Saving Steve Rogers

Travel Diary #10

We need to talk about Captain America.

First, here’s a summary for those of you who aren’t Marvel fans: Captain America has been a comic book superhero since the nineteen-forties. He’s a patriotic supersoldier who fought villains associated with the Axis powers in World War II. He wears red white and blue, and carries a vibranium shield emblazoned with a star. In the Avengers movies, he’s played by Chris Evans.

Captain America’s real name is Steve Rogers. Out of uniform, Steve is boyish, charming, and kind. In uniform, he is brave, selfless, and strong. To four generations of fans, Steve Rogers/Captain America has represented the best of America.

After all, he’s a uniquely American hero.

Enter the Controversy

Recently, in the comic books, Steve Rogers was revealed to be an agent of Hydra, a Nazi-like organization. Marvel recently doubled down on this story line (called Secret Empire) by asking comic book sellers to dress like Hydra agents, right down to that evil Octopus logo.

And as you might imagine, comic book sellers and fans are losing their collective minds. Snopes recently reported what one comic store employee had to say:

They murdered millions and I’m a lesbian whose grandfather was held as a POW by the Nazis during the war, I’m not going to promote this book. I’m not going to glorify something like this so Marvel can make a buck.

Of course people are pissed! Why on earth would a person dress up like a Nazi for fun? And how can Marvel claim that Captain America is an agent of evil? Steve Rogers is as American as apple pie, and America is always one of the good guys!

We don’t buy it!
We don’t accept it!

Except…

Returning to America

Can I tell you what it was like to watch the USA from a distance? Painful.

We watched the USA bar immigrants for no reason other than nationality or religion. We watched as citizens and visitors alike were subject to illegal searches and detentions at the border. And we observed as our president continually blamed other countries for our own problems, real or imagined.

Before we got on our flight home, we scrubbed most of our personal data off our laptops and phones. We talked about what might happen if a border agent demanded our passwords. We made sure we had the number of a good civil rights attorney on our phones in case we got separated, interrogated, or detained.

No, we didn’t expect we’d be stopped. We’re boring-ass white people with laptops full of vacation photos. But somewhere along the line, the USA became the kind of country that treats school teachers, tourists, and even our own scientists like criminals. And no, I wasn’t going to make it easy for someone to violate my civil rights.

Fortunately, we passed through customs without any problems. My worry turned into relief, and then into disgust. Somehow, we’d become the kind of country I wouldn’t want to visit.

Let’s talk about how we are the land of the free, while we demand people turn over their passwords at the airport.

Let’s call ourselves the land of opportunity, while blaming immigrants for the problems we’ve been unable to solve.

And let’s talk about how brave we are, while we treat teachers and engineers and little kids as “too scary” to come inside (even for a visit!) because they might blow us up or something.

No. Let’s call America what it is: the land of hypocrisy. We talk big about our American values, but when it comes time to live those values, we don’t.

Our American President

It hurts my heart to write this blog post, but I won’t lie to you. Being back in the USA has been difficult.

Ask yourself this: If America had become so corrupted that we were one of the bad guys, like Hydra, would we even notice? Could we admit it to ourselves? Or would we keep waving the flag, singing the Star-Spangled Banner at baseball games, and believing we’re the good guys because we’re America. Duh!

And as much as our president disgusts me, it would be dishonest to blame him for our sorry state. When I look at our president and the ruling party I see racism, arrogance, ignorance, and tacky bluster. But I see those exact same sins in our culture every day. Don’t you?

To put it another way, President Trump’s worst qualities are America’s worst qualities. And in that way, he’s as American as apple pie.

Just like Steve Rogers used to be.

Saving Steve Rogers

I don’t know where Marvel is headed with Secret Empire. But I can’t be too surprised at the fall of Steve Rogers. Don’t our stories tend to reflect our very real hopes and fears?

Activists are organizing to fight back against America’s corruption. That’s promising, but when I speak to people I know about the state of America, they so often shrug and make a dismissive comment. “It’s terrible, but what can you do? Anyway, I’m sure it will all work out okay in the end…”

That indifference breaks my heart, but I get where it comes from. It’s damn painful to look into the mirror, isn’t it? It’s easier to believe that our problems aren’t as bad as they seem. Meanwhile, the tentacles of corruption are winding around our houses of government, our courts, and perhaps even our own hearts.

I’m not a politician, or a superhero, or even someone who wants to be writing about this topic! But as a storyteller, I know that our stories aren’t merely entertainment. They are maps to our future, and reminders of who we aspire to be. And superhero stories have always taught that what seems hopeless isn’t, if good-hearted people are willing to be brave, and to act.

Somewhere along the line, we forgot that Captain America isn’t a god. He’s a guy from Brooklyn named Steve Rogers, and he became corrupted as humans sometimes do. We believed in the idea of Captain America so strongly that we loved everything he did while wearing our national colors. We didn’t see what he was up to until it was almost too late.

“I’m just a kid from Brooklyn”

What if Steve needs us to save him, this time? Can we help him remember what Captain America is supposed to be fighting for? And in the process, can we save our country from the Hydra-like threats that threaten to pull us into darkness?

I believe we can, if we remember what America is supposed to be, and if we fight hard to make that into who we are.

One decision at a time.
One interaction at a time.
One phone call to congress at a time.
One vote at a time.
One march at a time.
One act of courage at a time.
One conversation at a time.

When the Cap needs you, are you just going to sit on your ass, blame other people, or make platitudes about how there’s nothing you can do? No! You’re going to make that phone call. You’re going to actively oppose injustice. You’re going to act like a fucking American.

Right?
Good!

Now let’s get to work.


PS: There are many ways to help America! If you aren’t sure where to start, pick a worthy organization, go to the “get involved” page, and sign up. 

The American Civil Liberties Union

The Electronic Frontier Foundation

Emily’s List

Indivisible

Anti-Defamation League

SwingLeft  (take back the house in 2018)

iCivics  (for kids)

Contact Your Elected Officials

A Reluctant Feminist Goes to Washington

“What do those people expect to accomplish?”

Have you ever asked that question, when protesters take to the streets? I have. I’ll admit that it wasn’t so much a question as it was a complaint. Why are those angry people clogging up the streets? Don’t they have jobs? What a waste of energy!

If you think marches are pointless, I can’t judge you because I’ve been there too. But if you’re genuinely curious about why people march and what these events are supposed to do, I’ll tell you.

Because I marched with my husband and a million strangers at the Women’s March on Washington. And here I am, on the other side that experience, seeing the world with new eyes.

I’m glad I went. Let’s begin with that.

Why I Marched

Emotion! I went to DC because after the election my anger, grief, and fear had become cutting blades, chewing me up inside. I wanted to act, needed to act, but what on earth could I do? All that pain kept swirling and building; it needed some sort release. I felt called to go to the march, even though I couldn’t really articulate why, and so I went.

That was my first lesson. When you see a crowd taking to the streets, you’re seeing people who are hurt and angry and afraid and determined. They’re trying to transform their powerlessness into something productive.

Why I Almost Changed My Mind

In the weeks leading up to the march I almost backed out, because the social media discussions were so awful. As soon as we organized the group seemed to splinter, with sub-groups attacking what they perceived to be “the other side.” There were racial tensions. At one point white women were told they couldn’t join the march “[just] because you’re scared now too.” I felt like I was being talked down to because of my skin color. Later, a distinctly anti-male sentiment arose, with some even suggesting that men “walk in the back” because this was a women’s event.

I was so pissed! Here we were, trying to do something good, and the ‘leaders’ were fighting for the microphone, or slamming other groups to lift up their own. There were a handful of times I wanted to say “screw it” and just bow out of the whole mess. I’d repeatedly take a deep breath and remind myself that a few inflammatory statements didn’t represent the whole.

Some good came out of all the conflict, however. I found myself having good conversations about racism and sexism, out of my frustration. And ultimately it clarified my views on some matters, which I’ll discuss further down. That was my second lesson. Social movements generate conflict, and that conflict can spark productive conversations.

What The March Did For Me

The march itself was crowded and disorganized and loud and fun. We spent hours pressed up against each other like sardines, and it wasn’t always clear what the plan was. Were we marching? Were we standing still? What direction were we going? But now that the march is over, I can see all the little moments that mattered, spread out behind me, like a storyline.

Moments like:

  • When I admitted (a bit sheepishly) to P that I wanted to go, and he said he was in, without a moment’s hesitation.
  • When I was feeling low on inauguration day, and saw a few little girls in pink hats dancing along Independence avenue.
  • When I saw the sheer size of the march, all genders, all ages, all colors, so many different perspectives. And everyone was smiling!
  • When I saw people smooshed together, uncomfortable and disorganized, but gracious by the thousands, helping each other out all day.
  • When my husband subscribed to Teen Vogue because he wanted to support their journalism.
  • When I saw photos of marches all over the world. Millions of us! City after city, including my hometown of Seattle.

 

Intense crowds, but no negativity or rudeness. Amazing!

The march itself was an event – one passionate and exhausting day. But all those small sweet moments worked their magic, turning off that chopper-blade of pain I’ve been living with these last few months.

That was my third lesson. We march to remember what hope feels like. And we march to heal up.

My Unpleasant Return

After the march, we returned to our friend’s DC condo with relief. My feet were sore and I desperately needed a bathroom break. After taking care of the necessary, I plunked down on the couch and opened up Facebook. The first thing I saw was an angry post from a friend, who had been delayed by marchers in his town when we went to pick up his kid from school.

He lashed out in frustration, calling the marchers “vermin” and fat and unfuckable. (I’m paraphrasing, but not much.) And that old chopper-blade of pain threatened to start spinning again.

It was jarring, after spending a day watching total strangers being gracious to one another, to be dropped back into that world where good-hearted people can wield words like a sword, cutting indiscriminately and leaving lasting marks. But that’s the world we live in, most of the time, I reminded myself.

I took a breath. I reminded myself that we all have our frustrated moments. And I let it go.

That was my fourth lesson. We march because when we’re together in person, we are good to each other. Side by side, seeing each other’s families and bright eyes, kindness comes more easily.

What Comes Next

I’m under no illusions that spending a day in a pink hat, marching, is going to make our country’s problems go away. But this experience has given me a fresh perspective on what needs to be done, and how I can contribute.

There are the obvious steps, like calling congress more often to support their good work, and to discourage them from harmful actions. And there are the less obvious steps, like remembering that we have more in common than we do differences, even though the differences create conflict and can make us want to push each other away.

I also came away from the march with a new perspective, namely that “identity politics” (where we focus primarily on one group at a time) are inherently divisive and limiting. What if we marched for human rights? What if we stopped advocating for our own groups and instead advocated for all Americans?

Something like this:

I care about reproductive freedom because I want all Americans to have control over their own bodies.

I care about equal pay and access to housing and healthcare, because I want all Americans to have those things.

I’m fully aware there are many groups who get the short end of the stick in our country. But instead of beating each other with those sticks, how about we begin lifting each other up without blame, acrimony, or superiority? If women slam men to lift themselves up, and people of color treat whites like the enemy, and urbanites don’t give a shit about steelworkers, we’re doomed.

And honestly, that’s the way we talk. Especially those of us on the left.

The risk of course is that we say “we’re for all Americans” but then we go back to pretending that racism and sexism don’t exist. A humanist approach only works when we care about people who don’t look like us. But if we if we fight for one another voluntarily, and if we are willing to expose our nation’s flaws to scrutiny, I think we’ve got a shot at making our lives better.

And that was my final lesson. We march because it helps us better understand the work ahead.

Protest as an American Tradition

The day after the march, while we were still making sense of it all, P and I went to the Newseum in Washington DC to learn about journalism and the five freedoms enshrined in the first amendment. As we walked the hall of newspapers, we saw the front pages of 80 papers from around the globe, almost all of which showed a sea of faces, marching in solidarity, all around the world. I was moved to tears.

We went to a Q&A session with one of the museum directors, who described protest as a time-honored way of opening up dialog with our government. As a way of being heard, when the compact between the people and the government is broken. We the people. Marching and perhaps even blocking some traffic. Smiling. Crying. Holding up smart-ass signs. Putting our differences aside in order to focus on what we have in common.

Chanting “This is what democracy looks like.”

And calling back, “This is what America looks like.”

What Do They Expect To Accomplish?

I can only give you my answer, which is this:

Participating in the Women’s March on Washington restored my belief in the goodness of our country and our people. It healed my anger and my grief. It made me a more informed citizen. It even helped me understand the benefits of conflict, and of perseverance.

The march gave me a chance to listen to others, and to focus on what we had in common instead of our differences. It showed me how I can take action, starting now.

That’s my answer, friends. Now go find your own.

Show up and see.

He Won. Now What?

“A Christmas frost had come at midsummer; a white December storm had whirled over June; ice glazed the ripe apples, drifts crushed the blowing roses; on hayfield and cornfield lay a frozen shroud: lanes which last night blushed full of flowers, to-day were pathless with untrodden snow; and the woods, which twelve hours since waved leafy and flagrant as groves between the tropics, now spread, waste, wild, and white as pine-forests in wintry Norway.”

– Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

When Hillary Clinton gave her concession speech, I wept.

Donald Trump said that he could do anything to women, even “grab them by the pussy” and my country responded by handing him the highest office in the land. How do you come to terms with something like that? I felt betrayed. Devastated. My female friends and relatives put words to what I was feeling.

“I haven’t cried this much since my father died.”
“It was a punch to the gut. I’m in shock.”
“I have a headache. I’ve been weeping all day.”
“I can’t eat. My husband is trying to get me to eat but I can’t.”
“I feel sick.”
“I’m so disappointed in my home state.”

farnsworth

Hillary wasn’t my first choice for president, but I never doubted her qualifications. Seeing her thrashed by a blowhard in a suit was a sharp reminder of what it feels like to be an ambitious woman in America. Who among us hasn’t had an experience like that? Her loss wasn’t merely shocking, it was intimately familiar.

I’d convinced myself that this time a woman would prevail because the stakes were so incredibly high, and the competition was so weak.

I was wrong.

He Won. Now What?

Here in Seattle, even though the shock of the election is wearing off, the intensity of the conversation isn’t. Everywhere I go, I hear people talking.

“This cannot stand.”
“We must do something, but what?”
“We will not let America go down a dark path.”
“This isn’t normal. We won’t pretend it is.”
“It’s time to organize.”

Is this is what it felt like to live in the 1960s, the era that spawned a generation of politically active Americans? We’ve woken up in an unfamiliar landscape. Two weeks ago my biggest worry was adjusting to my year away from work, and here I am talking casually with my husband about the fact that we can’t let the government abuse the Muslims the way we did the Japanese during World War II, or the way Hitler massacred the Jews.

What am I willing to fight for? What type of action is most effective? And where are the lines that I’d rather die for, than cross? These unfamiliar thoughts arise from my fear that we’ll soon be replaying some of the darkest chapters in human history:

  • Forcing people to register with the government based upon their religion, as a first step towards unthinkable crimes.
  • Having federal agents tear people from their homes and families.
  • Criminalizing birth control and women’s health care.
  • Throwing people in jail because they’re gay, or because they wrote an article the President didn’t like.

Will these things actually happen? No one knows for certain, and I sincerely hope that my fears are overblown. But I find it impossible to ignore the dark forces that our president-elect is surrounding himself with. In the aftermath of this election, I can see America for what it’s become: divided, flawed, fearful, ignorant, and angry.

How long have we been this way, I wonder? And why didn’t I see it before?

There are reasons to be hopeful, of course. The words of our Seattle Police Chief and our Mayor give me hope, as does the quiet determination I see all around me when we talk about the state of our world. At coffee shops, and at work, and walking down the street, there’s a conversation happening. We will not be silent, it seems to say. This is not okay.

SeattleI’m proud of my city.

Putting Our House in Order

Amongst the left-leaning people I follow online, many are picking up their metaphorical swords, striking out in anger, and fomenting fear. They’re ready to label half the nation their enemy, and turn against neighbors and family — anyone they view as complicit in creating this scary new world.

This is dangerous, in my opinion, because labeling half of our nation “the enemy” is a powerful invitation to violence. Violence always begins with words, before it moves into the realm of the physical. And aren’t the politics of hate and division precisely the things we are trying to fight?

You can’t have justice and vengeance at the same time, my friends. Pick one.

There is so much I don’t know about advocacy, but working with groups in conflict has taught me a great deal about how change does and does not happen. Here is what I think I know:

If we are divided, we need to build bridges, and then trust.
If we are flawed, we need to be courageous enough to see our flaws, and compassionate with each other while we work on them.
If we are fearful, we need to be brave.
If we are angry, we need to find a way to let our anger go. Anger is a dangerous kind of poison – corrosive – and it leads to vengeance and a cycle of violence.

I won’t minimize the problems we are facing. Anyone who pretends that the ugliness coming out of our new government is going to “blow over” or “isn’t that bad” is (in my opinion) fooling themselves. Our basic freedoms are under threat, and we risk committing serious evils if we allow bigotry and authoritarianism to run unchecked in our government.

I believe we must act. But how? How do you even begin, when it feels like the world is on fire?

You do the only thing you can do! You grab your bucket. You fill it up. You start fighting the fire, wherever it makes sense to do so. Use your talents, whatever they might be. Encourage others to join you. And in the meantime, you keep on living your life, because none of this is worth doing if you aren’t living.

I’ve dried my tears. And with great difficulty, I’m setting my anger aside.

Enough emoting, I tell myself.  It’s time to get busy, don’t you think?

I’ll see you in DC.

Where Does Happiness Live?

And does it change as you get older?

When discussing happiness researchers often describe a U shaped curve.

The idea is that you begin your adult life happy and then as you pile on the responsibilities (career, children, caring for aging parents, mortgages) your happiness slowly slides down into the dumps before recovering in your fifties-or-so when you get your freedom back.

Certain rabid childfree people view this curve as evidence that children ruin your life. I think that’s nonsense. But I do suspect our responsibilities can weigh us down in ways we hadn’t anticipated. When you’re trudging through a job that has lost it’s luster and you never have time for yourself but you can’t change anything because you’ve got kids to feed and a house to pay for and you’re mired up to the neck in obligations…  yeah, I can see how that might bring you down.

Does feeling locked-in get in the way of our happiness? Possibly. Then again I’ve always valued my freedom.

P and I are jettisoning responsibilities left and right at the same time that our peers seem to be doubling down on theirs. We’re working less and spending less. And we’re shying away from anything that feels like a long term commitment. Meanwhile many our friends are raising kids, investing in their careers, upgrading their homes and cars, and sinking their roots down deep into the earth.

As far as I can tell we’re all pursuing happiness in our own ways. And that’s good! But does our concept of happiness change as we get older?

When we are in our twenties and thirties most of us are just trying to get by. We’re working to keep our bills paid and our selves fed. We’re trying to build our careers. And if you want kids human biology says you’d better get started.

And then you enter your forties and you see that the decisions you made over the last decade or two have worn certain ruts into your life. If you birthed some kids you’ll spend the next ten to twenty years caring for them. If you’ve built a good career, chances are that it’ll be hard to switch without a big cut in pay.

You’ve built a life for yourself, but is it still the life you want?

Boom! That question tosses you into the throes of the midlife transition.

Old choices that seemed smart at the time may feel constraining.
Old dreams may resurface and haunt us.
Security and sameness might become less appealing.

You might do something crazy!

Pop culture says that we’ll punctuate this time with a shiny red convertible or an extramarital affair but I disagree. Instead midlife can be the time when we finally give ourselves permission to pursue the dreams we set aside in the pursuit of responsible adulthood.  It’s a time to bring excitement into our lives while also appreciating the goodness that’s already there.

That sounds great, but getting there can be tricky.

Losing my ambition and struggling with my priorities and reanimating old dreams and getting rid of stuff… those were my emotional equivalents to the shiny red convertible. And it’s brought me to a new perspective on what happiness is and where it comes from.

I’m feeling excited about my next few decades for a new set of reasons. My responsibilities are fairly light. I’m doing some of the things I always said I wanted to do but never really made time for. I’m still madly in love with my husband. My health is good and my boobs are still pretty high up on my chest. Climate change may be coming to kill us all BUT IT’S NOT HERE YET and the trees are blooming outside my window.

The future may be as uncertain as ever but the right-this-minute is rather sublime.

The right-this-minute is where I’ve been finding my happiness lately. I’m done living for the future (although I’ll be responsible). I’m done worrying about the past (although I’ll appreciate the lessons).

Growing up isn’t easy. I think that’s as true in your thirties as it is when you’re sixteen. And why do we like to pretend we’re done growing up when we settle down with a mortgage and a car? How silly is that?

That’s my latest aha moment. Happiness lives in the right-this-minute. 

My heart says Wow!
My heart says Yes!

Perhaps getting older isn’t so bad after all.

WP_000700

PS: Where does happiness live, for you? And has it changed as you’ve gotten older?

Brave New Heart

Back in 2006 I drew a self portrait.

It’s a heart that has been damaged and repaired. There’s a metal plate riveted to one side. Also a Band-Aid and careful stitching in black cotton thread. A diagonal scar shows that at one point the heart was nearly torn in half. And yet it lives. It beats. It loves. It has turned pain into strength.

That picture was me.

Self-Portrait, 2006

Self-Portrait, 2006

Drawing it was a turning point. I think it was the first time I’d ever examined my past with something resembling compassion and self-love. I hired a therapist soon afterward. And gradually I began to untangle those fucked up beliefs you carry around when you’re an adult child of an alcoholic.

1. Negative emotions are always inappropriate. (for me to have)
2. Don’t take what people say at face value. Don’t be a chump.
3. Happy drinkers are bound to turn cruel any second. Run!
4. Never be vulnerable. Never depend on others.
5. If only I were a better daughter or sister…
6. If someone gets upset with me it’s  my fault and I’m a terrible person.
7. Don’t be such a baby about what happened. It wasn’t that bad.
8. If you love your family hard enough, they’ll all get better.

When you’re an ACoA you carry around beliefs like those without even realizing you have them.  So before you can get healthy you need to go out and find all those land-mines and defuse them.

In my case, progress has been super slow. I’d think I had one of these stupid beliefs beat and then it would flare up up even stronger. Or I’d discover some fresh dysfunction deep in my brain and spend six months trying to break it down with logic. And I figured I’d be wrestling with this shit for the rest of my life.

No one gets cured, I told myself. You just learn how to deal is all. And I was dealing. That was really the best anyone could expect, right?

But over the past several months I’ve been feeling something entirely unexpected:

Peace with my past.
Acceptance of what is.
And the unfamiliar sensation of letting go.

The enemy I’ve been fighting has become strangely powerless, like a cardboard monster that I can push over with one finger.

Kind of like this:

I’m perplexed and delighted at the same time. Why was I able to change? Why was it so hard before and why is it so easy now?

I don’t know. But what I do know…

Is that I’ll take it.

A Creative “Career” Doesn’t Fit in a Box

A year ago I wrote that I was in transition.

I went minimalist, sold most of my earthly belongings, and bought a vintage typewriter. Meanwhile I found it difficult to be interested in anything but sleeping in, drinking tea, and feeling melancholy. The part of me that used to give a shit about things like MY CAREER and MY GOALS and MY FUTURE seemed to have packed a bag and departed in the night.

I wrote nonstop during this time but most of it looked like shit on crackers. I felt as angsty as a teenager and every time I opened my mouth I felt like I was whining. Not much fun.

typewriter

A sign of the eco-hipster midlife crisis.

In retrospect I can see that I had burned myself out pretty badly between 2012-2014 and I simply needed some time to recover.  I wasn’t doing a very good job of “feeding my spirit” as my client B would say, and I needed some time to hunker down and rest before I could figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

I took July off and was relieved that by August I felt like myself again. I was ready to contribute again. But how?

I began by making a list of things that I wanted to do over the next five years. It looked like this:

I can be an author.
I can be a consultant.
I can be an entrepreneur. (I’ve got a bitchin’ idea.)
I can be a world traveler.
I can work part-time, to spend more time with friends and family.

Like any sensible businessperson I told myself to prune this list down to something manageable.  Certainly I couldn’t do all those things because if you try to divide your energies too much you end up doing many things badly instead of doing a few things well.

Besides, some of the items on my list were in conflict. Travel doesn’t fit well with doing face-to-face consulting in Seattle.  Working part time doesn’t fit well with launching a new business. I had a handful of puzzle pieces but they refused to snap together, and the harder I tried the more frustrated I got.

Finally I ordered myself to pick two items. Any two would do.

That didn’t work either. I kept thinking that I had made up my mind but then I’d get really pissed off as soon as I tried to act on it. Pruning down my list felt wrong. Like I was trying to saw off my own limbs to make myself lighter.

One night instead of trying to tell myself what to do I sat down and listened instead. I believe we all have a wise voice that speaks to us. Some writers call her the muse but I think of her as being my heart. 

Here is how that conversation went down:

Me: What do you really want? What is most important?

Heart: I want it all. Everything on that list. They are all important.

Me: That’s not rational. 

Heart: Fuck rational. It’s what I want. 

Me: I don’t know if it’s even possible. How would I fit it all in?

Heart: Use your brain. 

Me: Brain? A little help here?

Brain: You assume that you need to pick one path into your future. This is the cause of your frustration. But what if you did incorporate all your interests? What would that look like? 

Me: It would be chaos! How many careers can I possibly manage at one time? While traveling? While working reasonable hours? My progress will be really slow if I’m dividing my attention like that.

Brain: Is speed important to you? 

Me: Not really. But I don’t want to suck. It’s important that I not promise what I can’t deliver.

Heart: You won’t suck.

Brain: What if you didn’t think about your options as “careers” and instead thought of them as many individual projects that fit your interests? Consulting projects. Book projects. Travel projects. Business projects. Just do the things you enjoy, day-by-day, and don’t overthink it. Of course you’ll need to manage your pace – just a few projects at a time. But you already do that. You learned how to do that last year.

Me: Seriously? My brain is telling me not to overthink things.

Heart/Brain: Yes.

Me: I can really do all the things I love? I can do projects? I can travel? I can consult sometimes and write sometimes and just let it all happen as it happens? 

Heart/Brain/Me: Yes.

Heart/Brain/Me: Good. Let’s do it.

I think I’m onto something here. No more thinking about my work as being part of one or more careers. A career to me is an intimidating thing – it requires almost all of your time, much sacrifice, and intense focus. My interests have become too diverse to fit neatly into that mindset. Instead, I’m going to do projects that feed my spirit.

And with that one little twist, it’s like all the fear and resistance has fled my body. And I finally feel like this bewildering year of transition is coming to a close. So I’ll re-write that list a little differently.

What I want to do for now for the next five years.

I can be an author.   I’m working on Orientation to Murder.
I can be a consultant.  I’ve got a few consulting projects this fall.
I can be an entrepreneur. (I’ve got a bitchin’ idea.)
 I’m writing a business plan.
I can be a world traveler.
 I’m taking two trips in 2015.
I can work part-time, to spend more time with friends and family.
I’m spending Tuesday with a friend.

When I told my friend S about these thoughts she laughed and said “so you’re gonna be like me?” And I felt like I had been hit upside the head with a clue-by-four.

If you asked me what S does for a living I’d have to give you a very long list of projects. She’s embroiled in a half-dozen little things that add up to an interesting life, but there’s no central theme. Except that she’s creative and smart and kind. Her model for a creative career was right in front of me this entire time. I didn’t notice it until today.

Yes, S, I’m gonna be like you.

Imp Perfect

You know these guys. They hang out in cartoons mostly, but I have a feeling that they get around. Usually they are personified as the angel on one shoulder, the devil on the other. In my case, they are both imps.

I’ll call the first guy Imp Patient, because he is really impatient. On the ride home from a day of consulting he is whispering in my ear about discount airfares to Europe. He bursts into loud snoring when I talk to him about my carefully constructed life plan. Imp Patient wears a purple feather boa, carries a backpack, and likes to make up ribald song lyrics.

The other guy is called Imp Perfect, because he wants me to be perfect and follow my plans to the letter.  He likes to remind me about my goals, my obligations, and the fact that giving anything less than my best is unacceptable. To Imp Perfect, my intentions are pretty irrelevant, it’s results that matter. He wears a business suit, a large watch, and reads the Wall Street Journal.

Photo by Lolla Moon

Photo by Lolla Moon

The Battle of the Imps

My imps are great when they work in concert. Imp Patient is the one who pushed me into starting my own business, and Imp Perfect is the one that gave me the work ethic to be successful. Imp Patient loves to pivot my life in unexpected directions, and Imp Perfect puts plans in place to make sure that I succeed no matter what I do.

But lately… It’s been rough. My imps are fighting with each other, and with me.

I am exercising again, which is great, but when I had to skip two weeks because I got sick, Imp Perfect made me feel like a slacker and a loser.

I’m gradually setting up my life for more travel, and more adventure, but Imp Patient is getting upset with me, saying that it’s taking too long, that I’m dragging my feet.

I’m still struggling to cut back my consulting hours, I find myself disinclined to say “no” to people that I care about (damn this consultant’s heart!) and then both of my imps start boxing my ears. One telling me to stop being such a workaholic. The other telling me that I’d better get my ass in gear and stop whining.

So I’ve got something to say to both of these guys, right now.

Hey Imps. Listen up! I’m doing the best I can here. You are both important to me. You both *are* me. Because I am impatient. And I am imperfect. So I need you to back off for a while, give me some space, and let me work through the next few years without so much nagging. I hear what you are saying! I’ll go to the gym as often as I can. I’ll write as quickly as I can. I’ll head off to the airport as soon as I can. I agree with you that these things are important, but the negativity isn’t helping.

To summarize (I know you like bullets, Imp Perfect…), here are three points:

1) I am doing the best I can.

2) Cheer me on, or get the fuck out of my way.

3) You’re here to help, not to beat me down.

Alright?

Good. I’m glad we cleared that up.

My First Panic Attack

I had my first panic attack last week.

Here’s the deal. You wake up at 3am and your heart is pounding. The room is tilted and spinning, like you are stuck inside a nightmarish carnival ride.  What is even more frightening is what you are hearing. Your mind is full of angry voices, and they are crashing into each other. It’s like being inside a room where everyone is shouting, except that it is your own thoughts that are shouting at you, and you can’t turn them off. Why is the room so hot? Why can’t you breathe? What the hell is going on?

Yeah. That wasn’t fun.

361935363_10d61f2717_z

Recovering from my First Panic Attack

My initial reaction was embarrassment. I take a lot of pride in being someone who has her shit together, and admitting that I’d had a panic attack… well, it made me feel weak.

This was ridiculous of course. Being human isn’t a weakness. So I mustered up the courage to talk to a couple people that I trust.

P reminded me that suppressing my feelings of stress isn’t healthy. I have this habit of getting stressed, and then instead of dealing with it constructively, I tell myself put on your big girl panties and get over it.  I have this belief that I should be able to keep going because whining is for wimps and the way to deal with worries is keep pushing forward.

E reminded me that even the most outwardly confident people have struggles with things like anxiety, and that we need to be able to reach out to our friends for support instead of pretending that everything is fine when it isn’t. She is no stranger to a panic attacks, and she helped me see that I wasn’t alone.

Emptying Out the Invisible Knapsack

One of my big mistakes has been assuming that I can simply “will” my stress away.

Step One: Feel Overwhelmed
Step Two: Tell Yourself to “Get Over It”
Step Three: Move On.

Telling yourself to shut up isn’t a very good coping strategy. (Go figure!) Instead of actually dealing with my stress, I’ve been compacting those feelings very small and throwing them into an invisible knapsack I carry.  This works pretty well until those worries re-inflate and start kicking your ass in the middle of the night.

The night of my freak-out, I pulled out a piece of paper and made a big long list of everything that was worrying me. And I saw in black and white that this has been a pretty turbulent year. Selling a home and buying one. Family turmoil. Family illnesses. Nursing sick pets. Saying goodbye to Bo. An intense workload. Sky high expectations. Downsizing into a tiny space. I’ve been chucking an awful lot of stress in that knapsack of mine!

Processing What’s Inside

Once you’ve pulled out your long list of worries, what can you do with them? I did some research and ultimately settled on meditation and exercise. I based my meditation on the Serenity Prayer.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

Here are the instructions:

1. Sit or lay down comfortably and close your eyes.

2. Imagine that you have a large cloth bag containing a variety of objects, each of which represents something that you are stressed out about.  In your mind’s eye, take the bag and pour the items out onto the floor or table in front of you.

3. Pick up one of your worries and examine it. Is it something that is within your control? If so, think about what you can do to address that worry. Is it out of your control? If so, think about how you might set that worry aside, and accept what you cannot change.

4. Proceed through your worries until you have worked through all the items, or you are ready to stop.  You can come back and repeat this process as much as needed.

I’ve been going through this exercise daily, and it’s helping.  I am feeling like myself again.

Accepting the Gift 

When you are accustomed to being a so-called “strong person” it is humbling to be laid low by anxiety. And although I certainly did not enjoy my panic attack, I’m starting to see it as a gift. Here is what I think the universe is telling me:

It’s OK to lean on your friends – that is what they are for.

I need to be nicer to myself. No more responding to stress with “shut up and get over it.”

A little meditation goes a long way.

Thank you Universe. Sometimes the lessons are hard, but I promise to keep listening.

 

Photo by Trance Mist

Happy Now

Happiness is a choice.

This little bit of wisdom isn’t new, and it’s not particularly easy to follow either. You can’t just sit at your desk, scowling, and yell at the walls “I have decided to be happy NOW, dammit!”

Here are some things that make me happy:

1. Loving my husband.
2. Facilitating groups of people. (Leading Conversations)
3. Writing, reading, and sharing what I’ve written.
4. Learning New Things
5. Coffee with Friends
6. Helping People Succeed(at Work)
7. Playing Games & Goofing Off
8. Taking Walks
9. Being in Nature

I’ve been feeling a bit lost lately. And what’s been surprising is that the “answer” to my problem is pretty obvious. To be happy, do the things that feed your spirit.

I tackled my husband with a hug when he came home from work – happy.
I facilitated some great training sessions – happy.
I went to a coffee shop for three hours and wrote. – happy.
I took a walk after work – happy.
I re-enrolled to my writers group – happy.
I invited my husband on a date – happy.

None of these things are special. None of them are new. But perhaps my motivation has changed? I used to do things like consult and write because I wanted to be successful. Now I do them because I find them inherently delightful.

Who knew that happiness was so close, all this time?

Choppy Water

I recognize this place.

For me, it always begins with a kind of restlessness. I surround myself with interesting books but can’t stay focused for more than a page or two at a time. I abandon tasks before they are finished, and ideas that seemed exciting on Monday have lost their luster by Tuesday afternoon. My old habits don’t really fit anymore, but I haven’t found any new ones.

This is what being in transition feels like.

iStock_000015163584Small (1)

It would be cleaner and easier, I think, if I knew what I was transitioning towards.  A career change, or a move, or a big shiny goal – these are tangible things that can be worked towards. That kind of specificity is familiar and comfortable. But what I’m dealing with right now is far more nebulous.

What do I want my life to be like?
How can I align my choices with my values?
Who am I becoming?
What (if anything) am I moving towards?

If I could plot it all on a timeline, it would look something like this:

Age 0-16: Grow Up
Age 17-20: Get Credentialed
Age 21-35: Kick Ass at Career
Age 35+: I Have No Fucking Idea

For a long time, my job was my identity. “I am a consultant.” But while consulting is something I do, it’s no longer who I am. I’ve got this big blank spot now.

“I am _______.”

So yeah, my career no longer defines me, and I don’t know what does. I’m adrift without a compass, and it’s unsettling.

What to do? The only thing I can.

Breathe deep, ride the waves, and wait for the shoreline to appear.