What I Read In January

I haven’t kept a reading journal in a long time. Instead I let my bookshelves serve as a visual reminder of what I read. But after enjoying monthly book lists on other people’s blogs, I thought I’d try it here. My motivations are also selfish: I figure that sharing my monthly reading tally with the world will nudge me to do more actual book reading (as opposed to, you know, following a trail of article links across my Twitter feed). I’m already embarrassed about how short this January recap will be. Continue reading

Why self-care is my word of the year

As an avid podcast listener, I noticed an early-January trend among the episodes of various shows I subscribe to. Instead of setting traditional new year’s resolutions, many people were discussing their word of the year. At first it all sounded like baloney to me. How could I just pick one word? Both my real to-do list as well as my aspirational one were perpetually full. I didn’t think one word could help me accomplish all that I wanted to in 2018.

But then I read The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron. I’d heard of the concept before and vaguely identified with it–after all, I’d always been more sensitive than most to external stimuli as well as my inner world. Reading the full book, though, was transformational. While most of what she wrote was familiar to me from my own experiences, her framing of it was new. Instead of apologizing or feeling guilty and flawed, or trying to compensate for  for our trait, Dr. Aron (an HSP herself) encourages HSPs to embrace their true nature and find the positive in it. She also emphasizes that it’s okay to take care of yourself–more than okay, it’s vital to happy and healthy functioning.

It’s hard for me to express how much this positive re-framing has changed my outlook. For the past few years I’ve developed a hobby of reading self-improvement books, productivity blogs, and the like. Hitting the books is my go-to method of problem solving, so I thought I could read away the aspects of myself I found defective in comparisons against others. Get organized, wake up before the birds, work after my kids go to bed, juggle more things than I can count on one hand without dropping anything. I wanted to be the sort of “Type A” person that is often the most visibly successful in American society. Never mind that I’m basically the opposite of Type A.

Now I think of myself as “Type HSP” and I’m ready to accept myself, flaws and all. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop striving to improve, but I’ve finally, thankfully, given up on the idea that I can be a different person. Once I realized this, it became clear that self-care would be my word of the year. Now that I examine problems and situations, and base my decision-making from the perspective of caring for myself, I feel truly energized, productive, and generous toward others. I’ve long heard people say that self-care isn’t selfish but now I see that truth in my own life. I’m a better parent, spouse, daughter, teacher, friend, and neighbor when I take the time to nurture myself.

Here’s a brief list of what self-care looks like for me right now. I’m sure it will fluctuate with the seasons and passage of time. How do you practice self-care?

  • Drink a glass of water before my morning cup of coffee.
  • Make time to exercise most days.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Limit my media consumption to a once-a-day news briefing. Read articles with intention, not for distraction. Mostly read books.
  • Eat healthy foods.
  • Ask for time alone when I need it.
  • Schedule time with friends.
  • Leave my phone in the cabinet when I get home in the afternoon/evening.
  • Be the parent I am, and do the activities I enjoy with my kids.

“I never lose; I either win or learn.”

I heard this motto on a guided meditation and I love it because it articulates in a much catchier way a lesson I learned about four years ago. Later this month, my family will mark the fourth anniversary of my brother Rob’s death from melanoma at age 27. In the immediate aftermath of losing him I felt many things, including anger. Now I am not naturally a very angry person–I’m more prone toward depression, which some consider anger turned inward–so to walk around feeling so bitter and furious with the world was new to me. Of course, anger is a natural part of the grieving process, but I didn’t want to get stuck there. I was a new mother at the time, so I needed a way forward that would allow me to heal and care for my baby.

As the months passed I read as much as I could about what happens after we die and what the meaning of life is. I considered religious perspectives and read books by psychics and people who’d supposedly had near-death experiences. I came away from my research with a strong sense that we are here to love and learn. Our relationships and how we treat other people are the most important parts of life. Adversity and failure are invitations to learn, grow, and deepen our empathy for others. Achievements and material prosperity are just icing on the cake. It’s good to have goals and there’s nothing wrong with wanting things, but that isn’t our main purpose here on Earth.

My little epiphany helped me let go of the anger coiled inside my chest. I stopped resenting people whose siblings were still alive and families who seemed to be a perfect picture of happiness. I resolved to approach everything that happened to me, good or bad, with one question: What can I learn from this?

It hasn’t always been easy to maintain this attitude, but I’ve observed over the years that everyone faces loss or adversity at some point. The person who seems to have it all today is the person who, next year or the year after, will get divorced, lose a job, say goodbye to a loved one, find herself in a bad car accident, and so on–the possibilities are endless. When life is going well, enjoy it and “save up,” so to speak, for the eventual darker days. When things don’t work out the way you wanted them to, try to find the lesson from your situation and have faith that you’ll come out of it sooner or later. As a wise friend said to me in the most intense days of my grief, “The only way around it is through.”

The requisite year-end reflection

All over the Internet, people are taking stock of 2017. Like many, I found it stressful to keep up with the news this year. However, the past few months have also brought important milestones in my personal and professional lives. Here is the requisite year-end reflection along with some intentions for 2018.

In 2017 my freelance writing work grew to the point that I had to scale back my teaching load. After a spring and summer so busy they left me feeling burnt out, I decided to give up a part-time academic job and dwindle my remaining fall course assignments down to one accelerated six-week class. When I made this decision in August I felt both scared and exhilarated. What if I failed? What if I succeeded? Would I like mostly working from home?

Four months later, life feels more settled, though there is always an element of unpredictability in the freelance life. I’m going into the spring with one class at Temple and a full roster of writing work. Just a few years ago I couldn’t have imagined this life for myself. Now I get to tell people, “I’m a writer,” when they ask what I do. I’ve written about my journey from brand-new freelancer to busy working writer in “How to Outsource Your Freelance Blogging Work with Integrity,” my Pitchfest-winning article for Be A Freelance Blogger.

So, what’s next? My challenge in 2018 will be to return to my Creative Writing roots. I put fiction mostly to the side when I had my first child four-and-a-half years ago. Now that my second child is almost two, it feels like time to dip my toe tentatively into the water. I’ve read more articles than I can count by women writers describing how they do (or don’t) balance motherhood with a writing life. But while these articles have shown me I’m in good company, they can’t really tell me how to find the balance in my own life. It looks a little different for everyone.

After thinking about it for a few days, I’ve decided the first step is to write regularly here on my blog. So expect one-two posts a week from me on whatever happens to be on my mind. It will be a little bit like creative writing, a lot like free writing, and give me a space to play around with words. After years of thinking I can’t have a blog because I don’t have one specific niche in mind, I’d like to return to the style of online journaling that first captured my attention in the early 2000s. On LiveJournal and elsewhere, I loved reading about other people’s lives in eloquent prose that captured ordinary details along with some wisdom. Many of the blogs I read were written by women older than me, and reading about their hopes, dreams, mistakes, and day-to-day routines gave shape to my wishes and plans for my own life. I shall strive to do something similar here.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Was Andrew Wyeth A Homebody?

I visited The Brandywine River Museum on the last day of its “Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect” exhibit. Having grown up near Chadds Ford, where Wyeth lived and worked and the museum is located, I’d heard of the Wyeth family of artists, but this was my first time visiting the museum and seeing their work. Why is it that the places and figures in our own backyards are often the easiest to overlook? This was not the case for Andrew Wyeth, who painted the people and places around him. As I walked through the exhibit admiring the impeccably detailed paintings, especially the watercolors painted with dry brush (a technique I’d never heard of before), I felt an affinity for Wyeth’s haunting portraits, spooky interiors, and multiple compositions of the same houses and landscapes. There is the white farmhouse he grew up next to in Chadds Ford, the dilapidated Olson home in Cushing, Maine, where he spent summers, his own childhood and adult homes and studio, and the natural landscapes and weather in each of these places.

Wyeth was a homebody, I thought. Internationally famous, he must have traveled the world or at least been invited to, but his artistic gaze stayed close to home. He had translated the popular writing advice to “write what you know” into “paint what you know.” One exhibit card noted that Wyeth’s father N.C., a successful artist himself and Wyeth’s main teacher, taught Andrew to draw artistic inspiration from everyday surroundings and study his subjects closely. Later in his career, Wyeth tried to convey people’s personalities and other qualities through their facial expressions and the physical objects he included in portraits. This insight also applies to fiction, in which physical descriptions and carefully chosen details “show” without telling.

Fiction happens to be the medium that sparked my interest in Wyeth’s work. This summer I read Christina Baker Kline’s A Piece of the World, a fictional re-telling of the life of Wyeth’s most famous subject and her Maine house. Christina Olson suffered from an unnamed illness that left her in pain and mostly confined to her home. So she was also a homebody, though out of circumstance. Kline’s novel suggests Christina would’ve chosen a more expansive life had she been able to.

As I summon the obstinance and courage I need to return to my own creative writing practice, I find encouragement in Andrew Wyeth’s body of work. He was an unapologetic homebody. He painted what he knew. During a period of art history when modernist painters like Jackson Pollock received much fanfare for doing things differently, Wyeth painted realistic images that some critics derided as sentimental. But if you look closely, you can see the technical mastery he possessed and you realize that these spooky, sometimes desolate images are anything but cloying.