Insecure

For decades I’ve been absolutely confident about my writing life. And this is irrespective of thousands of rejections over the course of those many years. Not to mention the lack of love when I asked for constructive criticism and/or feedback from those I’d known who enjoyed reading, and read a lot.

But now, having had two novels published under one of the largest trade publishers, I’ve never felt so insecure; especially as a writer. Every striving writer undoubtedly has various skills that they struggle with over the course of their writing life. I am fully aware of two: influencing and inspiring the reader. Since I penned my first novel, I had this deep-seated hope, once someone read the blood, sweat and tears I poured on to the page they’d respond with, OMG! I’ve accepted–or is it having come to terms with?–I will not elicit OMG! from a reader.

When someone shared with me that they had read a book and was moved by something the writer wrote, and in particular, how they wrote, I felt a kind of visceral awe and envy of that writer’s talent. A certain incident comes to mind. Last year, someone shared with me that they were stirred by a book they’d just finished, and this person read some of the writer’s prose to me so as to highlight their point. The paragraph that was read showed off both the integrity and intimacy this particular writer had with the written word.

This person, who highly complimented the writer, has read a lot of what I’ve written over the years; still, not once has this person said anything remotely about my writing being engaging; certainly nothing about being stirred. Writings that this person read of mine were critiqued with limited words such as, “good” or I “enjoyed it.” Yet, not once did this person go into detail as to why it was “good,” or to offer why they “enjoyed it.”

And so, it has finally struck me exactly why I’ve pondered tenaciously over the past decade whether the stories I write are relatable. It’s not a question of whether I can write; I know that I am a skilled writer. But this is what I have come to understand: not every writer is meant to be a fiction storyteller. And despite it resonating in my soul that storytelling is something my life has persuaded me to pursue, I still doubt.

I trust that every journey has purpose; therefore, I consciously make an effort to honor the writing path I have taken. And equally so, recognize some of the growth from having taken such a rich and bold journey. Over the past few years, I’ve put a lot of effort into working on this annoying obsession and insecurity: the idea of not influencing–or at least inspiring–the reader.

Interestingly enough, something quite striking occurred a few days ago.

Scrolling through e-mail rather fleetingly, something in a re line caught my eye. After opening it, I perused it casually. I discovered that the e-mail was from a reader of one of my novels. This is what the e-mail revealed to me: the inspiration to read Vulnerable was based upon the central story line having taken place in Seattle. One of the members of the book club of eight women from the Atlanta area had heard about my novel and suggested the book club read it. Each year they choose a vacation spot based upon a locale that was in a book they read the previous year. I like this concept, by the way.

My eyes became glossy as I read the humorous details from their trip: a visit to the Space Needle, and riding on the Ferris wheel. Taking ferries to various islands with the hope of identifying the fictional “Crescent Island”–a geographical setting in the novel. To having lunch at the Library Bistro; people-watching over coffee at the notable Elliott Bay Books on Capitol Hill; and attending a wine tasting at Chateau Ste. Michelle.

By the end of the e-mail, I was LOLing and blotting my eyes. I found myself feeling a much-needed sense of validation, and the timing was apropos. While the love in my heart was fleeting; still, I was transformed by their Seattle holiday, and especially since Vulnerable inspired a kind of scavenger hunt for the ladies, as well as a tour guide. But most importantly, these women took the time to share their experience with me.

Unbearable

While waiting online at an ATM, a customer behind me said, and more to the air than to anyone standing nearby, “Oh, these machines! One’s always out of service.” I turned my head slightly, although I understood she was not talking to me specifically. It was apparent that she was verbalizing her frustration at having to wait in a long line with only one working ATM.  “Sorry,” she said when our eyes met.

“Oh, I get it!” I said back to her, because who doesn’t get it?

“I have to go to a funeral. I hate this!” She crossed her arms stiffly.

Eventually, after we’d both completed our banking, I discovered that the woman at the ATM lost a very close friend to suicide a week before. She was visibly raw from the friend’s traumatic decision. I became curious, so I inquired with, “Did she leave a note? I mean, does anyone know why she did this?”

Folding her banking into a zipper-style wallet, she was making every effort to contain herself, yet her hands gave her away–they shook visibly. I didn’t want to walk away from her; she was clearly in despair. Life threw her a curveball and now she was lost inside a sea of uncertainty while trying to pave a clear path to the new and confusing world she now stood in.

Still, I was concerned with whether I would get a $76 parking ticket. I was on the lookout for one of the ubiquitous L.A. meter enforcers. I’d caught sight of one turning on to the street where I was parked. Yet I stayed with the woman who probably felt utterly alone in her cocoon of sorrow and grief.

Roughly in her mid-30s, the ATM woman removed a pair of sunglasses from her eyes and placed them on top of her head of thick, auburn-colored hair fixed into a disheveled bun. She sniffed her runny nose and said, “She couldn’t bear it . . . take it anymore. The direction her life was going.” Dabbing tears resting on her cheeks, the ATM woman resumed. “She couldn’t find a way to wait out the storm. It”–and she said the word “it” with emphasis, as though it held some kind of significance to the friend’s ultimate decision–“became unbearable.”

The mess of life has its moments. Every single one of us has felt the weight of life beat down on us. Cloaked within that experience it was unfathomable why God didn’t just show some bloody mercy already! But for many of us, life is larger than the uncomfortable-ness of those off-guarded moments that confront us. Although any turbulence we come up against is quite real, we manage. And even if we’re angry or scared, some of us see a fork in the road. But there are some who can only see a dead-end.

The woman at the ATM might well have been the best friend one could ever hope for. She could have been there for her friend even when it compromised other areas of her life–a relationship with someone she was involved with, a marriage, or perchance her job. But what the ATM friend hadn’t come to discern just yet–her friend lost faith in herself, and in life.

This was not random. In her own personal darkness, the friend saw nothing in the realm of her existence that felt worth holding on for. She probably contemplated over such a drastic decision for some time. But one day it became clear. That faithful day was her unbearable. And someone who isn’t facing unbearable doesn’t know exactly what unbearable feels like to the person who is going through their own personal unbearable.

Some of my last words to her were: “Honor your friend.” She came back with: “I do . . . I did honor her.”

“No,” I said. “Honor her decision.”

I will never know if I made an ounce of difference on the day the ATM woman had to witness her dearest friend descend into the earth. I trust, deep in my core, it will follow her everywhere she goes, even if it’s wedged in her subconscious. Just as strangers have guided me over my lifetime, and when I was so unaware. Supposed chance encounters are not something I consider superficial. Each one, I know, has come with a precious life lesson. And yes, in moments when something I was going through felt unbearable.

Breadcrumbs

Although it was a last-minute request, and I was totally unprepared, I accepted an invitation to do a 10-minute speech on how to walk in faith while trying to become a published author. I didn’t think I was the appropriate person for this venue. Not to mention, I was ill at ease with the idea of trying to describe to 50 young women how to become traditionally published authors with only 10 minutes in which to frame it.

In the car, on my way to the event, I endeavored to come up with what I could say in a room of ambitious young women who were likewise would-be authors. How could I inspire them? What would I, in my early twenties, have needed to hear–more so than what I wanted to hear–from someone who had been there and done that already? What wisdom did I, in my 20s, wished I’d paid more attention to as told by someone more mature and knowledgeable than me? Someone who had accomplished a goal I was seeking to attain (and I wanted to achieve that goal by the age of 30).

What would be a compelling argument? How could I get them to understand that the road they will travel, with all its complicated, frustrating, and yet amazing experiences, had the potential, in a future that has become so very unpredictable, to influence public discourse? Would they have even a clue as to the number of ambitious young women that managed to achieve similar life goals–those women that came before them? Was there any way I could persuade them that the heap of rejections that begin to make you doubt, not just your talent but yourself, are painful but don’t take them personal? Could I sway them to trust that every tear shed has meaning, purpose?

When I was introduced, I was nervous. Every chair was occupied, and thank goodness the lights were dimmed. I stepped up and began. I was not just truthful, but my honesty was likewise blunt. I said some things that might dissuade some of the inspiring minds in the room. I made every effort to use language that was not intended to thwart anyone’s passion for being published. I mentioned how the book by Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!, was my favorite children’s book, and my first-pick as a gift for college graduates. (When you are given this type of gift at 21 years old, you don’t get the point of receiving it. It takes experiencing “the places you’ll go!” before it sinks in.) But Dr. Seuss’s book forewarns his young readers that every path is met with ebb and flow. You will get off track and back on, time and time again. Life is bloody insane that way.

At the event, I referred to “ebb and flow” as “breadcrumbs,” using my own early twenties as an example of being too cocky, too impatient, too cool, too Miss-Know-it-Already, too I-got-this. This attitude made my journey harder, longer. I urged these young women to lose the attitude. And it’s imperative, I overemphasized, while pursuing a “traditional path” as a writer of books: do not let the haters trick you. And if you need something to really keep you focused on your goal, every now and then (because by then it will be available on DVD), watch La La Land. And it’s okay to bemoan it, but trust the process despite how it looks–or feels.

Life’s most astonishing lessons are unpredictable yet requisites, because they teach us, and it’s how we evolve. Writers must evolve. And this applies whether you embark on an ambitious journey or not–grow through your process!  There’s one life lesson in particular you have to learn to live with: deep disappointment. You have to discover a way to balance it out. You have to believe that despite the “I’m-such-a-failure” feelings that eventually play with the mind after a number of rejections, it’s all a part of this bloody painful and very distracting process.

When I look back now, with eyes wide open, I can see all the stepping-stones along the way. The breadcrumbs. I see the necessary rejections and the professional reasons that might have been behind them. With a clearer vision, I am so fully aware that each breadcrumb was a life lesson. A turning point. A moment of absolute truth. And this is huge!: a test of faith. Faith, I reminded these young women with their hopes and possible dreams, is the absence of evidence. From the biblical POV, it’s being assured of things that are hoped for, and the conviction of things unseen.

A valuable asset, I have discovered, is the art of discerning; so I urged these 21st century young women to discover discernment. I concluded by reminding them: You are the author of your own unique path, and inevitably you will discover the you you are meant to become. Let your yellow brick road create a story that will amaze, but learn this worthwhile tool: recognize when you have added a breadcrumb to your journey. This is insight as to how far you’ve come. Moreover, it means you are one step closer to your ultimate, it was-worth-it goal.

 

The present moment is holy

It is not a simple task—in fact it’s not only difficult but impossible—to live each moment in the present. Yet, without discovering ways to shut out the noise of daily life, it’s quite arduous to live our moments. I know for myself, I reflect on the past far more than I should and much more than I desire to do. Moreover, I ruminate about a time frame that is not guaranteed–the future. That leaves less time, and attention, to be fully within the realm of now. But I am acutely aware of when I’ve wandered into the past, or am thinking too far into an unlived destiny.

But it is without question, when I am present—when I am conscious of living in the moment—I am more focused, more centered, more trusting of my future, and more accepting of my past. It takes time–and it takes effort–to arrive at a place where we are genuinely honoring the present moment. It’s not a natural state. There are probably other ways in which we can learn to be mindful and live presently, but without a scintilla of doubt meditation trains the mind; it naturally brings you to a place of being here–now.

With a loyal practice, your mind automatically takes you to the breath when meditating. It is the bridge, the anchor. Thus, when the mind wanders, rhythmically the dedicated student will return to the breath. The breath is the present moment. And the present moment sustains us. We trust, we let go, if only for a brief time; for each experience can lead us to a new way to see the world, and allows us to imagine ourselves anew. We find a way to abandon thoughts of a bitter or complicated past, and accept that it cannot be altered in any way. Likewise, there’s a lack of dwelling on a future that no human can authentically foretell.

Learning to observe the breath–adopting a daily meditation practice–can aid any of us in being less reactionary. By honoring the breath–taking a moment to breathe–it will relieve the stress and anxiety and chaos that dominate modern culture and pervade daily life. The likelihood of the spirit getting a beat-down is diminished–even if abated to something as gentle as a raindrop–when we catch the silent moments. Those amazing aha moments.

Breathe. Live this life. Be in this space. Trust this time. Every still moment has the potential to back you up, if need be. It is this moment that is holy.

Fruitcake

As I begin to pack for my trip to spend the holiday with family in Washington, D.C., childhood memories rush in, and I begin to reflect on so many holidays in which I was stranded at airports because of bad weather, but time spent with family always made the inconvenience worthwhile. During my young adulthood, I looked forward to going home for the holiday. As a child, I’d sit in front of a window at my grandmother’s, excited, anxious. Fresh virgin snow falling made everything my eyes touched the color of ivory. With animated anticipation, I’d wait for family to arrive from some other part of the country. It felt like eternity, which made their arrival all the more delightful.

My grandmother, famously known as “Granny,” prepared the holiday supper, but family pitched in with tasks such as setting the table. Perhaps helping hands sliced and diced something, and washed dishes after a very blessed and outrageously delicious meal.

It is always at this time of year, among other things, that I am reminded of the delicious fruitcake Granny would send special delivery each year. No one else in the family claims to like fruitcake. Granny received the fruitcake every single holiday as a gift–for maybe two decades! Because I was the only one to like the cake, I could expect it to arrive, like clockwork, roughly a week before Christmas.

Lovingly protected in a Christmas-themed tin, the cake was wrapped in cellophane so as to retain its amazing moistness, and loaded with green and red cherries, golden raisins, pecans, walnuts, and laced with fine rum. When the expected fruitcake didn’t arrive one holiday–probably around the late 80s–I called Granny and said, “Where’s my fruitcake?” I’d discovered through our conversation–chats that were always life-learning–the friend who sent the fruitcake to Granny each year had passed away.

Not particularly significant to me at the time, but it was that first Christmas of not having received the fruitcake which altered my future Christmases. Of course getting a very good fruitcake in the mail was something I looked forward to. Yet in retrospect, I see so many years later that receiving the fruitcake had a hand in how I experienced the season. And as the years came to pass, and no longer receiving the fruitcake, there was a defining difference in how I relished the holiday.

It isn’t something we naturally take notice of, or understand in the fullness of its scope: how one simple thing can shift our perception. In reflecting deeper, and gazing just a bit closer at what feels like vague holiday remembrances, bits and pieces of our past will come back which remind us the ways in which our holidays groomed us. Fragments of our memories, when we were living through them, seemed to have little substance. But it’s the left-behind moments that have the most impact. Even the vagueness of that timeframe makes the moments unique. Those back-in-the-day joys or sorrows most likely will enrich future holidays, because they give an honored tradition depth and meaning.

While those seemingly trivial holidays were but a part of a life pattern, they likewise shaped us. Not in ways we can recognize from a superficial lens. In taking the time to assess our past end-of-year experiences, we’d need to take the time to put them into perspective. In doing so, we might discover what matters most to us. It takes a non-judging approach, and with a gentle heart, to embrace those hard-to-think-they-made-that-much-of-a-difference Christmastime pasts. They hold inconspicuous meaning. They sustain the present us.

For me it was the fruitcake. The decadent treat was a constant in my life for a very long time. And as I recall the ritual of receiving that fruitcake–packaged and sent with deep and unconditional love–I never had the chance to express how much I appreciated receiving it year after year. What it meant to me. How much it genuinely mattered. The awesome importance it had in shaping my life story.

This year has been an especially tumultuous time in our flawed but amazing Universe, so there’s no better time than “the now” to fully recognize meaning and substance. It can be as modest as the arrival of an extraordinarily rich fruitcake in a decorative tin can.

 

Just love dogs

A few days ago I received a text from someone inviting me for a “holiday coffee.” I hadn’t seen this person since the summer, and it came at just the right time because I was ready for my traditional eggnog latte, despite it being ridiculously overpriced. I texted her back and said I’d love to hook up, but under one condition: she not bring her dogs! She texted back saying she couldn’t leave the dogs (in the car). While living in Paris, I accepted the dog culture. It was Paris. And, as they say, when in . . .  Even though I’d never lived anywhere where dogs roamed freely in markets, and having to avoid dog waste on sidewalks just about all over the city prior to residing in Paris, I made the adjustment without challenge.

Back in the day (the 80s, 90s) in L.A., no landlord would rent to a dog-owner, and dogs in restaurants? Very, very unlikely. I grew up with large dogs running around in extended backyards. This is where they could be free! Big dogs aren’t a fashion statement, which is why it’s rare, if it happens at all, one doesn’t come across, say a Doberman pinscher walking around in markets, malls, etc. And especially in a restaurant! It’s a craze–the popular-zation of Chihuahuas in L.A. In this town every single thing has a fleeting nature to it. Nothing remains constant in L.A. but the weather! Cute, designer dogs with their chic collars are especially trendy here.

About a year ago, I was standing online at a Starbucks in Miracle Mile, a neighborhood in L.A.’s Mid-City. A woman got on-line with two Chiweenies topped with decorative bows. The dogs barked in baby-sounding barks, and several customers were cooing and ahhh-ing at the teeny-weeny pooches. A barista said to the woman, “Excuse me, but we only allow guide dogs in this store. Would you please take your dogs outside!” The dog-owner remarked, “I’m just getting a latte. It won’t take long.” The barista came back with, “Please take your dogs outside.” She huffed and puffed about the inconvenience of having to take her dogs outside.

Not long after this experience in Starbucks, I was in a library where a man sat in front of a computer, his dog resting at his feet as he made weird doggie sounds. The dog was old with various medical conditions, I learned. Moreover, I discovered that a number of library patrons had complained about the dog over the past few months, but the various people working at the library made it clear: There’s nothing that can be done because it’s a “companion dog.” The afternoon I was there, a woman seated next to the man with the “companion dog” called the police to make a complaint. When two uniformed officers arrived, they listened politely to the woman for a few minutes; eventually they left after telling her the dog owner had documentation stating that his dog was a “companion dog.”

As someone who grew up with dogs, and cried when my father had to put one down, I love dogs. Yet there needs to be some consideration (or compromise) for those who do not care for dogs in public venues, or prefer not to be having a meal with a dog wagging its tail a few feet away. The woman from the library who called the police on the man with the dog said to the officers, something to this effect: “The law is one-sided. People can just bring a dog into a library, or any public kinda place because they’re lonely! What about people who don’t like–who are scared of–dogs? They come up on you and smell you. They stink! The dog owner thinks it’s cute. But it’s rude!”

The same person who extended the “holiday coffee” invite–she and I had lunch a few months ago. She brought her two dogs. I’d made a comment about her bringing her dogs to a restaurant and she pulled out her iPhone and showed me credentials that indicated her two dogs were “companion dogs!” I am baffled by this word, “companion.” Baffled!  The guy from the library sat in front of a computer being quite entertained by online minutia–laughing, talking at the screen! At that moment in the library, that was certainly his companion–the computer! Not his dog which distracted, and annoyed, others seated nearby.

So this brings me back to the “holiday coffee” invite. The person who extended that “holiday coffee” invite; the same person I had lunch with a few months ago? During our lunch, I was her companion! The quality of our time together was limited because of her “companion dogs.” I frequently competed with her fussing at her dogs with, “stop barking”; “stop that!”; “behave!” And I genuinely get it: There are some people who feel deeply sad without their dogs!

 

 

unFriending

Over the past few months I have been struggling with the knowledge of a long-term friendship coming to an end. Had the friendship been over for months or years, or were we stuck at a crossroads and had no clue we had lost interest in each other’s stories? Would it be in my best interest–as well as the best interest of the friend–if I simply let our relationship end quietly, without any fanfare? How does a true friendship actually reach a climax? And how do you end it? Pick up your phone and call to discuss it like mature adults? It feels unnatural to let the ending wander in silence.

When was our turning point? We were two people who shared painful life lessons, laughed out loud together, debated issues, overcame conflicts, ups, downs. We experienced the elusiveness of life together. Do people merely stop caring? When did the conception take root, and what caused it? Time, circumstances, outdatedness? Or did one person no longer need what that friend had to offer? Does such an ending care whether someone will get hurt?

I have grappled with this. And for a great while. It’s not an easy decision to arrive at. It’s something I’ve carried with me since childhood, but I’m the kind of girl who holds tightly to a friend and never want to let her go. Even when some of my friends have drifted away from me without a good-bye or a why, I maintain some level of contact.  On occasion I will receive a message on my voicemail in which someone decided to return my call. Yet more often than not, friends on the edge of good-bye have a way of sending cryptic texts (e.g., “been so busy with work”). Eventually, I have honored their silence and drew the conclusion they were over me and didn’t think an awkward good-bye would really benefit either one of us.

Rarely has this been the case, but when I do choose to separate myself from someone, admittedly I don’t approach them with what I am feeling; instead, I do it in a gentle, loving kindhearted way. I know that we have lost something, and that this person is not a go-to for me anymore. Something stopped working. And the reasons are nuanced. But there comes a time when I am aware that I have grown past needing this person in my life, and their advice or feedback, or I simply do not choose to hear her opinion because I already know what she’s going to say. In ways not particularly obvious, we are growing at different speeds and in incompatible directions.

When I thought about how to approach this idea for this blog, I was reminded of romantic relationships I had with men that didn’t work out. Once it became apparent that we had reached a stalemate, and we sensed it was not working out, there was a conversation about it, albeit indirect. There might have been shouting over each other’s voices and slamming car doors. But we acknowledged that the relationship had reached its plateau.

It’s different with female friendships. Perhaps because it’s not the same type of expression of love, or potentially it was never a loving friendship to begin with. We lack the intense emotional investment. We haven’t had a physical connection; it was purely platonic and befitting for where we each were at the time the friendship took shape.

When I was younger and drifted from a friend, the why was apparent to me. When the friendship first blossomed we had commonalities, and our relationship blended between dual interests and similar life goals. But then I (or the other person) evolved, or failed to, and we drifted apart. We no longer needed each other. Yet friendships in youth are not the same as friendships in midlife. It would seem that since we are more mature, and our friendships don’t hinge on fleeting amusements, time would never test it. Mature friendships have a unique bond. History.

This decision–to end a friendship–saddens me. Still, I have become acutely aware that our conversations always come back to the same subjects. We rehash topics we’ve covered for years. And the bridge between those conversations is transparent. We have chosen paths that are no longer parallel. There’s a lack of interest; not making the time or putting in the effort. We have reached a place where we have now begun to take each other for granted. Actually, there’s a subtle indifference more so than an implicit I-no-longer-want-to-be-your-friend.

Undeniably, I desire the very best for this friend. And I will miss her. Deeply.