From my Bookshelf, Uncategorized

I want to be like Anna Quindlen

I recently read Anna Quindlen’s new memoir, “Lots of Cake and Plenty of Candles.” I didn’t get past the first paragraph in the introduction titled “Life in the Fifties” before I stopped reading to think about one of the first things she wrote. “It’s odd when I think of the arc of my life, from child to woman to aging adult. First I was who I was. Then I didn’t know who I was. Then I invented someone and became her. Then I began to like what I’d invented. And finally I was what I was again. It turned out I wasn’t alone in that particular progression.”

I’ve spent a lot of time studying my life’s arc because I’ve written and rewritten a memoir about a million times. (Okay, not a million, but it feels that way.)

It’s not easy charting the arc and story line of your life. You can’t do it with any degree of integrity if you don’t take a thorough and honest look at the inner workings of your life, and sometimes that can be both too revealing, and a little painful.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to write a book about my life.  But I’ve fought the inner critic that says it’s downright arrogant to think your life is worthy of a memoir.  After all, who would be interested enough to buy it and read it?  And could I handle the scrutiny of those readers if I ever really published it?

I talk back to that critic and say there are people in the world that are born to write just like there are people born to make music, paint, quilt, garden, cook, or be accountants and biologists.

While struggling to write my memoir, I spent a lot of time going over old journals to find out who I really was at different times of my life. In journal after journal, I started the first page by writing, “I love starting a new journal and having all these clean pages waiting to be filled.”  Then at the end of a journal, I was always wistful about closing another chapter of my life. Sometimes I was happy to close a particularly painful time or excited about what was ahead.

So when I read Quindlen’s introductory paragraph to her book I wondered about the shape of my life and whether I’d made the complete circle that she described. “First, I was who I was.”

As a child, I was probably more authentic and less intentional because my family, friends, community and circumstances were shaping my personality and values. Then when I get a little older, my maturing mind starting wondering who I was and what I wanted in my life. I figured it out a bit at a time, and then set out to be that person. I think Quindlen is right that we all do this. Sometimes we like the person we create and sometimes we don’t.  Then, we have to re-evaluate everything and make adjustments or start all over again.

The tragedy is when we don’t like the person we’ve created and we refuse to redo ourselves and become someone better, someone we actually like and respect more. I think this the hardest and longest part of our lives. (In fact, does it ever end?)

Learning who are and who we want to be is hard work because we worry about disappointing ourselves, not meeting our own expectations and goals, and not living up to what others expect of us, even God. I’ve spent my life trying to figure out who God really wants me to be because right when I think I’ve figured it out, He surprises me and puts something I never wanted or expected into my life, and I think, “Really God? Am I that woman? Do you really want me to be that woman?”

I hear my daughters and their friends often say, “I don’t want to be that girl or that person.”

But sometimes, probably more times than not, we get “those lives” – not because we want them, but because they are somehow good for us. They usually come with big, hairy life lessons that we wouldn’t learn without them. It would sure be nice sometimes to learn them without so much pain, wouldn’t it?

I’m generally happy with the woman I’ve created, but I’m still in the “development” stage because I don’t feel fully invented yet. I know there’s always something new just around the corner.  I just have to be “that woman” that deals with it, responds well, and becomes better because of it.

The truth is I’m not happy with some of the things that “just are” in my life because I didn’t really get a say about whether they happened or not.  (Cancer is always a good example.)

I know I get a say in how I respond but I’ve always wished that some things (like cancer) could have knocked a little more gently on my door and that I’d had a choice of whether to invite it in or slam the door. Of course, none of us get that kind the choice. Unwanted experiences often bully their way in whether we want them or not.  Sometimes we can do everything in our power to make them feel unwelcome and go away, but they just lounge around like a bad houseguest that you can’t get rid of.

What I’m trying to figure out is how we live graceful, happy lives when we negatively think we are “that person” with “that life” we didn’t want. I know all about positive thinking, and I try to apply those positive psychology principles but I’m not there yet. I’m not fully “who I was again,” and I’m not sure I’ll ever be.

In many ways, I’m much better than who I was, but I think I’ll always be a work in progress, trying to accept things I can’t change and yearning to be like Anna Quindlen, the one who claims to be quietly, sublimely back to the innocent childhood state of just being comfortable with who she is without feeling any internal or external pressure to be more. I want to be that woman, but now I’m not.

I want to know: Where are you in this process?  Are you happy with the person you’ve become?  Are you learning from the bad house guest that barged his or her way into your life or are you sublimely happy in your own skin and your current place in life? I’d love to know.

Change, Personal, Uncategorized

Stress? Me? Never.

I joined a new gym a few days after Christmas because I needed a workout makeover.
The gym offered workout sessions with personal trainers to lure new members.
Eager to rock my resolutions, I signed up for the personal training sessions
before the New Year even arrived.
With pen and paper, my trainer, Irene, asked me about my goals, my health, and my stress levels.
“How would you rank your stress on a scale from one to ten?””
“I don’t have any stress,” I told her without pause.
“Okay,” she said without pressing me further, “no stress .”
“Nope, no stress,” I confirmed.

As we continued to plot out my fitness plan, my “no-stress” answer bounced back and forth in my head like a ball in a fast-paced tennis game.
Did I just casually tell Irene I have no stress?
Really, no stress?
How could I be totally stress-free?
My life is full of stress potential.
I must have been enjoying the Christmas after-glow.
But the very idea that I could live without stress felt so liberating that I wanted to hang on to it and be the calm, collected woman I was at that unique moment.
I enjoy believing that I am cool-headed and relaxed.
Oh, I have my stress inducers.
I just don’t want them to get the best of me.

I have a challenging public affairs church assignment that could produce stress, but I choose to view it as an opportunity to learn, interact with brilliant people, and do what I’ve been trained to do.
When I re-frame it like that, the stress abates.
And then there’s the gym membership, the trainer, the workouts and the dreaded weight scale every Monday morning that never shows any progress.
That is the mother of all stress for me.
But, instead of taking a sledgehammer to the scale in a fit of rage I think about how hard I’m working to take care of myself.
Taking care of myself should reduce stress not cause it.
So, bye-bye stress, you’re not welcome here, even though I usually
let you cause havoc on me in this area.
But now that I am a stress-free woman or at least a decent stress manager, I don’t have time for body image issues, so I just keep trying to keep a healthy perspective on it.
I tell myself I’m in the game.  I’m working hard.  I like sweat and movement and sore muscles.  Uh-ha, I do.

This reminds me of bike riding with my mom one summer when a vicious dog raced toward us, and barked and snapped menacingly at her leg.
She pushed the dog away with her foot, and snapped, “For hell’s sake, I don’t have time for you today, so leave me alone!”
It shocked me that the dog turned around and left, and we pedaled on down the road.
If my mom can command a dog to leave her alone because she doesn’t have time for it, I can put stress in its place.
A finished memoir sits a few inches away from me on my desk.
A steep learning curve stands between me, and an agent and a publisher.
Other writers recommend self-publishing because it’s next to impossible to get an agent’s attention in today’s publishing world.
They say if you’re lucky enough to get an agent and a publisher, it takes years to get a book to press, and then, you still have to market the book yourself.
Big potential stress here.
I’ve spent years on this project, do I really want to xerox a few copies for my friends and family and then be done with it?
Book stress looms over me.

Following my mom’s lead, I look a the stress, tell it I don’t have time for it today, and press on, trying to research agents and contacting everybody I know with a connection to the publishing world.
So to keep myself in the stress-free mindset, I pretend I’m taking a multiple-choice test that asks, “What causes you stress?”

  1. Your new church assignments
  2. No results at the gym
  3. Unpublished book
  4. All of the Above
  5. None of the Above

I’ll take E please, none of the above.
All of the things packed with potential stress are also  packed with potential excitement, learning, and fun.
So I’m choosing to say no-thank-you to stress, even at the gym with my so-far not very successful new gym makeover program.
I need this no-stress/tame-the-saboteur attitude to work for me.
I just hope that I’m not packing my stress into a bottle rocket that will eventually soar way past level 10 on the stress scale because then I have to go back to Irene and say, “Remember when I said I have no stress?”
She will laugh and say, “I knew it couldn’t be true.”
And I will feel silly and defeated because I let stress suck all the fun out of everything in my life that I actually enjoy, even the workouts at the gym.