Hurricane Harvey is more than enough reason to check in during my hiatus. I grew up in an area decimated by Hurricane Katrina and, immediately following that, Hurricane Rita. I don't have the option to stay silent. It's ridiculous to judge people who didn't evacuate. I have a friend, single and my age, who has family a short drive away in both Lafayette and Dallas, who did not evacuate. Do you know why? She's a teacher, and school wasn't canceled until long after the rain started. There are so many factors at work that those of us who aren't on the ground will never know: financial constraints, professional obligations, physical limitations. There will be time to ask questions of and about government; its duty (at all levels) is to keep citizens safe, and this doesn't mean solely from crime and terrorism: it means from impending natural disaster as well. But it's not nearly time for asking questions. Now is the time for rescuing, giving, offering compassion. It will never be time to ask questions of the citizens themselves. Nurture empathy here. Dig deep into your hearts, minds and wallets and come up with the healing response that Texas needs right now.
Then, in the days and weeks ahead, consider reading the items below. These pieces offer context for and insight into what happened when a hurricane hit over a decade earlier and a state away. There are so, so many lessons to be learned from Katrina that offer us insight into the warpath of Harvey. It's not a perfect one-for-one comparison, but there are similarities -- particularly with regard to the decisions not to evacuate and in general media coverage.
Recommendation #1: The ever incredible One Dead in Attic: After Katrina, by the great Chris Rose. Heartbreaking and illuminating, this is an on-the-ground account of a journalist who documented the aftermath. Start here.
Recommendation #2: The recent GQ article entitled "Ghosts of the New Orleans Superdome." As you may remember, many stranded citizens sought shelter in the Superdome and then were prevented from leaving, despite truly awful conditions inside and out. Rafi Kohan explores how these experiences still haunt the city and the Saints.
Recommendation #3: To end on a positive note, this morning a friend of mine from high school discussed Hurricane Harvey and the role New Orleanians specifically have to play in the sheltering of and giving to its citizens. Here's what she said: "We all know the news. I'm sure you've seen the pictures. Much of coastal Texas is under water. When we were in need 12 years ago, they helped us. We're up. It's our turn!" That, my friends is the spirit.
Again; please give, if you're able. If you can't, cultivate compassion within yourself and interject it into your daily conversations. There is only us. There is no them.
Yesterday I was back at the dentist, for the fifth time since May 1st, this time to repair the damage the surgeon did a month ago tomorrow. This is what I do now: go to doctor and dentist appointments three times a week, trying to heal the trauma the injury and subsequent infection did to my body. On Monday, I went to my physical therapy assessment; yesterday I went to the dentist (again). The assessment went well, and so did the work.
The reason I mention the dental appointment specifically is because I had questions about the site of the surgical extraction. Some days, it’s swollen and painful. Some days, it isn’t. On the days that it feels fine, I tell myself I’m healing nicely. On the days it feels swollen and painful, I fear medium- and long-term complications. Regardless of how I feel, it’s always in the back of my mind. So, I asked my dentist about it. She tried and failed to do the extraction in the first place, so she’s familiar with this site. She was examining it anyway; I could at least get her to answer a few of my burning questions. Should I be scared? Is something wrong? Do I need surgery again? Should I go ahead and call the surgeon? It’s worth mentioning here that my speech pattern in normal life is straightforward and self-assured (because even if I am not, my speech is), but when I talk to my dentist, I am neither straightforward nor self-assured. I’m scared, and I ask questions softly and timidly, so as to brace myself for the inevitable negative feedback. My dentist speaks sweetly and calmly. She is encouraging, and wise. She soothes me.
“Have you ever broken another bone?” she asked me.
“Okay, I ask because, if you had, you might not have asked that question. People who break a bone, say a leg or an arm, have similar concerns a few weeks or months after their casts come off. They’ll say, ‘Whoa, this feels achy. I hope nothing’s wrong.’ And nine times out of 10, there isn’t.”
This made sense to me. I nodded.
“If I was you, I’d think of healing as coming in waves,” she continued. “Your body generates all different types of cells. So, you’re not suddenly healed. Your body is repairing the damage that was done, and it does it by generating different types of cells at different stages. It’s always in repair.”
Now, I need you to stop for a minute here. I need to stop for a minute here. Because what she said to me was profound. When I was awake from roughly 2:20 – 5:30AM this morning, I thought through this. She’s saying, first of all, that healing is not a binary state: you’re not either injured/ill or healed. This is intuitive, I think. We all realize that we don’t suddenly feel 100% better when the general or local anesthesia wears off. My mouth, for instance, is still tender today, because yesterday work was done there. But she’s not saying that healing happens in stages, either. That would imply stages of progress: perhaps five, whereby you’d measure your progress based on what stage you appear to be in. What are your symptoms? You’d assess these, then match them with a corresponding phase in the healing progress. This might be nice, because you’d know where you’d been and where you still have to go. You might have a timetable that suggests you’ll be completely healed either in a matter of days/weeks/months or when you meet a prescribed criterion. But, again, that’s not what she said.
Here’s what she said: healing comes in waves. To start with, this means healing is far more fluid than can be described by phases of progress. It means that healing is based on the individual: his/her overall picture of health; his/her specific injury, illness or infection; and his/her responsiveness to treatment. This, too, is intuitive. But the idea that healing comes in waves – traditionally defined as long bodies of water repeatedly curling into arched form and breaking on the shore – implies something more than fluidity. It implies an ebb and flow, back and forth motion. Some days you’ll feel better; some days you’ll feel worse. But healing will never be stagnant. And waves are always moving in the direction of the shore, which means that healing is always moving in a forward direction. You might feel a swell that suggests healing is in progress; you might feel a break in the healing, but soon another wave of healing will come in its place.
I found this idea comforting as it pertains specifically to the tissue that’s healing over the site of the surgical extraction. But the idea that healing comes in waves is important for you, too, and not just with regard to physical healing. Anyone who has ever grieved a loss understands that healing comes in waves. Healing a broken heart is not a linear endeavor. And if you’ve ever been in therapy, you know that some days you feel proud of the positive changes you’ve made; some days you scream in your car or lie in a ball and feel hopeless. You know from experience that healing comes in waves. But here’s the thing: I think we all know this. I used to think that healing was a messy process, but I was wrong. The ocean teaches us that it isn’t. There’s an order and beauty to it that our minds can’t comprehend. We have to do the work to heal, yes, but we are guided. I’m starting to think that what I perceive as setbacks to healing are actually opportunities to learn how to surf. And while I don’t know much about surfing, every movie on the subject matter makes clear that you have to be at one with the waves. You cannot fight them.
I, too, feel a rush of emotions this week about what’s going on in our nation. Here’s my humble suggestion: Be at one with the waves. Don’t try to fight them. Recognize that some days you’ll feel hope, and some days you won’t. Recognize that sometimes you’ll be riding high, and sometimes you’ll feel like you’re crashing down. Healing is going to take a while. At some point, you will either scream in your car or lie in a ball and feel hopeless. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re not healing. Your heart generates all types of cells.
If I was you, I’d think of healing as coming in waves.
Five years ago, during what can only be described as a really, really low time, I went to Barnes & Noble in search of guidance and peace. This may sound odd, because surely there are other, better places to look for guidance and peace, but I looked in those other places, too. I looked everywhere. I spent most of my time alone, in utter despair, but dried my eyes long enough to read. I needed something, anything to focus on, so that day I went there. I perused the Clearance section, because no one should ever have to pay full price for nice things, then purchased a single edition. It didn’t seem promising, but it was worth a few bucks.
I don’t want to sound like a used car salesman here, but that book changed my life forever. I read it, I absorbed it, it rocked my world. I read it over and over again, hoping to glean more wisdom. Its truths were so powerful that I’d skim them, absorb them and then plunge their depths for weeks on end. Real truth has power like that – it doesn’t just alter the way you think about the things you’re currently facing; it changes the way you think about everything – past, present and future.
Chapter One excerpt:
“Life is laundry.
“When I say that, I don’t mean that I do a lot of laundry, although I do. I just started my fifth load this week and it’s only Tuesday. Still, some folks do more and some folks do less. Either way, it’s not the point.
“I don’t mean my life is like laundry, although it is. Troubles pile up, and I ignore them as long as I can. Just about the time I sort through the heap, clean it, and stash it away, it reappears and I have to take care of it all over again. So, yes, life is like laundry, but that’s not what I mean, either.
“I mean life is laundry, and when do not yet see that your life is laundry, you may not see your life clearly at all. You might think, for instance, that the life you have is not at all the life you hand in mind and so it doesn’t constitute your real life at all. Your real life is the life you pine for, the life you’re planning or the life you’ve already lost, the life fulfilled by the person, place and sexy new front-loading washer of your dreams. This is the life we are most devoted to: the life we don’t have.”
Are you of the belief that, as soon as you finish that degree, get that job or find that significant other, you’ll finally be free, you’ll finally have made it and you’ll finally be living the life you always dreamed? You’re sorely misguided. This day, this moment, this task = life, not a roadblock that keeps you from your destination. Life is each of these things: the good, the bad, the horrific. Bemoaning your circumstances, resisting ownership and pretending they don’t exist isn’t just irrational, it’s dangerous.
“I was numbingly unfulfilled,” the author says of her own delusional period. “I was deeply angry and silently, sleeplessly anxious. I thought I was working harder than anyone, and yet I was missing what everyone else seemed so easily to grasp. A life.
“And I was missing it, because I thought life was something other than my life. I thought life was something envisioned and achieved. I thought it was manufactured from ideals and earned through elbow grease. I thought it was yet to arrive, and so I missed everything thing that had already come. I was blind to my marriage and my absence from it. I saw my job almost exclusively as a necessity and rarely as the exhilarating invention that it was. My home was a headache, a pile of rust and dust. I was certain that I never wanted a family: not one more person to clean up after. And I had never examined my mind, my heart or my hand in any of this.”
If you don’t think something is worthy of your attention, you will miss out on its potential expansion. If you don’t think damage is your fault, you won’t take responsibility for repairs. If you don’t examine your sense of entitlement to glories and riches, you won’t do what it takes to get out of debt. If you don’t see how bitter you’ve become and how much agency you have, you’ll drown in a sea of bitterness and hatred. You’re not entitled to a happy marriage, a good job or family travel worthy of envy on Instagram. You don’t have total control, but you have more than you imagine.
Here’s “what laundry gives us: an honest encounter with ourselves before we’re freshened and fluffed and sanitized. Before we have ourselves put together again.” In other words, a reality-check. I felt as if the author was shouting at me through these pages: ‘I cannot overstate the importance of this!’'
Finding my way out of the hole I was in wasn’t an easy process. I’m sorry if that’s what you hoped to hear, I really am. Sometimes, in the midst of our hopelessness, we want someone to tell us not just that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but that our suffering is soon to end. I’ve been there. I was there when I picked up this book. I wanted guidance, yes, but mostly peace. I didn’t know if I’d ever find joy, but I wanted the sadness to end.
It did not. It took years – not to put myself not back together again, but to put myself together in the first place, starting at roughly 30 years. It got worse before it got better, because this is how healing processes work. The infection I just had required surgery to fix it; there was no magic pill. There never is. Getting real with yourself is a painful endeavor. You have to find out whether what you’re doing, who you’re seeing and how you’re living are serving you well. They usually aren’t. This means stopping doing what you’re doing, seeing who you’re seeing and living how you’re living. That’s painful as well. And finding out that you’re headed in the wrong direction typically requires retracing your steps, which will leave you overwhelmed and exhausted. Most of the time, righting what’s gone wrong means asking yourself why you made the choices you did. Get ready, because that’s the truly difficult part of the process.
This is where I’ve been for the last five years – taking stock of what doesn’t serve me well. A lot of the things that went wrong in my life were my fault, so I made changes. The things that went wrong but weren’t my fault required me to take a long, hard look at why I ended up in these situations. Painful experiences that created deep wounds were acknowledged and treated, and I started to heal. When painful things continued to happen, I knew I had control over only my responses to them. When good things happened, I stopped being me and started to nurture them and savor them. I stopped being generally passive, as Hand Wash Cold suggested. I took responsibility for my own life. It isn’t the picture of perfection now, despite a wonderful husband, a beautiful home and a chance to steer my professional life in the right direction. But that’s okay, because perfection is not what life is. It’s good, but also bad and sometimes horrific. It’s laundry, and laundry doesn’t do itself. It never goes away, but we always have to do it. It’s our choice whether to find meaning or joy in the midst of it.
“I took back responsibility for myself, my relationships, my work, my days, my nights, my joy, my love, my pain, my happiness. I took on the washing, drying and folding that constitute an authentic life.
“I began to excavate what all the ancients, and my own spiritual forebears, tell us we can find at the very bottom of the basket, beneath our rumpled, stained and worn-out lives. I went looking for a change of clothes, and I found the path to clear wisdom, compassion and enlightenment. Bit by bit, I reassembled the remnants of my discarded life and made myself happy and whole.”
That’s her story, but it’s mine, too. It could be yours as well.
Here's a list of just a few of the things that interested me this week:
You Aren't Lazy — You're Just Terrified: On Paralysis And Perfectionism
It appears that most of my readers are women, which means that most of you have encountered the paralysis of perfectionism that author Jenni Berrett dives into here. She starts off by aptly identifying and describing its destructive cycle, which looks something like this: Perfection --> Procrastination --> Paralysis. Wash, rinse, repeat. She also tackles how perfectionism negatively affects her.
Here’s what I personally gleaned from it: this blog of mine must be a place to honor my process, not strive for perfection. Ironically, the day I read this article was the same day I'd sent myself an email at 5:51AM that said only, “Process, not product.” Learning to make writing my career requires writing every day. Sometimes that means writing in my journal. Sometimes it means crafting the best interview questions I can for a podcast I’ve worked on for almost a year. Sometimes it means learning to play, writing fantastical children’s stories in rhyme. Sometimes it means blathering on in this blog, which is a not a self-contained project but an ongoing conversation between myself and the readers. This space is fundamentally different than the others. I don’t have an editor who needs always a piece right now, which means I’ll never have an external force that demands I turn in what I have instead of what I’ve perfected. This blog must be that impetus. I can’t and won’t let it become a place where I only publish if I think what I’ve written is perfect, because if I did that, I’d never, ever put anything out there.
I’ve always been a perfectionist. This is not a good thing. I failed to gain entry into the 1st grade gifted program because I refused to take a guess about which animal ham comes from. My parents gleefully tell this story on occasion, but I am not proud of it. In college, I refused to answer fill-in-the-blank questions I did not know the answer to; it took everything I had to guess when the options were multiple choice. This is no way to live. It does seem like a pretty effective way to kill creativity, but I want the opposite. I have to force myself not to be a paralyzed and procrastinating perfectionist.
Favorite quote about perfectionism in general: “Expecting perfection only leaves you with two options: do everything right on the very first try, or don’t even bother. Which is actually only one option, since 9 times out of 10, human beings don't do things right on the first try. Just look at French history, Cars 2, Robert Downey Jr.”
Favorite quote about perfectionism as it pertains to writing in particular: “Here’s the thing: perfectionism, even and especially when it prevents you from being productive, is a lot of really hard work. It is ten times harder to write this article out in my head than it is to just sit down and do it.”
Next: No, It's Not Selfish to Want to Go on a Spiritual Journey.
Thank god Elizabeth Gilbert said this. I’m not really ready to talk about my own spiritual journey in detail yet, but I do feel like someone out there might need to hear this: “You have a right to figure out who you are. A spiritual journey bears no resemblance to a spa vacation. Doing something for yourself isn’t by definition selfish. Going on a spiritual journey can be a public service.”
Favorite quote: “In Mandarin, there are two words that translate to selfish in English. One means ‘doing something that benefits yourself.’ The other means ‘doing something greedy.’ In English, we don't have this distinction. In our puritanical culture, we tend to believe that anything benefiting us is probably greedy. But guess what? You can do great things for yourself without taking a thing away from anyone else.”
Also: You Cannot Always Trust Your Emotions.
If you’re not ready to dig in to a fascinating but scientifically- and philosophically-heavy book about how your emotions are a construct of your thoughts, I understand – you can listen to Slate’s Gist podcast with the author, Lisa Feldman Barrett. If you want to listen the best podcast about your emotions as constructs, though, you should listen to the most recent season of the podcast Invisibilia. This season, what they refer to as “a concept album”, is based on Barrett’s book, but this is one of my favorite podcasts in general.
Lastly: I Swear By This Yoga DVD.
I recommended it this week to a friend suffering from hip and low back pain, which made me want to share it with you, too. Here’s what I told her: “I made fun of yoga for years. I didn’t disparage it so much as dismiss it, but when my back wasn’t healing after multiple rounds of spinal injections, I tried it. And you know what? It worked. And you know what else? It’s been shown to have more of an impact than more traditional therapies. Which means I’m not alone in benefiting from it. As an added bonus, it has cut my anxiety in half. Now I love it.” Then I gave her that link, and added this, “It’s gentle and amazing, with therapy and strengthening options.” Trust me: go try it.
Today I want to talk about homemade peanut butter cups. Well, not really – I’m not a food blogger, and never will be, but I want to share why I made homemade peanut butter cups this morning, because it fascinates me.
It all started with Big Magic, the book I’m reading because cultivating creativity / seducing inspiration doesn’t come naturally. Because I need help sometimes, and Elizabeth Gilbert guides me. Some days I don’t need much guidance, because writing comes freely – inspiration comes and words flow. Some days I need a lot of guidance – inspiration runs dry, and writing feels like a chore. These lulls happened in my old career, too: some days I met with legislators and felt great about what I contributed; other days I slogged through unproductive conference calls and irritating budget questions. The difference is, I knew what my job was then, even on days I didn’t feel good about it. Nowadays, I’m at a loss for how to be productive on uninspired days. I ask myself questions, like, “Well, what am I supposed to do now?!?” Sure, I could do laundry or run errands, akin to the type of grunt work everyone loathes to do but manages. Is there something I could do to actually move the needle, though?
According to Elizabeth Gilbert, yes – there is:
“Find something to do—anything, even a different sort of creative work altogether—just to take your mind off your anxiety and pressure. Once, when I was struggling with a book, I signed up for a drawing class, just to open up some other kind of creative channel within my mind. I can’t draw very well, but that didn’t matter; the important thing was that I was staying in communication with artistry at some level. I was fiddling with my own dials, trying to reach inspiration in any way possible. Eventually, after enough drawing, the writing began to flow again.
“Einstein called this tactic ‘combinatory play’—the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another. This is why he would often play the violin when he was having difficulty solving a mathematical puzzle; after a few hours of sonatas, he could usually find the answer he needed.
“Part of the trick of combinatory play, I think, is that it quiets your ego and your fears by lowering the stakes….
“In other words: If you can’t do what you long to do, go do something else.
“Go walk the dog, go pick up every bit of trash on the street outside your home, go walk the dog again, go bake a peach cobbler, go paint some pebbles with brightly colored nail polish and put them in a pile. You might think it’s procrastination, but—with the right intention—it isn’t; it’s motion. And any motion whatsoever beats inertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion.”
First of all, did you know that Einstein played the violin? I sure didn’t. I think that process worked for him because it involved using different parts of his brain. I get it. I'm unlearning everything that became professional habit. Precision used to be my job; now it’s to play. I used to balance multi-million-dollar budgets; now I come up with and execute creative ideas. I’m learning to use the part of my brain that sat dormant for years. I’m learning to find value in things that I once thought frivolous. Today that frivolity was baking for my husband.
Well, not baking, per se. I never turned on the oven. But I did make the best homemade peanut butter cups I could make. It wasn’t as easy as the recipe suggested, but it never is. So, I’ll make these treats over and over again, because they’re fun to make, but in the future I’ll tweak the recipe, refining the process with each iteration. The process of making homemade peanut butter cups is just like writing process, it turns out. And since I chose something that the Hubs loves, making ever better peanut butter cups will be a long-term win-win. More importantly, though, making them this morning got the creative juices flowing again.
My friend, Ei, is writing (and blogging) again. This is excellent news for her readers. She's funny and down-to-earth. She has two kids, the youngest of whom is about 15 months, which is part of why she’s just feeling the urge to write again, for the first time in 5 years. Here’s the thing, though: she’ll always be one of the most creative people I know, even if she doesn’t write. She cooks and bakes like a madwoman. She’s part of an online community of creatives who work their way through their favorite cookbook together. Is there anything cooler than a group of people who use the same recipe and ingredients, to different effect? I don’t think there is. And sure, I’m reading Elizabeth Gilbert, and am grateful Big Magic exists. But even if it didn’t, I think I’d still see people like Ei, and think, “Maybe if I garden, I’ll figure out how to write again?”
Tonight, the Hubs will eat these ho-hum homemade peanut butter bars. I suspect he'll enjoy them. But that’s not why I made them. I made them so I could figure out how to write again.
PS: They taste amazing. The Real Simple recipe can be found here.
On my good days over the past few weeks – when I’ve felt mentally lucid + emotionally steady (I’ll be honest: these days were rare), I’ve thought a lot about the Who, What, Where, When, Why + How of our lives. Limited time and resources have crystallized my thinking, and I know this line of inquiry isn’t unique to me: countless books, poems, quotes, movies and stories have made clear that contemplating the meaning of life in the face of adversity is a common phenomenon. This doesn’t mean you need to suffer for your life to have meaning, of course (thank god!), but it does mean that difficulty can be illuminating...if we allow it to be. Hardship helped me ask the right questions; feeling better (at least temporarily!) allowed me to answer them.
If we get the questions right, they stand the test of time. Answers will differ year to year, because circumstances change and priorities shift. Don't be scared of that. But the right questions are steadfast in their guidance – whether we’re doing what we can to survive a difficult time or planning something pleasant like a vacation. The right questions can enlighten and inspire us, comfort and challenge us as well. They can take a while to answer. And that’s as it should be: because the questions say more about us than our answers ever will. They say we're thoughtful, growing, engaged. On our way to becoming our best selves.
Yesterday, in celebration of the fact that I finally was well enough to go out, the Hubs and I took a drive to Middleburg, VA. (aka: Hunt Country). We love weekend drives, and hope to take more of them in the coming months. (When we do, I intend to chronicle our adventures here.) Yesterday wasn't just a weekend drive, though: it was a chance to feel like myself again; to eat solid food; to go somewhere we wish we could live (or own a weekend house, if money was no option). We didn't stay long, because I have a shelf-life now, but the hour we were there was glorious.
To start off with, we found parking easily, which is always a good sign. But parking is always fairly easy there, which made it more desirable for planning purposes than other nearby destinations (i.e. Annapolis). As soon as we arrived we had brunch at the Red Fox Inn & Tavern, which has a fascinating history, perfectly on-point decor and excellent rations. (Seriously, read the history; the term is appropriate!) We stopped into the specialty pet store as well, but abstained from actually purchasing more things that precious Rusty doesn't really need. I didn't feel well enough to go to Creme de la Creme, which is our favorite store, or to shop the outdoor sales at lou lou, but I wish I had!
I adore Middleburg. The Hubs does, too. We love the sprawling hills, wineries + vineyards and food + ambiance at the Red Fox Inn. If you live in DC and need to get out of the city for a day, you should choose Middleburg!
Loving + attentive husband not included.