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Once upon a time there was a whisper, a wish really, running in the back of my head: “Surely there must be something better than this?” I was like a bird captured in a trap, struggling until my body was breaking and I was completely exhausted. And I was still in the freaking trap.

Once upon a time I simply couldn’t continue, and the whisper became a declaration: “I will believe there is something better than this even though that doesn’t even seem possible.” I went all in. I walked away for the first time, and I began to dismantle my life, piece by painstaking piece.

Things got worse.

And worse.

The forest, the cave, whatever you want to call it, it was so dark. And the journey was so slow. And I was afraid, and I doubted.

Photo Credit: eflon via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: eflon via Compfight cc

One of my greatest fears over the last several years has been that it would all be for nothing. That I wouldn’t be able to change myself or my life. That there really wasn’t anything better. That all of the time and effort and my suffering and other people’s suffering, that all the sacrifices I was making, would be fruitless. That my lifelong belief that more is possible for us than we realize would be proven wrong. That in my struggles, I’d end up making everything worse, and then I’d have to live with that.

I was afraid, and I clung onto my belief that I didn’t even really believe in like it was a lifeline. There must be something better than this. And I can do this. I will do this.

I won’t give up, I’ll keep going forward no matter what.

When I think back on 2014 in the future, I will remember it as a difficult year, yes, but I will also remember it as the year I left that cave.

Last month, I wrote about being stuck, and I said: “I’m not waiting for doom to fall down onto my head like an anvil.” I looked at that sentence after I wrote it, and I thought, “Oh shit. Oh shit. That is actually true. I don’t feel like that at all.”

What has changed? I have learned how to prioritize taking care of myself, and as a result, I no longer feel powerless. I don’t take on other people’s problems. When a person repeatedly treats me poorly, I don’t deal with them anymore, and honestly, I don’t care who it is. Because I deserve better than that, and I can have better than that. I work hard to surround myself with people who not only care about me but who are actively good for me. I come home to my lovely apartment with my sweet little dog and my piano and my books and my bathtub and my warm blankets, and for the first time in my life, I feel safe.

So now I know. There was something better the whole time, and I know because I’m living in it.

I’m so relieved. I’m so grateful.

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I enjoy reporting in from time to time from the trenches of making a big personal change. At my current stage, here’s what I’ve learned:

My instincts of behavioral response right now are really kind of terrible.

What do I mean exactly? And what does this mean in practice?

Well, on the bright side, my gut instincts are actually coming along very nicely. I’ve gotten used to paying more attention. I’ve gotten used to noticing my feelings and impressions as they’re happening and remembering them for later. I’ve changed the criteria for what constitutes healthy and awesome behavior. All of this is great.

And when I have time to reflect, I do quite well. I understand basic principles. I can figure out what I’m okay with and what I’m not okay with. I practice saying no successfully. I can think through a situation and assess what’s going on, and then I can figure out how to communicate my boundaries. When I’m concerned, I have friends I trust with whom I can sanity check and get advice on the subjects on which I need guidance. I get support when I need it. I sometimes take a bit of time to get back to someone, but I’m usually okay taking the time I need. Again, all great.

Photo Credit: bernat... via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: bernat… via Compfight cc

But when I get put on the spot, well, I don’t want to say it all goes out the window, but if I’m going to slip up, that’s when it’s going to be. Being tired or hungry or sick doesn’t help either, but the hardest thing of all for me right now is when I find myself in a situation that requires an instant response. Especially if there is additional pressure being brought to bear. I usually know it feels off, but I often can’t figure out how to react. Or I attempt to say no or set a boundary, but when that is countered or rebuffed, I don’t persevere.

And my core instinct of behavior, I’m sorry to say, is to not rock the boat. I want to smooth things over, I want everyone to get along, I don’t want to be involved in a prolonged conflict, and I don’t want to find out if me setting this boundary will result in disrespectful behavior from whomever I’m with. It’s important that I DO find out, don’t get me wrong, but to be honest, it’s pretty depressing when that happens. And sometimes it seems so much easier to just … go along with things. I can and do fight that instinct, but when I’m not sure what the right thing is to do, that is the instinct that is ready and waiting for me to fall back on.

One solution to this problem is to do my best to get myself the time I need. “I’ll get back to you” and its variants are my new best friend phrases, and the more I use them or even just think them, the more quickly they will spring to mind when I need them. Even “I don’t know” can occasionally be helpful. And of course, many methods of communication have a convenient delay built right into them.

Unfortunately, some situations really do call for a more immediate response. Ferrett talked about one such example recently. And he’s totally right in that shock/surprise makes it really hard to respond mindfully, and future modelling does help prepare for a wide variety of situations. If I can anticipate an event, then I can prepare a response ahead of time. (Whether or not I’ll actually be able to deliver it, of course, is another matter.) However, anticipating every situation is ultimately impossible (and sometimes overly stressful as well), so I hope that eventually I’ll be able to build a new core instinct that does a better job of helping me stand up for myself when that is necessary.

I thought this would be interesting to write about because I don’t read articles very often about the difficulties of making these kind of changes when you’re right in the middle of one of them. But I have an ulterior motive: I figure it’s a good thing for people to know about me. I do better right now when I’m given time. So that is a gift you can give me that will be deeply appreciated.

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When I first started blogging seriously back in 2010, I read so many blogs. I wanted to see what other people were doing, and I wanted to get ideas of what to talk about, and I followed lots of blogs from which I read almost all the entries.

Then at some point I stopped. I can’t remember if it was early this year, or sometime last year, but I do remember I was falling behind and I decided to take a break to catch up with life. And then I found I wasn’t missing most of the blogs I read, so I never came back to my blog reading in the same way.

Nala also doesn't read many blog posts. But she does have incredibly fluffy paws!

Nala also doesn’t read many blog posts. But she does have incredibly fluffy paws!

I still read a few blogs regularly. I read my friend Rahul’s blog because he is always making interesting observations and giving great book recommendations. I read my friend Ferrett’s blog because he is always doing strange things and giving great insight on social interactions. I read Theodora Goss’s blog because I feel like she’s teaching me how to lead a modern fairy tale life. I read Captain Awkward because I went so long wishing for an advice column that actually gave healthy advice and now I have one and it is so interesting and sometimes applicable to my life.  I read Nick Mamatas’s blog because he’s such an iconoclast online and that is fascinating to me. (Also, iconoclast was my new vocabulary word last week! I would probably pronounce it wrong if I tried to say it out loud.) I read Stina Leicht’s Feminist Mondays because she compiles a great list of links and backs them up with relevant commentary.

Other than that, I check in on an economics blog a few times a week, and I click on posts that people share with me on Twitter and Facebook. I’m more likely to click on said links if they’re for essays by Kameron Hurley and Robert Jackson Bennett or if they’re on io9 or if they’re shared by Mary Anne Mohanraj or Juliette Wade, but I end up clicking on all kinds of stuff.

I stopped reading some blogs because they got repetitive. I stopped reading other blogs because it was obvious the blogger was pretty messed up, which was compelling at first but then eventually mostly made me feel tired. I stopped reading most writing advice because most of it I either already knew or had nothing to do with me. I cut back on book blog reading because I’m so far behind on my to-read list (although I am hoping to catch some of the Book Smuggler’s Smugglivus this month because I do love year-end lists and reflections, what Rahul calls wrap-up season).

I still hear writers saying that they should really start their own blogs, but now I tend to respond, “Well, if you think you’ll like it.” Because it’s becoming more and more clear to me that blogs are driven by having a unique voice, just as much good fiction is. But I don’t think having a unique voice for one of those things necessarily means you’ll have it for the other. I mean, there might be some correlation, I don’t know. What I do know is that the short essay, suitable for most blogs, is its own form and as such, requires study and practice. So if you aren’t compelled to write it, I don’t know that there’s a strong argument for doing so anyway.

As we all know, I am compelled to write in this form, and all of this does beg the question of my own blogging. “What if I’m getting boring?” I wailed to my friend this weekend. He obligingly told me I wasn’t getting boring, thus proving his awesome quality of friend supportiveness, but it’s a question that is always in the back of my mind. That being said, none of the blogs I’ve stopped reading seem to be in any jeopardy, so I suppose the answer is that readers cycle in and they cycle out, and that’s as it should be.

I don’t miss the blogs I no longer read, but I do on the whole still enjoy blogs with a strong sense of voice. Perhaps I’ll stumble across some different ones that will enchant me all over again.

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Hope as Fuel

Let’s talk about hope today, shall we?

One of my friends posted this great thought about hope on Facebook, which I cannot share with you word-for-word because privacy, but he basically talked about the importance of maintaining a store of hope in order to continue accomplishing things in life. And then another friend texted me about hope a day or two later, and I said, “Yeah, I’m going to blog about this now.”

Hope really can be quite useful, I think particularly for more long-lasting and slow-to-reach goals and desires and projects. I don’t need hope to do small daily tasks around the house, but I do need hope to keep writing, for example. Without hope, it would be so much harder to discipline myself to work and do things that I find unpleasant or difficult.

So then, how do we cultivate hope? And not false hope that might keep us stuck, but rejuvenating, inspirational hope?

  1. We can do our best to be cognizant of progress. Instead of focusing only (or even primarily) on a big end goal, if we can be aware of what we have achieved, this maintains hope. It can be hard to notice these smaller shifts and achievements, but being able to identify progress I’ve made keeps me inspired to keep spending effort.
  2. We can give ourselves things to look forward to. I’m a huge practitioner of this one. If I don’t have anything at all to look forward to in the next six months, something has probably gone horribly awry with my life because I always make sure I have something, and usually the more somethings, the better. I often use trips for this purpose, but really there’s a lot of choice here: events, holidays, birthdays, parties, concerts, plays, movies, food, friend time, books, a day with nothing scheduled, and so on.
  3. We can reframe. Catching our negative thoughts and figuring out how to transform them into less harmful ones (or even actively positive ones) cultivates a smoother state of mind and, you guessed it, more hope.
  4. We can help other people. There is something about building connection that creates hope. It can pull us out of ourselves and remind us of the things we think are important.
  5. We can choose to celebrate other people’s successes. Your friend reaches a goal that you desperately want to hit yourself. Here is your choice: take your friend’s success as a reminder that the goal IS possible and celebrate with her, or feel unhappy with yourself for not being there yet. The first one builds hope; the second tears yourself down.
  6. We can remind ourselves of the inevitability of change. All things change, and so in this sense, there is always hope. Not of a specific outcome, necessarily, but sometimes all we need to is to know that things can be different.
  7. We can attempt to be flexible. Speaking of specific outcomes, the less attached we can be to specifics and the more we can adjust to what’s going on around us, the easier it is for us to maintain a general feeling of hope.

Hope without action is empty, but hope combined with action keeps us motivated to continue working towards our goals.

What do you do to replenish your stores of hope?

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You’re Stuck, Amy

My friend gave me a Tarot reading Friday night, during a writer party in which we mocked the Self Esteem game and had a dramatic reading of The Houseplants of Gor. I like Tarot readings because I think, at their best, they can help me clarify my thinking and pull back to see the big picture.

My central card: The Wheel of Fortune

My central card: The Wheel of Fortune

After looking at a few of my cards, my friend said, “It seems like you’re kind of stuck right now.” She explained why in the language of the cards, but I don’t remember that part because instead I was thinking, “Yes, that’s true. I’m totally stuck. Huh.” Which is also why I like Tarot readings, because once in a while they slap you with things you already know but are halfway ignoring.

But yes, I have been stuck. That’s why I look at rental listings when I need to be cheered up, because I know that if I fail to unstick myself any other way, I can move someplace else and the upheaval that will cause has a high chance of unsticking me. It almost doesn’t matter where I move because it’s not about location, it’s about shaking things up enough that they start flowing again. And therefore, looking at rental listings is supremely comforting, in spite of the fact that I’ve already moved twice in the last year and a half and the last thing I really want to do is pack all my stuff up AGAIN.

Just sitting there and thinking about how stuck I’ve been feeling made me feel less stuck than before. It’s funny how that works.

One of the other themes of my reading was uncertainty. Which was another moment of, “Oh yeah, there is a lot of uncertainty in my life right now, and I wonder how I’m doing with that.”

My novel’s out to agents, and there’s not much for me to do there but wait. In the meantime, I haven’t figured out what my next novel is going to be yet. I don’t know what I’m going to do when my lease is up, and I don’t know how much my rent is going to increase. I don’t know where I’m going to travel next year, what events I’m going to attend, and February has become this strange nexus point of so many possibilities that I wonder if anything at all is going to happen then (if not, I have friends who are on board for hate-watching Shades of Grey, which is already pretty excellent). When it comes down to it, I don’t really know in which direction I am heading.

It’s all relative, though, this kind of uncertainty. I expect I’ll be writing, and I expect a certain little dog will continue to add to my happiness. I expect there’ll be people around who I care about. Perhaps most importantly, I’m not waiting for doom to fall down onto my head like an anvil, which makes life so much better and the uncertainty so much more manageable.

My reading concluded with this thought: Trust yourself and pick your battles. Which, yeah, is decent advice, although sometimes hard to implement.

I think the “You are stuck” part was the best though. Because soon after I’d heard that, I had the brilliant idea of switching strategies. Instead of throwing myself repeatedly at my problems, tangling my limbs and collecting bruises and generally exhausting myself, what if I chilled out a little and focused on what I did have instead of what I didn’t? That’s not to say I haven’t been trying to do this the entire time I’ve been stuck, but I guess I was finally ready.

In the end, I needed to hear someone tell me I was stuck so I could realize that being not stuck was also an option.

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Sometimes we aren’t ready.

Sometimes we aren’t ready.

I wrote a blog post for today, and while the quality is there, I don’t think it’s the right time. I’m not ready. So you are reading these words instead.

Sometimes we make mistakes.

I made a classic people pleaser slip earlier this week, and I beat myself over it for a few minutes before I ground myself to a halt. Mistakes happen. It’s unfortunate. But the self-flagellation doesn’t help anyone.

Maybe I won’t make the same mistake next time. But even if I do, it’s all part of the learning process. There is time.

Sometimes we don’t know what we’re doing.

We learn what we can and wade on in, and we do the best of which we’re capable. Not knowing is not always a good reason for not doing. The clear way may be to learn while we’re doing.

Sometimes the thing we’re looking for doesn’t look the way we expected it to look.

And then we end up in weird situations in which what we want is staring us in the face, only we look right past it. Ideas can be so sticky and aggressive, which makes them a wonderful creative force. But when we get too attached to the particulars of an idea, we can get stuck even when it isn’t necessary.

Sometimes we need the little things.

I was walking Nala last week, and the weather was warm but not hot, and the grass was littered with faded brown leaves. I wore boots and a plaid skirt, and Nala held her tail high and pranced at the end of her leash. I suddenly realized I was happy.

Sometimes we create our own meaning.

This is a tricky talent to possess because it can be so powerful. Powerful in a positive way, or powerful in a negative way. You can see the danger there.

But when wielded with care and mindfulness, meaning can infuse our lives with an excitement and a charge that is otherwise missing.

Sometimes we surprise ourselves.

I know I’m surprised. Are you?

Photo Credit: shewatchedthesky via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: shewatchedthesky via Compfight cc

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Living 100%

I’m back home from DC and the World Fantasy Convention, and I have that slightly hazy post-con mind with which many of you are probably familiar. I got to spend time with so many amazing people, and yet I felt like I didn’t have close to as much time as I wanted: another familiar feeling. But I did have many wonderful conversations, and I’m going to piece together a few for you.

But first, a dose of the adorable Nala.

But first, a dose of the adorable Nala.

I was talking about this blog, the way I do, and I always do a terrible job explaining what it’s about. But one thing I said sticks out to me now through the blur. I tell personal stories on my blog, I said, in order to illustrate insights I have had that I think might be helpful to other people. I don’t know that I’d ever put it into such simple words before, but yes, this is one of the reasons I keep blogging.

And because it is one of the reasons, I’m going to tell you a story that I told a friend this weekend.

My mom was in remission from cancer my senior year of high school, and she came to see me perform as the Narrator in the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I remember that she had an interesting reaction to that performance. She was proud of me and happy for me, but she was also … wistful. I don’t remember if we talked about it or not, and what we said if we did, but I do remember what I thought about it at the time.

I had been one hundred percent alive on that stage during that performance. From the opening bars when I descended from the ceiling of the stage in what amounted to a mechanical box through to the finale, I’d felt energy pouring through me, along with that feeling that I was doing exactly what I was meant to be doing. And I had the impression that watching me being so fully and utterly alive and ME was a bittersweet experience for my mom because she had never had the opportunity to do that.

She was diagnosed with another cancer later that year, and as she was dying, I watched her venture outside her comfort zone a little bit. She flew with my dad to Hawaii once or twice and had a beautiful time, whereas before she’d never felt comfortable with travel. She spoke at the memorial for one of her support group members, even though she’d never liked speaking in public. And in these small actions, I could see the shape of who she might have been or become shimmering in front of me like a phantom.

And then she died.

And watching this, here is what I decided. When I die, whenever that should be, I don’t want to see that phantom of myself. I don’t want to see the most awesome version of Amy who I was too afraid to be. That is why I work so hard–and make no mistake, it is hard and sometimes punishing work–to learn about myself and to push myself and to figure out who I can be. It’s not about being perfect or easy or comfortable, and it’s not about straining upwards towards an unreachable ideal. Rather, it’s about trying to be the best possible version of myself, whatever that might entail in this moment.

Or in other words, it’s about being one hundred percent committed to this business of being alive. I don’t want to feel wistful because I’ve never had that.

Instead, I want to revel in it.

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