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The Spring of Something — or Someone — Else

Until this past June, my life had pretty much been all about me. But then a little blonde-haired, blue-eyed angel/alien entered the world and co-opted my selfish instincts for himself. I suppose since his needs pertained to more life or death issues (“feed me or I’ll whither away”) than my own (“but I really want a beer right now”), this move was justified. But man is it an adjustment. The irony is that one of the reasons my husband and I decided to move into the “next phase of life” and have a kid was because we felt like our lives were becoming too much about us – we wanted to be more generous with our minds and time; worry about things other than our own increasingly repetitive issues; break the 20-turning-30-something habit of navel gazing and stare at someone else’s infinitely cuter navel. Careful what you wish for. Goodbye us and me — hello baby!

Let’s start with an example:

The other day nature called. But baby had fallen asleep on my front in the Baby Bjorn during our afternoon stroll. Solution? Sit on that porcelain God with baby strapped to my body, the entire time thinking this is wrong this is weird this is wrong ew ew ew. Baby survived un-disturbed, at least so we’ll pretend until the therapist bills roll in during his tweens because he “can’t seem to go without having a really uncomfortable feeling he can’t quite place.” Sorry future son.

And maybe one more because this is fun:

How about every second and every decision of every day. Can we leave for the Cape at 10? Nope, gotta wait until sweet pea is fed, otherwise he’ll lose his shizz in the hot traffic on 93. Can I wear that dress to that wedding? Nope, gotta find one with boob accessibility. Can we watch a movie? Nope, dear angel has reached his limit after 7 minutes of tummy time. Can I grab lunch with a colleague? Nope, sorry mama, you’ll need to guzzle that sandwich in one bite while leaning over the sink because the physical incarnation of the twinkle in our eyes is hungry/tired/frustrated/bored/does it matter why he’s crying?

But we (meaning anyone that has chosen to become a parent) asked for this, right? This is the full life we all imagined. Maybe we’ve traded in the white picket fence for a too-small parking spot in the city and the golden retriever for a plant that really is trying so hard to live (sorry Fitz), but the cherry on top of this blissful sundae has always been a child. A little photoshopped version of its parents to carry the torch into the future long after our own light has gone out.

Is there any more optimistic move than to introduce a new life into this muddled world? Or, I suppose, (enter double-irony) more selfish move?

We wanted this human to remind us that there is more to existence than worrying about where we live, what job we have, what our title is, what our salary is, whether we’re good enough, smart enough, powerful enough, pretty enough, happy enough…enough. In one fell swoop (if by “fell swoop” you mean 12 hours of labor after 9.1 months of pregnancy), a child sucks all those worries away and replaces them with a totally soul-crushing arrangement of eyes, nose, mouth and cheeks on a little noggin gently perched on top of a pudgy combination of body and limbs.

And then he breathes!

This little thing actually breathes! And cries, yes… but he breathes! And his heart beats and his eyes water and his fists open and close and, when you’re particularly lucky, his lips form a smile that makes your own heart sing. Suddenly your sole reason for being is to keep all those functions going. That’s it. Devising marketing strategies, assessing profitability, tackling stuffed inboxes, excel models and power point presentations — those fun activities have flown the coop. All troops are now assembled to help this little nugget become a boy and, sooner than anyone will expect, a man. In the midst of the sleepless chaos that is infancy, this child — for all his wailing and lovely scented diapers — has brought a calm to my mind and a singular sense of purpose I’d been desperately seeking.

In a caffeine-induced high or the occasional moments of parental triumph (e.g., that one time you got him to go to sleep before he became, dun dun dunnn, “over tired”), all the above is glorious. Living with blinders on makes the focus of your gaze quite important. And when it’s so damn cute, it’s not hard to allow it to consume you. But I realize one day, probably quite soon, the world outside my blinders will creep in and pull my gaze slightly away from our little miracle. I’ll return to worrying about all of the “[insert adjective here] enough’s” of life and inevitably feel torn between my duty as mom to our son and my other duty as me to myself — not to mention wife to my life-changing and -making husband.

But for now I’ll enjoy the cocoon that protects my son and me from the rest of the world and allows us to see and concern ourselves with only each other. At 3:17 am after being up and down since midnight, I’ll try to remember that I wished for this and that I’ll long for this evolving memory even more acutely when he’s coming home at 3:17 am after not texting when he said he would. I’ll kiss his little nose when he’s not expecting it, massage his tiny and, yes, slightly-webbed toes when he’s bored on a car ride, offer him my finger so he can learn to grab and whisper over and over just how much I love him every night when his eyelids get heavy, even though I know he hears nothing but a soft familiar sound.

As I fight in “the trenches” that are these early weeks of his life, I’ll look at this blonde-haired, blue-eyed angel/alien and see the promise of and hope for a better tomorrow that brought him here in the first place — and remember that, thankfully, it really isn’t about me anymore. It’s about a greater, more powerful, life-altering “us.”

Well, and a damn cute navel.

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If the blazer fits…

I think what we’re all trying to find is some semblance of control in our lives. Control in relationships. Control at work. Control over the dog. Control among friends and family.  Control over our coffee order at Starbucks (tall skim latte, please. Extra foam. 1.5 pumps of vanilla). Control of ourselves.

Depending on the day and the subject, I think I’m somewhat close to finding that “semblance:”

  • J and I quite happily have joint control of our marriage. A perfect balance of democracy and autocracy. Jason is king of fun. I’m king of logistics. And we’re each very grateful to be ruled in those kingdoms.
  • We have no dog – which I guess gives me absolute control of the animal in our lives: until we have a yard, negative on the canine, ghost rider.
  • Control among friends and family is something I’ve come to enjoy having out of my control, most of the time. I take no credit or responsibility for the sibling debauchery at bat mitzvahs or friends “borrowing” the remaining bottles of wine at the end of a rehearsal dinner – but I support every moment of it, one glass at a time.

Marriage, friends, family (and pets & coffee…) – these are the important things in life. But as I stare down the big three-oh-shit, it’s my job that stares back at me, with those beady little eyes hissing you haven’t conquered me yet, my precious.

If I’m in a zen state of mind, that doesn’t necessarily drive me nuts and make me feel like a kid in adult’s clothing (aka blazers). But in my standard state of mind, that lingering mountain bothers the crap out of me. And the invisible check-point at 30 makes me care how far I’ve climbed and how far I have left to go.

[enter: “career as mountain” metaphor]

The key for me, if I’m being honest here, is that I haven’t defined my mountain yet.

I’m a competitive climber. I’ll conquer any mountain. I spent my life to this point getting to the top of every mountain put in front of me. But I left the comfort of academia and athletics, and now there’s just this vista of mountains with nobody telling me which one to tackle first. Which one do I want to climb? Which mountains am I okay not climbing – even if it means someone else will climb it, conquer it, own it? And I never will.

At some point I just started climbing the incline that felt kinda right. Sometimes I worry I’ve chosen the wrong peaks to tackle. And often times I worry those peaks aren’t even parts of the same mountain.

I know the yoga/Oprah/papa bear wisdom: life is about the journey, not the destination. But it would be much easier to embrace the journey if I knew it was leading me somewhere I wanted to be – even if I never got there.

There are countless articles, blog posts, books, and scientific studies about this issue, I know. I’ve read many of them. How do I figure out what I’m meant to do? How do I find my passion at work? How do I live up to my potential? And then there are also the justified smack-that-attitude-in-the-face articles about how we should all shut up and just be grateful to have a job in this economy. I’ve read those too. And have major inner conflict now as a result, thanksverymuch.

But getting back to the topic of this post – control – I want to stop thinking about mountains. And I want to start thinking about control.

If you have control of your job, you have control of what you do with it – and what you don’t do with it. You have control over how much or how little it defines your life. You can decide to be a digital marketing consultant from 10-4 three days a week, and a writer from 9-3 two days a week. You can decide to take vacation at the last minute and work on the weekends to make up for it – or not. You can decide to sleep in late, and you can decide to work a half day so you can be there to watch, not just Suzie’s soccer game, but the warm-up too.

Let’s imagine that life for a moment (or your much cooler version of it), imagine what that would feel like. Close your eyes. Think about and visualize that life.

That feeling right there? That pitter patter of my little heart and euphoric mix of excitement and calm. That’s what control feels like. And that’s what makes the blazer fit right.

Control.

Now that’s something worth climbing for.

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What are we really sharing when we share everything?

As I wrote weeks ago – I quit Facebook. I’d been a card-carrying member of the Facebook community for about 7+ years. And according to Nielson/national averages, I’d probably spent about 672 hours or ~1% of those years actually on Facebook (at least). Disturbing. I’d completed the bulk of my profile. The basics of my background were represented – schools, degrees, birthday, hometown, current town, employment, etc. – as were a few more “personal” details of my life. I dropped in my favorite quotes, for instance, and even took a stab at “About Me.” (For the record, the best “About Me” I’ve ever found is: “Always is.”)

Compared to my Facebook friends, my profile was probably on the lighter side of average – though not a ghost town. I never populated the favorite books/movies/music section because I just couldn’t boil it down. I rarely endorsed a brand (intentionally, at least). But plenty go to town, listing every book they’ve read in the last 10 years (or thought would be impressive to include), every band they’ve ever heard, and every movie they can remember watching. (All of which can generally be found on a “Gen Y Top 100” movies list. There is shockingly little variation in that category.)

But even so, these are just the stats of our lives making up our version of collectible baseball cards. The good stuff comes in the status updates or wall posts. That’s where, a few sentences at a time, we can drop bread crumbs along the volatile journey of our lives.

Some people are more forthcoming than others in their status updates. Some use it to keep the world informed of their every movement. Others share quotes, song lyrics, insights or the one-liners they couldn’t quite pull-off in real-time conversation. Some people actually have intense debates about real issues (e.g., politics, religion, sexuality, etc.) on a wall. I always found this a bit extreme, but props to you guys for duking it out in public.

There’s plenty of discussion about how people (particularly younger people) are less and less concerned about privacy. We’re willing to share so much with the world in the name of convenience and connection. From credit cards to employment history to awkward high school photos – not to mention the ultrasound images that are now popping up everywhere.

But what are we really sharing when we “share everything?” How is this information-sharing, social networking, and constant engaging actually bringing us any closer to understanding each other?

I ask because a few posts into my blog “career,” I started getting some nice emails from readers. As my posts turned a bit, shall I say, “darker,” I started getting some slightly more serious emails from concerned readers. Apparently not being happy in cyberspace catches people’s attention.

This concern and actual outreach got me thinking. Like so many others, I’d shared quite a bit in Facebookland and Twitterville. Not in as much detail, sure, but enough. Enough to at least deserve a retweet, a like – and maybe even a comment. Enough to know that other people were watching, reading… judging (“Look at the baby, look at the baby.” Sorry, Old School tangent…).

But now, wearing my heart on my blog, so to speak, people reached out in a way that implied they really knew me, were concerned for me, wanted to connect – far better than Facebook ever allowed.

Part of this realization is a no-brainer. Duh, obviously you can share more on a blog. What  are 140 characters vs. a few sentences vs. (endless) paragraphs? But the other part is a bit more of a, well, yes-brainer. Or at least a maybe-brainer.

This outpouring (or, let’s be honest, out-sprinkling) of reader support caught me by surprise because I didn’t think what I was writing was any more confessional than what millions of people reveal on a daily basis – in big and small digital moments.

Similar to how excessive violence in readily available media has made us increasingly numb to real-life horror (and challenges Hollywood to deliver ever-more realistic/horrific action sequences to hold our attention) – excessive information sharing is downgrading what we used to think of as personal, to public. And is raising the stakes for what kind of information exchange is necessary to really know and connect with someone.

Everyone can find a person’s birthday, current location, hometown, occupation, photo. It’s not even hard to find someone’s favorite book, quote or movie – recent activities, break-ups, marriages, etc. But it is hard to actually know what any of that means to a person just by scanning through their profile and twitter feed.

All I’m saying, I suppose, is that this is just further support for my decision to shutdown my Facebook account. Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections and Twitter followers don’t mean as much as we’re led to believe. Because, despite sharing quite a lot, we really know very little about each other. Which makes me wonder what, exactly, is the point of having so many friends and being so connected and endlessly followed if we really don’t and aren’t? It reminds me of so-called celebrity syndrome. Everyone loves you – but nobody knows you. And you’re ultimately all alone.

Connecting offline (or, as we used to call it, “hanging out”) matters. I have a feeling that 5 minutes of real-life interaction leaves us feeling 10 times happier and more fulfilled than 50 minutes of Facebook stalking. So let’s talk. Laugh. Maybe grab a drink. See what happens. And if all else fails – hide behind a blog.

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Embrace who you are from a place of strength

In the last 24 hours, the strangest thing happened. I was sad. I took a Myers-Briggs test. And I got happy. That NEVER happens.

Myers-Briggs tests usually piss me off to no end and leave me feeling helpless. (Try it and see for yourself!)

I hate the idea that my personality can be defined. And that, based on my personality type, I’m destined to do (or not do) certain things. I have a real aversion to my future being beyond my control.

I’ve taken a test three times now. Each time I was in a very different place in life and, from what I can vaguely recall, I’ve received a slightly different four-letter label each time. The first time was in Harvard’s sad excuse for a career center (“Oh, I’m sorry, you don’t want to go into finance or consulting?”). The second time was as part of a new employee-engagement initiative at Edelman. And the third time was last night.

In the past, I’ve found Myers-Briggs to be counter-productive and, frankly, “bollox.” People don’t lend any credibility to their personality descriptions. They gloss over and/or disagree with it completely. What they do read and take as Biblical truth is the “recommended careers” and “other famous/successful people with this psychological type” sections. We don’t care who/what we are – we care what it’s gonna get us.

Particularly when delivered in a career context (not to mention a corporate office), there’s a clear hierarchy to personality types. If you want to be successful (in business), be an ENTJ (The Executive”). Why? Because, while only 3% of the population is an ENTJ, practically 100% of Fortune 500 CEOs are ENTJs – not to mention some of  history’s most powerful people: Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, FDR, Hillary Clinton and Warren Buffett (at least according to this website).

So – in classic Sara fashion – when I took the test last night and it spat out ENFJ, I immediately took it again to see how I could manipulate my responses to switch my F for a T. Sadly (and probably because I actually am an F more than a T), I came back a little less F-ish, but still F.

F.

Well – then I started to actually read the description of an ENFJ, “The Giver.” And I decided to lay down my arms and take ownership of/pride in my personality type (heck, I have Oprah, Obama and Clinton on my side, babyyy).

In fact, recognizing myself in the description lifted an enormous weight. I felt a huge sense of relief when I read that, while it’s important for ENFJs to spend time alone, it’s often difficult “because they have the tendency to be hard on themselves and turn to dark thoughts when alone.” BINGO!

And…

“An ENFJ who has not found their place in the world is likely to be extremely sensitive to criticism, and to have the tendency to worry excessively and feel guilty.”

DING! DING! DING!

This is also probably why I’ve always felt so pissed off (or guilty and excessively worried) that I couldn’t be an ENTJ – a corporate employer’s dream hire:

“ENTJs are natural born leaders. They live in a world of possibilities where they see all sorts challenges to be surmounted, and they want to be the ones responsible for surmounting them. They have a drive for leadership, which is well-served by their quickness to grasp complexities, their ability to absorb a large amount of impersonal information, and their quick and decisive judgments. They are ‘take charge’ people.

ENTJs are very career-focused, and fit into the corporate world quite naturally. They are constantly scanning their environment for potential problems which they can turn into solutions. They generally see things from a long-range perspective, and are usually successful at identifying plans to turn problems around – especially problems of a corporate nature. ENTJs are usually successful in the business world, because they are so driven to leadership. They’re tireless in their efforts on the job, and driven to visualize where an organization is headed. For these reasons, they are natural corporate leaders.”

I really, really, reeeeeallly wanted to be an ENTJ. Read those paragraphs! They reek of the kind of “success” that type-A’ers have been told they are destined for (any less would be underachieving). You can almost see the view from the corner office on the top floor! Smell the leather chair?

Alas, I’ve been F’ed. But I’m having a better time embracing my F (and E, N, J), than I have in the past. It’s less of a death sentence and more of a context or framework. In overly simplistic terms – it’s like being a certain color crayon. You can draw the same picture with a red crayon as you can with a green. It’s just going to come together a little differently.

That said, I still want to challenge this assumption that ENTJs are somehow best suited for corporate success. The corporate world is changing. I think it’s becoming more F than T. And, to go back to the “100% of Fortune 500 CEOs are ENTJ” thing, 97% of Fortune 500 CEOs are also DUDES! (And generally white, kind of tall, with gray/white-ish hair, wearing a tailored Armani suit…).

And then, to bring it all the way back to my earlier post on women/effective leadership styles, as a woman who may or may not want to be a fortune 500 CEO and may or may not be an ENTJ, it’s in your best interest to be and lead as YOU (ENFJ, ENTJ, ISFP or whatever you happen to be) than to try to be and lead as a man. Or an ENTJ.

Ranting aside, I think the lesson I’ve learned in all of this is to embrace who you are from a place of strength rather than weakness. You are who you are. Not better or worse. You just are. And the sooner you can own up to your strengths, weaknesses, tendencies, insecurities, etc. without shame or self-criticism, the sooner you can become the best — and happiest — version of yourself.

At least, that’s my “feeling” opinion. As an ENFJ 🙂

Are You Okay?

Dear world,

I’ve been receiving a few “are you okay?” emails – ha – and I just wanted to clear the air/set the record straight. Yes, I am okay! Just overly honest and open about the way my mind works.

That said, I was looking back on my recent posts and have to admit that even I was tempted to send myself an email asking if I was okay.

The thing is, learning about ourselves, figuring out why we are the way we are and why we do the things we do – learning how to be happier as us – can often deliver great sadness, paradoxically. To be happy is to put the sources of sadness to bed. But in order to do so, you have to identify the sadness, shake hands and have a conversation with it, before you can send it off into the sunset. Learning ourselves is the hardest thing we’ll ever do. And many don’t take the time to do it.

The “Spring of Sara” was, among other things, me taking the time to do it.

I’m enormously grateful to have had the opportunity to take this time off to explore my passions and find out what makes me tick. But I’m also very excited to take a break from Sara School. It has been quite a learning experience – and not in the ways that result in a promotion, raise or a bonus (aka the way we more comfortably/typically denote “progress”). But, I’d like to think, in the ways that actually matter. (As Charles Wheelan put it, “You’ll never read the following obituary: ‘Bob Smith died yesterday at the age of 74. He finished life in 186th place.'”)

And because this process of figuring out who we are is ever-evolving and tends to last a lifetime, it’s hard to know when or where to put a stake in the ground and say “I made it” or “Because of all that thinking and internal battling, I am now X, Y, Z.” It takes a bit longer to be able to look back and appreciate the seasons of your own life, or see how the dots connect. And I think it won’t be until much later that I can see all the gifts of this experience.

That said, this is a blog. And the point of a blog is to share content, content, content. So before I clock back into the world of the employed on Monday, I’m hoping to put together a list of the important and not-so-important lessons I’ve learned in this “Spring of Sara.” Tie a nice little bow around this experiment.

Thanks to all of you who have taken this journey with me – particularly the ones who have made me feel less odd by admitting they occassionally feel the same way too 🙂 You have proven to me what I have always believed. We are never, ever alone.

Breakdown… breakthrough!

I loved this phrase until I realized it had already been co-opted and copyrighted by every self-help guru and his/her unborn children. Not to mention Jerry Maguire.

When your eyeballs last graced this blessed blog, I was in breakdown mode. Tailspin. I’d given myself 2.5 months to change my life. To become a better version of me. To attack my weaknesses – my demons – and conquer them for good. And yes, to become a wildly successful writer after never having written before. Pump out a novel, a screenplay and a damn good kids book. Get published in Slate, Salon and The New York Times. Because, why not? Six weeks is enough time. No. Big. Deal.

This was all fine and dandy at the start of my “sabbatical.” Anything was possible. But then, as I reached the end and looked around at my unfinished everything – I felt like a piece of shit.

The feeling came on slowly, but gained momentum rapidly – like an innocent snowflake that produces a gargantuan avalanche by landing at just the right time in just the right place. First it was listening to sadder music. You know, The Postal Service, Vertical Horizon, Death Cab for Cutie. Let’s be honest. Nothing good ever happened to anyone a few minutes after listening to “What Sarah Said” – particularly if that “anyone” happens to be named Sara.

Then I started taking long, aimless walks while listening to aforementioned sad music. I ended up in Central Park, fighting back tears as I watched drunk middle-aged men relive their glory days on the softball field. Two things happened: 1. I felt weirdly comforted by the plaques on the “In Memoriam” benches throughout the park; the ones that had heartbreaking remarks from friends and family about loved ones who had recently passed. 2. I really, seriously considered sitting down and talking to this guy:

Then I started googling “depression symptoms” and “definition of addictive personality disorder.” According to Dr. Wikipedia, people with addictive personalities “will show impulsive behavior such as excessive caffeine consumption, Internet usage, eating of chocolates or other sugar-laden foods, television watching, or even running.” As I read that definition, in my hand was my third cup of coffee. I was staring at Wikipedia. I was craving chocolate-covered gummy bears. And I was trying to decide whether to watch an episode of New Girl or go for a run first. “Outlook does not look good,” said the Magic Eight Ball. (Yes, there’s an online version of it. And yes I asked.) Crap. At one point I looked at my “recent search” log and had “depression quiz,” “predisposed for depression,” and “what’s wrong with me?” True story.

Seriously, Sara. Get. A. Grip.

I was living this spectacular life. In love with the greatest man on the planet. Taking time off from work was a blessing – a huge luxury. An opportunity. And yet here I was, by far more miserable than I had ever been while clocking in and out of my cube. All I could think was that I was stuck between two massive failures: on one side, the failure to churn out the greatest piece of writing since Moby Dick in six weeks (shocking); and on the other, my total failure to be happy. And trying to fix one side only seemed to make the other side even worse.

To bring it all back to the greatest movie ever made (Wedding Crashers), it was my Owen Wilson “I’m reading don’t kill myself books” moment. And I  just needed Vince Vaughn to walk in and ask to sleep over on my birthday.

Thankfully, Jason is the greatest Baba Ganoush there is and he helped me start to climb out of this hole I’d dug for myself. I was also able to talk it out with a few other kind souls. And it wasn’t even about what they said in response, but about voicing the sadness. Somehow by putting words to it, the end of the world seemed a lot more manageable and a lot less likely.

From this point on my recovery climb, just above the tree-line, I can see a few things more clearly. I’ve definitely come face to face with a lot of the darker parts of my personality. I had hoped that conquering them would have a faster turnaround time, but I guess these things aren’t like repairing a car or fixing a broken bone. You don’t put it in a cast and six weeks later – tada! – it’s fixed. It’s more like a bad sprain. It gets better. And while it never returns to pristine pre-sprain form, the joint is actually stronger in other ways. But you have to do your PT exercises and probably for the rest of your life. Build up the muscles around it so when you get knocked, you’re relying on more than just a ligament to hold you up.

In this case, the “muscles around it” are the people I love, and a series of larger realizations about who I am and what  makes me tick. To bring it all back to Mr. Maguire and his mission statement: “The things we think but do not say.”

And so, without further ado, The ThingsI Think but Do Not Say. Well, until now. Very much a work in progress:

  • I have ridiculously high and largely unrealistic expectations for myself. Being less than spectacular is not a failure. Expect less, enjoy yourself more.
  • The process of becoming takes time. Probably your entire life if you’re lucky.
  • Life isn’t fair. Hard work doesn’t always mean better results. Doing everything “right” doesn’t mean it won’t end up “wrong.” Bad things happen to good people. “Unjust” things happen every day. You might purchase a brand new beautiful vehicle and get rear-ended 32 hours later through absolutely no fault of your own (yes, it happened). Shit just happens. Roll with it. As Richard Bach wrote in Illusions (read it!), “The mark of your ignorance is the depth of your belief in injustice and tragedy.” It’s all part of your story – and can make for excellent bar conversation.
  • There’s no karma bank that invests in outcomes. But there probably is one that invests in your attitude. Pay it forward with positivity.
  •  Imperfection is liberating and far more authentic and interesting. Own up to your so-called “deficiencies” because they are what make you, you. Guarantee you’ll make better friends for it.
  • Don’t try to do something great. That’s entirely out of your control. Just try to be great at what you do. I think passion and enjoyment is a byproduct of putting in the time to master the job at hand. It’s nearly impossible to have an enduring love for something you cannot fully engage with.
  • At the end of the day, life doesn’t separate out into success and failure. Success isn’t the cost of entry into a better afterlife.
  • As much as I might fancy myself an intellectual introvert, being alone for too long makes me sad. Ain’t no way around it. Surround yourself with people who reflect the values you hold most dear. Engage with them. Be there for them. Talk to them. Get drunk with them. Do stupid and smart things with them. You’ll feel better.
  • There’s nothing important about doing something important.
  • Don’t judge. Don’t make snarky comments after the fact. Even if they’re funny. (Trust me, I know it’s a hard sacrifice to make.) You’ll live a fuller, calmer, more peaceful life. Sounds like a giant leap, but it’s true.
  • The deep, intense, dark-night-of-the-soul thinking that often accompanies “great writing” is largely unnecessary. Better books and better lives come out of happy thoughts. At least, that’s my opinion.
  • Be nice.
  • John Milton was right: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Richard Bach was also right: “Perspective – Use It or Lose It. If you turned to this page, you’re forgetting that what is going on around you is not reality. Think about that.” So was Samuel Butler: “The one serious conviction that a man should have is that nothing is to be taken too seriously.” And Robert Louis Stevenson: “The habit of being happy enables one to be freed, or largely freed, from the dominance of outward conditions.” And Samuel Johnson: “Consider, Sir, how insignificant this will appear a twelvemonth hence.” (Yikes, I’m sure plenty of women have said wise things too…)
  • Talk about the things that bother you for the sake of voicing them. But don’t expect anyone’s response to resolve them for you.
  • Cling to your ability to laugh at yourself. It can make all the difference.
  • And finally, when you’re at the very, very end of your rope. Call me maybe.

Until next time…

I have nothing to offer but my own confusion…

So what happens when an achievement-oriented, depressive and addictive personality takes an extensive leave from work? She goes crazy.

It’s officially happened, people. I’ve reached my limit. My breaking point. Living without the structure and steady feedback – positive or negative – of a job has left me lost, confused and unsure of how I measure up in the world. If it weren’t such a miserable experience and happening to me – I’d say this is fascinating! But being your own guinea pig is not always fun.

It’s so odd, because I think of myself as being pretty self-directed. I can set goals and achieve them. But it’s a whole lot easier when there is a clear system I’m playing in. Like in soccer, actually. I loved playing in a “system.” When it came to pick-up or goofing around, I was never as good as when I was on the field, playing within a structured 4-4-2.

Well, dear structure, I MISS YOU! COME SAVE ME!

The sad reality of the twisted world in my head – the thought that I was trying to destroy during this “Spring of Sara” – is that without accomplishing anything, my life means nothing. Without a star on the board or crossing a task off a list, I have to convince myself that I mean something. I have to make that determination myself in a vacuum. And sure, every Yoga instructor and therapist will tell you that learning out to determine your own worth is the key to lifelong happiness. But waking up every morning and deciding that I have value – that I have a reason for being – is really fucking hard after a while.

When you have a job, just showing up in the morning is some sort of accomplishment. Good for you, Sara! You made it into the office by 9! You win!  And how many mornings when I was working did I groan and complain as I headed, eyes half-shut, to the office? Plenty. Yet here I am, with nothing to wake up early for, and I feel insanely guilty sleeping past 7:15.

I wanted to take time off between jobs to pretend to be a writer for three months and see how it felt. To figure out if that is “what I’m meant to do” in this world. And, if it’s not, find out what is. Turns out “finding your passion” isn’t just some workshop you participate in. It’s not a book you read. It’s not a few long days in the mountains thinking really hard about it. You have to live your life and let your driving passion reveal itself to you, slowly and who-knows-when. Putting life on pause to figure it out has made it even more confusing. The harder I try to find it the more frustrated I get because I haven’t found it. And, frankly, the harder I try the less likely I probably am to find it.

Right now, I just want someone to tell me what to do. To send me an annoying bitchy email at 6:45 pm asking me to revise an entire proposal ASAP or asking for clarification on something I’ve already clarified a gazillion times. Or just ask me to schedule a stupid check-in meeting. Oh, Outlook how I miss you!

I’m realizing when it comes to “finding your passion,” there’s also the trick of finding one that still allows you to live a happy life. And on this point, right now I want to call bullshit on the incredibly frustrating and elusive aspiration that every life coach throws out there: do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. Bull. Shit. Do what you love and you might just lose the life you love – the full life that makes you happy. Don’t just do what you love. Do what makes you happy. A happy life is a passionate life!

If I were to become a full-time writer, the parts of my life that actually keep me from walking into oncoming traffic – the parts that matter – would suffer enormously. I’d get obsessive, dark, and reclusive. I’d get really heady. I’d think deeply all the time – which means I’d think about sad things. The kind of thoughts that make you feel completely insignificant as you come to realize just how big and impossible the world is.

Were any of the “great writers” happy? No. They were frustrated. Riddled with anxiety. Lost. They were pissed that they were burdened with the gift of writing — that they had to sacrifice their personal happiness for the greater good; to enlighten an ignorant public. It’s an incredibly egocentric mentality, but it’s true. The great writers thought they were saying what nobody else could say. And, truth be told, they probably were saying it in a way that nobody else could. But at what cost?

Of all possible careers, writing is apparently ranked 10th in terms of likelihood for depression. Delving into the scary recesses of the soul is not a journey for the faint of heart. Nor, it seems, for those who want to enjoy life. A depressed life is great literary material. But it can land you six feet under.

Let’s see…

  • Hunter S. Thompson – suicide.
  • Anne Sexton – suicide.
  • Virginia Woolf – suicide.
  • Ernest Hemingway – suicide.
  • Sylvia Plath – suicide.
  • David Foster Wallace – suicide.
  • Yukio Mishima – suicide.
  • Primo Levi – suicide.
  • Jack London – suicide.

I am keenly aware that depression/bi-polar/mania and creative prowess often go hand in hand. It is, well, In My Blood.

But don’t just take the Sedgwick word for it. According to an old NY Times article, “Exploring the Links Between Depression, Writers and Suicide,” writers tend to love sad threesomes with depression and suicide. Here are a few excerpts:

  • Kay Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University and the author of “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament,” said writers were 10 to 20 times as likely as other people to suffer manic-depressive or depressive illnesses, which lead to suicide more often than any other mental disorders do.
  • The novelist William Styron recounted his own battle with depression, told in his book “Darkness Visible,” and pointed to the warning signs of his illness in his novels. “I now realize that depression and thoughts of suicide have been an integral part of my creative personality throughout my life,” he said.
  • It is not surprising that these mood disorders seem most at home in the artistic mind. “The cognitive style of manic-depression overlaps with the creative temperament,” Ms. Jamison said. Researchers have found that in a mildly manic state, subjects think more quickly, fluidly and originally. In a depressed state, subjects are self-critical and obsessive, an ideal frame of mind for revision and editing. “When we think of creative writers,” Ms. Jamison said, “we think of boldness, sensitivity, restlessness, discontent; this is the manic-depressive temperament.”
  • Perhaps more than other artists, writers can be seduced by the attractiveness of suicide as a means of controlling their life story. Several speakers pointed out the tendency of suicide to become a powerful image or metaphor, one that takes root in the mind and flourishes. “Both Sylvia Plath and Sexton shared the notion that a great artist’s life must end in death,” Ms. Middlebrook said. “You stop before you write more bad stuff. Sexton applauded Hemingway’s suicide. She said ‘Good for him.'”

GOOD FOR HIM!?

At this moment, I choose happiness. Even if it’s meaningless. What makes me happy is getting shit done for other people. Whether it saves the world or just gives me an answer to “what did you do today?” – I have a similar feeling of satisfaction. The best I can say right now is that my passion is working with other people to achieve something – whether that’s my own dream or someone else’s. Being alone with my thoughts for too long is no bueno.

The inherent challenge, though, is deciding that’s enough – that happiness is the goal. And letting the chips fall where they may.

As always, there’s a great TED talk on this from psychologist Shawn Achor. Check it out. And have a happy day today.

The Daring Adventure of Moving Home

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
 

Five years ago I left Boston and never wanted to come back. Not even a little bit.

Five days from now I’ll be moving back to Boston – or “shipping up to Boston,” I should say. And I couldn’t be happier.

Plenty has happened in this half-decade. I finished a soccer career in Germany; moved to San Francisco; met my husband; got my first “real” job; went to Paris; cohabited; changed apartments – four times; got engaged; went to Rome; went to Vegas – three times; moved to New York City; got married; switched jobs; switched jobs again. But the activities of life are less important than the understanding they can bring. And in many ways I feel that I left Boston as someone else. And I’m coming home as me.

From a certain vantage point, you could say I’ve made a life out of leaving. Leaving Boston, leaving Harvard permanently and to study abroad, leaving Germany, leaving San Francisco, leaving New York City, leaving one job for another. Transience is a common state of being for a 20-something, I suppose. There’s something exhilarating about starting somewhere new as someone new, exploring, and then packing up to leave it all behind and begin again. But it can get lonely. Even if you have a partner in nomadic crime.

Eventually you want to be able to answer the question “Where are you from?” without running through a laundry list of cities. You want to recognize the strangers on your street. You want to be able to give directions without referring to your iPhone. You want to build a life and traditions with friends. After all this time spent running from home, eventually you want to create your own.

This is a very different tune than the one I used to sing. I was so relieved when I touched down on the West Coast and escaped the burden of the East Coast’s eat-or-be-eaten mentality. Living in San Francisco, Jason and I thought we had gamed the system, figured it all out, seen the light. But turns out paradise can get boring.

When Jason and I were experiencing the 3 year San Francisco itch, we finally conceded that no matter how hard we tried to conquer or ignore it, there was a New Englander in us desperate to get out. But as much as we wanted to go east, the idea of moving back to Boston was pregnant with a permanence that we weren’t quite ready for. New York City would be the glamorous truck-stop on the way home. We left the door open to the possibility of  making a life in the Big Apple. But four seasons later, our Apple had rotted. It was time to go home.

This will be the first time I’m “returning.” And as ready as I am, there’s some apprehension. Without the shiny distraction of “new” – life is a lot more real. You have to rely on yourself to create the feeling of adventure that is part and parcel of exploring new places. When you land somewhere new, the expectations are different, too. Surviving, in any capacity, is an achievement. Coming home, surviving isn’t as easily “enough.” And in the same way that we tend to revert to our childhood roles during family get-togethers, there’s the threat of reverting to who you were before you left, and forgetting who you’ve become since.

I suppose this next move is a bit of a test. A challenge to see if all this “growing” has been permanent or just a way of coping with new environments. I do believe that on some level a person is a person is a person, so to speak. We are who we are. But living in new places gives us a chance to see what parts of our personality are reactive and which are fundamental. To weed out the bad and nurture the good. Maybe we don’t really know how far we’ve come until we go back to where we started.

T.S. Eliot famously wrote that “home is where one starts from.” In this case it may also be where I end. But, to lean on Eliot a bit more, “In my end is my beginning.” Moving home is a new chapter. A new adventure. I may not be conquering a new place in the world, but I am certainly exploring a new place in life — boarding a flight to local-ville just outside wife-dom with a stop-over in car ownership, home ownership, and the possibility of a relocation to the suburb of mother-land.

In the end, though, if traveling has taught me one thing, it’s that a place is just a place. The people you share it with are what bring it to life. They are what change you – help you grow, if you let them. They are the adventure. Boston has no shortage of people – and some of my favorite people, at that.

“Coming back” may be the greatest adventure of all.

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There Is No Joy In Cooking

Yesterday’s attempt at culinary bliss wound up with me, in tears, staring at undercooked, egg-coated chicken clinging – with every fiber of its too-pink being – to what turned out not to be a non-stick pan. Pan – destroyed. Chicken – lethal. Integrity – lost. I should have photographed the event. I did everything right. I followed the recipe to a tee. I prepped. I diced what I was supposed to dice. I preheated. I tossed, marinated and oiled. I separated the egg whites. But I still fucked it up.

I suppose there’s a life lesson in there. You can follow directions. Do as you’re told. Do “all the right things” and still not get the result you want.

But as I stared at the milky-brown diced chicken carcass I had no interest in life lessons. I just wanted to cry, please. Thanks. Angry tears. Because…

  • This wasn’t fair. I’d done everything right!
  • I screwed up, yet again.
  • The chicken was not just ugly looking and not fried to a golden crisp. It was undercooked. It could’ve killed someone.
  • This was supposed to be a divine occasion during which I communed with Julia Child, Ina Garten and Alice Waters – not Gordon Ramsay and the Devil.
  • A chicken had died for this disaster.
  • All the stupid reviewers of this stupid recipe said how easy this dish was to cook. And I couldn’t even get the damn chicken off the pan. It’s still soaking.
  • I wanted to be able to do this so bad!

I’ll try again someday. Maybe not tonight. I think I’ll drink tonight and eat out. But I wanted to share this cooking catastrophe with the World Wide Web because I think there is a serious lack of honesty about culinary incompetency.

It is not easy. All the cooking websites, shows and recipes I see out there show a perfect, Martha Stewart-esque person cooking in a perfect sunlit kitchen – probably in the Hamptons – producing perfectly fried chicken on the first try by combining perfectly chopped, stirred and whisked ingredients. They open the oven and pull out their immaculate conception with such pride. They wave the aroma into their freshly de-haired nostrils. They serve dinner – with the greatest of ease – to their 2.5 beautiful Ivy League-educated children and devoted husband, George Clooney.

Compared to me, these women (typically) are like Victoria’s Secret models. Aliens. Sent to this earth to make me feel inadequate.

I’m just here to stand up for the culinarily-challenged, cowering in shame after tossing yet another over-cooked, over-salted and otherwise inedible chunk of meat in the garbage. Just because we can’t cook, doesn’t mean we’re lesser beings. Just because we can’t do it now, doesn’t mean we can’t do it eventually. And just because we may never do it perfectly, we can try. We can pretend not to be shocked when the food is edible. We can smile and laugh when we fuck up. And we can order Chinese better than anyone.

So cook on, my friends. And remember it’s the journey, not the plated destination.

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Finding the Joy in Cooking

The kitchen and I have never gotten along particularly well. I stumble around, move my fingers awkwardly, drop things. I’m a fish out of water. I focus too much on the recipe yet still forget details. Forget timers. Forget ingredients. For instance, last week I tried to make brownies from a mix and when I removed the final product from the oven, I realized I had a perfectly measured cup of oil still sitting on the table.

Growing up I’d eat what was put in front of me without much thought or fuss. I was hungry. I ate. I moved on. When it came to feeding myself by myself, I happily resorted to canned soup, meal bars, take-out or pasta. In fact, in the 6 months that I lived in Italy – the mecca of food appreciation – I cooked a real meal twice. Otherwise I ate yogurt in the morning, a meal bar in the afternoon, canned soup in the evening, and random fruit or snacks from a shop if I got hungry during the day. I’m ashamed of this fact. But I think it aptly exemplifies the realization that smacked me across the face this weekend while Jason and I were in the middle of a professional cooking lesson (thanks to a sweet wedding gift). I’ve never found any joy in food.

Food was fuel. A means to an end. A solution to hunger. An expense. Something to moderate.

Now, don’t get me wrong. In a basic way I appreciate a good meal. I notice when food is good or fundamentally bad. I love going out to great restaurants. But at the end of the day, unless I overpaid for a crummy meal or wound up with food poisoning, it doesn’t particularly matter to me.

However, our cooking lesson whipped up some life lessons that made me finally want to care.

As our teacher casually fried a fish, diced and sautéed beats, folded chocolate into heavy cream, chopped tomatoes, separated eggs and squeezed lemon juice (all at the same time), she also shared her philosophy about food and cooking – which was really her philosophy about love and life. Hosted in our tiny kitchen, I had a little bit of a therapy session.

Food, she explained, is the foundation of a home. It is where happiness starts from. Sitting around a table and enjoying a meal is fundamental to a healthy, full family and life. Food is not fuel. Food should be sexual. Food is an experience to be enjoyed, shared, savored.

Not that it was the best movie ever created, but it made me think of Spanglish with Adam Sandler (chef husband, John), Tea Leoni (over-exercising, joyless wife, Deborah), and Paz Vega (their housekeeper and first generation Mexican immigrant, Flor). Deborah’s life (meant to represent the life of many a well-to-do white American housewife) was built on restriction and controlling human emotions/sexuality while Flor’s was built on love and embracing human emotions/sexuality – tasting and savoring life. Sitting at our kitchen table this weekend, I felt like Deborah. A prude, Puritan, American white girl.

People eat at least three times a day. Potentially share a home-cooked meal seven nights a week. How much joy have I missed out on by just dumping condensed tomato soup into a pot and stirring occasionally for 5 minutes? How much more joy could I bring to my world, myself, my husband, our future family if I could cook?

In America’s micro-apartments without a fireplace, the TV has become the hearth. But the kitchen needs to regain control of life’s focal point. Some of my favorite memories are sitting around the island in the kitchen at Jason’s family’s house while food is prepared and corks are popped. Someday Jason and I will be the conductors of the family’s food symphony (too much? yes). We’ll be the ones cobbling together a meal from today’s groceries and extraneous left-overs. We’ll be the ones who need to smile while we do it.

And so, my new life goal is to find the joy in cooking which I hope will open me up further to the joy of food – a wonderful symbiotic relationship. The fact that my culinary skills should land me on the short bus is an easy barrier to entry. But I think if I can work on shifting my larger philosophy about food, the actual cooking ability will come. Eventually. With practice. And a healthy glass of wine.

Bon appétit!

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