Warning: Do Not Read This Post If You’d Rather Stay Stressed and Overwhelmed

note valuesLast night, I sat down for five minutes. I paused.

My 12-year-old daughter wasn’t feeling well; she’d had a headache at school and came home funky. I had been at work all day, gone grocery shopping after, came home and put away the groceries, made tacos, played Mankala with my third-grader and read to her in bed, then sang to her while she fell asleep. In other words, it was a pretty normal evening. By 9:00pm, I was ready to collapse myself, but my headachey daughter wanted me to sit with her. I did, for a few minutes, stroking her hair. Then I said, I’ll come back in a little while.

And I took two pillows from my bed, asked my partner if she wanted to sit for five minutes, set the timer on my phone, and settled in facing the wall.

And then it came… the contrast, and the corresponding relief. Of doing nothing. Of not responding to anything, not even my girl when she came padding into my bedroom. The amazing thing was she didn’t say a word. She saw that I was sitting there and just seemed to understand, that I was not avoiding her or putting off her needs. I was simply tending to my own, for five minutes that felt both like a blink and an hour. An oasis, even if it was filled with thoughts from the day and thoughts of what else still needed doing. I knew she needed my attention, and I also knew she could wait. I knew there were still more dishes to wash and a load of laundry to put in the dryer, and that those too could wait.

The same moment could be applied at work. Say you have back-to-back meetings, an overflowing inbox. You’ve barely stopped to pee, much less take a lunch break to get some fresh air or take a short walk. Maybe you’re trying to figure out how to move some big project forward, or you have to prepare an agenda for a meeting with your boss. Let’s say you supervise other people, and two of them called in sick today and payroll is due, you have to get to the bank before 5:00pm, and the dentist’s office just called with a reminder about your cleaning this afternoon. Maybe you and your significant other have been meaning to go for a fall hike all fall, and you are wistfully aware that the trees are almost bare of leaves and there is a frost warning for tonight.

This is the part where you might feel like you can’t possibly pause. There is too much to do. Maybe this is the part where you feel irritable. Or overwhelmed. Or just tired.

Our days are often like this, in some iteration or another, a fugue of incessant sixteenth notes without variation, fast fast fast and full full full and go go go. And this is when things are going along fairly “normally,” meaning there is no emergency, no crisis. No frozen pipes or dreaded pink slip or last-minute snafu, no injured child or chronic illness or bad news on the other end of the line.

If you have ever practiced yoga, you know that savanasana, or corpse pose, is how every practice concludes–whether it was a gentle 15 minutes or a vigorous 90. The language of yoga is that of “integrating the benefits of our practice,” the intention being that without taking the time to just be, to pause, to rest, we cannot fully come to feel the effects of all the doing.

If life feels like something you have to hold onto like a handbasket on its way straight to hell, or a roller-coaster ride that makes your stomach lurch, or simply a treadmill stuck on an 8-minute-mile when you’d rather be strolling, pausing like this can be painful. Because rather than feeling the benefits of all of the doing, you might feel the negative impact of it. You might realize, by taking five minutes to just sit there, that not pausing is actually a form of procrastination. Not taking rest when to do so is an option (and there are few professions where it isn’t) is a way of avoiding your life, even as you might think your life is the reason you can’t, or don’t, pause.

Our culture–whether you’re a manager, a business owner, a parent, an artist, none or or all of the above–feeds this reliance on busy and its corresponding glorification of stress. It’s a badge we wear, a purple heart of martyrdom.

If more people said, Actually, that can wait five minutes, if we could differentiate between fires to put out and true emergencies, if we inserted rest symbols into the endless stream of notes that is the music of our days, we might just start making different choices about how we live and work. We might get brave and admit to someone that we don’t in fact enjoy this sense of chaos and the anxiety it provokes, that causes all kinds of problems–in our relationships, our health, our ability to keep up.

We might just stop keeping up.

And that may be scary, especially if our sense of security and even self-worth rests on this premise that we must go a million miles an hour from the moment we wake till we collapse into bed.

But it doesn’t have to be scary.

Like all fears, as soon as you turn the light on, the big monster shadows shrink to harmlessness. If you find that you are putting a lot of things off–whether it’s returning that package with the too-small shoes or meeting the deadline that looms closer each day–consider that pausing is actually an antidote to procrastination. It may be just the thing you need to move forward.

Stop, for a moment, for one full breath, for five minutes, and respond to nothing. I am willing to bet nothing will fall apart. In fact, this small act may be the glue that holds all the pieces together.

Dismantling the Atomic Fears

atomic bomb

 

I have a love/hate relationship with self-help books. I love the concept. Self-help = help yourself. Right on. I’m all in favor of that. That would be the love. The hate part is a little bit harder to nail down, at least in words. Books like The Secret make me cringe. While I believe that our beliefs, thoughts, and attitudes influence our lives in some major ways, fostering a belief that all you have to do is believe strongly enough in something, and practice feeling it as though it has already happened, is enough to make it occur is beyond ridiculous.

If the concepts in The Secret work, explain to me why I was never able to get my Big Wheel to fly? I believed it would happen with all of my heart. I felt the power, triumph, and exhilaration fully. Yet still, my little five-year-old body never cleared the ground on that thing.

I’ve spent countless hours reading, implementing, and assessing dozens upon dozens of self-help books. Some of them are invaluable. Some of them are worse than worthless; they’re toxic. Books that lead to product deals, making the authors extremely wealthy, while unable to show any evidence that the theories actually work, piss me off.

The Secret is that anything worth having is going to require more than belief. In fact, it will require quite a lot from you. You’re going to need a healthy dose of the following:

  • Optimism
  • Desire
  • Action
  • Willingness to Fail
  • Persistence
  • Help from Other People
  • Flexibility
  • Discipline
  • Bravery
  • A Plan
  • Coping Skills

If you’re looking at this list and feeling like you don’t stand a chance, give yourself some credit. You’ve probably exhibited most or all of these traits at different times in your life. What about right now? Assess yourself honestly.

Don’t be shy about patting yourself on the back for the things you’re doing well. It’s not only okay to feel good about the things you’re doing well, it’s critical for you to acknowledge those things if you’re going to succeed.

What about the areas in which you could use some reinforcements? When you look at the things that are holding you back, remember that there’s no need to feel ashamed. Having weaknesses doesn’t make you weak. It makes you human. Being human is a good thing. What’s the other option? And the only way to improve anything is to get very clear and brutally honest.

When you think about your art or your business in terms of what isn’t going so well, what is your primary emotion?

I’m lucky enough to work with artists and creative entrepreneurs on a regular basis, and while the issues we discuss are personal and differ greatly, almost always, when we get to this question, the answer is the same.

The Primary Emotion That Holds Us Back is FEAR.

What are you afraid of? Are your fears realistic? Are they likely to come to fruition? If they did, would your world fall apart? Would you die? Or would you feel the pain and ramifications, recover, and keep living? If you’re ever going to put fear in its place, meaning that it will no longer rule your life, you have to look the beast in the eye.

Remove emotion from your assessment of the fear. It might sound impossible, but it isn’t. It’s actually not that hard at all. Pretend that you’re not looking at your issues at all. Take them in as if they belong to someone else, someone you care about, and imagine that they’re asking you for advice.

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to be reasonable and pragmatic when offering advice to other people than it is when you’re trying to figure out how to tackle your own problems? It’s because no matter how much you love and care about the other person, you’re slightly removed from the situation. Learning to distance yourself from your own life issues enough to give them this same sort of objective once-over isn’t easy, but it’s a skill worth learning. I can’t promise you that you’ll never feel afraid again (you will), but I can promise you that bouts of hysteria and paralysis will take up residence in your brain less often.

Teeny Tiny Baby Steps

 

It’s time to put down the self-help book and actually do something. I’m not against reading about overcoming fear. I think it can be very useful. I’m sitting here right now writing about it, and I wouldn’t be wasting my time if I didn’t believe it could be of value to the people who will read it. But it can get a little sticky when you start to confuse reading about something (or talking about it) with doing something about it. If you’ve read eleven self-help books in the past year, but you haven’t started to implement changes in your daily life, you’re no further along than you were before you read them. If you’re like me, it’s all too easy to get stuck in the research phase without taking action.

So I’m asking you to do something for yourself today. When you’re done reading this article, sit down with a pen and paper. Ask yourself what steps you can take, right now, to move through your fears, and write down as many as you can. It might mean that you RSVP for a networking event, even though you’re terrified to talk to strangers. It might mean calling your local library and reserving a room for a free class, even though you’re afraid no one will show up. Or maybe you’ll send out an email to your twenty closest friends and ask them to promote your upcoming gallery show, even though you’re fretting that they might feel like you’re imposing on their time.

Aside from being situations that all evoke fear for some people, do you see the common thread between all of those things? No, I’m not talking about the fact that they are all forms of marketing. I’m talking about the fact that they are all first steps towards doing something bigger.  They’re teeny, tiny baby steps. Not one of them will take more than fifteen minutes. If you’ve listed something that will take longer than this, it might be too big for a beginning step. Break it down into smaller, shorter steps. This makes them totally doable. You can do anything for fifteen minutes. You’ll be afraid for just a quarter of an hour, and then that step will be done.

Take one fifteen minute step each day for a week. Next week, aim for two fifteen minute steps a day. Week by week, your distress tolerance will increase, and your fear will decrease. You might still be afraid, but it won’t take you long to discover that even if you’re afraid, that fear can’t really hurt you, because it’s not actually real.

And just like that, you’re doing it. You’re helping yourself.

Ass+u+me: How Assumptions Hurt Your Business

Donkey

Definition of assumption (n)

  • as·sump·tion
  • [ ə súmpshən ]
  1. something taken for granted: something that is believed to be true without proof
  2. belief without proof: the belief that something is true without having any proof

We all make assumptions. It’s human nature. We take whatever bits of information we have available to us, filter them through the limited view of our window on the world, and start piecing together a story about what it all means.

There’s actually no harm in doing this. It can even be a useful exercise. But things get dangerous when you forget that what you’re doing is forming a hypothesis, and start making decisions under the delusion that you’ve already discovered the truth without bothering to test the hypothesis.

Attempting to build and run a small business on a series of assumptions is a recipe for disaster. An assumption that is built on a reasonable knowledge base can be a great jumping off place, but it’s just the beginning.

When it comes to business, the only thing you should ever assume is responsibility.

You assume that if you follow up with past clients you’ll be bugging them, when maybe the truth is that they’ve been meaning to contact you, but keep forgetting, because life is busy.

You assume that it’s a crazy pipe dream to quit your day job to pursue your dreams, because when you were thirteen your dad told you that painting is a hobby, not a career, and you needed to be realistic. Sadly, your dad didn’t know anyone who made a living painting, but if you do a little research, you’ll discover that people do that.

You assume that you don’t have what it takes to advertise successfully. In fact, you’ve convinced yourself that this is why your business is failing. How do you know? Have you read books on the subject? Attended courses? Hired someone to teach you? And if you did do those things, did you actually attempt to implement what you learned? How many hours a week do you spend on advertising?

A lot of the assumptions we make are based on fear and low self-esteem, and the only way to move out of these inhibiting thought patterns is by pattern interruption. This doesn’t mean that you won’t think the thoughts. It just means that you won’t let the thoughts dictate your actions. These paralyzing assumptions don’t just hurt your business, they can actually stop it before you start. A lot of fantastic ideas have never seen the light of day because of this type of thinking.

The other side of this ever-spinning coin would be assumptions made out of arrogance or full-on delusional thinking. These are the things that lead to impulsive, and oftentimes disastrous, decision making. If you’ve come up with a fantastic business idea and have decided to tell your boss to shove off tomorrow, even though you only have twenty bucks to your name and haven’t even taken the first step towards turning that great idea into a reality, please reconsider.

There are different types of programs, tools, and professionals that help business owners make decisions that test assumptions and provide data and feedback for informed decision making. A lot of them are fantastic, so I’d never suggest that business owners should bypass these services. However, if you’re on a tight budget, they can be cost prohibitive. Luckily, when you’re just starting out, you can take a much simpler approach that won’t cost you a cent.

Instead of assuming that you know what people are thinking, ask them. Instead of assuming that an idea will work or fail, test it on a small scale. And most importantly, do not ever, ever, ever assume that you’re not good at something unless you’ve invested a significant amount of time and effort trying to get good at that thing.

Letting assumptions rule your life keeps you in a perpetual state of ignorance. You’re too smart to hang out there.

What assumptions have you been making about your business that may not be true? What steps can you take to test the validity of your beliefs?

 

 

Monkeys, Squirrels, Artists, and Shiny Things

SquirrelDo you misplace your keys, lose track of time and show up late for appointments, or only remember to pay your bills once the disconnect notice arrives? What about projects and deadlines? Do you start everything you do with a bang, only to fizzle out before you finish? Or maybe you just have trouble sticking to a routine that keeps your life running smoothly. In any case, I feel you.

I’ve been there. Until a few years ago, my life was a hot mess of distraction. It’s a trait that seems to go hand in hand with creative brilliance, and since so many of my clients and readers fall into the brilliant artist or entrepreneur category, organization and project planning is a frequent focus of my work. I’ve been outlining my systems during one-on-one consults for months, and I’ve seen them work for all sorts of people.

The benefit to focusing on this type of work via private consultations is that we can ask each other questions, dialogue, and then use the shared information to  customize a plan that works for your unique situation. The drawback, of course, is that not everyone has the money to pay for one-on-one creativity consultations to help them organize their lives and creative endeavors. I’ve compiled and condensed the basics into an ebook, “Monkeys, Squirrels, Artists, and Shiny Things,” so you can access the information anytime you want. You can buy it here for just $5.99. If you don’t have a Kindle, or you’d be just as happy with a simple PDF, click here to buy it for $3.99. Just send me a note with your payment, and I’ll email you the file.

If you’re looking for a miracle fix, this isn’t it. But if you’re looking for a simple strategy to get yourself organized that doesn’t require anything fancy or expensive, give it a shot. I did the legwork of several years of trial and error (lots and lots of error) to figure out how to simplify in a way that isn’t complicated. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never found that approach to work for more than a few days. All you’ll need to get started is a notebook with three sections, a pen, and the commitment to try something new.

Note: The reviews are positive so far, but there aren’t many! You can read them here. After you read the book, if you’d do me the favor of writing a review, I’d really appreciate it!

The Art of the Pause

BowArrow

Inertia. Paralysis. Stagnancy. We all get stuck sometimes. In fact, if you’ve read this blog for very long, or any other blog that focuses on creativity, entrepreneurship, self-help, motivation, inspiration, or habit formation, you’ve read plenty about getting moving. Which isn’t to say that I won’t write about it again in the future. I will. It’s a good topic.

Forward motion is important, and there are countless reasons we can find ourselves in need of a nudge in order to get moving. Not only have I written thousands of words on the subject, I frequently read what other experts have to say on the subject. Sometimes you want a swift kick in the ass that comes from someone other than yourself. Have you ever kicked yourself in the ass? It can be done, but it’s not easy or terribly effective. If you haven’t tried to kick your own ass, you should. You should also make a video of the attempt and send it to me!

But what about the other part of the productivity equation? If you’re in perpetual motion, eventually you’re going to be exhausted and burned out. When you’re constantly busy, not only does your body get tired, your mind does, too.  Our brains are not designed to work overtime without downtime.

If you’re an artist or entrepreneur, refusing to take breaks can lead to all kinds of unwanted outcomes. This isn’t just my opinion. It’s neuroscience. All healthy bodies operate in cycles, and for the purpose of making the most of your time and energy, you need to familiarize yourself with the ultradian rhythm. The ultradian rhythm is the natural series of energetic peaks and valleys your brain experiences throughout the day.

You may or may not be familiar with the term, but you’ve no doubt felt the effects of this rhythm on an ongoing basis, particularly if you’re not inclined to take regular breaks.

Your brain is only meant to sustain full engagement for approximately ninety minutes at a time.

At the beginning of this ninety-minute cycle, your brain starts gearing up. It is excited and ready to go. As you immerse yourself in your work, particularly if you’re working on a project you enjoy, it gains momentum. This is part of what allows you to slip into the flow state.

But as you reach the end of those ninety minutes, your body and mind will start throwing up signals that it’s time for a break. Your concentration won’t be as steady. You might slip into multi-tasking. You might begin to feel fidgety, like you need to get up and move around. Or you might crave a nap.

If you’re not particularly interested in what you’re doing and don’t have a boss breathing down your neck, you’ll probably heed these signals. You might take a walk or call a friend. Maybe you’ll just use the bathroom and grab a snack. It doesn’t really matter what you do, the point is that you’ll switch gears for a little bit. Ideally, it is best to spend about twenty minutes doing something else before refocusing your attention on your work project.

On the other hand, if you love what you’re doing, you’ll probably ignore the cues you’re receiving. You may not even notice them at all. Your brain is being rewarded by the pleasurable activity, so your body asking it to get up and walk away is a little bit like trying to convince a sleepy three-year-old that it’s time to leave the park.

Sometimes we ignore the signs that it’s time to take a break for other reasons, too. There are reasons we don’t take breaks when we need them that are less pleasant than being immersed in a state of flow.

You might ignore your ultradian rhythm out of societal conditioning. You’ve been trained to believe that being dedicated means working straight through whatever you’re doing until it’s done. Maybe you even feel guilty or ashamed. Have you ever (either in your head or when talking about yourself to someone else) called yourself names like lazy, slacker, or fuck-off when you take breaks? If so, it’s time to forgive yourself for being a human, not a robot.

Or maybe it’s more concrete than that. You’re broke. You need money, and you won’t get paid until you’ve seen this project through to completion. Taking breaks means a lag between now and paying your electric bill or feeding your kids. Taking a break does not feel like a responsible option.

The only problem is this: Your body’s ultradian rhythm will only put up with being ignored for so long before it will fuck your world up in order to get your attention.

Somewhere between the beginning of your dip in energy after ninety minutes of concentrated work and the two hour mark, the intensity of the signalling is going to increase. I’m not saying you can’t push through and work more than two hours without taking a break. Of course you can. We do it all the time. Most of us do it every day, multiple times a day.

What I am saying is that it is counterproductive. During this period, your efficiency begins to wane. You might be working just as hard, but you probably aren’t working as fast. You’re also more inclined to make (and miss) little mistakes like typos, so the quality of your work decreases a little bit, too.

And of course, the real trouble begins when neglecting your brain’s needs becomes habitual. If you are regularly working for several hours at a time without taking breaks, eventually it is going to catch up to you. And when it does, it is going to bite you in the ass. Hard. You’ll have teeth marks for weeks.

Unfortunately, our culture rewards this kind of masochism. That doesn’t mean you have to participate in the insanity. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Do you really want bragging rights for being chronically exhausted, in a constant bad mood, endangering your health, and neglecting everything in your life except work?

I love to work. Seriously. A lot of it is like a form of play to me (everything except the parts that aren’t). I’m also not opposed to working long hours. Putting in more than forty hours a week does not depress me in the least. There’s nothing wrong with loving your job and devoting significant amounts of time to it.

There is everything wrong with working yourself senseless without taking time for other things. Not only is it hard on your body and mind, it’s hard on your relationships, and pretty much every other aspect of your life. Plus, after awhile, your work suffers, too.

Your creativity wanes. Your productivity decreases. Your efficiency is meh…

And guess what? Someone else is working fewer hours than you, taking more breaks, and getting more done. And it’s higher quality work, too. And then they get to go enjoy the rest of their life.

If you’ve been confusing being busy with being productive and efficient, watch Tony Schwartz: The Myths of the Overworked Creative. If you’re ready to start thinking about shifting away from the former and into the latter, it will be a half hour well spent.

Every creative needs to master the art of the pause.

Give yourself permission to stare into space. Or read a book for sheer entertainment value., not to improve yourself or learn a new skill. Take a walk. Get a latte. Have sex. Clean your kitchen. Call a friend. Take a nap. Play with your kids. Get outside. Write if you’re a painter. Paint if you’re a writer. Take up a new hobby. Take up an old hobby. Do something you’re terrible at, yet find absolutely, delightfully fun, just for the hell of it. Whatever. Just. Stop. Working. Do anything else. Or do nothing else. Really. (Note: I cannot dance well, sing well, or play pool well, but I never let this stop me.)

Do absolutely nothing for twenty minutes several times a day. The world won’t stop. 

You’re already an artist. You’re a creator by nature. You don’t have to worry that your creativity or momentum will vanish if you give yourself time and space to pause in the middle of your projects. In fact, they will expand exponentially within the newly discovered territory of unstructured time.

Stop Picking Your Nose, or, Reclaiming Your Creativity in Stages

unnamed

on the living room floor

When’s the last time you came home tired?

Not the kind of tired you feel after you assemble a piece of heavy furniture, or weed the garden, or kayak all day, but the kind that has you bee-lining for Advil and Netflix?

Also: When’s the last time you used a glue stick? And scissors and a ruler, construction paper and sharpies? When’s the last time you got down on the floor in the living room or the bedroom or made a mess of the kitchen table, the music turned up loud enough for the neighbors to hear?

When’s the last time you dusted off the books of poetry you used to read daily, or the sketch book you bought with equal doses of nostalgia and resolve to start drawing again?

The answers matter. And they don’t.

What really matters is now. In fact, now may be the only thing we really write about here. Annie Dillard said it best: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Yes, you could’ve been a _____________. You should’ve studied _____________. And maybe you would’ve even tried _____________.

If this. But that.

It’s a sinkhole, to be sure. If that’s where you hang out on a daily, or even weekly basis, I’m not sure whether to say read on or stop reading here.

That’s up to you, of course. You have the choice to ditch this post. You also have the choice to ditch that way of thinking about your creativity and dreams–things you lost along the way, or deferred or dabbled in but never believed could really amount to anything.

What do you lose track of time doing?

Call if Flow, call it the Zone, call it Passion. What it is doesn’t matter so much as remembering that it’s at your fingertips and you are the only one who can do or not do it.

OK, let me back up a little.

When I was a teenager, I made little books of poems.

These days, I work, spend a lot of time with my girls during the half-the-week and every-other-weekend they are with us, take out the recycling on Tuesday nights, and do my damndest to get cash into the appropriate envelopes on the first of the month.

But at sixteen, I spent hours and hours printing poems in my father’s study, figuring out pagination (probably the most mathematical thing I did in all of high school), cutting and pasting and assembling words onto pages, choosing cover art from whatever magazines were in the house, and walking to the copy shop in town to use the coin-operated machines. I wrote little blurbs About the Author on the back, and inscribed every xeroxed copy of each book to someone–a family member, a boyfriend.

I used to be. A bookmaker. An artist.

And then. Life happened.

Do you hear this a lot, life happened? I do. I hear it sometimes out of my own mouth.

What does this mean about us, and about Life? This  reminds me of these line from Emily Dickinson’s poem #640, which I have loved for years:

And Life is over there – 
Behind the Shelf

The Sexton keeps the Key to –

Life happened over there while we were living it, busy, forgetting that the choice to spend time doing what we love most never abandoned us, but we it.

If life is over there, where are we? It can get depressing, this trajectory.

But there is good news, too.

Yesterday, I came home from work craving fresh air and sunlight and movement and something that didn’t involve any kind of screen. So I changed into shorts and a t-shirt and asked Mani if she’d take a walk with me. She said yes. As we walked, and she told me all about the paragraph she’d written of the novel she’s working on, and how she used the remainder of the hour she’d allotted herself for fiction-writing doing research, which led to a long story about something I knew little about.

When we came back home a little stinky from sweat, I took the two Advil and declared that I would spend  at least thirty minutes being a bookmaker. Not a sixteen-year-old one, either. A forty-year-old bookmaker, on the living room floor with a glue stick and scraps of paper from the bin at the art store and the White Keys blasting on the Apple TV.

By the time I came to a logical stopping point on the creative project I’m working on, I noticed that my headache was gone. I felt ready to eat some leftovers, and to write. I had done two things, two things I lose track of time doing–walking, and a glorified version of arts-and-crafts destined to be a gift to someone I love dearly.

How we spend our days.

If you aren’t in love with how you spend your days, you may or may not be able to change that all at once. But one thing is for sure–you will not change it at all, ever, if you don’t start choosing to spend time, just little bits even, doing things that recharge you, remind you not just of you were when, but of who you are now.

I cannot reveal the source of the following conversation, but I share it here due to its relevance to our topic:

Real-Life Dialogue:
Anonymous Person: I’ve been working on not eating my boogers.
Me: Yeah?
AP: Yeah. And and now I’m working on not picking my nose at all.
Me: Oh!
AP: It’s easier, when you go in stages like that.

From the mouths of babes, the saying goes. And ain’t that the truth. It’s easier when you go in stages. Don’t have time to exercise? I do squats in the elevator at work, for the time between the third and first floors. I don’t know, but it couldn’t have been more than 40 seconds. (p.s. Don’t worry–only when I have the elevator to myself.)

I don’t know anyone who has ever received a hefty–or any–advance for their first novel. No, she writes a paragraph a day, between the paying clients and changing the laundry. The time she carves out to write that paragraph, though, is a choice–and a sacred one at that, meaning it cannot be put off until tomorrow when she has more time. Because she will never have more time.

We will never have more time another day. Life will not magically slow down after the next board meeting or deadline–unless you claim it. Thirty minutes, fifteen. One, even.

It’s easier, when you go in stages.

Stop eating your boogers before you worry about not picking your nose. One thing follows another, and before you know it, you’ll have broken an unwanted habit or rekindled a dormant passion, or banged out three chapters of your novel, or made homemade ice-cream, or taken a walk, or started a writing group, or sketched during breakfast.

Just start.

If you’re thinking of how it won’t really amount to anything, you might be right. But what if you’re wrong? Don’t you want to find out?

On Missed Opportunities, Anaphylaxis, and Waking Up Alive

Ambulance

On June 12th, 2014 I woke up alive. Not just breathing. Alive. 

This is significant because on the morning of June 11th, I missed an opportunity. That lost opportunity felt like a punch in the gut. It knocked the wind out of me. In fact, I was temporarily consumed with my feelings about it. But not for long. A couple of hours later, I almost died. And that’s when everything changed forever.

The morning started like most weekday mornings start in my house. My partner brought me coffee in bed. Then we moved to the deck and enjoyed each other’s silent company, the early morning quiet interrupted only by chirping birds, rustling leaves, and the occasional sounds of a car in the distance.

And then it was time for her to shower, so I flopped down on the bed and started my work day. Several minutes later, I stopped working to admire her while she got dressed, and she teased me, pretending to be surprised, because this is the morning routine. Too soon, she was dressed for work and ready to walk out the door, and she kissed me goodbye. I didn’t want her to go. I pulled her back for a second kiss. She went into the kitchen to grab her lunch, then came back into the bedroom to kiss me goodbye again. We laughed about the silliness of missing each other when she’s just going to an office less than fifteen minutes away and we know we’ll see each other again at the end of the day.

After she left, I goofed around with the kids for an hour, then shooed them out the door to school, with the little one popping her head back in to tell me “just one more thing,” at least three times.

And then, on this very typical morning, one that was until this point nearly identical to dozens of others I’ve had over the last nine months, I found out about the missed opportunity. It was something I had really wanted to do, an opportunity that felt significant and worthwhile. The worst part was that the only person I could be pissed off at was myself. Shortly after I had been asked to do this thing, some extremely urgent family matters had arisen, and my obligations as a mother totally eclipsed everything else. I hadn’t blown it off. I had good reason for not following through. But I was still mad at myself. Certainly, if nothing else, I could have found the five minutes to tell the other person involved what was going on and why I had disappeared, but I didn’t. I just disappeared.

And now I was wallowing. I decided to let myself wallow for fifteen minutes before forcing myself to get back to work. I went to the kitchen to pour myself a refill of coffee.  I noticed a small square of baklava on the table. We had ordered takeout from our favorite restaurant the night before, and they had tossed a few free pieces into the bag. I had been too full to eat mine.

I picked it up, and without giving it a second thought, popped it in my mouth. I chewed slowly, savoring the impossibly thin, flaky layers of pastry drenched in honey, layered with pistachios, crushed almost into a paste. It was delicious.

And within a few minutes, I knew that something wasn’t quite right. There was a horrible aftertaste lingering in my mouth. It tasted similar to a melted aspirin, and no amount of coffee or water would get rid of it. Soon after, my tongue and gums started to itch and burn. My lips felt like they were on fire.

At this point, I knew that I was having an allergic reaction. I recalled that several years ago I had an allergic reaction to pistachios, but I had eaten small amounts on several occassions since then with no consequence.

I wasn’t scared. I just thought it was a minor annoyance. A small blip on the radar of my day that would be remedied with Benadryl. I checked the medicine cabinet and realized we didn’t have any, so I decided to walk to the corner store a couple of blocks away to buy some. I sent Jena a text that said, “Ugh! I can never eat pistachios again. Not even a little!”

I made it to the end of our cul de sac. After walking just a few yards, my heart was beating like I had been running for miles. Adrenaline was coursing through my body. I had a vague recollection of reading something once about exercise speeding up or exacerbating allergic reactions… or something like that. Walking anywhere seemed like a terrible idea. So I headed back to the house and called Jena.

I told her that I might be overreacting, but I needed her to come home from work. I needed to be seen by a doctor. I must have apologized for inconveniencing her at least three or four times. She heard something in my voice that I was not yet aware of, the way it was getting higher, shrill and raspy at the same time. She said she was on her way and asked if she should call 911. I said no. Just get home.

I called her back less than two minutes later and asked how close she was. Apparently, I was no longer capable of rational thought, or I would have called 911 myself at this point. But I didn’t. I called her and she told me she was calling 911.

I sat on the porch, peeling off my jacket because I was hot and flushed, yet shivering almost convulsively from adrenaline and fear. My heart was slamming against my chest so hard and fast that it hurt. And now my breathing wasn’t just fast, I was having to think about it.

There were sirens drawing closer, and I felt a mix of relief and embarrassment as the ambulance pulled up in front of the house. I was relieved because I knew deep down that I was in real trouble. Embarrassed, because some small, irrational part of my brain was still certain that they were going to give me Benadryl and tell me I could have just waited to go to the ER on my own.

That isn’t what happened. Instead, they asked me a few questions and got me on a stretcher. They rolled me into the back of the ambulance while I wheezed something about my partner being on her way home, how she should be here any minute.  He reassured me that we would probably still be at the house when she arrived, that they were going to start an IV with Benadryl before we rolled out.

I was relieved when I saw her car pull up behind the ambulance. She climbed into the back and squeezed my hand and tried to ask a few questions, which I’m not sure I ever answered.  She asked if she should ride in the ambulance or follow in her car. The paramedics told her to follow in her car, so that she’d be able to drive home later.

I didn’t want her to follow in her car. I didn’t want her to leave my side. I know her well enough to know that had I said so, she would have refused to budge. But I didn’t say so, because all of my effort was going into breathing.

I felt a pang of despair as she climbed out of the ambulance and they shut the door behind her. I watched her get into her car. And then we pulled out onto the road, and I lost sight of her.

While we were rolling down the road, I glanced at the monitor displaying my vitals. My heart rate was astronomical and climbing. The paramedic sounded sharp when he told me not to look at it. When I couldn’t keep my glance from returning to the screen, he flipped it around so I couldn’t see it.

Time lost all meaning. Had I told her I loved her? I couldn’t remember. I hoped that I had said the words out loud, not just thought them. I wanted to call my kids to tell them I loved them. I glanced down and saw my cell phone, still lying on my belly where the paramedic had placed it when he put me on the stretcher. I wanted to tell them I loved them, but I didn’t want them to hear me like I was. And anyway, I couldn’t bend my fingers, let alone pick up my phone to make a call. I prayed.

And the man apologizing as he pulled down my pants and jabbed an EpiPen into my thigh was telling the driver to call the hospital. He was calling out my name and date of birth and the situation. His face was calm, but his hand was shaking.

And then he pressed his hands down over mine and told me to relax them, to breathe with him, and I did. And it felt like it took a very long time, but eventually my throat loosened, the air passed through with less struggle on each breath, and we pulled into the bay at the emergency room.

Several hours later, I returned home with EpiPens, steroids, my life, and a major paradigm shift. The Meaning of Life, revealed.

And what is the Meaning of Life?

Speaking only for myself, the meaning of life is that we GET to do this.

Life is not something that is happening to us, which we are forced to endure. It isn’t a slog or a burden, and even when it feels like it is, it is still an extraordinary privilege.

We get to be here. We get to live these days. This life. Not some life that has already happened to us and ended five years ago. Certainly not the imaginary ones we conjure up in our heads and call The Future. This life. Here. Now.

And when it’s all on the line, you’re not going to give a second thought to stressful deadlines, or the housework. You’re not going to feel sorry for yourself that your bank account isn’t as large as you had hoped it would be by this point in your life. You won’t be worrying that anyone will see your stretch marks or that hair on your chin that you forgot to tweeze.

The Meaning of Life is, “Did I remember to tell her I love her?”

There are a million opportunities to love. And for every opportunity, there are a million ways to blow it, too.

Honestly, my business didn’t cross my mind while I was in the back of that ambulance. The missed opportunity that has felt like such a big deal earlier that day left my mind entirely. But when the threat of imminent death had passed, I thought about it a lot. Over the past month, I have assessed and reassessed every aspect of my life, and what I realized is that I don’t want to miss anything that matters.

We can’t have it all, true. But we can have everything that matters. Life is fleeting. I don’t want to waste a single minute on things that don’t matter. I don’t want to strive for some ridiculous, fictitious work/life balance.

Your life is not a series of compartmentalized boxes. Your work is your life, and more importantly, your life is your work.

If you spend the vast majority of your hours doing something you hate, you are not loving the vast majority of your life. If the vast majority of your hours are not spent doing something you really, truly believe in, why are you doing it?

I am lucky that the vast majority of my work time is spent doing things I love and believe are valuable to other people. On occasion, I take side work that I feel are neither, because I value taking care of my family’s needs more than I value ’round the clock emotional fulfillment from my work. It’s a choice, and it is one that I don’t regret and I refuse to complain about.

We love to tell ourselves that we have no choice, but that is false, and it is self-victimization. Make no mistake, there is almost always a choice. Nearly every moment of every day of our lives is comprised of a series of choices.

Yes, there are things we can’t foresee. Yes, there are emergencies and tragedies that leave us with no choices, other than how we respond to them. That happens.

But these are exceptions to the rule. Most of our days are not comprised of series of tragedies and emergencies in which we are helpless to change our circumstances. And thank God for that.

The thing is, we rarely have any forewarning about when they’re coming. and in what form. If we did, I wouldn’t have eaten the baklava.

I won’t give you a long list of all the things I think you should or shouldn’t do, based on my experience. Most of it wouldn’t be relevant, because we aren’t the same person. We might have different value and hopes and dreams. As we should. That’s what makes this big crazy world so beautiful.

There’s only one thing that I learned from nearly dying that I know with complete certainty will apply to you.

This is your life. Your one and only life. This day is happening. Choose carefully.