopes of not being picked on, or off? Yes, I and we did.

On the list of things that can make life tough for a pre-teen, being frozen out for absolutely no reason by the popular kid is 1 through 3: Friend doesn't like you. Friends of friend don't like you. You don't like you. 

You can turn on yourself when there's a Marcia in your life, convinced you did something to deserve her wrath when of course, you've done nothing but show up in the same place you show up in every day.

Had my mother explained that, I would have said something like, "I really hate American Chop Suey. Why do you keep making it?" because to a twelve-year-old in a world that hinges on a daily bus ride, that kind of exchange with another innocent makes sense.   

And, sometimes life is a Marcia.

Life last week was such a Marcia, I went to my therapist for a touch-up.

Without going into detail, it was a stew of medical scares and waiting and tests and more waiting and results and bullets dodged, followed by a massive computer glitch, and followed next by an incidence of blurry vision which actually seemed symbolic. I was, literally, too stressed to see straight.

Everything turned out okay, or will. But for three or four days, it seemed like everyone I know, and I to a lesser extent, had made contact with Marcia-life.

I am nice to strangers, I love my beings and tell them so. I state my needs, I think about what other people are facing, and send them cards. I'm patient with our dog who is a pinball, and I treat the cat like there is only one like him in the world, which is true.

I do it in part because it's what nice people do. But I know I do it also to stay on life's good side, because the connection between these behaviors and a life that has smiled on me seems pretty apparent in some cause and effect corner of my brain.  

I kind of, sort of, think life should take that into consideration when it is preparing to be Marcia and needs a target.   

So, I looked skyward one morning last-week and asked my God in a nice way, WTF?

My God said, "Remember the album?"

Marcia had gone to my house when I wasn't home, lied her way in, and taken an album that my brother had let me borrow only after I promised to introduce him to a girl he liked, and probably offered a security deposit.

I knew where Marcia hung out, and I went there.

The first thing that happens when life is a Marcia – a job loss, a serious illness, a death, a divorce  – is that nothing looks like it used to for a while. It is mystifying, disorienting, and frightening to look around at all your stuff, all your people and habits and all that you're used to and feel like you don't actually understand this forest after all.  

You only know you still have a choice in how you'll recalculate.

When I caught up with Marcia she was holding court in a parking lot near the Dairy Queen. I walked straight over to her.

I said, "Give it back."

The conversation around us stopped.

She said some bad words, I said some bad words, she shoved the album into my hand and yelled more bad words at my back as I walked away.

I remember having a feeling I've had only a handful of times since, and it was of knowing  that my whole world was going to be one different forest in the morning. And that I would need a map. And that I would draw one.

It was a relief.

I lost my friends and replaced them with better ones.

None of them were Marcias.

Last week presented several views of a different forest to me. But today, I'm remembering that if I have less control over how Marcia behaves, I have the fortitude and strength to be mightier than she thinks I am.

I think most of us are blessed not to be tested, or scared. Life is how we hope it will be, probably, for the most part.

But I like to think that most of us will know what to do, if we're ever forced to show ourselves in a Dairy Queen parking lot.

We will be mighty. 

Don't forget that.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

A thing I learned in July about love

Here is a picture of how July spells its name
at the end of the month when it
doesn't feel confident.
It is the end of July, the 30th to be exact, which makes it the pond part of the year.  We've had the river of early and mid summer, and soon,  August, which is fifteen minutes long, will spill into the ocean of fall and all.

I feel sorry for this little end of July. It doesn't have the sizzle of the early summer or the cozy of fall. Because, well, look: 
  • A lot of vacations are over.
  • Staples is moving its back-to-school stuff up front.
  • People are grilling, but are kind of running out of ideas.
  • Summer camps will start soon, the appetizer before the school year for busy parents. 
The last week of July is like the late party-goer who put the wrong address in the GPS, or the one who comes a half hour early by accident. It's the kid who's too old to trick or treat, but too young to be a teen who's too old to trick or treat. It's a window between outside and inside, warm and cold.

In a way it's like February, the other month that sits between holiday fun on one side and languid beauty on the other like a hangover trying to wear off.

And yet, July has done me right.

In honor of people getting ready to send their kids all over the country in a month, and who are experiencing a kaleidoscope of thoughts about that, I'll share the gift that July handed me as it was getting ready to leave. 

A few months ago, our daughter and her boyfriend, who live in Boston,  told us that before the end of the year, they would probably move to the West Coast. 

The news did not come as a surprise.  We knew she was restless and tired of spending her morning commute underground. We knew that her boyfriend wanted to go back to his west coast roots, and that both the climate and his lovely family had turned her head.

I didn't, you know, think it would be this soon, but okay.

We are close, we see each every few weeks for coffee or brunch or shopping. We're  similar. We pretty much agree on everything.  I'll miss having her so close.

I hugged and congratulated them for reaching and acting on this great decision. I asked questions about the job outlook and where they thought they might live, and how his father reacted to being told his son would be near again.

"Oh, he's happy," said the man who has put the young girl back in my daughter's smile.    

They want this, and more than anything else, instead of anything else, I want this, too. 

I have been reminded of a nice truth these last four weeks and it is this: every time my own children have seized a chance to grow - a departure for college, a departure for the other coast - I grow with them.  

Our relationships are more rewarding today than at any other time because over and over, I am being shown that remaining close depends on my growth as a person more than my presence as a parent.  

They have taught me that closeness to an individual does not end with what you have in common, but in the willingness to discover, explore, and embrace your differences.


More than once, our kids have made me examine my heart and change it, close my mouth and accept what I can't relate to, discuss new truths, question wrong assumptions, update my views.

None of that had anything to do with how far I have to travel to share brunch with them.  

With July came a renewed understanding of what I learned the day our first child left for college and started becoming the adult I would meet next. It is this:

Love, like life itself, means being willing to let go of the known and turn to the great unknown, where lies the chance for sublime growth that cannot happen any other way.    

July has done me right.  So thank you, July. 

August, best of luck.

College parents, Godspeed. 

Love, Susan