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Walk In The Direction Of You: Life Lessons From My Briefcase

wheelie suitcase

wheelie suitcaseFor the last several years, I’ve used a small wheelie suitcase as my briefcase.

I had initially purchased a super-fancy leather backpack as my designated “work bag,” but my company laptop was incredibly heavy and I found that I was constantly lugging it back and forth to my home. I kept complaining that my back hurt, but somehow wasn’t putting two and two together. So one day, my husband, watching me developing adult scoliosis, gently asked: “Do you think the extra ten pounds you’re putting on your back every day might possibly be hurting you?” He suggested that I look into wheelie suitcase briefcases.

At first, I resisted. I’d seen the way people glared at those heartless souls who casually let their wheelie bag sweep over other people’s feet on the subway without giving it a second thought. I didn’t want to be one of *them*.

But eventually I gave in. My husband has a real fondness for gadgets, so he went and researched the very best ones and bought me one on line.

For the next two years, although I was teased incessantly by my friends and colleagues, I grew to love my wheelie bag. Whenever anyone innocently asked me, “Where are you off to?” – thinking I was travelling somewhere exotic for vacation – I knew that the wheelie bag was really my own, private unspoken metaphor for the fact that I already had one foot out the door of that job. The wheelie bag reminded me of my ambition to eventually leave and follow my dreams.

And then one day, my wheelie bag exploded. First one wheel came off and although I knew something was wrong (there was that loud scraping sound every time I pulled it), I could still manage to get around the city by pulling it on one wheel. Less than 24 hours later, however, the second wheel came off on my way into work. Now, I had no choice: I had to literally pick the wheelie bag up off of the ground and carry it around like a child.

At first I was terrified. The wheels, after all, are what provided the bag – and hence me – with structure and purpose. I counted on them to take me where I needed to go. Plus, if you’ve never picked up a wheelie bag before (and why would you?), try it. They’re pretty damn heavy, especially if you have a laptop inside.

Which in turn made me realize that I’d been clinging to structure and purpose all my life, but more out of habit – or possibly fear – than out of desire. All of my jobs had provided me with a coherent super-structure to plug into. Whether or not I particularly enjoyed what I was doing was immaterial. I had a script to follow and I just put my head down and did the work.

Families also provide a structure. When you’re young, you look to your family to shape your identity and give you a place in the world. When you grow up and have a family of your own, part of being a parent is managing the structure of the family for your own kids: giving them rules, setting boundaries, pointing them in the right direction. There are, of course, loads of unscripted moments, but while I enjoyed those, I felt safer playing cop.

To be on your own, literally carrying your life in your hands without anyone to guide you, is a terrifying prospect. But it’s also liberating: you can walk in any direction you wish, you are forced to slow down, and you end up making much more mindful choices because you are made aware (literally) of the weight of your life.

As a friend of mine puts it, you begin to “walk in the direction of you.”

I probably would have started doing that anyway, but I think the exploding wheelie bag gave me more confidence to do so.

As I pass my days right now, contemplating what’s next for me professionally, experimenting with new and unforeseen twists and turns in that thinking, and facing an uncertain future, I try to remember those days when the wheelie bag broke and yet I managed somehow to get where I needed to go, albeit circuitously.

Thank you, wheelie bag, for empowering me to navigate uncertainty and feel to OK without someone else to guide me.

Image: Luggage, Trolley by Alexas_Fotos via Pixabay

Tips For Adulthood: Do You Wish You Could Change Your Past?

etch a sketch

etch a sketchOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

A while back on Facebook, a friend of mine posted the following status update:

“If you could go back and etch-a-sketch away some part of your life, what would it be?”

Wow. What  a great question. I’ve always believed that regret is a central component of adulthood. But many of our regrets are really longings,  so we wouldn’t want to erase them, because they define who we are.

In contrast, I love the concept of the etch-a-sketch – that iconic childhood toy – to capture those aspects of our past that we’d truly like to eliminate so that even the vestiges of their imprint don’t remain.

So I got to thinking about what would be on my etch-a-sketch list. Here’s what I came up with. 

Read the rest of this post over on Better After 50

 

 

 

Image: Shake it, Start Over by Rex Sorgatz via Flickr

Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways to Cope With Being Laid Off

jumping off a cliffOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

I was laid off recently. It was something that I both wanted – and welcomed. But now that it’s here, I’m struggling a bit.

When you know that a major change is on the horizon that’s going to upend your daily routines – a move, a break-up, an illness, leaving your job – it’s tempting to treat that event like the proverbial jumping off a precipice: there is a before and an after. And it’s knife-edged. So you throw all of your energy into the *before* – in my case, finishing all those last minute tasks at work…saving your files….going out for (lots of!) drinks with colleagues – and consciously put aside thinking about what comes next.

That’s all normal. After all, change is scary. It’s much easier to make yourself insanely busy with the build-up to the change than to contemplate the abyss of the after. But when the other side of that precipice finally arrives – when “later” becomes “now” – you suddenly discover that you have all this time on your hands and no earthly idea what to do with it. (And yes, for the record, I did take a three-week vacation!)

It isn’t easy to make that adjustment. Here are five strategies that can help you ease into being laid off and make that time both fun and productive:

1. Tackle a big project on your To Do list. It doesn’t have to be something onerous or unpleasant. Pick something that you’ve been wanting to do fora while, but simply haven’t had time for. And then take control of that one thing. I’m finally working my way through Julia Cameron’s brilliant book The Artist’s Way – a 12 week course (I’m doing the book version) that helps you unlock your creativity. I’ve been wanting to tackle this project for at least two years. And guess what? It not only provides a structure for my mornings, I’m also having a fantastic time unleashing my creative self.

2. Exercise. A lot. We all know that exercise is great for all sorts of things including helping us to sleep better, cope with chronic disease and fend off depression. And that’s especially true for older adults. But it’s not just about exercising more regularly. This is can also be a time to experiment. I’ve been swimming for a couple of years now and I’m still doing regularly during this transition. But I’m also taking advantage of my membership at my local gym to try out all manner of new classes: Restorative Fitness…Box Fit…Ballet! Trying something new can be exhilarating as well as a great learning experience.

3. Read. A lot. I’ve long been a fan of reading long books in the summer when you have a bit more daylight and (hopefully!) a bit more time. This summer’s list has included the entire set of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels as well as anything and everything by Donna Tartt. For me, reading fiction expands my feel for voice and style and lets me bring that to my own writing. But it can do more than that. Reading can unlock the wisdom of others and help you to pursue your dreams.

4. Relax. Obvs, right? Even if you’re using some of these techniques to try and structure your down time, the void in your normal routine can be stressful. I’ve long extolled the virtues of mindfulness in the morning. But lately I’ve been experimenting with muscle relaxation exercises at night, to try and relax myself before I go to sleep so that I clench my teeth less and treat sleep less as a new playground for my anxiety and more as a respite from it.

5. Have one guilty pleasure. Mine’s watching Season 4 of Homeland. OK, OK. So it’s not exactly kinky adult programming. But I’m really enjoying it.

How about you? Have you ever had a block of “down time” – whether due to getting laid off or something else that changed in your life – and how did you cope?

Image: Girl leaping off a cliff via Public Domain Pictures.net

Designing Your Creative Space

flamingo

flamingoOne of the hardest things about being a writer isn’t finding the time to write. It’s learning how to set up a space – physical, emotional, spiritual – that enables you to be creative.

Accessing that creative space isn’t unique to writing. It’s something all artists need to do. I have a painter friend, for example, who begins each day with the following ritual: First, he cleans his pallet of the prior days’ work. This is the most important part for him. Having his tools fresh and clean and all laid out in front of him allows him to sweep away the toil and struggle from the day before, thereby opening up new artistic possibilities. Then he puts on some music. He also makes sure to always have numerous pieces in progress hanging in his studio. He takes some time looking at them until one catches his attention and then he begins work on that. When he gets really stuck, he tries something completely new.

My routine isn’t all that different. In order to “cleanse my pallet” of the prior day’s work, I spend one hour – but no more than one hour – editing whatever it was I was last working on the day before. This might be a chapter from my book, a blog post, or a personal essay. Spending one hour editing allows me to feel that I’ve “fixed” whatever it was that I allowed myself to leave on a loose end the day before. If other thoughts come to me while I’m in editing mode – sometimes it’s just a snippet of an idea or an image – I jot them down in a notebook so that I can remember to file them in the appropriate place later on.

Then I start the main project I’m working on and continue to pursue that for the next several hours. Even if it’s completely different from the piece I was editing, having spent an hour editing one project frees me up to be creative somewhere else. When I get stuck, I start a new chapter. And I never, ever listen to music while I’m writing.

I also have a few gimmicks I employ to get myself started. For instance, I never start writing until the minute hand is resting on one of the numbers on the clock face. So, for example, if I sit down at my desk at 9:17 a.m., I wait until 9:20 to start writing. Why do I do this? Lord knows. But I’ve been doing it for so long that, at this point, I need to do it in order to begin working.

Other writers have their own rituals. Some people need to face a blank wall in order to start. Others need to have a view out a window. One friend always eats an apple before she begins. Philip Roth famously wrote standing up.

Lately, I’ve been focusing less on my creative routines and more on my creative environment. On the advice of Julia Cameron – of The Artist’s Way fame – I’ve made sure that my physical writing space is an upbeat one. So I’ve taken everything off my desk that’s dull and administrative and left only a handful of objects that make me happy, including: a ceramic heart my son made for me when he was seven on Valentine’s Day…two pins that read “15 Today” which my husband and I wore out to a restaurant on our 15th anniversary…a miniature Big Ben trinket that someone gave me for my key chain when I moved to London for good luck.

I’ve also hung up some quotes – what Cameron calls “affirmations” – above my desk, that are there to remind me to feel confident as I embark upon my creative endeavours. When I left my job, a colleague friend gave me two cards – one that read “You are a flamingo in a  flock of ordinary seagulls” and one that read “You leave a little bit of sparkle wherever you go.” I look at those quotes every morning to  remind myself of what I can bring to the world.

Finally, I’ve even started to “dress” for writing. A friend of mine just published a (great!) book entitled Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore. It’s a book about the mutually reinforcing relationship between an author’s signature look and their writing style. At her book launch in London, my friend was asked if she had a “uniform” that she wore while writing the book. Turns out that she did: even if she was going to spend the entire day at home and never see a soul, she dressed up in a nice frock to inspire herself to tackle this material.

In a similar vein, right before I left my old job, a younger colleague whom I’d mentored gave me a necklace with the words @RealDelia inscribed on a small pendant. For me, that necklace symbolizes this blog, which I launched way back when as a way of rediscovering my voice as an adult and sharing those insights with others. I wear the necklace now when I’m writing my book to remind myself to always circle back to the authentic me.

The bottom line is that creativity isn’t just about having the talent or the time. It’s about being able to readily call up whatever it is inside you that draws that creativity out. And it takes awhile to figure out which routines and props are most conducive to that process.

How do you access your creative space? I’d love to know.

Image: Phoenicopterus ruber via Wikipedia.com

 

Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons to Start Journaling

fountain pen

fountain penOn occasional Wednesdays I offer tips for adulthood.

Re-entry is always difficult. This is true when you’re coming back from a trip and you need to get back into your daily routine. And it’s equally true when you’ve been laid off and need to create a new space to accomplish your goals, whatever those might be.

In my own case, it meant returning to my book project on swimming and adulthood.

At first, I felt overwhelmed. I was terrified of even peeking at my book, let alone writing a blog post. All the familiar writers’ fears plagued me: What if I had run out of ideas? What if, when I dared to look back at my book draft,  it was all sh#$? What if, after all this, I really wasn’t meant to be a writer after all?

I knew that it in order to get back into the swing of things, I would need to create a system. And although I already had a fixed morning routine back when I was working full-time, in this new, uncharted territory, I felt like I needed something else.

And so, following the guidance of creativity Guru Julia Cameron – I’ve started keeping what she calls “Morning Pages.” Morning pages are three pages of longhand, morning writing about absolutely anything. They are to be written first thing in the morning, and shown to no one. As Cameron puts it, “I like to think of them as windshield wipers, swiping away anything that stands between you and a clear view of your day.”

So now every day, before I do anything else, I sit down and write three pages of whatever is top of mind. With a pen.

I’ll have more to say about what else I’m learning from Cameron another time. Today, let me focus on five reasons journaling can be so useful:

1. It’s therapeutic. If, like me, you often wake up in a panic-driven sweat, consumed by anxiety from your dreams, a current life crisis, or simply the latest episode of Homeland, keeping a journal helps. It lets you get out all of the bile that’s sitting in your system – not just your anger and frustration, if those are there, but also your fears and your worries. I often spend about half of my 3 pages on my dreams alone, just narrating what happened in them, how I felt, and which random characters from my 50 years of existence happened to wander in and pay a visit. Dear God, is it cathartic to get all that down on the page and out of my head and my body. If you can’t afford a therapist, journaling can help.

 2. It will stimulate your creativity. This is why Cameron recommends it. And it’s true. In the past two weeks since I started journaling regularly, I’ve not only had ideas for my book, but for blog posts, creative non-fiction, op-eds and short stories. They come to me, unbidden, without needing to brainstorm. They just jump out of my unconscious. And every time that happens, I jot them down and save them. It’s fantastic that by actually taking time away from writing, I am fortifying my writing. But you don’t have to be a writer for this to help unlock your creativity. It can apply to all manner of creative endeavours: sculpting, painting, dancing, singing. Whatever it is that’s inside of you and wants to come out.

3. It will make you more productive. This isn’t the primary reason I’m journaling every morning, though I suppose I am hoping that in sparking my creativity, I’ll also become more productive. But others swear by journaling as key to helping you prioritize, clarify thinking, and accomplish your most important daily tasks. It’s worked for the likes of Albert Einstein, Reid Hoffman and Leonardo Da Vinci. It might also work for you.

4. It will help you focus on the big picture. In my own case, in addition to all the writing ideas journaling is generating, it’s also helping me to zero in on what I really want to do next with my professional life. At this point, those insights come more in the form of verbs and feelings than in concrete job descriptions. But they are beginning to cohere and take shape, pointing me in the direction of me.

5. It’s fun. I mentioned earlier that one of the key, non-negotiable aspects of keeping a journal is to do it long-hand. That initially feels very old-school for we of the key-board generation, but once you get the hang of it, it really does help you to feel more connected to what’s on the page. Right before I left my previous job, my colleagues bought me a really fancy fountain pen as a good-bye present. While I was delighted with the gift, I didn’t initially know exactly how and when I’d be able to use it. Now I do.

So try it. And let me know how it goes.

Image: Fountain Pen via Wikimedia Commons

How To Redefine Yourself When You Are Made Redundant

pale ale

pale aleI’m about to lose my job. It’s a long story, but the Reader’s Digest version is that I work for a large, British NGO in London that just lost a big chunk of its government funding.

As a result of that decision, my entire department is being shut down at the end of July.

The Upside of Starting Over

I’m actually really happy about this state of affairs – not for my organisation, but for me personally. I’ve already changed careers a couple of times, so I’m all about the “episodic career.”

As we all know, starting over professionally in mid-life doesn’t need to be a negative thing. Indeed, it can be the start of something really exciting and rewarding. I’ve been thinking hard about what was coming next for me for a while now and relish the prospect of trying something new.

Plus, the prospect of collecting a nice severance package sweetens the deal even further. I mean, seriously, how often are you paid to go hunt for a new job?

So why, then, am I feeling so lousy?

Being Made “Redundant”

I think it’s the terminology they use over here to describe this state of affairs. In the UK, it’s called “being made redundant.”

Say what you will about the term “layoff,” but it’s a heckuva lot better than “redundancy.” For me, anyway, getting “laid off” connotes something restful – you’ve been given leave to hang up your cleats and exit the sports field gracefully. You can now kick back with a low-alcohol Pale Ale in the back yard and read The New Yorker to your heart’s content. (Not your fantasy? Feel free to substitute in your personal set of unemployment-induced indulgences…)

But it’s temporary: you’re just hitting the snooze button. Normal life resumes shortly.

In contrast, being told that you are being made “redundant” conjures up images being – at best, burdensome – and at worst, completely unnecessary. In the dictionary, “redundant” is defined as “No longer needed. Superfluous.”

And that depresses me.

The Fear of Slowing Down

I’m a do-er you see. I’m always on the go, from 6 am to 10 pm. For God’s sake, I use a wheelie suitcase as a briefcase! I am a living and breathing metaphor for purposefulness in motion.

So the idea of slowing down terrifies me. Some of that’s about legitimacy – the normal sorts of professional identity issues one struggles with when he or she is unemployed.

But in my own case, there’s a much deeper cause to my uneasiness: the worry that I won’t re-start. That there will be nothing left to do. No more mountains to climb, to borrow a phrase from the Reverend Mother in The Sound of Music. And who am I without constant movement?

So to be labelled by my society as inert and unproductive is quite possibly the worst thing you can do to me. It taps into my worst fears: that the game of life is over and there’s just…me. It’s like a form of dying. Or at least that’s how I experience it.

Redundancy vs. Renewal

I know this is all very silly and superficial. There’s no reason that I have to define my new professional status by the dictionary definition of redundant. As Shakespeare once memorably asked: “What’s in a name?”

I also know that, deep down,it won’t be long before I’m back in the saddle, throwing myself into the next big thing. Indeed, the biggest challenge for me will be remembering to savor “slow living” before I resume the race.

But if you happen to see me before then, whether on the street or in cyber-space, please do me a favor. Try not to mention the word “redundancy” in my presence.

I prefer the word “rebirth.”

Which, according to the dictionary, means “A period of new life, growth or activity. A revival.”

Amen.

Image: Coopers Pale Ale from Adelaide Australia in the Bier Garden Saigon Vietnam JAN 2012 via Wikimedia Commons

What If We Hadn’t Met?

cheese cubes

Wickersham is an American writer – most famous for her memoir, The Suicide Index – who also writes regularly for The Boston Globe. An essay of hers about how married couples communicate sparked a part of my own entitled, The Secret Language of Long-Term Marriages which I shared here last month. And now she’s published another essay about marriage – How We Met – in which she describes the universal fascination we all hold with the story about how couples meet.

In Wickersham’s own case, her initial meeting with her husband was a total dud. They met at a party; she was friendly, he was aloof. They didn’t speak again for 18 months. She also recounts the tales of other couples she knows, some of whom experienced the proverbial “love at first sight,” others who met via a personals ad (“I like to walk in the rain” apparently turned out to be a big draw.)

As Wickersham points out, the reason we’re all so fascinated with the “how we met” narrative is that it’s always about something deeper. These stories are, as she puts it, “fated yet random…behind every “How we met’’ story is the unspoken question: What if we hadn’t?”

Read the rest of this post over at Better After 50

Image: Swiss Cheese Cubes via Wikimedia Commons

Friday Pix: Some Recommended Reading For The Weekend

myers briggs

myers briggsOn occasional Fridays, I point you towards some recommended reading around the blogosphere:

a. As a long-time This American Life fan, I found this piece by Ira Glass about the death of a grown-up friend very moving.

b. A friend sent through a terrific-looking list of books about growth in middle age. I can’t wait to dive in.

c. If you like taking personality tests and especially Myers-Briggs, you will love this piece on the definition of hell for each Myers-Briggs type. Calling all fellow ENTJs!

d. And speaking of middle age, anyone who is a Simon & Garfunkle fan will relish this recent and unexpected reunion of Simon and Garfunkle.

e. If, in contrast, your tastes run more towards The Wire, try prying yourself away from this new game: Where’s Wallace?

f. Finally, in lighter fare, The Buzz Feed has some fun recirculating the response to President Trump’s accidentally tweeting the word “We.”

Have a great weekend!

Image: Myers Briggs by Eric E. Castro via Flickr

 

Desert Island Discs: Narrating Your Life Through Music

peter paul and mary
peter paul and mary

There’s a popular, long-running radio show in the U.K. where I live called Desert Island Discs. The premise behind the show is quite simple: a guest is invited by the host choose the eight records they would take with them to a desert island. But it’s really a vehicle for getting famous people – whether that’s Bill Gates or David Beckham or Zaha Hadid – to narrate their lives through music.

So what most guests do is to select songs that speak to different parts of their lives: a piece that conjures up their childhood or family…something to capture the time they met their spouse…a tune that speaks to the most creative point in their career or the death of a beloved relative. You get the picture.

Needless to say, in one of my occurring fantasies I am a guest being interviewed on this program about my book project on swimming and adulthood, narrating how I built my illustrious career as a full-time writer over the course of a lifetime. (Hey, we all gotta dream…)

Which of course only begs the question: which songs would I choose to tell my story?

Early Childhood

Early childhood is an easy one for me. I would select Puff The Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul and Mary. Yes, I know, a cheesy selection by certain measures. Yet, for me, that’s a song that makes me weep every time I hear it as it is about the inevitability of loss as we age: the loss of playfulness, the loss of our childhood friends, and the painful but necessary separation we must all undertake from our families of origin.

Adolescence

Adolescence is also an easy one for me. I listened to a lot of Billy Joel as a teenager, a songwriter who so clearly evokes a particular moment in the late 1970s-early 1980s – just after the Disco era ended and a particular place – most of his songs are about the New Jersey-New York metropolitan area and the longing to get out and make more of ourselves. I could pick any of his hits, but these five Billy Joel tunes probably speak to me most, still.

College

College has got to be either The Grateful Dead singing Ripple or Dire Straits doing Romeo and Juliet – the only two bands I ever went to see perform more than once. These songs readily call to mind the most carefree time of my life, a time when I didn’t worry about anything other than going to classes and hanging out with my friends (not always in that order!) and didn’t think at all about the future. It was perhaps the only time in my life that I was fully “present,” before any concerns about rent and jobs and graduate school kicked in.

Courtship

I had never listened to jazz before I met my husband, but he introduced me to this great musical tradition and to this artist – Gene Harris – in particular. During the early months of our courtship, we used to listen to Like a Lover first thing when we woke up in the morning. Bliss.

Using Music to Better Understand Yourself

Much like writing your own obituary – something I wrote about on these pages recently – thinking about how your narrate your life through music is an intersting exercise. Music reconnects you to your past. It gets you to think in concrete terms about what different phases of your life meant to you and why. And in doing that, you get a better handle on your present self – what you like about yourself, what you might wish to flee, what you miss about yourself, what you’d like to see more of in the years ahead.

So go ahead, try it. What are some of your “desert island discs”?

 

Image: Peter, Paul and Mary 1970 via Wikimedia Commons

The Secret Language of Long Term Marriages

marriage

marriageI once read an article about the underlying codes governing long-term relationships that really struck a chord.

It was an essay by writer Joan Wickersham about the ways in which, over time, couples develop their own private lexicons with which to communicate with one another.

Wickersham talks about this dynamic within the context of marriage, but her point applies to any long-term partnership. What’s crucial is that you’re together long enough to have a shared experience which then evolves into a catch phrase that only the two of you can understand.

By way of example, she recounts the story of how – right after she married her husband – Wickersham got a job in a bank which she hated. Even though her husband had a job that he liked, he convinced her to quit her job (and he his) so that they could move somewhere else and both be happy. From there on out, “It’s like the bank” became their stock way to describe any situation that was especially bleak and dismal. Wickersham has another great story about the phrase “We’re just not serrated knife people” and what it came to mean within the context of their marriage.

Read the rest of this post over on Better After 50

Image: Marriage by Jo Christian Oterhals via Flickr