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My Back Ache, My Emotional Barometer

I turned 40 and my body started falling apart.

Mostly it’s my back, but honestly: If your spine isn’t moving right your entire body is a disaster. I’ve battled back pain since college when my altruistic effort to help freshmen move their overfilled suitcases into our college dorm ended with my lying on the floor, back spasming and my body unable to move. Since then my back has been my emotional barometer. There is a direct correlation between how tall I can stand (and for how long) and the amount of stressI am under. I am an adrenaline junkie and use this great hormone to fuel much of my attempts at work-life balance. So often I’m flying along, thinking I’ve got everything under control, and my back grounds me. It reminds me that I am pushing myself too hard, that I am not sleeping enough and that I am about to crash.

Considering this symbiotic relationship my back and I have developed, I was very surprised when, during our recovery from Superstorm Sandy, my back felt great. Pain didn’t awaken me each time I rolled over at night (my worries did, but that’s another story). I was able to clear out closets, throw piles of my belongings to the curb, haul boxes of salvaged items up the stairs. It was my Joan of Arc moment — I was a warrior and this was my fight. During the ensuing months when it felt as if I did little more than sit on my bed (it did extra duty as our couch, dining room table and office desk) my back did not stage a protest. It was strong, mimicking the strength I was conjuring each day when I got out of bed, nuked yet another hot dog for the kids and maintained patience when my contractor did not show up — again.

But then the house got rebuilt. Morning came and I could fry an egg. We had a couch to sit on and a table to sit at while we rediscovered the rituals that had been lost to us: sharing stories about our day, laughing when my son burped (even though we all knew we shouldn’t) and forcing the kids to try a new food. By all appearances, our lives had returned to normal. But by August, while our house was done we still had so many unknowns. There was the startling difference between our insurance company settlement and our contractor’s bill. There was the humbling experience of waiting on line at Build it Back, New York City’s program to help Sandy victims, as if we had our hands out. There were my 2012 taxes which finally had to be faced, an experience I always dread but that this time had my heart racing in the middle of the night. I know I lived through a hurricane but the aftermath resembled more an earthquake, with aftershocks still rocking my foundation at the most unexpected moments.

In August is when I broke down. I had my first panic attack, the first time I could not use my rational mind to calm my irrational one. I had zero patience left for my children. And then my back made its presence known, not with a twinge but with a roar. Standing up, sitting down, bending over, sneezing, coughing, rolling over at night all shot pain straight through me. Where did this all come from? I had done so well up until this point. I had managed the children and the finances and the laundry/kitchen and the rebuild. I had made it through. Why, now that it was all over, was I falling apart?

I didn’t want to think about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I had lived through a hurricane, not war or torture or abuse. Nothing happened to me that could not be fixed. And yet — there I was, unable to fit myself into the optimistic mold from which I had been originally cast. I was me but not myself. I had flashes of unexpected anger. The sight of the ocean’s waves or, strangely, the 100-pack of Chinet plates that we used during what I call our “refugee days” of living on the second floor, made me cold inside. And then my body started falling apart.

I finally started to accept that maybe I was flirting with post-traumatic stress after reading this from the National Institutes of Mental Health:

When in danger, it’s natural to feel afraid. This fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to prepare to defend against the danger or to avoid it. This “fight-or-flight” response is a healthy reaction meant to protect a person from harm. But in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this reaction is changed or damaged. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened even when they’re no longer in danger.

PTSD was first brought to public attention in relation to war veterans, but it can result from a variety of traumatic incidents, such as mugging, rape, torture, being kidnapped or held captive, child abuse, car accidents, train wrecks, plane crashes, bombings, or natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes.

I somehow got through August and then September, with its return to school and routines, slowed my racing heart. We gave up on Build it Back helping us and decided to rely on ourselves, which was liberating in its own way. We didn’t owe anything to the Internal Revenue Service, which was a massive relief. And we got a hold off our finances and figured out how we’d make those last contractor payments. Reclaiming control over a life that felt out of control was wonderfully calming.

Despite all this progress, my back still isn’t happy. And I think I know the reason. I’ve spent so much effort on the external — the house, the finances, the family — but have completely ignored the internal. For months I ate horribly — cookies for breakfast, fried anything anytime and I forgot what vegetables tasted like. I drank too much. I sat too much. But that was all okay, then, because I was keeping everything else afloat, often by sheer power of my own will. But now, the ship is sailing on its own. Routines have returned. Normal, boring days are fabulously persistent. And so it’s time to turn my gaze inward.

I’m committed to eating better — lots of fruits and vegetables and less of anything from a can or box — and being aware of the difference between wanting a drink and needing a drink (and finding another solution when it’s the latter). I will start running again, once the weather complies. Until then I’m committed to yoga five days a week, and already I’m feeling a difference. I feel stronger. I’m calmer. And yes, even my back aches less.

With each remaining twinge of pain, however, I know I have a long road ahead of me. But I strongly believe that progress only comes through goal-setting. If you hope for something but aspire to nothing, aspiration will beat out hope every time. I look forward to the morning when I wake up without a groan, can sneeze without a jolt of pain and, most of all, feel that my physical strength once again matches my mental fortitude. Slowly but surely, I’ll put this body back together.

 

 

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Who is Your Work Spouse?

This morning I had a Skype meeting with one of my favorite fellow freelance writers, Emma Johnson of www.wealthysinglemommy.com. We decided late last year that we would kick off 2014 by motivating each other toward our work-related goals. We both hope to build out platforms and create information products based on our areas of expertise. We have a shared goal: Turn journalism on its head by cutting out the middleman (i.e. publishers) and delivering useful and enriching content directly to readers.

We just ended our call and I am jazzed. Pumped! Excited for the new year! This is a mindset I couldn’t have forced myself into. We all need teammates who will help motivate us toward victory, but I think this is especially true for freelance writers or anyone who works solo. Sitting here in silence, the only sound that of the clicking keyboard, allows our minds too much time to wander into the “what ifs” that can spell professional doom. I have an idea, but what if it isn’t marketable? What if I can’t pull it off? What if I’m not as good as I believe I am? What if I fail?

When you have a goal buddy, it is her job to be the naysayer to your negativity. When you’re feeling low or defeated, you send her an email or IM and she coaches you back into the ring. When you are stumped with how to proceed with a project, she will undoubtedly have fresh ideas. And when you just need to vent your frustration, she’ll say, “I get it. I really do.”

For all these reasons I’ve referred to Emma as my “work wife” — the person you partner with, vent to and lean on during tough times. Having a work spouse can help make self-employment bearable for the long term. So if you don’t have one, find one. Emma and I met through other writer friends I know through our professional organization, the American Society of Journalists and Authors. For some reason we clicked right away. I can’t explain why as writers can be a quirky bunch (myself included). But I’ve learned that when it comes to friendships, when you find someone who meshes with your worldview, laughs at your jokes and deals with your moodiness, grab on and hold on.  And Emma meshes, laughs and deals.

I’ll end this by dedicating this post to my work wife and wishing her all the success she hopes for in 2014 (and that it comes much faster than you’ve charted out in your business plan).

 

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Double Your Savings this Year — Really

Check out my latest piece for DailyWorth.com:

dailyworth2Forget about losing that last 10 pounds. Want to really make a difference in your life? Start saving 10 percent of your income.

As New Year’s Resolutions go, this one isn’t all that different than the ever-popular “I will fit into my skinny jeans!”: It involves sticking to a budget (money in this case, not calories), resisting urges (the call of the shoe department, not the whiff of a fresh Danish) and making lifestyle changes that ensure you’ll not only save that money, but not touch it once you do.

The average personal savings rate in the United States is about 5 percent, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Armed with the right strategies, however, you can find a way to save 10 percent. Here are eight strategies to help you.

Keep Reading…

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What a Year!

In June, my editor Dina El Nabli and I accepted a Gracie award for a series we worked together on for iVillage.

In June, my editor Dina El Nabli and I accepted a Gracie award for a series we worked together on for iVillage.

This year, I learned an important lesson about being self-employed. If you lack inertia, your business will as well. And everything you worked so hard to build up can easily come apart.

This year was our post-Sandy rebuilding year. I had to juggle running my business with raising my family, my usual level of crazy. But I also had to add in haggling with insurance companies, making endless decisions about paint colors and cabinet finishes and facing the regular interruptions from my contractor wondering “Do you want this here?” and “We have a problem.” All while running that business from a corner of my bedroom/living room/dining room/storage facility.

The close-quarters threatened to gnaw away at the little bit of sanity I had been able to maintain. The only TV in the house sat inches away from my work desk. So I learned to improvise. I’d tell the kids, “Mommy is going to work now,” put on my headphones and use music to drown out the sound of scheming Phineas and Ferb and arguing Mira and Miles (my kids). When we got bad news from our insurance company (which happened again and again) I had to figure out how to tamp down that fear and anger so I could focus on the next interview I had to do for work or article I had to write. There were so many days when a work-related deadline seemed poised to be the straw to my camel’s back.

“Never have I ever wished so much that I didn’t have to work,” I remember telling my sister.

But the reality was that never in my life was my working and earning an income so important. Insurance only covered about two-thirds of our rebuilding cost. The rest came from our own pockets. And here’s the thing: Because I’m a self-employed freelance writer, if I am not producing I am not earning. There are no paid sick days or personal leave. There’s no one else to cover for me when I need to spend the day researching the best flooring options or finding yet more documents for the insurance claim. Were it not for the editors who continued to believe in me and who, I suspect, occasionally threw me projects as a way to keep me working and earning, I shudder to think how things would have turned out for us.

While I am self-employed and work in my own bubble, I am not alone. I have cultivated a world of support and respect outside of my office desk. This might sound obvious if you go to an office everyday but for those of us who work independently, we often lack even the most basic feedback about our work. To feel connected to workplaces outside my own was a salve. Clients sent me gift cards. Editors I hadn’t worked with in months checked in with me to see how we had fared. They followed my journey on my blog, 365to40, and occasionally bought one of those posts to put on their own websites. When I fell short of meeting a deadline in those first weeks after the storm, when our house was unlivable, they didn’t let me add that to my list of worries.

I realized that after nine years of running my own business, I have figured out how to keep it afloat in good times and bad. And that has instilled a level of confidence that will propel me toward new ventures in 2014 (stay tuned!)

So as I end this work year, I’d like to thank all of you I’ve had the privilege of working with over the last year. Thank you for your understanding and your belief that despite the insanity in my life, I could still get the job done. Sandy taught me that being connected to a community is one of the best ways to survive the darkest days. Thank you for letting me be a part of yours.

 

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Lost Dog Found

The Escapee, lounging after her adventurous night.

The Escapee, lounging after her adventurous night.

“Here, take my car,” the stranger said to me, pushing her car keys into my hand. “Just take it.”

My whole body was trembling. My throat was already hoarse from screeching, “Peaches! Peaches!” to a dog who never comes when I call anyway.

“What?” I said. “Are you sure?”

“Take it,” she said, her own dog waiting obediently by her side. “Go find your dog.”

My hands shook as I placed the key in the ignition. The emergency lights were flashing and the blinkers were on but I couldn’t figure out how to turn them off. It had been about five minutes since I last saw our Lab-mix puppy tear down the street and around the corner,  a yearning for freedom fueling her Greyhound-like stride. A dog like that could be anywhere in five minutes. If I took the extra time to run back home and get my own car, precious minutes would be lost. So I drove off in the new-to-me Volvo station wagon.

“Just be careful with it,” she said. “I can tell you’re upset.”

Upset was a euphemism. I was distraught, flabbergasted and guilt-ridden. How could I have let the dog out of the house before putting her leash on? How could I inflict so much pain on my children when I would have to tell them that Peaches, their Hurricane Sandy consolation prize, was gone?

One passerby saw the direction Peaches had bolted toward. “She was booking,” he said, pointing me toward where I should go. I drove, looking more to my left and right than at the road ahead of me. I called my friend Jim, a fellow dog owner, and asked him to please look too. “No problem,” he said confidently, which was just what I needed. “She’ll turn up.” Other neighbors joined the search, including the stranger whose car I was driving. I prayed I’d see a flash of white fur dart across a street. I prayed I wouldn’t see a police car or ambulance — did they call ambulances for dogs hit by cars? I thought about where she might go. She loves sniffing telephone polls and grass. She loves the dog park, so I drove past several times. No Peaches. Could she have headed toward the water? I tried not to think about that.

After about a half hour I returned home. A neighbor had called my husband, Sid, for me to inform him of the disaster I had unleashed (literally). Distraught, he left the kids home alone to start his own search. We never leave the kids in the house alone yet I did the same, telling them to stay upstairs and get ready for bed. “What’s wrong, Mommy?” Nothing, nothing at all, I lied. I ran back to the stranger’s house hoping to give her back her keys. She was still out, looking for my dog. Another neighbor saw me. “What can I do to help?” she said. I was at a loss. Find my dog! I wanted to yell. She had a more strategic idea. “How about I come over and watch the kids so you can go back out?”

When a friend offers to do the exact thing you need, when you have no idea what it is you need, you realize you are truly a blessed person.

I lied again to my children and told them Daddy and I were going out to a friend’s. I got in my car and drove in circles. The winter winds whipped through my open car windows. I strained my ears for my dog’s unmistakable high-pitched bark. I thought I heard it once but for all I know it was the construct of a hopeful mind. For two hours I drove until I remembered that I had Jee Mee sitting in my messy house probably wanting to settle in for the night herself.

Jee Mee gave me just the amount of sympathy I needed — enough to make me feel supported but not so much that I would fall apart emotionally. Once she left, I took to Facebook and Twitter, posting pictures and an urgent plea. The temperature kept dropping, hovering around 20 degrees. Snow was forecast for the next day. I couldn’t help but think about the dog from my youth, Sandy, who ran away twice and one time was found miles away, exhausted and dehydrated after failing to find her way home in the snow. I tried to push out my other dark memory of Sandy, her striding across an avenue and being mortally wounded by a passing car. I can still hear her dying yelp.

At 12:30 a.m. Sid called off the search. We figured she must have found a place to sleep by then or been taken in by someone. We’d resume the search in the morning at around 6, her normal wake-up time. “We need to sleep,” he said, and within minutes was snoring beside me. I stared at the ceiling. My stomach churned. I wanted to throw up but couldn’t. Just hours before, Peaches had been at the door, barking because she had to be walked. I put on my coat, hat and gloves. I grabbed our dog-walking bag. And then I opened the door. Peaches darted out and we shared a moment of mutual shock. I had forgotten to put her leash on her. How could I have done that? She was unexpectedly free. She headed straight into the street where a passing car brushed up against her, startling her. I shrieked, “Peaches!” I started to run but then stopped, fearing my gaitwould encourage her. She paused. But then she was off again, around one corner and then the next, until she was gone into the back streets of Far Rockaway.

How would I tell the kids what happened? Dread consumed me as I thought of their inconsolable tears when we tried training Peaches off the leash while at the beach. “Get her!” my 6-year-old son Miles shouted, tears streaming down his face. “She’s going to run away and I love her so much!” His 9-year-old sister joined the chorus. How could I tell them I lost their dog? How could I carry their worry about her being lost in the cold, with a snowstorm pending? How would I tell them if the worst turned out true?

These thoughts made sleep impossible. I prayed and prayed, asking that she’d be led into the arms of a dog-friendly person who would save her for us. I thought of her cold and scared. She’d run in a direction we don’t frequent on our walks. Would she be able to pick up a scent to bring her home? If it started to snow would she get confused?

My heart pounded. My stomach lurched. It was 4 a.m.; two hours until Sid would go back out and two hours until the kids would ask, “Where’s Peaches?” As I fought off thoughts of “we have to prepare for the worst,” I heard a single dog bark. My logical mind said that’s not at all her. My wishful one said it was. Never silence your inner dreamer.

I looked out the window and saw a white dog butt wagging in front of my front door. “It’s Peaches!” I exclaimed. I ran downstairs, flew open the door and our puppy walked through the door as if she had missed curfew on a school night. There was a certain “What’s the big deal?” swagger as she headed toward her water bowl. Sid and I collapsed on the living room floor, rewarding her with hugs and rubs for her impish behavior.

“Am I dreaming?” I asked Sid, seriously concerned that my exhausted brain concocted this whole story just to allow me to rest. “No,” he assured me. We brought Peaches upstairs and she slept on the floor beside our bed. I barely could settle down for the excitement of it all. What was lost was found; the dog’s sense of smell brought her home; and most wonderfully, we would not have to tell the kids what had happened.

As I prepared the kids’ lunches, Peaches rolled over onto her back, her “rub me!” pose. I got down on the floor and scratched her belly. “Tell me your stories,” I asked Peaches. What happened to you out there in the dark night? Why did it take you eight hours to find your way home? What did you see and how much traffic did you dodge? I’ll never know. But this experience informed me of one important thing: Once you let a dog into your life, you also let her into your heart. And like anything you love, it has the power to break your heart.

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How to Unleash Your Inner Creative Genius

dailyworth2Check out my latest piece for DailyWorth.com:

Find Your Inner Muse (She’s in There!)

Years ago, while working in a busy, loud and cramped newsroom, I learned music was the key to my productivity. Part of it was that I needed a way to limit stimuli, and a set of earbuds did the trick. I’m naturally nosy, after all. If there’s gossip going on I want to hear it; funny banter, I want to be a part of it. But when you’re trying to weave together a seamless narrative or write a perfectly enticing lead sentence, you need to be one with your inner muse — not with the coffee talk around you.

Keep Reading…

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How to Survive the Pre-Christmas Rush

This is Miles' stocking, about 50 percent done. I need to mail it to my mother by Monday so she can sew it together. Will I make it? It'll be a nail biter.

This is Miles’ stocking, about 50 percent done. I need to mail it to my mother by Monday so she can sew it together. Will I make it? It’ll be a nail biter.

I write that headline as if I am going to give you any advice on how to do this. Ha! Truth is, it’s a cry for help from someone who needs to figure out how to make that happen. Here’s my evidence:

Christmas is in less than two weeks and I, mother, wife, business owner, writing peon and editorial slave, I have yet to do any of the following things:

– Grocery shop for all the cookie baskets I dreamed I’d be making.

– Bake said cookies.

– Buy a single present for anyone I gave birth to.

– Source or write four articles that are due next week.

– Clean my house in advance of a visit from my mother- and father-in-law. (Did I say clean? I meant disinfect to a white-glove sparkle.)

– Finish the Christmas stocking I promised my son I would make for him, oh, two years ago.

– Mail out Christmas cards.

– Many other things but I will stop now in hopes of heading off a full-blown panic attack.

Why do I do this to myself every stinking year? My sister, God bless her annoyingly organized soul, had her kids’ wish lists done around Halloween, did most all of her shopping by Black Friday and has the foresight to order adorable treats and crafts that Elf on the Shelf can surprise her blessed children with. My kids get leftover M&Ms scavenged from their Halloween baskets and a fistful of coins. I can tell Mira, my 9-year-old who is still clinging on to the world of magical thinking, is not impressed.

Sigh. This lack of forward thinking is a chronic problem for me. I remember as a child coming home from school on Fridays, overjoyed by the idea of an afternoon free of homework and full of TV binging. My sister, however, dutifully opened her schoolbooks. As I stuffed Skittles in my mouth and caught up on General Hospital, she kept her nose in her books until she was done. I scoffed at her. Until, of course, Sunday night, when I was scrambling to get everything done while she was able to laze around, hang out with my parents and be, what is the word? Relaxed.

Crisis, scrambling… I seem addicted to the adrenaline. When my daughter asks, “When are we going to (bake cookies, buy a gift, finish a project)” I tell her reassuredly, “Don’t worry! Mommy is Queen of the Last Minute!”

And admittedly, I do have an amazing aptitude for pulling stuff out of my tuckus at the very last minute. I generally am placing the last hors d’oeuvre on the tray seconds before our first party guest arrives, my home version of “Cupcake Wars.” I pull up to dance class with 30 seconds to go before ballet starts. I lounge in bed until the very last possible moment, sucking up what few moments of repose I can get before playing drillmaster to a troop of sleepy, hungry, whiny recruits.

It’s exhausting, but at the same time I don’t see this old dog learning new tricks. Having a deadline and racing to meet it brings excitement to the mundane. My husband and I will likely Christmas shop on Friday. I’ll bake cookies all day Saturday. We’ll wrap gifts on Christmas Eve while watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a family tradition for my husband and I.

And while it stinks having so many items on my to-do list, there is a wonderful feeling that comes from age and experience: Yes, it’s a lot to do. But I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again. And when it’s all done, I will collapse into a heap of “I did it!-ness.” And my sojourn will be well-deserved and feel more so than if I had my act together on a daily basis.

Am I warped? Probably. But we all are in our own ways, right? I’ve just figured out how to work my warpedness into a usable skill.

 

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Post-Sandy, Finding Joy in Christmas

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Mira’s “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree, which she excitedly decorated and placed in her room again this year.

I have very spotty memories of last Christmas: The 2-foot tall “Charlie Brown” Christmas trees in each of the kids’ rooms; crowding into my son’s room to open gifts Christmas morning; my husband’s cousin, knowing that stress had eroded my short-term memory, blessedly texting me every night to remind me to move the Elf on the Shelf.

It was far from my ideal Christmas. We were thankful, yes, for all the things we’d spent the previous two months repeating like a mantra: No one was hurt. Nothing burned. We have insurance. But I felt hogtied by reality: Our house was far from being fixed. We had untold months left yet making due with our bed/dining room table and laundry/kitchen. I was thankful, definitely. But joy was outside my reach.

The Sunday before Christmas my daughter and I went to church. Mira was in the holiday play and I didn’t want her to miss it. Sid stayed home with Miles, with whom I’d stayed up all night as he battled a stomach virus. I sat alone in the church pew and fought back tears. Everything seemed too hard, too overwhelming. Christmas was all around me — poinsettias, holiday lights and church ladies in bright red blouses — but I couldn’t feel it. I couldn’t embrace they joy everyone else had. I felt about as sturdy as a Saltine cracker, ready to crack and crumble at the first person who dared say to me “Merry Christmas!”

After the play, our pastor asked for volunteers to go Christmas caroling for elderly members of the congregation. I had two choices: I could go home to the claustrophobic half-a-house and possibly get thrown up on again or I could  serenade some shut-ins. Forgive me Miles, and Sid, but I chose the latter.

I don’t recall crying over Sandy. Not when I saw what she wrought, not when storm winds blew and I had to reassure my frantic children that no, this wasn’t another hurricane. But when I walked into the homes of the old and the sick, I crumbled.  We sang “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” to a bedridden woman named Gloria whose husband stood beside her clasping her hand. I glanced around their bedroom to see a history of their lives together — pictures of children, grandchildren and of their wedding day, when they were young and healthy and the future was one big unfulfilled promise. Her husband patted Gloria’s hand, caressed her cloud-like white hair and repeated her name again and again — Gloria Gloria — as if struggling to pull her back from wherever her mind was to experience this one moment. When I saw him wipe away his own tears I felt my entire body shake. The back of my throat burned from the effort of holding back my sobs.

If they could find grace in that life, then I could deal with the minifridge.

This weekend my neighbors started decorating their homes for Christmas. Maybe it’s because so many people bought new decorations to replace those destroyed, or maybe because we’re making up for last year’s loss, but everyone’s displays seem to have more pizzazz than usual. As each house blossoms into a display of red and gold, lights and tinsel, I feel a part of me softening inside. Sandy left me very angry and that anger seeped into so many areas of my life. I’ve worked hard at facing that anger and replacing it with acceptance. And now, I feel that same healing happening with my reaction to Christmas. Yes, last Christmas was sad, lonely and small. But this Christmas will be so much more. And by that I don’t mean more stuff — I’m sure for many Sandy families (myself included) the financial strain of the last year will make this a lean Christmas. But only in terms of “stuff,” and if there’s anything Sandy has taught us it’s that stuff doesn’t matter. People and relationships are what matter.

But there’s also the lesson of Gloria. We work our ways through life thinking our goal is to attain more — a better job, more money, nicer things. But what we’re really chasing after is joy. And even in the darkest moments, joy is still all around us if we can allow ourselves to feel it. The hug when the kids leave for school, the smile on my husband’s face when he walks in the door, a group of carolers who help bring a spark back into an old lady’s eyes so her husband can feel, for a moment, that she is back with him. Joy is hiding in the smallest moments. And now I can even look back on those Charlie Brown Christmas trees, the ones the kids so happily decorated — and think — there was joy there. I only wish I could have seen it at the time.

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Back to the Blog

A couple of weeks ago, I finished up a year-long blog project called 365to40. I documented my march (slow slog?) to 40, which included an unexpected detour through Superstorm Sandy.

Two weeks later, blog-less, I realized two things. One, I missed the creative outlet that blogging afforded me. No editors, no assignments, just me writing about whatever the heck was knocking around in my mind at the moment. It was a free therapy session, and the feedback and support I received helped me through some tough patches.

Second, I realized that I am incredibly goal-oriented. Part of the success of 365to40 (an attempt, in the end successful, to navigate my midlife crisis) was that I was candid about what I hoped to achieve. I had a history of keeping my dreams secret out of fear that 1) I would fail and then everyone would know, a sort of invisible Scarlet “F” I could carry around below my sagging, quivering chin or 2) People would think I was dreaming too big. Who was I to think I could rise beyond my humble beginnings? I’m this girl from Brooklyn whose family story reads like a Frank McCourt memoir. Isn’t what I have achieved enough?

Nope, nosirree. It’s not. I’m not the person who settles. I’m the one who dreams big dreams. Recently I’m developing the courage to pursue them and the ability to voice them.

And now that I’ve cleared 40, I’ve decided my next chapter will be (note: not should or maybe) a book with my name on the cover. Real narrative journalism, the type I read as an undergrad and young reporter that made me feel as if I were holding onto a piece of sorcery. It was so good it made me shake inside. I wanted to be that good. Could I be that good?

I don’t know that I’ll ever reach the stratospheres inhabited by my idols. But I do know that there is only one way to find out. And that involves taking a huge shot of gumption and faith, combining it with a bit of blind luck and 20 years of experiences, mixing them together and seeing what they’re going to be.

I want to write a book. I will write a book. Let’s just see how that story goes.

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A Chance Encounter Explained

About a year or so ago, I was at the local hair salon, Strands, with my daughter. As she sat down to get her hair washed, I heard a familiar voice coming from the chair next to her. It was deep and friendly, booming yet not loud. When this fellow customer sat up in his seat, I made the connection — it had to be my high school chorus teacher Jim DiBenedetto.

How you can hold the memory of a voice you haven’t heard in more than 20 years is beyond me. But once I heard it my mind was sent back to those days in the second-floor Brooklyn Tech chorus room, the chorus teacher/football coach booming at us “What kind of shells? Egg shells!!!!” as we “ho ho ho’ed” our way through Angels We Have Heard on High. Then I did something my painfully shy 16-year-old self would never have done — I walked up to Mr. D’s chair and asked, “Did you used to teach at Brooklyn Tech?”

A huge smile came across his superhero-like jaw. “Yes,that’s me,” he said. He had only recently retired. He and his wife had just moved to Belle Harbor to a house just a few feet from the beach. I knew he wouldn’t remember me, since I likely never had the nerve to say two words to him in the three years I was in high school chorus. But we had a nice talk regardless and I was happy I’d had the guts to make the connection.

Fast forward a few months. Sandy rolls in, bringing destruction and mayhem to everyone on the Rockaway peninsula, myself and Jim (I think I can call him that now) included. Facebook is the town crier, a ticker of pleas and outrage from the devastated. Amongst the litany I see horrible news delivered from a high-school classmate. Mr. D’s house was among those that burned.

My heart sunk. We’d lost much but we did not lose everything, and I couldn’t imagine the pain of losing 60 years’ worth of memories and generations’ worth of keepsakes. At least with the floods there was something to salvage. The fires burned until there was nothing left to scorch.

When I decided to start this book project, I knew immediately why I had that chance encounter at Strands. I messaged Jim on Facebook and asked if I could interview him for this book I’m researching on climate change’s impact on urban areas. Yesterday he sat across from me at my dining room table and told me his entire story.

With every Sandy story I hear recounted, I’m taken back to the overwhelming emotions of those first few days and weeks. The details change but every story has the same backbone: They are all stories of loss. Loss of things, yes, but also loss of surety. What we thought could never happen, happened. That experience adds a depth to the look in each survivor’s eyes. We are stronger, not by choice, but we’ve embraced the power even though its root lies in our great pain and loss.

Immense tragedy also provides clarity to all our previous experiences. Why did we go through that rough patch? Why did we learn those lessons or choose that path in life? To prepare us for this one moment in time when we would need all those skills to survive.

Jim stood in his kitchen and watched as sparks of fire rained down on his back porch. I asked him, “What was your state of mind?” Were you frantic? Worried? Overwhelmed?”

I don’t have my transcript finished yet so this quotation is not exact, but I remember his face froze for a moment. His eyes were clear and focused. It was the look of someone who was about to utter absolute truth. “I felt totally confident,” he said. “I was not nervous at all. My whole life prepared me for this moment. When you’re coaching football, or conducting a chorus, you’re orchestrating chaos. A song can fall apart in a second and you have to be prepared for that.” The night of the storm, knowing his house was minutes away from being consumed, Jim grabbed his insurance documents and secured them in black trash bags. He tied together extension cords and with the help of neighbors, he and his wife surfed across 7-foot-high rushing waters to the safety of a brick house across the street. From that house he watched his home turn from a bright orange orb to black ash.

In 20 years of interviewing people about their most harrowing experiences, I never cease to be amazed by the strength of the human spirit. Push us down and it is human nature to rise back up, stronger and feistier than ever. Jim is rising back up. I’ve risen back up. As I collect these stories of survival and weave together an explanation of why our coastal communities are worth saving, it’s stories like Jim’s that provide the context. Also, these experiences make me sure that all our voices need to be heard so that we can do what’s within our power to reduce the chance of this happening again, anywhere, to anyone.

I’m collecting as many stories as I can of Sandy survival. If you’d like to participate, please contact me.


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