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What Happened When I Gave up Agita for Lent

Earlier this month, I put serious thought into what I should give up for Lent. Chocolate? Wine? Social Media? Discussions about the topic end up sounding like a parlor game. Wine? Are you mad? Aren’t you afraid you’ll wind up strangling your husband instead? or Do you think Jesus really cares whether you eat chocolate, and do you think that’s what he was pining for during those 40 days in the desert? Ha ha, religious humor.

I participate in Lent mostly because I like the idea of spending roughly 40 days focused on spiritual self-improvement. Giving up wine or chocolate or even Facebook might make me a different person — grumpier, perhaps? — but does it really have the power to change me in a lasting way? My answer is no.

So instead, I decided to give up agita for Lent. Now, for those of you unfortunate enough to grow up outside of New York City, you might wonder — what the hell is she talking about? Agita is this fantastic word, of Italian origin, that describes that nervous anxious feeling you get in your gut whenever you think about something that scares you or deal with something stressful. For example: Ugh, watching my kids on the monkey bars gives me such agita. Or: I just did my taxes, and I thought I’d die from the agita. Great word; feel free to use it liberally (pronounced a-ji-DA.)

So whenever I woke up at 3 a.m. wondering: ACK! Where is that Malaysian plane and is it being weaponized by terrorists who have a nuclear bomb? (yes, I did that) I stopped, slowed down my brain and reminded myself that no, I gave up agita for Lent. So I’m not worrying about stupid crap anymore.

But here’s the thing about life. Try to improve yourself, and you will be tested. Aim to lose weight? Of course that’s when your sister will come to the house with homemade cupcakes. Want to swear less? That’s when you’ll slam your finger in the car door. Trust me, and think about  it, and you’ll know — whenever you try to pick yourself up something will try to knock you down.

So here’s what happened once I decided to give up agita:

  • My most-regular, reliable client had its editorial budget slashed which meant bye-bye regular, reliable income.
  • My CPA called to say that I owe three times what I expected to owe on my taxes. (A total amount that does not correlate with the amount of cash we currently have.)

Now here’s the genius of this: As a self-employed freelance-writer, money in and money out is my biggest worry. So of course, this is what would be thrown at me. AGITA! Right? Except, remember, I gave that up for Lent so…

Whenever I became gripped with panic over the money thing I reminded myself — you’re not going to go there. I didn’t let my heart race. My stomach was forbidden from either churning nor gurgling. I inhaled, I exhaled and I just Let It Go. I decided that if history is any guide, the amount of energy I have expended worrying about my income has, in the end, always been a complete waste. Because things always seem to work out. Why? Not because I buy a winning scratch-off or find myself a Sugar Daddy but rather because I GET SHIT DONE.

And this is the epiphany of being 40. Lose a client? Guess what, I made up those lost sales and then some and will end this first quarter having surpassed my sales goals. The tax man is after me? Eh, I’ll set up a payment plan. The feds be paid when they get paid. Every problem has a solution that does not at all involve my breaking into a cold sweat at 3 a.m.

This all boils down to know-how and confidence. If I believe more in myself, I’m able to keep agita at bay. And if I accept what I can control (finding clients) and what I can’t (finding that airplane), then the scope of what I should worry about and shouldn’t changes dramatically.

Am I saying I’m never going to worry about anything ever again? That’s just not my nature. Of course I’m going to worry. But I hope I can carry with me this Lenten lesson that focusing on solutions, rather than the enormity of the problem, is both empowering and sleep-inducing.

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A Sandy Survivor on Oso, Mudslides and the Lies We Tell Ourselves

Robin Youngblood was having an uneventful Saturday morning, chatting with a friend in her Oso, Washington, home, when she heard a loud CRACK. According to The Seattle Times, out her window she saw a 25-foot tall wave of mud rushing toward her home. There was no time to react. Youngblood and her friend were catapulted out of her home and covered with mud and debris. They are the lucky ones. As of March 25, 14 people are reported dead and 176 missing.

Two weeks ago, while residents slept, ate and prepared for the start of their day, a gas leak triggered an explosion that leveled two Harlem apartment buildings. Eight people died and at least 55 families lost everything they owned.

One minute you’re asleep. Or you’re chatting with a friend. And the next, the place you store all your security — your home — is gone. It’s really a terrifying thought, isn’t it?  It’s enough to make you call the gas company at the slightest hint of a strange odor or wonder if the ground under your feet is truly as secure as it seems. But for me, these inexplicable tragedies have the opposite impact.  If you’ve never lived through disaster, you might think you can control them. But once you have first-hand knowledge of all the powers in the world that are greater than yourself you realize: I can’t control it, so why let it control me?

I live a block from the beach in a house that has already been flooded once by Hurricane Sandy. There is no guarantee that such a catastrophe will not happen again. But this week, when friends were reaching out to us concerned about reports of coastal flooding related to yet another Nor’easter, my husband and I had an identical response: Bring it.  After what we’ve been through, some water in the streets isn’t enough to scare us. But even beyond that, we have accepted that we have absolutely no control over our fate. So why waste energy worrying about it?

Having survived disaster, both physically and mentally, we have also glimpsed behind the curtain to learn a rare truth: The sense of security that we used to have, that most people have, is a farce. People ask us all the time, “Do you really still want to live by the water after all you’ve been through?” My response is twofold: #1: “Are you going to buy my house?” and #2: “Despite everything, I can’t help but love where I live.”

But the deeper answer, which  most people don’t want to hear, is that none of us is every truly safe. Ever. Sure, another hurricane could come and rip the roof off of my house, bring the ocean through my front door and send me spiraling back into refugee status. But I know that and I accept it and somehow, there’s power in embracing that reality. When people ask “Do you still want to live there?” the question comes from their own fear that someday, something equally terrifying, inexplicable and uncontrollable could happen to them. But the lie they tell themselves is that it won’t, because they’re not so crazy as we are, living in someplace so risky, a veritable bull’s eye on our beachside home.

That’ll never happen to me. Ah, such a sweet sentiment. The truth is that no one can say that with certainty. And knowing this is somehow empowering. The things that keep me up at night have diminished since living through Sandy. I used to worry constantly about finances and my career and our safety. But when you let go off fear, it loses power over you. And suddenly I sleep better. More creative ideas percolate in my mind. I take more risks, such as letting my kids cross the street by themselves and launching myself into a new business plan that I have no guarantee will actually be successful.

Now I’m not going to lie and say I live this zen-like, worry-free existence. But when worries do crop up I look at them through a new lens. My question now isn’t, “What am I going to do?!” it’s “Do I have it in me to handle this?” And the answer, more than ever, is yes. I’ve been through so much and it has strengthened me. It’s emboldened me, made me more resilient and more capable of standing tall in situations where in the past I’d cower.

A few days ago, as we were saying good-bye to our dog while leaving the house, my 6-year-old son Miles declared that Sandy, the storm he knows very well, gave us two gifts. Gifts? I thought. I have to hear this. “We got our house fixed back and we got a dog,” he said.

Perspective is everything, isn’t it? And it’s truly a gift to be able to see that good can come out of a bad situation. Now of course, good is not guaranteed and the hard times can be inexplicably difficult to traverse. I don’t mean to minimize that. In Sandy, in Harlem, in Oso, people lost their lives and loved ones had to shoulder that loss. There is no salve for that. But I do know that tragedy not only has the potential to strengthen us, it will undoubtedly change us. And I can only hope that in some way, for my fellow Sandy survivors, and for the people in Oso and Harlem, it’s for the better.

 

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Challenged? You’ll Have the Strength to Endure. Here’s How I Know.

Mira (top row, far right) participates in the church Christmas show.

Mira (top row, far right) participates in the church Christmas show.

I sat in the church pew, my daughter nestled beside me, my hands clasping each other to stop them from shaking. It was the Sunday before Christmas and all the decorations, the joyous children’s program, the smiling church ladies dressed in red, were arrows strung against a battered soul. While others rejoiced; I grieved.

Two months prior, our home was assaulted by a hurricane that hit during high tide on the night of a full moon. Sandy’s storm surge forced 4 feet of water into my Rockaway Beach house, destroying a lifetime of accumulated possessions and upending our lives in ways I had not, even in that shellshocked moment in the church pew, begun to fully realize.

That morning I had left our half-a-house to bring my 8-year-old daughter Mira to St. James-St. Matthew in South Ozone Park while my husband Sid stayed home with our sick 5-year-old son. It was a journey of obligation, no doubt. Mira was in the church Christmas program and her absence would have forced some last-minute cast changes. But I had spent most of the night sitting vigil with my son as he battled a stomach virus and so all I wanted to do was crawl into bed.

But even if I could have pulled the covers over my head, it would not have provided the escape from the world that I craved. With our first floor destroyed, we were camped out on the second floor. The master bedroom doubled as living room, dining room, family room and playroom. Our kitchen consisted of a microwave and minifridge crowded in the small hallway. Every morning I poured cereal into Styrofoam bowls and put them down on the floor in my kids’ bedrooms, “Just like I’d feed a dog,” I often said with a wry laugh. I wished for the simplest things, such as a table to eat at, a couch to sit on and a freezer to hold Eggo waffles. But most of all I missed space and privacy.

So that Sunday morning, when my pastor announced that he was looking for volunteers to join him for Christmas caroling to elderly and shut-in members, I raised an eyebrow. I dreaded facing my shell of a house, where the naked drywall and exposed concrete slab foundation served as a daily reminder of sudden, inexplicable loss. Add to that the possibility of being thrown up on (yet again), and I had little incentive to rush home. Plus, so many people had given us so much in the aftermath of Sandy. It would be good to give back in some way. So the decision was made – I now had the perfect excuse for hiding from my life for a while.

It was a small group of us that went – maybe five or six. I was beginning to feel the altruistic pride that comes from doing the righteous thing and even a hint of holiday spirit. Our first stop was to the home of Bert and his wife Gloria, who several years before had suffered a severe and debilitating stroke. She was now bedridden and unable to communicate. The mother in me felt compelled to warn my daughter that what she saw might be upsetting, but if she had any questions I would answer them after we left. Because I, of course, would have no problem with coming face-to-face with the hardships that sometimes befall us later in life.

Bert welcomed us so kindly and led us to the bedroom he and Gloria still shared. Gloria lay in a hospital bed, the sheets pulled neat and taut up to her chest. She wore a ruffled-collar nightgown and her white hair had the airiness of cotton candy. There was an echo of beauty in her porcelain face, but it was now concealed by puffy cheeks, swollen lips and unfocused eyes that darted around, focusing on nothing.

As someone unaccustomed to sharing space with someone so near the end of her life, the experience was other-worldly. As we sang, Bert held Gloria’s hand and smiled. He gazed into her eyes and called her name, again and again. “Gloria! Gloria! It’s the people from the church, and they’re here singing for you.” Here was Bert, trying so hard to pull his wife away from wherever she was and into the present. It seemed hopeless, yet Bert’s hope seemed limitless.

My mind started to spin. I think I know suffering, I thought? I think I know hard? Then Pastor Stumme selected “Angels we Have Heard on High,” with its “Gloria” chorus, and I thought for a moment that I would need a fainting couch and smelling salts. The beauty of the song; the love in Bert’s tear-filled eyes; set against the backdrop of pictures of young Gloria as beautiful as any pin-up model, of their family when the kids were young, of anniversary parties and grandchildren and great-grandchildren — it was all too much.

Life’s experiences, I realized, are all parts that make up a whole. At that moment, I could not comprehend why God would let nature attack my home when after all, I really tried hard to always do the right thing and be a good person. I even corralled the family into the car on most Sunday mornings, which often felt like a Herculean feat. And I was sure that Bert, and maybe even Gloria, had had the same feeling of confusion and resentment. Why God, why?

But as I stood there in Bert and Gloria’s home, I was overwhelmed by a transforming realization. No matter what it is you are asked to endure in life, you will be given the power to get through. And that power comes, yes, from God, but more directly by Him working through the people around you. And in that moment, for me, Gloria was that person.

The strength to endure comes from people asking how they can help. It comes from those who can hear your story, the real story, not the “everything is okay; we’ll be fine” mantra of stoicism but rather the “today was hard and I’m really losing it” story. It comes from having a place to go where you can forget about the troubles that morph in the middle of the night. It comes from knowing that there is a place where your children feel safe and secure, where they can run around and eat too many cookies and squirm in the pew while searching through your purse for the piece of candy they know is there if they look hard enough.

And the place I felt that more than anywhere was at church. During times of distress, when the people who were supposed to help didn’t and the waiting seemed at times unbearable, church was a welcome constant. It stayed the same. It was a rock, a safe place, and even, as I used it that Sunday, an escape from the world.

So whether it’s a hurricane that rips through your life or something more universal – an illness, death, loss, fear, unsurety – what people in crisis need more than anything is to know they are not alone. They need a sense of community, a feeling that they are supported through the most challenging times. For me that place was church. I don’t know that I would have weathered that chaotic year of my life as well as I did without that touchstone.

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Overwhelmed? Yes, Brigid Schulte, of Course I Am

My husband came home early from work today to find me in bed, under the covers, and crazy enough to think these two kids would let me shut my eyes for just a few minutes. Daylight savings must have caught up with me, and combine that with bad news from a client this week (read: income = gutted) and anxiety over my husband’s upcoming business trip (I hate it when he travels) I was ready to check out. Just a few minutes, I swear. That was all I needed.

It was 1 in the afternoon.

Now, I know there are people out there that think this is exactly how the freelance life works. You nap when you want to. You have kids performing circus acts while you’re doing phone interviews. And truth be told, sometimes that is what happens. But most of the time I sit myself down at 9:30 and don’t get up again until 3 p.m. when the kids come home and I leave my second job for my more demanding primary one, the one filled with kids quizzing me on their homework questions, my corralling them into the car, the words “Can we please try not to be late this time?” having long ago taken on a rhetorical tone.

Most days I power through but today, the world just descended upon my shoulders. My husband crawled into bed next to me and made the kids scatter. “Did you hear this segment on NPR today about being overwhelmed?” he asked. “I heard it and thought of you.”

He then proceeded to play it for me from his iPhone. It was an interview with Washington Post journalist Brigid Schulte, whose book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time was published today. If you had been with me as I was listening, you’d have thought I was in church listening to a sermon.

One of the main differences is women are still doing so much of the housework and the child care. … There’s physical labor that goes along with that, but there’s also mental labor. You’re keeping track of everything, you know? You’ve got all this stuff going on in your mind: the to-do lists, and “Did I remember the carpool?” and “Oh, my goodness, I gotta fill out the Girl Scout forms,” … all this stuff that kind of gets crowded in there along with all the stuff you’ve got to do at work. Men generally don’t have that. They have one sphere, which is work.

“Mmm hmm” I muttered. “Mental overload.”

“We had started off, I think like most people in our generation, wanting to have a true partnership, wanting to be equal partners,” she says. ” … We had a very low moment where I thought, ‘Wow, we have really gotten off track. What happened?’ “

“Yeah? What happened?” (I’m not sure that I said that aloud.)

Schulte proceeded to tell a story about a day when her work life and mom life collided, when she had to meet a deadline at work but also had to get her daughter to ballet on time, and she ditched work in order to do what a good Mom is expected to do. In the process, she realized that she was giving her daughter an inflated sense of her importance and in doing so, was not being the proper working mom role model. (Something many women of our generation never had, which is why we struggle so much with the equal partnership idea.) Sometimes the kids can’t come first, and sometimes that has to be okay. Because mommy’s work is just as important as daddy’s, and should be equally respected. And plus, bosses don’t care about ballet lessons.

I listened to the seven-minute segment and sighed. Here we are again, talking about the same subject, but no closer to a solution. Instead, I’m laying in bed at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday, hoping to shut the world out and finding that nearly impossible to do.

“Let’s take a 20-minute break,” my husband said.

My mind reeled. No. I had work emails to answer. The kids needed to pack their bags for swim. Had my son eaten lunch? And 20 minutes would barely give us enough time to get to parent-teacher conferences on time. My instinct was to throw off the covers, get up and get working. But then I looked at my husband. He was seconds away from snoring. He was not thinking the things I was thinking. So what if, as Schulte proposes, women started acting more like men? Would the world come to a crashing halt?

I closed my eyes. Twenty minutes later the alarm went off. I grabbed swim supplies while my husband made Miles a cheese sandwich. We were late getting out the door but arrived at our appointment on time. Teachers were effusive in their praise of our children. It all worked out… even though I took that 20 minutes.

Later in the afternoon, I had an errand to run. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get dinner made and get the errand done. And then — Eureka! — I remembered. Sid is home. He can make the meatballs. I asked; he complied gladly, almost happy to know what it was he could DO to make things easier for me. I relaxed. And when he augmented my mother’s recipe to include horseradish and sundried tomatoes, I said nothing except, “Wow, this is really good.” (It was, but don’t tell my mom.)

Now it’s after 5 p.m. The smell of meatballs I did not make fill the house. The kids have finished their homework. I have some interviews to do tonight but after that, I’m going to let it all go again. I’ll brew some tea or drink some wine. I’ll try not to let my worries control my mind. And I’ll find confidence that no matter what challenge I have, if I just let them go maybe the solutions will begin to present themselves in the most organic ways.

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Lent: How Technology Became the New Alcohol

For years, Lent was about depriving myself of gastronomic pleasure.

I’ve given up sugar and chocolate and fried foods. I’ve given up wine and beer and all alcohol For years, a poll of anyone I know would have revealed the same top picks. For 40 days (plus Sundays) let’s give up our comfort foods, the ones that we turn to at the end of a long day or when the kids have pretty much But Mom‘ed you out of your last ounce of sanity.

But the tide is shifting. Whereas food used to be my generation’s most oft-selected vice, now technology has become the serpent we require a religious proclamation to ignore. On Fat Tuesday, my Facebook feed was filled with people signing off for the Lenten season. In 2012, Twitter was the No. 1 habit to be scorned (according to a list based on Lent-related tweets), followed by Facebook at No. 6. In 2013, “social networking” came in fourth on the list (following soda, swearing and at No. 1, “being pope.” Oh, those witty tweeters.) So far this year (as of 10 a.m. March 5), social networking is No. 3, followed by Twitter at No. 4, beating out swearing, sweets and soda.

Staring at our social media feeds has become the equivalent of that third glass of wine — you know you shouldn’t but wow, that was fun.

Maybe what people are giving up for Lent is changing because where we seek pleasure is changing. At the gym I see people tapping away at their phones while working an exercise bike. How many times have I told my kids “give me a minute” while I am so immersed in a text conversation that I can’t help my son spell “treasure” or watch my daughter’s latest dance move?

So this year, I’m joining the masses and giving up my work email and my phone outside of work hours. I’ve pledged not to check my work email before 8 a.m. or after 6 p.m. And when my kids need my attention, Facebook will be shut down.

I’m one day into this and see already that it will be hard. I am used to turning on my phone as soon as I wake up to check my work email. I’m also used to Facebook’ing whatever cute, interesting or strange event I just experienced or noticed. And I’ve realized that the urge to post isn’t about getting information out — it’s about seeking feedback. How clever can I be? Can I make someone laugh? Can I elicit “oh, your kids are so cute!” validation? I’m taking myself out of the moment and have become a voyeur on my own life. It’s fun and there’s nothing wrong with that, but when I realize my kids have called my name three times before I come out of the zone — yeah, maybe I’ve taken it too far.

Social media is to 40-year-old me as alcohol or sweets were to 30-year-old me. I used to give those up with the hopes that I’d lose a few pounds. Now I’ll be putting my cell phone in solitary with the hopes that I’ll gain some more insight into the world and people around me.

 

 

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For Valentine’s Day, I Got a House

Our New Home

Me (very pregnant); Mira age 2 and Sid.

Seven years ago today, I went from a morning ultrasound appointment (the baby was looking great) in Brooklyn, onto a slush-covered Belt Parkway that brought us to Garden City, Long Island, barely on time for the closing on our new home.

We rushed up to the lawyer’s office only to find out that our lawyer was stuck in court and so he had to send an associate, whom we’d never even spoken to before let alone met. The agent from the title company was running late. Our mortgage broker said she would try to make it but doubted she could. I would later understand why she didn’t want to be there. We might have strangled her.

The representative from the bank was running late too but we could start all the preliminary paperwork without him. Before I knew it, what seemed like an 18-inch stack of papers were set before us. Sign here. And here. And again here. The bank’s agent finally showed up with two more stacks of paper — one for our mortgage, and one for the surprise second mortgage we had no idea we had to take out (hence our broker’s absence, and my screaming at her from the closing table). Our stranger-lawyer simply nodded along and so I signed, and signed, and felt my anxiety growing with each ink flourish.

We had waited so long to get to this point. It had been almost two years prior when we first signed the purchase agreement for our home, a three-story duplex being built a block from the ocean in Rockaway Beach, N.Y. It was the house that would allow us to move back to New York City from Michigan, where we’d lived for 10 years and where our daughter had been born. My husband had received a job offer in Long Island but the only way we could take it was if we could find an affordable place to live. All things being relative, affordable in MIchigan is a lot different than affordable in New York City, and the house in Rockaway was two-family, meaning a tenant would help pay the mortgage. But almost more importantly it was a house. I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving our perfect suburban set-up (three bedroom ranch on three-quarters of an acre with a garage) and moving into a cramped New York City apartment. But a house, with a backyard and a garage, and the beach as our playground, seemed like the perfect compromise. And so we uprooted our lives. We had no idea what the next decade would hold for us.

The house that was supposed to take six months to build took two years. This meant that the six-month stay in my sister’s tenant apartment in Brooklyn went much longer than expected. In addition, the house in Michigan that we were sure would sell quickly and for a great price took 18 months to sell and we lost money. It was 2007, after all, and the auto industry was beginning to sputter — a harbinger of the recession no one saw coming.

When, lo and behold, I discovered I was pregnant in late 2006, panic set in. I could not bring a newborn home to this cramped apartment, where we still had packed boxes stacked up to the ceiling and there was barely room for my toddler daughter to run around, let alone another child. And so I went on the warpath, nagging the developer, calling my councilman, doing everything I could to get the paperwork necessary to secure us a closing date.

On Feb. 14, our long wait was over. After seven hours of waiting and signing and being deafened by legal explanations my brain lacked the energy to understand, we were given the keys to our new home. Despite all the waiting, the frustrations and the hardship, we were ecstatic.

It was late — the closing lasted seven hours — but we decided to drive to the house. Freezing rain whipped sideways against the windshield. The sidewalks were covered in ice and Sid refused to let me get out of the car until he could first open the door and then escort my wobbly self inside. We pulled into the driveway — our driveway — and I watched as Sid struggled to get the key in the lock. He turned it up and down, juggled and jostled, but that key would not work. The entire lock had been frozen shut by the blowing rain.

We sat in the car deflated. It felt as if we had just signed away everything except the unborn child — every dime we had, every hope that had carried us through the last two years — and there we were, homeowners yet home-less.

The next day the weather warmed up and the building management company was able to help us get inside. We brought Mira with us. We sat on the new carpet and had a picnic lunch — McDonald’s, the 2-year-old’s pick. I watched her run up and down the hallway, something she never had space to do in the apartment. We showed her her bedroom and pledged that her dad would make good on his promise to paint it pink and yellow. I remember breathing deeply — space. We finally had space. And it was our own.

It’s been an eventful seven years. For our son, Miles, it’s the only home he’s ever known. We’ve had barbecues and birthdays, Christmas parties and dinner for two in the backyard. We’ve relaxed against the gentle ocean breeze, and cried over the might of a surging sea that reminded us that to be so close to Mother Nature is to risk blurring our boundaries.

Today, on the seventh anniversary of buying our home, we took ownership of it yet again. All the physical work of rebuilding after Sandy is done, and this morning the check for our final payment to our contractor cleared our bank account. Just as it was seven years ago, we have sunk everything we had into getting the home we dreamed of. Our insurance only covered about two-thirds of the cost of our rebuild and the balance came from our own hard work and painful attempts at frugality. We had a meager Christmas. I did whatever I could to increase sales through my business. Sid and I stayed in when we wanted to go out, said no to the kids on things we’d never said no to before. But it all worked to bring us to this moment:

We are now free. We can move on to the future. The nights of waking up in a panic trying to figure out how we’ll make payments are over. There are still loans to pay and Sandy will forever leave a mark on our history and our finances. But the storm has taught us that when we put our minds to something, and work together towards it, nothing is impossible.

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Who’s the Mommy? I’m the Mommy

“But Mom!”

It’s become a chorus in my house. “Do your homework” is met with, “But Mom, I can do it later.” “Clean your room” elicits “But Mom, I’m tired. Can’t I do it tomorrow?” “Eat your dinner” is followed by “But mom, I don’t like it.”

My kids are 6 and 9 and this week it became apparent to me that I am slowly losing my dominion over them. I had been blaming this on their march towards tween-dom but I realized today that the problem isn’t gurgling hormones or natural rebellion. It’s me. I’ve gone soft.

There was a time when if I made a threat, the kids knew that I’d make good on it. When I said I’d end a playdate if they didn’t behave, and then proceeded to drag a mischievous and screaming child out of the house, my authority was secure. When toddlers threw tantrums and I simply walked away, they knew that their theatrics had no power over me.

Then Superstorm Sandy hit. And my resolve withered.

At first we were living with family and then we were living in disarray, and I myself had no desire to deal with the kids’ homework let alone force them to do it accurately and neatly. Each of our bedrooms was festooned with leaning towers of clutter, the saved remnants from our destroyed first floor. How could I require that the kids clean their rooms when I had a 4-foot-tall pile of unfolded clothing, books and assorted holiday decorations perched on my armchair? I let them live on the foods they ate without complaint: hot dogs and chicken nuggets; pasta and bagels.

I got lazy, and the kids got lazy. Trouble is, the laziness didn’t go away once the house was rebuilt.

I’m going to cut myself some slack here. The reason might come as a surprise to someone who has only witnessed a natural disaster from afar. The neglected truth is that life doesn’t instantly return to normal once your house is rebuilt.

For months, people would ask me: “How is the rebuild going? When will it be done? Why isn’t it done yet?” Once it was finished, and I had a couch to sit on again and stove to cook with, those around me breathed a collective sigh of completion. Phew! Now we can all be done with that! But the truth is that the structural rebuild is only one part of restoring the whole of what was lost during Sandy. We all need to rebuild ourselves from the inside out, and that takes time.

I’m still on that journey, and reclaiming the take-no-excuses Mom I used to be is part of that journey. So last night, my daughter stayed up past her bedtime so she could finish cleaning her room . When my son decided he didn’t like what I served him for dinner, I told him he could either eat what was in front of him or get ready for bed. He chose the latter and I, for the first time in a long time, was okay with that. I’m remembering that my kids aren’t as fragile as I feared they were during Sandy. I’m remembering that while they’ve been through a lot, I can’t give them a pass for all they have yet to have to go through. Losing some sleep or going to bed hungry isn’t torturous; it’s a reminder that there are rules to be followed.

I still have a lot to work on in this rebuilding process. Part of it is reclaiming my own mojo, my own inspiration to do more, be more and ask for more both personally and professionally. For the last 16 months I’ve been stuck, working so hard to get the external life together that the internal went neglected. Survival mode was necessary for a while but its time has passed. It’s time to remember that I’m not just protecting children for the now; I’m trying to teach them the responsibility they need to be productive adults.

So don’t “But Mom” me. Why? Because I’m the Mommy, that’s why.

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Artistry, Addiction and Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip_Seymour_Hoffman_articleAnother incredibly talented artist dies before his time, and at his own hand. It’s all so tragic and sad, and most of us will read the obits and the tributes and let our hearts ache for his partner and parents and children, and then go back to our own normal, our individual and personal struggle to maintain sanity in the midst of internal chaos.

Hoffman, according to news reports, used heroin to quiet that chaos, a fact that is so desperate it makes me angry and sad all at once.

But it also makes me wonder: Why? And it scares me because at the same time, I think I might know why.

Whenever one of these talented souls implodes, it seems to be due to the weight of his own celebrity or the burden of his art. As a writer with an artistic temperament who is often too sensitive to criticism and too pressured toward perfection, I feel a kinship with Hoffman. But I also see this tragedy through the lens of having witnessed the lives of so many I know and love destroyed by drugs and alcohol. I share DNA with most of them, so it makes the spectator aspect more mirror-gazing than theater-watching.

I’ve wallowed in self-pity and insecurity over my career — Am I good enough? Am I advancing fast enough? I’ve soaked in the praise that comes with getting it really, really right. And I’ve felt that euphoria transform into a paralyzing fear that the next time, I’ll get it equally wrong. I’ve drank too much, too often as a way to ease the pressure that no one puts on me but myself. But there’s a line, rigid and barbed and haunted by the souls of lives I’ve watched go to waste. I’ve never crossed it because I know to do so would put me in a place where, like Hoffman, I might not be able to find my way back. But what separates me from those who cross that line? I believe it’s several things.

I’ve seen the scars that addiction leaves upon a family. I’ve felt its lashes myself. I’m never very excited about the holidays, and I wonder if it’s because as a child you never knew when a fist would crash into glass, your grandmother would spill silent tears or words would become weaponized. I remember being 16 years old, my uncle in a drunken Thanksgiving rage, my 12-year-old sister collapsing in tears in my arms and my response being to chase that man out of the house myself, screaming my own angry, tear-filled rant with no care of what the neighbors could see or hear. I remember arguing with that same uncle, 15 years later, after he walked out of rehab and showed up at my grandfather’s nursing home room, angry because we made good on the threat of: Either you go into rehab or we change the locks. A few days later we got the call: My grandfather, sick of this life and done with fighting a hopeless battle, was gone. A coincidence? Absolutely not.

I have parents who went hungry because their fathers drank away their paychecks. I have grandparents who suffered the exact same fate, and have often wondered if seeing it repeated in their generation wasn’t as shockingly sad to them as it is to me, because they didn’t know to expect any better.

I’ve had enough run-ins with addiction that I am confident I will never go down that road. But I’m also aware that the minute I rely on that confidence I put myself at risk.

My greatest fear now is that the family disease will repeat itself in the next generation. And so when my daughter snaps in anger because a project isn’t coming out “just perfect,” when we bake a cake and it doesn’t look exactly like the one in the magazine, when she is disappointed at getting a 92 on a test instead of a 100, my warning siren goes off. Don’t aim for perfect, I tell her. It’s unattainable. It’s not fair to yourself or to the people around you. And then there are the words I don’t say: It’s what I do to myself, and it’s crippling. So please, please don’t.

Was Hoffman aiming for perfect? Was he trying to mask a deep hurt? Was he powerless against some genetic predisposition to addiction? Maybe one, maybe all. But regardless, I think there’s a lesson to be learned, especially for us creative types.

Go easy on yourself. Don’t expect greatness but revel in it when it arrives. Never lose faith in your ability to create. And know that the future always has the promise of offering more than the past.

These are words I live by, words I will raise my children on. I can only pray that they are enough.

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Pay Off Your Debt for Good This Time

My latest from DailyWorth.com:dailyworth2

This is the Year

There is an enemy amongst us, my friends. Its name? Revolving Debt. You might know it by other names: Plastic fantastic, Charge! or “passport to debt slavery.” Whatever you call it, credit card debt has the power to take over your personal finances, holding you hostage and making it feel like it’s impossible to get ahead and truly achieve financial freedom.

But no longer: This is your year to make a plan to get rid of your debt for good. You will start chipping away at that balance, making sure it shrinks instead of stagnates, or worse, grows. Here’s how to start — and keep going until it’s gone.

Read on…

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Yoga Challenge — Week 1 Update

I decided to kick off 2014 with a one-month yoga challenge. My goal is to do yoga five days a week with the hopes of healing my ornery lower back. I’m day three into week one and all I can say is, if I could figure out a way to bottle yoga and sell it, I’d be a billionaire.

On day one I felt 100 years old. I couldn’t lean over to touch my toes without the help of a yoga block, and even then my knees were bent to protect myself from the shooting pain. I felt weak. I hate feeling weak. Any movement that required up and down action — from cobra to downward dog, for example — had me cringing and kneeling for support. If someone has a voodoo doll with my picture on it I wouldn’t be surprised because that’s what the pain feels like — sudden, unexpected, piercing jolts. I am glad I decided to do day one in the comfort of my own living room rather than at yoga class. It would have been too pathetic.

But the unexpected happened after day one — my back felt great. I went through my workday and while there was the occasional out-of-nowhere twinge, it was nothing like what I was used to.

On day two, things got even better. Today, day three (It’s only day three!), I was able to not only touch my toes but reach the floor. I could sit upright while on the floor which, previously, had been sadly difficult. It was as if my body would not fold to a 90-degree angle, forcing me to balance myself at about 110 degrees instead. I could even arch forward from a seated position, reaching toward my calf. I felt slightly flexible. I am starting to feel strong.

I have to admit that getting myself to do yoga every morning is a stretch (ha!). I hit the mat once the kids have left for school and my mind wants to be other places — there’s so much to do at work, so much to prepare for and plan. Settling my mind is difficult but that might be part of the healing process. By letting go for 40 minutes I might actually be gaining more control over my tasks by summoning the energy to get them done.

If I feel this good on day three, I can’t wait to see how  I feel a week from now. I’ll definitely check in and let you know. In the meantime, I challenge you to challenge yourself. What can you commit to for five days a week that will leave you feeling stronger, more energized and healthier? Let’s encourage each other.


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