Don’t go cheap on your face (Day 13)

When I turned 13, my mother bought me a set of makeup from Clinique: a bottle of flesh-colored foundation; blush that came in a green marbled compact with a tiny brush; a mirrored box that slid out to reveal a tray of neutral eyeshadows in varying shades of brown; a subtle semi-gloss lipstick in a ribbed silver case called Mauve Crystal.

While most of my friends were buying cheap candy-colored nail polish and Wet ‘N Wild lipstick at CVS, I had the beauty regimen of a 30-year-old.

“You don’t go cheap on your face,” my mother said.

For a while now she had been pulling me into her bathroom to scrub blush onto my cheeks before school (“You look wan,” she said). I was the only one in junior high who had a dermatologist-issued moisturizer, a fragrance-free souffle in a jar that I had to tote with me wherever I went, even to the pool.

The message was clear: Your face is important, and you don’t muck it up with crap you bought for $4. If it was worth doing, it was worth doing well.

I credit this early training with my expensive Sephora habit, my avoidance of drugstore cosmetics, and my unquenchable demand for nothing short of the good stuff. I’ll reuse the same teabag 5 times in a day, but I’ll go all in for a good gloss in just the right shade of coral.

My sisters are aficionados of the face. They know exactly what MAC pencil has the right amount of glide, which mascara provides the most lift and reach. The perfect shimmery base, the most believable bronze. Their cheekbones are pronounced and their lashes are like jazz hands.

I like the stuff, but in my family I’m a chronic underuser. “Are you even wearing makeup?” my sister Kim leans in, peering at me through her ample lashes like two glossy fronds. The day she went into labor with her first child, Kim applied two waterproof coats of “Better Than Sex” mascara before grabbing her overnight bag and heading out the door.

I feel like I am wearing a lot of makeup. But it’s never enough. She sits back. “You could use a touch more.”

My youngest sister Lori applies her face with a professional hand—she can create a dramatic, Asian eye, or a sophisticated daytime glow. She has even done weddings, on occasion. She looks different every time I see her. I look precisely the same. “A little more liner would help,” she says. “You have to really define the eye.”

Every Christmas, Lori picks out one or two new items for me to work into my regimen in the new year. It’s like a long apprenticeship. “This is liquid eyeliner,” “This is a lash curler,” “This is a cool palette. You should really save the warm for summer,” and “I know this looks bright, but you can totally carry this blue. Trust me.”

In their defense, they never once made me feel I wasn’t pretty enough, or that I needed extra help. It really wasn’t about that. Nor did I ever get the impression that they were compensating for something else, or thinking that I should. They have the very best approach to it I’ve seen—your face is a big party, so why not liven up the joint? Why not show off what you’ve got.

And despite my light hand, I have become a bit of a makeup snob myself, fully adopting their cosmetic worldview. We were at a fundraiser and saw a woman around our age, maybe younger, who had showed up in a hot pink dress and not a stitch of makeup. Her face looked as if she’d just scrubbed it clean, thrown on the dress, and walked out. She wasn’t young, exactly, but she also was too old to not make a smidge of effort. Especially when you went to the expense of buying an outfit and putting on heels.

“What is she thinking?” Kim said. “It looks like she’s trying the dress on.” I had to agree. Why bother with any of it if you’re not going to commit to the illusion. My mother would have pulled that girl aside and insisted on just a little blush, for chrissakes.

In truth, I actually really enjoy the ritual, the brushes, the applicators, the wands—a fitting term, after all, when we are working a bit of magic. There’s something to watching your face spring to life. Every stroke or shadow doesn’t hide, but highlights, acknowledges what’s there and says, this is worth seeing. When I’m particularly proud of my handiwork, I’ll send a selfie to my sisters and get a thumbs up emoji in return, perhaps a gif of Beyonce swinging her hips in canary yellow dress, wielding a bat into a windshield.

I’m crushing it, clearly.

 

How to sell yourself on something you don’t like (Day 12)

I always loved a good side hustle—even before it was a thing. Having something on the side always made you feel you had stuff going on, especially when you had nothing else going on.

For a while I took whatever popped up and was happy to: a job with Captain Morgan that involved dressing up like a wench and slinging shots down by the pier; pouring samplers of Sam Adams while dressed as a revolutionary in a tricorne hat (and taking Polaroids with anyone who asked); handing out granola bars at the subway station. Once I had to dress as one of the Charmin bears, in a full bear suit that I could barely see out of, and stumble around Revere Beach in 90-degree weather to promote their new wet wipes. I almost passed out.

I was part of the launch team for Febreze. Before it became a household name, I stood in CVS to demonstrate how it worked: One container with smoke-treated cloth, and another container with a cloth that had been treated with Febreze. It was the 90s, and you could smoke in bars, and so you couldn’t leave one without smelling like a house on fire. I took great pleasure in the theatrics of opening one jar and watching them recoil at the scent, and then their eyes widening at the other, which had been treated with Febreze. Then I’d show them how to spray their clothes in long, sweeping strokes. Just watch how this magical fairy dust spray actually attaches to foul-smelling particles and lifts them off your good blazer on a million tiny chemical wings.

But one of the sweetest gigs I got was during the Christmas season, standing in the meat department of the Stop & Shop, sampling fancy cheese for $30 an hour (which was an unspeakably good rate). The irony was that I hated cheese. I passed on pizza, lasagna, mozzarella sticks. I took no pride in this, by the way. I would have loved nothing more than to pile onto a plate of deep-fried apps or draw a stringy slice from the box with obvious delight. I believed it would have made me more fun and cool and likable. I worried that I might seem like a bore or a weirdo, or just profoundly unAmerican.

Liking cheese was not a job requirement, though; a perky, positive attitude was. You just had to stand there with an apron on over your shirt, khakis and sensible shoes, and offer people little bits of triple creme and herb-infused brie. Turns out, this was the easiest job in the world. I didn’t have to convince anyone; they steered their shopping carts toward me as if drawn by an industrial-size magnet (“free cheese?!”) and daintily picked up the little paper cups as if they’d never seen anything like it.

They all stood there—the toad-like woman in an oversized coat; a bedraggled mother with a kid hanging from her sleeve, a tall, rangy man whose hair looked as if it hadn’t gotten over the shock of waking up. We stood together in a strange collective cheese-eating tableau, as they moaned and rolled their eyes at the sheer pleasure of it—picking up a wedge of it to peruse the label (“What is this stuff?”) as if it had been imported on the backs of virgins straight from Normandy for the very first time. “And one for the road,” snatching another sample as they rolled away toward the chip aisle. Some were sold, tossing a few wedges in their cart—“Perfect for my holiday party”—as if they needed an excuse, or as if I did—while I suspected they would unwrap it alone in front of the TV later that night, without sharing it with anyone at all.

It was hard enough to endure the smell of the stuff wafting up in waves from the table, but what was curious was that I was compelled to agree with them, regardless of what I thought. They complimented it and me, as if I were a cheesemonger who’d gone to great lengths to select it, and not a 24-year-old who watched Friends while eating sardines out of a can.

But something happens when you keep telling other people, and yourself, how good something is, what fine quality, what a perfect complement to your meal. For hours and hours. How creamy and rich—And have you tried the mushroom one? You can’t help but start to believe it must be true. With the right motivation, you could talk yourself into anything.

During a slow period, I put a sample in my mouth—and was surprised at the way it took over your tongue, unfurled its buttery breadth like a picnic blanket. You didn’t just taste cheese; you experienced it, the stunning arrival and the lingering, creamy finish.

It was a successful day. I moved a table’s worth of brie, and I’d learned that in very small doses, I could stomach it at room-temperature. My feet were starting to ache, and I thought about how I liked the job, but only because I knew it would end. I wanted nothing more than to crawl onto my couch and spend the evening watching reruns of Forensic Files, to find out what other girl vanished without a trace, so that I could make certain it wouldn’t happen to me. At 5 o’clock, I removed my apron and picked up a wedge of the mushroom triple creme, and headed toward checkout.

 

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Watch your tone (Day 11)

“If you spoke to your friends the way you speak to me, you wouldn’t have any friends.”

My mother is washing and drying the Corningware, sliding it back into its drawer, the lids  making that rattling Corningware sound (a sound unmistakable from any other). The counters are wiped down, and a half empty box of Lucky Charms sits like an idiot out on the table. Breakfast cereal is ridiculous, I think. Doesn’t it know how ridiculous it is?

Fact is, I wouldn’t talk to my friends the way I talk to my mother, because my friends don’t ask me dumb questions like “What does Kelly’s mom think?” or “Aren’t you going to be tired if you go on a school night?”

Besides. What I say to my mother in the kitchen has nothing to do with my friends. Also, I am not my mother. I’m 17, and I know everything.

“Why can’t you just answer a question without rolling your eyes?” And that in itself triggers an eye roll, though I am trying hard not to do it; it’s like trying to avoid a dead animal in the middle of the street, while keeping the car steady, steady.

But I can’t. I turn away so I can roll my eyes in peace, that full, satisfying upward yawn of the eyes that says, You just don’t get it and the world agrees with me.

Since I got my driver’s license, I have a low tolerance for everything. I also have free and singular access to my dad’s ‘86 Nissan, the model that talks to you, Knight Rider style, when you “leave a door ajar,” or when “fuel level is low.” Once you have the option to turn the key and just go, it’s hard to stay put. It makes sense that you get your license at 17, because it’s about when you were thinking about leaving, anyway. And you do, you practice at it, leaving just a little, every day.

I try not to think about that, actually. The creeping realization that I’m going away next year is like a slow paralysis; my entire body seizes up around the idea, and parts of me have stopped working—namely, the parts that are easy and relatable and connect me to things. It’s like the ligaments have gone stiff, and I drive my sister, now a freshman, to school every morning without turning my head or saying a word. I don’t realize I’m doing it, but my sister certainly does, and will years later chide me about it—“the year Terri stopped speaking”—when I was so terrified about leaving my family that I acted as if I wasn’t there at all.

My behavior though is largely unassailable: Good grades, good behavior, good friends; I don’t drink or cut class or stay out late. I got in early acceptance to Boston College, where I’ve already decided I want to go. Everything is ticking along and going according to plan, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.

It’s almost 8:00am, the evergreens outside the window are thick and bristled and still. The kitchen was redone a few years earlier—all blonde formica and blown-out flowers, six wide, slouchy leather chairs on wheels that look like the seats on a Tilt-A-Whirl. (“I hate regular kitchen chairs,” my mother said. “Why shouldn’t we be comfortable?”)

I push one of them with my toe so that it slides back into place.

“I didn’t say anything wrong,” I say, my arms crossed.

“It’s not what you say. It’s how you say it,” she says. “Watch your tone. I don’t like it.”

My tone. I say it’s just how I sound. She’s not buying it. She knows I’d never allow the edge of it into a conversation with Liz or Mary. There is a tone you reserve for your mother, and sometimes it’s the only way to say what you really mean, without saying it at all.

We like to think that words stand on their own merit. But that isn’t true. Tone is slippery, evasive, works around the edge of a word, all the while with its hands up, denying its existence altogether, leaving an undeniable scent.

Years later, in my 30s, I’ll snap at my boyfriend in the middle of Whole Foods. We’ll be standing by the stacks of sparkling water and racks of truffled popcorn, and whatever he says will strike an old familiar nerve, setting my old habit in motion: the audible sigh, the roll of the eye, the barked order to “Just stand there, will you? I’ll go get it.”

It was so automatic that I almost missed it, a passing thought like a tail slipping through, unnoticed.

And it wasn’t until after we’d made dinner and eaten it that my boyfriend said, “I didn’t like how you talked to me today.”

I kicked back a knee-jerk defense— “What did I say? I didn’t say anything. I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” And then, “Look, you’re bad at food shopping. I knew what we needed and it was just easier if I got it.”

But as soon as I said it, I knew it wasn’t true. My insides squirmed, a mollusk of self loathing twisting in its shell.

He said, “I think it would be hard for me to be with someone who talks to me like that.”

And that’s when I apologized, a real apology, and promptly burst into tears. Not because he was so hurt, but because of how often I’d wielded my tone about loosely, like a rifle with the safety off, my mother at the business end of it. And yet, she let me off scot free, time and again, with little more than a warning. This wasn’t just about her, but about who I was and could become, if I wasn’t careful. And also, because while her love might be unconditional, most arrangements were not.

Everything was ok now. He kissed me and we got up to scrape our plates into the trash. I offered to wash them, and it felt good and right, the hot water rushing over my hands, the steady effort it takes to work and work at making something clean again.

 

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How to defend yourself (Day 10)

There are two good reasons to sign up for self defense: Because you’ve had your boundaries crossed before, or because you’re afraid they’re about to be. Chances are, both things are true. I have never been mugged on a dark street corner or raped or beaten. I had been kissed and pushed and pressed. I’d had a homecoming date who wouldn’t leave my room, so I slept in another bed. I wouldn’t have seen myself as the victim of assault, but then again, I couldn’t really see myself at all.

But there’s always a first time, and I figured I’d better be ready. I like to plan ahead. You think that sounds like a real downer, but in fact, Model Mugging self defense, in the basement of Temple Beth-El in Brookline is one of the most positive places you might hope to find yourself.

A sparse room that smelled like dust and rubber, with a few gymnastics mats thrown in the middle of the room. We were a room full of women, some who’d suffered more than others, and some who were just more afraid. But it was a room full of fighters, whether they knew it yet or not. They were all there because they decided enough was enough, and they wanted no more trouble. They wanted to ward it off, like a stray hungry dog coming down the street toward you.

Back then, in the late 90s, the course cost a couple hundred bucks, a fee my father gladly paid, as he’d pay any amount to reduce the worry you live with when you have three daughters in their 20s roaming around a major metropolitan area. I chose this particular course because of a book I read when I was recovering from shoulder surgery, The Gift of Fear, written by a man who made a career sniffing out trouble the way a shark sensing a single drop of blood in several metric tons of water.

In it, he told a gut wrenching story about a woman who accepted help carrying her groceries, in her door, up the stairs, and by then it was too late, and the man had dispensed with the groceries and all but threatened to murder her. He blasted music so no one would here, but she got free, and followed him like a shadow down the hall. When he hung a right to the kitchen to retrieve a knife, she slipped out the door, stark naked, to freedom. What would that be like, I thought, to sprint out of your home, free of anything, anything at all.

That story haunted me — still does — and I thought, no one is ever carrying my groceries but me. The author talked about intuition and gut checks and how to smell a storm coming, the way squirrels and goats and deer will turn tail at a moment’s notice and head for higher ground.

In the class, male volunteers, perhaps working out some issues of their own, get fully armed in five-inch padding, head to toe and stand in for the evil in the world accepting physical punishment on its behalf.

I had for a few summers between semesters taken up Tae Kwon Do, but a lotta good that did. You can’t take someone down with a roundhouse kick and I really dare you to try. It’s a martial art form, not a street-wise survival tactic. And unless someone came at me with a thin plank of wood that I could split in half with one hand (which I could and had, by the way), I was going to be in big trouble.

My two younger sisters and I took tae kwon do together, and went out with Roy, one of the younger instructors, for frozen yogurt every week. Except one week I went alone, and after Roy bought me a chocolate vanilla swirl with rainbow sprinkles, he told me I was pretty and leaned in to kiss me with his big cold lips in the front seat of his car. I stayed very still, like prey, ready to dart as soon as I could. This man was a blackbelt. A lot of good a roundhouse kick would do me then.

I finished six weeks of training with Model Mugging, having fought off multiple assailants on made-up street corners, even used learned to throw an attacker off me with a simple thrust of the hips in another scenario called “Bedroom at night.” During the graduation, you showed off all your skills in one shining hour, where one by one, a small tense audience watched their daughters and sisters and wives kick and punch a series of dirty-talking assailants, creepy stalkers, full-on rapists in a string of made-up scenarios where we all emerged the winners and the attackers laid on their backs, life less. It’s a fantasy come true—you take one bad guy out after another, you take back your power, and you learn to scream at the top your lungs, a battle cry, without feeling one bit ashamed.

There was an awkward moment where my mother and sisters had to watch as an instructor dressed like a duct-taped gumby ordered me onto all fours, and I bided my time until I saw my opening—(Wait, wait, my coach said, whispering to me like an angel from the side. Look for the targets. Ignore everything else.) Then—NOW!—in one swift maneuver, I flipped onto one side, drew my leg up and released it like an arrow straight to his head, knocking him senseless.

And as the timid audience got used to watching their loved ones pursued and attacked, they became fighters themselves, and what started as a well-behaved self defense demonstration turned into a fight club, with everyone stamping and shouting from the sidelines, feeding a collective need to let it out, let it out, let it out.

They say after you graduate Model Mugging, you’ll probably never need to use what you learned. And in truth, I haven’t. Not in midtown at night, not on a narrow street in the East Village, a homeless man asleep under a sheaf of cardboard. I look around, searching faces for a sign of threat.  I dare you. There’s a way you carry yourself when you learn to fight, land a punch, use your voice, that has a way of warding off trouble, like a spell. The world is a different place when you can hold your body like a bow, drawn and poised and ready.

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The Real Reason You Don’t Feel Fulfilled

If you’re like many women, you pride yourself on setting other people at ease. On making clients, colleagues, partners, friends, children feel comfortable, making them feel heard, smoothing over any awkward bits or hiccups of tension.

But when you prioritize everyone’s comfort a lot of other work doesn’t get done. Namely, yours.

If there’s one reason why your life is perhaps not as fulfilling as you would like it to be, it may because of this very belief: That your job is to make other people more comfortable.

In her very famous book, If You Want To Write, Brenda Ueland says,

“In fact, this is why the lives most women are so vaguely unsatisfactory. They are always doing secondary and menial things (that do not require all their gifts and ability) for others and never anything for  themselves.” We are led to believe that this, and this alone, is what makes us great—that we are self-sacrificing, above all.”

Yet, this, she says, is at odds with what we feel inside, not to mention our greater purpose:

“But inwardly women know that something is wrong. They sense that if you are always doing something for others, like a servant or a nurse, and never anything for yourself, you cannot do others any good. You make them physically more comfortable. But you cannot affect them spiritually in any way at all.

For to teach, encourage, cheer up, console, amuse, stimulate or advise…you have to be something yourself. And how to be something yourself? Only by working hard and with gumption at something you love and care for and think is important.”

Know when she wrote that? 1938.

You might think, oh well, that was long before women were fully independent and had their own mortgages and careers and Instagram accounts.

Really? You sure about that?

How comfortable are you with not making other people comfortable?

And I don’t mean by being thoughtless or difficult or downright rude. I’m talking about your willingness to put your own stuff first, and worry less about how comfy someone else is with it, or what they think.

And the second part of that question: How much time are you devoting to menial work, rather than the work that really matters?

Granted, in 1938, you might have been doing a hell of a lot more housework. Your life would look very different indeed. Today, menial work might not mean ironing your husband’s shirts day in, day out—but it may mean accepting invitations for coffee or to events even when you don’t really want to go. It may look like spending oodles of time responding to FB posts and writing out long email responses and unruffling feathers.

The most valuable, expensive, fleeting thing you have is your attention.

You have a finite amount of it each day, and it’s continually being eroded and nibbled at by a thousand things that don’t actually matter. Every time you do something for the sole purpose of making someone else feel better, you have a little less for yourself.

I say this as someone who values her relationships tremendously and sees great value in tending to them daily. But. I also know that the work I really want to do, no one can do for me, and I can only do it with the precious little attention I have, so I guard it. Sometimes not even strictly enough.

There’s a reason we “spend” time; it’s just like money. Except it’s irreplaceable; you never get it back. You have a budget of attention each day. Say it’s $100 bucks. Sure, I can give it away willy-nilly and make lots of people happy—$10 here, $20 there. But I’m soon left with little to invest in the things that matter, the projects I really care about.

If you don’t spend it, someone else will.

To regain control of your time and attention is not just a matter of being productive, but of being willing to back off the urge to comfort, to tend to. This requires a major mindset shift, because you need to see yourself not as someone who does a lot of things for a lot of people, but as someone who excels.

It’s not easy. A good chunk of my work is client-based, and so there are lots of people who expect and need to hear from me. But I have learned that by acting as a bell-hop in my business is inefficient and unproductive. Far better to control my time and expectations by giving clients my undivided attention when they need it most, and not spoonfuls of attentions scattered here and there.

In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown says that to gain clarity in your life, your work, your purpose, you need to go from “non-essentialist” approach (“I can do it all”) to the “essentialist.” He writes, “Essentialism is not a way to do one more thing; it is a different way of doing everything.”

Creating work that matters means saying no—a lot more than you currently do.

It means deferring on coffee when there’s no clear goal or mutual interest. It means passing on events rather than accepting simply because you’re grateful someone invited you. It means recognizing that the world does not deserve access to every last room in your house of attention.

Keeping some of those doors locked and off limits is the only way to create the kind of work that matters.

I’m not talking about being “selfish,” by the way. This is about giving in a bigger way, instead of parsing out your precious time like free handfuls of candy to anyone who comes knocking.

Does that mean some people will be put off? Left a bit uncomfortable or miffed? Maybe. Chances are, though, they’ll respect you. And they’ll value you the time they give you more, as well.

The creation of your very best work can be done by no one but you.

It cannot be delegated or automated. It can’t be done while you’re also doing ten other things.

The things you really want to do, make, or achieve require what Seth Godin calls ‘emotional labor’; it isn’t easy, and you will be a little uncomfortable doing it. The less consumed you are by tending to the yips and whines of the world, the more capable you’ll be to do the kind of work that changes it.

Let me see your scar (Day 9)

When I was 32 years old I got sick. It wasn’t flu sick, and it wasn’t cancer sick; it was the kind of sick that strikes like lightning and nearly kills you on the spot with no advance warning whatsoever.

I was on a business trip to a conference in Baltimore, and had become increasingly aware of a deep ache in my abdomen that worsened over the course of a few hours. I was at a company dinner, and all I wanted to do was climb into a hot bath.

Which I did, later that evening, but that didn’t do squat. I woke up the next morning, hours later than intended, feeling sicker than I’d ever felt, and things had gotten worse. The pain was no longer a tiny, aching seed, but full grown. It had stood up inside me and assumed full height.

So I did what any sensible person would: I called my doctor and asked her to phone in a prescription.

“You are sick, have a fever, and abdominal pain that’s gotten worse? Get to the ER. Stat.”

I almost went back to bed, and instead I called a cab (which ultimately saved my life). “Where would you take your daughter if she was sick?” I asked. And the driver dropped me off at the entrance to University of Maryland Medical Center.

I spent the requisite half day in the ER before being admitted. I’d rather not drag either of us through the battery of tests in the eternal flourescent daytime that is a hospital. A series of nurses and doctors came to my bedside to put me through a gentle interrogation, asking me the same questions, so much so that I wondered if being sick was a crime I had committed. As if they were waiting for me to break and finally come out with the truth.

Fact is, they just didn’t know what it was. They canceled out one diagnoses after another: pelvic inflammatory disorder, appendicitis, syphilis. And in the middle of the night, my blood pressure dropped to something like 60/40, which is like an entire river slowing to a stop.

They rushed me into surgery and I was relieved to leave the scene, to pass into that dark sub-celestial waiting room while they did what they had to do, the doctor telling me later he was sure I was on my way out for good. He unzipped me stem to stern, took out each of my internal organs and turned them over in his hands like fruit, looking for the bruised spot. There was nothing to see. Whomever had perpetrated this mess had vacated. It was, as my mother said, a case of “who did it and ran.” 

I had sepsis—gone “septic,” as it were, which is when something gets in and turns your whole body against you. The antibiotics are what saved me, drew me back to shore on a chemical tide like a red rescue boat. I came to in the ICU, fully intubated and disoriented, as if I’d woken up inside of someone else.

My mother was there, hand on my forehead, whispering to me that I was ok, even though she wasn’t sure I was. I squinted against the relentless daylight of those shadowless flourescents, before falling back asleep.

I was there for a week.

It wasn’t the sepsis that I spent weeks recovering from, but the surgery itself—I had a nine-inch scar that started right in the middle of me, hung a left around my navel, and then continued straight down. A fresh road cut through a field, laddered with staples like railroad ties. A door that had been forced open and just as quickly shut. I couldn’t sit up or lie down or do anything on my own, pinned at the center like a butterfly.

I made a full recovery, but the scar is mine to keep. It’s gotten both tougher and softer with time, the way anyone does. It’s no longer red and angry looking; it’s blended into and yet defines the landscape. I’m not ashamed of it. I often forget it’s even there, except for when a new lover runs a curious thumb along the edge. And during yoga, when I’m hovering above the mat and arc into a long, yawning stretch—I can feel the hem of it tightening, a single stitch pulling toward the earth.

 

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The art of hesitation (Day 8)

I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to hire me. So I not only didn’t apply for promising jobs senior year of college; I didn’t apply to any jobs. Not one.

While my fellow seniors were trotting off to the career center for this or that interview, I trudged back to my dorm room, as if I’d always live there, as if it weren’t a tiny ledge I was about to leap from.

I knew I wanted to be a writer, and that in many ways I already was. But getting hired to go do a thing at a company, where they had the pick of anyone at all? Well, that seemed too far flung a prospect. I had all As, was graduating with honors and even a few awards, and yet even I couldn’t imagine the world needed another writer.  

Man, I wish someone had set me straight, grabbed me by the shoulders and shook hard, said,  You’re a student. Everyone knows you don’t have experience yet. That’s the point. This is where you start. But I was in denial, in a panic, veering toward the edge of all I knew—school—and refusing to peek over the edge.

In fact, I have a mind to go back and do it myself. I want to go back in time and catch myself on the quad. I want scream, “Why are you working so hard in school if you’re not going to make it count out there? What is the point of any of this?” I’m a ghost waving frantically in my own young face, but 21-year-old me can’t bear to see what’s next, fearing there’s nothing there at all, and pushes past me, headlong, toward the dining hall.

So what did I do after the unthinkable happened and I was on the other side of graduation? I busied myself with rehearsals for a show with a two-week run. Took on gimmicky, short-term jobs—like wearing a squirrel on my head and passing out tiny boxes of Clusters cereal at the Boylston Street T stop.  Slung shots of Captain Morgan at a bar by the pier. Took a temp job at a real estate firm, then at a hospital, where I fielded calls from scores of women dying to see this specialist, a gynecologist-slash-psychiatrist who smoked in the building. I sat there all day, counting down the hours, spending my time on a computer with no internet (it was 1996), writing short stories that I didn’t know how to end. I called into my voice mail a few times a day (no messages, no messages). Cried on my way to the train.

I wish I had a dime for every time I’ve pumped the brakes, doubted and hesitated and did nothing at all. How many times I’ve stood at the threshold and peered over, wondered if I was capable of another step. But we never know until we know, right? And then we know it all.

I think we spend a lot of our adulthood trying to unlearn what we were so sure of. What a relief, to find out you were wrong, that there’s plenty of room, that there are other things to do besides drink tepid hospital coffee and wonder when your life will begin.

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What you missed (Day 7)

One of the perks of attending a private catholic, all-girls high school is that the bus picks you up at your front door. It’s a short bus, but a bus nonetheless. The driver is Medrell, a large, tough woman whose ample rear hangs over the edge of the seat and who doesn’t wait around for anyone.

And so there is no panic like the one you feel when you wake up at 7:20 to hear Medrell leaning on the horn, see the yellow lights flashing outside the front door. Before you can get your wits about you, she hits the gas and leaves you behind.

Oh, the dread. On the heels of that horn, your mother’s sharp cry—the only person who could turn your name into a blade to cut you with—she thought you were up and dressed but you are not.

Now it was her problem. Because you can’t miss school, simple as that, not unless there’s three inches of snow on the ground with no signs of stopping, or you’re sick enough to let Medrell sit there on her horn, until your mother steps out in her robe to wave her on.

But now you have to get dressed and eat something quickly, knowing you’ve already screwed up everyone’s day, because your mother has to take you, and really, how hard is it for you to set an alarm and respond to it. You drive in silence along the snaking, choked streets through Livingston and Short Hills, past the grocery and the tux rental and five different pharmacies, and then past the mall, that palatial temple where you’d love to wander loose and free and touch all the sweaters you’ll never buy.

Finally, up Blackburn Road where your mother deposits you at the front door, gives you a swift, cool kiss goodbye. Everyone’s already been to their lockers and had their Diet Cokes and are just now settling into chemistry or English or AP History and the teacher has started talking. Everyone looks up as you take your seat, your backpack hanging awkwardly on one shoulder like an apology. You haven’t really missed anything, but there’s that lingering fear that from now on, you’ll always be just a moment, a half-step, behind.

Of course, you won’t be. There will be plenty of times when you’re early and ahead of schedule. You’ll apply early, and get in. Arrive to a meeting somewhere 10 minutes early, coffee cooling your hand. You’ll be the first one at the restaurant, sitting across from an empty plate. Slide into seat 23A in the nick of time, heart racing as the main door closes and the plane starts to push away from the gate.   

Timing is everything. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll get caught in that sometimes, flipping back through the hours and weeks and years like album covers, trying to remember the music of what you did and who you were, but the lyrics escape you. You wonder if, perhaps, you might actually have missed something along the way (a look, an opening, a stray comment left behind like a single glove), or something even bigger.  It’s possible.

 

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Tell your left hemisphere to shut up for just one second (Day 6)

In the first TED talk ever to go viral, Harvard-trained neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor details the workings of her mind during a severe hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of her brain in 1996.

What she describes is inexplicable: When her left hemisphere, which governs that sense of us being separate and self-contained, begins to shut down, her right hemisphere takes over, and she experiences a kind of euphoria—a freeing of all the trappings of being a person with a history, thoughts, fears, relationships, baggage. She says her brain with its relentless inner chatter goes silent, as if she’s hit the mute button. What remains is total peace, an utter and delicious release.

In the shower, she looks at her arm and can’t tell where she ends and the wall begins; instead of her body here and the rest of the world there, she sees a swirling mass of atoms and energy, indistinguishable one from the other.

She starts to realize something is very, very wrong as her left hemisphere starts to send up flares (“We need help!”), and she tries to find a phone number and figure out how to use the phone, all the while drifting in and out of this dreamy, ecstatic state. She describes feeling large and uncontained, a flow of energy, a whale bounding through infinite waves. She can’t imagine she could fit all of that energy back into her tiny body, even if she tried.

Of course, she realizes in the ambulance that this may be it; she feels her spirit surrender and she says goodbye. When she wakes up hours later, she’s surprised to find that in fact she’s still alive. You don’t need to have a stroke, she says, to experience the peace and oneness she felt. The more we cultivate that right hemisphere, the part that sees us as one rather than separate, the more we can feel that bliss, that sheer and utter atomic connection.

It’s no wonder this video went viral. It’s not only a feat of incredible storytelling (I challenge you to watch it and not feel transformed in some way), it’s a powerful reminder that we do in fact have the capacity to change the way we experience the world and each other. That our loneliness, resentment, anxiety, may be a side effect of our overemphasis on left-hemisphere thinking, enforced by a culture that believes that for each of us to be worthy of love, we must be different, separate, better.

Let’s say, for example, you press your way onto a crowded subway at rush hour. You might think two competing thoughts, possibly at the same time: I am special and in a hurry, or I am one of a million and not special at all.

If you manage to secure a breath of space on that train, you’ll likely find yourself jammed up against an armpit with someone’s elbow in your back. Your face so close to a stranger’s that you can see every pore.

What you think next, though, could change everything—either that these people, this train, this world, is in your way, or that you are now, and always, part of an unbreakable embrace, breathing as one and bounding through an open and endless sea.

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