Do negative thoughts ever go away?

092715I have just returned from a place where darkness and negativity had taken over. But I’m back, sitting upright. Today I will write and slowly pound out each word one letter at a time. I’m force feeding myself little gulps of motivation. This post is not a call for sympathy, but a profile that shares how it can feel to live with depression and anxiety. I may look like I’m having fun, or this blog might seem like it’s written by someone who has figured out how to be self-important and filled with positive energy. But depression can take on many forms, it can look like and sound like me. Someone who has fun, enjoys life, with an abundance of energy, filled with dreams and ambitions. And other days, I can look sad, feel angry, alone, and am filled with all manner of negativity. My goal as a writer is to journey into truth, the changing nature of life, and how identity can be obscured by emotions. Because, here I am again, already doubting what I felt so strongly just a few weeks—when I was ready to write, engines on, gaining speed, ideas flowing.

I’m told living a creative life is an exercise of faith in yourself. But this faith is blind, offers little solace, and requires a massive amount of fortitude. To create without understanding the purpose, ignoring the futility, but soldiering onwards, resembles insanity. There is no real way to control the progress, there is no cleared path or manual on how to achieve creative success. The thousands of books written on this subject will never fill the void of self-doubt that creep into every artist’s mind. For the source of self-doubt is individualized, in some it’s calcified and difficult to root out with simple advice. Sure these books and motivational quotes offer some tips, insights, encouragement. I read them and recognize myself, I gulp up the soothing words, like a comfortable bowl of pasta.

But when I am rolled up in pain, positive words do not reach me.

These words sound hollow, stupid and ridiculous. They’re shrill voices say “just change your story, don’t limit yourself, honor your best self, be true, follow your bliss, chase that dream, happiness and achievement is available to all those that believe! If you just believe and motivate and write that journal, pin that dream board, hug your inner child, it’s all here for you, YOUR BEST YOU!!!”

And I want to scream,

I can’t hear you!

What do you know?

I’m wrapped in an eggshell,

the world is my enemy,

I can’t do this.

I can’t do this.

This is how bad it’s gotten. The other night a stranger made me cry. It was Friday, a cap to a week I white-knuckled and tried to smile my way through. I don’t think anybody recognized that my mind was filled with a ticker tape of negative thoughts. I didn’t want to be present or “in the now” because I couldn’t go there. I thought I’d topple over if I tried to feel the pain. So I marched onwards.

I was left tickets for the symphony, Beethoven’s Ninth, vestiges of a failed night out with my husband. He said, “take the child, it will bring her some joy.” My intuition tried to reach me, but I ignored it. Instead, I pushed myself to attend. Already late, I took a wrong turn and drove a whining child through the hills in a desperate search for parking. I found a lot, it cost $20, I only had $16 and I was forced to back out against a flow of incoming cars. I continued to drive in maddening circles. Once we found a spot 45 minutes had passed, my body was a live wire of nerves and clammy sweat. My child kept asking me to slow down, and as she put her hand in mine, I held back tears as we frantically made our way through the darkened amphitheater. The usher pointed to an aisle, we walked down the stone steps and I tried to time our disruption between interludes.

I was hyper-aware of the glares and the silent judgments. “Why are you so late? Who brings a child to a symphony? You are a jerk, an idiot, an asshole.” We found row 6, but it turned out we were on the wrong side of the aisle and a nice woman said “It’s okay just sit here a bit.” She must have read the stress on my face, she patted my shoulder, it was the first time in hours that I took a breath. I needed her niceness and I sat in the aisle and we watched a world-class symphony play in the warm fall evening. I really didn’t want to find our seats and move from this comfortable spot. But just as I was starting to relax, a man tapped me on the shoulder, he hissed “Where are your seats?” I pointed, and his horrible wife glared at me too and he said “You can’t sit here, it’s a fire hazard.” And then I wept, I put my hands on my face and wept right there in front of him. Shoulders heaving with tears dribbling down. The nice woman told me “It’s okay, just sit.” But in my humiliation, I grabbed my daughter’s hand and ran up the steps. We found our seats in the middle of the row amongst annoyed people. I felt trapped, on the verge of a panic attack, with a squirming child who liked some portions and sighed heavily with boredom through the quiet sections. I didn’t hear a note of the music, I just wanted to run, run, run through the hills and scream;

Mind your own business!

Your rude words could be the last straw!

Leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone!

It struck me later, that we were in an outdoor amphitheater, with open air seats made of non-flammable stone, and if there were a fire, everyone could’ve easily evacuated. The man that made me cry was just a jerk-off. He and his sour-faced wife probably thought I hadn’t paid my fair share to sit in their snooty section.

But this is not the point, a stranger made me cry, because I was on edge. But it was the moment I realized I had gone too far into the land of depression. I had to figure out how to turn back. I was left with no patience, no reserve of composure or ability to function in public. I scared my daughter, who took care of me and talked quietly and held my hand. Because I live with constant pain, there are times that it becomes too much for me to contain. It can send me to bed for a full day.

I know the source of the pain, deep long childhood trauma that nobody in my family will validate. I live with self-inflicted wounds brought on by my own mistakes as an adult as well. This past record of misdeeds fuels an intense desire to be perfect, flawless, creative, beautiful, mothering, nurturing, the very best of everything and to fail yet again is an utter, abject disgrace. I have mounds of guilt and shame that don’t seem to erode over time. I’ve tried to live with them in a semi-state of denial because dealing with the past bores me and distracts me from my family and writing.

By now you’re worried. Please know I have therapied, medicated, self-soothed, acupunctured, talked, discussed, meditated, begged, prayed, cried, breathed, opened up wounds and figuratively bled out my veins. Yet the pain returns. And all of those well-intentioned words, they don’t help. I’m sorry, Oprah, and Brene Brown, and Elizabeth Gilbert and every other person who espouses that we can get passed all of our obstacles if only work at it, little by little. If we honor ourselves. And dream big. Stay vulnerable, or whatever profitable catch phrase they sing to high holy heaven, are all supposed to help me get passed my personal limits and reduce the pain. But they haven’t.

I want to believe that limits wash away.

I want to believe I can be free from the past.

I want to believe positivity will clear my mind,

like a warm shower after weeks in the wilderness.

So what I’m left with is the unknown, as in nature and art. Because feelings ebb and flow, the way trees interact with the seasons. Thoughts are unreliable. A day under the covers is not a bad thing. Guilt is just a useless habit. Negative people are powerful and abundant. Positive words are pointless in times of distress. This too shall pass. Sadness, anger, pain, isolation will return. Maybe I can keep on writing. It will get interrupted. We all have limits.

Fighting the Battle Against Terrorized Parenting

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Yesterday at dusk, my daughter wanted to ride her bike up and down our driveway. She is well trained and stays within the boundaries of her cement confine. As I was cleaning the house, with the front door wide open and all the blinds up for maximum exposure, I kept poking my head out almost every minute calling for her response. I am sure she smelled my fear. Sometimes she would ring her bell and other times she would cheerfully reply, “I am right here”! She didn’t question why I kept calling. I reminded her not to talk to strangers. She said okay. After about 10 minutes, I think she gave up. It made me think of the freedom I used to have, riding around with my friends, without ever being called home, without a single parent on guard. I wondered if she felt annoyed, or thought she did something wrong. But I felt better after she was inside and promised a bike ride the next day, together of course. With my eyes peeled for any danger, for creeps in cars and backyard prisons.

I never aspired to become a helicopter parent, on the contrary I wanted to be autonomous and supportive, without being over-bearing. I try to give her space, I try to keep my nose in a book at the playground, letting her figure out the social scene and the scary slide on her own. But I can never concentrate as I am worried about every moment she plays. This is not enjoyable, but I am a terrorized mother, thinking about predators, bombs, rapists, gunshots, basement dungeons, girls chained up, pedophiles with cameras, stabbings, snatchings and killings.

This week I have hit the close button of a news story more than once, reading about the horrors of the poor women held captive in Cleveland for 10 years boggles my mind, makes angry and wounds my heart. I find no pleasure in horrific details. This afternoon, a friend posted something about a man making a soundproof dungeon like some torture chamber from a Stieg Larrson novel. Apparently, this would be child torturer was caught before he committed a crime. I skimmed but caught too many scary details, they made my heart race. I know there is an argument that being aware of such things, reading details and understanding the mind of predators is valuable information for parents. More than once, I have been called a wimp by family members who say it’s essential to know how sick people work so we can stay on guard and keep our children informed. But I feel it’s my job to keep my child a bit protected from horror, to filter out as much negativity as possible. My husband and I believe she should enjoy the world and know that a very large portion of society is kind and just (even though her mother is still afraid). We are not shielding her from reality, we will always tell the truth. So I try to suck in fear for her, keeping a vigilant eye. The details don’t help me stay calm and collected. Children have a perceptible sense something is wrong. Memories of my parent’s hushed whispers talking about The Night Stalker or The Hillside Strangler still freak me out.

Recently, my preschooler asked me if a shooter killed little kids in a school. I took a deep breath and said yes. Obviously she heard something about the Newtown tragedy from someone at school, since I tried to keep a tight lid on any whispering at home. Lying was not the answer, she would know the difference. I held her in my lap and promised she was safe at school. Then we talked about all the nice teachers and John the principal. I said they were always here to protect all of you. She smiled and agreed that her teachers loved all the kids. They would not let a shooter come into the school. We hugged for a long time. I wasn’t sure of the total truth of our heart-to heart. It’s mostly true, but not really a “promise-promise”. This is a tough conversation to have with an astute 5 year old, as she will press on with more questions, despite her own fear. But this is where I stand, trying be as honest without totally freaking her out. I am here to let her know that there are some bad people, but all the good people in her life work hard to protect her from harm. This I know is true.

bikeshadow2But what I truly wish is she could ride her bike outside with a pack of kids, laughing and screaming. It was at this age, around 5 that I wandered about all day long, with my 3 year old sister in tow. Now maybe this was not the best idea, but nothing ever happened to any of us. On the contrary, we had adventures, used our imaginations, got exercise, scraped our knees, lost bikes, got in scuffles and ran across busy streets to buy candy with change we swiped from our parents. It was the time of our lives, the stuff of golden memories. And there were evil things happening in 1978-1985. I recall a story about a missing Asian girl, her body found stuffed in a garbage can. I lived through the McMartin Preschool trial, the longest running child-molestation case in US History. My mom told me that the evil people at the pre-school used puppets to trick the kids into doing bad things. I didn’t understand but was very bothered by this image. As an adult, I learned about the coerced testimony of the pre-school accusers and I mourned the wasted moments lost to fear. We were told never to go into anyone’s house, a rule we rarely ever broke. Inside a house was a boring place, made only for rainy days and sleepovers. We wanted to play outside, squeezing every last ray of sun, ignoring the flicker of the streetlights, delaying dinner for as long as possible. We rode for blocks around the neighborhood, hours of freedom before dreaded homework and bedtime.

I hear a lot about our loss freedom. Blame taxes and big government and Bloomberg’s nanny state. There are terrorist plots from foreign invaders. Religious zealots and their hatred for our ways. We worry about marathons, malls, schools and crowded places. True these are targets for maximum impact. Yet terror has already reached its stealthy tentacles into our homes. We choose to shuttle kids around in cars that are more prone to accidents than riding a bike in a park alone. We need websites, like www.walkbiketoschool.org to give us resources and tools for something we used to do without much thought. It’s a great idea, but we only stopped walking to school in one generation. Have we actually forgotten how to do this? We live in a free country, a democratic society and our kids don’t walk to school any longer. Instead I worry about the quiet houses on the block, who are they? Even the friendly neighbor, the one that could do no harm, may be the one. We have lost the battle in our own neighborhoods—chalk one up for fear.

As a parent, I live in constant fear and I don’t see a way out of it because it’s a validated emotion time and again. Am I going to be the first parent to let my child walk across the street to the park on her own? Go on a play-date with less than a one-to-one parent child ratio, absolutely not! I have experimented at the park, and every time I’ve pulled back another parent will start intervening, a cue I better get my nose out of my book or be deemed negligent. So there is no way my daughter will find that pack of kids running around our neighborhood. They don’t exist anyhow. She has been raised to find me standing right next to her so she can show me every new flip on the jungle gym. There is special triage for every tiny scratch, the type we would have ignored until they scabbed off our bodies. Tattling for every indiscretion is de rigueur. I’m the one who taught her not to use the words like-dumb, stupid, or hate–so I get to hear about every instance. She points out my own dalliance with harsh language. She is on guard too.

Then I think about the good stuff. I know my child better at this age than perhaps my parents ever have, they still struggle to understand me as an adult. I see how she interacts, trying to negotiate with other kids with her bossy ways and take charge attitude. Her trepidation is wrapped around the highest slides and the whizzing speeds of the merry-ground. But she has no fear walking up to little kids introducing herself with the confidence of a mini-senator. When she is older, I will “get it” when she has a leadership role, or says she is frustrated because she hasn’t been promoted to manager. Listening to her worries, I can remind of her innate personality to lead, the one I saw forming on the playground. Watching her climb higher on each rung of the twisty ladder, a huge improvement over last year, is moment we celebrate. Yay! You are a big girl now, look how high you can climb. The smile I see on her face are snatched nanoseconds of pleasure I will savor forever. The trust she has in my judgment is all I need. I am here for her, yes for every tiny little bump, using Band-Aids needlessly, I am always around.

But it does enrage me to think that I am a bit terrorized, mainly by insidious homegrown evil. Its like we have lost freedom at a very micro level, in our own streets and parks and homes. We seem to be wary, there is little trust and connection with the community at large. This is damaging to our society, not having support further exacerbates isolation, extending the cycles of violence. And then I worry, I should to do more than just being there for my child, focusing on her trusting smile. I try to foster connections wherever I can, but it takes a concerted effort, it’s not there for the taking. I am very grateful to my community of friends and family, but I am not sure if it’s enough. To think of solutions, feel so out of reach. Getting the neighborhood together, patrolling the streets, allowing our kids to cry over a boo-boo. I know I can start with little things, like getting over the past. It’s simply a bygone era, where a jumble of worn out kids dragged their bikes home under a dusky California sky, soothing their own scrapes and dreaming up silly games to play in neighborhood streets. Without a parent on watch. Such times are lost forever.bike shadow

From Self-Loathing to Self-Worth

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I should be working on a final term paper for my marketing class, but I feel like procrastinating.  As I was “taking a little look at the internet”  I got sucked into this weekend’s edition of The New York Times Magazine and read this amazing article called The Problem With How We Treat Bipolar Disorder. Linda Logan, wrote in a literary style that I wish was more prevalent on blogs and articles and she elevated the conversation with her very painful and courageous story. The notion that we treat mental illnesses as a list of symptoms only to be controlled through medication and therapy, without any connection to a person’s psyche can cause a lot of confusion and may even stunt recovery.

Based on my own experience, psychiatrists and sometimes even therapists are only trying to get at the root cause of the illness, asking about symptoms and only working to alleviate these issues–which is just not the whole picture. Its true, as the article pointed out that little to no conversation is centered on the erosion of the patient’s self. There is usually no work done to identify the changes to a patient’s personality, or talk about important aspects of a patient’s self, or how to cope with the harsh reality that their self identity may be changed forever. There is a very apparent connection between mental illness and the loss of self and anyone that is suffering can attest to this idea. I have struggled with losing touch with my inner self, as I wrote in a previous post, I felt like an out of focus lens. This is a frightening place, the wavering vision of your own reflection only fuels more anxiety and isolation.

Raising a child reminds me of how the self is formed and how strongly we identify with our self from almost the start of our lives. This is the reason kids can seem selfish and self-centered. The age we call “terrible twos” is really the first outcropping of our self identity. I always thought that it must be overwhelming for our young minds to realize for the first time there is a “me” and that the world is not  just outward stimuli. Between the frustrated moments of tantrums, I remember feeling empathetic toward my daughter watching her struggle with a the idea that she has a name, that there is a “me” and that this growing idea of self wants and needs attention and of course her own way. In fact, my favorite aspect of raising a little human is watching a personality form into a unique combination that is all her own.

I realized as I was reading Logan’s article that being lost in the fog of anxiety and depression is an attack on our own identity. We self-loathe, berate, beat down and hate our own “self”. That little self, the very one we protected as children on the playground, that talked back to our parents and threw fits over bedtimes rules–somehow becomes our sworn enemy. How did we let this happen? And as we realize what has been lost in the battle, we begin to grieve, mope around, lay prostrate and lose interest in the world. Reading Logan’s article, brought on the same questions she was pondering, why not focus on getting to understand our new self? She is so right on when she states;

For many people with mental disorders, the transformation of the self is one of the most disturbing things about being ill. And their despair is heightened when doctors don’t engage with the issue, don’t ask about what parts of the self have vanished and don’t help figure out strategies to deal with that loss.

In a way, this journey that I am venturing through in this current phase of my life is simply my way of getting back to my self, or more accurately embracing the hodge-podge of my new self. I guess I must have figured out that I did need to understand the transformation of my self. It makes sense that a person struggling with any kind of mental illness would feel disconnected from themselves. The past can feel like an out-of-body experience, except its someone else’s life played by an actor that happens to look exactly like yourself. I often think back and feel uncomfortable pangs of regret, but at the same time don’t truly identify with that person. Logan explains that, “the sick self has no accountability; the improved self has a lot of explaining, and often apologizing, to do.” I have done my fair share of apologizing and have tried to explain my condition many times–sometimes people get it other times I am met with blank stares or courteous nods. 

For now, I am focused on changing patterns, doing things in a new way and molding together a better image of my newly crafted self–with parts of the old and new. I could probably do with a bit of healthy grieving for the bits of my self that have been lost. I can think of a vibrant 17 year old, a kind of naive and overly exuberant young girl, a part of my self that has been chipped away. She may not be the same, but what is left standing is a stronger and wiser self, with moments of that same youthful energy. This is why I found Logan’s article so important, because she is still searching for new ways to reach out and understand how to make the process less painful, perhaps even more rewarding. As she began to share her story she learned that “the more often I spoke, the less traumatic my experience seemed, the less sad, the less painful and, somehow, the less personal”. This is key, if we all could open up and relinquish the hold that this very common illness has on ourselves, friends and family, perhaps we can reduce some pain. There is no need to go on suffering alone. I have talked about the process of writing releasing me from so much pain, giving me new levels self-worth. My other intention is to pass along some inspiration to just talk more openly and plainly about any type of mental illness, without stigma and shame, so that more selves can be set free. There is no point to life if we just keep things inside and pretend things are okay. I have been trained to always tell people that I am “fine”. Its no wonder that when I talk more openly about my suffering that I am met with surprise from some (my close confidants know my story all to well).

Obviously, I still enjoy a bit of self-loathing, procrastination probably falls in this realm and I still feel the monolith of work towering over me. I could use a good night’s rest without twisting around in worry over a paper I should have started last week. So I better get off the soap box for today, it did feel better to get this off my chest.

What do you all think we could better to help with any kind of mental illness? Not just dragged to the hospital and put on lithium type of illness, but also for those of us who are functioning as the walking wounded. 

Stakes in The Ground.

I’ve finally cleared a few things up with myself. Once and for all. Here, they are:

1. I am a mother. Nurturing, caring, strong.

2. I am an artist. Creative, intuitive, risk-taking.

Simple, to the point, seemingly obvious. Yet I have struggled to carry the weight of both roles. Allow me the entitled pleasure to take you back into my life just 8 months prior.

My life was a mess. If you asked me then, I would probably not have been this direct in my assessment of my regular ole normal life. Job, married, car, kid, city apartment, health and family. I am not trying to diminish anything I had in my life by saying that I felt very unhappy. If you want to relegate this to “first-world whining”, a bourgeois breakdown or bratty adult tantrum, please read no further.

Anyhow, I ended up back on “the couch” because I had the wherewithal to recognize that my weekly crying fits were a huge sign that something was off kilter. In the midst of panic inducing anxiety and depression its very hard comprehend the cause of the suffering. I only knew that it was painful. Several endless loops of self-examination helped me realize I may be in big trouble. I asked myself, “Is this getting out of control? Is my roller coaster of emotions affecting my loved ones? Can I function at work? Is hiding under the covers for 2 whole days healthy?” I was frightened by the answers.

I asked for help, medical help. Now here is the thing, I was walking around with everyone else. Attending weddings, school functions, happy hours with friends and co-workers, family trips, playing with my daughter and functioning on almost a daily basis. The good times were just book-ended with days cocooned in my cozy little room. But the middle days were getting to closer to the hidden days. The cycles were shortening.

OutofFocusSo there I sat, on a chair, looking at a Grad student, ramping up her clinical hours with my mess. And this is what I remember most clearly. I said I felt like an out of focus picture of myself. Like looking through a lens that created multiple layers of gradation, some days would come into focus, and other days my face would blur at the edges, pulling from the center figure and unfolding into an endless repetition of a scattered soul. I was losing myself. I had no idea who I was anymore. Panic inducing is an understatement. I wanted it to end–if ending meant something other than leaving behind a shattered family. I wished for some magical erasure that just deleted me from the picture, where no one would be the wiser.

But I, nor anyone else in this world, has such power. There is no delete button. I was still here, not erased. At first I relented to this obvious realization. Since I can’t go anywhere, I might as well try a different approach. I took some immediate steps to remedy physical symptoms, such as taking medication. But, I didn’t really believe in myself, yet. I sheepishly poked around for names of therapists. I kept the holidays very very simple (something I will continue going forward). I planned a short getaway with my dearest friend. I booked my first appointment with a new psychologist on my way to the airport. I came back from my trip, and within a few hours I was fired. My appointment had ironically been set for my first day of unemployed life.

I can’t hold anything back anymore. For so many years, I created a narrative that was not my own, but one that was easily validated and acceptable. I was a one-stop-shop of marketing wizardry, a working mom, successful career-woman, striving to climb the ladder part way to middle management, a hard nosed disciplinarian keeping out of my daughter’s way and a competent juggler of complicated schedules who didn’t need help from anyone. I take business classes, I talk in acronyms and douchebag business-speak pushing the envelope, thinking out of the box and at the end of the day….I felt empty and alone. I trusted nobody, work “friends” confused me, I just wanted to hide away. I can remember coming home, filled with numbness, reaching for a bottle of wine, sending my husband for carryout, barely able to read a bedtime story to my daughter.

But, somewhere, buried deep beneath the mess I had created on my very own, were some nuggets of truth, safely stowed away. There is way more to me than the artificial identity I had thought I wanted for myself.

I remember being filled with love, dancing to 80’s music with a tall Icelander on the top floor of The Hilton Hotel. I was less full of myself, less concerned with what I ought to be doing, a little out there, a little unmoored. I played in a silly punk band, surrounded by friends and a scene that continued to invite us back for more fun and snack cakes. The best part was that we had the freedom to make what we wanted. I had something more than work, career and cared little for other people’s opinions. I admit, I did feel self-conscious of this attitude, I always felt like an immature child around the other adults at work. I felt I should be doing more, I felt that this could not last. I let myself fall in love with a man who liked me this way. He had fun with me too. I remember his beautiful smile. softfocus1

At some point, I stopped having fun. Even with my tall Icelandic free-floating husband. Sometimes I would rally for the sake of my child, but I pretty much convinced myself that the fun times were gone. I had to work, I needed a 401K and benefits, needed tons and tons of benefits and retirement accounts, raises, bonuses, promotions, new jobs, better clothing, nicer shoes. Life is serious, this is important times, better buck up, better grow up. You fucked around for too long.

And this landed me on the couch, vibrating with stress, in pools of tears, dripping with sorrow. I saw my saddened husband who could only offer me his hand. I cried with each consoling hug from my 4 year old daughter. This is not what I envisioned. At all.

So, I am starting to make my way back. I have a vision. And I have planted two very solid stakes in the ground. Motherhood is power. Artistry is freedom. When I die knowing that I nurtured, protected and cared for these gifts in my life, it will be a happy day. The role of mother and artist is right in my focal point and I can see it with crystal clear sharpness. The image I see is smiling, relaxed, resolute, forgiving and is me, its my face, my body and my bits of soul. I don’t to have to strain to figure it out, its always been inside.

Focusing on motherhood means honoring birth and rebirth–its love, sometimes mundane, filled with minute details, but all the thought and energy I have to provide is what feels so right to offer to my family. Now I see motherhood is about nurturing the nature of self, fostering a home filled with love, health and happiness. I have the power to create a small bit of space filled harmony, safety and fun for myself, my husband and daughter. I am the mother of this house. The well-being of this home is centered through me, its a reflection of my generosity and love. This is empowering and has been an immense revelation to me, as I have tried to run away from this vantage point of motherhood. I never believed I was worthy or good enough to have earth momma power. But I get now.

Being an artist is a role I have never really owned, but it has been at the center of my discontent. Up until this point, I have incorrectly characterized an artist as a flaky, poor, unsuccessful dreamer. Yet, I have always viewed the world through a lens of an artist. The very traits that have gotten me in trouble in the office are exactly what will help me stick to my artistry. Overthrowing the tyranny of status quo won’t make me nervous, rather gives me a freedom to express myself. For example, I really have no concern what is said on this blog, something I would have been so worried about in the past. What if someone read this blog and I never find a job again? What if my boss thinks I am a delusional neurotic rebel who hates management? I can only write this blog as an artist. If this makes little sense to you, I also have no concern trying to explain this. If this sound like crazy talk because you think that being an artist means I will never make a dollar in this world, than I will simply ask you to reconsider this stereotype. I am committed to my role as an artist, and this identity will be with me wherever I land.

stained glassMy next steps will be to create tangible goals that fall within the role of mother and artist, artist and mother. I have the rest of my life to fill these buckets with accomplishments. Even if I do feel a little fear, trepidation, slight unease with the nebulous pathways I am paving, I also know I have hit the nail on the head this time around. Artist. Mother. I can’t wait to see what will happen.

“The job of the artist is to deepen the mystery”. –Francis Bacon

Riding the Feedback Loop.

Last night I took a big step into the realm of listening hard.

I signed up for a writing workshop, something I have attempted in the past and have failed miserably. Failure meaning, getting upset, taking critique personally, crying, feeling unworthy, getting depressed and eventually giving up. But I always give it a go every few years.

Unlike other workshop formats, in The Writer’s Studio we are asked to write original work based on a weekly reading from a published author. This allows us to challenge ourselves and experiment with different tools. But the most interesting part of the class, for me at least, is that another student reads your piece aloud and then everyone critiques it based on how well the assignment was met. The author is not allowed to speak during this time. In other words I have to listen. Take it all in and listen, quietly. With my mouth shut.

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I was worried and a bit anxious before class started. But I was also excited to share my story. I wrote my piece as a male narrator, something I had never done before. I was having trouble getting out of my head as I wrote, so I had to trick myself a bit. It worked and for me the exercise of creating a character that was not myself felt like a huge accomplishment. Well, that and listening quietly.

Everyone was very gracious, at some points there was even some laughter, which was good because I was trying to make the piece a bit sarcastic. Some of the feedback helped me see that the character sounded way more angry than I had intended. All of the talk about my piece kept me thinking of ways I could improve it and as I was taking notes, new ideas were popping into my head.

And this is the point that I learned something new. Feedback is important, without it we cannot hone our craft. We will never grow as budding artists.

Of course, I have heard about the virtue of critique before, but I never truly understood its use until last night. I need an audience so my work can have a life. If what I intended did not come through than the story was not effective. It obviously needs some more work. And this is all part of the process. Nobody nails it right out of the gate. Even Mark Twain would read his work out-loud to his family, just to gauge their reactions. He was a populist and if his work did not resonate with regular people, he was not on track.

Last night I connected the idea that I had created fear of feedback just as another block to progress. I do have a lot of work ahead. Instead of feeling daunted, I am invigorated by the challenge. It brings out my healthy competitive spirit.

I did feel some intense insecurities last night. As other pieces were read aloud, I started to judge my own work as inferior. Truthfully, there was some amazing writing last night, mine was not at the top. I can see where I need to put more effort in building more imagery, mood, tone and poetry.

I was starting to listen to the “You’re not good enough voice,” when I caught myself. I remembered that I have read countless times that many authors never feel satisfied with their work and are always self-critical. I thought of one of Zadie Smith’s 10 Rules to Writing;

Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

It may sound depressing, but its just a sadness. At least you are not blocking yourself from trying. I was simply feeling that my work could be improved. If I apply the same lesson I JUST learned from feedback of others, to self-criticism, I should merely take note and apply the appropriate edits. So, I may need to work on some skills. I just started revisiting my passion to write. And like so many artistic endeavors, it take practice and hard work. Art can be deceptively simple to see, read, hear, eat or touch.  That simplicity is always borne out of dedication and commitment.

I learned and felt a lot last night. I am going to remain proud that I showed up to class with a completed piece. I have 9 more weeks to go, to try on new techniques, push myself and most of all have fun. The group of authors in the room were warm and inviting. I really have nothing to fear. Success for me will be to stick with it and not be defeated by old habits.

I’m Listening, to the signs.

I recently lost my job. It’s been a few weeks and I’ve been silent up to now, but I am strong enough to admit it out loud. This post has been aggravating my writer’s block so I have to get this out.  I am pushing myself to ignore the unhelpful voice inside that has stifled my writing for so long so each post is a baby step in a new direction. I am using this time to work on my writing and find a new path in life. If you know me, I always love a good challenge, the difference is this time I am going to try put my energy into my own projects.

Okay so, job loss. Here is the deal. I was simply told I was not a good fit. It wasn’t personal and I have good skills. But I was not what they were looking for at this time. I think that working for a start-up is not for me, so I agree with assessment even if it still stings. Working at highly competitive and high growth environment requires employees to give everything and anything to their work and to be honest this is not something I am able to give. I was doomed to crash and burn at some point.  I had way way way too much on my plate that I felt like I couldn’t even think straight.  I wasn’t “hungry” enough for the company. I wasn’t ruthless according to management. These attributes are not within me and I knew it when they said it and I was always worried. But I still tried and I still pushed and pushed myself against the racing pulse, sleepless nights, bitten fingernails and churning stomach.

But the hard work, pushing myself to the edge just propelled me into a dead-end. I felt frozen at times.  I couldn’t deliver at the drop of the hat. What I did deliver failed to meet my standards and never hit the mark.  It wasn’t long that I started to feel like a pathetic mess that had lost my way. I had lost all my confidence.  When I started my new job, I had confidence and drive. I know this came through in the interview. I was committed to marketing and helping the company grow. I said I was creative and managed projects that had good outcomes. I felt sure of myself. But that all vanished when the flood of stress and anxiety drowned my ambitions.

I also need to admit to myself (and others) that I can’t work 40-50+ hours a week. And go to school full time. And raise my daughter. And have fun with my husband. And have a tiny tiny bit of a social life. Yeah I felt overwhelmed and I felt like I was drowning, because I was. But I didn’t want to admit it.

I knew this wasn’t sustainable, yet I felt powerless to change the dynamic. I did not fail at my job because I lacked the skills. I was not able to contribute because I was too locked up in stress.  I’ve been ignoring the signs for a long time and so for the first time I am really listening. So here is what I’ve learned. I am not weak for listening to my mind and body. Having a few weeks to get into a routine that allows for long walks, healthy meals, naps and most importantly a re-connection with family and friends has been the best gift. My new commitment is to find a line of work, job or career that will allow me to bring these new gifts along with me.

I know this will be a journey and it will take some patience and time.  I know I am creative, energetic, friendly, smart, strategic and ambitious and I would like to use my talents on something that is my own. I hope I am onto something good. At least I am starting to listen, really listen.

Short Fiction #1: The Last Weekend.

1996

The quickest decisions always have the best results. This had been proven to Shelia many times in her life. Deciding to take a trip to Washington DC didn’t take long. Shelia couldn’t recall the last time she made a decision this fast. The impetus for the trip was fueled by the momentary excitement of Obama’s re-election and a chance to spend time with Molly, her dearest friend.  Shelia’s husband urged her to make the trip on her own and she hit “book it” before he even hung up.  Her mini-break was in the works. Shelia felt elated. She needed to get away, she could feel it in her bones. The timing felt right too. After the madness of the holidays, the new year felt like a clean slate and a cold weekend in January fit her mood. Even if there was pomp and circumstance in the air, it was not the glittery materialistic laden pressure cooker of the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Besides, she had never been to a true blue Inauguration in The Nation’s Capital. Political theater was as thrilling to her as the Superbowl for football fans. Really she loved the idea of something new and unfamiliar. Spending time with Molly, a companion for all time, Shelia felt sure the weekend was going to be momentous. She was ready for a change.

Her vacation was crammed into her very busy life.  She only took Just 2.5 days off to make a nice long weekend.  It was still enough to make the few days at work a hectic game of downloading, organizing and checking in. Just 2.5 days, she thought. What is the issue, why all the stress? But she assured everyone she would be checking email on the road, even though there wasn’t anything urgent to check. She made sure to keep it cool at work. It was not the time to act frantic.  At first her plan was to work from home, then catch her flight out of SFO at 1Pm.  But her boss really wanted to review the marketing plan for a client launch. She stayed up the night before, finished her PowerPoint with a very detailed strategy and tactical plan. Crammed in some housework. Cuddled with her daughter. And packed her small bag with the efficiency of a flight attendant. Shelia woke up an hour early to make it to work at 830. Met with her boss to review the marketing plan.  Answered emails, checked in with colleagues. Set her out of office reply. And walked downstairs to catch BART.

On the train she made an appointment with her therapist updated her Facebook status and officially tuned off of her role as mommy, employee, student and wife.  Shelia knew the time was short and she was an expert at making the most out of a few days. She wasn’t going to worry about a thing.

All the flights were on time. Bags were not lost. Molly was waiting full of hugs and excitement. Driving in Washington DC never made much sense to Shelia, it always felt like looping circles and criss-crosses. But they found a great place to eat dinner. They chatted and had cocktails and at 1AM realized bed was probably a good idea if they wanted to get up in time to drive to New York City.

Yeah, a quick trip to New York City. That’s what two good friends conjure up at the last minute. A 26 hour jaunt, to see a play on Broadway, unsure of lodgings and playing it by ear. Only people who knew each other well and can travel with ease can pull off spontaneity. They managed to wake up on time.  And hit the road.  Along 1-95 Shelia clapped as she crossed each State-line.

“Yay”, Shelia screamed, “my first time in Delaware!”

“I’m on the New Jersey Turnpike. Sing it!”

The trees were bare and the conversation was deep. Five hours to catch up with a good friend can go by quickly. Shelia lamented about her new job, how she was trying to make it work.  And how the balancing act of motherhood and career was getting to her.  Molly talked about her wedding and first months as a newlywed. Her worries centered on future plans and new in-laws. They compared notes, gave each advice, admitted their fears and shared their dreams. They consoled and even strategized how to show off their talents. Then at the drop of the hat, the two friends sang along to “Like a Prayer” on the radio, trying to harmonize parts and evoke Madonna. The perfect road trip.

New York City started with a mad dash from a friend’s apartment in Jersey City. From the PATH they bolted up the stairs at the 13th street station, running blocks down Broadway lamenting the lack of lunch and a curtain call in 15 minutes. They made it to 48th street, with just a minute to spare before the curtain call. A magnificent performance about an heiress set in the late 1800’s. It brought up rousing conversation about fathers and daughters and the expectations of family and true love. The two friends waited at the stage door, more sheepish than most of the enthusiastic crowd. Out came the stars and they both pushed their way to front.

Later the plan was to meet a friend in the East Village. After a quick subway ride and a slow walk down St. Mark’s Street, they met at Ukrainian National for stuffed cabbage, periogies and copious amounts of Vodka. Of course. They walked into The Sly Fox for another drink where all three women concocted another last minute plan to dance at a gypsy festival in a vintage ballroom in Brooklyn. Why not? That was the attitude of the night.

The gypsy festival proved to be a hit, full of food and circle dances. Shelia felt connected to something new, clasping hands with strangers, trying to get the footwork correct.  She was filled with a gracious feeling from sharing happiness with others, something that was missing in the fast paced world of start-ups in downtown San Francisco. Finally, both friends were ushered into a car service well past 3 AM and they were grateful their side trip turned out better than expected.

The morning began with a mediocre breakfast at a Cuban Restaurant with a nice drive back to Washington DC. Inaugural Ball revelries were in the plan and neither of them was sure how they would make it to anything, but they persevered. Their presence was expected, after all. Shelia finally got a hold of her family and her daughter was upset to hear that mommy was in New York City. She had just seen the ball drop on New Year’s Eve and saw people throwing confetti on TV. Surely that is what her mother had been doing the whole time.

But through it all, she really felt alive and relaxed. Thinking little of work or other responsibilities. Even when she talked with her friend, it was cushioned with a sense of relief to let things out and to express anxieties. Their friendship had always been based on sharing their innermost thoughts. In year’s past, they had spent weeks upon weeks together, almost inseparably. When they met now, it felt like no time had passed and that something missing had been returned. It felt familiar and the new at the same time.

After another long night of parties, full of art and fire dancing, exhaustion finally set in and everyone slept well. There was still The Inauguration to attend. The morning was clear and cold and their minds were foggy. The smallest joke sent them into hysterics, like the Metro driver with the drawl of James Brown announcing each station. They expected him to scream “Get down now…yah” at any moment. They arrived on time, another uncanny moment as it had seemed that everything had fell right into place all weekend. They sat with the crowds, unable to see President Obama but his message still resounded and the energy from the crowds was palpable.

Admittedly, the day was long. Sitting on cold bleachers, waiting for a peek at The President or really anyone famous had its moments. The crowds were friendly and amicable. They heard that Eva Longoria was in the cavalcade or maybe Beyonce would walk around and say hello, the friends waited patiently. Both of them agreed that star-gazing was a kind of silly waiting game, with a short burst of giddiness ending with a sort of nothingness. But they still waited and waited. Finally, the moment arrived. The President and The First Lady were en route, the crowds were on their feet, cheering loudly! In a quick second, both friends leaned forward to get a passing glimpse of Michelle Obama waving cheerfully from behind her bullet proof glass. It didn’t matter, the moment was electric.

Tuesday morning arrived, Shelia had a flight to catch in the afternoon. Molly had to go back to work and barely made it on time. The weekend was over and Shelia had that sad feeling inside, but was also eager to see her family at the same time. She thought, like being thirsty and having to pee. The warmer weather of the weekend finally came to an end and the cold air came back. Shelia was glad to get out of dodge, minus seven degrees did not suit her well.

During the flight, Shelia had a lot on her mind. Mainly how real the weekend felt. She got to enjoy each moment and opened up and said what she wanted. She was not guarded. Shelia remembered who she really was again. She wondered how she could keep this feeling with her when she got back to San Francisco. It wasn’t her marriage or motherhood that brought her down, she loved those roles, they saved her. What bothered her was the career path that “chose her” and how it pulled her further away from her dreams. Yet she had no choice, she had to work and she had a great career. It just wasn’t her own. It felt empty to her. Her whole life she dreamed of starting a business, something that could help people. It sounded thrilling and scary and out of reach. She dozed off, trying to ward off the thoughts, the ideas that came alive when they were not repressed. Now they were buzzing around again.

It was time to step back into her daily routine and Wednesday morning started right back where the week had ended before her trip. It was such a great idea, the short trip was just what she needed. Shelia woke up appreciating everything just a bit more, especially her family. She even felt more connected to her job, it allowed her a good lifestyle and was fun at times. The break put a little pep in her step, she felt a bit more inspired, surely a good thing to get the creative juices flowing.

Shelia came back to the office, her coworkers with noses glued to their computers, nobody said good morning. Typical though, her office wasn’t so big on greetings or noticing the existence of another humans. First things first, catching up on emails and getting back to her marketing plan. She wrote to her boss, asking about feedback on her project. Pretty quickly her boss came over to her desk and asked if she could speak with her. They walked together, to the big conference room and Shelia felt her stomach give out, something was not right. As they entered the room, Shelia knew this was it. The human resources director sat there with stacks of folders and paperwork, maybe other people were getting let go or promoted, who knew?

Her boss said one sentence.

“So, we are sorry, but it’s not working out and we have decided to let you go.” No eye contact, nothing more, she got up abruptly and left the room.

Shelia felt frozen. Numbness spread over her whole body. Shelia remained all business and asked for specific feedback. But she just received the same robotic answers, so she gave up.

She did not cry in that conference room. Shelia had nothing more to say, signed papers and packed her desk in front of coworkers who didn’t even say goodbye. She called her husband and he immediately came to pick her up. Shelia texted Molly next. Molly was so sorry, felt so bad for her and told Shelia it was going to be okay, it was going to work out for the best.

Shelia had still not cried. She could only think about how much the last weekend really meant to her now.

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