Staying Informed without Being Miserable

It’s tough to face the news these days. Do I need to choose between staying informed and being happy? I know I’m not the only one asking these questions. In a recent interview with GQ Magazine, comedian and actor Aziz Ansari had this to say:

I don’t think me reading the news is helping anything. I think it’s hurting me. It’s putting me in a bad state of mind. And I could see how someone could hear that about me and be like, Oh, you’re ignoring what’s happening in the world ’cause you don’t want negativity in your head. That seems very selfish. Maybe it is. I don’t know. It’s not like I was reading it and then, like, immediately taking action in a way that was helping to fix problems. I can still cut checks without reading the articles. I cut my checks, man!

I’ve been trying to solve my “the news is making me miserable” problem, but in order to do that, I need to talk about social media.

Sabbatical Daze

I’m officially on sabbatical now.

The last loop has been closed. My final invoice has been sent, and paid, and the payment is logged. My trusty blue box— the one that carries my facilitation supplies— is folded flat and gathering dust in the basement. I’m done with so many things! No more standing behind a podium, no more rehearsals to get the tone of a training session just right, and no more afternoons at the printer, picking up colorful charts and boxes full of binders.

I’ll miss those red metal buckets of Sharpies, fresh Play-Doh, and the soft zip sound that a flip-chart makes when you pull off a sheet.

And I’ll miss standing back and asking, “What do you think of this thing you’ve made?” Because most of the time, my clients created wonderful things! Plans and decisions and goals, of course. But also themselves. They remade themselves, year after year, and it was beautiful to watch. Like a field of flowers unfurling. Like a dozen jangly instruments coming together to sing a joyous song.

Like magic.

Becoming a Better Writer

If you write, you’re a writer.

There’s no secret handshake, and no gatekeeper. The only permission slip that matters is the one you give yourself. And while you might choose to get an MFA degree, or to take a class, or get an agent, exactly zero of those things are required.

It’s easy to get lost in the forest of self-doubt! For years, I threw roadblocks into my own path. I told myself that I needed to do X or Y before I could be a Real Writer. And I convinced myself that writing was self-indulgent, not very respectable, and not important enough to spend my time on.

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.

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.

A Brand New Me

Walking away from a career you love is a strange feeling. For the last month, I’ve been living someone else’s life. Business-Cheri; that chick I used to be.

It began with the feeling that my work clothes were all wrong. When I pull on a skirt, sensible sweater, and heels, all I want to do is tear them off my body like I’m the Incredible Hulk. I caught myself fantasizing about lighting the contents of my closet on fire.

Burn baby, burn!

As bizarre as that is, I think I understand where it comes from. I’m in the process of becoming a different kind of Cheri, after so many years of being Business-Cheri.  For a decade, consulting wasn’t just what I did, it was who I was. And now…

I don’t quite recognize the woman in the mirror.

Unsolicited Advice for a Happy Marriage

My brother-in-law got married recently.

He and his bride promised to love and care for one another, in both good times and bad. And then they did something unexpected: they promised each other the freedom to be themselves.

“I promise to let D be D.”
“I promise to let T be T.”

That was perfect, I thought. I believe that marriage is about loving your partner for who they are. Not in spite of who they are. And not because you believe you can change them.

The ceremony was lovely! And then came the speeches. Wedding speeches can be awkward, and these were no exception. Some of them were surprisingly negative.

Marriage is super-hard work. So so hard!
Now that you are married (groom), you never get to be right, ever again. Haha!
Keep your marriage counselor on speed dial.
You’d better be nice to (spouse) or I’ll kick your butt!

I suppose everyone meant well, because we all love D and T.  And certainly it wasn’t the first time I’d heard those kinds of statements. But I hate it when people talk about marriage like it’s a burden that must be carefully managed. Marriage isn’t a burden, or at least it shouldn’t be. In fact, it’s a continual lifting of burdens because you and your partner have decided to be on the same team. Isn’t that the whole point?

I’m not saying bad relationships don’t exist. Divorce isn’t a moral failing, and sometimes it isn’t possible to work things out. But I’d argue that for most couples, happiness isn’t difficult to find.

What Makes a Marriage Happy?

A happy marriage emerges when both people in the marriage treat their partners well.  That sounds obvious, but it’s actually profound because treating someone well takes patience and practice. Marriage means that you’ve committed to an important project (your mutual happiness) for your entire lives.

If happiness is your goal, treating each other well is essential.  But what does it really mean to treat your partner well? If you believe what your parents, or society, or your friends, or romance novels taught you, you might come into your marriage with some odd ideas. For example, I came to my relationship with the notion that I needed to keep my frustrations to myself, because that’s what women did in my family. (No, that didn’t work.) I know one woman who believes a good husband should treat his wife like “a princess,” by providing a steady stream of flowers, jewelry, and foot rubs. And there was another couple I knew that believed a good wife must make her husband lunch every day and give him sex upon demand, even when she was tired or sick.

This wouldn’t work for me.

We seem to enter our relationships with a ‘template’ in mind for how we are supposed to behave. And when those templates are based upon fucked up ideas, or when we have radically different templates than our spouse does, it can make the road rocky.

I’d like to propose an alternative, for all married couples who would like to be happy over the long term. Throw the rulebook out and make your own. Literally sit down and write out what you think it means to be a good partner. Then compare notes with your husband or wife, to get on the same page.

I’ll even give you my list, as a starting place. I don’t claim to do these things perfectly, because I’m far from perfect. Back when I was a newlywed, some of this stuff wasn’t even on my radar! But looking back on my own happy marriage, all these years later, I can say that these are the things that seem to matter most:

Unsolicited Advice for a Happy Marriage

1. Be kind to each other.
2. Ask for what you need, when your needs aren’t being met.
3. Find out what makes your partner feel loved, and then do those things.
4. Love them for who they are, even for their flaws quirks.
5. Be responsible for your own happiness.
6. Respect one another.
7. Have fun together!
8. Butt stuff.*
9. Support them as they pursue their dreams.
10. Sacrifice for them.
11. Pick up the slack without being asked.
12. Say “please” and “thank you.”
13. Forgive their mistakes.
14. Comfort them when they are sick or sad.
15. Stay by their side through the ups and downs of life.
16. Be sweet to their friends and relatives.
17. Have adventures together.
18. Keep your promises.
19. Admit your mistakes.
20. Hold them tight. (Because no matter how many years you get together, it won’t be enough.)

*Ha! Okay, not literally this. But keep things interesting is what I’m saying.

To our dear friends and relatives getting married this summer, P and I wish you all the happiness in the world. Marriage is awesome! We’re glad you’re joining in on the fun.

And if you ever feel stuck, as all couples do from time-to-time, you could do worse than to reach for your partner’s hand, remind them you love them, and ask humbly for what you need. And when your partner does the same, be sure to really listen, and work to meet their needs in a loving way.

Does that sound like a burden to you? Because it sounds like love to me. And when you’re loved like that, happiness is never very far away.

Happiness is right beside you, because they are standing beside you.

Always.

 

Photo credit: meme generator, death to stock

Is Productivity the Enemy of Happiness?

Being busy sucks.

Last month I said “yes” to a couple of consulting projects even though my schedule was already full. Not full in the way it used to be, when I was routinely working fifty-five hour weeks. But full in the sense that in order to take on more work, I’d need to start slicing away some of the best parts of my life. The hours I spend hanging out with P. My twice-weekly writers’ group. The time I spend with M and A hanging out at coffee shops talking about our lives. Time spent with Mom and Dad B, and bus rides to Discovery Park.

I couldn’t help myself, though. The projects were damn shiny and they came from clients that I adore. And so before I knew, it I was running five consulting projects concurrently and feeling overwhelmed. I even downloaded a new planner because there’s nothing like a blank calendar to make me feel like I’m in control of my own life. But when I opened the planner up, it said this:

Leave ZERO white space on the planner so that you have no unaccounted time. This may sound overwhelming at first as your calendar will be full, but it will allow you to maximize the amount of time you spend each day on pushing you to your goals. This will help you easily transition from one task to the next with laser-focus due to no wasted “in between” time or decision fatigue.

When I read that, I wanted to cry. The white space they are referring to is what I call having a a life.

My Too-Busy Month

I made my own bed, of course. I was the one who kept telling myself that it was a good idea to say yes to all those projects. I told myself that it would only be a temporary crunch. I told myself that I owed it to myself to cram in as much work as possible before our summer trip.

And the most stupid thing I said to myself was this: I used to work this way all the time, so it’s no big deal.

It was a big deal though. Before too long I found myself spiraling back into the shitty life I’d so carefully fled.

I was eating poorly, again.
I was feeling anxious, again.
I kept waking up in the middle of the night,
I stopped going to my writers group.
I blew off my friends, canceling coffee dates and saying no to outings.
My thoughts raced round-and-round like a rat on a wheel.

My misery came to a head last week when P and I went out to dinner. My thoughts kept turning to work whenever I wasn’t actively occupied. If we were taking a walk, I was thinking about work. If we were waiting for the food to arrive, I was thinking about work. I was thinking about work while we ate, and while we paid the bill, and long after I’d crawled into bed for the night.

Think about work. Think about work. Think about work.

WOOOOORRRRRKKK!!!!

WOOOOORRRRRKKK!!!!

I was getting a lot done. But beneath it all, I felt sad.

Climbing Back Out

The worst of it is over now. Three of my projects have been successfully completed, and I’m working on this blog post at Uptown Espresso, surrounded by the friendly faces of my writers’ group. June will be busy, but not painfully so. In fact, when I get home, I’m going to gather up the pages of my planner and drop them off at the shred bin in the basement of my building.

I’d light those pages on fire and toast some marshmallows over the flaming corpse of my to-do list, but that seems melodramatic.

As much as this last month has been hard, I’m grateful for everything that’s happened. I’m grateful to my clients who keep giving me interesting projects, even though I need to manage my time better. And I’m grateful for my typically not-too-busy life; this last month has been an outlier. I’m especially grateful to P who sees me hit the wall from stress and who quietly walks up next to me and asks me how he can help.

You know what? I’m even grateful for that ridiculous planner with all it’s admonishments to remove the white space from my life.

You see, back during the years when I was a workaholic, I would have treated that planner like a holy book. I would have diligently banished white space from my life (not that I had much of it), updated my color-coded to-do lists, and hacked my schedule so I could fit ten days worth of work into a single week. And I would have felt proud of myself for doing all those things.

I had a different reaction this time because I’ve got a life now. A real life. And when I get pulled away from it, it hurts. What a strange and wonderful feeling, to miss your life!

Day planners? Color-coded to-do lists? Zero white space?

Life is too short and too precious for such nonsense.

Goodbye Prime Card

Do you remember back in 2014 when P and I did The Big Downsize? There’s a part of that story I couldn’t share, until now.

The night that we hatched our plans I told P that if we cut our expenses sufficiently “I think we can get you out of Microsoft within a year or so.” 

At that point P had been with The Big M for over sixteen years and he wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down. And he liked his job! So my idea sounded weird, even to my own ears. But I’d noticed that his work was starting to grind him down in subtle ways. No matter how cool your company is and how great your bosses are, working that hard for so many years in a row is a marathon.

I suggested that it might be time for him to take a career break. It could be a chance to remember what life is like when he isn’t working all the time. And I didn’t think he’d say yes, but he did!

We quietly began the work of downsizing, planning, and budgeting. It took about eighteen months to get the balance right. And as we got closer to the decision day I fluttered around P like a neurotic butterfly.

Are you sure about this?
Are you sure you’re sure?
This is kind of a big deal. Are you feeling okay?

P was feeling better than okay. He gave his notice and came home that night looking ten years younger than he had that morning.

Goodbye Prime Card

That whooshing sound I hear is our employer-sponsored health insurance and most of our household income flying out the window. Therefore it’s no surprise that the part of me that craves security has been having some mild anxiety about all this change.

We’ve done the math and we’ll be fine. Between our savings and my trickle of consulting income we’ll get by. But is it a big change? Yes. And am I nervous about it? Absolutely.

We’ll miss those sweet employee discounts…

We thought about delaying our plan for a few more years so we could build a bigger financial cushion. And we know that doing so would make us feel marginally more secure. But we know other things too.  Like the fact that we won’t be young forever. And that’s too easy to bury your dreams beneath the concept of someday. So why not take a chunk of time and follow our bliss now?

I think that’s what the universe was trying to tell me, back when all this started.

Living at a Different Pace

While P’s career break feels like a huge deal to me it’ll probably look ordinary from the outside. We’re not selling everything we own to take a round-the-world trip. We’re not going to climb Mount Everest or move to the country to start an artisan cheese business. All told, our ambitions are pretty modest.

  • I’m looking forward to waking up with my husband lying next to me instead of seeing his departing back as he rushes off to catch the early bus to work.
  • We want to spend more time with our extended family.
  • We plan to travel as often as my consulting schedule and our modest budget will allow. Perhaps even some multi-month trips if we’re thrifty.
  • P has talked me into giving yoga another try. (God help me…)
  • I plan to continue consulting and writing.
  • P will try new things and see where his passions lead him.
  • Together, we’ll see where life takes us.

J. R. R. Tolkien said that not all who wander are lost. And that’s good! Because we’re ready to do some wandering.

Two Kinds of Happy

The closer we get to the day P comes home, the happier I feel. And partly that’s selfish because P is my favorite person and I’m giddy to have more time with him. But the thing I’m the most happy about is that he’s finally doing something good for himself.

You see, P has always been a hard worker. He’s up and out the door early in the morning. He checks email after dinner. He worries about his team, his customers, and doing the right thing. He’s never grown jaded and he’s never stopped caring. I think that’s incredible.

And he’s had my back too. He supported me as I started up Emergence Consulting, as I went to grad school, and as I struggled through writing my first novel. And I’m not talking about “rah-rah” support. I’m talking the very real support of paying the mortgage during the startup years, taking care of dinner when I was up to my ears in homework, and (lovingly) calling me on my bullshit in those moments when I needed it most.

He never asks for anything for himself. He’s always putting others first. So, yeah, I’d say he’s earned this time off.

And I’m so very proud of him.


P’s Next Adventure

Welcome home, P,
Put up your feet and stay a while,
Hang up your messenger bag,
There’s no email to check after dinner,
Turn that alarm clock off,
Sleep deep until you are rested.

Remember how life used to be,
Before meetings and performance reviews,
When you read books for fun,
And went camping with your friends,
You’re still that guy,
Only wiser.

Soon we’ll go exploring,
Like Calvin and the tiger,
Like Tommy and Tuppence,
Getting lost on purpose,
Remembering what we’ve forgotten.

Let’s shed our grown-up costumes,
And return to that earlier state,
Of being teenagers at the movies,
Kissing when no one’s looking,
Not caring who sees.

What My Friends Are Teaching Me

My job involves a lot of listening.

I listen to managers and teams talk about their problems and hopes and goals. In OD we work on business goals but for me it’s always been about helping people become their best selves. And it all begins with listening.

I think that I’m a good listener. But in my personal life being a listener can make me feel miserable.

Someone will call and spend forty-five minutes dumping all of their problems (or accomplishments) into my ears before hanging up. There might be a cursory “how are you doing” tossed in at the end but it’s clear they don’t really care how I’m doing. I may as well be a pair of ears attached to one of those blow up sex dolls.

Someone at the periphery of my life will swing in close when they’re having a personal crisis. They’ll lean heavily on me for emotional support and then ditch me as soon as the crisis is over.

Someone with relationship troubles will call to tell me how terrible their partner is, describing them as abusive and monstrous. Then they avoid me like the plague while their relationship temporarily improves. They’ll call me again the next time they want to complain about their partner. 

To be clear, the situations I’ve described do not come from my current friendships. Ya’ll are awesome. But I have a long history of dysfunctional one-sided relationships. Psychologists refer to this imbalance as co-dependency but I’ve come to think of these people as energy vampires: people who are negative and charismatic and who will burst into your day wearing a whirlwind made out of their own drama.

What do energy vampires do?
1. Find a sympathetic listener.
2. Dump pain, negativity, and drama onto them.
3. Feed on their empathy and attention, like a parasite.
4. Walk away feeling sated, leaving the listener emotionally drained.
5. Go back for another “fix” once the listener has recovered.

As colorful as the vampire imagery is, I’m not trying to be hurtful. No doubt these folks have their own issues to work through and I can respect that. And if I’m honest with myself, I can see that my problem arises from a lack of boundaries. When people use me as a dumping ground for their negative energy I tend to sit back and let it happen. With eye contact and encouraging body language, no less.

Oh, your life is terrible and it’s all everyone else’s fault? Tell me more about that!

Just as negative people are probably attracted to good listeners, I’m probably attracted to interpersonal drama at some level. Understanding what makes people tick and trying help them is as fundamental to me as solving problems is to P. I’ve been doing it for so long that I hardly know how to stop. But I need to learn that just because someone is having a melt-down it doesn’t mean I need to ride to the rescue. So I’ve been working on that.

A while back I got a call from an old friend who just might be an energy vampire. P saw who was calling and he did that thing where he lifts an eyebrow and challenges me to think very clearly before I do whatever I’m going to do next. He’s seen me get sucked into the drama many times before and he’s as weary of it as I am.

I answered the call and it went the way I expected it to. They talked nonstop about all the problems in their life while scarcely taking a breath. We hadn’t spoken in a while and we hadn’t left things on the best terms. I remember thinking that it was nice to hear their voice again, because I do care about that person. But the call was the same call we’d always had. ME ME ME ME ME ME ME then the obligatory “and how are you” before hanging up the phone.

For once I wasn’t upset because I tried to look at the situation objectively. I could see that my old friend needed someone to listen to them and I was a convenient outlet because I’d answered the phone. And I could empathize with their need to be heard because don’t we all need a good listener in our lives?

But as I hung up I realized something else. The relationship that I’ve had with that person has never actually been a friendship. It’s a dynamic where they continually take and I continually give. And for a long time I let that happen because I thought that the pleasure of giving was enough to keep our relationship afloat. But it wasn’t.

I deserve better, my little voice of wisdom whispered. I deserve people in my life who care about me instead of using me.

That felt true and so I decided to believe it.

Heart shape and retro book.

 

What my Friends are Teaching Me

Over the last year I’ve gotten better at figuring out the difference between a true friend and and someone who wants an unhealthy one-sided deal. As soon as I backed away from the vampires I discovered that I’ve got all these great people in my life. And they’re showing me that friendship isn’t only about giving kindness, I need to be willing to receive kindness too.

The receiving part is hard for me. I’m so used to pretending that I don’t need anything from anybody that it’s practically become a character trait. But ever so slowly I’m letting my guard down. And as I do so I’m being rewarded with surprise after surprise. My friends care about me even when I’m not at my best. They actually like it when I’m my quirky opinionated self. I can be vulnerable without being judged. I can ask for help when I need help.

It’s an entirely new experience. Not the fact that people care about me. But my ability to feel it and believe it.

You see, I’ve always felt loved in my marriage. But it’s only recently that I’ve allowed myself to feel loved by my friends. Ever since I was a child I’ve half-suspected that people tolerate me rather than actually liking me. Therefore I’ve kept others at a distance. But I’m learning that it’s good to have friendships in addition to my loving relationship with P.  I can feel affection for my friends and they’ll return those feelings. I can trust that other people actually like me and that they’re not just pretending in order to be polite.

So what are my friends teaching me? They’re showing me that I’m worthy of being loved.

And even though I didn’t realize I needed that lesson…

I receive it (gratefully) with all my heart.