Category Archives: challenges

When You’ve Been With Someone For Twenty Years…

…you’ll look back and wonder how you made it.

…you’ll realize you’ve weathered some storms which others may not have survived, and you’ll wonder how and why it happened for you and not for them.

Happy 20th Anniversary, Honey. Don't get the camera too close, okay?

…you might tell yourself you feel exactly the same as you did when you got married… until a 20-something aesthetician at Benefit cosmetics waxes your eyebrow (your choice) before your 20th wedding anniversary trip and, without asking, removes the hair on your upper lip (her choice). You’ll be confused, then horrified, then hopeful that it’s just a freebie, then irked when you’re charged for it, then embarrassed when the red bumps appear the next morning, then grateful that she did it because now, your formerly fuzzy upper lip is now as soft as a baby’s bottom for your anniversary trip with your husband…until the skin on your your upper lip breaks out into even bigger, angrier bumps (how romantic) and turns bright red under the slick of sunscreen in the unforgiving sunshine of the Caribbean and still…your husband helps you laugh about it.

… you might come up with a “brilliant” idea to hire a painter to “touch up” some cracked walls in your home (which haven’t been painted in 15 years) while you’re away with your husband and the kids are staying with friends. As you pack for your trip, digging through piles of cold-weather clothes (for your children) and stretched-out bathing suits (for yourself), you’ll weave in and out of the painter’s way and you’ll really look at those walls and realize you’ve neglected the house and the upkeep more than you would have liked. You’ll remember when you and your husband used to paint those walls yourselves, and now you’ll say to yourself, “How have I walked past these cracks and this peeling paint every day and not even SEEN them?” You’ll put down the kids’ cold-weather clothes and your stretched-out bathing suit and you’ll stop dead in your tracks.

You’ll take a deep breath and whisper to yourself that your kids are healthy and relatively pleasant at least 15% of the time, that you’ve had plenty of other things on your plate to attend to, like taxes and homework and finding your three-year-old after ten frantic minutes of believing he’d fallen off the end of Navy Pier and seeing friends you don’t see nearly as often as you’d like (but you’re trying) and car payments/repairs and printers out of ink the morning the damn report is due and learning your relative is in hospice and (hopefully not too many) funerals and ants in the kitchen and stitches in the knees and boxes of photos you’ve never put into albums but occasionally stumble across after you’ve had too much wine and car rides with friends to get them to their radiation/chemo appointments and new jobs and old-fights-that-creep-into-new-arguments and honor roll certificates and hugs from your eight year old and dog poop that needs to be scraped out of your neighbor’s child’s shoe and pumpkin faces eaten off by squirrels on your porch and saying I’m sorry (and wishing you’d said it sooner) and sunburns and enjoying the greatest meal you’ve ever shared and sleeping on the couch and realizing you’ll never be perfect and wishing people would just appreciate you more and being there when your child wakes up from anaesthesia, reaching for you, crying your name over and over and you just stop.

And the painter will look at you like you’re only slightly less dangerous than his mother-in-law back in the old country — but at least you’re paying him.

"Hole in the wall" by Rune T

Then the painter will go back to the cracks in the walls, and he will do his best, but you both know there’s only so much he can do with such an old house like yours. You’ll come to see that repairing those cracks, just like all the imperfections in life, can be messy business…that the journey is never finished… and that perfection is never reached.  You’ll see there will always be huge messes that leave you wondering at times if this was all worth it. And if you have a good, honest painter, he’ll remind you that your place isn’t the worst he’s ever seen, nor is it the best. But it’s yours.

Sometimes those cracks can and should be tackled on your own; other times, professionals must help. They’ll have the tools and the perspective you need. They’ll step in and remind you what’s wonderful about those walls around you, and they’ll point to reasons why you’re lucky to live within them. They add character. They’re proof of the history, the humanity, and the lives nurtured here. The professionals can strip away the layers of “quick fixes” and “amateur patches” so that the true beauty of what lies beneath can once again be seen.

…and finally, you’ll come to realize that, just like your twenty years of togetherness, there will always be some cracks because you are both human. And imperfect.  You’ll learn to tend to the cracks that threaten to take down everything you’ve worked hard to build, and you’ll see the small, superficial cracks not as imperfections, but as character, as reality, and as life with the person you love.

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Finding Your Passion Later In Life

Have you ever asked yourself, “What’s my passion?”

Ever wondered, “What am I good at?” or “Why does everyone have a hobby but me?” or “What do I want to do for fun?”

I asked myself each of those questions for years.

I wanted to find the magic answer…and for many years, I searched in areas that led me to believe I’d hit dead ends forever.

For quite awhile, I felt as though my whole existence was merely reacting to circumstances around me. I’d see others acting on what I perceived as their destinies. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life for such a long time that I literally gave up looking.

And thank God I did.

With hindsight, I’ll tell you with certainty, that if you’re still looking for your passion, you can relax. It’ll happen if you stop seeking it.

Your passion is deep within, but you can’t embrace it until you — and it — are both ready. I know you want to shoot me for saying that, but it’s the truth.

Don’t worry. Your passion will always be there, and you’ll bring it to the surface if you keep moving forward, trying new experiences and getting to know others. You will wake up one day — possibly frustrated, possibly at peace, or perhaps a combination of both — and look back at the experiences and people in your life…and you’ll put the pieces together and see how things have all been leading up to THIS.

THIS? What is THIS?

I can’t tell you what THIS is…because it’s yours. But you’ll know.

I waited for my THIS to announce itself. I thought that going to a good university and getting a good job and marrying a good guy were all part of the path toward discovering what I was all about. I worked hard. Apologized for the mistakes I was aware of (and prayed to God to forgive me for all the unintended ones).

Still, I never achieved clarity.

Of course I was passionate about being a mother, but for me, parenting is a shared joy with my husband; mothering never fit into my “personal passion” column. Hold up now…don’t call the Department of Children and Family Services quite yet. For me, mothering is rewarding, challenging, mezmerizing…but for me, being a parent is not my own, personal passion. While I’m a passionate mother and I’m passionate about everything related to my children and our family, my own personal passion is a separate entity.

Which leads me to define a passion. I won’t look it up in a dictionary because that may influence the words that come from my heart:

Your passion is what moves you like nothing else can. Your passion is always on your mind and in your soul, urging you to get back to it. The flame of your passion never dies, though it may change shape and color depending on what sort of fuel you’re able to offer it. Your passion provides a light to help you through your darkest times, and an ongoing set of benchmarks by which you can see your own development as a human being. Though others may share a similar passion, your passion is entirely yours. Once discovered, your passion will reveal layers upon layers of opportunities.

I speak from knowledge, not as someone who has it all figured out, but as someone like you, who’s been at the end of her rope, wondering what the point was. I’ve known the crushing feeling of everyone around me seeming to know what they want…yet having absolutely no idea what I was even slightly good at or even partially interested in.

As I mentioned earlier, I stopped searching for my passion altogether. Instead of digging for it, I put down the [pick axe/shovel/front loader] and listened for an answer. I was approaching forty years old, wondering when I’d grow up and figure out my life.

“Until that time comes,” I thought, “I’d like to do some writing. I’ve always loved to write and I’m not very good at it because I never make the time for it. I used to journal all the time until I graduated college and then…I just stopped. Maybe writing will help me figure out what my passion is…” I didn’t even know what I wanted to write.

Memoir? Comedy? A children’s book? A novel? Magazine articles?

Once I gave myself over to a place that allowed so many options to float within my reach, I realized how hungry I was to try them out.

New perspective on an old activity.

Imagine this. You’re at your desk just before lunchtime. You’re starving, but you don’t have an appetite for the sack lunch you prepared last night. You don’t know what it is you crave, but you know it’s not the plain old turkey and swiss you brought. You walk down the hall to the snack machine and stare at the usual offerings. “What’s the point?” you wonder. “It’s just food.” You grab your sack lunch from the fridge, but, instead of eating it at your desk (as usual), you take it outside and eat it on a bench three blocks from your office. The sun warms your face and, as you eat the same turkey on wheat that you always make, you think, “I’m happy I didn’t blow money on vending machine crap, and tomorrow I can totally do better than this.” The next day, sitting in your new lunchtime spot, you eat your turkey sandwich topped with cranberry chutney…and you start thinking about all the other ways you might spice up your lunchtime sandwiches without blowing your budget. Synapses start firing, and you can’t keep up with your ideas. You ask someone for a piece of scratch paper to write down your variations, like turkey/bacon/avocado and turkey/pepperjack/strawberry preserves and turkey rubens and turkey/bacon/swiss/maple syrup and turkey with olive tapenade and turkey with carmelized balsamic onions, only to discover that the person you’ve borrowed the scratch paper from is enjoying a turkey on focaccia with roasted red peppers, garlic mayo and lettuce. You form a friendship with the scratch-paper stranger. The friendship leads to lots of opportunities and people you’d never considered, and the biggest benefit is that all these new people offer fresh new perspectives on life and activities and chances you hadn’t noticed before. Before you know it, you see yourself in ways you’d never thought about. And by stretching yourself…even later in life like this…you’ll feel younger, more excited, more motivated, and more interested in the world around you. Most important, you’ll have a new perspective on how your experiences, your skills and your passions fit in.

There is no magic formula to find your passion later in life. It’s already in you. And, I’ll guarantee you’ve accumulated more life experiences than you give yourself credit for. And, rest assured that most of them (especially the suckiest ones) will come in handy.

It won’t take a life coach to find your passion. Or an analyst (though I’ve loved mine). Or an expensive, contemplative vacation to “figure yourself out”.  Just switch something up…even if it’s as simple as where you eat that same old turkey sandwich. You just might surprise yourself.

Even Homecoming Queens Get Depressed

I was the 1985 Homecoming Queen of Hoffman Estates High School near Chicago, Illinois.

What I didn’t realize then, that I only see now at 43, is that I suffered from depression at seventeen years old.

In 1985, a 17-year-old didn’t know as much about depression as a 17-year-old does today. In 1985, we didn’t have access to the Internet, nor did we talk openly about “being blue”.  In 1985, a 17-year-old couldn’t Google “I feel sad” or “my life sucks” or find a blog about someone’s similar experience. We’d have to go to the public library or use the Encyclopedia Britannica our parents collected with grocery store stamps to look up the term “depression” yet even then, depression was all about the crazy-haired kooks who laid in bed all day drinking Sanka and snacking on toenails.

It’s now 2012, and I’m here to tell you: depression affects anyone at any time.

I’m also here to tell you that it gets better.

At 17, I was emotional.  I cared deeply—often too much—about everything, and I tried to please everyone: parents; friends; friends of friends; boyfriends; teachers; boyfriends’ teachers; coaches; boyfriends’ coaches; the senior citizens I played bingo with; even my cranky boss at Baker’s Square Restaurant.  I rarely felt good enough or that I tried hard enough, which always left me feeling exhausted.

From the outside, I came off as the consummate over-achiever, the go-to gal willing to fix, mend, take charge or carry the load when no one else could or would. Inside, however, I never felt I gave 100% of my efforts to any one thing (excellent preparation for motherhood, but how was I to know?).

To my surprise, I was nominated to the Homecoming Court my senior year in high school. I should have been on top of the world, right?  But, the honest-to-God truth was that I never once understood why I was on that damn court. I never felt I belonged. I didn’t feel pretty enough. Tall enough. Smart enough. Nice enough. Worthy.

The afternoon of the Homecoming assembly, the ten members of the Homecoming Court (5 guys, 5 girls) were excused from their regularly scheduled classes to primp and fuss in the locker rooms. The 5 of us girls smiled nervously at each other as we reached for our long dresses, hanging in plastic bags suspended from the open, upper lockers. My dress was a satiny, fuschia number with big, puffy shoulders to match my permed, soon-to-be-Aqua-Net-crusted hairdo. While I couldn’t read the other girls’ minds, I still remember my own dizzying thoughts as I waited for the butane to heat up my portable curling iron:

Why am I even on the Homecoming Court?

Kari should win because she’s sporty and smart and doesn’t have a mean bone in her body.

Simone should win because she’s the kindest, sweetest person.

Kim’s going to win because she’s so smart and nice to everyone.

Tracy ought to win since she knows who she is and isn’t fake at all.

This is insane. Why should any one of us even win? Who’s to say one person is better than another?

Some teacher probably felt sorry for me and fixed the voting to get me onto the Court.

I can’t wait to see the water fountains they’re putting up in the gym. I hope I can see them in the dark.

I bet I’m only here because I’m one of the shortest kids in the school — all the short kids must have voted for me.  Oh, and probably all of Beth’s [my sophomore sister’s] friends, too.

As the five of us prepped for the assembly in the locker room, I thought about how I’d known these girls my entire high school career, if not longer. We’d sat through classes together; rode buses together; stood in cafeteria lines, crossed our arms across our budding chests on the sides of the school swimming pool so the totally disgusting boys in their gross Speedos wouldn’t stare at us; researched papers with them; held doors for each other, jockeyed for mirror space during passing periods, sat through assemblies and cheered at bonfires with them. I’d seen each of them at Woodfield Shopping Mall with their boyfriends or their families, buying salted pretzels from Hot Sam or walking out of Chess King with a pair of parachute pants. I’d noticed how nice/quiet/friendly/moody/beautiful each of them could be on any given day. Most of all, I envied each one of those girls for what they were and for what I was not.

Yet, as the clock clicked closer to the assembly’s start, I felt an ironic sense of distance and tension. The five of us, alone yet together in this vast locker room, were all that we had, yet we barely spoke a word.

“You look so pretty,” someone said.

“No, no, you look gorgeous,” another insisted.

“I love your dress,” one of us said.

“This? Oh, but look at yours.”

Not an ounce of cattiness was detected. Just deference — and an urgency to get this thing the hell over with.

The ceremony itself remains a blur. The packed gymnasium was dark and noisy. Worst of all, I couldn’t get a good view of the fountains. I thought about the kids who’d spent countless hours decorating the gym, wondering if they, like me, wished someone would turn up the lights, even for a few seconds. I knew my mom and my stepfather and my six-year-old sister were somewhere in the audience. My fifteen-year-old sister was definitely in the audience: I heard her (and all of her friends) calling my name. I wondered if my biological dad was somewhere nearby — possibly drunk – as well.  Sure enough, he was (nearby — and possibly drunk) but that’s another story altogether.

The chorus sang. The King was crowned. My name was called…and as someone hung a white satin sash across my fuschia chest for everyone in the gym to see, I crumpled into tears. A local newspaper photographer ensured my twisted grimace was captured forevermore.

The King and I took our “victory lap” around the dreamy, faux path created by the Decorating Committee. We walked quickly — just as all of us on the Court had been instructed to do earlier in the day at the Homecoming Assembly Rehearsal – stepping in time with the music, past the spurting fountains, heading back toward the starting point so we’d land it just as the song wrapped up, exactly as we’d been told to do.

Ever the pleaser, I’d be damned not to hit the mark a second beyond the final note of the song.

My King and I clung to one another, elbows locked, along our faux path as the crowds in the bleachers yelled and screamed. I wanted to cry the entire time.  I looked at my four Court-mates who should have strolled along with me. I wanted to say, Can’t you see? This is all so ridiculous! Come walk with us. This is so embarrassing. My King cracked heartfelt, smart-ass jokes that left me laughing until tears rolled down my face. I must have looked elated, but I was crying for real inside. It’s been my coping technique ever since: happy on the outside and they’ll never look deeper at the sadness within.

Before today, I’d never told my children about being named Homecoming Queen. I never felt it mattered, never felt I deserved it, never thought it was something to be proud of. Instead, I thought of it as some popularity contest I didn’t sign up for, one that I somehow won out of pity.

And that’s what depression can do. Even when the world is your oyster…even when things fire on every cylinder…depression has a way of whispering doubt and self-loathing so quietly that you’re almost able to convince yourself you didn’t hear it…until you start listening for it. You try to hear that whisper so intensely that, when it floats like steam past your tightly-wound psyche and evaporates before you can deal with it rationally, you feel sucker-punched and exhausted from the effort of it all.

—–

Someone in my family recently told my daughter I’d been voted Homecoming Queen in high school. I pulled out the sash and hung it across my middle-aged chest, the same chest I used to hide with embarrassment, the one I nursed three children with and the one that now swells with pride when I see those children today at 14, 12 and 8.

My 12-year-old daughter looked at the sash with awe, and then said, “What exactly IS a Homecoming Queen?”

“You know,” I said, smiling. “It’s just a silly thing they do in high school.” While I’m glad she hasn’t lived in the shadow of a mom fixated on the notoriety of something as superficial as a homecoming title, I must remember to look for any shadows of depression she (or either of my boys) encounter. I know so much more about how it can be maked. Blended. Hidden. I know depression strikes anyone at anytime. That it hurts. That it feels like it will never end.

But I also know that it’s okay to talk about it. Not to be ashamed. Give myself permission to retreat and recharge. Let myself cocoon when I need to, and to accept that I am human like everyone else.

I tucked my homecoming sash back into the small cardboard box I store it in, a box that once held a corsage from some event I’ve long since forgotten.  It’s been years since I thought of that sash, and even longer since I’d pulled it out; I suspect it won’t come out of that box for many years to come, but I no longer feel ashamed of it.

It’s taken me 26 years to accept the honor of my title, and while there is no white satin sash for depression, it is yet another title I carry that I am no longer ashamed of.

My Cloak Of Invisibility

I’m at the final stage of editing my children’s novel. I should have been done long ago, but I’m a recovering perfectionist and I saw how rejection killed my spirit at a conference in New York City last January. I’m also a wife, a mom, a semi-regular columnist and a woman who’s trying to do way too much. Like many writers, I’ve come to realize that the long sought dream of shutting myself in an office to write doesn’t materialize as often as one might think. I hear there’s an invisibility cloak in the making, like the one from Harry Potter, and I’d like to order one.

In addition to writing my first novel, I’m trying to keep track of a dog, a rabbit, a houseful of painters working on three floors of our home, groceries, dry cleaning, music lessons for three kids, my own exercise and sleep, critique group meetings (missing those far too often), staying in touch with friends (and often doing a lousy job of it) and family (not successful there either, I’m afraid).

The worst part is, Halloween‘s approaching. I’ve been hiding costume catalogs from my kids because I just can’t take one more thing right now.

I’ve thought many times that I might have ADD. If I had the time, I’d get diagnosed.

Yesterday, I was so proud of myself for heading to a quiet office to edit for several hours. As I drove to this little beacon of solitude, I felt guilty leaving my husband and kids on a gorgeous Saturday. What a perfect day for the beach. Skipping a day of Indian Summer in Chicago is as wrong as ordering a pulled-pork sandwich on a cell-phone during a bar mitzvah.

What I’ve learned is that writing a novel you care about (is there any other type?) takes longer than you’ll ever imagine. You live and breathe your characters. You look at the world through their eyes. When you love your characters, you know never to force their words or actions, lest they appear on the page as anything less than authentic. As a reader, you want the author to stay out of the way so the characters and setting and plot and movement all work in tandem to transport you into another world.  The ironic challenge as a writer is to inhabit your work so completely that you actually make yourself completely invisible.

I’m riding the waves of this journey. The trough I’m in right now feels so deep and dark. The revision and editing process is “the best part” for some, but not for me. It’s hard. It’s cumbersome. It’s tedious.

It’s also necessary.

I’m declaring now to anyone reading this: the revisions will be complete by the end of this month and the manuscript will be in the hands (or on the screens) of multiple agents before Halloween. This might mean my kids’ will be mummies wrapped in toilet paper this year.

I hope someday they’ll forgive me.