Petal by Petal

“There are a whole lot of things in this world of ours you haven’t even started wondering about yet.” Roald Dahl 

When I first read this quote, it stopped me in the middle of my whole day and tears filled my eyes. It hit me right in the perfect smack middle of this season of growth I’m in, which has honestly been my favorite season yet. I’ll be 29 in a month, and I always thought I would exit my twenties white-knuckling the last remnants of my youth. But as it turns out I truly cannot wait for my 30s. Turns out, I actually wouldn’t want to repeat my 20s even if you paid me. All those endless days filled with self-doubt, and doing things I didn’t want to do because I didn’t know myself, and laying awake at night thinking if I made one wrong move I would irreparably screw up my life.

This no-margin-for-error, no-breathing-room way of living was killing me. And the added pressures to perform and “keep up” only increased exponentially when I got married. Suddenly there was someone there with a front row seat to all of my anxiety and all of my crazy, which incidentally only made me crazier. I knew if I didn’t get help I would likely destroy my marriage and myself.

So that’s what I did: I got help. I cannot stress the importance and benefits of counseling enough.

Asking for professional help is not only for those with “daddy and mommy” issues”, as the unkind jokes and stigmas normally go. After going to counseling once a week for over a year-and-a-half, I now honestly believe everyone needs counseling. Yes, everyone. Yes, you.

Because the thing is, life is like that bleary-eyed essay you put off until the last minute back in high school and it’s now 2am, and you are desperately trying to edit out all the grammatical and technical mistakes. But guess what? You can’t see them anymore. You are literally blind from looking at that essay for so long. And when the teacher gives it back, you wonder how you missed all those places now marked in red.

A counselor can take an objective look at your life and see the root causes for things like why you can’t sleep at night; why you are overeating even though you hate yourself for it; why you aren’t brave enough to begin the thing you really want to do; why your life feels empty; why you can’t connect with your spouse; why you can’t ask for the things you need; why you are hung up on something that happened half a lifetime ago; why you get explosively angry over the smallest things; why you carry that ball of dread around in your chest without being able to pinpoint a reason.

None of these are good or healthy ways to live, and counseling has the power to set you free, if you are willing to accept that help. I know, because I am not even the same person I was even 1 year ago.

Each week, after every counseling session, my husband and I go to Trader Joe’s to buy flowers. Because, honestly, counseling is hard. Some days significantly more so than others. It’s raw. It’s vulnerable. And sometimes I cry until my eyes feel like sandboxes. So, flowers. To remind me that with every secret and vulnerable thought voiced, I am slowly—slowly—gaining the tools to become free. Each week I pluck off a petal, dry it, and save it. I have quite a lot now. And all of the individual petals together have created something beautiful all on their own.

Bit by bit, little by little, petal by beautiful petal, I’ve turned a complicated, debilitating haze of depression and self-doubt into something new, freeing, and wholly unrecognizable from who I used to be. I’ve slowly learned I can ask for what I need and feel empowered to take charge of things that I previously felt powerless over.

A few weeks back I heard something profound on a podcast (changing subjects, but this is related I promise). It was one of those rare moments that utterly switched the direction of the tracks in my life (picture a suspenseful Western where a train is headed over a cliff until someone pulls the switch to reroute the train to safety). It was on the Annie F. Down’s podcast (which I highly recommend) and she was talking with writer Jon Acuff about a new book he released called Finish. While talking about his book he mentioned one reason people have such an impossible time finishing anything is because they live by what he calls “secret rules”.

According to Acuff, these secret rules are strict, unspoken guidelines we live our lives by that are actually completely nonsensical and misery-making. For example, a secret rule a mom might live by might go something like, if I’m not devoting 100% of my time to my family then I’m a bad mother/wife. Therefore this overworked mother may give up on any personal dreams or goals she has because she is mistakenly labeling them as “selfish”. Or maybe you are trying to get in shape and you think the only way to do that is to run three miles at 5 am and eat salads. But if you hate to run and hate to wake up early and hate salads, how long do you think that will last? Stop living by the secret rule that says “this is how other people do it” and find a way to accomplish something that you are actually excited about. If you hate to run, STOP RUNNING. Dance to lose weight instead, if that’s what you like to do.

I’ll give you a secret rule from my own life. If you know me at all, you know it’s my highest dream to be a writer. But every time I sit down to write a short story or something fictional, the words just won’t come and I literally make myself sick with the pressure to write. One time I stressed so hard I literally lost vision in my right eye for about 5 minutes. It was terrifying. Yet I still pushed myself and forced myself to hammer out words, thinking that’s just what a writer does.

Because from a young age, I think a secret rule I’ve lived by is this: Real Writers Write Fiction. Not nonfiction. Not memoirs. Not cookbooks. Not anything but bona-fide fiction.

But you know what I realized with sudden and pristine clarity after listening to that podcast? I’ve never been able to see my fiction writing through because I actually think I HATE WRITING FICTION. At least right now in this time of my life.

There. I said it. And I’m still reeling from the realization. But it felt SO dang good to let myself off the hook from forcing myself to write something I just didn’t want to write, and realize it’s not because I’m a hopeless untalented failure; it’s just that I don’t like doing that kind of writing.

It’s taken me years to realize this because I adore reading fiction so much, and so it just stands to reason that if I like to write, then fiction is what I would write. But you know what? Turns out I like nonfiction writing more. Like what I’m doing right now. I like writing to people about struggling. I like writing to people about issues they may also struggle with so they don’t feel so alone. And if ever I am published one day, it will be because I did the kind of writing that energized me and carried me to the finish line rather than laboring under the secret rule of “real writer’s write fiction”.

So I say to you: If you don’t like it, it’s not because you just need to try harder or have more discipline. It’s because it’s sucking the life and creativity out of you. If you hate something but continue to do it, chances are there’s a secret rule festering in there somewhere. Dig it out. Heal. Begin again…this time with something you know brings you joy. I have a feeling it will change the entire direction of your life.

Which brings me back to Roald Dahl: “There are a whole lot of things in this world of ours you haven’t even started wondering about yet.”

Oh, is that good or what?

What have you not started wondering about yet? What have you buried in yourself for fear it isn’t “sensible” enough, or you feel too powerless to reach it? If you do not love your work, ask yourself what you do love and if there’s a way to make that your life, or at least into a hobby that brings you back to feeling like you are living authentically.

Stop doing what makes you miserable. Unearth the secret rules in your life. Get some counseling. Cut out the toxic things. And start wondering again.

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Concerning Magic

“Well, I left the fairy tales lying on the floor of the nursery, and I have not found any books so sensible since.” –G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

 

“How come the Muggles don’t hear the bus?” said Harry. “Them!” said Stan contemptuously. “Don’ listen properly, do they? Don’ look properly either. Never notice nuffink, they don’.” –Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I won’t lie to you. I’m obsessed with the idea of magic. Probably much more than any grown person should be. But I just can’t help it. From the first time I saw Matilda ordering around all of the flying dishes in the kitchen to stepping into the wonders of Harry Potter’s world, the thought of magic completely captivated me.

This is going to make me sound insane, but sometimes I read something I love so much that I can’t immediately make myself believe it’s only fantasy. I will myself to forget that this is simply a story written by someone else, and that it’s really happening somewhere off in the universe.

Then about 2.5 seconds later I realize that is insane and I should probably never tell anyone that. Ever. But here we are.

Magic is lovely though, isn’t it? The thought that we could travel somewhere in a snap, or sit in a cozy train compartment on the way to Hogwartz while eating charmed trolley chocolate, or step through a piece of furniture and find an enchanted snowy wood. I’m frankly intoxicated by the thought of it all.

I love the idea of magic so much that it got me thinking: could it possibly exist in real life? Like how Muggles (non-magic folk, for you non-HP readers) can brush shoulders with the wizarding world and not even know it?

Now before you start to think I’ve completely lost it, I’m not speaking of “magic” in terms of cauldrons stirring themselves or sorting hats that point us in the right direction. No one with a firm grip on reality would say that magic flows through the world the same as it did for Harry, or Lucy, or Aragorn (however unfortunate this may be). But still, does that necessarily mean that magic doesn’t exist at all?

My answer? Of course it doesn’t.

Of course magic exists. Only the most jaded and pitiable souls could ever think it didn’t. I believe J.K. Rowling based Muggles off of these people, the ones who are so caught up in the mundane that they’ve stopped looking out for magic. People who have let themselves forget what is is to be astounded by wonder.

Every day, the world gives us any thousands of reasons to callous over in cynicism and lay down in discouragement. There are the small ones, like fluorescent lighting, road rage, and credit scores. But then there are the big reasons, the things that trap people into an airless, joyless vacuum: depression, exhaustion, rejection, addiction, inadequacy, depletion, loss, anxiety, anger, loneliness, grief, fear of failure, or fear of making any move at all. These things are all like the Dementors in Harry Potter, sucking out the soul and life of a human but still leaving an empty, breathing shell behind.

Listen to this description that Rowling gives of them: “Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them.”

I read that Rowling based the Dementors off of real torments from her own life. Before she was published, she escaped domestic abuse and became a single mom struggling with severe depression and poverty, not to mention rejection from publishers everywhere. If anyone’s life was filled Dementors, it was Rowling’s. But—and this is so important—Rowling also believed in the possibility of magic. She believed in the story of a sad little boy living a horribly unremarkable life until the day he turned 11 and realized he was destined for wonder after wonder.

And today, the Harry Potter franchise is worth an estimated 15 billion.

There’s no question that Dementors exist in real life. But Rowling showed us just what can happen when you turn and face your Dementors instead of cowering: Magic.

Magic starts to happen when you choose to get out of bed in the morning, despite the anxiety stacked up in your brain. Magic happens when you fight back. Magic is focusing on building the beauty in your own life rather than living through someone else’s. Magic is still believing in possibility even after walking 1,000 impossible days in a row.

Magic is realizing you have something to say. Magic is typing through the anxiety. Magic is being able to say THIS IS GOOD ENOUGH when battling perfectionism. Magic is completing something, anything.

Magic is forgiving yourself. Magic is knowing that today has nothing to do with tomorrow. Magic is refusing to continue doing the same thing just because you’ve done it for so long. Magic is realizing you can beat addiction.

Magic is doing literally anything when you’re depressed (seriously though–you went to the store? You deserve a medal. Cooked for your family? You deserve a cake). Magic is taking the medication you need without feeling shame. Magic is saying yes to self care. Magic is speaking kindly to yourself. Magic is fighting the voice that says you don’t deserve anything good.

Magic is trying again. And again and again and again. Magic is being proud of your progress. Magic is celebrating small victories. Magic is never comparing yourself to others.

Many of us obsessed with Harry Potter dream about what it might be like to get a real letter from Hogwartz in the mail, telling us that magic awaits. But I’m here to tell you that you’re getting letters every day—they just look like a good cup of coffee in a quiet moment, a slice of birthday cake, the support of a friend, the glow of a candle, the hush of a new snow. Magic is all the time and everywhere; it’s simply a matter of keeping yourself open to the possibility of joy, and allowing yourself the freedom to feel it when it comes.

Stop sleeping. Become aware. Take down your Dementors. Slay your dragons. Dump the frogs. Wait for your prince. Kiss the princess. Fight the darkness. Believe impossible things…How could we ever have come to think the stories from our childhood were not the only stories that ever really mattered?

I leave you with possibily my favorite quote of all-time: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”         –Albus Dumbledore

I Can Fool You

Look at these two photos, taken 45 minutes apart from each other:

Before:

image1

After:

image2-png

 

Both are from the little kitchen of our first house on the same day, one before cleaning, and one after. Something about the dirty dishes struck me, so I took a photo. I was in the trenches of real life that day. You know the feeling: exhausted, feeling overwhelmed by everything I needed to do, and VERY much not wanting to scrub the baked-on food from the crockpot.Very unglamorous. Probably cursing my student loans in the moment, as tedious things in life often inexplicably make me do.

And after I washed them, I took the second photo of my kitchen because it looked so darn good. I was going to post the picture to IG and caption it something like “I love this quaint, cozy little kitchen”. You know, with some cutesy little hashtags or something. But before I took the picture, guess what I did? You know the drill. I staged things. Like the little tea towels that say, “no problems or messes here, only marital bliss!”and various other little things before filtering the crap out of it. It sounds silly because no one talks about the things we do to appear to the world as if life is always #cozy when in reality life is many times #crusty and #overwhelming.

Social media has made it possible to make life look like something it’s not. 

This isn’t revolutionary; we all know this of course. But I think we don’t actually believe it.

We’ve all learned to fool each other into thinking we are more ok than we might actually be, that things are well-organized and in their places and that our selves and our families are always nice and always lovely and always without a problem. I’m not saying that the photos we share on social media are always lies, because they aren’t. They often reflect truly beautiful moments that really did happen.

But the trouble comes when we keep trying to fabricate our lives to keep up with everyone else who clearly lives perfect, manicured, well-traveled, adorable little lives free from fights with their spouse, or fights with their kids, or financial difficulty. These photos often make us feel like we are the only ones who are struggling, that there is something wrong with struggling, even. Cue downward spiral into shame, self-pity, and self-loathing.

Or maybe that’s just me.

 

I will sometimes spend hours (I know; it’s embarrassing) on the Instagram explore page creeping on strangers I don’t know because they are thin and beautiful, or they have a perfect looking family, or they were in Greece last week and now they are in London or Bali or wherever. It’s like I truly don’t believe these people’s lives don’t look like this all the time, and I just automatically assume these pretty things weren’t meant for me. That I was disqualified a long time ago because my skin isn’t perfect, or I’m not a size 2, or whatever craziness I choose to dwell on in the moment.

And just like that, I’ve lost belief in myself all over again. Maybe earlier that day I was feeling stronger and more capable than I had in awhile, but a few clicks here and a few clicks there and POOF. It’s all gone.

But you know what the truth is? No one’s life looks like that all the time (I actually find this almost impossible to believe most days, if I’m being perfectly honest. But I’m trying). We’ve heard it all our lives, right? that no one is perfect? Yet it’s so easy to dismiss it when you are in the trenches of your own life, with unpaid bills or jeans that suddenly don’t fit anymore. It’s so easy to believe the world is unkind to you and you only. 

But you know something else? And I think this is true above all: It’s almost like I CRAVE feeling bad about myself because it gives me an excuse to not get up off the floor and make a change. To not pursue the goals I’ve set for myself because clearly so-and-so is doing it better and I could never do that. In a way, it lets me off the hook to not have to risk looking foolish, to avoid the hard, hard, HARD work it takes to change what I don’t like about my body, or to doggedly pursue my highest dream with no guarantee up front for success. It takes so much bravery to make a change, and honestly it’s easier to just binge watch Netlfix, or creep on other people’s lives and imagine what we want into their pictures and live some weird sort of vicarious, unchallenged, half-way, half-awake life.

To quote Dead Poet’s Society, my all-time favorite movie:”Thoreau said, ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation'”. Oh, how true is that?? Especially now in the age of social media. And I have to think this is because we just don’t believe in ourselves, because everyone else looks like they are doing it better. And thus our dreams die. We console ourselves with the same, wasted-away, puny excuse of “I’ll start tomorrow”just so we can take the easy way out today, so we can eat that piece of cheesecake today, smoke that cigarette today, sleep in instead of working out today.

And you know what? It’s killing us. We die slowly when we we give in.

Many of you may know that my highest dream is to be a writer. But you know how much I’ve actually written? Besides two short stories I wrote in college thanks to actual, real deadlines with a grade attached? Exactly nothing. As shameful as it is to admit that. And it’s because of two things. 1: I haven’t believed in my own voice and 2: it’s going to be damn hard. Fear of those two things have kept me silent all my life.

I don’t speak up because I don’t want to embarrass myself. I don’t like to let the chips “fall where they may”. I like to obsess and calculate and stage and filter and crop and shape my life into something I think you want to see. I can fool you with Instagram, with lighting and shadows and editing. We are all fooling each other.

Here’s some unfiltered life for you: People who don’t know me very well might think I’ve got it all together, just like we are apt to think of anyone we don’t know.I do have some truly wonderful things in my life, like my husband Tyler, and this difficult but beautiful journey of marriage we are on. We cook together and laugh together and watch hours upon hours of The Office together. But there are still many, many days where I also deal with depression. I have for most of my life. It comes and goes, you know, but mostly it’s always there like a haze. Im anxious. I’m desperate to find out who God is and most days I don’t believe He loves me. I live in constant fear of disappointing people around me, of making waves with anyone. So I don’t stand up for myself. I keep quiet. I don’t write. I don’t do the thing I was made to do for fear of exposing myself.

Even now I want to delete all of this and keep living under the radar because I don’t want you to think I have any problems. And that, I think, is why social media can be so damaging. Nobody says what they really want to say, or asks for help when they need it, or accountability with something they struggle with. It’s safer to live behind smoke screens than to expose our true selves, because we open ourselves up to potential judgment and criticism. But we also open ourselves up to help, to freedom, and to finally, FINALLY, living towards a better life.

This blog is an attempt to start navigating my own feelings and admitting things I’d never admit before. I don’t want to live a life of quiet desperation anymore. And by simply hitting the “publish” button, I’m committing the biggest act of rebellion against my own fear that I’ve done in a very, very long time.

Listen to me: YOU ARE FREE TO STRUGGLE. LIFE IS SO, SO HARD. We don’t admit that enough. If life feels hard to you, it’s not because you are a “screw up” or “just can’t keep up” or because “everyone else is handling it better” or any of the other dozens of self-deprecating thoughts that we are so tempted to feel. Life is hard because it’s hard, and nothing more. For everyone. No matter what their Instagram or Facebook is telling you.

I’ll end this extremely long post with perhaps the most powerful quote I’ve ever heard:

“COMPARISON IS THE THIEF OF ALL JOY.”

In the future I’ll try to keep it shorter!! Yay for fighting!