Dear 18 Year Old Me – Advice I Wish I’d Taken to Heart

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 9.58.00 AMWhen I turned 18 I was just completing my first semester of college. I made the Dean’s List and was excited about my future. I loved two things more than anything – theatre (we know I’m serious because I spell it with the ‘re’ rather than the ‘er’) and writing. At the time I felt pressure to major in something marketable – business, communications, or something else I felt was ridiculously boring.

One of my first acts of independence as an 18 year old was to major in what I wanted to major in: Theatre. I did it consciously not because I thought I was going to get a great job in the field, but because my interest was all-consuming and this would be the last chance to study something I loved to this degree. If it led to a job, then so be it. My one concession was to make my degree in theatre education even though I really had a marginal interest in teaching.

There are a few things I wish I had done differently. There are a few words of advice I would have like to have heard then. I write them now for both my and your benefit.

  • College is about exploration and learning from your mistakes. Use caution, but don’t be afraid to fail. If you learn by mistakes, you have to step out of the boat and make a few. Chances are they aren’t going to be life-threatening.
  • If money is the driving force for you choosing a career, you will eventually feel empty inside because you didn’t pursue your dream. Money is great – so much greater than being poor – but it doesn’t make up for missing your calling. Twenty years later, with your money in the bank and your career goals achieved, if you don’t have a passion for what you do the majority of your time you will end up seeking fulfillment elsewhere. It won’t be pretty.
  • Travel. I really wanted to do a semester abroad when I was in college, but I thought it was too cost prohibitive and I never even looked into it. Because I didn’t look into it I never knew that the additional cost of a semester abroad was generally your airfare and incidentals. I could have gone. It’s one of my biggest regrets today.
  • Cull the negative people from your life. You know the ones – they consistently only see the bad in life. When you’re on a high their goal is to bring you down. Oh, maybe they are not so forward about it – they’ll couch their negativity in “wanting to keep you grounded” or “keeping you from getting your hopes up” but they just want you to be at their level. Negative people find hope threatening. A lot of my self-doubts from that time came from negative people. I saw them as people offering sage advice – after all, they were older and who was I to doubt the wisdom of their years?
  • Cultivate self-confidence. I started doing this when I was 21 and it is still a daily exercise for me. When you are growing up your self is, in part, formed by the people who surround you. Their life experiences become a part of your psyche and can grow or fester inside you. If you believe you are dumb because your parents told you your grades weren’t good enough, those words can wind up being the foundation of your inner dialogue. You need to work to dispel those negative thoughts. It’s hard work. Self talk is an excellent way to start.
  • Keep a careful eye on your dreams and say yes to the things that will move you closer toward them. You want to be an author? Take writing classes! See how simple that is?
  • Worry more about your motives than what other people think. After ballerina, the only thing I wanted to be when I grew up was a writer. I remember taking trips to the library and dreaming where my books would be shelved. However, when I look at my early claims in the School Days books my mother kept, it said I wanted to be a teacher. I have no memory of wanting to be a teacher except for a brief period when I believe I equated teaching with reading. I never played at being a teacher, but I did finish a (terrible) novel at age 14. I think somewhere along the line I got the message that the arts were something you did as a hobby in addition to a “real” job. I studied education only because it allowed me to pursue theatre. I had fallen in love with stage design and lighting but didn’t see it as a practical career choice so I stuck with education knowing I didn’t find it as exciting.
  • Don’t let seemingly major setbacks determine your path. My second semester in college I was really excited to take a writing course through the Communications department. Until then my writing was mostly intuitive and well-received. This class was challenging and required a lot of hard work. I did it all happily even though struggling with an unfamiliar format took up a great deal of my time. My writing improved significantly. My final paper was probably the most work/research I’d ever done on a paper since my 5th grade report on the Native American tribes of the Finger Lakes area. I labored over this term paper and double-checked it with my textbook and all the work we had done over the semester. I think I turned in a solid paper. What I had forgotten to do was footnote my source of a definition I used, even though in the same paper I gave the dictionary for an additional term. I was marked down a full grade point for “plagiarism”. I misused a comma or a semi-colon or something and was marked down another full grade. My A paper received a C which still seems rather harsh to me now. It was freshman class, after all. And what written work doesn’t have minor errors? I could have only gotten an A+ for absolute perfection – which is reasonable, I think. I probably deserved a B-. Anyway, that single incident told me I sucked as a writer and from that point on, my writing was fraught with self-doubts. I questioned everything I put to the page. Had I been wiser, I would have given myself a some strong self talk and realized if this professor was the be-all and end-all of talented writing, she would herself be published instead of laboring away at a small commuter college in a temporary lecturer position. I let her criticism tell me I wasn’t worthy, that I had no hope of becoming a better writer because I made stupid mistakes.
  • Make learning the priority. I am a learner. I like acquiring knowledge. Sometimes college becomes a test mill – taking required courses and muddling through boring subjects taught by uninspiring teachers is a chore. However, I wish I knew then how to take responsibility for my own learning. It’s so easy to place blame on bad teaching but the truth is, if you have the textbook, you have 90% of what you need. I should have adjusted my attitude and looked for the exciting aspect of the course. The target shouldn’t be to get an A in the course (my own crazy, unpopular opinion) but to understand the subject matter. I got a C in Philosophy, but I’m pretty good at formulating an argument.
  • Have an open mind. I didn’t go to college with a totally open mind, but I was lucky that my mind was opened through my studies and my new friends. My life was enriched by the people I interacted with. A lot of kids go to college and spend all their time with people just like themselves. If you have strong opinions about something but have no practical knowledge of it, you’re platform is on thin ice.
  • Be vulnerable. This is definitely one I wish I knew years ago. We equate vulnerability with weakness. We’re expected to get over being hurt quickly with a pint of ice cream and a night of cocktails. At some point we accepted that we are supposed to be impenetrable and stalwart 24/7. But how can we do this and participate fully in life the way that gives us the biggest return if we are constantly putting a brick wall in front of what can be our best experiences? The thing is, putting a wall up doesn’t prevent us from getting hurt. We still get hurt when we realize we are isolated and apart. It’s better to go through that hurt with people who love you than it is to completely shut down. There’s an exception to this suggestion – you also can’t be the victim crying on the shoulders of those who are not in your support corner. Accept your own choices and realize they can go either way. The only thing you can be responsible for are your own reactions.
  • Live! My favorite line in the movie, Mame? “Life’s a banquet and most poor sons-a-bitches are starving to death!” It’s true. There’s also this quote by CS Lewis: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” For a lot of us the tendency is to live small, safe lives with few challenges and smaller victories. And then, because we are dissatisfied we warn others against living big, messy lives even though that may be the very best thing. Don’t be covered in mud and think that’s the best life has to offer.

I hate regret. It’s the worst feeling for me. Luckily, I have so very few. The travel thing is one of the biggest. And being afraid to be vulnerable. Younger me always felt as if I were constantly being watched and judged for every little choice I made. I’m so lucky I did not carry the fullness of that into adulthood because getting rid of the dregs of it was horrifically difficult and is constantly a struggle. Age helps. Turning 40 had me realizing I like what I like and it’s stupid to worry so much about other people’s perceptions of me. My perception and God’s perception of me is what really matters. Anyone else can love me or leave me. The bonus is the people who love me, really love me for my real and authentic self, are the ones who carry and encourage me and give me the capacity to love more. How can you not embrace and strive for that?!

Surviving vs Thriving

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 1.19.05 PM A while ago I went to a conference where the goal was to learn to work from a place of rest rather than merely resting from our work. As someone who tends to go, go, go until I literally cannot, I found this intriguing. In a more applicable aspect to my life, what this meant to me was instead of always striving to make more money, I could learn to find more fulfilling activities which would, in turn, make more room for joy, love and The Things That Really Matter (even though I’m not completely certain what those Things are.)

I didn’t really get that information at the conference but I have been sitting on it and determining what this means for me. The one takeaway I had that weekend was my craft business took more time and energy than I received. I’m a person who likes to make things – A LOT of things. But recently my hands have been hurting and I’ve been unable to do the things I do. Plus it got all caught up with obligation to make things I don’t necessarily like to make. I look at my yarn stash and think of all the things I wanted to make for me, but can’t because I’ve got about 2 dozen projects for others to get to first. And those things keep getting messed up. One knitting project has been frogged so many times I’m no longer sure I know how to knit anymore! Anyway, I decided to let the craft business falter for now. Maybe in the future I will pick it up again. Or, maybe not.

I was using my craft business as a way to survive. The first craft show I did as a new knitter (I just kept making hats and purses!) was out of the abundance of my play. I made about $300 (which was really good! I had only a 3′ square table to display on!) and people were excited about my product. Over the years I’ve made as little as $3 at the very same show. Once it became an obligation, give the people what they want rather than give the people what I love, the fervor died off.  Some people can do it – gather the trend information and create what is current and sell it by the bucket. That is not me. I need to infuse myself into a project because my best work appeals to only certain people.

But I’m not writing this post today because of my craft business. By letting go of the business I was able to make room for something else. Writing has become increasingly important to me. I used to think I was a failure because I wasn’t a 22 year old star writer like (insert name here). I used to wonder why I was still struggling with this notion, why I was not seeing myself move forward in this goal. But guess what? I was. I was still writing, sporadically, yes, but still writing. And living. I was definitely living. The whole good, bad and ugly of life was constantly at my doorstep.

So, about that working from a place of rest thing? I think we do a lot of right things for the wrong reasons. We sign up for the bake sale because we don’t want the other moms to think less of us. We take on extra projects at work so the boss can see how competent we are and give us a raise. We say yes to things we should say no to because we’re afraid that it won’t get done right otherwise.  We don’t ask for help because we don’t want to admit that we can’t do it all alone. We trudge forward cloaked in obligation and self-sacrifice waiting for someone to intuit that we are over-committed and not ask us to do more than we can bear, all the while building up a grudge because we haven’t claimed our own rest, simply for the fact we do not believe we are worthy of it. And that legacy of “do it all, despite yourself” gets passed on from generation to generation. We HAVE to MAKE room for rest.

To work from a place of rest starts from these personal acknowledgements:

  1. I am valuable – if I believe I have no value, how can produce valuable things (like children? Ouch!) What I’m saying here is if parents don’t claim their self-worth, how are their children going to claim theirs?
  2. I am allowed to say no – I have found when I say no to something, other women think I am joking. It is because women typically will say yes to things because they think they should, not because they want to. My saying no does not devalue me, in fact, it adds more value to my yes.
  3. Self-care is not selfish – nor is it merely maintenance. Self-care is taking care of all the aspects of you so that you can pour more of yourself into others. If I’m helping you put on a production but I am tired and hate the work, my assistance is tinged with bitterness and resentment that is unhealthy for all who are involved with me.
  4. Giving yourself permission to say no is not the same as bowing out of all the things you find unpleasant – you have to learn to say no to the things you can. If they need help cleaning the church kitchen and there are only 2 of you, you should probably say yes. If there are 30 people, you can safely say no and walk away. If you’re the only one who knows Power Point and your boss needs a presentation in an hour, say yes. And ask for help. Practicing your “no” will give you discernment and allow you to better direct your energy.
  5. Don’t be afraid of what people think – people are fickle. They will think badly of you for any host of reasons you cannot control. As long as you are kind-hearted and truthful you shouldn’t be worried about what they are thinking. And face it, according to what I see portrayed in media, a good part of the world thinks the Kardashians are valuable, contributing members of society, soooooo….do you really want to pander to that common denominator?
  6. Take a minute – not sure whether to volunteer for the school bake sale? Ask for a day or two to make your decision. If they press for an answer right then, say no. If they aren’t willing to give you the time to gather your thoughts before committing, it is safe to say working on that project will be more of a hassle than it’s worth. The kids will still get their band uniforms or whatever if you don’t make cupcakes.

If you embrace these acknowledgements you are on the way to making more room for rest in your life. You will be more enthused about the projects you take on and your energy will spread. In the end you will be more productive, more fulfilled and you will have made room in your life for any little surprises God wants to throw your way. (If you don’t believe in God, just ignore that last sentence – it’s still sound advice.)

Phase Two

Commuter's RainbowI thought I had left this blog behind. It was too much to think about writing – composing my thoughts into comprehensible and relevant bits of information rather than the slew of word jelly that bats around in my brain. The good thing about the bloggy interwebs is this was all just sitting here waiting for me.

The past two years have been a growing period. It looked rather a lot like a slug period, but trust me, I grew. In some things I’m still in a holding pattern. I seem to have trouble creating things lately. My stuff looks like crap. I make stupid mistakes in my knitting that I don’t notice until a million rows later. Things I think are funny are not when I put them on a card. It’s a growing period. Growth, if you remember it from adolescence (who doesn’t – so much fun, right?), is awkward and gangly. It’s walking around on new legs and not knowing how to navigate the world or how you fit in it. That is where I’ve been.

I’ve had to make some pretty major decisions. I’ve had to face some hard truths. I’m battling some health issues. I’m handling some $%&* I’ve ignored for too long. It’s exhausting. I think it’s why I’ve been dreaming about making a dining room table fort and living there for a weekend. Or a year. Don’t judge. At times I feel as though the weight of all this will just compress me flat, but mostly I have hope for what my new life will be like.

What does this have to do with the theme of this blog? Better is about making changes and finding better ways to do things: creativity, health, life. What I’ve noticed over the past two years is that I prefer a simpler life. I used to think if I had this thing or that thing, my life would be complete. The right shoes, the perfect kitchen, a great car, an amazing job. But it really doesn’t have that much of an impact.  I am so much more than the things I own that these things hold me back!

A couple of months ago I realized I couldn’t keep repairing my ripped jeans and wearing them to work. It really didn’t look any kind of professional. I had also worn out several pairs of shoes. I bought both on ebay. I spent very little money and I got exactly what I wanted. It occurred to me that I hadn’t had the “need” to actually shop since I stopped growing in high school (unless you count my freshman 15 in college). I used to shop a lot. Now it just tires me. While I may still want a new dress I don’t want to waste the time looking for one. I’d rather spend time with my friends or read a book.

My life has turned. I’m wasting less money on food and gas. I’m enjoying time with friends more. I don’t feel that need to “compete” with others for possessions or position. I’m absolutely excited for what that will become. And that’s what brought me back here. Let’s see what it becomes.

Better: Self-Confidence

Someone recently said they admired my confidence. It was a weird moment for me, because I don’t really feel particularly confident about a lot of things. I mean, I feel confident in my ability to do my job and to work knitting instructions to their projected end, but this person was talking about body image and generally moving through life. Which is weird, because I tend to feel I’m one wrong decision from cocking everything up.

The other day I found a nifty chart of healthy foods on Tumblr for people looking to lose weight and adopt a healthier lifestyle. When I clicked to find the source material so I could link to it, I was lead to a pro-anorexia site. The girl had photos of extra skinny “models’ posing in lingerie, swimsuits and various states of undress. They were looking wistfully at the shoreline, lounging indulgently across beds, standing waifishly in doorways and staring cautiously at the camera. There were broken sentences about how she hated herself, how she was determined to weigh less than a hundred pounds because someone had called her fat, and how she will never be happy unless she had the coveted thigh gap. God! It depressed the heck outta me!

In less than two minutes I knew without a doubt that, even should she reach her goal weight of

Anyway, back to my “confidence.” The way I see it is, I have been several different weights throoughout my life. Fat, thin and everywhere in between. I haven’t loved being some weights, but I’ve accepted it. I don’t hate my body. It does things. I can lift things, walk places, climb stairs and hug my friends and family.  That’s good. I wouldn’t wear a bikini. Okay. Given the choice between wearing a bikini to show my thigh gap or sharing a real bear hug with a loved one, I’ll choose the latter, thank you.

I don’t really see this as an abundance of confidence. I see it as being normal, really.  Any time you spend too much energy to outward things, you run the risk of losing your real self under an avalanche of things that don’t really matter in the end. I mean, when it all comes down to it, you can still get run over by a bus tomorrow and wouldn’t it be better if you weren’t putting off your real life to weigh a certain amount or meet a certain guy? Is that self-confidence? Of self-acceptance?