One Simple Way to Release Fear

One Simple Way to Release Fear

“I don’t have time for this,” I think as the women trickle in one by one. By the time we start we number about a dozen. I’m waiting for breakfast and I’m skeptical we can accomplish anything with such a large group.

I’ve driven 30 minutes to a women’s mastermind meeting at a random Perkin’s. It’s not like I’m going to just turn around and go home. I take a deep breath and tell myself to be positive, to stay open. I think of one of my favorite occupational therapy professors who was known for saying there was something to learn from every single experience if you look for it.

I’m about halfway through my first cup of coffee when I realize I don’t have to look that hard.

I find myself nodding when the other women speak honestly about their fear, their overwhelm, and their hope that this year will be different. I want to jump up from my green vinyl covered chair and hug the other moms who talk about the ever-present battle between being present with our children and needing to send that email/hit publish on that blog post/submit that invoice.

The older women among us fight about who is oldest (a 72-year-old wins that argument) and tell us what they wish they could tell their younger selves: Our kids won’t be young forever. On our deathbeds, we will not wish we’d been more productive at work. One woman chokes back tears describing the setbacks she experienced last year—setbacks so frequent and crushing I’m having a hard time keeping it together just listening to her.

We offer each other suggestions, ideas, and stories about what has worked for us. We suggest our favorite books, websites, and apps. We listen to one another. I can’t speak for the other women but I feel seen. We get out our phones and add our next meeting to our calendars.

I could have stayed home on that snowy morning. The roads were treacherous on the drive home. I could have spent my precious free time alone with an hour to write, an hour to work out, and another hour to spend one of my many Facebook writer groups. In any one of those groups, I could have found dozens of threads where women described their goals, their insecurities, their word for the year. I could have gotten advice or support. I could have just lurked, feeling reassured to see I wasn’t the only one worried about doing things “right”, that I wasn’t the only person doubting my abilities or my big goals.

But there’s no amount of likes, hearts, or comments that can replace one person making eye contact and nodding.

In her TED talk on shame, Brene Brown says the most powerful words we can hear when we’re struggling are “Me too.” It was worth the snowy drive and the mediocre coffee just to hear those words, to feel seen.

My problems haven’t disappeared. My questions haven’t all been answered. I still feel like I’m forging a path through a thick jungle using only a machete. But I know that somewhere nearby, even if I can’t see or hear them all the time, there are a dozen other women doing the same thing. This knowledge simultaneously gives me the energy of four espressos and the confidence of three glasses of wine.

As I’m leaving Perkins, I buy a few cookies for Dan and the kids. I’m not intending to eat one until later but the oatmeal cranberry cookie is warm and I’m starving. I step out into the parking lot where cold, wet snowflakes soak my face and I take a bite of my cookie. It’s sweet, slightly tart, soft, and chewy. It’s exactly what I needed.

If You’re Scared You’re Winning

If you're scared you're winning

I was at my friend’s Halloween party, standing by myself, holding a red Solo cup of Chardonnay, and wishing I’d put some effort into my costume. Wearing a flowy tank top to hide my post-partum belly, skinny jeans, and a hat shaped like a pineapple, my look was, ”I have a baby and a toddler and I am way more worried about breastmilk leaking through my bra than I am about a Halloween costume.” I hadn’t had an uninterrupted night of sleep in nearly five months.

I was mid-yawn when I made eye contact with a sexy witch. We started talking. Chatting with strangers is my jam so I was pumped to connect with SW until she said something that made me blush.

“What do you do?” she asked.

I started to sweat. I had not prepared for this. What did I do? What did I do? What did I DO? A fire alarm went off in my head while all my brain cells trampled each other to find the emergency exit. My chest tightened and I knew it had nothing to do with my breastmilk. I took a sip of wine and blurted out the first thing I thought of.

“Nothing.”

SW nodded slightly. As she stared at me and my stupid pineapple hat, I wondered where she was on Halloween three years ago when I was dressed up as Lady Gaga and had a real job. I peered into my drink as if it would reveal an answer and mumbled, “Well, not nothing, exactly,” I gave her a weak smile and continued, “I’m home with my two kids. I have a five-month-old and a two-year-old.”

At that moment, the hostess, my friend Jenni, swooped in.

“Actually, Pam is a writer,” Jenni interjected. Standing 4’10”, she exudes the confidence of a six-foot-tall model who has never been told no in her entire life.

“Oh yeah, I write stuff,” I added.

“She’s an amazing writer,” Jenni continued.

I wanted to share in Jenni’s enthusiasm about my professional identity but I couldn’t because inside I felt like a total fraud.

I had Impostor Syndrome, the feeling that you’re a sham or that any success you’ve achieved was the result of a fluke. And though it is super common (research shows 70% of people experience it at some point), that doesn’t make it any less agonizing. It tends to creep in when we’re out of our comfort zones, which makes total sense; it’s normal to feel insecure when we’re trying something new.

In my case, I was embarking on a career as a freelance writer and I was terrified to call myself a writer. What if I unwittingly happened to be talking to an experienced writer and they laughed at me? I was sure that at any moment someone would ask me for the secret writer handshake and I’d be screwed. I had a license to practice occupational therapy, a drawer full of scrubs, and dozen cocktail parties’ worth of healthcare horror stories but no credentials as a writer, other than a few clips.

It would have been extremely comfortable to go back to work as an occupational therapist at the hospital where I’d worked for seven years at the end of my maternity leave. Instead, I made the terrifying decision to pursue my dream of becoming a writer. Five years later, I still feel ridiculously scared of all kinds of writer-ly things. It is not despite stomach-churning, nail-biting, obsessive worrying about the challenges of writing, but because of them, that I love this path. It’s this anxiety that tells me I am stretching the limits of my comfort zone to become the person I am meant to be.

Growing pains aren’t just for kids.

Since that Halloween party in 2014, I’ve published a book, my work has been published in such places as the Washington Post and Huffington Post, I’ve won an award for my writing, and I have been booked and paid to speak. I’m not saying this to brag. I’m saying it to let you know that amazing things happen when you ignore your fear and keep moving forward.

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2018

At this point, I’ve read 47 books in 2018. They were mostly fiction (27), some memoir/essay (eight)) and some non-fiction (seven). (If you want to see everything I’ve read/am reading, here’s a link to my Goodreads profile.) It was really hard to pick my top ten because I never read books I don’t like. I normally know if I’ll like a book within the first couple of pages, but I have been known to quit books 20 pages in, 50 pages in, or even halfway to the end. Life is just too short to read books I don’t love.

Here are my ten favorites from this year, in no particular order.

Educated by Tara Westover

Westover’s ability to create a compelling narrative is unreal. She has this incredible ability (especially at a relatively young age) to make sense of the unbelievable events of her childhood with wisdom, clarity, kindness, and beauty. This is a story about how history shapes the present and the future. It asks questions who is authorized to create history and where that power originates. It acknowledges that truth can be hard if not impossible to pin down without discounting the value of searching for it.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
  
This book was almost a mix of poetry and prose. Ward’s writing style is juicy and delicious but never overly descriptive or boring. I would love to spend a day in her head just to know what it’s like to sit down at a computer and type (or write) with that kind of language. Beside the beautiful writing, the characters are richly drawn, the plot is compelling, and despite the heart-wrenching agony it evokes on nearly every page, there’s a strong thread of hope and redemption, too.

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

The writing is sharp, simple, and evocative. There is so much sensory detail but it’s never flowery or overly wordy. Just enough description to make you feel like you’re right there. Speaking of right there, it’s set in Nigeria. I knew basically nothing about Nigeria before picking up this book, so beside being completely captivated by the story, I learned something about Nigeria and its stormy politics. The book is heavy. SO HEAVY. I was up reading it in the middle of the night because I couldn’t sleep and it definitely did not relax me. But I loved it so much I was almost grateful for that sleepless night just to get a chance to spend 2.5 uninterrupted hours with it.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I liked this book a lot but I fell in love with it on the final page. Okay the final sentence. This is a classic heroine’s journey; Ifemelu comes up against challenge after challenge, to figure out who she is, what she wants, and where home is. Adichie is an unbelievably sharp observer of details and it’s those details plus her beautiful writing style that make this book sparkle.
Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin 

I laughed. I cried. I thought about feminism, dumb things I did in my 20’s, my relationships with my grandmother, my mom, my daughters, my friends. I thought about what it means to reinvent one’s self. What else can you ask for in a book? It was delicious and quick- great vacation read.

Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs 
The way Brennan-Jobs describes her experiences is remarkable in the level of detail but also the plainness of her language. She relays her memories, her feelings, but she rarely lets you know how she feels about the events of the past now that she’s had some distance from them and can see them with an adult perspective, but somehow it doesn’t feel like anything is missing.
Not only is the writing clear and bright, but the story is also one of hope and resilience. Though the author never comes out and says it, as a reader, I understood that through her travails, she learned that money can never be a substitute for love and happiness, that what you think you want isn’t always what is going to actually make you happy, that there is power in knowing who you are and what you want, and that you can grow into a strong person despite a shaky foundation.

 

The Leavers by Lisa Ko 

This was heavy, at times difficult to read, beautiful, and tender. It explores culture, family, and identity while shining a much-needed light on the trauma and injustices that often characterize immigration to the US. It should be required reading for all Americans.

 

Sunburn by Laura Lippman
This was the perfect summer vacation book. It has it all: richly drawn characters, an unpredictable plot, expert storytelling, and it makes you question your assumptions about what it means to be a “good woman.” At least that’s what it did for me.

 

An American Marriage  by Tayari Jones 

This is the type of book that stayed with me for days after I closed it for the last time. Jones alternates between three different narrators: Celestial, Roy, and Andre. Celestial and Roy are newlyweds when Roy is convicted of a crime he did not commit. While Roy is in prison, the friendship Celestial and Andre have shared since childhood turns into romantic love. My heart ached for each of these richly drawn, relatable, intensely lovable characters. It reminded me of The Light Between Oceans in that you can’t help rooting for each character, even though one’s redemption will be another’s loss.

And while it was about love, loss, letting go, the nature of love, the bounds of marriage, it was also very much about race. I’m not sure what’s “okay” to write publicly about race as a white person but here goes: I do not spend any time worrying that the men in my life will be killed by the police or wrongly imprisoned. And though I am aware, on an intellectual level, that this is something Black people deal with on a daily basis, it’s still not something I consider very often or on an emotional level. Reading this book heightened my awareness of my white privilege.

Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt 
Insanely gripping. The writing was gorgeous, the plot was tight, and despite making me cry my eyes out about once every chapter (at least) it left me feeling hopeful. If you liked All The Ugly Wonderful Things, you would probably like this one, too. It’s about identity, family, and coming to grips with mortality.

 

I swam 50,000 yards in one month…This is what I learned

I smelled like chlorine, my skin itched, and I had goggle marks around my eyes for the entire month of November. 

I loved it.

I decided to take part in “Swimvember” a swim challenge coordinated by Multisport Mastery and Jen Harrison triathlon coaching. Each swimmer earns points just for swimming (there was a minimum yardage for a swim to “count”), and through bonus challenges, like specific workouts, swimming twice in one day, meeting a certain yardage over a few days, and tons more. 

I went into this thinking I could stand to have some external motivation to swim more than I currently was (generally 0-1 times per week), and if my swimming improved, it would be a bonus. 

My earliest memory of swimming is begging my mom or dad to take me into the water. Though I grew up spending my summers at the beach and taking swim lessons, I was terrified to put my face in the water and had no idea how to actually locomote underwater until I was six or seven. I remember winning the six and under category in our local beach’s kickboard contest and burning with the shame of knowing I’d actually walked while holding my white styrofoam kickboard out in front of me. 

Eventually, I learned how to swim to the point where I’d probably stay afloat if I fell off a boat. I started swimming for exercise in college. I enjoyed it even though I was slow. I didn’t know how slow I was until I started doing triathlons and found myself consistently exiting the water dead last. The entire transition area would be empty except for my bike, standing all alone among the dozens and dozens of empty racks. 

Over the years, I’ve bought swimming DVD’s, taken swim lessons, attended swim clinics,  and faithfully (and very intermittently) attended Masters. Gradually, my swimming progressed from abysmal to mediocre to about average, at least by triathlete standards. 

But I never believed I could be a decent swimmer. I thought good swimmers grew up doing swim team. I feared swimming more frequently would be a waste of time; that I’d ingrain the flaws in my stroke even deeper.

Swimvember changed that. After swimming 25 times for a total of 50,000 yards this month, I have become faster, stronger, and more confident in the water. I am astounded and thrilled, but I’m also a little embarrassed that I never thought to apply the stuff that works for everything else in my life to swimming until now. 

Because this is what I know works in the water and everywhere else in life:

Show up
There were days I just didn’t want to swim. Days that my arms were tired from the day before, days that I’d gone to bed a little too late to hear my alarm going off at 5:15am, days that I just felt like working out in my basement instead of running out to start my freezing cold car in the dark, and letting it warm up while I sipped some instant coffee. Sometimes I cut my swim short because I ran out of time or energy. 

But I showed up. And all that showing up counts. Even the easy, minimum yardage swims counted for a point, added to my momentum, helped me build strength, swim by swim. 1500 yards isn’t much on its own, but stacked on top of all the other swimming, it adds up. The short, easy session you show up for is always better than the perfectly planned long one that doesn’t end up happening. 

Get uncomfortable
The more you do things that are out of your comfort zone, the wider your comfort zone gets. After years and years of swimming for 20 to 45 minutes at a time for anywhere from zero to eight times a month, I’d gotten comfortable with my little swimming routine (or lack thereof). But it wasn’t getting me anywhere. 

It was only when I got out of my comfort zone—doing swims as long as 3700 yards, swimming twice in one day, swimming 10,000 yards within four days, swimming on back-to-back days as often as I could—that I grew as a swimmer. A month ago I thought of a 2400 yard swim as a big deal. Now it feels pretty normal. 

Do what works for you
Figure out what motivates you and use it to your advantage. I like to compete. I thrive on external accountability. That’s why I like having a training partner, hiring a coach, signing up for a race, or in this case, joining a virtual swim challenge with the opportunity to earn points. 

I was in this thing to win all the points I could, despite knowing I wasn’t even in contention for the top ten, and despite the fact that literally, nothing was at stake. I just wanted those damn points. I wanted them so bad Dan is wondering how he can implement some kind of points system in our marriage. 

When I got into Barton Springs Pool, a pool I’ve been wanting to swim in ever since I heard of it ten years ago, I realized why I was one of only three people swimming in it. It was the closest I’ve ever come to a Polar Plunge. I didn’t care if this was my relaxing 40th birthday weekend in Austin with my husband while the kids stayed with their grandparents. I didn’t care if I couldn’t feel my hands, feet, or face. I didn’t care if I feared I was going to get raped in the deserted, open-air locker room while I changed my still damp body into dry clothes after swimming. I didn’t mind coming to the pool at times that I’d previously thought were way too inconvenient (traffic, dragging kids to childcare, etc) when a point was at stake.

I can’t quite articulate the pleasure I got from pulling up the group spreadsheet and entering my points.

Maybe an arbitrary point system wouldn’t motivate you, but something does. Figuring out what that is is half the battle.


To Get Your Personal Essay Published, Try This.

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you might have noticed that an essay I wrote got published at the Washington Post. (Click here to read it). It explores why, as someone who eschews mainstream sports, I find so much joy in my young daughters’ loyalty to the Red Sox.

In it I write, “This morning I received a text from my dad, asking me to tell the girls the Red Sox won the World Series…”

Do not think for a minute that I received that text, enjoyed a visit with my creative muse (PS if she’s reading this, WHERE ARE YOU, B***H??), banged out that essay and submitted it while my kids made their own breakfasts and reminded themselves to brush their teeth, wear pants, and to at least stuff a jacket in their backpacks.

Because that is so not what happened.

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find myself looking at other writers’ wins and thinking they’re lucky, they’re talented, they write faster than I do, they need less sleep than I do, they have more childcare than I do or… you get the idea. The truth may be some combination of any or all of those things but it’s also that they worked hard.

And while I can’t speak for all writers, I can speak for myself when I say, behind every success is a combination of a little luck and metric shit-ton of hard work. It was lucky that the Red Sox won the World Series after I’d been tinkering with that essay for six weeks. But all the luck in the world wouldn’t have helped if I hadn’t started the process of writing and rewriting six weeks earlier.

How exactly can you make luck and hard work work for you to get your work published? Here’s my advice.

1| Write about something you care about
It doesn’t matter what it is. But if you don’t care about it before you begin the excruciating task of writing about it, there’s no way you’re going to care about it when you’ve read it so many times your eyes are bleeding and you don’t even know what the pages say anymore.

I literally cannot get over the beauty in the bond between my kids and their grandparents. I’m getting vehrklempt just writing that sentence. That’s why I started exploring the topic of this essay in the first place. I have no interest in sports. So why do I love that my kids root for the Red Sox?

What started as a bunch of word vomit in a spiral notebook became an exploration of my relationship with my dad, a guy whose idea of a perfect day is sitting on the porch with an ocean breeze, a cigar, and the Red Sox on the radio. I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to say at first, but because I was curious about the topic, I kept writing until I knew what my message was.

2| Accept feedback
I wrote a version of that essay and showed it to Dan. He said something that sounded like “Blah blah blah blah… and I’d delete the paragraph that just might be the best thing you’ve ever written in your life.” I ignored him. Then I showed it to my writing friends, who both said it kind of sounded like two different essays, so I needed to pick one and go with it. And also, that paragraph I was so in love with didn’t fit. I told Dan what my friends said and he said, “So they agree with me.” Doh.

I rewrote it and showed version two to one of my writing friends. She said it still wasn’t done. I wrote version three and showed it to her. She said she thought it was done. (Neither of us quite realized the Red Sox were playing in the final game of the World Series at that very moment.)

3| Be flexible
When my dad texted me that the Red Sox won, the first thing I did was tell my girls. The second thing I did was rewrite a paragraph to include that piece of important,  timely information. Then I submitted it.

But what if the Red Sox hadn’t won? As a friend recently suggested, I certainly could have hit Control + F and replaced every “Red Sox” with “Dodgers” (In which case the essay would probably have been published anyway and my dad would have disowned me). Alternatively, I could have tinkered with the ending. I could have said that no matter who wins the Series, nothing can break the bond between my kids and their Papa. And who knows, there’s always next season. Then I could have waited till next season to submit it. I might have tried to submit it for Father’s Day or made it relevant to some piece of Red Sox news. I would have even read the paper (or more likely, relied on my dad) to keep those events on  my radar.

Or perhaps I would have shifted some of the story to focus on football, depending on my kids’ interest in the Pats this winter, and submitted it around the Super Bowl.

To get your personal essay published try this

If you try my tips, let me know how it goes. If you have others, please drop them in the comments. And for a fabulous resource written by a seasoned pro, I cannot recommend Susan’s Shapiro’s The Byline Bible highly enough.