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Renee Dubeau

Creative Nonfiction & Inspirational Shit

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Writerly Things

My Country ‘Tis of Thee- Illusions of Liberty.

It’s July, and you know what that means. We’re supposed to eat some hotdogs, wave a flag and blow shit up while shouting, “USA! USA! USA!”

But, to be perfectly honest, I really don’t feel like celebrating this year. It seems so silly, so selfish to celebrate Independence Day, when so many of us are not free.

I know, I know. We’re “free-er” than a lot of countries. Believe me, I’ve heard all the reasons why I’m supposed to love this place. But, I know we can do better than we’re doing right now, and that makes me sad, sick, scared, angry and at the end of the day, super frustrated.

I am the daughter of a Disabled Army Veteran. I was taught to stand for the pledge, and place a hand on my heart for the anthem, and to respect the flag and what it stands for. But, now, I’m constantly asking myself, what the fuck does it stand for? If we take away all the buzz words we’re supposed to use when we think about the United States, what’s left? Is this still the land of opportunity, or have we become the land of missed opportunities, wastefulness and greed?

We have all these stupid sayings that are meant to evoke some kind of emotional response, like, “Freedom isn’t free.”  But, what if it totally is? Freedom is an idea- an abstract concept of what it means to live without restriction. Ideas are one-hundred percent free.  The cost we’re implying is the carnage our military personnel sign up for when they choose to serve our country, to “fight for freedom” as they say.

But, as I see it, the men and women who go off to war today are not fighting for our freedom. They’re definitely not fighting for peace- that’s the opposite of war. What they are fighting for is power, control, oil and money. They are pawns in a game that no one will ever win. They give their lives, their limbs, their sanity and futures to a machine that will never stop grinding them up and spitting them out. And, when they come home broken in every way imaginable, as too many do, they begin fighting for enough disability benefits to just barely survive.

We leave our Veterans literally out in the cold- homeless, hungry, and without basic necessities like shelter, medical care, and food. It’s shameful. It’s sad. And, it’s not “freedom”. I promise you, our homeless Vets don’t feel free. They are, perhaps, among the most restricted population in the United States. A cruel irony that is rarely addressed by our government.

Even my dad, who was fortunate to have my mother to take care of him and keep him off the streets, isn’t truly “free”. Struggling to pay the bills and keep food on the table while navigating schizophrenia is not freedom. He swears he would do it all again to have my sister and me, but I wonder if he had known at age seventeen what his life would look like, would he have still made the choice to enlist in the Army? Would he have risked it all if he knew what America would look like today? What was his sacrifice for?

And, it’s not just our Veterans who are living less than their best lives here. Just ask every single student in every high school who sits in class with one eye on the classroom door all day. Watching. Waiting. Listening for gun shots. Our kids can’t learn in a warzone. But, that’s how it feels when you have to do active shooter drills, and plan all the hypothetical ways you could survive if one of your classmates snaps and starts shooting up the place. My son once told me that he would charge a shooter and try to stop him if he thought he could save someone else. These aren’t thoughts our sons should be thinking on their way to school in the morning. How many families have lost their precious little ones to these senseless acts? How many more will experience the worst kinds of tragedy before we finally decide that nobody needs to own a goddamned automatic assault weapon?

I know, I know. “This country was founded on guns and Jesus! ‘Merica! Blah blah gun control! Libtards!”

Sure, the right to bear arms is a constitutional right.  I get it. But, these killing machines didn’t exist when the constitution was written. There was no way for the founding fathers to predict the kind of death and destruction people would find a way to create. And, like other laws that seemed like a good idea at the time- like, “The Importation of People” aka “Slave Trading”, for example – we have a responsibility to make changes to antiquated laws that no longer make sense. Putting our citizens’ best interest ahead of tradition, dollars, the NRA and outdated constitutional laws is a critical part of our evolution as a Nation. We have a responsibility to re-evaluate these things as we go- Republicans, Democrats, baby boomers, millennials- all of us.

Do you think we’re free?

There are thousands of people sitting in jails and prisons today for having a plant in their possession. And others serving maximum minimum sentences as people of color that would have been thrown out had their skin been less pigmented. And those who needed behavioral health care rather than confinement. This costs people their lives, futures, and so much more. It also costs taxpayers billions of dollars. That’s not freedom.

There are kids in trailer parks and housing projects who don’t know where their next meal will come from. The ones who will never rise above their raising, doomed to stand in the same welfare lines they watched their parents wait in because they don’t even know that there is a way out of the poverty cycle they were born into. They don’t dream of prosperous futures in families that have never seen a college diploma. They dream of just having enough to eat. That’s not freedom.

There are college students who are all but crippled with anxiety from the pressure they feel to be perfect, to outperform their cohorts, to keep their scholarships and grant money, lest they be crushed by student debt. They resort to all kinds of drugs to stay awake longer, push themselves harder, and make it look like they are learning and thriving. Many of them will break under the weight of their responsibilities. Many will become so overwhelmed and depressed, they will end their lives before graduation. That’s not freedom.

There are countless people on the spectrum of LGBTQ+ who are forced to hide who they are for fear that they will be cast out and shunned like lepers, because their families would rather cling to their religion and archaic ignorance than extend unconditional love and acceptance to their children. That’s not freedom.

There are little children in detention camps at our Southern  border who were taken from their families and stacked on top of each other in cages. They are dirty, hungry and afraid. They don’t understand why they are being held there like animals, and may never recover from the trauma they are experiencing. I dare you to go there and tell those kids about the land of the free. Could you even look them in the eye and begin to justify the way they’ve been treated? Could you stand to see your children standing where they stand? That’s not freedom.

What about the families who are one missed paycheck away from living on the street?And, the thousands of families who will file bankruptcy this year because someone had cancer, a heart attack, or another illness or injury that resulted in astronomical medical bills? Or the ones who work two of three jobs to barely make ends meet? Do you think that’s freedom? It’s not.

But, it’s not just poor people suffering. What about the corporate slaves running on treadmills to nowhere every single day to make others wealthy? How free are they? Is sitting in your car three hours a day, to work eight, ten, twelve hours or more, only to come home in the evening and collapse from exhaustion even living? That’s not freedom.

Every woman who can’t walk down the street alone at night, who checks the back seat of her car for serial killers before getting inside, who works circles around her male counterparts to make less money, and dresses to conceal her womanly shape so no one can accuse her of “asking for it” is not free. We teach our daughters to be sweet, be nice, be quiet, be pretty. Society tells them that their worth is equal to how desirable men find them. We teach them to be submissive, because if they stand up for themselves, it could get them hurt or killed. This is not freedom.

And now, there are women in states that have banned safe abortions. They will be forced to carry unwanted children to term. To give them away for adoption, or keep them- some as souvenirs of rape and incest. They will be forced to share custody of these children with the men who assaulted them. Others will resort to dangerous ways to attempt to end their pregnancies, and like generations ago, many will lose their fertility if not their lives in doing so. This is not freedom.

Think of the men and women who are battling opioid addiction today, because a doctor prescribed something our FDA deemed as safe, and didn’t bother to check in with them and make sure they were taking it appropriately. And, everyone battling addiction to any other substance- alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, crack- they are self-medicating to escape something in their lives that is causing them pain. Many will lose their lives to overdoses. Some will take their lives to end their suffering. Precious few will seek rehabilitation and therapy to fix what is broken, because the stigmas around mental health in this country make people afraid to admit when they need help. And, even if they are willing to admit that they need it, many simply cannot afford it. That’s not freedom.

What about our brown friends who have to keep their hands on the wheel at ten and two during a routine traffic stop so they don’t get shot by a scared cop? The young men who must remove their jackets, hoodies- any article of clothing that might frighten someone after dark- for their own safety? The movies and tv shows that portray African Americans as criminal, dangerous, uneducated, lazy and violent? This is not freedom.

Here’s the thing: We will not be free until everyone is free.

“Freedom” as we celebrate it in America today is nothing more than an illusion. It’s a story we tell ourselves. An idealistic fairy tale we’ve passed down generation to generation. And yet, the problems we’ve been talking about every decade that I’ve been alive on this earth just seem to get bigger. The American Dream is becoming a nightmare for so many families, and there is no end in sight.

My children were born into the first generation that is not expected to live as long as their parents. We’re poisoning their little bodies with all kinds of chemicals in our environment and shitty food. We’re poisoning their minds with technology, over-sexualized images, violence, reality television and all kinds of ignorance. We’re poisoning their hearts with the hatred and division that we are actively perpetuating every single day that we’re not doing anything about it. If we want to be free- if we want future generations to experience the kind of freedom we wish we had- we’ve got to get our shit together.

Freedom won’t come to us on the wings of a screeching eagle, no matter how loudly we sing the old war songs and ring the big bell. We can paint stars and stripes all over everything here, but we will all still be in shackles until we realize that money is not god, and people matter more than profits.

If you can, let go of the illusion of freedom as you know it. Just let go of that pie in the sky notion that America is the best place on earth, take an honest look around at all the people who are suffering here, and all the problems that we choose to look away from every day. Are you part of the problem? Is there something within your control that you could change today? Something you learned when you were a child that no longer makes sense? Something you could do to extend kindness or resources to someone who needs them? How can you embody the changes that need to happen here? What could you do to make yourself, your family, your enemies more free? Why haven’t you done those things?

Freedom will continue to be an illusion until we are ready to demand change. It’s easy to put our blinders on and pretend that we are individuals here. It’s easy to be self-absorbed and ignore the problems that we don’t think have anything to do with us. But, that’s not how life works. We are part of something much larger than ourselves. Our neighbor’s problems are our problems, too. If their house catches on fire, and no one comes to put it out, it’s just a matter of time before our house starts burning, too. And, America, shit is burning all around us. It’s time to do something about it before it’s too late.

Every great empire in the history of human life has eventually fallen. We will fall, too, if we don’t learn how to take care of each other. Honoring the humanity of all people needs to become our first priority- above money, above any other agenda, above any ideology. Until then, we are only the land of the free straight, cis-gender, wealthy, white man.

 

 

 

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Kindness Kits 101: How to spread love around your city and beyond.

When we see a problem too big to fix, we often throw our hands in the air and say, “Somebody should do something about this!”

Maybe, we do this because we want our government, world leaders, big corporations or other “powers that be” to take care of it. Maybe, we feel like we’re too small to make a difference, or don’t have a solution for the whole problem. Or, maybe, we’ve forgotten that we are somebody.

We don’t have to be wealthy, or hold a position of authority, or have a large platform of influence to make a difference. Maybe we can’t change the whole world all at once. But, small acts of kindness can change the world for a one person- and the ripple effect of that positive change can start an avalanche of other good things we may never even realize were due in part to our willingness to do something, anything to make things even just a little bit better for someone.

I started making Kindness Kits a few winters ago, when we had record cold temperatures. It absolutely broke my heart to think about all the people right here in Nashville who didn’t have a warm bed to go home to at night. People were literally freezing to death in the streets. Our streets. My streets.

I felt totally helpless. There were so many of them, and just one of me. There are resources here, sure. But, they are limited. I spent some time thinking about what I could do to help. I went to the store and gathered all the handwarmers I could find. The idea grew from there, and I started assembling bags of toiletries, hand warmers, gloves, and snacks. The icing on the cake was adding a little love note, because some warm fuzzies on the inside certainly couldn’t hurt. I wrote “You Are Important” on an index card with a little heart. The rest, as they say, is history.

Since then I’ve delivered hundreds of bags of goodies to people all over Nashville and beyond. I’ve had lots of help from my kids, friends- even my bridesmaids came over to make Kindness Kits with me! At the end of the night, we split them up, and everyone takes a supply to keep in their cars. It’s a fun, easy, inexpensive way for us to do something helpful. It’s a small thing, but the reactions from people who receive them range from smiles to tears- and that feels like a big thing.

If you’d like to join me in spreading some love, here’s how to get started:

Step 1: Gather Supplies

KK2

Each bag will require a quart sized zipper bag, a 3×5 index card, and an assortment of personal care items, seasonal supplies, and snacks. Be as creative as you want with your bags- they are your gifts to offer to people who might need them.

Suggested supply list: (Think travel sized items and individually wrapped stuff.)

  • quart sized zipper bags
  • 3×5 index cards
  • markers, pens, stickers
  • hand sanitizer
  • hand warmers
  • facial tissue
  • deodorant
  • flashlight/batteries
  • first aid kits/supplies
  • crackers
  • trail mix
  • granola/protein bars
  • baby wipes
  • travel toothbrushes/toothpaste
  • note pads
  • sunscreen
  • puzzle books
  • lip balm
  • bug spray
  • pens/pencils
  • hand/body lotion
  • comb/hair brush
  • candy/gum/mints
  • feminine hygiene items
  • fast food gift cards
  • cash

Step 2: Write Love Notes

KK1Use your markers, pens, stickers and anything else you’d like to write an empowering message on your index cards. My go-to message is, “You Are Important”. I write it in big, bold letters so it’s the first thing the recipient sees when I hand the bag to them. Grown men have shed real tears on the side of the road when given these words- they are very powerful. Sometimes when making bags with friends, everyone will choose their own word to complete the sentence “You are _____________.” Some good ones are: worthy, loved, beautiful, strong, brave, resilient… anything that speaks to you will work just fine.

Step 3: Assemble Kindness Kits
Fill your zipper bags with an assortment of personal care items, snacks, treats and the messages you wrote. I like to use items that are practical for the season, like sunscreen in the summer/hand warmers in the winter, for example. Include anything you feel might be useful and appreciated.

Step 4: Spread Some Love!
Keep Kindness Kits in your car so you’re always ready to deliver them. Don’t look away from those in need. Acknowledge their humanity- look them in the eye, engage in conversation, use your words to inspire hope and extend genuine compassion- this is more valuable than anything else you could give someone. Truly, this is what people crave even more than a warm meal or shower. Human connection is vital to our health and happiness. Just a few minutes of connection can make a huge difference for someone who might otherwise feel isolated and alone.

Step 5: Pass it on!
Why not give your tribe an opportunity to spread the love, too? Have a Kindness Party! Invite your friends and family to make kits together. Play some music, make some snacks, and ask everyone to bring items to contribute. Write your love notes together, make your Kindness Kits, divide them up, and keep spreading love around your city and beyond.

Love is a very powerful vibration. When we put it out into the world, it amplifies, multiplies and inspires. Anything we can do to put more love into the world is a step in the right direction. Making kindness kits is a fun, easy way to spread a little love to people who need it most. It’s also a way to get people engaged and inspired to help those in need.

Please, share your photos and stories with me when you host your next Kindness Party! You can connect with me on Facebook  or Instagram to show me how you share the love. I can’t wait to see what we can do, together.

Where did “You Are Important” come from?

I live in an affluent little bubble in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee. The poverty and hunger here are well hidden, tucked away behind strip malls and subdivisions with cul-de-sacs and swimming pools. But, if you pay attention, you’ll see it. Panhandling is forbidden in suburbia, so you have to look beyond street corners and exit ramps to find our homeless and hungry. Or, sometimes, you don’t have to go looking. Sometimes, they jump right out at you. That’s what happened to me.

I was working for a large health care company as a claims adjuster. I was a single mom with two teenagers at home, and often started my work day before the sun came up. There was a Starbucks on my way to work, where I stopped frequently before my six o’clock shift started. I thought nothing of the five dollar coconut milk latte I enjoyed several days week— a necessary luxury to begin my long day of staring at spreadsheets and medical claims. That’s where I saw him.

I was sitting in the drive-through waiting to order my much needed cup of motivation when I noticed one lonely car in the strip mall parking lot. All of the stores were closed, and would be for hours. Maybe that’s why it looked so strange there, all alone, in the well-lit space between the Starbucks and the Bed Bath and Beyond. It wasn’t the typical car you see in that particular part of town. It was older, and showed more wear.

As I examined the little, red car in the early-morning-empty-lot, I found that the driver of the vehicle was reclined in the front seat, asleep. It was strange. Not something you see every day. But, certainly, he had chosen a safe place to rest. I assumed he was a traveler who had pulled off the nearby interstate for a nap. That is, until the next time I saw him there in the same spot, sleeping in the rain a few days later.

On the third occasion I saw this stranger sleeping in his little red car, he had the driver’s side door propped open, his bare foot extended out onto the ground below him. That was the morning I made an agreement with myself: If I was going to take my privileged ass through that drive through for another latte, I had to bring him breakfast.

I had an appointment one morning, and was driving to the office late when I remembered the stranger. This was the perfect day to make good on my agreement. I drove by to see if he was there, and my heart jumped at the sight of his little red car. I drove across the street to  McDonald’s and ordered a little bit of everything. I had no idea what this man might like for breakfast, or how he took his coffee, or if he drank coffee at all. When I returned with a bag of breakfast foods, coffee and juice he was awake, sitting up in the front seat. I pulled up next to him, gathered the items, and got out of my car.

I was suddenly nervous. I felt my heart speeding up with each step I took toward his driver side door. I quickly noticed that his car was full from floor board to ceiling with clothing, blankets, trash and all kinds of things. He was talking on a cell phone when I knocked on his window.

“Um, just a second,” he said, placing his phone on the pile of items in the passenger seat. He was a young man, maybe in his twenties. He had dark hair, dark features, kind eyes. 

“Good morning! I brought you some breakfast.” I said, extending the bag and cardboard cup holder toward him.

“Thank you so much!” He took the items from my now trembling hands. “You are so kind! I don’t know how to thank you. What made you want to do this today?”

The honest answer to his question was guilt. I felt guilty sitting in that drive through every day waiting for my coffee while he slept in his car. I felt guilty for having the luxury of my latte habit, and the comfort of the bed I had just left to go to my job that afforded me a life that did not necessitate things like sleeping in my car in a well-lit strip mall parking lot. Probably, this stemmed from my deeper guilt of leaving my family behind in rural Michigan to go make a better life for myself, and being mostly absent from their daily struggles. It was like survivor’s guilt. I could’ve been the one sleeping in my car, but by some miracle, I wasn’t. I had more than I needed, and felt compelled to share my good fortune with this young stranger.

When I opened my mouth to speak, guilt was not on the list of things that came out. The words that fell from my lips were as much a surprise to me as they were to him.

“I want you to know that you are important, and your life matters. People care about you— even some you’ve never met. So, you have to take good care of yourself. Ok?”

“I don’t know how to thank you…”

“You don’t need to thank me. Just pay it forward someday.”

“I will. I promise. Thank you so much for breakfast. This is really nice.”

“You’re very welcome. Have a great day,” I said, turning to get back in my car.

I felt the lump in my throat growing. Where did that come from? By the time I closed my car door tears were rolling down my cheeks.

“You are important. Your life matters. People care about you- even some you’ve never met. Take good care of yourself.” I repeated the message.

I was sure that something bigger than me had spoken those words. I was so shaken by it, I forgot one very important thing: I didn’t ask the kind stranger for his name- the one way for me to really acknowledge his existence, his humanity- and I forgot to ask. I made another agreement with myself- next time I would bring him a meal and ask his name.

I looked for my friend in the little red car every time I stopped for coffee after that day, but I never saw him again. I never had the opportunity to ask his name or bring him another hot breakfast, but our relationship was far from over.

On my way to the Starbucks, when I looked for the little red car each morning, I had to drive by a large construction site. At first, I thought it was going to be another strip mall. I watched all the trees vanish from the lot, which made me infinitely sad as I thought about all the little creatures who were pushed out of their homes. When the  building began to take shape it was massive- definitely not a strip mall. Then, a sign went up, advertising a new mega church. If there was anything we needed even less than another stupid strip mall, it was another stupid mega church.

I googled the church and found that it came with a price tag of twenty-two million dollars. Less than two miles away from the twenty-two million dollar mega church was the parking lot where the young man in the red car slept. The juxtaposition of these things infuriated me so much, I had to write about it.

I had been blogging for my own personal entertainment for several years. I had just started a little series on my blog called “Buddha Girl in Jesus Town” where I  talked about my personal spiritual journey, and how strange it was to live in the Bible Belt as someone who does not identify as Christian. I began writing a piece I thought I would add to the series, called, “Why Mega Churches are Mega Bullshit”.

As an existentialist, I am always looking for purpose and meaning. As I wrote about the new twenty-two million dollar mega church, I was filled with indignation. I could not fathom how an organization that was supposed to be based on the teachings of Jesus could justify building an arena to honor him— something he would not have wanted according to the teachings in the new testament— instead of feeding our hungry, and housing our homeless. It was a shining example of the kind of superficial, misguided, self-serving hypocrisy I had come to expect from modern Christianity- and the epitome of everything I hate about organized religion.

In the article, I broke down twenty-two million dollars into the number of meals our local homeless shelter could provide. I truly believe this would have pleased Jesus, who taught on hillsides and in the marketplaces, and did not need a temple to make himself look important. As I finished my little rant, I felt a nudge. It was a gentle, familiar push. I had been flirting  with the idea of sending my work out to actual publications for some time. Before clicking the “publish” button on my WordPress site, I went to Elephant Journal’s homepage to read their submission requirements, again.

The toned-down-a-bit version of my piece, “What Mega Churches are Missing” became my first published article on Elephant Journal. When the editor sent me my published link, she said, “This is great writing. I can’t wait to see more from you. Congratulations!”

I cried tears of joy for about three days after the article went live, as people read it, sent me notes, commented, and shared it all over social media. The article was read over five thousand times, and even people who identified as Christian reached out to tell me how much my words resonated with them.

This opened the door to my writing career.

 Over the next 3 years, I would go on to publish more than one hundred articles. My face was added to the Elephant Journal homepage as a Featured Author, and stayed there until I decided to branch out and send my work to other publications. I self published my first book on Amazon- a collection of short stories from my first little blog, Dysfunction Diaries.

That first article about the man in the red car and the bullshit church changed my life in ways I never imagined. It gave me the opportunity to share my personal story. I wrote about mental illness, sexual abuse, feminism, parenting, relationships, and all kinds of current events. I wrote about all the things you’re supposed to avoid in conversation- religion, politics, sex and death. I wrote little love notes to people I had never met, reminding them how perfectly wonderful they are.

I was amazed at the ripple effect that happened as I shared my story. Strangers reached out to tell me how much my words helped them. People who had carried their painful family secrets their whole lives shared those secrets with me. For the first time, I saw the purpose for my suffering, and how sharing my painful past could help other people. I watched as people I loved began to open and share their own stories, many of them even started blogs, and some began submitting their work to Elephant Journal. I felt incredibly humbled and grateful to be part of each journey that intersected mine.

Sometimes, I wonder if the man in a little red car was an angel, sent here to help me find my voice, purpose and power. Sometimes, I wish I could share with him how my life changed after meeting him. Sometimes, I wonder what became of him, and send love into the universe with wishes for his comfort, peace and prosperity.

That was four years ago, and the words are still with me. I still make bags to keep in my car for our local homeless population with hand warmers, toiletries, snacks and a note card with “YOU ARE IMPORTANT” written in big, bold letters. Sometimes, when handed a bag of treats with this message inside, grown men put a hand to their chest and ask, “Me?” It brings me to tears every time, and I say, “Yes. You.”

I thought I was delivering a gift to someone in need that fateful morning. As it turns out, I was the one receiving a gift. This work is my way of paying forward the incredible inspiration and healing that began that day. 

You Are Important is now the working title for my current work in progress. It’s a book about how to overcome our circumstances and create a life we love. It all begins with realizing that we are perfect just the way we are, and that we deserve to have all the things we might think are outside of our reach. But, it’s more than just a book- it’s a call to action. It’s a little push to get uncomfortable and look at the things we may be avoiding so we can resolve them once and for all. It’s a reminder that we get to choose who we will be in this life, and create our experiences through the things we do every day. It’s my challenge to everyone who’s ready; to live authentically, leave our excuses behind, and become who we were born to be.

Most of all, You Are Important is a message of hope and universal love. Our worth is not determined by our bank accounts, job titles, clothing, zip codes, or any other earthly measure. Our worth is inherient. We don’t need to earn, prove or beg for it. It’s woven into the fabric of who we are. We are important because we exist- all of us. When we begin to look at ourselves as worthy, we open up to new ideas and opportunities. When we recognize that all humans are worthy, we might begin to see people differently- we might even treat them differently.

As I work to complete this project, and seek publishing opportunities, I’ll be sharing some little nuggets here to get us thinking about how to make our lives, and the whole wide world around us, even more amazing. Please, join me.

How Liz Gilbert Kicked my Ass.

I have a handful of badass lady authors who I absolutely love. I love them for their realness, candor and unbelievable talent. I love them for their examples of what it means to live authentically without apology, to be who you are, do what you love, and fearlessly bare your soul for all to see. On my shortlist of lady author heroes is, of course, Elizabeth Gilbert.

Elizabeth Gilbert is probably most famous for her memoir Eat, Pray, Love. It’s a beautiful story about getting out of our comfort zone to find out what we’re really made of. And, though I’m always fascinated with memoirs and true life stories, my favorite Liz Gilbert book is not her memoir. It’s a book called Big Magic. In Big Magic, Gilbert talks about the creative process, and how to give ourselves permission to be creative and follow our ideas where they lead us. After publishing  Big Magic, she made a podcast called Magic Lessons, where she talked to people about their creative projects and the roadblocks they experienced. She would then bring in a famous friend to help mentor that person and help them overcome their obstacles.

As a baby author, I was incredibly inspired by the stories in Magic Lessons. It was amazing to hear peoples’ stories and all the different ideas and the absolute confidence Gilbert expressed in everyone’s ability to make their dreams come true. With laser precision, she would identify what was holding them back and why. Then, she would give them homework to do until their follow up. I listened to every episode, then I listened to them again, and again.

I had the fortuitous opportunity to hear Elizabeth Gilbert speak in Nashville last night. She’s currently touring with her new novel City of Girls. I’m not even going to try to lie, I was fan-girling super hard. I almost cried when she walked in the room, because that meant that I was in the same room as Elizabeth Gilbert, and it’s not every day you can sit in the same room with one of your heroes and listen to them talk about their life and craft. She was just as I imagined her. Beautiful, poised, eloquent, and sassy. She’s an expert public speaker, and seemed totally at home in front of that podium.

She talked about City of Girls, and all the reasons why she wanted to write a book about women and sexuality, and the loose girl who enjoyed her life without ruining it. She read to us for a  little while, then, offered time for a Q&A. I thought this was a very brave thing, as you just never know what someone will ask in a situation like this. But, she’s Liz Gilbert, and she’s fearless, and somehow always knows exactly what to say.

Naturally, I raised my hand when she asked for questions. I had about one hundred questions for her, this hero of mine. When she pointed at me, I stood to speak and chose one that only she could answer. I told her how much I loved her podcast, admitted that I listened to every episode at least three or four times, and asked if she planned to bring it back, or do something else in that format. Then, maybe without even knowing it, Liz Gilbert kicked my ass.

She thanked me for listening, and said how much she enjoyed the experience of making the pod cast to go along with Big Magic. She explained that she stopped recording the pod cast when her partner, Rayya Elias, was diagnosed with cancer. Of course, I knew this, because she’s freaking Liz Gilbert. But, then she said something I didn’t expect. She said that she’s on an “integrity cleanse”, something her friend Martha Beck wrote about, and during such a cleanse, she has to always tell the truth.

The truth she shared with us, was that she got bored with the podcast, because every story was basically the same. It was someone with an idea, a talent, a project they couldn’t seem to finish. She would help them figure out what was holding them back, make suggestions, “write permission slips” as she says, and set them up with someone she thought might also have good advice or expertise in their craft. After two seasons, she felt that she had said all she could about the creative process.

“People have all kinds of excuses, but it all comes down to fear. It’s about feelings of unworthiness, not being good enough, or worrying too much about what other people think.”

She laughed, pushing her hair aside and said, “What I suggest you do, is listen to those episodes three or four more times, because I’m just saying the same thing over and over.” She joked that she was all out of famous friends, and couldn’t make any more episodes anyway. Then, she admitted that by the end of the podcast, she was starting to resent her time in the studio doing podcast stuff, because it was keeping her away from her true love- writing.

So, there I was, in the same room with one of my heroes getting a big ol’ gut check. She was literally speaking directly to me when she said, we have lots of excuses, but it all comes down to fear. So, I had to ask myself, what am I afraid of? In all of my procrastination and distraction, there had to be some fear.

I know what my excuses are:

  • Time – Our schedule is packed, too many commitments, too busy doing all the crap we need to do to do the things I really want to do…
  • Energy- Too tired to be creative at the end of the day, need downtime for relaxing and writing feels like work, my day job is sucking the life out of me…
  •  Inspiration- Waiting for the perfect time, place, situation to write. Feeling like I’ve said it all before and I’m bored with it. Wondering if anyone will ever read this book if I finish it, or is it all for nothing…

My writing partner and I call our excuses “stomping and lamenting”. If we spent as much time actually writing as we do with all of our excuses to not write, we’d both be able to quit our day jobs by now. Instead, we whine and throw little pity parties for ourselves, and honestly, it’s kind of pathetic. We frequently talk about this, and ask ourselves and each other, “why?”. Why do we cling to our excuses and allow them to keep us stuck? Why do we fill up our days with other stuff, at the expense of the things we say we really want to do with our lives? The answer, as Gilbert said, always goes back to fear.

So, what am I afraid of?

  • The unknown- The publishing process/industry is still a great mystery to me, and I have no idea how to navigate that world. I’m a baby author, not a marketing guru, and the numbers games and selling myself are things I just don’t know how to do. There are no guarantees that my book will ever be published, or that I won’t get ripped off my a scammy publisher, or that I will even finish this thing at all.
  • Success- Who will I be if I become the best-selling author and public speaker I imagine I could be? How will my relationships change? How will our family change? Will Liz Gilbert become my new BFF instead of just my lady author idol? (Call me, Liz!) I don’t know what will happen, how I will handle it, or if I’m even cut out for that lifestyle. What if I get all the things I think I want, and realize I don’t really want them after all? Then what? What if it’s more fun to have the dream than it will be to do the work?
  •  Failure- What if I give my whole heart to this dream and it never works out for me? What if my book sucks and everyone hates it? What if nobody hates it because nobody ever even reads it? What if I crash and burn? What if this is a monumental waste of my time and energy?
  •  General insecurities- What if I suck at writing and this is a stupid dream? What if I’m not good enough, smart enough, strong enough to do all the things I think I want to do? What if it’s too much for me? Who am I to tell these stories? Who am I to give advice? Does anyone even care? Have I lost all my momentum? Did I peak with Elephant Journal? Is it too late for me?
  •  Legal issues- If I tell my whole truth will it ruin my life? Will people freak out and try to destroy me? Will I have to wait for everyone to die before I tell the whole story? Can I do it any other way?

So, there’s all of that. Lots of excuses to not be who I want to be, which is perhaps the woman I was born to be. At the end of the day, it’s up to me to choose: either push through the fear and drop all the excuses, or spend the rest of my life wondering what might have been if I had dropped the excuses and pushed through the fear.

Gilbert went on to talk about her own creative process, and how when she’s actively writing a book she has to do it all at once, and with almost complete isolation. “Dogs are fine,” she said, “but no other humans.”

This gave me some validation on my own process, as I also require almost complete isolation, and prefer to just go off and disappear somewhere all alone to do my thing without interruption. When I was single and lived mostly alone, inspiration was with me every day. I had ample alone time, and endless hours with my thoughts, and though my teenagers were in and out, they didn’t need much from me, and were very respectful of my need for quiet time to be creative. Since moving in with my husband and step babies, writing has become much more challenging. I think a large part of that is that I get significantly fewer hours by myself to contemplate life, the universe, and the human condition. Inspiration is fleeting, illusive, and sometimes just plain absent. But, as they say, a writer writes. So, excuses be damned, if I’m going to do this thing and give my heart to it, I have to find a way to move it back to the top of my priority list, and make it work in my new life with my new family.

I guess that brings up another whole set of fears for me. What if everyone thinks I’m a selfish bitch for putting myself first? What if I can’t be everything to everyone while also pursuing my dream? What if I sacrifice family time, and things that are also important, in the name of making this thing happen and I fail anyway? Will I regret the friction that might come from me doing me if it doesn’t work out as planned? Will I embarrass myself and everyone who loves me?

Thankfully, my husband is incredibly supportive. He’s an author, too, so he understands the creative process, and the time it takes to write a book. He is much more accomplished that I am, and has this ability to make writing appear to be effortless and carefree- which is truly maddening! But, also, I think he sincerely loves me and wants me to be happy and successful, which is a lot to take in for someone like me, because I’ve never experienced love like that before. There’s no competition or insecurity with him, no criticism or judgement- just encouragement, and sometimes frustration with my excuses and lack of motivation. But mostly, he gently nudges me back in the direction of the dream when I wander off and get distracted. He always says I’m a better writer than he is, which I completely disagree with, but it’s high praise coming from him, and it makes me feel like maybe I’m not totally insane for thinking I can pull this thing off.

After Gilbert’s talk, we went to dinner together. (My husband and I- I’m guessing Liz had a plane to catch or something, or we surely would have invited her.) We talked about how flawlessly she spoke, how well she knows her craft, and how wise she is about life in general. I asked him if he is ready for his next book tour, and if he would do the terrifyingly unpredictable Q&A at his future speaking engagements. “I think you kind of have to do it!” he said, though admitted that he may not be as articulate as my new friend, Liz. We talked about our excuses, our ridiculous schedule, and how important it is to make sure we both get to bring our dreams to fruition, so we can abandon our day jobs and write on the beach together, forever. That’s when I made a confession.

“I have romantic visions of riding a train cross country all by myself someday, sitting in the little sleeper car all alone, and writing a book while watching the world go by my window.”

“Then, you should take some time off work and do it,” he said. “I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you, too. But…”

“But?” he laughed.

“But, it would just be for a couple of weeks, and I would come right back home to you.” I smiled.

“If it makes you happy, baby, do it.”

And, I realized that even with all my bullshit excuses, and all the fear, I have something most people just hope and pray for. I have a partner who loves me, who will do anything to help me be my best self. Even if it seems selfish, even if he doesn’t love everything I have to say, even if I fail, or if I succeed and our life changes because of it, I know that he’s here, and he has my back, and there is nothing he wouldn’t do for me. I only hope that I can be everything to him that he is to me, and support him as completely as I feel supported.

So, Liz, if you’re reading this, and I just know that you might be, I’m ready. Maybe I just needed you to look me in the eye and tell me that fear is the only thing holding me back. I know that it’s ok to be afraid, but if I don’t push through it, I’m just another person with a half written book and a pile of excuses not to finish it. I don’t want to be another boring episode of a podcast you don’t plan to continue. And, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering what might have happened if I was brave enough to drop my excuses and get serious about doing the things I say I want to do.

I guess this is the beginning of my own integrity cleanse, where instead of saying, “I’m too busy to write today,” I will say, “I didn’t make my dreams a priority today.” Instead of “I don’t feel inspired,” I will say, “I didn’t take time to look for inspiration.” Instead of the excuses, I will acknowledge my fears, and take them along with me on this journey. And, maybe someday, I’ll stand at the podium as you did last night, and give people permission to be creative and afraid, to retreat into quiet to bring forth their masterpieces, and to honor the stories that live inside them.

Today, I choose to stop my pathetic stomping and lamenting, to drop my excuses, and acknowledge that big dreams are scary things to have. I choose to make my writing a priority again, to move it back to the top of my list, and to make sure I have the quiet time I need to create. I choose to push through my fears, so I can find out once and for all how my life will change when I step into the future I imagine for myself. And, when I make it someday, and some journalist asks me what my secret to success was, I will tell them that I had a story to tell, a husband who loved and encouraged me, and Liz Gilbert kicked my ass one night when she was in Nashville.

 

 

 

 

 

Walking My Talk, Even When I Don’t Wanna.

Our lives have been mostly consumed with wedding planning for the past couple months. We had a beautiful wedding, with all of our most favorite people there to celebrate with us. We spent a glorious week in Jamaica for the perfect honeymoon, then came crashing back into the reality of our everyday life. We returned with sun-kissed skin, the happiest of memories, and new vigor for making our dream life a reality in the years to come, together.

I am nearly finished with my next book, You Are Important. I’m hoping to publish later this year, and so excited to see what I can do with it! Writing the book is huge, but my real mission is much bigger than the book. I truly hope to impact people’s lives- to help people see their potential, find their purpose, and foster unconditional self-love and acceptance. So, I decided to start a Facebook page where I can start some groups and gather people together so we can get some conversations going.

Of course, when you start inviting a bunch of strangers to an online forum, anything can happen. Typically, it’s wise to establish some ground rules, so I wrote up a little post and pinned it to the top of the page for all to read. In it, I asked participants to approach unfamiliar ideas with curiosity rather than judgement. I asked that people educate each other gently and with kindness, because we want everyone to feel comfortable. In our group, we are to speak openly, share honestly and agree that everyone is entitled to their values, opinions, and ideas. We don’t have to agree, and we don’t have to conform, but we do have to be kind and respectful toward one another.

Naturally, after you’ve put a statement like that out into the world, there will be a test. My test came this morning at the gym. I woke up early to do my favorite classes. I’ve been gone for a couple weeks with all of the wedding craziness, and didn’t know there would be substitute teachers in both Barre and Yoga.

I walked into Barre and got my equipment set up as the substitute introduced herself to the class. She seemed nice- friendly and enthusiastic. Then, she turned on the music to get started and I cringed. Hard. My ears were asulted with christian worship music, and my little atheist ass was not happy about it.

Number one, this is a secular gym. It’s actually a recreation center that is owned and operated by our local government. So, the separation of church and state thing should definitely be a thing there. Number two, it was early and I was un-caffeinated, which makes every annoyance extra annoying. Number three, I’m a Midwest girl, and this is a Southern thing. I’ve been in the South for almost twenty years, and I still can’t get used to the bible belt stuff. People in the South are used to christianity being ingrained into the culture- it doesn’t seem to bother them at all. But, for someone like me, who is neither Southern nor christian, it just feels disrespectful. People have no problem forcing me to sit through their prayers, worship music, and preaching- they don’t even ask if I’m comfortable with it. And, if I speak up and tell them that I’m an atheist, they clutch their pearls and promise to pray for me, because in their minds there is only one God, one religion, and one way to get to heaven. Their way.

So, it’s early, I haven’t had my coffee, I dragged myself into the gym for an 8am class on a Saturday morning, because I want to recommit to my fitness goals now that we’re back to real life. I’ve just made this public statement about allowing others to be who they are and respecting their beliefs even if we disagree. And now I’m stuck on a yoga mat fighting with myself. In the past, I have walked right out of classes like that. At my old gym, I knew which teachers played Jesus music in their classes, and I made sure not to go to them. I didn’t get a choice today. I didn’t even know we had a sub, and certainly didn’t expect her to come in with her worship playlist on full blast.

I’m in all black, tattoos out, looking like a pagan witch, ready to crawl out of my skin listening to this music. But, if I react poorly, if I allow my temper to get away from me, if I berate this poor lady who just showed up to fill in for someone so they didn’t have to cancel class today, then I am the asshole. I can’t go out like that. If I make her feel uncomfortable for being herself, I am a hypocrite. I hate hypocrites, and I hate assholes. I don’t want to be either. But, mostly, I want to be in integrity with myself.

I want my thoughts, words, and actions to always be in alignment, as this is my personal definition of authenticity. So, I have no choice but to suck it up, let the music play in the background, and just do my workout.

But, Renee! If you’re not christian, and christian music offends you, are you being fake if you just sit there and don’t say anything? Is that really being authentic?

In my mind, staying in class and choosing to ignore the music was the most authentic choice. One of the things I hate most about religion is the arrogance it breeds. Everyone is so sure their religion is the best one, right one, true one, only one… This is why religion creates so much division around the world. Think about how many people have died in holy wars, in the name of someone’s god. And, think about how judgmental people can be where religion and the implied moral code therein is concerned. If you don’t practice the same religion, or call your god the same thing someone else calls their god, they are likely to turn their back on you, to write you off completely, or try to convince you that you’re wrong and you have to learn what they know if you want to be saved or whatever. Walking out of class or demanding she change the music today would have been equally arrogant and dismissive. Even if I was totally justified to request secular music, calling her out in front of the class would have been a dick move, and that is why I chose to let it be.

Being in integrity with myself today meant being kind and accepting of someone who unknowingly made me feel uncomfortable. In the end, the way we make people feel makes a greater impression than anything we say or do. Even though her insensitive music choice made me cringe, I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, or judged. About halfway through class she switched to disco music- which felt like a huge upgrade. I thanked her at the end of class, and went about putting away equipment and getting set up for yoga.

When the next substitute teacher walked through the door, I was nervous. I adulted for 30 minutes of worship music already. Could I take another hour of it? Or worse, what if she was one of those white people who only teaches “christian yoga”. That’s an actual thing in the South, because the ancient art and science of yoga is considered “witchcraft” in many churches. So, they totally rape the ancient traditions, remove all the language and teachings that don’t align with their flavor of religion, and replace it with English words and junk from the christian bible. It’s completely insufferable, and I definitely didn’t want to end up stuck in there for an hour of that.

I half considered packing up and going home. But, I made a commitment to myself to get my two hour workout in today, to atone for the champagne and cheese plates in Montego Bay. I decided to stay and take care of my health- even if the soundtrack was not to my liking. Thankfully, the yoga teacher played quiet, secular music and the class was perfect. I sweat my butt off and left feeling fantastic.

Being in integrity with myself today meant honoring the commitment I made to my physical health. I know that staying active is important, and that I always feel better after I exercise. I could have used the early start time on a Saturday morning, the absence of my gym buddy, the christian music, the substitute teachers, or any number of other excuses to get out of my commitment. The only one I would have hurt by doing so is me. I could have ripped that teacher a new one for playing her worship music in my Barre class, but it would have made us both feel bad, and wouldn’t have changed either of our minds about the validity of religion.

Sometimes, we have to get pissed off and roar. Sometimes, we need to shout from the rooftops about this injustice and that tragedy. Sometimes, we have to say the hard things to people to help them do better, even if it hurts their feelings. But sometimes, it’s better to protest silently- to be offended without reacting- to choose our battles wisely, because being kind and open is the only way to start real conversations with people who don’t know what they don’t know.

Authenticity comes from being true to ourselves. Sometimes, that means standing up for what you believe in. Sometimes, it means behaving like the person you want to be. If you can do both of these things at the same time, that’s some next level shit.

Please, come join the discussion at You Are Important and help us navigate all kinds of topics. Let’s come together with purpose, to expand our minds, to learn and grow together, and change the world with love.

 

 

Why Planning a Wedding in your Forties Rocks.

“You must be so stressed with all the wedding planning!”

With our May wedding quickly approaching, I’ve heard this from just about everybody. I don’t think they even believe me when I tell them how stress-free and fun the process has been. Traditionally, weddings can be quite stressful. They’re expensive, there are lots of personalities involved- and it’s impossible to make every single person happy- there are so many decisions to make, and an unspoken expectation that everything must be absolutely perfect. This can be overwhelming for couples at any age. But, there seems to be something kind of magical about tying the knot in our forties.

First of all, we’re real grown-ups now, which means we get the bill for the whole thing. While this might sound like a downside, it is actually wonderful because it means we have complete autonomy. We don’t have to choose the venue where so-and-so got married, or use the caterer who went to hair school with our mother, or settle for silk when we really want fresh flowers in our centerpieces. We get to be in charge, which means we get to make the day whatever we want it to be. We get to choose all the special little details that will make our wedding unique and personal, without any of the stress that comes from having other people run the show via their checkbooks.

Because we’re a little older and wiser, we’re better at setting boundaries. We don’t have a problem telling Aunt Edna that we don’t want to get married in her church, or choosing non-traditional dessert options instead of the expected wedding cake. We don’t have a problem doing some DIY to save cash on the big day, so we can have a fabulous honeymoon, and don’t care what anyone has to say about that. We know who we are and what is important to us, and get to make decisions that make us happy, without trying to please everyone else.

I think younger couples fall into the trap of trying to keep up with the Jones’ with their weddings. Because so many members of their peer group are planning weddings at the same time, younger couples may feel enormous pressure to have that designer dress, the most coveted venues, and the most over the top parties. This pressure only adds to the stress couples feel while trying to plan a wedding that will stand out from the rest.

In our forties, none of those things are as important to us. Our biggest wish for our special day is that it is fun and easy for everyone. We chose a holiday weekend to make it easier for people to travel and not have to use vacation time at work. We chose a beautiful venue that is just a couple miles from our home, and very nearby to lodging, shopping, and food so our guests will have an easy stay. We hired a wedding coordinator to make sure all our vendors show up and do what we need them to do so nobody has to worry about that on the big day. We chose elegance over extravagance, and casual over fussy, because we want everyone to come relax and enjoy with us.

There’s no drama in our friend groups. Planning a wedding in your twenties can be a nightmare, because of everyone else’s immaturity and poor life choices. This is not the case in your forties if you’ve surrounded yourself with awesome people. Our people genuinely love us and want to see us happy and thriving together. There’s no jealousy or infighting, everyone gets along, and everyone is ready and willing to step up and help with whatever we need. Having a circle of supportive people who are genuinely happy for us and want to help make our day special makes such a difference. We are super grateful for our tribe of mature, rational, generous, beautiful people.

Having a bit more life experience keeps things in perspective. When you plan a wedding in your twenties, it’s a huge undertaking. We don’t necessarily understand how everything works, or what we really want versus what other people make us feel pressured to do. For the young couple, the wedding might be their only focus for months as they obsess over every detail, and by the time the big day comes they are totally over it.

In our forties, we have day jobs, kids, schedules and all kinds of balls to keep in the air. While the wedding is definitely a big ball, it’s one of many. Since my fiancé proposed to me, we have built a house, moved, remodeled and sold a house, I changed jobs, sent my son away to college, his daughter started high school and we’ve had all kinds of things to do.

On New Year’s Day, we had a day off with nothing planned. I got in the bed with my laptop and a bottle of champagne, and scheduled a month’s worth of tours and tastings. By the end of January, our wedding was basically done. We had a blast visiting venues, bakeries, and caterers, and didn’t stress over any of it. We knew what we were looking for, we had discussed our budget and knew how much we wanted to spend, and genuinely enjoyed the process of everything coming together. The decisions were super easy, because we worked together to find options that made us both happy.

That’s probably the best thing about wedding planning in our forties: we just want to make each other happy. Younger couples might get stressed out and start fighting about the little things. We tend to focus on the bigger things, and work  to make sure we are both getting what we want. We communicate well, and don’t mind taking our time and exploring all options before making a choice. At the end of the day, we realize that our relationship and commitment to each other is more important than the party we are planning to celebrate it, and would not allow silly things like place cards, musical selections or rented folding chairs to come between us.

Getting married in our forties is super awesome because we both know what we’re doing. We’ve been married before, and endured painful divorces. We’ve both been single parents, and worked tirelessly to give our children nice lives. We both understand the commitment we are making to each other, and neither of us takes that lightly.

Our relationship is strong and supportive, and much like the wedding we’re planning, it’s easy and fun. We know that the party will be exciting and special, but the after party is where the real focus should be- and I’m not talking about our honeymoon. The next fifty trips around the sun together are the main event we are preparing for, and at our age, I think it’s much easier to keep our focus there. We have solid priorities, common goals, and great big dreams for our life together. Our wedding is just the beginning.

 

 

 

Photo credit: Pixabay

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Communicate Like a Big Girl, Because he can’t Read your Mind.

Imagine you are driving to work one morning on your usual route. You merge onto the interstate, and slide over to the left lane where you set your cruise control and stay for a while. You’re obeying all of the traffic laws- you have your seat belt on, you’re within the posted speed limit, you’re maintaining your lane just fine, your tags are current and your vehicle is in good repair. You’re doing everything right, so, when you see blue lights flashing in your rearview mirror, you’re caught off guard.

You pull onto the shoulder, put the car in park and roll down your window. When the police officer approaches, you have your license and registration waiting for him.

“Do you know why I pulled you over this morning?”

“Actually, no. I had my cruise control set, so I know I was not speeding…”

“No, you weren’t speeding. I pulled you over because you were driving your blue car in the left lane. Blue cars can only drive in the right lane.”

“What? That’s ridiculous! I’ve never heard of that before!”

“Well, it’s the law as of today, so I have to write you a ticket…”

“But, I didn’t even know that was a thing! That’s a dumb law! What difference could it possibly make what color my car is?”

“If you paid attention, you might know these things. Here’s your ticket.”

He hands you the ticket, and you go nuclear. Now you have to pay a fine for something you didn’t even know you were doing wrong, and you still don’t know what in the lemon-scented fuck the color of your car even has to do with anything. The next morning, you might want to pick a different route to avoid the interstate, or call out of work altogether.

The most frustrating part of this scenario is that you’re being held accountable for expectations that were not communicated to you. You’re learning the rules to the game one by one as you unintentionally break them – and they keep changing- so you never know what is expected.

And, so it is in relationships when expectations are not clearly communicated. We expect our partner to know what we want, what we like, where we want to go, what gifts to buy- without us ever giving them such information. Then, if they don’t meet our unspoken expectations, we get upset and make them feel like they have failed us, because they didn’t read our minds and do the thing we secretly expected them to do, but never asked them for. It’s bullshit- like getting a ticket for driving your blue car in the left lane- but we do it without even realizing it sometimes.

In Buddhist philosophy, we learn that attachment is the root of all human suffering.

When we have expectations that we do not communicate to our partner, the suffering is two-fold. Because we’ve got our heart set on a certain mystery thing, if they don’t deliver, we might be disappointed- even hurt. Our attachment to the thing we were expecting may make us feel like our partner doesn’t know us as well as we wish they did, or like they haven’t paid attention to the hints we’ve been dropping, or tuned into the telepathy we just know we’re sending them. When we don’t get what we want, we may sulk and express our disappointment. Then, our partner suffers because even though they didn’t know what we wanted from them,  if they tried to do something nice for us and we don’t appreciate it (because it’s the thing they chose instead of the thing we were secretly wishing they would do) they may feel totally dejected. They may feel like their best isn’t good enough for us, or that they can’t make us happy, no matter how hard they try.  This feeling is quite disheartening, and does not foster the intimacy and connection we are all looking for in our relationships.

Our attachment to our unspoken expectations creates suffering for everyone. This is why we must communicate with our partners, and learn to release our attachments and live in the moment.

I have the privilege of being a mommy to grown children. As they navigate their romantic relationships, I am honored that they often come to me for advice. Hands down, communication is the number one thing we talk about. Communication is at the root of almost every issue every couple has. Learning to express our needs, wants, boundaries, expectations, and emotions to our partners honestly and openly is crucial for the health of our relationships.

Most likely, this is not news to anyone. At the logical level, we understand that communication is important. So, why do we hold back? What keeps us from openly expressing ourselves and telling our partner what’s on our minds?

Fear of vulnerability, for one. No matter how much we trust our partner, it’s always just a tiny bit terrifying opening up to them and revealing things that feel uncomfortable. We may fear judgement or rejection. We may fear that our partner will think of us differently because of what we’ve shared, and if they think of us differently, that might change our relationship. The great news is, vulnerability typically opens doors we didn’t know were closed. When we take that scary step and share our secrets with our partner, it gives them the opportunity to look at us with more empathy and compassion. When we reveal our humanness, it creates space for them to share their own humanity with us. And, as we share together, our connection grows deeper. We build trust, intimacy, and overall stronger, more resilient bonds through sharing with each other openly.

Feelings of unworthiness may also make us hold back in our relationships. Maybe a past relationship, or even childhood wounds, taught us that our needs and wants are unimportant or burdensome. Maybe we don’t feel like we deserve to have the good things we crave. We may feel selfish, guilty, ashamed- even embarrassed- to tell our partner what we really need and want. The only thing we can achieve by not expressing these things to our partners is resentment for us, and frustration for them. We have to trust that our partner wants us to be happy. They want to please us and give us everything we’ve ever wanted. But, when we don’t communicate what those things are, it leaves them in a constant guessing game- one that they rarely win.

It’s completely unfair for us to hold our partners accountable for expectations we’ve never expressed.

Sometimes, we don’t talk to our partners about our needs and expectations because we don’t even know what they are. We are all constantly learning, growing and evolving. Our needs, values, opinions, and desires may shift with us through the years. I think younger couples may have more difficulty expressing themselves because they are still getting to know who they are as individuals, and can’t communicate something to their partner that they are not aware of. They are learning as they go, and often times learn what they want and need by not getting it. This can create a volatile dynamic where each person feels like they are not heard or understood.

This is not unique to young couples, as older folks can also struggle with self-awareness. Some people jump from relationship to relationship so quickly, they never invest the time it takes to get to know themselves. This creates sort of a chameleon personality, where they are constantly shifting themselves to fit into a relationship with someone else, then blaming their unhappiness on the other person, when really, they are unhappy because they don’t know who they are as an individual. If we don’t know how to make ourselves happy, it’s impossible to teach a partner what we need in our relationship.

And, ladies, we have got to stop playing games with our guys. This is a big one I coach my kids on, but I definitely see grown folks doing this, too. When he asks you something like, “Hey, Valentine’s Day is coming up. What do you want to do?” If you respond with, “I don’t know, whatever you want to do…” you have to make an agreement with yourself that whatever happens after that will be exactly what you wanted, because it’s exactly what you asked for. If you are secretly hoping he will take you to that fancy steak house downtown, but you don’t tell him that’s where you want to go, you don’t get to be mad when he takes you to your favorite sports bar instead. If you want flowers, tell him. You want to go to a show, tell him. If you don’t tell him, he won’t know, and if he doesn’t know, you can’t be upset with him.

We have two choices: either communicate our expectations clearly to our partner, or let go of our attachments and let everything be a happy surprise. Of course, there are non-negotiable things in relationships like fidelity, honesty, and mutual respect. These expectations should be discussed, and are fine to hold onto as they are the backbone of our commitment to one another. Communicating honestly about what you need to feel safe and secure in your relationship will pay dividends as you grow together. This is a wonderful time to unpack your baggage with your partner. Talk about your past, your triggers, your fears and dreams. These conversations are the cornerstone of a healthy union and cannot be substituted with any amount of hot sex, common interests, or wearing matching outfits.

For the little things, if we practice mindfulness and stay in the present moment, we will not venture out into the future to decide how things should be before they happen. When we are present in each moment, and allow things to happen without trying to control everything, life can bring us beautiful surprises we never expected. We will meet our partner with more gratitude and appreciation, because we will be there with them in the present moment, instead of clinging to our expectations and feeling disappointed. Allowing our partners to be creative and give to us from their hearts keeps life fun and exciting. We may find that our partners think of things we’ve never thought of before. When our lovers feel engaged and appreciated, they want to do everything they can to make us happy. The more they give to us, the more we want to give back to them, and we live in a beautiful circle of generosity, creativity, and feeling loved, appreciated, and delighted. This is truly how every relationship should be.

As much as we might wish our lover could read our mind- they can’t. They can’t do it anymore than we can, and it’s not fair to expect them to. We have to be big girls and tell our guys what we want- in the bedroom, our communication styles, what our love language is, the level of commitment we desire, where we like to go, what we like to do, what our deal-breakers are- it’s our job to make sure our partner knows all these things and more. Initiating these conversations, hopefully, will allow you to learn about your partner as well, so you can give to him all the wonderful things he gives to you.

No one wants to play a game they can never win. Our unspoken needs and wants, and our attachment to them, might make our beloved feel like they’re getting a ticket for driving a blue car in the left lane. Eventually, they’re going to want to park that car and go get on the bus where things make sense and the rules are predictable. But, if we can be brave and communicate our expectations and desires, we create opportunities for our partners to get it right every time. When we set our lovers up to win, everyone wins.

 

Photo Credit: EIF PCUSA

Kids are Resilient, and Unicorns are Real.

My kids are incredible humans. They’ve been through a lot in their lives, which has shaped them into kind, compassionate, wise young people. My son and I were up late the other night talking about relationships, when he said something amazing to me.

“I don’t want to settle, mom. I see how happy you and Matt are, and I want that kind of love. I want to wait for something like that.”

His sweet words brought tears to my eyes, and I realized that he has watched me come full circle.

My kids had a front row seat for some of the worst years of my life. One of my greatest regrets as a mother was that I stayed in a toxic, broken marriage for many years longer than I should have. I was weak, depressed, lonely, disengaged, and hopeless. I felt trapped. Lost. I wasted precious years believing that I deserved to be miserable, and wore my wedding ring like shackles, all the while believing that I was doing something good for my kids. I didn’t want them to be from a broken home, then I realized that it was even worse for them to be living in one.

I hated the example I set for my kids. Having grown up in a home full of dysfunction and abuse, I knew that unhappy parents couldn’t raise happy kids. I really wanted to give them the healthy, happy home I wished for all my life. I wanted to give them the mother I needed when I was small. I wanted to model a healthy, loving, supportive marriage for them.

Instead, I allowed things to happen in our home that never should have. I avoided our problems, just like my mother did, just like I always said I wouldn’t. I was little more than a doormat for most of their childhood, unable to stand up for myself or for them.

I felt like a failure.

When I finally left his father, my son was twelve. He watched me twist in the wind, hollow and afraid. I thought leaving would be the key to my happiness. I didn’t know that just beyond our picket fence was the wilderness I would have to wander through to find a version of myself I could stand to look at in the mirror.

My kids watched me claw my way through returning to the workforce after nearly a decade of being a stay at home mom. They watched me pull myself out of the pit of my own self-loathing, go to therapy, and learn how to love myself, express my emotions in healthy ways, and find my voice. They watched me become empowered, confident, and free. Magically, we all began to heal and adjust to our new normal as a family of three.

Mid-metamorphosis, I took an intentional year of celibacy and solitude. I put a ring on my own finger, and I dated myself. I spoiled myself rotten with little gifts. I bought fresh flowers every week to keep on my kitchen table. I tried new things, met new people, traveled alone, took myself out for solo movie nights, and fancy dinners in pretty places. I took all the time, attention, energy, and love that I would have poured into a relationship, and poured them into myself . I got to know myself without the expectations and opinions of others, and let go of years of pain. I discovered interests and talents I didn’t know I had. I started building the life I wanted to live with intention and purpose, instead of letting life happen to me.

When I emerged from my chrysalis of self-care, I was a completely different person.

I didn’t think I would ever get married again. I was prepared for a long happy life with a herd of shelter cats in our modest home with a small library in it. I think in our culture we assume sometimes that single people are lonely. I was never lonely. I was active, engaged in a community of wonderful friends, volunteering, practicing yoga, dancing, becoming a published author, advancing in my career, and going on all kinds of adventures. I was finally happy- happy with myself, and happy by myself. The last thing I wanted was to fall down another rabbit hole to hell and end up in another miserable marriage.

But, then, I met Matt. As hard as I tried to analyze and over analyze everything he said to find the lies, there weren’t any. He was genuine and kind. When he made a promise, he kept it. When he said he would do something he did it. When he said he would be somewhere, he always showed up. It was super weird. I had never seen anything like it.

Matt is the quintessential Southern gentleman. As it turns out, chivalry is not dead. He opens doors, he pulls out chairs, he holds a strong arm across my chest when the car comes to a sudden stop, he treats people with respect and goes out of his way to help when there is a need, he calls me Beautiful like it’s my name. He’s an amazing dad to his daughters, and has become a huge part of my kids’ lives as well.

As our relationship grew deeper and we peeled back the layers of our lives and began to mesh them together, I realized that I had waited my whole life for him. He is the gentle, loving father I wished for as a little girl. He is the attentive, affectionate, sweet, supportive man that I wished for all the years my soul atrophied in the hands of a man who couldn’t love me. I had lived my whole life believing that my expectations were unrealistic– that kind, loving, honest men didn’t exist. Then, I met Matt, who is basically a unicorn, and my wishes came true.

I can honestly say that my relationship with Matt is the first healthy relationship I’ve ever had with a man. We come to the table as equals, we communicate effectively, we support each other in everything we do, we work hard together, and oh my gods do we play. Life is fun, and exciting, and we just seem to get better and better together. I never thought I would get married again, until I saw how wonderful a marriage could be if you find the right partner and invest the time and attention it takes to cultivate a happy life together.

I still regret that I wasted so many years being unhappy, and that I wasn’t fully present for my kids. I wish I had given them the best of me, and a better example. But, I am so grateful that they got to watch me fight for my life and become the woman I was born to be. I’m grateful that with my husband-to-be, I can show them an example of a strong, healthy marriage now. Truly, knowing that my son finds our relationship worthy of emulation is an honor. It makes me feel like I finally got things right.

I’ve heard children of divorce say that they will never get married, because they don’t want to live through the hell they watched their parents suffer, or put their own children through the pain that comes from unraveling a family unit. It makes my heart happy to know that my children are resilient, and that our divorce didn’t destroy their desire to find love and make families of their own someday.

In 78 days, my sweet son will walk me down the aisle, where Matt will be waiting with our daughters. Matt’s dad will read some pretty words, and tell us to exchange rings, and we will promise to love and cherish each other until we are parted by death. I will make that promise and mean it with my whole heart. Because, if life has taught me anything, it’s that unicorns are real, and when you find one you keep it and take really good care of it. Marriage can be tricky, and life is never certain, but when you have a partner who is willing to get in the trenches with you and help you find your way back out, you do everything you can to meet them with the same level of compassion and commitment.

It is my hope and wish that seeing the changes in me, and the contrast of my life today as compared to a decade ago will help my children find their own unicorns out in the world. (I’m pretty sure my daughter already has.)

I want them to love themselves enough to enjoy their own company until their perfect partner arrives to elevate them and take them to that next level of happiness and fulfillment in their lives. I want them to experience honest, unconditional love and mutual respect. I want to continue to show them what a happy, healthy marriage looks like, and how to work with their partners to make all of their dreams come true.

I’m grateful for every experience that brought me to this place in my life, where finally, I feel like I’m giving my kids an example I can be proud of. I hope that if nothing else, they can look at my life and see how powerful it is to invest in yourself and make necessary changes. When we do the work to become our best selves, we attract the right people to help us continue growing and evolving. And when we find that perfect partner, literally anything is possible- there are no dreams too big when you find your unicorn.

 

 

 

Photo credit: PxHere

 

 

 

 

 

Resolution Revolution

As the new year quickly approaches, many of us are preparing for the same old, tired resolutions as every year before. Most of us probably want to lose weight, quit smoking or drinking <insert applicable vice here>, pay off debt, save for something special, or accomplish some illusive goal we’ve had our eye on. Here’s the thing: That whole “New Year New You” thing doesn’t work. We don’t magically become different people because we threw away last year’s calendar and hung up a new one.

We’ve all been through the process of setting a resolution, starting strong with changes on January 1st, and returning to business as usual by the middle of February. No matter how well intended, our plans for change often do not lead to the new lifestyle we seek. We find all the excuses we need not to follow through with the commitment that seemed like such a great idea in December.

Why is it so difficult to follow through on our New Year’s resolutions?

Usually, that thing we want to change is something we spent a long time enjoying. Our habits, routines, and patterns don’t just happen overnight. Just as it takes a long time to learn and reinforce our “bad” habits, it takes time to unlearn them, and replace them with “better” habits. When we make that resolution to change on a dime, and don’t find immediate success, we may become frustrated, throw our hands in the air, and pick up that cigarette, glass of wine, or donut, or whatever our thing is. Sometimes, gradual change through a series of  carefully calculated baby steps is more realistic and attainable.

A goal without a plan is just a wish. Just making the resolution is not enough. If we want to make a change, or accomplish a goal, we need a plan. We need to know what steps to take to get where we want to go. This might mean reading up on different eating plans, researching the different smoking cessation programs, or learning about new investment options. We may need to  break our big goals into smaller steps that feel manageable. We need a timeline, and benchmarks, and ways to measure our success along the way. And, dammit, we need some little rewards built into our plan to celebrate our progress, and our continued commitment to our goal. Like, if I get my office cleaned and organized, I can go to the used book store and shop until my little heart is content. (I do not recommend rewards that are counterproductive to your long term goal, like food rewards for weight loss or spending sprees for debt reduction.)

Many times, our resolutions are things we intend to accomplish all by ourselves, so we plan to go it alone. When challenges come, and they will, we need the support of our friends and family to keep us going. Sometimes, we need advice from professionals, mentors, or experts. Whatever our intended change, it will feel easier if we assemble a team to keep us going. This might mean picking a workout buddy so those long nights in the gym don’t feel so lonely, choosing a meal plan that the whole family can live with, or setting up accountability check-ins with a friend. This might also look like hiring a financial advisor, attending a workshop to sharpen a skill, or finding a group or class to join.

Resolutions aren’t always authentic. Sometimes, we make resolutions to change the things we think we “should” change. Maybe, we decide to change for a parent or a partner. Maybe, we feel pressure from a specific person in our life, or from society, the media, or another external force. Maybe, we’re getting drug along on our partner’s resolution, or making a resolution with a friend that we are less passionate about than they are. Here’s the deal: You have to want to make the change for you. It has to be your commitment to do something to improve your health, quality of life, financial security, or sense of life satisfaction. No amount of prodding from our loved ones is going to motivate us to change. Our motivation must come from within.

Resolutions are typically negatively focused. We want to quit something. We don’t want to be overweight. We don’t like something about ourselves, or our situations, so we decide to change it. Shifting to a positive focus can help us become more successful in meeting our goals. Instead of beating ourselves up with propaganda from diet culture, “earning our meals” in the gym, and otherwise starving and beating ourselves into shape, what if we just make choices each day that support our health? Instead of a list of forbidden foods, what if we focus on the foods we know make our bodies healthy and strong? Instead of workouts we dread, why not find ways to build physical activity into our days in ways that we look forward to? Instead of cold turkey, white knuckle, giving up that thing we’re addicted to, why not start by setting some limits and gradually working toward quitting for good? Focusing on the benefits of the change, and ways to do it that feel nice will always yield better results that trying to force ourselves to give up what we love and do stuff we hate.

Finally, big changes happen in little steps we take every day. If we want to make changes that last, we have to build routines that support them. This takes time, patience, consistency and commitment. Diving into something this January full force is great, unless we’re burned out with it by March and go back to our old habits. If we want to see real results this time next year, we have to plan little steps we can make each day, to meet our realistic short term goals we’ve set, that will eventually lead us to the big goal we desire. Yes, this likely means making some sacrifices, forgoing some short-term pleasures, and maybe even walking away from some things we enjoy. But, if we focus on the satisfaction we will feel by accomplishing that big thing we want to do, the short-term sacrifices are worth it.

2019 is our year to revolutionize the resolution by replacing our empty wishes with real life action plans. If we can take our big dreams, break them into small, reachable goals, and commit to baby steps, in the form of little changes to our daily routine- there is literally nothing we cannot do- especially with the support of a few good friends. Shifting our focus away from the things we do not want, and toward the end result we desire will help ensure our success. Your best life is right on the other side of your comfort zone. This is the year to go get it.

 

 

 

 

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