"Books are uniquely portable magic."—Stephen King
You guys, I love to read.
For as long as I can remember, I have loved to read. I can actually remember the exact moment when I learned (it was during Mrs. Young's first grade morning story) and my life has never been the same. I went from a person who could be read to, to a person who could read on her own. Never has there been a greater freedom.
From "Ramona and Her Mother" as a little girl to Stephen King's "It" in 8th grade to "A Separate Peace" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" in high school, to the countless titles I've read since, reading has been a constant.
I'm an avid reader, but I'm not an especially well-read avid reader. There are an embarrassing number of classics and 'must-be-read' books that I simply haven't gotten to yet. And while I do have a loyalty to books, I'm what you might call an equal opportunity reader...blogs, news, magazines, cereal boxes, as well as a variety of genres...I read them all.
Short of actually finishing the writing of a book, I have worked with books and the written word many times throughout my life—as a librarian, a bookseller at a book store, at a publishing company, and as a freelance writer for newspapers.
At times, I admit, reading seems like it's taking up too much of my life, and I've been reminded of the lyrics from the Blindmelon song, 'No Rain:
"All I can do is read a book to stay awake, and it rips my life away, but it's a great escape."
But more often, I'm reminded of the notion from Julia Cameron in "The Artist's Way":
"Filling the well involves the active pursuit of images to refresh our artistic reservoirs."
For me, reading isn't just something I love. It's something that helps me fill my artistic reservoir, helps me be a better creator, a better writer, and gives me a better understanding of the vast lives I cannot live, lives that are not my own. It's an escape. It's educational. It's often ridiculous. Or silly. Or scary. Or devastating.
As a kid, and then as an adult, I wanted to be an actress. And while I can't put into words all the reasons I wanted to be an actress (at least not in one blog post), I know it had a lot to do with portraying different people. Having the opportunity to experience different lives, different careers, different choices. I feel like reading gives me that too.
And so, this year, my goal is to read 52 books.
I'll need some luck and time because last year, my goal was to read 60 books but I fell dramatically short (partly because I agreed to read an insanely long science fiction series without knowing what I was getting into). (Click here for the list of books I did manage to finish in 2016).
But guys...I need suggestions. I don't mean to be morbid, and I realize this sounds at least slightly dramatic, but I'm thinking that, at best, if I live to the age of 100, I have 58 reading years left. 58 years of 52 books a year is 3,016 books left to read. I know it sounds ridiculous, but of the hundreds and hundreds of books I've read, I haven't loved a great many. As Beulah Maud Delaney mentioned in this article, "I’ve got xyz books left to read, at best, and I intend to be ruthless in choosing them."
I'm hoping to squeeze in a few of those never-been-read classics like The Great Gatsby, The Secret Garden, and Sense and Sensibility, but like I mentioned above, I'm an equal opportunity reader when it comes to topics, and I'm looking for good—really good—stories, biographies, memoirs, and more stories. So please, send me suggestions! And if you're a book-lover like me, I've got a pinterest page dedicated to quotes about reading!
You know when you're on an airplane, and the flight attendants are giving out instructions, and they tell you that if the airbags drop, you are to place your own airbag on first and only then are you to help others?
I've always found that to be counter-intuitive. My gut reaction tells me to help my kids first. And help myself next.
Except that I'm wrong. If I help my kids first, presumably by getting them situated in their oxygen masks, I've taken valuable time away from helping myself. And then I pass out, and my poor kids are stuck, unsure of what to do, and then I die. And they grow up without me. All because I couldn't follow directions.
I'm being a little dramatic (I hope), but you get the point. The directions are there for a reason. If I can help myself first, I have paved the way to next help my children and anyone else on the plane.
And guys, it's taken me a long time to get to this point, but I'm finally realizing that this direction matters as much in real life as it does on an airplane. You have to take care of yourself first. Because if you don't, you're not much good to anyone else.
I'm speaking from experience, of course.
I was raised to believe that parents take care of their children. That your children are a top priority. And I don't dispute that.
But somewhere along the line, I've forgotten a bit about taking care of myself. And it's taken a toll.
I watched a video recently of our family when we got our dog. It was four years ago. And while I spent much of the video marveling at how little the kids looked, or the way their voices sounded, I was also struck by something else...I was so patient.
I was so patient, in fact, that I hardly recognized myself.
Because as I continue to parent, and homeschool, and work from home and do the countless other things that are important—and they really are important...they deserve my time—I've completely lost sight of taking care of myself.
The result? Impatience. Annoyance. Frustration. Yelling. All the things I don't want for me or my family.
There's a saying floating around that says, "You can't pour from an empty cup."
Guys...my cup is a bit empty these days.
I don't mean to sound ungrateful, so let me clarify. I am incredibly thankful for my children, my home, my health and my job. For all of it! I'm just also aware that if I don't put some plans in place to take care of myself, I can't truly enjoy any of those things...I'm burning the candle from both ends without refilling my resources.
And so...2017. Here it is. And along with my goals of writing, and exercising, and being a better mother and wife and saving the world—cause who doesn't want to do it all?—I'm putting myself on the list as well.
I'm not sure what taking care of yourself looks like to you...it may be spa days or island cruises, pedicures or marathon training. For me, it's actually pretty simple. It's dates with my husband. Reading tons of books. Listening to new music. Painting. Getting regular haircuts (don't even ask how long it's been since this was a priority). Learning (I'm working on Spanish and the piano). Taking risks. And doing regular skin checks since I have a history with melanoma.
These are things, easy things, that make me incredibly happy. And a happy mom is a thousand times better than the mom I've been showing my kids...one who's snappy, irritable, and impatient. Taking care of ourselves isn't, as I've been guilty of thinking, selfish. It's actually the complete opposite. If we don't put the oxygen masks on ourselves first, we're in no shape to help anyone else.
So these are my goals for 2017. It will take some effort, but I'm feeling hopeful. Wish me luck!
Merry Christmas, friends.
And for that matter, Happy Halloween. Happy Thanksgiving. Happy Hannukah, Boxing Day and Kwanzaa too. If any of you have celebrated a birthday between the last time I wrote and today, I hope it was the happiest as well. It's been a long time.
This has never been a place for me to cover up how I'm feeling. I'm not going to start now. The elections just knocked me to the ground. This isn't a political space, and it's not going to become one. But it is a human space, and in honor of just being a frightened human being, I have to tell you...it has been hard. As a mother, a wife, an artist...as a human being...it has been hard.
I found myself wondering what the point would be in writing? Or creating? Or having goals? What is the point of anything when the future has become, in my opinion, so perilous?
And then I remembered my favorite speech, given by William Faulkner as he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize in Stockholm in 1950. It was given after the end of WWII, at a time when people feared nuclear destruction and practiced hiding under desks in classrooms. Faulkner said:
"I decline to accept the end of man...I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."
(The full text of the speech, which is TOTALLY worth the read, can be found here.)
And it gave me hope.
And I remembered that art, and writing, and pursuing dreams, and being creative...these are the things that elevate us. These are the things that make us human but more than that...they're what make us alive.
And so 2016 was not perfect. No year is. But I'm leaving it feeling energized and hopeful, ready—with a stack of goals—to contribute as much beauty to this world as I possibly can.
I hope you're well. I hope you're better than well and that you feel somehow elevated, inspired, creative, loved and hopeful as we go into 2017. I know I do.
Guys, I don't know about you, but I'm busy.
There are articles to write and dishes to do and kids to teach and teeth to brush and checkbooks to balance and chickens to feed and people to contact and presents to buy and costumes to make. The list, ostensibly, could go on infinitely.
And this list, my list, well, it's not even bad. Add any number of things to the list—things like being chronically or critically ill, raising additional children (my grandmother raised 8...I have no words), being a single parent, traveling for work—and my 'to-do' list seems like a walk in the park.
And the thing is, I'm not saying that any of these things—these things that compound that busy-ness that is so prevalent in our society—are unimportant. But I am saying that in the quest to cross things off of our list, we are at risk of forgetting what's the most important.
This picture is part of the thank-you note that we sent out to guests after my son's very first birthday. We had a little luau and so the photo is tucked into a card that reads 'Mahalo', which is 'thank you' in Hawaiian. It was really cute, and memorable, but like all cute and memorable things, it's stashed away in a drawer of memories.
Recently, it found its way to our kitchen counter. Then to my planner. And that's where it's staying.
Not just because my now eleven year old son was an adorable baby (though clearly, this isn't up for dispute...right?), but because, like all things precious and wonderful, it went by quickly. So quickly, in fact, that I forgot to remember to be grateful. To enjoy the moment. To say 'Mahalo'.
I forgot to remember the reason behind all of the doing, doing, doing.
For me, it's family, yes, but just as important is having a family, or friends, or a job you love and you're good at, or a creative life...just as important as those things are to me, and potentially to you...if we can't take the time to enjoy them, what exactly are we doing?
There are so many things on the checklist...so many ways to constantly better ourselves, our careers, our families...that we sometimes forget to remember the really important things. The only things, really. Because it if weren't for those things—the reason, whatever it is, that you wake up in the morning, that you do what you do--if it weren't for them, why would you be doing any of it?
As for me, it's time to take my own advice. To remember to stop and enjoy my family instead of always planning for us. To celebrate each word written instead of cramming as much in as possible before deadlines. To honor the journey instead of constantly ticking items off the checklist on my way to the destination.
Instead of forgetting to remember, I'm challenging myself to remember to forget all the crap, all the extraneous nonsense that takes me away from the people and dreams that mean the most.
Remember to forget. So much better than forgetting to remember.
So here's the thing I've noticed about the work I've been involved in for the past several years...it doesn't always look like work. At least not the way we're used to work looking. I'm speaking from my own experience, of course, but I can vividly remember when I had an office in a publishing company and what that looked like. For one thing, I had to wear clothes. Like, real clothes. No yoga pants and stained t-shirts. And clearly no pajamas. I worked in a fairly casual environment, but actual clothing was definitely required.
Second, I had to get to work, which means I had my purse, some shoes, possibly a scarf and a lunch and a water bottle. These were 'work things'. While on the way to work, I looked like I was going to work. Serious. Tired. On the bus with all the other people going to work during normal work hours.
And when I got there? When I actually rolled into work? Well, I worked, of course. And it was very specific. I sat at the computer at my desk in my office and analyzed marketing data, and then maybe met with co-workers about how to improve the things we were doing together, and attending meetings where other people saw me working as well.
And I took a lunch break, because when you go to work, that's what you do. And when I was taking an informal break and perusing the web for wedding dresses—I got engaged when I worked in publishing—well, even then, I 'looked' like I was working.
And when I came home from work, after walking to the bus station in my work shoes, and standing on the bus with all the other professionals, I would finally get home and say, "I'm home." And what I meant was, "I'm home. From work."
And while I'm used to the idea of working from home, and what that looks like, I can't tell you how often I'm surprised when other people's idea of work so differs from what my actual work looks like that it throws us both for a loop. Turns out that what I do looks so little like work that it's easy to think I'm not working at all.
For one thing, I'm writing this on a Friday night. My kids are running around. My husband is alternating between playing with them and talking on the phone. I'm in pajamas. And thus not particularly fit for human interaction. I'm often writing alongside a cup of tea or coffee, and if I'm feeling like I really need a shove in a good direction, I'll be nibbling on some chocolate covered banana bites.
While I'm working—because while it may not look like work, I am actually working—my children will pop in. "Dad said he wants to chop wood tomorrow...do I have to help?" "She hit me." "Can I have one more muffin?"
Even my husband, who is undeniably supportive, can't always distinguish 'working me' from 'doing-anything-else me'. Why? Because while my work often requires me to be at a computer, it's not unusual for me to be brainstorming article topics while pushing a grocery cart, or driving my kids to activities, or making dinner.
And I think it's a little bit because of our never-turn-off-society that we all do that, right? So many of us are always 'on'. So many of us just keep plugging away. And while that's a topic—and a big one—for another day, I think it's a combination of that never-turned-off mentality and the fact that my work can be done, and often is done, from anywhere, that gives the impression that I'm not really doing anything at all. Or worse, that what I'm doing can be delayed, or postponed at will, because my schedule is so flexible.
And this is the point. I am so, so, SO incredibly lucky to have this flexible schedule. I can work in my pjs. I can work with my kids interrupting me. I can work in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning. I can do it whenever and however I like, as long as I get it done by deadline. It's a wonderful, fabulous thing and I wouldn't change it. But flexibility is not freedom. I don't 'not' have to work. Instead, flexibility means that I have to be really self-disciplined. I have to know which days I can postpone work to go to the playground with my kids and which days need my undivided attention. I have to know myself well, and know my astounding ability to procrastinate, and somehow, make that not happen.
Because the beauty and difficulties in working for yourself are one and the same...it's up to you, and only you, to do the work. Whether it looks like it or not.
So about a year ago, at Lucky Star Art Camp, another woman and I decided that we would spend the next 100 days as accountability partners. We would both be working on 100 days of writing, and we figured we would text each other to check in, encourage, and basically hold one another to the project.
Fast-forward about a year later and we’re still going.
It didn’t go exactly as planned. While we have remained steadfast in our support of one another, we have always been courteous first. Kind. Forgiving. So when she--Keri—has a fever and is sick and not feeling well, and thus not really up for the writing task at hand, I, like any good friend, have let her off the hook. “Get better,” I’ve said, “the work can wait.”
She too has been nothing if not considerate. When I explained to her that the combination of homeschooling and working from home was more than I expected and that I couldn’t really do as much as I had hoped, and then that slowly drifted into nothing much at all, she was nothing if not understanding. While she encouraged me to continue working, and remained supportive, she never overstepped.
We were the two most polite texters in the world.
And then a few weeks ago, we began weekly Skype sessions. And the gloves came off.
In the best possible way.
We have a little format for our calls…we tell each other our project highs, lows, and new information for the week, and then we go over our upcoming goals. And this week, I didn’t have a whole lot done. I explained that things were hectic. I had a lot of work projects. I had the kids to teach. And plus I was in the middle of reading a really good book.
“As soon as I’m done this book,” I explained, “I’m going to do xyz.”
“But what about next week?” she asked.
“Well, what about next week? I mean, there’s always something, right?” she said.
(Can you even believe she said this?!?!?!)
And then she topped it off.
“If your kids were in the hospital, you’d put all this stuff down,” she said. “So is your project important enough for you to put your book down?”
(Seriously. Can you believe this?)
The thing is, she was totally right. Like, spot on. It’s not always the easiest thing to hear, but wow…did I ever need to hear it.
And as much as I was blown away by her insanely effective insight, I couldn’t even imagine not finishing the book.
How did this even happen? How did I get to the point where I was putting everything ahead of my project?
I’ll tell you what I’ve figured out. Maybe you already know this and maybe you’re just figuring it out yourselves, but it’s the kind of thing that even though I know, I have to get called out on it once in a while to make myself remember.
Here’s the thing. It is so incredibly easy to do anything other than the thing that is calling us.
People joke about procrastination. And in college, and even work settings, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
“I work better under pressure,” we tell ourselves.
Or even better, “I’m just so busy.”
Again, it is so incredibly easy to do anything other than the thing that is calling us.
The weird thing is that when we’re procrastinating—because make no mistake about it, that’s what we’re doing—we become really, impressively good at telling ourselves that we’re not.
There are times when we know it’s happening, like when we choose to watch back-to-back episodes of Stranger Things rather than work on a project. But there are also times when our procrastination is so subtle, so convincing, that we don’t think it’s procrastination at all.
Two years ago, though I was smack dab in the middle of book writing, I began getting worried that I wasn’t doing any paid work. I had taken a break from freelancing to work on the book, and it had been longer than expected and I naturally began to wonder where in hell I was going to get a paycheck when I needed one.
I started to think that I should, and that in fact, I needed to create a business. I didn’t actually have any business plans, or ideas, or even hopes. I just became obsessed. And to have this unnamed and unfathomable business, I would naturally have to learn about it. And so I planned to enroll in Marie Forleo’s B School, which is supposed to be the most end-all be-all amazing online run-your-own business school around. And it costs $2500.
So obviously, I had to find a way—HAD. TO. FIND. A. WAY.—to round up $2500 to go to B School so I could successfully run my unnamed, undeveloped and potentially uninteresting company.
People, if you are shaking your head, I hear you. I, too, am shaking my head right now. But I cannot tell you how absolutely urgent this was. How absolutely certain I was that this, rather than continue writing my book, was where I needed to put my energies.
And I called my husband and a few friends and they all said, “Well yes, if that’s what you think you need to do,” because I have become really good at defending my points about following your dreams.
And then I called my friend Jessica, who is very practical. And business oriented. And this is what she said, “WHAT?! Dan…you do not need to start a business. What you need is a J.O.B. And finish your book.”
I was furious. She was totally right.
It’s so incredibly easy to do anything other than the thing that is calling us.
I went back to freelancing and kept working on the book.
But, sometimes it’s even subtler, and there’s no one around to push you back on track. Just today I got stuck pinning DIY Christmas gifts on Pinterest. And it’s real…I need to get gifts. Makes some sense to make them. OF COURSE, I should be looking on Pinterest.
See how it happens? There are things we tell ourselves are important. And there are things that actually are important. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t have fun, watch television, craft our little hearts out or start businesses. What I’m saying is that deep down, whatever your thing is, whether it’s learning photography or traveling with your kids or enrolling in a class or writing a book, attention has to be paid to that thing. It has to be important. In fact, it has to be more important than almost anything else.
It’s easy to read that. It’s not always so easy to maintain it.
Sometimes, despite our very best intentions, it’s hard to stick to the course.
And that’s where certain friends, accountability partners, or Steven Pressfield come in…while you may forget that doing things other than your project are just another form of procrastination, they won’t.
And they can give you the good swift kick in the ass you need to remember.
I've had enough, I'm getting out
Recently, writer and artist Austin Kleon heard back from quite a few angry twitter fans when he wrote this:
People were coming at him with all kinds of responses, but they basically all said the same thing: He was wrong. So he had to explain himself. And while he provided a lengthy explanation via his website, he also provided this tiny little gem:
And I love, capital L love this sentiment.
Ed and I have spent about half of our 'adult' lives in cities. From San Francisco to Philadelphia, we have taken advantage of everything 'the city' has to offer, from cultural opportunities to late night restaurants and bars to theatre and people and shows and coffee shops on every corner. And we have loved it.
And now, I live in a small town. Not just any small town, but the actual small town where I was raised. Just a mile and a half from the house where I grew up, where my parents still live. (Hi, mom).
And sometimes, and really, more than sometimes if I'm being completely honest, I really miss the city. I miss the hustle and the bustle and the sounds, the anonymity that comes from being one of so many, the countless artisans and opportunities to be inspired. I do. I miss that stuff a lot.
But here's the funny thing. In all the time that I lived in a city, I never once became the thing I thought I would or could be. I never once dove in.
I wanted to act, and barring that option, I wanted to write. Instead, I worked in publishing, as a teacher, as a store manager and as a grad student. I had the same opportunities there as I do here. A computer. The internet. And countless newspapers. In fact, there were more opportunities in both cities than there were, and are, here.
But I never jumped. I knew just what to do, but I couldn't seem to make myself do it. The pond was just too big for me to feel comfortable taking the risk. So while I was surrounded with a whole lot of interesting things, I wasn't really brave enough to do the things that were most interesting to me.
Fast forward to small town life. Things aren't really quite as 'happening' as they used to be. On my street, I watch the leaves change colors. I notice the seasons. I am daily inspired by my kids and things I read and do, but let's face the facts...I'm not opening my door to a city block. I'm opening my door to quiet.
As it turns out, quiet might be just what I needed. Because here, in what is a much smaller pond than the cities where I've previously lived, I'm forging the life that I've always wanted.
It's so weird that what I railed against during all my adolescence, what I swore I would never return to...my home town...would be exactly where I needed to live to become what I wanted to be.
And so, not to be a total cheeseball but I'm feeling oddly sentimental about this, I'll close with some different lyrics.
No I cannot forget where it is that I come from,
How Sweet it Is
So guys, you know how you go through these cycles of life where all of a sudden you're going to a bunch of weddings, or sadly, a bunch of funerals? Well, right now, I'm in a baby cycle. I'm suddenly surrounded by people having and/or adopting babies.
And so of course, I'm thinking back quite a bit to when I was having babies, or anticipating having them, or in some cases, not getting to have them. And I'm thinking back to those earliest days when everyone...and I do mean everyone...tells you how fast it will go. And how when people say this, and you've been up for 42 days straight and you haven't seen the outside world because you've been so busy diapering and learning about this new person you're living with that, well, it kind of falls on deaf ears. Because hello? That's kind of when you want things to go a little faster. (at least if you're me). You'll want to sleep. And eat. And not count how few minutes you're getting to sleep. (The lack of sleep was a real issue for me...can you tell?) You'll look forward to days when your baby can smile, or sit up, or even walk. Because it's all...almost every bit of it...in the future. A baby is just the start of a life...so obviously the future is enticing. What on earth will this lovely new life become?
And now, almost 11 years into it, all I can think is slow down. SLOW THE HELL DOWN. Because all of those people? They were right. It goes so fast that it's almost beyond comprehension. These pint sized people that I live with? They literally used to live in my body and sometimes, they are totally foreign to me. They have their own ideas, their own opinions, their own likes and dislikes that seem to come from out of nowhere. And it's amazing, really. But it's also, as my friend recently reminded me, bittersweet.
Because as much as it is an honor and privilege to watch them grow, sometimes, you just want it all to slow down.
A lot of people, at this point, may suggest that I (or any of you feeling this way) should have/adopt/raise another baby. To get that 'baby fix'.
But it's not that. I don't have any lasting urge to add on to our family. What I want is not a baby...what I want is my babies. I want to see them one more time as littler beings. To smell their soft toddler hair. To squeeze their soft little selves. To carry them one-armed (was that even possible) throughout the house, looking for their favorite truck or blanket. I just want them, one more time, as they were.
It's not that I don't love who they are. I'm amazed by them every day. It's that I finally understand how fast it all goes. When I watch a video that I swear I just took of my kids, I can already hear the changes in their voices. From small emergent speakers to confident kids. It actually takes my breath away. Where did this all go?
And I want to tell these new mothers to hold on. To enjoy, really enjoy, every minute. Because faster than they could ever imagine, these minutes will change shape. So take pictures. And videos. And remember how those hugs felt. How their little bodies felt as they squirmed to get down and branch out into the world. How their baby breath smelled and the things they said so often you swore you'd never have to be reminded (but you may actually forget).
Because literally, before you know it, those chubby baby legs will be replaced by long and lean big girl legs and your son will be asking you to cut his hair differently so he looks cooler. Your tiny, tutu wearing toddler will suddenly be old enough to tell you that you're developing a unibrow (just now) and your truck loving pre-schooler will ask to watch a horror movie (last night).
And it's all wonderful, and sweet, and really, truly, amazing. But it's also a little heartbreaking.
New moms...I'm envious of the journey you're just beginning. For the new and astounding love you will experience for the first time, but also for the little things. Smelly diapers and lack of sleep included.
Enjoy every minute. It really does go faster than you could imagine.
“When you find people who not only tolerate your quirks but celebrate them with glad cries of “Me too!” be sure to cherish them. Because those weirdos are your tribe.”
Danielle Davies (@daniellendavies) is the creator of the internet sensation, My Life with Bradley Cooper, as well as a writer and artist living in New Jersey. Read more...
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