I think technically it’s been a very long time since I’ve written about it – but every time feels like here we go again. Every time feels like it makes liars out of the days since the last time, the days when I thought I was “managing my depression”.
I’ve been really angry this time around, angry at my body mostly and the unfairness of having to live inside of it. Why can’t I just be normal? Because I’m certain everyone around me is normal and healthy and doing more than managing.
I know that’s not true. I know that lots of people are dealing with lots of things.
But I feel like the only person who needs to sleep so damn much.
My husband doesn’t have to sleep like I do.
Sure, he has a chronic skin condition that flares up and causes head-to-toe burning every few weeks… but he doesn’t stop getting shit done. It’s so easy to tell myself I have it worse.
Forget worse for a minute. I want to admit that I’m angry – and scared, and tired of being tired.
It’s been a few years since my body was this out of whack. The weight gain, the crushing fatigue, the irregular cycles that are usually Swiss-like in their precision. The last time I got like this I made my way to an endocrinologist and was diagnosed with a metabolic syndrome, which is an official way of saying I can’t eat carbohydrates.
I have been eating carbohydrates.
And here’s the thing: I’m too fucking tired to fix it.
The idea of cooking two eggs right now is enough to send me back under the covers. Meal planning and shopping? Just… no.
That’s where I’m living right now: in the land of no.
I do only what I have to. It’s kind of amazing, actually, what that entails and how, exactly, I’m able to get myself up at 4:30 in the morning to chaperone a kid event and work until 10:00 at night when someone else is counting on me… but how cooking an actual breakfast or lunch is entirely too much to handle.
It has always been my motto that the kids wouldn’t suffer: not for my unplanned pregnancy, not for my marital strife, and not for my depression.
I wish I knew how I was making that work, because I’d channel that energy and willpower into the rest of my life. I swear I would… if only I could.
Maybe if I knew for sure that my efforts would matter. I try and tell myself that doing this one small thing will start a chain reaction and the payoff will be huge, but the idea of a chain reaction sounds big and a bit overwhelming. I’ll start tomorrow, I promise. It’s just one more day.
“Does he want to go in the dressing room with you?”
“Your son’s face just lit up!”
“She’s actually a girl.”
“No, she’s fine out here.”
“That was my daughter.”
“I’m so sorry!!”
“Oh, it’s fine,” I assure them.
Emma doesn’t notice most of the time. And if she does, she’s unlikely to say anything. Sometimes she’ll look at me with a mischievous smile and put one finger in front of her lips. She shakes her head slightly and covers a laugh at the little secret we’re in on together.
The secret is that she’s a girl; she just looks like a boy.
“It’s fine,” I say. But I don’t feel like it’s fine. I feel at once protective and embarrassed, maybe even ashamed.
And I am definitely ashamed by my discomfort.
When Emma first announced about a month ago that she wanted to cut off all her hair, I cried. Not in front of her, of course. In front of her I asked why and then told her to find a picture on the Internet that she could show to a stylist.
And then I went into the shower and cried.
I cried not because she wanted to cut her long hair, but because she wanted to “cut it all off like a boy”. For some reason that was the straw that broke the dam.
Emma hasn’t worn dresses since she was two. She hates them. Now, at ten, she’s usually wearing mesh shorts and a Packers t-shirt or jersey – or something old and stained and acquired for free. When she’s “dressing up” she wears skinny jeans and a plaid button down with her black and green Converse hightops.
I admit her fashion sense has always made me a little sad. When I found out I was having a girl I ran home and painted the nursery two shades of pink while fantasies of girls’ weekends and shopping trips danced in my head. I’d teach her how to do her hair and paint her nails. I couldn’t wait to start the journey with my very own mini-me.
But it turns out you don’t give birth to dolls, and instead of a mini-me I got a completely separate and independent human being with ideas and dreams of her own. And yes, that made me a little sad.
It also made me extremely proud. I’ve always been in awe of my daughter’s strong sense of self and amazed at how early it developed. “She’s been refusing dresses since before she was verbal!” I’ve been known to brag.
I’ve fought hard against the label tomboy.
“She’s not a tomboy,” I would assert. “She’s a girl who doesn’t like pink or dresses or playing princess. Who she is doesn’t require another label. Girl can encompass all of that and more!”
I thought I was empowering her and teaching her to embrace and love all of who she is and would ever be. I wonder now if I was also holding space for the possible resurrection of a long-dead dream.
Because I cried in the shower when she told me she wanted to cut all her hair off.
“We’re never going to have grandkids!” I sobbed to my husband on the other side of the shower curtain. “And I’ll bet you money neither one of our kids even go to prom!”
Yeah, because not just one but both of my children are constantly resisting and avoiding social norms of all sorts, especially the gender ones. And you know what? Sometimes that is exhausting. Sometimes it gets hard to constantly have your expectations thwarted and be forced to re-examine the status quo.
“You have no idea what’s going to happen in the future,” my husband said. My mother repeated the sentiment when I got out of the shower and shared my emotional outburst with her.
“And by the way,” she reminded me, “you never thought you were going to be a parent.”
Right. The irony here is that I didn’t grow up with dreams of what parenthood would be like. I didn’t grow up wanting children at all, in fact, and it was only through one very bad financial decision (birth control is so expensive! I said) that I ended up presented with the choice to be a parent. My dreams for my kids – and for myself as a mother – are barely older than the kids themselves.
And there I was crying about unborn grandchildren.
It wasn’t about the grandkids, I told myself. In that moment, on that day, I just wanted very badly for one of my kids to be normal - because maybe that would just be easier.
Of course I pulled myself together. I reminded myself that my kids are amazing. Both Jared and my mother reminded me that any resistance they have to normal is completely my fault, because I have not in any way raised them to fall in line with blanket expectations.
I helped Emma pick out a haircut – one we found by searching “androgynous haircuts” – and took her in for the big chop.
I also had a quick little conversation with her about whether or not she might be transgender.
Hey, it’s 2015 and I read the Internet.
“Em, do you feel more like a boy than a girl?” I asked.
“Are you talking about that” – and here she holds up two fingers and moves them back and forth to illustrate her point – “gender switchy thing?”
“Uhhhh… yes? And how do you know about that?”
“I saw a show about a boy who was born a girl and a girl who was born a boy and they liked each other and then they had surgery and they still liked each other!”
Hey, it’s 2015 and she clearly has way too much access to the Internet.
“Yes,” I tell her, “that’s what I’m talking about.”
“No, Mom,” she insists, “I am not a boy on the inside. I am scared to death of surgery and would never do that!”
Of course my response is, “what if you weren’t afraid of surgery?”
“No, I’m a girl, I just want boy hair.”
And so we give her boy hair, and she is thrilled.
She comes home from school the first day and tells me that she gave “the best answer ever to a practice question! My teacher says I’m a whole new person with this hair!” She also credits her new ‘do for a stellar performance at baseball practice. The kid is glowing practically all the time now, and there’s no hair behind which to hide her radiant happiness.
I can’t believe I ever doubted this stupid haircut, I tell myself.
She comes to work with me on Take Your Kid to Work Day, and everyone thinks she is a boy.
I gently correct them, she is oblivious, and I want to cry all over again.
And that’s how it’s been for the last month or so. I’m riding a rollercoaster of emotions about what my daughter looks like – or rather how others perceive what she looks like – and about how I feel about how I feel about it.
I suggest she wears earrings so people can tell she’s a girl. She concedes she’d like to remember to put her earrings in more often, but reminds me she doesn’t care what people think.
“You said it doesn’t matter what other people think.”
I tell her she’s amazing, and I apologize for having such a hard time with it.
“I don’t know why it bothers me, Emma,” I confess, “but I am so, so proud of you for being able to be who you are no matter how I handle it.”
“You just think people think you’re failing at raising a daughter,” she says matter-of-factly.
“You are so smart.”
“Yeah, I should probably be a therapist or something.”
How can I not be bursting with pride about her?
I wonder if therein lies the problem, or at least part of it.
As mothers, so many of us have a horrible habit of linking our children with ourselves far beyond the cutting of the umbilical cord. Their successes are our successes; their failures are our failures. How you see my child is, by extension, how you see me. We are proud of our children – or ashamed of them – as if who they are is a direct reflection of us.
The bigger problem, the real revelation for me, is that what I was placing value in was how pretty my daughter was.
I would have said that it didn’t. I would have been adamant that pretty is pointless. But I also have often asserted that we are all beautiful, which suggesst that it is important for us to be so.
Maybe Emma already knows something that I don’t: the difference between pretty and beautiful.
She is an artist, and she loves to be surrounded by color and light and luxury. “I can’t help it,” she once told me from the balcony of a five-star hotel room, “I feel better when I’m surrounded by beautiful things!” But she has no interest in pretty.
I admit that I do. I don’t want to keep beating myself up about that; shame is no good. I like to feel pretty and I am conditioned by a particular set of norms about what pretty is. That’s where I’m at right now.
But I’m also at:
…learning to separate my children from my reflection.
…wanting to keep expanding my own definition of pretty.
…examining the value I place on pretty.
…continuing to let go, let go, let go when it comes to my kids.
I suspect I was an arsonist in a past life and that I’d carried those smash and burn tendencies with me into this one. When life wasn’t going the way I wanted it to, or it was and i was still inexplicably unhappy, my instinct was to set match to the familiar and do my best to burn the whole damn thing down.
–me, An Amateur’s Guide to the Pursuit of Happiness
I’m feeling the old itch again, the need to burn it down.
A jug of kerosene and one struck match seems like the easiest and best solution.
Solution to what? you ask.
To restlessness. To confusion. To doubt. To the choking sense of obligation and the box that has become to small.
My life is fine. By that I mean my real life, the external trappings and the personal parts, are mostly totally fine. The kids are alright, is what I’m saying, and my marriage isn’t in crisis. The day-to-day wheels are still spinning.
But I’m no longer sure where they’re taking me.
I don’t want to write about happiness anymore. Or at least not right now and not exclusively. Not because I’m not happy, but because I feel right now that I’ve already said what I wanted to say on the subject. I know a good content creator could repackage the same message over and over again, but I have no interest in repackaging. That kind of writing doesn’t excite me; I’m more interested in putting words to the discoveries as they’re happening.
I am not a content creator.
I’m a storyteller.
Perhaps I’ve become bored with my own story.
Except that I’m not. I write essays every day in my head, and they die there because I don’t have an appropriate outlet in which to share them. These stories are off-brand or irrelevant or not useful enough to my intended audience.
These stories don’t fit in the box.
And so I avoid the box entirely.
I don’t send newsletters or write posts or update social media channels. I don’t pitch to other blogs in my industry. I don’t write.
I don’t write. I identify as a writer; it’s how I answer the question “what do you do?” But the reality is that I have written and am not writing.
I tell my friends I’m feeling lost and confused, and they are surprised.
“But you’re planning this great retreat!” they say. “And you have the Listen to Your Mother show coming up!” they remind me.
All of that and more is true. I have things going on. I’m doing stuff.
I’m just not writing, and I am a writer.
I’m blaming the box.
The box, the brand, the expectations that are not evolving with me. I’m hemmed in by shoulds.
I want to blow up the box.
“Why do we always have to start over?” my husband sometimes asks. “Why can’t we give momentum a chance?”
I don’t know much about momentum. My experience is with stopping and restarting, a series of grand adventures that are loosely connected by the players. I’d be great in syndication.
But if Netflix has taught me anything it’s that there’s something to be said for continuity and longer story arcs.
I’m trying to give momentum a chance. I’m trying.
But I haven’t quite figured out how to move forward without a clean break. A big break.
Maybe there’s nothing to figure out. Maybe it’s just something you decide to do. Just move forward, just go, with no big declaration or goodbye bonfire. Just keeping put your foot down in front of you in the most right direction and trusting that eventually the journey will make sense.
My passion for making stuff has grown tremendously in the last two years. (My talent for doing so has grown a tiny bit.)
I am not a person who keeps ideas or passions to herself. The more important creativity has become in my own life, the bigger role it has played in my work. I’ve set aside time to make gratitude journals during corporate workshops. I’ve started women’s groups with arts and crafts. I’ve coached clients to get their hands dirty.
Then, earlier this year, I went all in on the creativity idea. I put together an event that was really and truly, no strings attached, 100% about spending time being creative.
I rented space in a wicked cool art gallery, and I reached out to some of the most creative people I know in Pittsburgh and asked them to show up as experts for a little chat about the creative process. I asked a studio owner and art camp director to organize “some kind of fun craft.”
“I don’t care what they make,” I told her, “I just want them to enjoy the process of spending a couple hours making just for the fun of it.”
First, yes, people said they would come. They even bought tickets. But also: they said they were excited to come! They totally got what I was trying to say about spending a chill night just hanging out with a glue gun and maybe some feathers. Just because it would be fun.
The night of the event, every single person in the room was pumped to be there.
The panelists, who donated their time in exchange for nothing but free arts and crafts time, thanked me repeatedly for being included. They thanked me – when I was the one who felt overwhelmed with gratitude for their generosity.
The attendees, the ones who had paid $25 to help cover the cost of space and supplies and food, thanked me over and over again for hosting. They made the most beautiful things – even the ones who were insistent that they had no ability to make beautiful things. And the musician who claimed to have zero talent or interest in “anything visual” was putting the finishing touches on her very visual project right up until we shut the lights off and locked the doors.
Every single person left happy and expressing gratitude for being included.
I was floored. I was humbled. I was amazed at how much my crazy idea resonated with other seemingly not crazy people. I felt… normal. Not because I had changed, but because I had wandered by chance into the midst of people who needed and wanted the same things I needed and wanted.
At the risk of over using the A word: it was amazing. It was awesome – as in full of some awe.
I’m remembering that awe as I make this announcement today:
I’ll be hosting The Creative Soul Retreat in Pittsburgh, PA this September 11th through the 13th. It’s a weekend of creative workshops, rooftop parties, and hanging out with people who make me feel normal.
To be perfectly honest: I’m creating the retreat I would want to attend.
That means I’m making sure there is protein at breakfast and springing for the open bar at night. It means I’m trying to hire my favorite all-girl band for the welcome party. It means I’m bringing in the artists I’ve been stalking on Instagram and planning workshops for the kind of stuff I can actually imagine doing at my kitchen table.
And it means you’re invited.
This is not a local event. This is a chance for longtime readers and brand new friends from all over the world to come together for a low-key weekend of creating just for fun. Because I love connecting just as much as I love creating.
It’s not about learning or networking or professionally developing.
It’s about markers and glue and finally getting over the fear of drawing.
But also it’s about you. Because I am a pusher of happiness, and I’m absolutely convinced that a weekend away to do whatever the heck you want will absolutely make you happy.
Last week, I attended a women’s wellness retreat in Palm Springs to celebrate the release of the movie Wild on DVD and Blu-Ray. I was hired as the guest speaker and asked to “tie my inspirational message in with the film.” In preparation for the job, I watched the movie with my husband and a girlfriend.
Five minutes in, Jared started laughing. “Oh yeah, I can totally see you doing this.”
Reese Witherspoon – as Cheryl Strayed – was struggling to lift a monstrous hiking pack onto her back moments before she would set off to spend three months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail; it was the first time she’d ever attempted the feat.
My husband went on to clarify the resemblance. “I mean, I have never once thought of you when I saw that actress, but this character?” he laughed some more, “so you.”
To summarize: Hollywood’s sweetheart: no way. But a strung-out blonde who was comically ill prepared for an epic journey she was about to undertake? Dead ringer.
Of course, I couldn’t be mad. When I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild a few years ago I also saw myself in her and her journey. In fact, I remember reading that very scene and laughing out loud thinking, “yep, I can totally see myself doing that.” I have a tendency to make big plans and assume the details will work themselves out. I like to joke that, “It’ll probably be fine,” is my life motto. And I can definitely appreciate an epic journey.
As the movie played on, the similarities between myself and Cheryl became more numerous. But no one commented on those; the most obvious likenesses were too painful to point out.
It wasn’t funny to remember how fast and hard I had once run from my feelings. We still can’t laugh about my self sabotage that hurt us both so badly.
We were both, I think, relieved to watch Reese-as-Cheryl find herself again through her long walk. It was comforting to watch her heal, as if knowing redemption was possible for someone else meant my own was more real and likely to stick. It’s easier to have faith in something that doesn’t only happen to you.
But anyway, we’re watching the movie and I’m trying to take notes and pull out talking points. I’m listening for quotes I can use when I stand up in front of a bunch of journalists and try to be inspirational on demand.
And there were none. Not really.
Nothing happened to Cheryl, in the same way that nothing ever happened to me.
Yes, she walked alone in the wilderness for three months. And yes she lost her toenails and her hiking boots. And yes, there were several moments when it looked like something bad would happen because strange men came upon a woman alone in the woods.
But mostly nothing happened. Not on the outside.
Mostly she just walked, and walked, and walked. And because she had nothing else to do while she walked, she felt.
And that, I remembered, was the lesson in her story – in our stories.
Feelings demand to be felt.
And if you don’t feel them- if you run from them because they are too big, or too painful, or too scary, or too proof that you are a horrible person- they will destroy your life from the inside out. They will pop up again and again in stupid and irrational places, completely unrecognizable as feelings and looking instead like very bad decisions.
Until the day you can no longer run.
Either you hit rock bottom or you put yourself out into the woods too far from anything to run towards, and you have no choice but to feel.
That’s it. It’s as simple as that, and you think “how can that be it?” But it is, because that’s how crucial it is to feel the feelings and how insane the lengths we’ll go to in order to not feel them.
It’s big enough to fill a book and make a movie, movie that is, despite nothing really happening, really powerful to watch. (And I’m not just saying that because I’m me; my husband and my girlfriend liked it a lot.)
Wild. That’s what the book and the movie are called. At first glance you’d assume she was talking about the hike, or maybe even the trail. She was immersed in nature that was mostly untouched. But by the end I realized that wild wasn’t about her surroundings.
Wild is about the way we’re supposed to be. Wild is who we are when we stop fighting against ourselves. Wild is what it is to feel, to let the feelings be.
How wild it was, to let it be.
It’s amazing to me how much being ourselves is simply about surrender. And yet, it is that not fighting that is so difficult for us. We want steps and bullet points and instructions that we can follow. We want control over the process.
But the most natural thing is to just let it be.
Let the feelings come. Let the past go. Let who we are simply exist because it does.
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